Curating as a Verb: 100 Years of Nation-States

“Curating as a Verb” presents the thesis that “curation” has moved from being a profession to an action, a proposition based upon Hannah Arendt’s concept of “thinking,” which is that there are no dangerous thoughts; rather it is thinking itself that is dangerous. Accordingly, curating in the form of transgressive aesthetic thinking deconstructs readymade art platforms and exhibits, becoming a self-generating process that has neither a beginning nor an end.

Originally published in A Companion to Curation, eds., Brad Buckley and John Conomos, (Hobokan: Wiley Blackwell Press, 2019).
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Signage in front of the Museum Fridericianum at documenta, Kassel, Germany, 1955.

By Juli Carson

Overture: Thinking

It is in the [thinker’s] nature to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions doctrines)…The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics. These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.

Hannah Arendt, 1971 (175-176)

In the eternal return of the culture wars, artists and writers are habitually the first to ask: What is to be done? Given that the secondary market, museums and the biennial system are now part and parcel of the same global financial machine that sparks these culture wars, the question must also be asked of curators. And yet, it’s precisely because curators are inextricably embedded in this system, quite differently than are their fellow artists and writers, that we must first reconsider just what a critical curatorial practice might entail. With recourse to Arendt, I’d like to conjecture the following. What if we were to consider “curation” along the lines of thinking. By way of displacing curation’s grammatical definition from a noun to a verb, the notion of “curation” shifts from being a profession to being an action. This proposition is deceptively complex. For it appears that both would be true: one thinks about curating as a profession. A profession that, in turn, puts art into action. Certainly, this is the conventional practice of curatorial studies dominating the universities, art institutions, museums and galleries. What I’m proposing is a bit different. Should we conceive of curating through an Arendtian lens, we uncouple the profession of museology, for instance, from the act of thinking in the space of art. In everyday practice, you can have both. But as the scientists say correlation does not equal causation.

This impasse between profession (noun) and thinking (verb) is one I’d like to court as a curatorial model of doing theory in the place of merely professing it. From this vantage, curatorial thinking provides no doctrine, no established canon, contrary to the practice of knowledge acquisition that typifies art historical, museological practice. To the contrary, in Arendtian logic, when one curates as a verb, “The need to think can be satisfied only through thinking [my emphasis], and the thoughts which I had yesterday will satisfy this need today only to the extent that I can think them anew.” (Arendt, 1971, 163) No doubt the question still persists: What would the curator do in place of producing philosophical doctrine or art historical narrative, beyond the selection of artwork and exhibition design? S/he thinks through the exhibition, in order to grapple with a latent principle, a repressed paradox, within the entangled fields of politics, theory and aesthetics that the artwork evokes. By playing the role of theoretician in the space of a producing a given exhibition – a dialogic exercise from the start between artist and curator – “interpretation” or “truth” entails neither description of the artwork nor its supplication to the curator’s professed a priori theories. Rather, the mutual reflection of a given artwork and a related theoretical “perplexity” – a double mimesis – is hinged by the exhibition, wherein a contingent meaning presents itself.

On the subject of mirrored reflection, I’m intentionally conjuring up an “outmoded” hermeneutic theory of aesthetics – one put forth by Hans-Georg Gadamer in the 1960s and later deconstructed by Jacques Derrida in the 1980s – that’s resurfacing among scholars today. (Derrida et. al., 2016) “Double mimesis” was Gadamer’s term for the mutual reflection of art making and philosophical writing, activities that are phenomenologically hinged by the viewer/reader’s historical consciousness of a given artwork, which comes to us from the past, presented and discussed in the present. Gadamer’s assertion that the task of hermeneutics is to bridge the personal or historical distance between minds, entails conceiving the exhibition as a field of play, whereupon the “truth” of an artwork – related as it is to myriad of historical artifacts, aesthetics, political doctrines and philosophy – is never rooted in the past, from which it comes, nor in the present, to which the contemporary artwork belongs. Rather, truth is lobbed back and forth, as in a game, between speakers or players: first between artist and art historian and subsequently between exhibition and viewer. (Gadamer, 2007, 123-131) I suggest that we extend this principle to the space of contemporary art’s production, exhibition and receivership. In this case, the curator hinges the exhibition’s subject (the artwork) to the exhibition’s object (a discursive formation) towards the end of contingently positing a given perplexity.

Should we combine Gadamer’s notion of the exhibition as a field-of-play with Arendt’s notion of Socratic thinking, we then encounter the pulsative nature of aesthetic meaning, one that is contingently present today and differently inflected tomorrow. We could henceforth reframe Arendt’s axiom towards this purpose as the following. The “thoughts” that the artwork instilled in me yesterday will satisfy me today only to the extent that I can continually think them anew. That would be the task of a curator who seeks to amplify the double mimesis between a contemporary work of art and its critical writing and the double mimesis of the exhibition’s site and the viewer’s perception. This series of mimeses, between which the exhibition stands as a hinge, keeps us thinking through the labyrinth of an artwork’s endlessly refracted meaning, be that artwork historical or contemporary in its making. Moreover, the curator-thinker-writer who employs Arendt’s model does so in order to enfold the viewer-thinker-reader into becoming historically conscious in the presence of an artwork through the self-critical rupture of his or her own conventional presuppositions.

For Arendt, the political imperative of moral thinking was conceived in the post-war period, when she reflected upon a citizen’s personal responsibility and capacity for judgement under dictatorship. A related political imperative exists for us today, given the most recent chapter of the revived 20th century cultural wars. For it is on this western geo-political field that we encounter what we collectively thought we’d moved beyond: that regressive authoritarian-minded leader who imposes strict rules and regulations – ones brazenly convoluted or distorted in his own hands – upon the state’s citizens, a move designed to instill an utter lack of thought – if not a complete lack of will – as the dominant cultural zeitgeist. This return wouldn’t have surprised Arendt. In “Home to Roost,” her last piece of writing before her death in 1975, she prophetically lamented our current moment:

I rather believe with Faulkner, ‘The past is never dead, it’s not even past,’ and this is for the simple reason that the world we live in at any moment is the world of the past; it consists of the monuments and the relics of what has been done by men for better or worse; its facts are always what has become. In other words, it is quite true that the past haunts us; it is the past’s function to haunt us who are present and wish to live in the world as it really is, that is, has become what it is now.

(Arendt, 1975, 270)

If it would seem we live in a graveyard, following Arendt, we might learn something from those who perpetually haunt us. What follows is a consideration of several curatorial moments, spanning the twentieth century into our recent fin de siècle, through which we might do just that: learn to think.  Each exhibition dealt with a present moment haunted by a past as a model of curatorial thinking. Moreover, each exhibition waged a secondary operation, a theoretical means of action, to achieve this thinking.

