Learning from context; in search of curatorial practices in dance


Text by Anastasio Koukoutas

There’s probably no better way to start a debate than by making a bold statement in the form of a question, risking a misunderstanding: Could “the curatorial be the spacing of concern for the other”?[1] Meaning, could we think of the curatorial not just as another site of expert knowledge, producing a monologue of sameness, but as a stage to resolve some persistent, structural crises and rehearse survival strategies within the field of contemporary dance in Greece? Could it be, then, that the curatorial becomes a way to contextualise and challenge the given precarious working conditions instead of just displaying, spectacularising, maximizing career achievements? The more we ask, the more room we create for debate. But first, let’s explore what we could possibly mean by curatorial practices in contemporary dance.

As Ine Gevers understands it, “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 making critical connections between them”. [2] Thus, she invites us to consider curating as the emergence of new “transformative spaces”, the exchange of experiences so that the context is not only formulated by the aesthetic, ethical, critical discourses but also that it becomes a “signifying process” itself. We could then deduce from the above that curating should be more than a selective process, more than a matter of individual taste, more than sampling trends from European dance scenes, and more than adjusting to supply-demand market rhetorics. This excessive, ‘more-than’ attribute, could also be understood in the Derridean terms of responsibility, namely, as “the experience and experiment of the possibility of the impossible”. [3]

If curating really entails this type of vast responsibility, then we need to understand its practices antagonistically to programming/presenting, which is most commonly a strategic and administrative tool for art institutions that allows them to sustain their power structure and to control the circulation of performances within certain dance networks. Programming in big festivals, for example the Athens Epidaurus Festival, could be based first and foremost on money agreements, sharing costs by co-producing, touring schedules of well-known companies, established hierarchies in terms of institutional representation and visibility, thus co-opting to the market logic instead of procuring for the emergence of the above “transformative spaces”. An artistic director who programs a festival thinks more or less like a producer or an arts presenter, who speaks of and for the artists in terms of spectatorship, of sold-out performances, of making shows more desirable, more marketable, acts then in the real sense of the word programme, which is to arrange or schedule according to a pre-existing plan. Programming could be more about calculating possible results than opening to the Derridean immeasurable, vast responsibility.

Still, we should not imply that curating is a panacea if compared to the tasks of a programmer-presenter. However, in order to differentiate the formats of assembling, of sharing knowledge and empowering when practicing and contextualising the curatorial, we would need to place it against the frame of institutional programming which has become “a factory of continuity, labour, production that is anti-production”. [4] As explained by Goran Sergej Pristaš, anti-production is not the opposite of production, but a process that allows the fetishisation of artistic labour, turning the institution into a prominent place of promise and constant innovation. Institutions constantly demand the new, the better version, the most groundbreaking, the shockingly radical, in a sense that innovation has not only become “an inherently problematic notion for contemporary art” but it is also “continuously hailed as the primary source of profit.” [5] In addition, Bojana Kunst has extensively discussed the “paradox of the institution”, itself “dwelling between as if and not yet”, [6] an instantiation of both radical imagination and institutional violence that deeply affects the lives of the artists. So, to go back to the notion of the curatorial responsibility, how is the curator expected to respond to the calling to organise poetically when working together with artists and institutions? Can we escape the tyranny of the new, reflect critically on its temporal logic and imagine living better in the present? How is the curator involved in all the above?

Interestingly, the dance curator in the Greek context made an appearance during the austerity years following the global economic crisis, approximately in 2010. Her natural habitat would firstly be, as expected, private institutions because of the available resources (both human and economic). This shift was structured upon a pattern, or more accurately paved through a transcultural bridge introduced by the Athens Epidaurus Festival in 2006; making room for emerging and young dance makers, bringing them in contact with major representatives of the European scene, allowing for a sort of leveling up to take place through the looking glass. Also, the curator seemed a more approachable figure than that of the artistic director; whereas the artistic director creates a sort of legacy and usually holds a position for longer periods as (s)he is appointed by ministers, the position of the curator so far is more comparable to that of intermittent artists; always working towards their future employability.

It is no coincidence that the figure of curator/advisor was introduced then in public, state-funded institutions, marking yet another shift in the field. Her profile was structured upon the existent binary of knowing/implementing, although there were new challenges to deal with when contextualising this knowledge/power, as persistent austerity, subsidy cuts, and the freelance paradigm have deeply affected working conditions. While dance companies as contractors of (quasi-) permanent work began to dissolve and freelance choreographers became more dependent on project-based work, one had to cater for the conditions of his/her own employability. In practical terms this meant chasing your own tail, if this could offer access to economical and technical resources. In the same trajectory, a curator would then be asked to orchestrate the excess of intermittent workers in the field, as the number of projects increased exponentially and work dissolved into slots of employment, stagnant periods of unemployment, injections of training, and acquiring new skills in order to be re-inserted in the market.

