Aneta Szyłak

Curating Context

This is an inquiry into curating context or inhabiting the conditions of practice.

After developing a series of projects relating to particular locations, buildings and historical narratives, I found myself in possession of a somewhat unexpected expertise. Occasionally, I have been asked to teach ‘contextual curating’ as a ‘discipline,’ always feeling uneasy about it, as if this disciplinary approach would rob the practice of some as yet ungraspable element. I suspect that ‘contextual curating’ is not really a discipline or a methodology, but rather an approach that reveals not only a way of understanding an artwork as a possibility, but also as a way of understanding the task of the curator not simply as displaying artworks, but as transgressing the limitations of the very context of art.

There is more and more openly formulated demand for art to do more, be more or become something else. I am considering curating context not as a site-specific adornment or a display of local discoveries, but as a way of activating a context and subsequently change what we think this context is all about. What I want to address here is not the activity of making exhibitions—setting out artworks for display, for example—but rather to set a friction between them and with their/our surroundings.

“She is a methodologist of ‘contextual curating’,” a colleague of mine once said about me in front of a group of students. However, astonishing this naming was, it forced me to revisit the process that led me to be given that name.

Being addressed as ‘a methodologist’ in a field that has not yet taken shape causes a feeling of responsibility for something that is already being recognised as a practice but is not certain whether or how it can become knowledge and what kind of implications this holds. In his The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau defines The Expert as the one who exchanges competence for authority:

Ultimately, the more authority the Expert has, the less competence he has, up to the point where his fund of competence is exhausted, like the energy necessary to put a mobile into movement. During the process of conversion, he is not without some competence (he either has to have some or make people think he has), but he abandons the competence he possesses as his authority is extended further and further, drawn out of its orbit by social demands and/or political responsibilities. That is the (general?) paradox of authority: a knowledge is ascribed to it and this knowledge is precisely what it lacks where it is exercised.1

That is to say, the more we put into practical use what we know, the more we see ourselves as situated in a form of practice that is recognized as assigned to us. This turns us into an object of study and a fixed point of reference and makes us loose the legitimacy of our inventiveness and of our ability to be politically transformative. Most dramatically, de Certeau writes of The Expert that, “He misunderstands the order which he represents. He no longer knows what he is saying.”2De Certeau is pointing at the use of objects, symbols or traditions in everyday practice and the way this use gives legitimacy to knowledge (including the banalities, materialities, and simplicities of our immediate surroundings). This expertise then leads to repetitive forms of doing, a repetition that lose the audacity of the inventiveness of the moment of action, thus becoming a legitimate and accepted forms of practice.3

These were also my concerns as this supposed “methodologist of ‘contextual curating’” that I had become: that I could continue performing in a way that had quickly become normalized as a practice without examining the ethical or political implications or interrogating the forces that prompted the idea of curating context to slowly become a form of knowledge.

Maybe it is not worth therefore to look at curating context as if it were an already established practice or a form of knowledge-production, but to examine it in the moment of its formulation. To think it through as a mode of inhabiting the immediate environment for which we are responsible, as a mode of being with context. This includes not only material elements and immaterial knowledge, but also everyone implicated in that context, and the pursuant forms of relations and shared narratives. Jean-Luc Nancy writes that:

Praxis is the endless transformation of the subject of a sense in itself: a sense that it is nothing other than its communication – and by the same token, its concealment. The concealment of thinking is its praxis: thinking than undoes its object in order to become the thinking that is: we, with one another and with the world.4

Considering this statement, maybe we should then see no division between renovating a building, teaching, making artwork, cleaning the floor, establishing an art institution or making a political statement. All material and immaterial labour, including monotonous works and impulsive actions, become one and contribute to the taking of a stance within a given condition. Above all, it is simply doing what is necessary to be done. This would also put our attention not only to what is a subject of curatorial practice but how actually this practice is processed.

The question is how such works and actions become operational for the recognition and activation of context. This, I posit, is foundational for formulating the term curating context. Such an understanding of different levels and forms of curatorial responsibility seems to be attuned with Paolo Virno’s opinion that

The customary frontiers separating Intellect, Work, and Action (or, if you prefer, theory, poiesis, and praxis) have given way, and everywhere we see the signs of incursions and crossovers.5

This contextual activity includes numerous practical demands, which at the level of curating, not only influence curatorial positions and decisions, but also reveal and make active its invisible, unpredictable, and uncontrollable elements. This leads me towards my initial supposition, that perhaps we are not curating ‘in-context’ but rather we ‘curate context’ as such. In so doing, we are not only addressing artworks, these same artworks also become the means of arriving at meaning. Granted, we do not fully control what one can learn from curating context. Firstly, the context can also be activated by something else, thus forcing us to admit that we are not in complete control. Secondly, the attention of the users of context—never singular—can also point at a “meaning” that simply had slip through our fingers, as if it had never been there.6

Thinking through this contextual activity, I am not intending to set a catalogue of rules and recipes for ‘contextual curating,’ one that would immediately become a methodological fossil. There is no attempt here to discipline curating context but to turn our attention to the ungraspable and ambiguous, to eventful moments and to all these slippages that escape our lucid categorizations and leaves us always in want for more. I am trying instead to incorporate a diverse set of elements in order to implicate curatorial practices – a practice which is here understood to encompass not only exhibition making, but also the working of different forms of social relations, incepting, conceptualising, and launching art institutions, fighting financial limits, struggling with the materiality of a site, taking political stances, voicing discontent, and all their accompanying burdens and pressures.