Primal Scene: The Possible

By the nineteenth-century fin de siècle, Germany’s Kulturkampf had reached a breaking point. The word Kulturkampf specifically denotes the struggle for power within Bismarck’s German Empire, a confederation of monarchies. More generally it refers to all late nineteenth-century sovereign rivalries ignited by the emerging constitutional and democratic nation states throughout Europe vis-à-vis the declining global authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Monarchical ancien régimes, endowed with Divine Right, suddenly found themselves down river from the force of modern secular governments bestowed with universal (manhood) suffrage. In order to exploit the rising democratic and socialist sentiment, Bismarck stipulated that the lower chamber of government, the Reichstag, be elected by the people. The life blood of these modern governments – monarchical or democratic – was thus the popular vote, which depended upon the sovereign’s successful possession (i.e. manipulation) of the public’s interest and collective mindset. In its own effort to maintain power, the Church had enacted the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870, making it incumbent on Catholics to accept the pope’s proclamations on faith and morality regardless of their national citizenry. This set of geo-political rivalries – monarchical, democratic and papal – was further triangulated by the global, financial market centralized in Europe’s industrial “inner zone” (Great Britain, Belgium, German, France, Northern Italy and the western portion of Austrian empire) that coordinated and imposed regulation upon Europe’s agrarian “outer zone” (most of Ireland, the Iberian and Italian peninsulas, Bohemia and Austria proper). Beyond Europe’s borders, the United States’ northeastern seaboard constituted an extended inner zone while southern United States, Latin America and beyond were designated outer zone. Beyond this, in Asia and Africa, one found the “third zone,” that which the Eurocentrics deemed “uncivilized.”

In this way, the seeds were sown for the global meltdown of 1914 because the establishment of all these borders and zones demarking inside from outside, civilized from uncivilized, ushered in their inevitable transgression. (The more you attempt to clean things up, the messier they get.) The irony was that these nation-states were at once controlling their populations through various tactics of purges and containment – driven equally by the competing forces of finance, governmental and religious hegemonies – while paradoxically competing for the people’s vote. The condition would only worsen after the First World War, when the League of Nations mandate, having further remapped Europe, drafted Minority Treatises establishing the “rights of man” for those people not culturally or ethnically native to their new sovereign state. Effectively, demographics perceived as peripheral were now embedded within the newly demarcated “inner zone.” The situation was untenable. As Arendt noted, “Hatred, certainly not lacking in the pre-war world, began to play a central role in public affairs everywhere, so that the political scene in the deceptively quiet years of the twenties assumed the sordid and weird atmosphere of a Strindbergian family quarrel.” This produced a general disintegration of political life, Arendt continues, with “nobody to make responsible for the state of affairs – neither government nor the bourgeoisie nor an outside power.” (Arendt, 1962, 268) Subsequently, republics would transition into authoritarian dictatorships and, even further, into totalitarianism over the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Back to Europe’s fin de siècle, on the eve of this denouement. Just as the Kulturkampf was coming to a head, so was the international avant-garde’s progression. That is, right before it abruptly regressed back to naturalist figuration, in 1915, when “the perceptual conventions of mimetic representation – the visual and spatial ordering systems that had defined pictorial production since the Renaissance and had in turn been systematically broken down since the middle of the nineteenth century – were reestablished,” as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh famously noted in his polemical essay, “Figures of Authority, Cyphers of Regression.”(Buchloh, 1981, 107) It was there that he connected the avant-garde’s aesthetic regression – just two years after the Readymade and the Black Square –to an overall ideological backlash that idealized “perennial monuments of art history and its masters, the attempt to establish a new aesthetic orthodoxy, and the demand for respect for the cultural tradition.” He perceived such culture wars – then, in the twenties, and at the time of Buchloh’s writing, in the eighties – to be endemic “to the syndrome of authoritarianism that it appeals to and affirm the ‘eternal’ or ancient systems of order (the law of the tribe, the authority of history, the paternal principle of the master, etc.).” (Buchloh, 111) Notably, authoritarians are not endemic to any single region or governmental structure. The same relapse would occur in the Soviet Union, during the early twenties, when avant-garde artists affiliated with the Moscow Circle – Malevich, Mayakovsky, Lissitzky and Rodchenko, key among them – fell under the heel of Zhdanovist socialist realism. A decade later, Stalin’s Comintern would officially declare socialist realism as the state sanctioned aesthetic, whereupon Rodchenko’s realist photographs that had previously propagandized the Bolshevik Revolution – “Young Pioneer,” “Call for Literacy” and “To the Demonstration” – were accused of exhibiting “formalist deviation.” (Carson, 2012, 92) That a transplantation of the European avant-garde would occur, on the eve of the two-pronged cultural and ideological backlash, should not surprise us. That the avant-garde would jump the pond in the hands of a grass roots artist-led curatorial group conspiring to take on the New York’s rear-guard elite, the reigning voice in American art, however, might.

Enter the famed Armory Show. As Europe sat on the brink of the First World War, an “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, opened at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City on February 15th 1913. The idea could be traced back to 1911, instigated by four young artists – Jerome Myers, Elmer MacRae, Walt Kuhn and Henry Fitch Taylor – who were troubled by the difficulty American artists had in showing their work within (or outside) established circles. Hence the foursome’s founding of the AAPS to showcase not only a new vanguard, but a new platform for artist-driven exhibitions. As Milton W. Brown recalled in 1963: “The AAPS had done the impossible. They had, all on their own, collected and exhibited more than twelve hundred American and foreign works of art for the edification and education of the American art world and public.” This, he continues, “had been calculated from the beginning as a mental jolt to stir America out of its long esthetic complacency.” (Brown, 1963, 26) In so doing, the organizers aspired to introduce the public to the works of Goya, Ingres and Delacroix through that of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Fauves and Cubism, with hopes of radicalizing them. By their own declaration, the AAPS aimed at showing young American artists that they had nothing to dread of the European avant-garde. And it was with revolutionary zeal that they challenged The American Academy of Design that was tenaciously committed to training, and by extension curtailing, American artists within the rear-guard parameters of the naturalist school. Such that, if spirit of nationalist revolution thus ran through the AAPS’s organizational veins, then their symptom was reified by their chosen symbol: the pine tree, used on flags during the American Revolution, as the official emblem of The Armory Show. (Brown, 4)

Whereas conventional art historical accounts double down on the organizers’ nationalist thematic, lauding The Armory Show as ground zero for Modernism’s triumphal landing in America, I would argue that the exhibition’s organizers were, in fact, doing something quite other than grafting a foreign aesthetic on their own shores. Under all their conventional nationalism, they were also incepting – on an unconscious level, no doubt – an idea around which a conceptual aesthetic platform has since evolved: the aforementioned curating-as-a-verb. For is it not, precisely, this kind of thinking that the Armory organizers’ statement of purpose sought to evoke? To administer a mental jolt, in their own words, to stir America out of its long esthetic complacency? We should recall that Socrates had metaphorically called himself a gadfly, a metaphor that Arendt, in turn, used as a model for critical thinking: “He [the thinker] knows how to arouse the citizens who, without him, will ‘sleep on undisturbed for the rest of their lives,’ unless somebody comes along to wake them up again.” And what does the gadfly arouse in them? Arendt answers: “To thinking, to examining matters, an activity without which life, according to him, was not only not worth much but was not fully alive.” (Arendt, 1971, 174) That said, I would add the caveat that only when this performative practice becomes a conscious endeavor – only when it is connected to the kind of Socratic thinking that Arendt, in turn, connects to a kind of “responsibility” taken in relationship to dictatorship and empire, be it at home or abroad – does such practice become a critical act in the hands of artists, curators and writers.

