Who curates what, when, where, for whom, and how?
by Agata Jaworska and Tamar Shafrir, co-heads of Design Curating & Writing at Design Academy Eindhoven

During our summer discussions in preparation for the upcoming year of the Design Curating and Writing master’s programme, we were confronted with this question by Erik Viskil. The idea of what curating is or can be is already so complex, conditional, and layered, that it can be easy to neglect these foundational precepts or to practice one’s partiality and idiosyncrasy as a given default. We take inspiration from a reading of design, amidst the larger field of cultural production (spanning art, mass media, technology, and ethnography), as a series of turns that unsettle what has been taken for granted; that try out new possibilities, which often fail disastrously; that crystallise or mend deep-seated societal rifts; that enact aesthetic refinement or iconoclasm.

Creative acts have a relation to the status quo: they question and resist it, seeking alternative ways of living and being together. And if the creative act of design is always socially and politically implicated, then curating is even more so, for several reasons. Compared to design, curating is inherently more mediatic, more oriented to spectacles and manifestos. We speak about “everyday”, “ordinary”, or “banal” objects—but there is no such thing as an “everyday” exhibition or an “everyday” essay. The ordinary museum display or the banal symposium are, sadly, not unheard of, but their shortcomings point to the fundamental importance of the question that begins this essay. By asking, “Who curates what, when, where, for whom, and how?” we cannot make any assumptions about competence, cultural status, hierarchy, or methodology. We have to begin at the beginning.

At the same time, we cannot think about curating as a frictionless communication of ideas. In other words, the title question is not just about theoretical intentions, but also concerns materialisations, and how they embody, facilitate, complicate, or even subvert the collection and formulation of research as well as the development of new conceptual approaches. Curating is accordingly complex because it is a decisively narrative (and thus explicitly authored) practice that manifests in multiple formats—printed texts, online platforms, photographs, catalogues, spaces, performances, symposia, archives, participatory events, and sometimes even new objects. Each of these formats, in turn, has its own protocol, longevity, accessibility, terminology, aesthetic, and audience. Beyond the individual design process and product, curating is in itself a form of multi-modal publishing with the potential to speak to a variety of overlapping communities, to travel through different media channels, to speculate into the future, mirror the present, and reflect on the past.

In raising the title question, our intention is not to provide answers, definitions or prescriptions, to say, “This is how curating ought to be.” Rather, we are trying to establish the complexity and responsibility of the role of the curator for a variety of creative practitioners, and thus to challenge our peers, colleagues, advisors, and—most importantly—our students and ourselves to develop our positions more reflexively and conscientiously. The question of who curates what, when, where, for whom, and how, constitutes the parameters by which curators and designers direct attention and ascribe value judgments to certain things, materials, concepts, communities, and cultural phenomena. How these parameters are configured—how a project is aligned, who is involved, who decides, and who benefits—reveals what is taken for granted and what is not, and unveils our interests, our preferences, and our blind spots.

In conversation with the Design Academy Eindhoven’s creative director, Joseph Grima, the figure of the Design Curating and Writing student was raised: “We should see them as designers.” This statement points to an unresolved tension, a flexible interaction and overlap between the roles of curator and designer—and perhaps even to the impossibility of distinguishing between the two. Through its experimental pedagogy over the last few decades, as part of a larger ideological and tactical shift in the design field, the Design Academy has dismantled the designer as a figure with clear boundaries and responsibilities in the chain of an industrial hierarchy, and reinvented her as a self-defined, self-initiating, independent or intermediary practitioner in a much broader network of agents and forms of expertise.

As co-heads of the Design Curating and Writing department, we share these goals in relation to our students. First, we assume no standard beginning point or shared experience for the role of the curator. They may bring an educational background in art or design or architecture, or the history of those fields, but they may also have a more methodological training and experience in journalism, anthropology, psychology, or economics. The vast majority, we would guess, have neither “curated” an exhibition nor produced a piece of traditional design critique before. They may not do so during their studies or beyond, either. It is futile to define the curator by the form or medium that their output assumes. We define the curator rather by an ability to coalesce people, ideas and things in the pursuit of socially-situated knowledge.

Therefore, we begin rather from the question of authorship. How does the curator position themselves in relation to the things they are invested in, and how can they engage others and develop their thinking process? Can they identify their subjectivities and implement them as empathetic opportunities rather than delimiting prejudices? Is that achieved through participatory or collaborative structures of authorship? Does it require self-conscious reflection on the ways of knowing, judging, and expressing taught in school or instilled by cultural and socioeconomic context? What ethical obligations guide the intertwining of the curator’s sense of authorship with that of the designer, with their collaborators, with the agenda of the institution, with “anonymous” objects or works, or with the self-determination of a free observer, reader, visitor, or user? Especially given the history of writing and exhibition-making in design, how does the curator interpolate between the roles of enthusiastic propagandist, aloof critic, exclusive arbiter of taste, and inclusive co-creator? And how does each position instigate or suppress debate, dissent, and confrontation between diverse actors?

