The Complete Curator
Liam Gillick, 2015

First published Curating Research
Eds. Paul O'Neill & Mick Wilson, Open Editions, De Appel

Over the last twenty-five years, the complete curator has emerged as a new agent within cultural practice. The complete curator is a heightened individual or group demonstrating varied responses to an ethical demand that exceeds what is being produced by artists and posits new models in advance of art being made today. The complete curator expresses disappointment with current art and weariness with art’s inability to produce new societies and new relationships. It does so alongside a revived critical community bolstered by the academy and the rise of contemporary art as an area of advanced study. The complete curator desires a world expressed and realized by art, artists, and themselves, a world that expels the present domination of capital via the machinations of neoliberalism. The use of the word “complete” here does not imply finished but rather full or having all the necessary parts. The complete curator exists as an expression of art’s lack. The complete curator defines itself by expressing disappointment with art’s weakness and by describing heightened ideals and potentials hampered by the deployment of fundamentally diminished and limited art. This takes place within frameworks that reach out into the social and political sphere in order to describe art’s failure to escape from the rapacious drive of capital’s reach. The complete curator is fully aware that cultural workers are part of a precarious class terminally alienated from the parallel insecurity of zero-hour casual workers. The complete curator is not a problem; it is the epitome of a process that began in 1987 when the first curators graduated from the Magasin in Grenoble. The complete curator starts from a questioning of exhibitions and moves quickly on to challenging the notion of a constructed, capable society of resistance and stability. The complete curator is met by the incomplete artist, who both resists and aids the curator in the latter’s attempt to load expectations upon art, artworks, and art contexts—expectations that art can provide new worlds and demonstrate in articulate form the failure of the varied constructions of society that surround us today.

Three bounding structures appear to have dominated the growth, interpretation, and flow of art and led to this context of extended expectations on the part of the complete curator. Each of them applied pressures that have affected and moderated yet perversely enabled the expansion of contemporary art alongside a continued fragmentation of activated critical processes. The first of these dominant contextual structures is simply termed the art market. The contemporary art market is an apparently straightforward, barely regulated process of exchange that appears to be firewalled away from its more self-consciously critical others—the complete curator and its extended demands. The second is the general area of concern known as the curatorial, the complete curator’s area of focus. If the curatorial has a bounding model at all, the curatorial increasingly derives its structural validation from the academy, the reimagined institution, and varied self-organized, self-conscious structures. The third is the positing of art as a paradigm of potential—a space of human action and interaction that could and should propose models that function outside of the capitalization of every moment and every exchange. Where it cannot achieve this, the ideal is to produce work that at least exposes new potential models by default and in doing so avoids all contact with established forms of commercial art exchange. These three contextual models provide varying degrees of self-awareness within a regime of continued submission to the phantom of art’s potential. It would appear, therefore, that we face a simple dichotomy in terms of how art should be developed, interpreted, and exchanged—either give in to a market model, where art flows through a commercial funnel into the hands of a small group of people while being temporarily shown off in the process to larger groups of people, or engage thoroughly with the complete curator and its attendant processes of fragmented self-consciousness and projected desires for the potential of art as a vehicle from which both to recognize and reject the current deployment of people, objects, and forms of exchange throughout societies and without limit.

In 1992, the Royal College of Art in London had begun offering an MA course, “Curating Contemporary Art.” At that point, the idea of an advanced degree in curatorial practice did not suggest any guarantee of development toward the complete curator, new forms of curatorial consciousness, or even success. Subsequently, it has become clear that, by focusing on the struggle to deal with research and various apparently contradictory modes of activity and action within exhibitions, broader claims have been made about the potential of revised curatorial structures. Most importantly, the Royal College, along with the proliferation of similar courses since the early 1990s, has functioned understandably to structure critique in the face of the curatorial rather than art. It could be assumed that the proliferation of curatorial thinking would have been accompanied by new critical models that offered revised ways to address the problem of contemporary art. In some sense, this has been the case, yet it has mainly produced processes of criticality that have tended to overlook one key aspect, namely, a critique of the ethically Western Judeo-Christian language at the heart of the complete curator.

Some observers have suggested that this has to do with the sometimes tortured language deployed by the complete curator in their places of display and interpretation, including the writing of artists. But loose language is not the root of a lack here. It is merely a symptom of something more deeply embedded in the communication and approval structures at the heart of a developed curatorial sphere. The complete curator has moved beyond the disappointment and partial quality of most contemporary art and has engaged a desire system that now points forward toward its own yearning for ethical social change. The complete curator has no need to build new critical models restricted to art as object or structural form, for it gains momentum from art’s lack and an increasingly precise description of society’s needs. It is not that the complete curator is incapable of deconstructing art’s often wry and self-abasing engagements; rather, such an exercise has become a pointless task in the face of a new conversation with the academy and its own self-conscious institutions.

