Repetition and translation as curatorial practice
In the art and exhibition field we encounter hegemonic structures and patterns of action that can be consciously or unconsciously reproduced, but also effectively deconstructed through and by a curatorial practice.
Two practices that have the potential to do so are translation and repetition of a given content, languages, narratives and patterns of action.
Translation and repetition are mutually dependent: a translation is not translated freely from and outside of prevailing discourses. Thus there is the possibility that hegemonic structures inscribe themselves into it and are thus repeated. A repetition, in turn, often implies translation: a work is repeated in another context, shown in front of a different audience or under a different motto and thus translated.
From the different perspectives of the respective practice, the following complementary texts collect notions on how to critically reflect on hegemonic structures in a curatorial practice and ultimately attempt to deconstruct them.
Let’s loop out
Becoming aware of repetitions of hegemonic structures within the art system and within a curatorial practice poses a challenge. Loop-like patterns are particularly difficult to grasp and consciously perceive when they are established as social norms. The use of a normative set of rules usually guarantees comfort for the majority society. This majority society operates within its standardized field of action, assumes supposedly natural roles and positions, and reproduces a constructed reality in incessant loops. Unfortunately, marginalisation is tolerated as a by-product of this comfort. Groups of people whose reality is not the dominant, vehemently as a norm defended / interpreted reality of a society, experience exclusion. The life reality of people who, for example, do not locate themselves in the binary gender system or do not identify themselves with a predominant heteronormativity, does not occupy an equivalent position in such a hegemonic majority society. On the contrary, their reality is at least degraded as an exception, if not as an anomaly, and thus trivialized.
Othering is the permanent act of drawing boundaries, categorizing and discursively distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘the others’. These must serve as unaffiliated, deviantly categorized and devalued in order to allow ‘the own’ to emerge as self-evident, positive and superior. This mechanism of action is firmly established in the memory and habitus of the majority society and is legitimized again and again by referring to the supposed norm as if looped. A curatorial practice in which a selection of perspectives from a multitude of life realities is presented can thus function as the starting point for another loop. Or as a possibility to break out of such a loop. First of all, it is necessary to become aware of the constant operation and repetition of hegemonic structures within the curatorial field. Only this consciousness enables and permits an escape from exclusive loops and expands possibilities and curatorial fields of action.
Within the curatorial field, we must therefore wonder about what possibilities arise when loops are used as potential starting points for new patterns of action and perspectives. And at the same time: how can one avoid to get stuck in the loop without realizing it? A reflected curatorial practice that not only exposes hegemonic structures but also attempts to deconstruct them must first of all dare to face the mirrow: How do we get out of the loop? And at what point exactly do we really try?
The historical narratives of our Western society are told from the perspective of a privileged social class. It is a white, masculine and heteronormative perspective that manifests an exclusionary narrative in the past and present. In incessant loops, the dominant narrative continues in our linguistic usage and in the narration of history. It excludes other perspectives and makes them invisible.
In German-speaking countries, the exclusive use of generic masculinum is still generally valid. The ambiguous form pretends to include every gender, while talking exclusively about men. The consequence is that with intended generic use, specifically masculine speakers are nevertheless associated. In addition to form, it is also the content of narratives that creates images from a white, male, heteronormative perspective. They belong so much to our system of expectations and attitudes, to what we believe, that women* themselves accept these prejudices, behave according to them and loop incessantly. A breakout from the loops of dominant narratives can be attempted in a curatorial practice of telling previously unseen stories, perspectives and realities of life.
Conventional city walks symbolize the inscription of a singular narrative in the collective memory. They tell loop-like stories of well-known buildings, places and monuments. Built, occupied and in memory of those who ‘wrote history’. In order to bring other perspectives into our field of vision, stories can also be told by groups of people who were equally involved in city life, but who are still invisible today. The potential lies in the loop as a starting point for a narrative, which, slightly changing with every repetition, evolves from the current conventional narrative as something different. At the same time, there is the danger of strengthening the stuck structures by telling further stories, but without questioning the normative expectations, categories and values. The attempt to develop a new narrative is thus always related to the dominant, established narrative, regardless of whether it is explicitly mentioned or not.