Returning to the question of curator as designer, we believe that a curator must develop their own relation to making as part of the process of articulating knowledge. It is an unfortunate vestige of the hierarchical power of the 20th-century curator that less authorial recognition is given to the individuals who make the curatorial project concrete—the designers, builders, producers, lighting technicians, copyeditors, translators, coders, graphic designers, printers, illustrators, performers, cleaners, guards, receptionists and guides. This department will encourage students to understand these processes as complex, materially-entangled crafts, which are inevitably implicated in the act of curating. How, and how much, they want to take on those practices as design challenges or as collaborative endeavours, will indelibly shape who they are as curators.

In his 2016 essay “Connoisseurship and Critique”, the art critic Ben Davis identifies a matrix of cultural interactions based on two polarities, the first of subjects (the connoisseur and the consumer) and the second of objects (art and industry). The connoisseur’s interaction with art is exemplified by an “enlightened” viewer’s encounter with aesthetic objects in an institutional context; the consumer’s interaction with art is located more in the Yayoi Kusama selfie, the Van Gogh mousepad in the museum gift-shop, or the “Apeshit” music video by Beyoncé and Jay-Z filmed in the Louvre. The third quadrant concerns “the world of industrially produced culture, as it meets its target consumer…what the object says about its maker or how it fits into a larger creative vision is not generally the most important factor at play.” That leaves the final quadrant, where connoisseurship and industry intersect—where enthusiasts, obsessives, collectors, critics, cultural commentators, and curators converge around the objects of everyday life, the material landscape in its diversity and complexity of authored, anonymous, or emergent artefacts and curiosities.

Davis argues that “at different times and places, pressing the merits of any of these four quadrants over the others has taken the appearance of political critique…you could say that all four quadrants of this matrix are torn parts of an integral freedom, to which they, nevertheless, do not add up.” Today, the curator in the design field enjoys unprecedented latitude in terms of their object(s) of investigation. On top of a diffuse and expansive notion of design that encompasses industrial objects, prototypes, speculative props, architecture, fashion, food, biology, and technology, the curator can also approach abstract concepts or dynamics that, in their materialisation or their organisation of people and objects, can be treated as forms of design—from domesticity to adhocracy, from digital optimisation to political agency. Furthermore, the design curator can involve artworks as such but also as commodities or artefacts. Considering the fluctuating borders between fine art, applied art, industrial art, industrial design, craft, readymades, conceptual art, and conceptual design—and this only in the last century—that entanglement is practically unavoidable.

This raises, however, another question: what makes any and, more to the point, all of those things design? The question of what to curate reflects how we choose to see and position design given the myriad functions and positions it performs in society. Design can generate foresight, critical reflection, and tools for strategic intervention, but it is also a symptom of greater forces that govern our lives individually and collectively. The decision to frame design as an agent of change, a symptom of change, or a symptom of business-as-usual is telling of the allegiances and agendas of the curator and their collaborative and institutional network. On the other hand, by claiming design to be ubiquitous and almost everything to be design, the curator is wrestling between inclusivity and arrogance. These tensions are as much the content as the objects under investigation or on display.

The question of what to curate can also be defined by exclusion: what is not present, or what is removed? When dealing with design as embedded in daily life, the curator may create a critical distance by removing design from its normative environment; they may use a suspension of disbelief to render the “everyday” itself hypothetical. Where we might usually look at an object in terms of its utility, financial value, or indication of social status—based on our own subjective notions of relevance, significance, or taste—we can also achieve a more self-aware and open-ended understanding by a process of curatorial surgery, excising the quotidian context that suppresses our capacity for reflection, that presents objects as neutral and innocent. In the absence left by this selective framing, the curator can instigate new interpretations and critical tools, reconstituting that which we already know about our “everyday” lives. Once again, these interpretations and tools must be materialised—so what to curate entails the design of spaces, surfaces, sounds, scripts, publications, objects, and infrastructures as part of the process.

The 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial is an instructive example of the way curating in design manifests through particular temporalities. The curators, Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina, approached the question of are we human? by looking at two extremes on the spectrum of human design—the hand-axe and the smartphone. Both are tools and technologies presumed to be relatively ubiquitous—the first through the adaptations and geographical dispersions of the human species over the surface of the Earth, and the second through global capitalism, resource logistics, and market saturation. Together, they reveal a widespread preoccupation with urgency and universality, which can lend curatorial projects greater appeal and popular relevance, but which can also generate friction with a longer historical reading of design as a situated cultural phenomenon.

