• Curating Process: A curatorial aesthetic of Emergence [Sound Art]

  • The following text is from my presentation at Harvestworks’ panel discussion, New Perspectives on Sound Art, Thursday, June 26, 2014, 7-9pm

    The current presentation is a long-term research project on curatorial methodology that I initiated in November 2013. It is also part of my ongoing Ph.D. research focusing on curatorial aesthetic.

    My field of research and practice target the process-based projects, which is mostly technology but not necessarily science. Here, I’d like to make a clear distinction between the Process that I’m talking about today and the Process Art movement in the 1960s relating to Dada movement and the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. There are indeed some similarities on the themes to explore, for instance, change and transience the two themes that marked the movement in 1960s. However, the Process that I’m going to talk about today attributes not only the artists but also the curators. For the artists, it’s what curators are willing to show. For curators, it’s the strategy that we adopt researching the artists and works, the path that we need to go through to understand and present them.

    Case studies

    1               There will never be silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”

    October 12, 2013 to June 22, 2014

    Organized by David Platzker and Jon Hendricks


    This exhibition introduces MoMA’s recently acquired score for 4’33” and examines it, and Cage’s influence, as a critical pivot around which a diverse array of artists working throughout the 20th century can be united. Taking its title from a letter written by Cage in 1954, There will never be silence features prints, drawings, artists’ books, photographs, paintings, sculptures, and films by such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, and other artists associated with Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptual art who pushed preconceived boundaries of space, time, and physicality to new ends.

    The exhibition serves as a perfect example to show:

    –    How such an exhibition is organized today in a major museum – the most conventional white cube – in the United States.

    –    The role and duties of curators working on the exhibition.

    –    The curatorial methodology for such an exhibition focusing on the creative process, especially when it’s relating to sound art.

    In this exhibition, the materials to exhibit were well defined: MoMA’s recently acquired score for 4’33.” Curators’ role was fundamental: art historian. It’s about conducting a deep research on every significant issue related to the artist, coordinating with donors, collectors, gathering historical materials, arranging the appropriate space, defining the budget, operation’s team, related events, writing and publishing, and, of course, supervising the installation of the show.

    The creative process of 4’33” was shown through an exploration of specific objects that guided the viewers to track back the time, life, activities, people, communities, relationships – no matter friendships or conflicts – that John Cage was leading and belong to. It was a curatorial concept based on the decomposition. Sound as THE object of the show, was decomposed into prints, drawings, artists’ books, photographs, paintings, sculptures, and films. The exhibition, primarily reconstituted the creative process shared by John Cage and all involved people and communities. More importantly, it materialized 4’33” by inviting nowadays viewers to perceive the same “silence” with their whole sensorium system by seeing, hearing, and feeling it with deep understanding and accuracy. I doubt if – by simply repeating the same performance that John Cage had mounted at the time – could help our viewers to gain the same deep and accurate understanding on 4’33” as did the exhibition in MoMA.

    2               Living Room Concert Tour

    An ongoing project started in 2011 By Yan Jun, Beijing, China

    Visual documents:

    1/ Living Room Concert Tour, Beijing, China (July, August, September 2011)


    2/ Living Room Concert Tour, Montreal, Canada (March 17 to the end of June 2014) http://www.yanjun.org/archives/category/project/living-room

    The project takes place at common people’s residency that the artist randomly chooses through an open application procedure. Anyone who has a place to sleep and is willing to host experimental home concert can invite the artist to come over and share the experience. The artist uses objects and sounds from every particular living space he finds to perform. He also invites other artists or the audience to perform with or without his intervention.

    The concept of the project is to encourage people to listen to improvised sound and music without depending on high-end audio system or professional venues. They don’t even need to “educate” their ears. Various types of sound exist naturally in every single listener’s daily life, to explore in his/her most familiar living environment. The listener’s own passion is the most powerful medium to create a sound with high quality.

    The artist considers these living room concerts a temporary mandala that carries the meaning of the “world” in our common language. In this “world,” there is no distinction between high and low, large and small, professional and amateur. Every individual can access the sound of quality when he or she is devoted to hearing it.

    This project is particularly interesting for me for the following reasons:

    – It’s process-based. However, it is not a process based on the transformation, but accumulation[1], where all attendees at the event – including the artist himself – shared collectively the emergence of curating meaning, ideas and form.

    – The notion of time and space is completely erased.

    – The core activity is performance, which has its strong reference to the root of the Process Art in the 1960s, the Performance Art.

    – The artist is at the same time the curator, who undertook both processes – creative and curatorial – to deliver the project. What we see here is the idealist situation where curator being the artist can access the entire process, and follow it up step by step instantly. Curating by performing, the merged double identity of artist/curator allows the entire body of the performances to be created, delivered, observed, investigated, archived, from one venue to another, with its full authenticity and integrity, at the same time.

    – The position of the audience: some of them almost became the co-producer of the project. They arranged the venues, supplied the performative materials, cooperated in the creative process by lending their body, assisted the artist to archive the project by taking photos, shooting films, or recording sound samples and the concerts.

    I’d like to describe the Living Room Concert project as repetitive urban collective actions that represent an aesthetic of collective curating.

    3.              Harvestworks

    The strategy and models that Harvestworks adopted to work with sound art and its artists may be nothing new to the organization itself, but remains quite new to the broad contemporary art world. The core of Harvesworks is no doubt the artists’ creative process in sound art, and the organization keeps exploring all possibilities, formulas and models to initiate, produce and showcase the processes. The operation entirely based on the concept of “service” – with the key acts of observation and investigation – in fact has provided for us an excellent curatorial aesthetic of emergence for nearly forty years. However, we cannot keep praising Harvestworks’ great achievement without considering the time and social/economical environment within which it’s been founded. It might be no more possible to have such an achievement in our time. I assume that Carol, Hans and most of people in this room are aware of this better than me. When it comes to the best curatorial methodology for sound art, I’m not sure if Harvestworks has already found a clear answer either. I hope so.

    In conclusion, with the current presentation I try to suggest a curatorial practice based on the acts of observation and investigation. I consider the creative process as the Object for exhibition, encourage a different curatorial aesthetic from the one that most of the curators are familiar and practice with: being instrumental, dealing with contexts, and finding places for the artists to exhibit.

    This new curatorial aesthetic focuses on the emergence of curating meaning, forms, and ideas, not something commonly practiced yet, but slowly taking place in the art world. It provides a new perspective for the artists to look at their creation from another vantage. For the viewers, it’s not only an opportunity to experiment the emergent process by discovering the scenes behind the exhibition. More importantly it is an opportunity to participate in the creative process and become the creator of the emergence.

    [1] Different from MoMA’s exhibition, Living Room Concert is following a linear instead of evolutive process. The concerts are independent one to another; there is no absolute connection between each of them. Every single concert can be seen and operated independently. The only connection that makes the series of concerts coherent is the concept of the project.