October 20, 2014 at 11:07 am

Curating Performance – the Politics of the Ephemeral

Curating Performance – the Politics of the Ephemeral
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Corina Oprea*

In recent years, choreographers have stepped into institutions, such as museums and galleries, which traditionally present visual art, most recently at the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennial and MoMA. On the 4th December 2013, Bonniers Konsthall opened an exhibition called Dance – Body Talk in Sweden, as part of the first edition of the Dance <3 Stockholm Festival. The concept of the curator has simultaneously become influential in the performing arts scene, taking a role which includes the functions of a programmer, producer and dramaturge. A critical analysis of this development needs to contextualize the motives and implications from an artistic point of view and the economics of cultural production, as well as the risks of exploiting forms of process, participative and collaborative labour.

This article aims to discuss the particularities of curating time-based art (with a focus on choreography) and to touch on opportune issues of the means of production and economics.


Curating is terminology borrowed from the visual arts, with its status recently becoming influential, dealing with formats, the selection of artists, bringing forward concepts and themes for events, managing finances and audiences. The celebrity cult and charismatic, influential presence which curators gained in the visual art world in the 1960s-1970s was due to the increased mobility of people and objects, the appearance of new institutions of art and the explosion of large international events, such as biennials. Arising etymologically from the Latin verb ”curare” (”to care for”) the curator was responsible for arranging and preserving a museum’s collection, a more management and hands-on position serving art-works. The performing arts have experienced a similar development, with new working structures (companies, ensembles) within the independent sector in the 1980s and 1990s and the newly established guest venue stages and festivals. This required a newly defined role: the one of artistic director, which nowadays is starting to be called a curator. The intersection between the visual and performing arts in terms of format, artists and spaces, has led to a number of courses in curating the performing arts increasingly being taught. Nonetheless, economic conditions promote the role of the curator as an independent (to be read as entrepreneur) and cheap worker (who does not have to be employed by an institution).


Curating performance

If we are, however, looking at the practice of curating and how it could function within the performing arts, we should look at the link between artists, performances, audiences, social and political contexts, discourses and institutions. The practice of curating within the performing arts is still a term to be grasped, based on the conditions and contexts of the field and its particularities: dealing with performances, which imply a larger structure in terms of people, time and finances. The role of the curator of a festival – generally called the ”artistic director” – continues to mainly follow the principles of a programmer, which is to coordinate the programme of a venue or a festival and to decide upon which artists are to be seen, according to the requirements of the “market”, so to speak, or of the ticket buyers. A quick look through the introductory texts of several performing arts festivals in Scandinavia suggests that the criteria for selection is based on the subjective choice of the individual in charge. The term “emotion” is brought up many times as being the main criterion for the success of a piece. This is somehow different from a visual art context, which develops a discourse based on philosophical concepts, social and political realities, local context, a specific momentum etc.

I have addressed several directors/curators/programmers of venues and festivals within Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, asking them about their position as curator, the working processes and representation. The answers received sustain the idea of the live art, time-based, performance as being characterized by a certain impact on the sensorial. Furthermore, for programmers with a background strictly within the performing arts, there is no strict limitation between fields and one finds a unilateral understanding of visual arts as a market-oriented economy. Or, as Gundega Laivina, director of the Homo Novus Festival in Riga, says: “I don’t really believe in this division, especially within performing arts where the mix of genres is nothing new. I am not trying to avoid working with visual artists, I don’t really care which discipline the artist comes from actually. What I care for is the live element, the real action in arts, because this is what impresses and inspires me most. That is the reason, probably, why I work primarily with theatre, with performative forms. Where the big difference is, I think, is in the industries that are built around visual arts and performing arts. I would never be able or willing to be part of what we know as the visual arts market. ”


Performativity in the White Cube

It is interesting this aspect of “live-liness” assumed for performing arts, as opposed to the non-live-liness of object-based art. Is it “live art” when it is breathing, when we deal with humans, when it includes a physical action, a common understanding of happening or being (a)live? I would argue that, for example, theatricality and elements of staging do impose a certain distance, which can infiltrate and exploit this element of “participation”, if we understand it as an act, which takes place simultaneously, with our presence as spectators. This particular situation of inhabiting the same place at the same time constructs a relationship between the observer and the observed and offers a reflective position for the spectator. The question is connected with the relationship towards the viewer/spectator, as witness, as participant.