Which brings us back to Buchloh. Holding artists accountable for thinking in the face of fascism, Buchloh absolutely gets right the performative responsibility central to Arendt’s model. “First there is the construction of artistic movements with great potential for the critical dismantling of the dominant ideology,” he argues, which is “then negated by those movements’ own artists, who act to internalize oppression…and then, at a later stage, in the outright adulation of manifestations of reactionary power.” (Buchloh, 108) It’s the formal component of Buchloh’s equation, when he argues, quite universally, for there being “a causal connection, a mechanical reaction, by which growing political oppression necessarily and irreversibly generates traditional representation,” that, willing or not, he departs from Arendt. (Buchloh, 107) That one aesthetic form would timelessly be inherently progressive while the other regressive, and that, moreover this should occur in a cyclical manner – figuration returning in 1920s just as it returns in 1980s – again equates correlation and causation. Arendt, on the other hand, was adamant that there would be no such readymade templates for knowledge, i.e. for aesthetic form or philosophical method, only operational modalities for the manner in which we interrogate all such epistemological strategies. For Arendt thinking was a rinse and repeat activity. Having thought the undoing of one hegemony, naturally, returns another one to the status quo. Such that you really have to keep on top of it. Thinking, in short, is a full-time occupation without formative rules, templates or master plans.

Returning to our band of conspiratorial curators – those thinkers of Modernism, plotting on the upper West Side of Manhattan – we see that their own transgression would meet a similar fate as their predecessor, the conservative National Academy of Design. For having ushered in the European vanguard, at its waning moment abroad, the Armory organizers would find their endeavors no less “thought about,” if only structurally. This time the instigator would be none other than their friend and colleague, Marcel Duchamp. Having made an international splash with his cubist-futurist painting Nude Descending a Staircase, no 2 at The Armory Show,[1] four years later Duchamp would pivot to stage his next scandalous work, the performative readymade sculpture Fountain, at the First Annual Exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists, the successor to the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, which had since been dissolved. The Society itself was born in 1916, when Duchamp, along with his cohorts – French émigrés Jean Crotti, Albert Gleizes, and Francis Picabia as well as Americans Walter Pach, Joseph Stella, Charles Sheeler, Morton L. Schamberg, John Covert, Katherine S. Dreier, and poet Wallace Stevens – gathered at Louise and Walter Arensbergs apartment to conceived an exhibition platform along the lines of the Parisian Salon des Indépendants, which had been a launchpad for the French avant-garde. It was decided that the board of directors, to which Duchamp belonged, would be bound by the Society’s founding constitution to accept all members’ submissions for exhibitions, mounted without jury or prizes, thus giving the right to anyone to exhibit upon payment of a modest fee. Whereas the AAPS made their selections on “merit” with “no axes to grind, no revenges to take,” (Brown, 27) – a quip meant for the Academy – the Society aimed at hosting a yearly exhibition completely free of any established aesthetic criterion associated with so-called old-guard New York art world, in order to “reach the kind of people who have no chance to show otherwise,” as Pach surmised. (McCarthy, 2017, 32)

Hence the “no jury” tenet upon which Duchamp surreptitiously set about launching his own inception plan – as head of the hanging committee for the Society’s first exhibition at Grand Central Palace – to demonstrate that non-juried shows were in fact institutional mirages. We should note that Duchamp himself had been rejected by the (non-juried) Salon des Indépendants in 1912, when they’d refused to include his Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 in their annual exhibition, unhappy with the work’s subject matter and title. (Hulten, 1993, April 9, 1917) Since then – after leaving the Parisian painting circles behind in 1913 and relocating to America in 1915 – Duchamp had been exploring an “aesthetics of chance,” which culminated in his Three Standard Stoppages. The work’s operation was simple: three threads, each having a length of one meter and held horizontally, were dropped from the height of one meter onto a piece of canvas and fixed in position there by means of varnish. Thus favoring contingency over perspective, Three Standard Stoppages opened up a way “to escape from those traditional methods of expression long associated with art.” And in so doing, if chance came to supplant paint as Duchamp’s new medium of choice, it was towards the end establishing an aesthetic centered around the notion of “the possible.” (Molderlings, 2010, xi-xii) As Herbert Molderings maintains: “Neither ‘likeness’ nor ‘truth’ was [Three Standard Stoppage’s] key aspect, as in all the brands of realism; nor beauty, harmony, or balance, as in the aesthetics of formalism; but rather ‘the possible’ in the sense of what is merely conceivable, the idea that all things can be perceived and conceived differently.” (Molderlings xiv-xv) I would concur with Molderings, adding that chasing “the possible” logically entails negating conventional ideas of what is impossible. Accordingly, by inducing a series of readymade chance operations – an aesthetics of chance extending from his art to his exhibition production – Duchamp was in pursuit of what had yet to be, instancing another modality of thinking beyond established knowledge or artistic norms.

Consequently, there stands Duchamp, on Friday April 6, 1917, endeavoring to mount the first annual, non-juried exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. What does he do? Hulten recounts the scene:

Having been elected head of the Hanging Committee of the exhibition…[Duchamp] is faced with the task of installing 2,500 works in three days. To avoid any pre-conceived idea of grouping, Duchamp’s suggestion that a democratic formula should be imposed on the arrangement of the show has been adopted. The works will be hung, commencing in the north-east corner of the main gallery in the Grand Central Palace, according to the artist’s surname in alphabetical order. In the morning at the exhibition hall, witnessed by Roché and Beatrice Wood, the letter “R” is drawn from a hat [my emphasis], which determines for Marcel the works to be hung first.

(Hulten, April 6, 1917)

Faced with the quagmire of hanging (without curating) a self-selected group of artists, something surfaced that Duchamp already knew: that non-juried shows are in fact institutional mirages. Which is to say, they are impossible, especially when the jury is negated. Because the repression of criteria for the artist’s involvement, beyond the artist’s fee, assures that such criteria will return in unexpected (contingent) ways, something Duchamp painfully experienced in his submission of Nude to the Salon. In an effort of short circuiting this inevitable return, Duchamp mobilized a curatorial chance operation: drop the letters of the alphabet into a hat, blindly withdraw a letter, and establish the alphabetical ordering of the artists from there. And yet, objective “selection” – in this case, alphabetical order – continues to operate in the dialectical reversal of negating subjective selection and letting chance play itself out. Which is to say, this “curatorial readymade” situation – the chance operation of “dropping” elements into a societal organization and attendant exhibition space – establishes for the first time a willful curatorial modality of chance. And this performative action – taking a chance – constitutes the “verb” of Duchamp’s own readymade “curatorial” method.

If the first exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists was curatorially undermined by a chance intervention, one dropped upon it by their founding member Duchamp, the aforementioned organizational structure was just one such intervention. The Fountain, being the most famous another intervention, constitutes not only the founding move of Duchamp’s own practice, but serves as ground zero for a curatorial aesthetics of the possible (engaged thinking). In the same gesture, however, it contingently founded an aesthetics of the impossible (expelled refuse). As to the latter, the Fountain’s story is canon fodder. I’ll thus cite Hulten’s account, which begins with the Fountain’s fall out:

The discord amongst the officers and directors of the Society of Independent Artists dominates the atmosphere at the Grand Central Palace until the opening hour of the exhibition. The subject of the dispute is Fountain, the entry sent by Richard Mutt from Philadelphia, who has paid his $6 membership fee and has the right to exhibit. Its defenders maintain that there is nothing immoral in the sculpture and to refuse it would be against the very principles upon which the exhibition has been organized: ‘No jury, no prizes.’ Its detractors led by William Glackens, president of the society, who considers it the product of ‘suppressed adolescence,’ believe the object to be indecent and certainly not a work of art. Reminded of the cartoon strip characters Mutt and Jeff, George Bellows suspects that someone has sent it as a joke.

