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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.

Ariane Graf

Translation as a curatorial practice:
Becoming aware of oneself

Reflecting on translation as part of a critical curatorial practice sheds light on many different aspects: the meanings of objects can be translated and explained; attitudes and positions can be translated into different contexts and environments; a motto can be translated into works of art, into spatial designs, or into a whole programme; one language can be translated into another and here we are not only thinking of languages in the narrow sense of the word but also of languages and codes specific groups and communities use. Narratives can be translated as well, but pieces of information can also be translated into in this case mostly hegemonial narratives to form a coherent and accessible storyline.

Translation also helps those working within the curatorial field to ‘dimensionize’ themselves and their work: It helps to become aware of the relational character of oneís own work, of one’s own positionality. It also reminds us that despite being part of a globalised network, our practices can also be deeply rooted in local traditions. It helps us to think about the other and their perspectives, and by thinking of them also making them visible in the first place. With this in mind, translation might have the potential to contribute to a decolonization of the fields we are working in.

The following texts reflect the specific questions (missing) acts of translation within the curatorial field might raise: ‘The missing link’ explores the question of what might happen if translation is omitted. ‘Translating methodologies, adopting attitudes’ sheds light on the potential of the curatorial as a critical and decolonizing practice whereas ‘Translating into dominant structures’ points to the dilemma that showing the unseen does not always deconstruct hegemonial structures but can also (unwillingly) strengthen them. ‘Limits of translation’ highlights the fact that attempts of translation are not always successful, but maybe they donít even need to since what might be perceived as a failure can offer a lot for us to learn about our own work.

The missing link
Ethical dimensions of translating

Translation as a curatorial practice helps to make things visible, it helps to understand, and it helps to include audiences that would otherwise be mere onlookers. It also helps to clarify what has been aware of, what has been acknowledged, thought through, and nevertheless abandoned. It enables the curator/the curating artist to add a letter to his/her sent-off that opens up at least one of the many possible perspectives of contextualizing a curatorial project—and in its reflective character is able to give justice to those that are directly or indirectly affected by the curatorial work . It is thus an inherent aspect of a curatorial approach that takes the ethical dimension seriously and as such a useful if not necessary tool to reflect on / the process of / showing.

So what happens if the curatorial fails to translate / the process of / showing? Translation being understood as both translating from one language to the other as well as translating expertise and knowledge, words, phrases and expressions for those that are not part of the inaugurated circle (yet).

Once it forgets, or even worse, refuses to translate, the curatorial and thereby the art and culture it is showing either redevelops into or continues to be an exclusive space. It thus cements the hegemonic and dominant structures it itself as a critical practice heavily questions. In the very moment of omitting translation, the curatorial perpetuates them.

But translation as a curatorial practice does not only mean to translate the sent-off as it is seen from a curatorial perspective, it also implies translating it in as many different perspectives that can be possibly thought of—in order to detect ethical pitfalls and to develop a position on it. Here, translating would enable the curatorial to become aware of its own privileges, its subjective perspectives, and enable it to deal with them in a politically conscious way.

Translation offers the potential for a curatorial practice to become accessible for and respectful to different audiences, thus making the meaning produced relevant in many more ways while at the same time escaping the danger of self-referentiality and self-centrism. But is there an ethical duty to translate? Out of respect for different audiences and the awareness of their diverse perspectives, there is. With regard to artistic freedom and freedom of expression, there isn't. It is this dilemma between curatorial freedom and social and political responsibility which the curatorial needs to address every time anew, taking a conscious ethical decision every single time.

Translating Methodologies, Adopting Attitudes

When understood as a curatorial laboratory where new ways of practicing are thought of and enacted, trying seems to imply the translation of different approaches and methodologies into the field of the curatorial. However, they all seem to feed into an emphatic and sensitive attitude that does not only critically look at dominant, exclusive, racist, and colonial structures, but actively tries to deconstruct them.

The space designers of TRY during Show and Try Again aimed to translate the motto of the day into a space that invited the audience to participate and to try out things that they within the normally dominating structures of an exhibition, an installation, a talk, or a workshop would not do. Their concept succeeded ñ and one important aspect might have been that they also verbalized their thoughts for their audience, with a warm attitude that invited those present to use the space according to an idea that translated a motto into a spatial arrangement which thus was translated into words to make it even more accessible and meaningful.

Trying to create safe spaces by means of translation within the curatorial field does not only apply to spatial designs, but also to the deconstruction of dominating social and professional structures and the reinvention of protocols. Here, theories and methodologies of other academic and activist fields come into play: The adoption of, for example, decolonized and decolonizing methodologies into the field of the curatorial in itself is an act of translation. Which starting points do apply to the curatorial? Which hegemonies and structures dominate the field? Who are the marginalized, the invisibles, the unheard? And who are we—which position do we take, which position is ascribed to us as those working in the curatorial field? Whom do we present and whom to we claim to represent?

Once we find answers to these questions and succeed in translating critical methodology into the curatorial field and our own work, it will facilitate another act of translation, namely to put critical theory into practice: If we want to create a space for the marginalized, the invisible, the ones deliberately excluded in the global North which is dominated by white, male, heterosexual positions (to name but a few), the translation of a method that disrupts hegemonic structures in order to allow for perspectives hitherto unseen into our field might be the tool to make that happen.