This is the possible link towards the interest in performativity that the visual arts context has been showing recently. And here I refer to the choreographic works presented recently in the programming for visual art venues and biennials, and not to the history of performance and happenings since the 1960s. Performativity has become an art of confrontation, of encounter, an instrument in constructing a social space for and with audiences. This performative frame of activating white cube spaces relates to the notion of the society of the spectacle[1] and the economy of experience that drives our times, where everything (especially art as a form of production considered by politicians as too costly for what it brings economically) must be easy to consume, ready to entertain. In a text entitled Zombies of Immaterial Labour: The Modern Monster and the Death of Death, curator and art historian Lars Bang Larssen, talks about the pressure that capitalism has put on artistic expression, pushing it towards the field of the experiential and towards consensus, turning it into a norm within the experience economy. He refers to the book The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and Every Business a Stage, by James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II[2]. The experience economy makes profit by staging the memorable, in the words of L.B. Larssen: What is being produced is the experience of the audience, and the experience is generated by “authenticity effects”. In the experience economyit is often art, and its markers of authenticity – creativity, innovation,provocation that ensure economic status to experience…”[3]

In 2011, MoMA commissioned six international choreographers to present dance performances at the museum. In 2012, of the 51 artists presented by the Whitney Biennial, a large number were presenting performance, dance, theatre and music. A giant dance mat transformed the entire floor of the museum. The same year, Tate Modern was opening The Tanks, a new venue for performance, choreography and performance. It is an example of the recent escalation of performative programmes in galleries and museums. This interest is related to the need for institutions to address, engage with and involve wider audiences. The notion of experience is the one sought, intending to create that “social space” for the audience and the artists, a space for movement and for actions. Camilla Larsson, curator at Bonniers Konsthall-Stockholm, describes this particular relation to the audience from an institutional point of view:

“For me the task of the curator is, both intellectually and practically (the know-how), to curate visual art and performance together in order to create a whole that could be received by the audience at any time when the exhibition is open (will the exhibition work when half of the space is empty, etc?). This is the important task of me as a curator working at a kunsthalle. This is very much a question of how you deal with your space, but also how you negotiate with your audience and their expectations, (as a venue like Bonniers, that would like to talk to not only the initiated art audience, but also the general audience of culture you need to have the skills to communicate complex projects, and it is of course even harder to communicate parts of a project that have certain starting hours, or do exist only one time etc.).”[4]

The most exciting proposals come from the artists themselves, when they choose to address the format of the exhibition, the hierarchy of art history, the institutional structure and the relationship to live and durational works. I think, here, of the recent work by choreographers Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus in the Romanian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2013) where they’ve presented An Immaterial Retrospective Of The Venice Biennale– a pursuit to reclaim some pieces of the Biennale’s 118 years of history with a completely empty pavilion in which five performers – no props, and only using their bodies –“re-enact” works exhibited at the Biennale throughout its history. The format is the one of an exhibition, a display of bodies in movement, recreating and claiming art history, addressing the economic, social and political aspects of such a grand event as the Venice Biennale through their act. During the Dance <3 Stockholm Festival, a group of choreographers[5] in collaboration with Cullberg Baletten, took over a space within the Dance Museum in Stockholm, to address issues of representation of dance and performativity within a museum space. When I visited the space, in the last day of the week of “occupation”, there was a lecture on Post-colonial feminism. It was conceived as a response to an exhibition shown at that moment in the museum, which presented a colonial view on dance and choreographies collecting movements, costumes and inspiration from other corners of the world, with no political emphasis on the historical context and the role of the colonizer. A historical line was the main object in the space, a sort of compilation of historical, political and dance-related events world-wide and locally; costumes on hangers-traces from previous performances and white papers with notes from their discussions. A somehow naïve, but much needed approach towards the use of performance inside exhibition spaces.

While I am writing this article, an announcement has come into my inbox: Mårten Spångberg together with a number of Swedish dancers and choreographers will be presenting a new piece at MoMA in January 2014 – questioning the rationale, conditions and compromises of dancing in a museum. The intro states: How can a dance exist in a museum? Does it have to change its parameters to comply with the museum’s spatial and temporal conditions? Can dance, in return, enable the museum to reimagine its conception of space, time, and audience?