(Hulten, April 9, 1917)

Placed atop a black pedestal, the “shiny white enamel form causing all the argument” was none other than a male urinal turned on its back. characters Mutt and Jeff, George Bellows suspects that someone has sent it as a joke.” (Hulten, April 9, 1917) In terms of the work’s “author-function,” before Fountain was a canonical readymade conjured up by Duchamp (the artist) it was an anonymous curatorial intervention enacted by Duchamp (the organizer). An intellectual fracas immediately ensued among the Society’s directors, the majority of whom would conclude that Fountain has no place in an art exhibition because, by no definition, was it a work of art. Hence the aporia of the “juried non-juried” exhibition. If Fountain was “not a work of art,” by any definition, then it couldn’t have been excluded by the directors. The Society’s “no jury, no prize” rule, ensuring total artistic inclusiveness, wins by legal default. But checkmate, in fact, goes to Duchamp who exposed the Society’s internal contradiction through this chance operation. In so doing, Duchamp was at once he who placed the urinal into the Society, and then, when he claimed authorship of this act, by proxy he was that which the Society expelled.

Extimate Objects: The Exception

If Duchamp’s aesthetics of the possible could be considered ground zero for a modality of modernist curatorial thinking within the context of geo-political shifts among European nation-states in and around the fin de siècle, as I have argued, by mid-twentieth century a parallel line of bio-politics came to a head with the catastrophe of the Second World War. This catastrophe, in turn, ushered in a different, but related tendency within post-war contemporary art that I’ll call the “aesthetics of extimacy,” a concept to which I’ll return momentarily.

Extimacy was Jacques Lacan’s neologism for the psychic effect of foreign objects that we designate as the not me, which, nevertheless, intimately come to define me. Like a moebius strip, extimate objects therefore defy the categories of “inside” and “outside,” because they’re paradoxically perceived as being both exterior and interior to one’s sense of self. So we have a bipolar, narcissistically paranoid, relation to such extimate objects. For Lacan, this begins, with the primordial encounter we have to our own mirrored image. He derived this psychoanalytic formulation – his famous “mirror stage” theory – in 1936 to describe the infantile subject, who, between the age of six months finds him/herself at the threshold of a visible world, narcissistically enraptured by his/her own image, and “in a flutter of jubilant activity brings back an instantaneous aspect of his/her image in the mirror.” (Lacan, 1977, 1-2) At the same time, the fledgling subject’s jubilation is immediately countered by an acute sense of paranoia because the subject’s sense of self is exteroceptive. Meaning, it is stimulated by an image of itself that is external to itself. In short, the subject’s founding moment, the sense of an inside “me,” is always already exterior to us because it is there – in this other that is me – that the “I” am activated. Going forth, the subject tends to abjectify objects – those people, places, images and concepts – that appear extimate, for the simple reason the subject likes to imagine that he or she is rooted, whole and intact, in one place. That is to say, that she or he exists without contradiction.

Echoes of the ambivalent subjectivity produced by the mirror stage might be found in what Michel Foucault has called the bio-political sphere. For Lacan’s mirror stage theory was borne in precisely that cultural context. While delivering the first pass of his “Looking-Glass Phase” theory at the fourteenth Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association in Marienbad in 1936, Lacan himself observed how this primordial scene manifests itself in mass phenomenon. Leaving the Congress, Lacan visited the Nazi fair at the Eleventh Olympiad in Berlin, where, for the first time in history, propagandists for the Third Reich had turned the games into a massive publicity stunt complete with large-screen film projections, directed by Leni Riefenstahl. As Philippe Julien recounts: “With his invention of the mirror stage, Lacan had exposed the very source of racism; now in Berlin, he saw its glaring manifestation. Indeed, the power of racism is rooted in the primordial fascination of each of us with his or her counterpart, in the captivating vision of the Gestalt of the other’s body as mirror.” That is the love. That is the narcissism. “On the other hand,” Julien continues, “this vision excludes the stranger, the one with whom I cannot identify lest he break my mirror.” (Julien, 1994, 29) That is the hate. That is the paranoia. Bio-politics – those technologies of state and global powers exerted over entire populations – thrives upon such duplicity, transforming individual “subjectivity” into mass “subjugation.” As such, according to Foucault, bio-politics is the mechanism through which power determines who is allowed to exist (to live) inside the public sphere and who is expelled (to die) outside of it.

Giorgio Agamban – the Italian philosopher whom cultural practitioners have read extensively from the mid 1990s to the present – further addressed the manner in which modern subjects are inextricably caught up within the extimate paradoxes that define bio-politics. Specifically, he addresses the Ancient Roman concept of “homo sacer,” Latin for the “the sacred man” or “accursed man,” denoting anything “set apart” from common society in the sense of being “hallowed” or “cursed.” For Agamben homo sacer is the foundation for the modern concept of “bare life,” as he…

…who may be killed and yet not sacrificed, and whose essential function in modern politics we intend to assert. An obscure figure of archaic Roman law, in which human life is included in the juridical order solely in the form of its exclusion (that is, of its capacity to be killed), has thus offered the key by which not only the sacred texts of sovereignty but also the very codes of political power will unveil their mysteries. At same time, however, this ancient meaning of the term sacer presents us with the enigma of a figure of the sacred that, before or beyond the religious, constitutes the first paradigm of the political realm of the West.

(Agamden, 1998, 8-10)

The modern political apparatus framing Agamben’s homo sacer is Carl Schmitt’s notion of sovereign exception. According to Schmitt, when a perceived enemy of the state enacts an existential threat to the nation, the sovereign authority has the legal power to impose a “state of exception” – as did Hitler, for whom Schmitt was a crown jurist – suspending the governing constitution and thus law. Endowed with this power, Schmitt conceived the sovereign as he who “stands outside of the normal juridical order, and yet belongs to it, for it is he who is responsible for deciding whether the constitution can be suspended in toto.” (Agamben, 2005, 35) This borderline status – the sovereign’s indeterminate zone between law and anomie – marks the enemy’s extimate relation to the state. Although the enemy – that collective embodiment of the “not me” – appears to be outside the state’s milieu, the enemy is paradoxically and quintessential to the nation-state. For the enemy is the nation-state’s raison d’ etre. Annihilate your enemy, and you annihilate yourself.