Curating context might be an attempt to theorize a form of curatorial practice in the visual arts, understood not only as the task of curating displays that use artworks to narrate or expose context, but as a way of engaging them and ourselves in an inquiry into the specifics of context and its meaning. This means to be under the influence and even oppression of context. I am interested in what we can learn from these forms of engagement that are not positioned in praise of or in homage to context.

I understand context as a synchronic composite of unfitting, fragmented material and immaterial elements. It includes not only, what appear as a dominant or overarching visual narrative, but also what does not fit, what is unwanted, troublesome, awkward and impossible-to-theorize. Sometimes, context also incorporates and obscures at the same time autobiographical details in a colourful sub-set of stories made up of personal motivations, difficulties, and relations that are invisible but nonetheless operational in one’s practice. In a way, it adds a hidden context that is not habitable by those who engage with contextual curating, but remainsnevertheless a clandestine influence on curating context.7

Grappling with materials of which I am an inseparable part of sets up a pivotal question, or a series of questions: How am I to speak about a context that I am inextricably a part of? Am I not also an active agent of contextual relations before being an individual on a stage? By throwing myself into the local how exactly do I become a part of it? Through what means can I begin to arrive at its meaning? How can I insert things, actions and ideas into a context that I recognize in order to make it active? How can I operate in order not to instantiate meaning, but make it happen?

Curating context is a proposal that sets questions in regard to space and time. It is not just a particular location, economic, social or political condition or a local narrative, it also includes layers of historic formations that are connected to it. Henri Lefebvre addresses this social space as a ‘writing tablet’ of history:

The uncertain traces left by events are not only the marks on (or in) space: society in its actuality also deposits its script, the result and product of social activities. Time has more than one writing-system. The space endangered by time is always actual and synchronic, and it always presents itself as of a piece; its component parts are bound together by internal links and connections themselves produced by time.8

This attempt takes place at a moment when we are coming to understand that something has happened to the ways in which curatorial activity contributes to knowledge production today. As “curating” is swiftly growing to be understood as the problematics of staging exhibitions, a subject of study, a profession, an appealing career choice, as well as a contemporary model of public intellectual, it is also becoming ever more urgent to ask what the curatorial is and what it does. The curatorial, as formulated by Jean-Paul Martinon, is not exhibition making, a curatorial practice, or curating as such. The curatorial is the event of knowledge that is made possible by the curator both intentionally and unintentionally at a particular moment in space and time.9 It has relational/interactive features and focuses not on “the end product“ (the exhibition, conference or publication), but rather on the performative implications of such an enterprise. I see curating context as a practical contribution to the more general concept of the curatorial – as its cognitive, affectual momentum.

Traces of thinking towards the curatorial can be found in a text from the mid-1990s, expressed using a different vocabulary but with a similarly intended meaning. Ine Gevers in “Curating – the art of creating contexts” closely approaches our notion of the curatorial, although she continues to use the term ”curating.” Gevers understands that:

Curating is a practice that permits the creation of different interpretative contexts, embracing different political, social and psychological positions, theories and ideologies, at the same time as making critical connections between them. To put it more simply, it is about opening up ‘spaces’, within which different discourses can be brought into relationship with one another, ‘spaces of transformation’ in which both critical and self-critical engagement are put into work as the chief transforming agents. Such ‘spaces’ would bring personal strategies into the public domain in a way that encourages an arena of inter-subjectivity. These imaginary contexts, then, would have to engage with the discourse of the viewer/respondent on the level of the aesthetic, the ethical and the cognitive and would have to place emphasis not so much on the ‘autonomous’ objects or works of art but on the signifying process offered by the context as a whole and the transformation worked by all of its component agencies acting together.10 

Gevers does not, however, elaborate on the eventful or affectual potential of the curatorial and omits the fact that what it makes possible is not just a single address towards the public, but a more complex form of implication that also includes those who cause the process or who seem to remain peripheral to it in relational and reciprocal manner.11 In addition, one could say that what she means by creating contexts is the stimulation of inter-textual relations. I would assert that context is an already existing condition, which we come to recognise and inhabit. We can thus curate it in a sense that we insert our selves, things or stories in order to activate it. But what Gevers contributes to the discussion is a call for making active the relations between things, thoughts, subjects and spaces going beyond the staging of research on art or presenting artworks. The way she addresses the opening “spaces” that subsequently can become an “arena of inter-subjectivity” sets the ground for what I would call curating context as a moment of sharing understanding. Gevers recognises the potentiality of the unexpected in what we now call the curatorial.

