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Exploring slow curation in times of crisis that necessitate quick response

Examining the concept of slow curation, its formal structure, and its applicability in the hyperdigital world of today.

by Rahul Kumar, Samta NadeemPublished on : Oct 31, 2022

‘Slow’ commonly denotes something requiring more lapse time. In the context of research and curatorial practices, it is not about time per se, but about connection. The term coined in 2009 by Dr. Megan Arney Johnston, ‘Slow Curating’ is all about embracing methods to facilitate deep connections to community, locality, and reciprocal relationships (between people and between art/objects and audience). Johnston, an independent curator, author, and educator says that it is a practice that enables, explores, and expands exhibition experiences for more relevant audiences, and specifically their engagement.

I entered into a freewheeling conversation with Samta Nadeem on the topic. Nadeem recently concluded her master’s in Design Curation at the Design Museum in London (in partnership with Kingston University), and is engaging with the topic as part of her thesis research. She asks if ‘slow curation’ can be exercised in times of crisis that call for fast and collective action; and sets out to research this duality as a charged ground for innovation with a non-dominant understanding of time.

Louvre Museum in Paris | Slow Curation| STIRworld
Louvre Museum in Paris Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul Kumar: How would you define ‘curation’? …one word that I personally feel is most abused in the context of the contemporary art world.

Samta Nadeem: I know what you mean. Curate, curating and curator today are used as fashionable words to indicate any act of culling, collecting and/or communicating. From curating menus, to curated events and playlists, everybody is a curator. I am of the view that everyone should be a curator, for that matter an actor and a stakeholder. However, that needs to be in the project of building our world differently. Isn’t that something our society and this planet need urgently? I have come to believe there is a valid need to liberate this practice from the walls of institutions and the grip of pop-jargons.

There is no one way to define any of these ‘C’ words and I’d like to talk about the etymology of the word curator -‘curare’, that translates to ‘the one who takes care’. The role of the curator is expanding to include care practices towards the communities, what the exhibitions bring to the public, and what their public programmes intend to support. While many curators want to commit to projects that mean more to more people, given the neo-liberal structure of our being, it must also be done just in time! In an exhibition essay titled Exhaustion and Exuberance, Jan Verwoert notes, “We live and work in economies based on the concept of “just-in-time” production—and “just-in-time” usually means things have to be ready in no time at all. Who sets the urgent pace according to which all others are measuring their progress?”. One constantly feels the pressure to act fast but also knows that we need to slow down in order to care.

Sterling Ruby’s installation at Hauser & Wirth | STIRworld
Sterling Ruby’s installation at Hauser & Wirth Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul: And about the term slow curation, what is it about and what must be ‘slow’ as a concept?

Samta: To tread between the duality of fast and slow, on one hand I looked at it from the non-dominant understanding time, that is, the anthropological theory of ‘social time’. On the other hand, I came across Megan Johnston’s thesis of Slow Curating. It is a framework for curating in a socially engaged way that doesn’t necessarily need more clock-time but to take time to immerse in the context and each step of the process. As Johnston states, “The notion of taking time is important, as is working in collaboration with a sense of place and alongside working artists and the community. It means promoting reciprocal relationships, open-ended proposals, and outcomes that can be decided by different people and at different times in the process. The element of control and power ebbs and flows, and self-reflection and self-evaluation are continual and an important part of the process.”

Rahul: That is certainly interesting. Is there a prescriptive formula to it?

Samta: More than a formula, it is a framework in which, as Megan Johnston explains, “the authorship and expertise is continually challenged, and the role of participant and audience becomes a priority in the process.” Directly inspired by the principles of the Slow Movement, the Slow Curating framework denotes ‘slowness’ as an understanding of context with the aim “to facilitate space for cultural agency across a broad spectrum of the population while democratising the institution of the museum,” Johnston highlights.

Christopher Le Brun works at his solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery, 2018| STIRworld
Christopher Le Brun works at his solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery, 2018 Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul: Is there a formal framework of sorts that can put a structure to slow curation?