These artistic attempts draw exactly on the analysis of the conditions of production, how performativity is being instrumentalized and how this shift in contexts can contribute to and influence the economy of performance.


Precarious conditions of production

The notion of immaterial labour[6] has become a common currency in contemporary discourse characterising the working conditions in this new service–based economy. In many debates evolving around performance practice, this notion is presented as a commonly accepted setting. However, I would argue that it tends to restrain the material and bodily commitment in the productive process. By qualifying the creative act solely as an immaterial labour, it diminishes or even ignores the use of the body and the effective material labour it entails. The shift, towards a curatorial work that involves presentation as the main activity, and here I refer both to performing arts guest venues and visual arts spaces that present performance, risks affecting the economy of the field, by focusing on the experience of the live act as part of the immaterial labour function. In this way the support for production diminishes and the process of work becomes limited to the event involving the audience, to the actual spectacle. The whole field will be thus affected, promoting fast productions, short processes which in the long-term affect the experimental factor and the development of the scene.

At times when public funding bodies are retracting their support for culture or shaping it towards a service economy, where the criteria for subsidies are based on the value of entertainment, the number of audiences and serving political discourses, the art world and performance risks becoming manipulated by a populist agenda pushed towards producing events which are cheap to stage and easy to consume. Production budgets are being threatened; the programmes of institutions focus more on their own concepts inviting existing works and supporting new works being produced to a lesser degree. Of course, this situation is conditioned by changes in the performing arts sector itself, with an increased mobility of actors, an interest in institutional critique (as mentioned above) and elements of discursiveness.

The role of the curators, however, is to engage with these questions around production, to identify the political implications of such an intersection with other fields in relation to the principles of aesthetic experience produced, in relation to audiences and the working conditions facing cultural workers today. Otherwise, we contribute and become complicit, either working so-called independently or within large institutions, for an economy that highly exploits workers and thrives on the effects of an experience and event-based economy. All under the pretext of serving our audiences and producing a high-level of artistic experience.


The article was developed through the ke∂ja Writing Movement project with the support of the Culture Programme of the European Union, and Nordic Culture Point. 

Photo by Italo Rondinella,  Courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

Photo by Italo Rondinella,
Courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia

Photo: Romanian Pavillion An Immaterial Retrospective of The Venice Biennale, Alexandra Pirici, Manuel Pelmus. 55th International Art Exhibition Venice Biennale. Photo by Italo Rondinella, courtesy by la Biennale di Venezia.

 *Corina Oprea is a Stockholm-based curator and researcher in the fields of visual and performing arts. She is currently finishing her PhD thesis at University of Loughborough-UK, examining curatorial practice as an exercise in collective knowledge. She writes occasionally about art and performance in a range of publications, among which IDEA, in Stockholm she worked for WELD and Intercult as curator/project coordinator. In her practice, she focuses on questions relating to the social and political context, modes of discoursivity and performativity in the public realm.


[1]See Guy Debord – The Society of Spectacle, 1967, where he accurately describes our mediated, image-saturated times, when commodity has occupied all aspects of our life.

[2]James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre and

Every Business a Stage, Harvard Business School, Cambridge –Ma., 1999.

[3]Lars Bang Larssen,”Zombies of Immaterial Labour: The Modern Monster and the Death of Death”, in e-flux journal “Are You Working too Much? Post-Fordisms, Precarity, and the Labour of Art”, Sternberg Press, London, 2001, p. 86.

[4]Camilla Larsson has recently curated the exhibition Body Talk (4 Dec 2013 – 5 Jan 2014) at Bonnier Konsthall presenting a video installation by artist Sharon Lockhart. During Dans <3 Stockholm, performances by An Khaler and Noa Eshkol Chamber Dance Group have been shown at the gallery.

[5]Amanda Apetrea, Nadja Hjorton, Stina Nyberg, Halla Ólafsdóttir and Zoë Poluch – ”The Collection”, 6-13 December 2013, DansMuseet, Stockholm

[6]Term coined by Italian thinker Maurizio Lazzarato in the mid-1990s, referring to contemporary forms of work developed under advanced capitalism, mainly in the communication, information, service and entertainment industries, involving creativity and cooperation, but becoming also subsuming and alienating.

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