Peter Lang, associate professor of architecture at Texas A&M, joined curators, designers, artists and architects from across the globe to discuss experimental curating for design and architecture exhibitions at “Curating and Counter Curating,” a September 2011 conference in Stockholm, Sweden.
The conference, held at Arkitekturmuseet, the Swedish Museum of Architecture, included participants in “The New Domestic Landscape,” the landmark 1972 Museum of Modern Art exhibition in New York that launched an important discussion on design and architecture's explorative and critically discursive role in the shaping of society.
Lang, who co-curated “Environments Counter Environments,” a retrospective staged earlier in 2011 of “The New Domestic Landscape” at Arkitekturmuseet, joined panelists discussing the MoMA exhibition, as well as methods and sites of experimentation used historically and in emerging curatorial practices.
Below, Lang shared his thoughts on the conference topics:
The challenges facing curators dealing with the subjects of design and architecture are quite complex. Unlike working with art collections, design and architecture productions are intrinsically linked to functional content dealing with the human condition and related fields of industry and finance. Just how these more mundane aspects are represented alongside the more symbolically embellished architectural and design “products” is an ongoing preoccupation and debate among experts in the exhibitions field.
Quite a lot goes into making an exhibit — extensive research, archival documentation, interviews, gestation of space, multimedia communications, and for more contemporary subjects, unconventional investigations into video, radio, film, comics, performance, as well as dealing with and preserving works in highly unstable media. But there is much more at stake, if you consider institutional demands like funding sources, fund raising, related public events, the general public’s reception as well as a series of promotional or alternative performative activities.
“Curating and Counter Curating,” the Swedish Architecture Museum’s two-day symposium on curatorial practices led by senior advisor and coordinator Magnus Ericson, was tagged to the exhibition “Environments Counter Environments (ECE)” that the museum mounted the previous spring.
As one of ECE’s three curators, along with Mark Wasiuta and Luca Molinari, I should note that the link between exhibition and symposium was not an afterthought. The current ECE is fundamentally an exhibition on an exhibition—the landmark 1972 MoMA show “Italy: the New Domestic Landscape” (INDL) — and as such it was already weighed down with its share of double entendres, ideological indulgences and plenty of utopian paradox to spare. Linking the symposium to the exhibition helped place greater emphasis on the curatorial process itself, stressing as it did in 1972: the critical role design and architecture can take in transforming society.
These fundamental questions were presented in the original symposium brief:
The discussions touched upon during the symposium spanned some 40 years of conceptual experiences in curating that emerged in the 1960s, when curators were consciously and systematically questioning the operational status of contemporary culture.
For the symposium participants, these themes brought together for discussion controversies on MoMA’s groundbreaking 1972 exhibition with some of the most contemporary polemics being presented in the field today. The two days of the symposium were split between historical and contemporary perspectives.
On day one, Piero de Rossi, from 9999 and Carlo Caldini from the Strum Group, two of the former protagonists from the 1972 INDL exhibition, presented and discussed their work. Together with the curators, what unfolded over the course of the day was a more precise perspective on just how close curatorial tactics and production values moved in order to accomplish such an extraordinarily provocative assembly of talent and works.
On day two, curators representing different institutions and institutional practices presented alternative curatorial methods and unique experiences. What was under examination was, in effect, the way the original curator at MoMA, Emilio Ambasz, conducted a well orchestrated crusade to critically reformulate design as a systems practice decoupled from commercial culture, targeting precisely a group of Italian design protagonists who were themselves adamant design rebels.
In effect, the second day’s program introduced fundamentally significant transformations in curatorial practices: Sarah Herda, director of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, spoke about the importance of archival research in reorienting major institutional practices while Bina Choi, director of CASCO, Office for Art Design and Theory in Utrecht, The Netherlands, described efforts to gradually shift her curatorial focus from the institutional to the domestic.
Jan Boelen, artistic director of Z33 in Hasselt Belgium, described how he established deliberately rigorous thematic criteria to help shape each exhibition. And Pelin Dervis, former director of Garanti Gallery in Istanbul, Turkey, described how she played between the literary and the imaginary in developing complex narratives on and about Istanbul.
Thordis Arrhenius, from the Institute of Form, Theory and History at Oslo Norway, Magnus af Petersens, curator of Contemporary Art at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and Martin Beck, a U.S. based artist, reassessed the nature of materiality and narrative both inside and outside formal institutional settings.
What the panel was left to consider, if very inconclusively, was whether these heavily engaging process-oriented, theory-driven exhibition strategies would continue to connect with the public’s creative imagination. This part of the story is still undergoing critical evaluation.