Art Biennals
When Artists Become Curators

Video still of the video interview with the artists Georgia Sagri, Andrea Éva Győri and Una Szeemann during the 11th Manifesta biennial in Zürich, 2016 | Alicja Pahl und Katerina Valdivia Bruch
Video still of the video interview with the artists Georgia Sagri, Andrea Éva Győri and Una Szeemann during the 11th Manifesta biennial in Zürich, 2016 | Alicja Pahl und Katerina Valdivia Bruch | | © Alicja Pahl and Katerina Valdivia Bruch

What do exhibitions look like when they are curated by artists, and what makes them so special? What distinguishes an artistic approach from a curatorial one? Four experts from the art scene report on their experiences with curators and artists. In our video, three participating artists of the Manifesta biennal 2016 comment on the topic.

Christian Jankowski: Curating the Manifesta

Christian Jankowski
Christian Jankowski | Photo and © Jörg Reichardt
I began thinking about it from the standpoint of Zurich. You have to go to the exact place where you intend to work, and first of all absorb the atmosphere. My approach was an artistic one, as it is deeply connected to the way I work. I define an area and consider situations in which people can come together to do art and talk about it. It was interesting for me to see how people were behaving in this context and to which artistic conclusions they were coming to.

After this, I started to wonder about what a biennial is and which biennials I liked; what distinguishes a biennial from an exhibition and what is its international aspect; but also about what unique opportunities this format has to offer. Then, during a walk in Zurich, I got the idea: I will bring artists whom I really appreciate into a specific situation and in doing so go beyond Zurich’s institutional framework. They were connected with our hosts, who were people from a wide range of local professional groups of their choice. I thus set up pairs with, for instance, the question: how does the cantonal police extend contemporary surrealism? And thereby: what does art gain from the expansion of its professional repertoire?

The artist Christian Jankowski curated the 11th edition of the Manifesta, the European biennial of contemporary art. He works in the fields of conceptual and media arts. Since 2008, he holds a professorship at the Staatliche Akademie für Bildende Künste (State Academy of Art) in Stuttgart. He lives and works in Berlin.

Interviews with the artists Georgia Sagri, Andrea Éva Győri and Una Szeemann during the European biennial Manifesta 11 in Zurich.

​Production: Alicja Pahl and Katerina Valdivia Bruch
Concept: Katerina Valdivia Bruch
Camera: Alicja Pahl
Editorial office: PrinzplusPrinz
Music: Audiojungle
Subtitles: Katerina Valdivia Bruch and Edith Watts

Dorothee Richter: Curatorial Trends

Dorothee Richter
Dorothee Richter | Photo: courtesy Dorothee Richter
Curators would consider: how does the theoretical part of a biennial relate to a more practical-artistic one, or how do socio-political changes, in other words the context in which art arises, relate to a global change of infrastructure and working conditions? In my opinion, a curator’s approach has a lot to do with the question whether you wish to create a more theory-based, artistic or mediated input, or whether you will correspond, concretely and theoretically, to the socio-political, economic, cultural and spatial context.

Artists perhaps expect more that certain things are executed for them, for instance that money would be raised by the institutions, or that institutional structures are already available for them. For a curator, the situation would probably be slightly different from the very beginning. He or she would place far more weight on how the biennial is structurally anchored in the city. A curator perhaps would have worked more closely with academic researchers, who most likely understand the topics of work and money from a Marxist perspective, or with someone who for instance would reflect on creative or immaterial labour, but also about how the relations within the work environment are shifting. Who is making the profits and who is benefiting from it, and who is working in extremely precarious conditions? Of course, this cannot be separated from a global situation, in which Switzerland as a financial hub is accumulating capital, yet at the same time is withholding fundamental political rights from those working here.

Curator, author and critic. Director of the postgraduate programme “Curating” at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (Zurich University of the Arts) and director of the Research Platform in Curatorial and Cross-Disciplinary Cultural Studies at the University of Reading.

Claudia Wahjudi: How Artists and Curators Conceptualise Exhibitions

Claudia Wahjudi
Claudia Wahjudi | Photo and © Jesko Sander
When artists curate, they rely more on art itself than on museum, art or art-historical educational approaches. They rely more on art speaking for itself, and that the works will be self-explanatory, i.e. will correspond with other exhibited artworks. When artists curate exhibitions, I have often observed that the setting is far more unconventional, freeing itself from museum-oriented specifications and arriving at experimental forms that are closer to visitors, because they invite them to stay longer at the exhibition. I think, artists address more the public and other artists, and less other curators. The point is to make an artistic statement, and that is often more pleasant for both the public and their fellow artists. They get direct feedback on their work and are themselves responsible for their exhibition language. If something does not work out, there is no curator to blame.

What I like when curators organise an exhibition is that they are able to deal with methods and tools from museum didactics in a very focused way, and that they are accustomed to arrange and explain works or to design supporting programmes for mediation purposes.
“Both models have their advantages and disadvantages. It depends on what and whom you wish to reach with an exhibition, where it will be held, which art draws the attention of which public, who will be actually the target audience, and so on. In such cases, the event organisers have to decide whether they want to engage artists or curators.

Claudia Wahjudi is art editor of the Berlin magazine Zitty and writes for Der Tagesspiegel, Kunstforum International, tip and She teaches at the master’s degree programmes Kulturjournalismus (i.e. Cultural Journalism, since 2004) and Kunst im Kontext (i.e. Art in Context, since 2007) at the Universität der Künste Berlin (Berlin University of the Arts).

Anselm Franke: Mediators and the Emergence of Contemporary Art

Anselm Franke
Anselm Franke | Photo and © Stephanie Pilick, 2016
Art as an institution has always been linked to mediators. As long as there have been museums, there have been museum directors – who however were primarily responsible for the construction of (art-)historical narratives. Only since the 1970’s, the role of curators in contemporary art has undergone a constant revaluation, whereby they have also taken on functions that previously were.the purview of artists. The reason is on the one hand the insecurity of the artist-as-subject, and on the other the increasingly hermetic language of conceptual approaches. The latter require mediation, in contrast to the so called “autonomous” art.

While artists with their works live in part from a strategic refusal of communication, curatorial work is compelled to make itself understood. Art today has once again become the plaything of global elites celebrating the fantasy of value-creation without workers. Curators are necessary, but not for blindly chasing after the latest trends – gallery owners can do this better anyway –, but instead to render both, art production and the present, critically comprehensible. This demands above all the ability to impart historical consciousness without mediating an imperial narration.

Anselm Franke is director of the department of visual arts and film at the Haus der Kulturen (House of World Cultures) in Berlin. He was a member of the curator's team of the Anthropozän-Projekt (The Anthropocene Project) and curated the international exhibition Animismus (Animism, 2009-2014). In 2014 he was chief curator of the Shanghai Biennale and in 2012 of the Taipei Biennale.