In considering curating context with regard to the curatorial, it is essential to find out how we can productively engage with the context – be it a narrative, locality or material residue – an activity often seen as a kind of idealistic agenda in unimportant places. We must ask ourselves: How can the context be not only identified, unearthed, or singled out but also made active without being reduced to just an exposure of local histories or the exotics of particularity? How can the local become a membrane that resonates new possibilities? How can we enter a situation and inhabit the erratic nature of its context? How can we deal with the troubling dimension of the fact that “feelings are always local”? 12 How we can affect and be affected by the scattered calcifications of narratives and counter-narratives, fictions, falsifications, failed economies, lost relations and physical damages?

The layers of factual information, illustration, and interpretation included in the context all fuse with the emotional affect and the texture of its encounter. All these offer an insight into what is found (spatial, material, relational, political, cultural, ethical, economic or historical meanings—whether personal or empirical) and what Gevers calls “the imaginary“ ones.13 Context includes not only ‘what is there‘ but also our ability to recognise it, so it is dependent upon the relational potential of this encounter. We learn from a context on the basis of what took place, on the basis of the actions taken and what generated a set of affects. In this way, making an exhibition establishes both the context (an interpretative one) and its inter-textual relations. For me, the main idea driving my understanding of context is a broader notion that it is determined by what surrounds us and represents a complex, multifaceted condition beyond the context of the art exhibited.

Context is something that we tend to perceive as a frame but in fact, context is not fixed; its edges are blurred, its texture rich and folded. It is there as a pre-existing order, a surrounding condition (physical, economic, historical, visual, textual and/or political) and yet it has palimpsestic aspects. Context is a reservoir of knowledge that only comes to the fore with a curatorial practice. Concomitantly, practice is a reaction to the visible and invisible specificity of the surroundings and occurs as a mode of inhabitation, making the context (whether we belong to it or not) vibrant and active. There are many levels and layers to these possible activities, both intentional and not.

Contextual practice is not meant to unearth the depths of context, to make it understandable or visible. It is an act of disturbance. Indeed, the limited potential provided by the act of identifying oneself with a context, causes us to infuse, insert, densify, and complicate it. We are not taking things from the context, but rather inserting things into it. What does context make possible? Grounding, understanding, political engagement, answerability to ethical demand, knowledge production? This is part of what we are trying to discover. The curatorial does not fix problems and it is not an agent of good will. It does not resolve social problems, but may cause the shared context to come up with modes of articulation that we are able to recognise.

1 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life [1988], translated by Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), p. 7-8.

2 De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life,p. 8.

3 Not long ago the legendary member of the militant wing of the union Solidarnosc and who spent several years in prison for taking part in numerous riots against Communist rule and who fought for worker’s rights in recent times returned from Warsaw. He took part in an antifascist demonstration that efficiently and actively idled the growing neo-Nazi manifestation. He said, “we were not fighting for democracy to have Nazis marching on our streets now”. And then he added with the disarming smile, “you know, I am doing this all the time; I know how… I knew how to stop them … I know everything about demonstrations now”. [Memorised private conversation] The protest, the riot and demonstration had become knowledge and what was produced originally by necessity of political momentum in the 1980s is now a form utilised in another political context with different content and modes of protest.

4 Jean-Luc Nancy, A Finite Thinking, translated by James Gilbert-Walsh (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 47.

5 Paolo Virno, “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus,” translated by Ed Emory, in MakeWorld, Paper 2, published on the occasion of the European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002. Accessed at

6 In her text “Looking Away. Participations in Visual Culture” [After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance, ed. Gavin Butt, 2005] Irit Rogoff proposes looking away from the contexts of art on display and instead employing a multi-focused perception of things that may not be intended as a part of the presented project.

7 I am inspired by authors such as Kathleen Stewart, the author of “Ordinary Affects” [2007] a book in which the everyday piles up in the form of a series of short stories. The reader encounters situations, peoples and places and learns as the book goes on, of being somewhere and being affected by it. Another source of inspiration is a small book called Atlas of Novel Tectonicsby Reiser + Umemoto 2006 dedicated to ‘the specific reality of the project’. The book combines fragmented and singled-out issues such as matter and its organization, forms of operations, abuses of knowledge and its representation and so forth. It is combined with diagrams, illustrations and comments as content inserted to stimulate our understanding, not to submit the complete and narrated body of knowledge. The ways that these authors address notions of context in architecture may interest us as well, as they see architecture more as rapture or insert than as the obedient submission to it.

8 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space[1974], translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 110.

9 See in this volume, Jean-Paul Martinon, “Theses in the Philosophy of Curating,” pp. [to be included later].

10 Ine Gevers, “Curating – The Art of Creating Contexts in Praise of Bakhtin’s Polyphonic Dialogue,” in Conversation Pieces(Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Akademie, 1995, pp. 41-2.

11 The issue addressed numerous times by Irit Rogoff in texts such as Looking Away. Participations in Visual Culture or The Implicated – a manuscript presented during C/K seminars.

12 See Joke Buver and Arjen Mulder, Feelings are Always Local, V_2 Publishing, Rotterdam, 2004.

13 Gevers, Conversation Pieces, p. 41.