LO: How did you arrive at this question and how did your concern with the presentation of contemporary art turn towards the consideration of architecture?
CP: When I was the director and chief curator of MCA DENVER, I began to move towards more architectural thinking to build the new museum. Working with London-based architect David Adjaye gave me first-hand knowledge of architectural processes from conceptual design to construction. I wrote the conceptual brief for the building—an abstract with all the spatial allocations for types of galleries, as well as public and educational spaces. It is probably highly unusual to have the director and chief curator as the point person for an entire institution, but I was lucky to serve on behalf of the Trustees as the lead client. Based on years of experience working with varied types of spaces, I developed a critical eye for balancing spatial, social, and artistic needs. My prior understanding of space was of course limited to a certain economy proscribed by vernacular spaces, yet I find that “space” is a medium that resonates with my interests. I understand curation from the viewpoint of space. That goes even further back, to the way I grew up and where I grew up in New Mexico, living in an adobe structure.
LO: I also grew up in the American Southwest and understand the impact of the desert on one’s understanding of space and light. The region’s extreme climate, vast expanse of empty land, as well as the architecture that protects one from the elements, must have had a prominent impact on your interpretation of space. All of the regions you have lived in posses different, yet equally remarkable, natural phenomena—the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado and the North Coast of California. How have the conditions of these places—phenomenological, social, and cultural—affected your viewpoint as a curator?
CP: This idea of the West as having a distinctive and alternative voice is becoming less and less relative. One has to dig deeper to find the distinctive nature of places; everyplace is a simulacrum. Regionalism is fading, yet by thinking about the curatorial in relationship to historical conditions of land use distinctions arise. The West is not a singular frame but a series of portraits of lands. For me a connection to landscape—horizontal layers of perspectives—has shaped my affinity with space. For example, San Francisco as a metropolis arose by leveling sand dunes. The urban plan reflects this displacement of earth with an embedded randomness. In a recent exhibition for California Historical Society, Unbuilt San Francisco: The View from Futures Past, I could pose the question: what if? What if the city, and its future, had been shaped by some of the past propositions for certain types of land use? What would have happened to the San Francisco skyline if five thousand homes were situated in Marin Headlands?
LO: How has your past, both formative and professional, directed your research?
CP: My research has become more specialized towards architectural theory. I consider place making essential; my ideas about gallery and museum spaces are a reaction to external factors such as the urban context of these sites. I am always considering the broader relationship between what goes on in a space for art and what it means to the other structures around it, such as the streets, landscapes or airspace. I continually look outside of the white cube. During the building of MCA DENVER, David Adjaye and I traveled to study various types of cultural sites and institutions to discuss firsthand their programs. At the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, Adjaye spoke to the architectural history and geometry of the structure. The question for me in relationship to thinking about and experiencing such places is how to connect the more open theoretical language embedded in sites such as this to the closed system of exhibition making.
LO: How do you integrate architectural theory and terminology into your curatorial practices?
CP: Texts on architecture are very different from those on contemporary art and curating. I try to weave both conceptually together. There is some resistance to this idea from both sides, but architectural language often resides alongside the art historical. Art and architecture are coming together more in contemporary art discourse, as noted in the Hal Foster book The Art-Architecture Complex. The history of my work is to be at the beginning of something that is very relevant. Arriving at the beginning means that the ideas need sorting out and require maturation and development through exhibition making. Architectural theory and history broadens the language of exhibitions. I deploy these other histories and their particular vocabulary in the curatorial process for object selections, installation design, and texts. This engagement with a multi-textual curatorial practice becomes more Deleuzian; it reflects the interweb and the way that online information is stored mentally without considerations of time or hierarchical importance. It is not devoid of acknowledging history but a process of reconciling lost histories.
LO: When discussing ancient art and architecture, there is very little delineation between the two subjects. The resistance to commingle these areas together seems more of a contemporary mindset. And yet more and more architects are using exhibitions as a place for experimentation, for example building temporary site-specific installations in art museum galleries, which adds to the blurring between the contemporary fields of architecture and art.