As such, the sovereign and the enemy topologically mirror each other, connecting the sacred to the profane. Bare life, moreover, precisely personifies this “being-outside and yet belonging to” topological structure, indicative of the aforementioned subject (in Lacanian terms) and the state (in Arendtian terms). As for the state, Agamben himself points out that by linking the fates of the rights of man to that of the nation-state, Arendt implies an intimate connection between the two. And in so doing, “the paradox from which Arendt departs is that the very figure who should have embodied the rights of man par excellence –the refugee — signals instead the concept’s radical crisis.” (Agamben, 1998, 126) To be conscious of this crisis, this aporia, entails trying to understand why modern democracy was incapable of saving all living beings “whose happiness it had dedicated all its efforts, from unprecedented ruin.” For Agamben, modern democracy’s “decadence and gradual convergence with totalitarian states in post-democratic spectacular societies” was most likely rooted in this aporia. Should this prove to be true, then “until the contradictions that this fact implies are dissolved, Nazism and fascism – which transformed the decision on bare life into the supreme political principle – will remain stubbornly with us.” (Agamben, 1998, 10)

Which brings us back to extimate aesthetics. Over the last two decades, Nazism and fascism has stubbornly remained with us. Concomitantly, our collective memory of Eurocentric totalitarianism in the past and our collective denial of its global return in the present has taken root in the curatorial narrative hosted by the international contemporary exhibition platform documenta – a non-profit organization supported and funded by the City of Kassel and the State of Hesse, as well as by the German Federal Cultural Foundation – held every five years. That said, documenta was originally conceived in 1955 by the Kassel painter and academy professor Arnold Bode, as a platform celebrating the triumphal return of modernism over such despotism. As documenta’s retrospective narrative relays: “Arnold Bode endeavored to bring Germany back into dialogue with the rest of the world after the end of World War II, and to connect the international art scene through a ‘presentation of twentieth century art.’”[2] Conceived as a “museum of 100 Days,” Bode aimed at returning those extimate modernist artworks – ones famously denounced and expelled by the Third Reich in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937 – into modernity’s restored grand récit. His aim, by documenta’s own account, was “not to present an overview of art produced during the first half of the twentieth century, but rather to ‘reveal the roots of contemporary art in all areas,’ as Bode wrote in the exposé. Bode wanted to develop a genealogy of contemporary art, generated from a mood that might be described as a blend of postwar trauma and the will to modernize.”[3] And that he did, focusing on the classical genres of the avant-garde, Expressionism, Futurism, Constructivism and Cubism.

In the process, however, even more extimate objects were produced when significant artists and artworks failed to meet Bode’s criteria for his modernist genealogy. Most notably absent were the political, more subversive genre of Dada. Case in point, while the French figurative sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon was included, his brother, Marcel Duchamp, was not. Nor were any artworks selected conceived in the Fountain’s readymade vein. One would have to wait until Harald Szeeman’s famed documenta 5, of 1972, for the artworld’s contemporary extimate objects to make their own triumphal return. And yet, then again, artists and artworks conceived along the conceptual-pop-fluxus trajectory – Ed Kienholz, Claes Oldenburg, Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Yoko Ono, Bruce Nauman, Herman Nitsch, key among them – were presented within another gran récit: that of Szeeman’s famed “individual mythology.” This was Szeeman’s dialectical reversal of Bode’s rooted “museum of 100 days” model, which he reconceived as a transitive “100 day event.” In Szeeman’s hands, documenta’s narrative might have rotated 180 degrees from Bode’s – the art historical story of what constitutes contemporary practice flipping from modernist to conceptualist – but the canonical manner in which this art historical story was told did change. In this way, the curator-as-sovereign ruler of the exhibition platform – a platform he is at once a part of, as its maker, and apart from, as its exception – remained firmly intact. This was symptomatically confirmed in the form of a signed letter submitted by a group of participating artists declaring Szeeman’s documenta to be nothing but an “exhibition of an exhibition.” Ironically, Szeeman’s curation of individual artworks had collectively and hegemonically been subsumed under his own thematic of “personal mythology,” as an uncritical, unconscious paradox [4] As such, Szeeman’s impresario-driven model is as much a self-affirming mirror onto itself as are the authoritarian nation-states described by Schmitt, for both rely on a meta-narrative with which the impresario-sovereign deems his subjects to be ontologically synonymous or else they’re expelled. Conventionally, even though art curation and national narration are mythologically perceived as separate – especially when they are connected, as is the case with documenta’s nationalist structure – in reality, art curation and national narration are always connected, as Buchloh’s “Figures of Authority”essay aptly pointed out.

Catherine David’s documenta X – the last documenta of the 20th century in which the city of Kassel was conceived as a “modern ruin” – explicitly forged the connection between national politics and aesthetic narration, aware as she was that artworks are alternately included or expelled from historical narratives exactly the way people, who are reduced to bare life as homo sacer, are from Western political states. And when the two realms are discursively connected, within a self-conscious curatorial narration of their relation, then the aesthetic critique of artworks changes as does the tone of their curation. In this vein, David conceived documenta X as a series of “retrospectives” intended to frame the post-war period in a “post-national” space of memory and reflection, while exposing, in the same gesture, the “omissions of Western art historiography.”[5] David’s “100 Day – 100 Guests” thus further mutated Szeeman’s “100 Day Event” model into curatorial performative, where guests from all regions of the globalized world were invited to talk with David about various matters every evening, starting at seven o’clock and held in documenta Halle. With documenta X, we are thus in the thinking game again, where narration-curation does and undoes the canonical Western art historical narrative in the same gesture. David’s logo for the exhibition poster performatively demonstrated this. A small black “d,” denoting documenta, over which a large orange “X,” denoting the exhibition’s tenth chapter, was superimposed. To the outrage of institutionally identified followers, this connotatively signified the crossing out of documenta. But that, again, is to run too quickly into myth, that is, into dialectical reversal. For crossing something out is not synonymous with erasure. To the contrary, that which is crossed remains here, to be seen beneath the mark of erasure, a mark which is literally held in check. As such, documenta, like historical narration and national identification, is a typographically presented as a specter. Neither fully there, nor ever fully gone, in David’s curatorial hands, documenta “itself” was the object cause of our entwined aesthetic and historical desire.

Return: The Impossible

Fast forward to 2008. On September 29, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 777 points, the biggest single-day fall in American history (at that time). The crash was the aftershock of the US subprime home mortgage crisis, initiating a systemic infection of the world’s entire free market, one that strictly adhered to Milton Friedman’s school of economics which, under President George W. Bush’s stewardship, shunned any and all government regulation. Consequently, the entire global financial market, not just the US housing market, became infested with “toxic assets.”[6] Consequently, large bundles of troubled assets sat, immobile, on the books of vast numbers of financial institutions, initiating a race to the bottom. As their value continued to decline, these assets threatened the solvency of an entire global network of banks and institutions unable to unload them. The subsequent crash had been so shattering, so cataclysmic for free market thinkers that even Alan Greenspan, the former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, admitted to Congress that “those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.” (Andrews, 2008) Thus began the governmental bailout of international banks deemed “too big to fail” by the titans of Wall Street. But the money had to come from somewhere and so big Western governments – led by the financial “inner zone” of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – imposed austerity plans onto those “outer zone” countries whose banking system and thus governments were also underwater. A chain reaction of nation-state crises ensued, precipitating mass protests in the EU’s inner and outer zones and into the Middle East, which, in turn, precipitated a renewed 21st century global refugee crisis. And when the Western world has incurred a refugee crisis it has historically turned to the right. Arendt voice, once again, echoes in our collective ear: the world we live in at any moment is the world of the past.