We would argue that curating in the design field succeeds in certain temporal frameworks, including the primordial artefacts of pre-historic civilisations presented in archaeological contexts; the rather narrow notion of modern design illustrated in museum archives around the world through objects by a small group of mostly Western European and American men; and the fast-paced and transient fairs, biennials, and other shows that showcase new prototypes throughout the calendar year. These archetypes of curating can be useful, especially as starting points for critique and experimentation, but they should not overshadow other timelines of design reflection. For instance, the display of mid-century modernist furniture under the ideology of affordable design for the masses can induce a kind of cognitive dissonance for contemporary viewers who can only buy these objects under licensed production at exclusive prices. Furthermore, the heights of design engineering seen in the automobile or the airplane may demand new ethical readings based on a context of climate change and eternal warfare. In these cases, the relatively limited timespan of the modern design exhibition is a barrier to the sorts of reflections needed today.

On the other hand, immediacy is equally an issue for curating. The demand for cutting-edge projects on “urgent” themes belies the time-consuming nature of research and curating as an extended process. Counterintuitively, the pursuit of such “current” themes makes the presentation of recent projects all the more precarious, as “groundbreaking” technologies become commonplace and interesting prototypes become instantly familiar through more rapid media channels. Competing with design news blogs is an exercise in futility if one’s goal is to invest in research and reflection. As much as the curator would like to freeze the world to understand what is going on at that very moment, they instead need to come up with ways of incorporating and extending an active discourse through their curatorial approach. Launched in 2014, the V&A’s Rapid Response Collecting project is an intriguing model that demystifies the process of curating and makes a very significant and stately institution more adaptive; however, it tends to collect objects as evidentiary artefacts of important news events (such as a pair of Primark jeans made in the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, where more than 1,000 garment workers died when the building collapsed in 2013), rather than as designed objects on their own merit. Therefore, it would be difficult to generalise from this approach in order to encompass a larger field of curatorial research and practice.

As they materialise, of course, these investigations take on different forms with different lifetimes. A film endures in its original format for years, but often is only screened intermittently, while an exhibition has a continuous and intense presence that rarely lasts more than a few months. Later, the catalogue can be consulted instead, but its contents were probably finalised months before the exhibition opening, making it a partial view on a shared body of research (few catalogues, for example, feature photographs of the exhibition they accompany). An independent publication may linger on personal bookshelves for years, but be difficult to source after the first print run, and websites may be launched with great fanfare but suffer from broken links and changing code within a few years. Even data storage and archival formats become obsolete with unexpected speed. Thus, both the content and form of the curatorial research demand careful positioning with respect to time.

If the process of curating is oriented to the initiation and development of discourse, then it is dependent not only on the materials and channels through which it takes place, but also the spaces in which it unfolds. As previously mentioned, curating in the design world often entails estranging the object from its quotidian environment and placing it in a new field of reflection and discourse—which could mean a physical space but could also be on paper, on screen, or in a digital, virtual, or augmented environment. Ultimately, none of these spaces are neutral containers for content: each one dictates its own rules of conduct and thresholds for access. These thresholds may be as concrete as the cost of an entry ticket or the visa needed to attend a design event in a certain country, but the abstract filters of class, taste, language, and diversity or homogeneity are equally powerful—and they must be taken into account as part of a curatorial practice. In the design world, however, the matter of context cannot be reduced to a question of elitism.

The design exhibition as a space has always been fraught with competing demands and protocols, and has never achieved nor truly pursued the nominal purity and elevated status of the “white cube”. As far back as 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London’s Crystal Palace (one of the earliest and most significant progenitors of the contemporary design exhibition) featured a sense of complexity, embedded in and inextricable from a messy, chaotic social context. The Great Exhibition can be read as the negotiation of competing interests including early modern capitalism, competitive and self-mythologising strains of nationalism, industrialisation, technological progress, entertainment, the cultivation of consumer taste, and the manifestation of a continuous discourse of design that could absorb anything from lace to cannon. In 1938, the Museum of Modern Art put on the Exhibition of Useful Objects Under Five Dollars, when it would have been unthinkable at the time to exhibit artworks by price (and would be rather taboo for a museum even today). The 14th Triennale di Milano in May 1968, curated by Giancarlo de Carlo under the thematic framework of the “Grande Numero”, was occupied by politicised youth and academics and used as a space for collective activism (somewhat ironically, given that De Carlo’s exhibition design included a “youth protest” room complete with cobblestones, barricades, old tires and an upturned car).