CP: There is resistance from architects, on a certain level, to be identified as artists, but in reality it plays very well. It seems natural that visual artists like Vito Acconci can explore architecture and architectural theorists like David Gissen can explore exhibition making that leans towards creating artworks. It does not seem that there should be a strong boundary between the two. Certainly artists like Michael Asher and Daniel Buren, have been this coalescence for years. The identification of Asher and Buren’s work has all been from conceptual theory and the language of art, which is why an architectural interpretation is absent from the historical discussion of their work. I did a project about Daniel Buren in order to sort through some of my ideas about how to draw architectural language into curatorial practice. For me, Buren’s controversial work in situ Peinture-Sculpture, 1971, at the Guggenheim in New York was the first moment where art and architecture began to dialogue in the way that they are today. It was also a moment when photography was deployed beyond documentation of an artwork to create an argument between the two disciplines. Art and architecture visually competed.
LO: Rather than the formal qualities of architecture, social interaction within space seems to be the focus of your exhibition Temporary Structures, co-curated with Glen Helfand at the San Francisco Art Institute.
CP: My creation of the term “social space tourism” follows Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. MacCannell was the first to theorize the relationship between spectacle, viewership, and touristic culture. My theory suggests that no longer do we experience historical monuments, museums, or gallery spaces to gain knowledge but that we have entered an era of “social space tourism” influenced by event-culture. Here, the identification with objects and sites becomes identification with those situated in the same collective field of experience. Audiences have become immune to the importance of going to see a specific great work of art, a singular object. We can look at the rise of culture in the United States during the Kennedy administration. At this time, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa came to America and caused a media blitz. Thousands of people went to see one small painting, in what the late Robert Hughes described as the beginning of the relationship between spectacle and art in American culture. My research moves off of this track to consider what it meant to be an audience member, a passenger in that experience of standing in line to ultimately end in front of something like the Mona Lisa. Now we assemble in the public spaces of museums, pavilions, streets, and galleries to experience art. But are we there to really experience art or are we there to be engaged in types of social experiments removed from the act of seeing? With that question, what kind of critiques can arise? For example, Ai Weiwei takes a thousand tourists from China to Documenta 12. They are tourists interacting with each other and the location, but they are also on display. There is this idea of display that has to do with image frames created by architectural networks and spaces that are permanent, temporary, collapsible, or invisible. It seems to me that concepts of experience have overridden concepts of display.
LO: How was your experience collaborating on an exhibition that carries many ideas from your personal research?
CP: One of the things I discovered is that I really love collaborative curatorial practice. I very much enjoy a real dialogue with another curator and then watching those conversations and investigations form into an exhibition. As Glen Helfand and I worked together on Temporary Structures, I reflected on my history with collaborative process and it is actually a very large part of my practice—a part that I had not given much credence. The curator as auteur is ridiculous, building exhibitions, or institutions, is a collaborative process.
LO: You returned to grad school after having a full career. Why?
CP: Earlier I stated that curatorial practice is a newer academic field. I was interested to learn how it was being taught. Also, my experience had led me to want to develop a deeper understanding of architecture, its history and theories. In other words time for reflection, research, and writing needed to be elevated within my own curatorial practice. During graduate school, I was in dialogue with my own viewpoint, without the politics of considering a “public.” My hope was to construct a portrait of my own role within our field and to move it towards another future.
LO: How do you see the role of the curator evolving in the future?
CP: That is the question because everyone is a curator now. You find “curatorial” projects at retailers like J. Crew, restaurants, and cafés—everywhere. People also self-identify their projects as curated. What does this all mean for our field? The term curator has been consumed into mass culture. Curators must adapt to this reality and become not curators, per se, but exhibition-makers and think of new ways that curatorial practice can interface with technology. The question for our field is how to get ahead of the mass understanding of the curator. How do you distinguish yourself? It is one thing to be a curator, but it is another thing to be a curator with a specific philosophy—to look at your own profession from a different point of view.
—January 21, 2013
Originally published on curating.info
Lauren R. O’Connell is a curator and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since this initial conversation in 2012, Cydney and Lauren have continued their discussion on architecture, contemporary art, the convergence of the two fields, and the methods in which they are presented.