If the complete curator increasingly finds validating models in the academy and revised institutions, it has reduced its speculative role and conceded reaching forward to other structures. The discursive has become formalized within a frame that engulfs and diminishes critique simultaneously. Whole territories have now been abandoned in favor of reiteration and recuperation. Serious work takes place to reconfigure the distant past and leave the recent past and near future to artists and their degraded speculative structures. The structural premise of the exhibition has become a series of conceits that floats free of what is being produced. It is hard to find a curatorial strategy that could reflect the evasive techniques of artists in the face of a renewed dialectic between rocks and slate. The exhibition as a form has shifted from being a neglected aspect to the central and functional focus of the complete curator. The artwork, in sullen response, has become resistant to the exhibition or only significant within the exhibition as form. The exhibition is no longer restricted to a moment or set period. It exceeds all temporal restraints and extends beyond any singular deployment of work. A singular deployment only has meaning in the context of the exhibition. The potential of discourse and filtration has given way to illustrations of accretion. The discursive cannot be accurately reproduced within a regime of didactics. Within this frame, research becomes any reading and could include any work. Any reading and any work gridded by didactics does not reproduce more than the content with which it started combined with the excessive framing that results. Research as an act of semiautonomy cannot be critically accessed within the regime of the complete curator. The process of research is a type of work that remains just alongside and is only sustained by the artwork’s supporting role or perceived relegation to the market.

Alongside these developments, the art fair has remained a place of exhibitions arranged by gallerists that exists in sympathy with some curatorial consciousness but only within a retarded set of references that attempts to empty out all significance from the dominance of the exhibition as form. The essential relationality of the art fair actually diminishes any autonomous potential of the work—not because of processes of valuation and exchange but because of its echo of the exhibition as it existed prior to the advent of the complete curator. The navigation of the art fair only makes sense in relation to the exhibition as a historical experience. The art-school cubicle is perfect training for the future art-fair booth—lacking both exhibition and curatorial consciousness. The two are analogous architectures that are both phantoms of a precuratorial gallery. The contemporary mega-artist’s compound of various production stages and workshops is the museum space of the precuratorial. The products of such luxurious sites of limited production are no longer shipped out to become part of a megawork authored under the comforting regulations of the curatorial; rather, neither the work nor the interpretation of work can compete with the contextual drive of the exhibition as a form reified by the complete curator. Discursivity is excessively verifiable and forms a partnership with research as domains that appear to resist the reach of capital or at least keep precisely priced exchange moments at a distance. Discursivity and research ex nihilo are the strategies of the complete curator. They feed into each other and provide a push and pull in and out of precisely determined roles toward a continual identity in motion. While incapable of offering a complete break, this creates an image sequence of roles in motion that dazzles the insatiable desire of art structures that seek to pin down and possess and exchange the products of the complete curator.

The complete curator no longer locates itself in a tense standoff with specific institutional structures. The curatorial and institutional have meshed, melded, and reformed. The arrangement of structures has become the deployment of exhibitions. The institutional lays down a history of exhibitions and not a history of art or artists. At the same time, the complete curator focuses upon a history of yearning exhibitions and structures and no longer a history of artists and specific structures. The notion of a work in advance of any other work has become subsumed within the strategic demonstration of the exhibition as a form. The projection of potential through the discursive or the work of the artist filtered by the curatorial has been replaced by a verifiable sequence of steps that furthers the history of exhibitions over and above the potential of any given development. Within this terrain, the developed artist offers self-curation as a demonstration of fidelity toward the deployed exhibitionistic aspect of the complete curator.

The arrangement of ideas in space is nevertheless still mediated. Object combinations are no longer sufficient to function in relation to one another by troubling the complete curator, who in turn does not agitate the limited sufficiency of the object, action, or intent. In this arrangement, the critical posture is permitted to float free from what is arranged and from the arranger of those things. A permanent exchange of absences has developed. An absent logic meets an absence of regard. Each deployed work is offset by an increasing sequence of contextually interpretive structures. The primacy of “art” in this constant flow of control between varied points is only visible when it resists the codes of the complete curator. The diminished status of art operates in direct correlation to its utility for the curatorial and its potential as a straightforward commodity signifier—an irresolvable doubling.

Research is both the base of certain artistic practices and the base of some of the methodologies deployed by the complete curator. However, research cannot be independently verified. Unless enacted within the frame of the exhibition, research is a term that may suggest lengthy engagement while the actual intensity of “finding out” is impossible to gauge. The gathering of material without judgment may be research; so could the detailed investigation of one minor object. Research carries a scientistic authority. Research implies an evacuation from zones of commodified exchange and directs us toward the apparent authority of the institutional library or laboratory. Alone it cannot build better systems or structures. Yet it can point out how far away they still appear to be.

© Liam Gillick 2024