Samta: Slow curating = Research + Experiment + Observation + Reflection + Dialogue + Adaptation + Repeat

You might see what is interesting here and how Johnston resists the rigidity of a formula through this framework. To me what stands out as a critical step for democratised value and meaning generation is the last step ‘Repeat/Re-test’. It is like discovering something more, each time we reread a book or revisit a place and reflect, like ‘re’ is some kind of technique for lucidity.

Rahul: How does this idea fit within our understanding of time itself?

Samta: Well, on one hand, time in the modern, digital world seems to be persistently accelerating, while on the other, to the effect of making/revealing meaning one needs to slow down. The ongoing pandemic, combined with the modern-day crisis of time, has consequently surfaced such dilemmas in the curatorial world. While time is moving fast, slowing down doesn’t necessarily mean more clock-time for a particular event. In ‘could curating be in time?’, curator Binna Choi reflects, “The antithesis to busyness is not slowing down, nor immersing oneself in acceleration. Rather, it is to allow time, if possible, all different times and rhythms sensed, to create an almost mythical, prophetic sense of polyphony.” This echoes the anthropological understanding of social time.

La Biennale di Venezia, Pavilion of Turkey, 2015 | STIRworld
La Biennale di Venezia, Pavilion of Turkey, 2015 Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul: What is the relevance of slow curation in our hyper-digital world where everything is immediate?

Samta: With the way internet-based technologies have taken over our lives, imaging a future devoid of them, hence their threats, would be a totally utopian/dystopian idea. It makes me speculate, could powerful and privileged institutions be working towards creating digital cultural commons that are inclusive, democratic, social, community-based knowledge pools that by its sheer nature are safe from meeting the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (the myth of this tragedy itself has been debunked by economist Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel winning work). I say it is safe in a way that those creating and consuming these resources (curators and community) and those maintaining them (museums and institutions) both have interest and incentive in respective roles.

Rahul: How would you suggest one could take forward slow curation in today’s era then?

Samta: I feel it is an ideology, more than anything else, that could help us traverse many curatorial dualities like fast/slow (time), convenience/consideration (interdependence), dissemination/distribution (politics) and so on.

John Nixon’s work at the Stoneman Gallery | STIRworld
John Nixon’s work at the Stoneman Gallery Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul: But what about issues that are urgent, like climate change or social injustice? Can we afford anything that is slow when talking about those?

Samta: Yes, it does feel dichotomous. To engage with slow curation in times of crisis such as climate change, that need fast action, instead of regarding time in its reductionist terms, as encapsulated by Larissa Pschetz, and Michelle Bastian in their work on Rethinking Time in Design, i.e,  ‘duration’ (short-term or long-term), pace (fast or slow), direction (past-present and contesting futures), or as a container for other activities (issues of productivity), I would shift our perspective towards the anthropological idea of ‘social time’. This approach regards time as emerging from material, social, economic, and political forces and as a way of social management and social coordination. Hence, breaking away from clock time alone. Such a contextualised duality of fast and slow becomes a potentially charged ground for new ways of curating to emerge.

London Art Fair, Business Design Centre, 2022 | STIRworld
London Art Fair, Business Design Centre, 2022 Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul: Please elaborate what this means?

Samta: Johnston details the slow curating framework as under:

Research: Begin environmental mapping of the local context through dialogue, primary and secondary research, and observation. Take extensive notes. Speak with stakeholders. Consider questions that are overt and subvert. What is not being said? Over time, the nuances of the socio-political and historical ecosystems will become apparent.

Experiment: Based in and/or connected to a local context and working with others, begin to present creative experiments that facilitate further and deeper dialogue. Take calculated risks. Given that the research aims to facilitate a space that is dialogical and experiential, use new approaches and methods for engagement through multiple avenues of entry into the work. Unplanned opportunities arise in the space between contemporary art and audiences.

Observation: With an open, reflective, and transparent approach, observe the experiments, as they unfold within the context. Reflect in your journal: What is said, what is not? What works? What could have been done differently? Do not attempt to control the situation.