If, over the last century, nation-states have alternately been defined by geo-political shifts, to bio-political technologies, to global financial-market crashes, contemporary nation-states are now entrenched in the quagmire of these related systems’ complete interdependence. Correspondingly, critical approaches to curatorial thinking now must account for the manner in which international biennial, triennial and quinquennial art platforms are themselves concomitantly embedded within this quagmire. Hence the curatorial thematic, “Learning from Athens,” employed by Polish curator Adam Szymczyk’s as Artistic Director of documenta 14. Szymczyk’s decision to turn documenta into a “divided self,” between Kassel and Athens, was, in his own words, “a decidedly anti-identitarian stance.”[7] After positing this divided self – which is to say, after thinking through our current nation-state problematic vis-à-vis the contemporary international exhibition platform – Szymczyk immediately warned of his curatorial endeavor’s institutional limitation:

In this field of economic and political forces, the institutional self-preservation mechanism of documenta does not easily allow for “experiments” that go beyond what can be projected onto the notion of “artistic freedom” that documenta famously offers to its “artistic director.” The question we ask – what about freedom not limited to artistic expression only, freedom that is not at all conditional on the “artistic” qualifier? – remains to be answered in documenta 14.

(Szymczyk 2017, 22)

Setting aside the platform’s impending failure, fiscal and otherwise,[8] Szymczyk tenaciously persisted in waging this experimentation with freedoms related to bare life, not just artistic expression, mindful of documenta’s insidious global backdrop in which it was ensnared: the local and global “implementation of debt as political measure, the gradual destruction of what remained of the welfare state, wars waged for resources and the market, and the resulting and never-ending humanitarian catastrophes. This darkening global situation has leaned heavily upon our daily (and nightly) thinking about, and acting on and for, documenta 14.” (Szymczyk, 22-23)

Szymczyk further argues that foremost among these catastrophes…

…has been the economic violence enacted, as it seems, almost experimentally upon the population of Greece brought about by subsequent phases of austerity measures imposed by international financial institutions in unison with European Union leaders, such measures have resulted in the de facto loss of sovereignty of the current and any future Greek political constituency, as well as the loss of Greek citizens’ individual freedom after capital control instruments were implemented in 2015. Alongside and entangled in this social collapse have been the disastrous war in Syria and the continuing arrival of refugees, by land and sea, to Greece and southern Europe, and finally the dark rise of authoritarian rule, right-wing populism, and fascism across the continent and the world at large.

(Szymczyk, 23)

“Catastrophe” is not an arbitrary choice of words to denote the current global social collapse. It’s one that figures centrally in the language of Polish Messianism, a Romantic ideology born in the wake of Poland’s catastrophic partition by Prussian, Russia and Austria in 1795. Of course, all doctrines of Messianism – Jewish or Christian –begin and end with an impending catastrophe, in that Messianism is at heart an eschatological doctrine. But the Polish brand of Messianism is less apocalyptical than it is optimistically (albeit spiritually) hopeful that in the wake of authoritarian catastrophe comes enlightened self-governance. In Poland’s case, Messianism’s most famous spokesman was the romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, who, like many of the Romantics, was influenced by the so-called “Christian” Kabbalah – a doctrine created by Spanish mystic Raymon Lull, popularized in the romantic Sturm und Drang movement. (Bielik-Robson, 2014, 31-32). The doctrine christened Poland – which established its commonwealth in 966 as an island of democracy in a continental sea of absolutism – as the martyred “Christ of Nations.” As Joel Burnell recounts, Polish Messianism maintained that only “the resurrection of an independent, democratic Poland would demonstrate the triumph of freedom and justice over tyranny and oppression, and usher in a new era of peace, justice and international brotherhood among nations of Europe.” (Burnell, 2009, p. xvii) In Polish Messianism, faith in a heavenly deity is thus replaced with faith in historical progress. Szymczyk’s desire to stage a likeminded redemption for the martyred outer-zone Greek nation-state vis-à-vis Kassel’s inner-zone exhibition-system resonates here.

While Szymczyk’s Messianic desire may have been implicit, another curator, Israeli Galit Eliat, has explicitly employed Messianism as a critical discourse of curatorial negation.[9] In her 2008 exhibition C.H.O.S.E.N. – hosted by the Israeli Center for Digital Art in coordinated with the Wyspa Institute of Art in Gandsk Poland – Eliat invited Israeli and Polish artists, philosophers and sociologists to address Messianism as a concept of “prophecy” beyond the Judeo-Christian context, within the national narratives of both Poland and Israel, in specific, and the post-colonial global national narrative more generally. As Eliat explained, the exhibitions, conferences (and subsequent reader) comprising C.H.O.S.E.N. “set out to examine the way national or contemporary communities’ narratives are influenced by Messianic philosophy, literature and ideology…[but also] how visions of individuals, nations or countries acting as agents of unique mission of liberation, salvation and intensification are reflected in contemporary art; and to see the cultural plot entwined with a private vision: the hero, the prophet, the saint, the politician, the intellectual and the artist.” (Eliat, 2008, 9-10) Of course, a revamped Messianism wouldn’t be the first ideology constituted within the Modern era offering up a secular alternative for religious doctrine. From the far left to the far right, modern political theory has proffered Marxism, Nihilism, Communism, Socialism, Zionism and, most horrifically, Nazism. Taken to their most earnestly idealistic ends they are all inherently problematic if not apocalyptic. Could a “progressive” take on a mystical, eschatological doctrine be performatively deconstructed to critical end in the aesthetic, philosophical and sociological spheres? It’s a difficult, maybe purposefully absurd, question, but it’s one that drives Galit Eilat’s curatorial practice towards the ends of a radically interdisciplinary model of human rights activism, in which factual and fictional spheres intentionally collide and blur.

Such deconstructive Messianism vitalizes Eliat’s sensibility, her urgency really, to move curatorial practice beyond the descriptive, the decorative, or declarative act of thematically organizing readymade artworks for viewership. Hers is a desire for curatorial practice to do something with the myriad of readymade national borders, to think about national borders by performatively transgressing them in and through the curatorial act. We should note that there’s plenty of subject matter there. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, construction of border walls has globally spiked from 15 in the year 2001 to 63 across four continents in 2015. Most of these barriers have been erected within the European Union – a region where borders had ostensibly been erased – as a response to the rush of more than a million migrants, the majority of which were (and still are) fleeing wars in Syria and Iraq. (Granados et. al. 2016) In 2004, the year following the U.S. declaration of war on Iraq, the collective “Artists without Walls,” to which Eliat belonged, set its sights on one wall in particular: the 420 mile long partition separating the West Bank from Jerusalem. Their statement read:

A joint project of Israeli and Palestinian artists, which is minimalist and fascinating in concept, will take place this evening at 6 P.M. in Jerusalem’s Abu Dis neighborhood, near the separation fence. Two video cameras will film what is happening on both sides of the wall, and the material filmed by each of them will be screened at the same time on the other side of the fence. In this way, on each side of the wall, one will see scenes from the other side, and the wall will become ‘transparent’ for several hours…There is a danger in opening a window in the wall, for ultimately what we want and what we came together for, is to do away with the wall altogether…the wall is merely an expression, in a concrete form, of what is already there, a high degree of segregation and wish for separation, a mentality, a feeling which is widely present in the public…So to work against the wall means working against this, changing the mentality…The question is what it means to work against it, in both publics, both the Palestinian and the Israeli…It means to know that public, and to know how to bring the issue of non-separation in a way that still moves them…

(The Divide. n.d.)