These exhibitions suggest that design has always breached the walls of the institution as a strictly defined container, whether or not that outcome was intended or planned. Indeed, the museum, the gallery, and the exhibition hall are obvious sites for the staging and enactment of curatorial projects, but their limitations are formidable and they do not always align with the conditions required by design investigations. Why should curatorial projects take place in museums at all? In our collective experience as curators, we have made exhibitions in nightclubs, abandoned schools, mini-markets, hardware stores, and private homes. In the same vein, we feel an urge to find new sites for curating in design and to play with the interactions between context, protocol, and content. The meaning, value, and function of objects and images can be rewritten simply by moving them to another place. We are interested in experimenting with porous boundaries, with diffuse and border-crossing curatorial strategies, in order to draw out nuance and complexity.

For whom
The question of “for whom” is perhaps the most difficult, as it presupposes a result that can only unfold in real time (and which, as in the case of the previously mentioned Giancarlo De Carlo’s “Grande Numero”, can easily backfire). Like any situated project, a curatorial endeavour deals with different but overlapping groups of people in terms of representation, orientation, empowerment, collaborative inclusion, and marginalisation. Earlier, we suggested that the unavoidable subjectivity of the curator could be redeemed, through self-conscious reflection, as a form of insight into a research process. Nevertheless, we must also take into account that the design field is hardly diverse, especially in terms of the critical and research-oriented practitioners given a voice by esteemed institutions and popular events. Therefore, “for whom” becomes an even more pointed factor for the curator who wants to feature stories and start discussions that are not already known.

In our department, we want to move away from the stereotype of the curator as an aloof, all-seeing figure, commenting on the status quo from on high, and towards the idea of the curator as an active and engaged intermediary who can work by coalescing people with converging interests in order to research, work, and experiment together. In that sense, the idea of a shared narrative, a common cause or enemy can be highly effective in creating a sense of identification and an entry point for participation. This is echoed in the rise of populism in politics on both the right and the left, since the financial crisis destabilised the premise of unlimited neoliberal progress and profit, and we consider the empathetic critique of populism and the collaborative development of alternative narratives to be one of the most important projects for the creative practitioner in the design field. And rather than pursue change through established modes of political participation, which no longer feel effective, we see the organisation of new collaborative projects as a challenge of design.

How can we achieve this? First, we can approach curatorial projects as small-scale prototypes of research, discussion, reflection, and implementation. Independent of the explicit politics and ethics of its theme or subject of interest, any project will also have an implicit politics and ethics based on its model of collaboration (or lack thereof), based on how it is structured, funded, and instrumentalised. It is not possible to look at practice as an applied form of theory or to look at theory as an explanation of practice. Theory and practice, discourse and action work in tandem as mutually influencing forces. Well-intentioned discourse must move beyond isolated channels; participatory platforms must synthesise rather than subdue conflict. Critique cannot happen from a safe distance but must leap into the fray with constructive strategies for discussion.

Thus far, we have enumerated the ways in which we see curating as a way of thinking as well as making—a process of researching, collecting, discussing, situating, designing, materialising. However, it is also essential to think of curating as a way of making public, of framing, editing, and amplifying the multidirectional flows of information, energy, and matter through a variety of media. Making public means considering not only how the author or curator reads or interacts with these media and their contents, but also how their collaborators and audience do as well. A complete and definitive rendition or encapsulation can never be made. On the contrary—the most powerful public forms have the sustained capacity to be written and rewritten, to be disassembled and reassembled in new ways.

Based on the approach of the curator, making public has the potential to unfold qualities of openness, ambiguity, and nonlinearity in the evolution of a project towards unexpected outcomes and a multiplicity of readings. Overly didactic frameworks, on the other hand, ask the user to suspend their own associations, to reject the multitude of meanings that can be made, to shoehorn the curator’s subjectivity into their own. Just as with a metaphor, a joke, or a meme, a curatorial project needs the viewer to “complete” the experience by filling in a gap with their own understanding.

The power of the design research investigation lies in the means: the selection, adaptation, reconstruction, and assemblage of new and found elements in images, sound, text, material, space, and more. A curatorial project is like an embodied motion picture, a non-linear narrative unfolding over time, with a structure, a plot, a unique timbre, and a series of twists and turns. Each project can introduce its own organising principles—codes, grammars, or logics that establish a mode of exchange with the user. Conventions can be (mis)used in order to warp the spatial and temporal conditions of the here and now, to teleport into the past or the future or across great distances and conceptual barriers.

In this text, we have given our own perspectives on the composite question of who curates what, when, where, for whom, and how? We agreed on many points, debated many others, misunderstood and clarified certain thoughts, completed one another’s sentences, digested and repeated one another’s words, played devil’s advocate, and challenged ourselves together to go further in thinking critically and originally. We look forward to continuing this process throughout the next year with our students.