My proposition here is to debunk the curatorial as a mechanism to deal with intermittent work, namely to defy the role of the curator as a gatekeeper/regulator who has the power to deal with the temporalities or the discrepancies between the supply and demand of artistic projects. Although curator, dance artists, and cultural workers are all caught in different power structures and positioned, most times, in a scheme that sees the curator at the top of the pyramid in terms of status and resources, I think that this picture remains partial to a certain extent: in the Greek context, the curator/advisor’s problematic positionality is rather marked by a failure to contribute positively to the struggles regarding the protocols of labour, the inequities in institutional representation, the exhausting demand to produce, be creative, be flexible under any circumstances. But the dance curator herself is in no better condition; given the marginality of dance in the performing arts sector and her often facilitating and subordinate position in institutional hierarchy, her job could resemble more what David Graeber once described as a “bullshit job” [7]: her precarious position often corresponds with expanding bureaucracy, the lack of transparency and ultimately her own exhaustion. [8] We are in an opaque, dark zone; how could the curator, judging from her own liminality, undo (theoretically, at least) what Isabell Lorey calls “the subjectivizing function in normalizing precarization”? [9]

This is not just an attempt to flatten all existent disparities and inequalities, as if embracing the generalisation that under the compelling conditions of neoliberalism we are all on the same boat. Coming out of the Covid-19 crisis and the major, nation-wide manifestations of Support Art Workers, as well as the unanimous outbreak against a decree (85/2022) that disqualified performing artists from their higher education status, the artistic and the political were strongly interrelated, evidencing how the asphyxiating reality already destroys the present we are in. Crises like the above gave us, once again, the chance to tackle the divisions within the field, understand the disparities not as homogeneous and common, but differentiated internally in infinite gradations and modulations. It also made apparent, though it may not be applied horizontally, the precarious working conditions and the process of precarisation of workers in the arts field. However, one would expect, few years after the Covid crisis and the urge to tackle some structural faults, that more attention would be put to the very material conditions that reproduce the unrelenting process of precarisation. In other words, to raise pragmatically the question: are both the dance advisor (curator) and the artist/cultural worker governed by the same processes of precarisation in the Greek context?

Could the curatorial, in that sense, be a form of witnessing to the existing conditions? Could the curatorial be a mode to re-think Gever’s proposal of transformative spaces regardless of successful shows and the promise of touring abroad, beyond talent-hunting or the invention of any magic incubator that will help artists hatch from anonymity to acclaimed existence? Could the curatorial be then a calling to embrace the negativity that nowadays dance artists anyway structurally represent? If any change is unimaginable, unattainable, shouldn’t we use this ‘no future’ perspective as an entry point to recognise what remains damaged in the present? Not withdrawal from the future, but a heightened awareness of the context we are placed in, the knowledge we share, the spaces we inhabit. “What does context make possible”, asks Aneta Szyłak in her essay, Curating Context. [10] Before providing an answer, let’s see how to keep the question alive, let’s make it an invitation for reflexivity, a practice of signification, a political tool outside politics.

[1] Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), “The Curatorial; A Philosophy of Curating”, Bloomsbury, London – New York, 2013
[2] Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), ibid.
[3] Goran Sergej Pristaš, “The Exploded Gaze”, translated by Žarko Cvejić, Multimedijalni institute, Zagreb, 2018
[4] Goran Sergej Pristaš, ibid.
[5] Thijs Lijster (ed.), “The Future of the New; Artistic Innovation in Times of Social Acceleration”, Antennae-Arts in Society, Valiz, Amsterdam
[6] Thijs Lijster (ed.), ibid.
[7] Accessible at: https://davidgraeber.org/wp-content/uploads/2013-On-the-phenomenon-of-bullshit-jobs-A-work-rant.pdf
[8] In the case of the Athens Epidaurus Festival, the dance curator/advisor is ‘chosen’ by the artistic director. Since there’s no listing for the particular job position, there are no specific qualifications required, just some broadly understood relation to the dance field. This structural hole was publicly addressed by an open letter, co-written by Elena Novakovits, Nassia Fourtouni, Betina Panagiotara, Rodia Vomvolou and Anastasio Koukoutas.
[9] Thijs Lijster (ed.), ibid.
[10] Jean-Paul Martinon (ed.), ibid.

Illustration by Babak Ahteshamipour for und.