The group’s self-imposed curatorial crisis – what to do with, on and around this partitioning wall – entailed a willful flirtation with failure, a danger that they would re-inscribe the wall with aesthetic value and thus further root Israel’s ideological claim that the wall was “naturally” sited. Of course, the wall’s mythological sited-ness was a non-thinking claim by those subjects interpellated, in Althusser’s sense of the word, in and by the Zionist narrative, a narrative that the United Nations performatively validated in 1948 when it allowed the rallying call that Palestine was “land without people for a people without land” to go unchallenged. Reflecting on the wall project, Eliat spoke about the curatorial “opportunism” at hand, taking care to note that opportunism is not meant in the negative sense of being “transactional.” Rather it is meant to denote those projects standing between what is possible and what is powerful, given the opportunity to shift something impossible into that place of power. In so doing, one finds the potentiality to shift the discursive, narrative base of that standing power.[10]

Eliat’s notion of “opportunistic tactics” – an instance of curating-as-a-verb, par excellence – aligns with Jean Francois Lyotard’s notion of “critical pragmatics.” This was Lyotard’s term for denoting the tactical, performative act of replacing universalist meta-narratives – inherent to both structuralist theory and modern politics, to which I would add art history – with situational, locally specific interventions. Hence his related notion of the “phrase,” which stresses fragmentariness over narrative. Geoffrey Bennington likens Lyotard’s “phrase” to a “sentence” detached from the whole of a narrative. Situationally the critical pragmatics of phrase-sentence stands in for narrative, in essence enacting a metonymic contingence over narrative’s metaphorical monumentality.[11] Galit’s own version of curating-as-a-verb, enacts something similar to this, breaking up the internalized narrative – in her case that of both art and state – and externalizing this rupture through public practice, to infect, opportunistically, others with this modality of thinking and working. Accordingly, in 2010, when asked what she had changed using art she replied: “First I changed myself and the people working with me. I learned a lot about the mechanisms of eh state, and the mechanisms of art in the context of the state.” (Eliat, 2012, 106) Further, by detourning or fragmenting the militaristic narrative inherent to both the historical avant-garde and the state of Israel, she equates her curatorial practice to that of being a drug dealer, for a good drug dealer corrupts narrative, the act of which becomes a progressive addiction:

What I do is create an army of my own soldiers. How? I’m like a drug dealer. I create a network on the streets. Once I get the first couple of soldiers addicted, I send them into the streets, to other countries, around the world. They sell drugs to others who also become addicted. I’m a good drug dealer. All those massive ideological mechanisms work in a similar way. Why not make it useful for us? The only problem is to develop a good drug.

(Eliat, 2012, 108)

That good drug might well be The Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMiP), an art project steeped in Messianic ethos, the catalyst and centerpiece of which was Yael Bartana’s seminal film trilogy Mary Koszmary (Nightmare) (2007), Mur i wieża (Wall and Tower) (2009) and Zamach (Assassination) (2011). Curated by Sebasian Cichocki and Galit Eilat for the 2011 Polish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale, the project came to be known as …and Europe will be stunned. As a whole, JRMiP presented a filmic narrative in three parts documenting an imaginary political group calling for the return of Jews to the land of their forefathers. If this time around the Jewish homeland turns out to be Poland, rather than Israel, it’s because JRMiP’s call is conflicted, one equally permeated with repressed dystopic demons of the past and hopeful utopian dreams of a transnational future. As Cichocki and Eliat’s press release relayed: “The films traverse a landscape scarred by the histories of competing nationalisms and militarisms—overflowing with the narratives of the Israeli settlement movement, Zionist dreams, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the Palestinian right of return. Apart from realizing the film trilogy, the artist has established the foundations of a new political movement.” (e-flux, 2011.) But if JRMiP is a “political movement,” then it’s one that’s wrapped in a fictive artwork, which, in turn, performatively initiates a political move in the real artworld.

JRMiP’s political move has everything to do with its siting in Venice, which brings us back to where we began. For it was at the fin de siècle of the nineteenth-century that the Venice Biennale would make its debut, on April 30, 1895 as “The 1st International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice.” Aesthetically traditionalist and politically nationalist, the Venice Biennale was solemnly inaugurated in the presence of the King and Queen, Umberto I and Margherita di Savoia. Its design (then and now) combines a series of group exhibition halls with a consortium of nation-state pavilions (29 to date). Each Pavilion constitutes its own jurisdiction, akin to global state embassies, inviting one artist (or a collection) to “represent” their nation every two years. In its nascent moment, just who was permitted to represent whom was already a conservative affair, the General Secretary of the Biennale, Antonio Fradeletto, having famously removed one of Picasso’s works from the Spanish Pavilion for being too shockingly modernist. And although the Biennale’s exhibition platform has liberalized over the last century to include various forms of avant-garde strategies combined with interventionist protest art, up to and through the Venice Biennale’s 55th chapter, in 2011, the nationalist agenda of the pavilions’ conception still prevailed. Accordingly, Bartana was the first foreign national to represent Poland in the history of the Venice Biennale, and only the third foreign national in the biennale’s history (at that time) to exhibit in a pavilion other than that of her citizenry. In this way, JRMiP was a conscientious “attempt to implement artistic fiction in the body of a national pavilion, to use the voice of the state to invite 3 million Jewish people to return. The use of art, or the condition of an artwork to become useful, was to be as such outside the realm of art or the art institute,” as Eliat recalls.[12]

JRMiP’s placement – a readymade narrative sited within a national pavilion that accorded with the artwork’s subject matter rather than the artist’s country of origin – was a Duchampian move as radical as the Fountain’s original placement within the Society of Independent Artists. While Bartana’s fictive mise-en-scène was openly invited by Poland’s Ministry of Culture, on the Israeli side, however, the move was scandalously received. Israel’s Culture and Sport’s Minister Limor Livnat at first refused to visit the Polish Pavilion, accusing Bartana’s work as being anti-Zionist. Without having yet seen the work, Livnat issued an official declaration that “Culture is a social bridge, and the political debate must remain outside cultural and artistic life.” (Rosenblum, 2011) Succumbing to public pressure, Livnat eventually capitulated and visited the pavilion, reportedly leaving the installation with a “blank stare.” President Shimon Peres, however, never visited the Polish Pavilion, only the Israeli one. Hence the return of real politick that underlid JRMiP’s allegorical fiction. Reflecting on the work’s scandalous reception Amalia Rosenblum noted, “The hypothesis of a Jewish return to Poland finds an echo in questions that people are asking around the world – certainly the Europeans, who are contending with immigration, for whom the question of the right of return has yet to come off the agenda.” (Rosenblum, 2011) These were the type of questions upon which Bartana staged her epilogue to the JRMiP’s filmic debut in Venice: the performative First Congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, comprising her contribution to the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012.[13] Curated by the Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, who promised “more discussions than ever before,” the Biennale was presented at twelve sites in Berlin and in Eisenhüttenstadt in an attempt “to negotiate art as a tool for social transformation by presenting a range of attempts of influencing politics directly.” (Berlin Biennale, 2012) In Berlin, the JRMiP was, in effect, a nodal point of Bartana’s fellow diasporic travelers – philosophers, politicians, artists, writers, curators and others – operating in the liminal space between the possible and impossible, the national and trans-national, and, accordingly, the world as it is and the world as we might envision it to be.