Intrinsically linked to translating decolonized and decolonizing methods into the curatorial is the attitude that accompanies it. An attitude that is apt to dimension the own approach to what it is: a situational approach, rooted in time and place. At the same time, it often reflects the power structures we find in our surroundings. The dimensioning, but also the ‘abstraction’ of ourselves from the individual level to a structural one requires an act of translation as well: Translating our own presuppositions and assumptions, our social, cultural, educational ‘upbringing’ into words that illustrate our positionality as well as the positions we take. Where do we locate ourselves? Where are we actually located when we translate ourselves in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc. into the social and political structures we are living in?

Translation is a means to find answers to these questions—for ourselves and the audiences we are potentially addressing.

Translating into dominant structures

Repetition ñ and translation is one mode of repetition ñ always implies a reference to the ìoriginalì, whether it is mentioned or not. It has the potential to change the original in a way that rips it of its dominating structures. It also has the potential to strengthen the very same structures by translating narratives, stories, and perspectives into it without questioning the normative expectations, categories and values that form these dominating structures. The question that arises thus for the curatorial is whether it can also be sufficient to show what was unseen before by telling the hitherto unheard story along the lines of widely accepting dominating narratives. Or whether the curatorial should ideally aim at dismantling and deconstructing hegemonies by telling stories and facilitating perspectives in a way that consciously questions dominant structures.

To become more concrete: What happens if women's (or any other minorities') lives are translated into the normative frame of a successful, outstanding, artistic life without questioning the categories which we use to measure success, being outstanding, and art? These categories were and still are mostly shaped by men ñ in the European case by white men ñ and we use them to judge whether a life can be regarded as a role model for others. By translating women's lives into these categories we on the one hand show that women were present in male dominated institutions and environments, we shed light on their influence upon their time and contemporaries, we open up possibilities to reflect upon their legacy, and we point to structures that up until now prevent a social equity between women and men. We tell their lives in a way accessible and legible for most audiences, and thus open a space for the discussion of a social issue that is relevant and urgent in our times: the gender bias.

But by the same act of translating their lives into known and accepted narratives, we miss out on questioning the categories and values that are associated with these narratives. What is actually worth telling? What about all the women that don't fit general expectations, that did not have the opportunities and the social, educational, and mostly also economic capital that ìsuccessfulî women had? They remain marginalized, unseen and unheard of. The stories we tell still remain male-dominated stories; not in terms of the protagonists (although, on a side-note, most of these women were only able to ìsucceedî because they had a male gate-opener), but in terms of categories and assessments.

What does that imply for the act of translation within the curatorial field? Translating marginalized groups and their ways of life into narratives that are known and accepted helps to show that these persons actually exist, as individuals and as groups, that they lead ìnormalî and at times successful lives. It confronts a general audience with realities that were ignored, neglected or not known. It offers room for a critique of dominant structures without deconstructing them. This strategy might be apt for reaching the biggest audience possible because it does not question the dominant world view and does not confront individuals with the role they might have in upholding discriminatory and marginalizing structures. But out of its self-understanding as a critical discipline, the curatorial should not stop there. It should look for those narratives and perspectives that are formed along other concepts of success, mastership, art, and bring them to light. It should, in the end, focus on the diversity and polyphony of human existence regardless of categories and labels used to classify them, and convey them to its audiences.

The Limits of Translation

Oftentimes, translation is regarded as a means to foster understanding by translating from one language into another or by translating rituals, norms, and expectations into other forms of protocols and social interactions that are understood at a given place. Translation is also regarded as a tool to apply theories, methods, and techniques that are foreign to the own working field but nevertheless seem to be beneficial to use. But where and why are the limits of translation, if there are any?

Looking at the translation of spatial practices, several aspects come into mind: Obviously, a spatial practice is linked to the space it takes place in. But it is also shaped by the structures that surround it, by the social norms that are enacted within it as well as by the habitus of people who know how to behave in the performance of that particular spatial practice. The practice is also connected to and filled by the associations that people might have with regard to the given space. Thus, when re-creating the space of and for a certain practice in another setting, with other people, the limits of translation show themselves: Social norms can be explained, but can they be translated and thus enacted on the spot? Local structures that dominate and shape social interaction prevail over those that originally formed the spatial practice. Not to speak of feelings, emotions, and the attitude to life that is linked to most practices and derives from factors making up the original space of the practice: sounds, noises, smells, food, the climate as well social, political, and economic living conditions. All of this is not translatable.

What does this imply? The limits of translation remind us that local spatial practices are not only local because they are practiced at a particular place, but because they are intrinsically tied to the people, the norms and structures as well as to the habitus of a given place. The relational and situational character of any practice can become obvious through its translational limits. It does not necessarily become obvious as it also depends on the power and hegemonic possibilities of those wanting to translate a practice of their own. Interestingly enough, this shows itself also in how practices of different groups are described: While practices of white actors are mostly described (by themselves and others) and perceived of as universal, practices of non-white actors are often described (by themselves and others) and perceived of as local. This reflects less a valid classification of the local/regional/global character of practices than a valid assessment of where most of the power in postcolonial times is located and where decolonization still has urgency.

What does this entail for the curatorial? We have to take the limits of translation into account when we transfer practices from one locality to the other. We also have to become aware of the fact that our own practices are not only linked to space, but also to place. They are as relational and locally bounded as any other practices. The limits of translation help us to dimensionize ourselves and our work, while at the same time they invite us to think about how we could translate the most important parts of our work into any given context ñ not as a universal model, but rather to make us, our thoughts and work accessible for audiences and discourses that are new to us.

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