Narrations of well-known women, for example, continue to be measured by parameters constructed from a male perspective. They tell of women in heterosexual relationships with famous men and above all of women in the sense of a binary gender system. The act of reproducing their lives in known and accepted narratives fails to question the categories and values associated with these narratives. Her stories remain male-dominated stories; not in the sense of the protagonists, but in the sense of categories and judgements.
For a curatorial practice it is therefore insufficient to throw light only on the hitherto unseen within the dominant structures. Rather, it should specifically attempt to deconstruct hegemonies by telling stories from marginalized perspectives and by consciously displaying works, relating them to each other and the surrounding space.
Creating safe spaces, creating accessibility
Through spaces, boundaries are consciously and unconsciously drawn between groups of people who have access to them and those who are denied it. Inaccessibility of rooms is based on the fact that access barriers are not consciously perceived and thus reproduced. Spaces are usually constructed in such a way that only a privileged group has access to them. Other groups of people are marginalized by obstacles to access them, such as physical, linguistic and cognitive barriers. Nevertheless, where access is possible, spaces are not safe spaces per se, as repressive mechanisms are at work in them.
Providing access and creating safe spaces for groups of people who have experienced oppression can in practice mean the temporary exclusion of those groups from whom oppression originates. For example, there are rooms / events where a save space for LTBQIA is explicitly created and where cis male are denied access. Similarly, the performative language laboratory of the artists' collective Fehras attempts to develop a glossary of global art terminology with selected native speakers. The project addresses groups of speakers who are underrepresented in the Western contemporary art world rather than those who already dominate the English-speaking scientific discourse.
Hegemonic structures loop in spaces whenever a privileged group is assumed to be the norm and all accesses and spatial structures are oriented towards it. The crux of exclusion and suppression mechanisms in spaces is their invisibility from the perspective of those who are ‘in’ or from whom suppression emanates. To possess access means to possess privileges, which must be reflected upon, because the excluded groups are threatened by them. Without consciously locating one’s own position and privileges in relation to space and accessibility, it is difficult to recognize the loops in which one is involved and which one is also reproducing, as it were.
In a lecture, the roles and positions of those who are present as well as the spatial structures can be made known and perceptible to everyone. An inherent normative set of rules reveals how behaviour has to be in relation to the room and those present. It is a continuous loop that creates comfort for those who can move freely in space, occupy it, have access to it and dominate it. A loop that regulates the behaviour of everyone in the room. To soften the hierarchical relationship between speakers and listeners can be achieved by passing the speaking sceptre. It allows the latter to speak and to initiate an equal dialogue between all those present. With speeches and questions from the audience, interaction can develop that has the potential to soften the existing hierarchies in the room.
In a curatorial practice in which spaces are created and thus access is also determined, it is necessary to become aware of hegemonic structures in spaces. Reflecting on one's own position plays an essential role here, in order to consistently use existing privileges for an open and safe design of spaces. It is important to critically observe who allows whom to appropriate a room. Whether, for example, a speech receptor circulates equally through the audience or whether only a certain group of people in the audience takes the floor and participates with long speeches. In order to really escape the loop and to soften hierarchies in the room, it is necessary to develop an awareness of who again has access (intellectually, linguistically) to be able to speak at all.
For a critical curatorial practice it is also necessary to be aware of the mechanism of closing and opening spaces. In this way, curated spaces can consciously address and invite groups of people who cannot be located in a majority society. This synthetic expropriation guarantees people from a social periphery an appropriation of spaces and is the possibility of stepping out of a loop. In this way, dominant, exclusive, racist, sexist and (neo-)colonial structures can not only be critically examined, but actively deconstructed / dissolved.