Reflection: Take time to reflect on your process, work, relationships, and context, as the process unfolds. Write, talk, and think about how things are going. Journal. What would you do differently?

Dialogue: In light of the above, discuss the project and process with collaborators, colleagues, and mentors. Should you try again? What would you do differently?

Adaptation: As the process unfolds, allow for changes in the project.

Repeat / Re-Test

(Ref: Johnston 2021 PhD Thesis - Curating in Context: Slow Curating as a Reflective Practice.)

Rahul: Do you mean to say we can critically substantiate and contextualise the framework?

Samta: I think so. Johnston calls this “an initial description of the Slow Curating Framework. Much more breadth-and-depth is needed in order to critically substantiate and contextualise the framework;” though I’d say the advantage it has is that it’s a ‘framework’. Unlike an established method, I understand the framework as a guideline that offers flexibility to experiment, tweak to your context and go beyond the rubrics and standards that might try to discipline any qualitative research-based practice.

Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) | STIRworld
Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rahul: Do you have references of actual projects where you witnessed such tensions in how they have made experiences and exhibitions?

Samta: The COVID-19 pandemic brought life, as we know it, to a stand-still. It has amplified the challenges facing societies globally, whether it is prevailing inequalities or access to healthcare and social services. With this forced break in human activities, many new or previously unnoticed occurrences in the human and non-human domains of nature created or revealed new knowledge. However, one of the main challenges for curators was grappling over questions such as ‘How can curatorial platforms reorganize social space or re-articulate knowledge during times of crises?’. This was a central question in the symposium ‘Curating on Shaky Grounds: Curating in Times of Crisis and Conflict’, hosted by the platform On Curating.

I can think of the editorial curation project - Pandemic Objects, a blog by Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. Pandemic Objects was conceived in response to how some of the everyday banal objects were gaining new meaning and being cast to the forefront of consciousness by COVID-19. “The crisis cast into stark relief the degree to which our daily life and interactions were mediated by things,” says Brendan Cormier, Senior Curator of Exhibitions at V&A South Kensington, while talking of, “Door handles became a vector of disease, a hastily scribbled sign at the off-license carried new directions for how we were meant to pay, toilet roll became a treasured commodity… It became evident that an entire history of the pandemic could be told through these objects, how their meaning and use were transformed in real time.”

Pandemic Objects did many things. It kicked-in by April 2020 as a rapid response, i.e., within one month of the first lock down in the UK. The idea of a blog allowed for “immediately making public a form of research-in-progress”, as shared by the curators. They opened it up as an opportunity to co-curate with staff across the museum from different departments. It allowed contributors to weave their personal anecdotes along with the object histories, critique, and the V&A collection into one easy and captivating read. Because of its internet-based open access format, the project included objects and stories from around the world as they were unfolding. The blog text was followed by a section Further Reading that linked to external websites. The selection of objects was not confined to physical matter, it covered topics like Time, Hand Clap and Dreams, expanding the otherwise conventional idea of design and objects in the reader’s mind. It is an ongoing project that will translate into more formats, but it also triggers thoughts about a significant curatorial opportunity emerging from these circumstances. The commonalities of these times, the history and culture that museums collect as common heritage, the open access to blogs and internet resources, brings me to think of a potential for museums to start building a digital cultural common.

Rahul: Final thoughts? Would you say the pandemic has its own merits?

Samta: While it is wrong to call this pandemic an equaliser, it at least threw everyone out of their normal to face the unknown. If I may call out its one merit, such unifying occasions are rare that refuse to recognise the boundaries of ‘othering’ we build and exercise. The fear of sickness, the fear of losing relevance of one’s job/profession/establishment, the fear of going obsolete if not adapting fast enough, while also becoming aware of the precariousness of this life and willing to slow down in order to live it meaningfully. The prevailing crisis presents an opportunity to the museum curators to move, as Irit Rogoff theorises, from critique towards criticality.

What do you think?

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