Coda: Diaspora

By 2017 JRMiP’s transgressive move would become the norm. Addressing the proliferation of “rogue” pavilions presented at the 57th Venice Biennale, Hettie Judah pondered: “To be selected is an honor—what artist would reject a platform like Venice. But what exactly does it mean to ‘represent’ a country? And what does it mean for a country not to be represented by an artist? Or for an artist not to have a country to represent? And what associations does national stewardship carry at a time when nationalism is on the rise?” (Judah, 2017) Her questions reflect the raison d’etre of the Venice Biennale’s recent trans-national pavilion phenomenon. Witness the ad hoc British backed Diaspora Pavilion at the Palazzo Pisani S. Marina for the 57th Venice Biennale “conceived as a challenge to the prevalence of national pavilions within the structure of an international biennale [in the form of] nineteen artists whose practices…expand, complicate and even destabilize diaspora as a term, whilst highlighting the continued relevance that diaspora as a lived reality holds today.” (International Curators Forum, 2017) Alternately, observe the Slovene collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), whose ad hoc pavilion, State of Time – headlined by Slavoj Zizek for the same 57th Venice Biennale – was conceived as a utopian formation with no physical territory and no identification with any existing nation-state. As the NSK press release read: “The pavilion does not stand in opposition to the national structure of the Venice Biennale, but rather seeks to stand as an independent Pavilion that will redefine the idea of the state and proffer a new type of citizenship.” (Buffenstein, 2017) In all these select curatorial performatives – in alliance with countless others beyond the scope of this essay – Arendt’s moral specter of “the thinker” has come to haunt the international biennial system from the twentieth-century fin de siècle to the present. And if, as Arendt claimed, there are no dangerous thoughts, it’s only thinking that is dangerous, then this model of curating – this act of thinking through readymade art platforms – is one with no beginning and no end. Rather, it is a self-generating process. The thoughts that a given curated artwork instilled in me yesterday – the problematic imbrication of international art exhibitions, global capital and populist nation-states for instance – will satisfy my need to think, only to the extent that I can continually think such thoughts anew today. For a model of critical practice, as opposed museological maintenance, curators must continue to facilitate and participate in any and all transgressive acts of aesthetic thinking. This is the very definition of curating-as-a-verb.


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Judah, Hettie. 2017. “A series of Rogue Pavilions Wrestles with the Venice Biennale’s National Structure.” Artnet, May 9, 2017.

Julien, Philippe. 1994. Jacques Lacan’s Return to Freud: The real, the symbolic, and the imaginary. New York: New York University Press.

Lacan, Jacques. 1977. “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience.” In Ecrits, translated by Alan Sheridan, 1-7. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

McCarthy, Laurette E. 2017. “Marcel Duchmap, Walter Pach, and the Urinal.” In Some Aesthetic Decisions: A Centennial Celebration of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” edited by Bonnie Clearwater, 27-37. Fort Lauderdale: NSU Art Museum.

Molderings, Herbert. 2010. Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance. Art as Experiment. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rosenblum, Amalia. 2011. “A Pioneer in Poland,” Haaretz, June 16, 2011.

Russeth, Andrew. 2017. “Documenta 14 Participants Defend Embattled Show in Open Letter: ‘Shaming Through Debt Is an Ancient Financial Warfare Technique.’” Art News, September, 18, 2017.

Szymczyk, Adam. 2017. “Iterability and Otherness – Learning and Working from Athens.” In The documenta 14 Reader, edited by Adam Szymczyk, 17-42. Kassel: documenta and Museum Fridericianum.

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Weigel, David and Robert Costa. 2017. “Trump’s America will be on vivid display at annual conservative gathering.” Washington Post, February 21, 2017.

  1. From Marcel Duchamp: Work and Life: “Hanging in gallery 53, reserved for the Cubists, Duchamp’s Nude is the one picture the public wants to see and it is the first illustration in the catalogue. The public flock to see the “Art Institute Circus,” as it is dubbed by the Evening Post and revel in their bafflement, shock, hilarity or even fury roused by the new art,” March 24, 1913. Monday, Chicago. (Note that the catalogue’s pagination is in accordance with the astrological chart.)

  2. documenta. n.d. “Retrospective: documenta I, July 16 – September 18, 1955.”

  3. ibid.

  4. documenta. n.d. “Retrospective: documenta 5, June 30 – October 8, 1972.”

    As per documenta’s archival account: “Many artists, including both particpants and nonparticipants in the exhibition expressed severe criticism of documenta 5 as an ‘exhibition of an exhibition’ that aimed to anoint itself as a work of art and exploited art for that purpose. In a sharply worded letter, Robert Morris forbade the exhibition of his works, which were selected and presented without his approval – misused, he wrote, for the purpose of ‘illustrating misguided sociological principles and categories of art history.’ Along with Carle Andre, Hans Haaccke, Donald Judd, Barry Le Va, Sol LeWitt, Dorthea Rockburne, Fred Sandback, Richrd Serra, and Robert Smithson, he signed a declaration in opposition to documenta, which was published in the Frankfurter Allge4meine Zeitung on May 12, 1972. Except for Andrea, Judd, Morris, and Sandback, all those who signed were represented at documenta, however.”

  5. documenta. n.d. “Retrospective: documenta X, June 21-September 28, 1997.”

  6. Toxic assets are those mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps that have become illiquid when the secondary market for buying and selling them disappear because they were artificially and systemically over-valued.

  7. The identitarian movement, is a European and North American white nationalist movement that originated in France, advocating the preservation of national identity and a return to traditional wester values. Austria’s Freedom Party, Germany’s Alternative for Germany, France’s National Front, the Netherland’s freedom Party, The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), Italy’s Northern League, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Sweden Democrats party, Bulgaria’s United Patriots, and People’s Party Our Slovakia are all participants of the identitarian movement. Meanwhile, in the United States the alt-right movement has coined President Donald Trump as its first “identitarian president.” (See: Weigel, 2017).

  8. Szymczyk noted the double-sided fear: “Kassel feared the ‘loss’ of documenta to Athens (as exemplified in a Christian Democratic Union 2016 Kassel local government election slogan: ‘100 good reason for the change – so that documenta stays in Kassel’), and Athens feared yet another big event with no sustainable effect much like the 2004 Olympic Games, which were followed by Greece’s gradual decline.” (Szymczyk,21) As to the latter, indeed, the Athens component of documenta 14 came to be blamed for the organization’s going over budget and falling into debt, marking Szymcyk’s accusation of the Western world using “debt as a political measure” as prophetically apt. Apropos documenta practice, an open letter of protest was signed by 200 of the artist participants. (See Russeth, 2017)

  9. I am employing the word “negation” here in the Adornean sense of the word.

  10. Conversation with the Eliat, May 15, 2018.

  11. As Geoffrey Bennington states: “…narrative is indeed a good place to look for a possible elaboration of the event: not simply in the obvious sense that narratives recount or represent events, but that such recounting or representing is a particular way of dealing with the event, of neutralizing what is here still thought of as a quantitative charge. On the other hand, it is also claimed that narrative can in some sense be an event.” (Bennington, 1988, 110).

  12. Conversation with Eliat, Feburary 22, 2018.

  13. For an in depth analysis of Yael Bartana’s Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland, both as the film trilogy and the performative congress, see: (Carson, 2013, 29-37)