Empty Stages, Crowded Flats. Performative curating performing arts

von Florian Malzacher

In: Scenekunsten og de unge. Hg. Sidsel Graffer & Ådne Sekkelsten. Oslo: Vidarforlaget AS, 2014. 114-125.

Let’s start with an image: Two, three lonely people scattered around midnight over the art deco auditory of Vooruit theatre in Gent. Meditatively leaning back in their plush seats under balconies and ambitious ornamentation, they quietly watch the half-lit stage underneath the golden letters emblazoned on the proscenium like a motto: “Kunst veredelt”, “art ennobles”. On the stage itself, nothing but some bunk beds. A few people sleeping; one is snoring, another one just undressing.

The German choreographers Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke put this unlikely, modest spectacle in the centre of their curatorial project B-Visible, a programme consisting of performances, lectures, and other interventions loosely dispersed over the course of 72 hours. These take place everywhere in the theatre – except at its heart, the main stage, the default centre of attention. Here it is completely silent, a refuge for anyone who wants to take a break.

B-Visible laid out what it could mean to understand curating in performing arts differently than just programming a couple of shows within a season. How even classic theatre spaces can be challenged when approached and confronted in their site specificity – and within the conventions of time. By using their limitation as productive frictions (with regards to the architecture: by reversing its logic) and at the same moment taking them radically serious (in terms of time: After all, theatre buildings are constructed to keep the daily life away, so why not ignoring the real time of the outside world completely).

deufert&plischke played with this very core element of theatre – creating an experience for a temporary community in relation to time and space – by using them as their main means for curating. There is much more to gain than most festival or season programs try to satisfy us with.

“Diaghilev, the most important curator of the 20th century”

Whether the term curating – obviously borrowed from visual arts – is the best choice in the context of live arts can be discussed. But within the specific field of performing arts I am referring to (a theatre that refuses to be defined by the borders of drama, of conventional divisions between performance and audience, of the imposed limitations of the genre. A theatre that finds itself mostly outside of the fixed structures and relatively fixed aesthetics of the repertory city theatres, which are mostly active only within the limits of their own countries and languages). Terms, concepts and definitions are a problematic issue in any case: Already the question of how to name the genre (performing arts, experimental theatre, post-dramatic theatre, devised theatre, live arts, conceptual dance etc. etc.) is a subject of great confusion. Why I do believe in promoting the concept of curating on this highly contested aesthetical playground lies precisely in the expectations it raises: Expectations that pose a clear challenge to everyone calling him/herself a curator. This distinction is not for the purpose of hipness or prestige, but with the aim of signifying a shift in understanding the possibilities and claims of programming arts as well as understanding it as a performative task itself

  1. B-Visible, curated by the choreographers Kattrin Deufert and Thomas Plischke together with the dramaturge Jeroen Peeters, took place at Kunstencentrum Vooruit, Gent/ Belgium in in November 2002.

The fact that the figure of the exhibition maker – primarily and almost synonymous with the new type of curator: Harald Szeemann – became so important in the 1970s is due not least to the fact that the concept of the nature of an exhibition radically had begun to change. Following the increased interest in performativity within visual arts since the 1960s (in form of performance, installation, happening etc.), exhibitions became more alive, and accompanied events which sometimes changed after the opening… New forms of time and spatial experiences were developed. Art shows created their own dramaturgies. Szeemann compared his work quite early with that of a theatre director. Beatrice von Bismarck recently underlined the proximity of exhibition making to the job of a dramaturge, and Maria Lind speaks of her practice as “performative curating”. Since the 1990s, art continued to force these traditions by expanding the exhibition framework and discovering itself as a social space.2 It is hardly possible to penetrate more deeply into the neglected core business of the theatre.

Using the concept of “curating” within performing arts only makes sense when meant to emphasise the possibilities of an expanded definition of what theatre is and can be. And if programming itself is understood as part of the medium theatre. In fact, one of the key figures of contemporary curating in visual art, Hans Ulrich Obrist, stated that “the most important curator of the 20th century” is someone from the field of performing arts: Sergei Diaghilev, the famous impresario of the Ballets Russes. “He brought together art, choreography, music… Stravinsky, Picasso, Braque, Natalia Goncharova… the greatest artists, composers, dancers and choreographers of his time.”3

“Programme making” (like exhibition making before the curatorial turn in visual arts) generally understands each work of art, each performance as an independent artistic expression that is supposed to live on its own. The programmer primarily provides the stage for the artist’s endeavour, enables it, tries to offer best conditions, communicates it to the audience etc. Recently these loyalties have often – for obvious reasons – been contested and have shifted towards a loyalty rather to the own institution – festival or venue – which is threatened by lack of subsidies or political attacks. Saving the institution is now often seen as th.

Curating performing arts for me would not mean to ignore these points. The artistic work itself obviously has to stay in the centre, and saving the institution one is responsible for is obviously also not a bad idea. But to shift the weights in order to make room for another aspect: The necessity of putting works into a larger context, to make them interact with each other and the world around, rather than seeing them as entities. Also, to offer a collective experience not only during or within the performance itself, but through turning the festival, the event, or the venue into a larger field of performative communication.

  1. Art critic Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term “relational aesthetics” for this in the late 1990s.
  2. Hans Ulrich Obrist “Diaghilev is the most important curator of the 20th century”. In: Florian Malzacher, Tea Tupajića and Petra Zanki (Eds.). Curating Performing Arts. Zagreb: Frakcija Performing Arts Journal, 2010. 44.