The virtualization of the curator

In a recent post, we commented on the different types of projects that range from creating an open exhibition to full co-creative exhibition. In this process, the central role of the curator is still central but, at the same time, changes. Let’s take, for example, the participatory exhibition on Travel that was created by Mediamatic of Amsterdam a couple of years ago, MediaMatic Travel. It could serve us as a way to illustrate this process of “curator virtualization”.

A curator gives meaning to a selection of artists and works because of the message that he or she wants to convey around a topic. This topic may have been suggested or decided by him or herself. Curation is a process that is not always closed or unidirectional. Curatorship does not need to be performed by just a single person. Collective curation is a common practice. Also curation is not just the selection of existing works but also a way to manage comissions to artist according to the goals and criteria of the curator.

In participatory processes, such as the Mediamatic Travel exhibition, the relationship between the curator and decision-making changes both in the in the sharing and the timing of decision making. In Mediamatic Travel, for example, because of the use of voting mechanisms the curator, so to speaks, retires into the background: selection of artists is made indirectly by the audience (of an exhibition still to be made) by voting on artists. In other cases, not just artist or exhibition items are decided this way: the topics of the exhibition itself may be decided in a process led or shared by would-be visitors of the exhibition. Also curators can ask for and receive objectsand finally express their curatorship in defining their role in final exhibion.

What happened in the case of Mediamatic? The curator did not intervene so directly because his main contribution was the design of an automated process for selecting artists (not works).

One wonders which new skills curators who want to venture into these new forms of participatory exhibition design may need.

  • Platforms. The curator’s role now includes the ability to design platforms that support a process of invitation to artists and groups, facilitates to artist the contribution of their material or the description of their project and orchestates emergent selection processes. These processes must be able to respond to the changing evaluation patterns of the participants in the exhibition project. A popular way to implement this type of process is by offering voting mechanisms.

  • Dilemmas of voting. Any open system faces difficulties in form of ill-will and other malicious behaviors that can result in harmful effects. For example, identity theft. Also, collusion among many voters can be prepared to harm or to favor one candidate over another, in this case, artists. This is a problem that can be observed in various open systems of voting as, for example, “Digg”. These evil dynamics are difficult to counter but the use of reputation mechanisms on the voters behaviours may help. Mechanisms to develop trust can also help. Mediamatic, for example,  gave a considerable time and resources to the interaction between  the would-be public and artists, which may have helped in offsetting negative emerging mechanisms. Also the fact that the vote took place both continously and after interaction with the artists themselves, through dialogue and by allowing time to consideration may also have helped.

  • Redesign. The voting phase is not the only time when a curator may be watching what happens in the process that will culminate in an exhibition. Monitoring the process of dialogue, observing emerging trends, allowing the reconsideration of some aspects of the original design, are also tasks to be made and that should take place all along. And also redesigning the components of the final result.

  • Transparency. Open processes involve require clear communication of the decisions to be taken. Not only comment on what is decided, but why. This has to do with the necessary expectations of justification of the curator’s decision by the public that has responded to a request for participation. It adds to the legitimacy of the process too. Therefore, there is a need to change the present patterns of communication with the public, before an exhibition. We’re not in the usual marketing framework that warms up public interest before the actual opening of the exhibition. You can almost say that there  is no “before the exhibition.”

  • Research on the process. The fact that many of the platforms allow to keep track of the interactions that occur all along the participatory process in terms of voting, discussion, or suggestions provides explicit material can be structured for analysis. This analysis benefits the curator himself or helself as well as the institution that promotes the exhibition. It is an excellent opportunity for research and learning about the participatory process itself, and about the expectations and motivations of the public and its relationship with the institution.

In sum, if they want to get into participatory terrain, curators must be able to carry out a new type of exhibition design process closer to the open design processes than to traditional closed design. This should give us clues as to what new types of training for the practice of curation should be promoted. Certainly curators need to be more familiar with the dynamics of emergent and complex process and with open user-centric design processes. Thes are tools that would be useful and should be added to the toolbox of the new curators.


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