The Weight of Our Decisions: Collaborative Exhibition Making

by Anthony Romero, August 2012

“I can take any empty space and call it a stage.”
– Peter Brook, The Empty Space, 1968

In contemporary performance there is very often a negotiation between the wants of the individual and the collective decision-making potential of the group. In what could be described as a side effect of the dismantling of authorship and the suspicion surrounding its weight, we find in contemporary performance practices that seek to facilitate collaboration through a democratizing of the making process. Even within group structures that would seem to necessitate hierarchy, like those of dance or theater companies, one is able to find traps and tricks that are meant to challenge and redirect the potential of any one member to gain control over the process of making. In these practices the power of the director is dissolved into the company, so that their decision-making capacity carries the same amount of weight as that of the dancers’ movements or the actors’ characterization. For artists and administrators working to re-chart their direction within the art world this kind of side stepping, or relinquishing of individual desires, has become applicable to more than just performance. Performance methodology has become curatorial methodology.

What defines this mode of collaborative making as specific to performance is the goal of creating for a public an encounter between objects and bodies in a social space. I mean here to differentiate this way of working from similar methods in other disciplines that result in the creation of a singular or static object. Even if the objects produced through this kind performance-driven curatorship appear to be resolved as static motionless things, their stability is superficial. They are not stable in the sense of a sculpture whose formal and conceptual qualities suits those of its maker as being representative of the ideas and forms under investigation. Objects produced through collaborative exhibition making are imbued with the history of the decision-making process. They will have living inside of them, something of the spark that is generated from bodies moving intently in space, in the way that successful performance relics often do. The many hands used to move the object, in response to the other hands involved in the moving, have charged the object and, by extension, the gallery space. This is what is often referred to as the charge of traditional performance objects, the reason why Joseph Beuys’s felt suit or Marina Abramovic’s bow are rested on table tops and behind vitrines. They now carry the weight of their progress in a way which is palpable.

Put in the gallery context and initiated by a curator or curatorial team, performance practices of this sort alleviate the curator of a growing suspicion that they too may be attempting to put barriers between the artists work and an eager public. Operating under such scrutiny, many contemporary curators have looked to relieve themselves of their authority by proposing alternative models. For artists turned curators, or for what I have recently heard referred to as creative administrators, the process of exhibition making offers an opportunity to meet the artists and their work on equal footing. In this case, as facilitators, these creative administrators are most often overseeing encounters that take into account the practice of the artists, the context of the work, the context of the presenting agency and their own desire to participate.

This kind of careful negotiation is at the heart of a recent exhibition presented at Threewalls in Chicago. Curated by Threewalls’s Executive and Creative Director, Shannon Stratton, Show Room presents a gallery installation featuring the work of Laura Davis, Carson Fisk-Vittori and Julia Klein. What appears at first glance to be a show of contemporary sculptures is the result of a single constraint presented to the artists by Stratton to facilitate the making of a collaborative installation.

When standing at the entrance to the main gallery one is presented with a large green backdrop that has been unrolled across the back wall and left to rest along the right side of the gallery. Between the viewer and the wall is a cluster of sculptures placed next to, between and atop each other, resting together on what appears to be a newly shampooed white carpet. The carpet itself rests on a hardwood floor, and is as carefully half unrolled across the floors surface as the green backdrop, its square corners now cut into a round. The objects are covered with gestures that assert their contemporaneity comfortably. They are made of packaging tape,and found commercial goods, such as air fresheners, wigs, sponges and thin pieces of metal and wood. They form plinths for each other. They lean and gravitate towards each other in a manner that speaks to ideas of display, decoration and presentation, both public and private.

Visual cues aside, viewers are hard pressed not to feel as though there is something else happening in the gallery. Some presence not revealed by the visual appeal of the objects. Some force having taken hold of the space. Some action having gone unwitnessed. The charge felt by the viewer is what is left after the collaborative process that Stratton initiated.

The exhibition process began when Stratton presented the constraint of the white carpet to the artists. The artists happily met her challenge and set out to work together to make the exhibition. Their practices, insights and sensibilities allowed for this group of objects to emerge, but it was Stratton who produced the prompt. This kind of call and response brings to mind the collaborative making process of performance groups like Goat Island, who very often produce what they call “Impossible Tasks” that are responded to by the performer and brought back to the group to use. These rather poetic instructions may be something like, “Fall asleep in the middle of the ocean” or “Walk backwards from north.” The idea is that the performer has something to begin with, a place from which they can generate movement, text and action, that can be used, adapted or discarded during the making process. In the case of performance groups like Goat Island, this methodology illuminates the task of collaboration and brings to mind questions of how collaboration might be extended beyond the performance arena. Stephen J. Bottoms, in writing about the Goat Island Summer School, where he learned such techniques first hand, has noted that the questions that emerge from this kind of practice center around how collaborative practices like these might best be facilitated in the short-term. One possible answer is the adaptation of performance methodology into curatorial methodology. With its emphasis on “facilitation” and “short-term” making, performance techniques like the “Impossible Task” seem perfectly suited to the goals of creative administrators who find themselves wanting to produce an encounter rather than organize an exhibition.

The idea of using constraints and or prompts to short circuit habituated modes of making is not new to art history or performance, but what Stratton does here is repurpose how these techniques are used. She has taken the lessons she has learned about collaboration and has applied them in the curatorial context. In so doing she has managed to move the role of curator from a position of authority, while simultaneously freeing it from a position of understatement, instead suggesting that what a curator might do is something more like directing. Stratton’s curatorial practice is less about positioning works and naming them, than it is about working from a creative position to co-produce an exhibition that through its methodology presents something of the essence of an artist’s practice alongside the documents of that practice. It is in a process which allows for discovery and experimentation that Stratton allows the work to develop its own context and meaning with each passing glance.

Show Room
29 June–4 August, 2012