Feminisms and Curating….I

Feminisms and Curating: Strategies, Interventions, Histories, Part I

Session chair:

Jessica Sjöholm Skrubbe
Ph.D., Researcher, Senior Lecturer
Department of Art History
Stockholm University
[email protected]


Tactics in Search of a Strategy?: Feminist Politics, the Curatorial Field and Contemporary Art

Angela Dimitrakaki, PhD, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, [email protected]

The proposed paper will argue that feminist critiques of power have had an impact on the understanding of the curatorial field. The argument will focus on two responses to the challenges presented by the curatorial subject. The first response emerges within the artwork as such – an example of which is Tanja Ostojic’s extra-ordinary ‘The Curator Series/Strategies for Success’ from the early 2000s. The second response is the rise of female collectivism in the curatorial field and its varied positions vis-a-vis feminist politics – from WHW to B+B to Kuratorisk Aktion. That such collectivism is observed both East and West in Europe is a starting point for apprehending the complexity of its origins. The paper’s more immediate aim is to articulate a framework for examining together these responses and for considering what they tell us about the state of play for contemporary feminism in the arts.


Major Global Recurring Art Shows ’Doing Feminist Work’: A case study of the 18th Biennale of Sydney: all our relations (2012)

Sibyl Fisher, PhD Candidate, University of Leeds, UK, [email protected]

In the light of feminist contributions to the field of curatorial studies, it can be argued that curating is an intellectual practice that has the capacity to ‘do feminist work.’  From the implementation of complex and resilient strategies, to the efficacy of instigating cultural change, feminist art curating can be understood as performative, or active on many levels.  This understanding is the starting point for this paper, which maps a case study in order to consider the question: how can major global recurring shows ‘do feminist work’?

This capacity can be identified in the preparations for the forthcoming 18th Biennale of Sydney: all our relations to be co-directed by Catherine de Zegher (Belgium) and Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree/Siksika First Nation, Canada) from June-September, 2012.  Tellingly, it is titled all our relations, and promises to ‘focus on inclusionary practices of generative thinking, such as collaboration, conversation and compassion, in the face of coercion and destruction.’ (de Zegher, 2011, p. 2)  In the brochure, available on the Biennale website, de Zegher writes:

Drawing on the possibility of the present, the Biennale will emerge from the engagement of all participants by using a model that begins with two curators in dialogue. This matrix of conversation will extend to both artists and audiences in a multi-vocal correspondence (de Zegher, 2011, p. 2).

An indication of how this relational model might manifest is available on the Biennale website. A number of artists, both men and women, have already been announced in advance, and the specificity of their practice is being explored in feminist art historian Moira Roth’s allied online project, Gleanings (Roth, 2012). This is similar to a blog, and documents exchanges between the two curators, Roth and the artists as the Biennale takes shape.  Information about the artists’ own lives and work are posted, along with visual documentation of their studio (and other) practices.  In addition, there are detailed considerations of the artists’ experiences and their works, written by Roth, and the artists’ responses.  One effect is the building up of very rich and complex connections between each of the participants, without losing the singularity of their cultural locations.  This evidences a shift away from the historical tendency in exhibitions to present a single, objective account of art that relies on, and produces, the self-contained individual artist author/subject.

The paper identifies this shift as partly grounded in the ‘specificity and difference’ model for the practice of art history that Professor Griselda Pollock and others, including de Zegher, elaborated in the 1996 publication Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings. Similarly, the paper recalls the 1996 exhibition Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of Twentieth Century Art, in, of, and from, the feminine, also curated by de Zegher.  This exhibition is widely considered exemplary in the feminist art historical and curatorial studies literature for its approach to art made by women in the twentieth century, which also experimented with relationality as a curatorial model.

While the relational experimentation of the 18th Biennale of Sydney is significant for the study of feminist art curating, the nature of major global recurring art shows is not always conducive to feminist politics and ethical commitments.  Critical reflection on documenta 12 (2007), another high-profile recurring exhibition that is acclaimed in the feminist literature, showed that there are significant difficulties for curators who practice collaboratively, and who insist on the multiplicity and complexity of contemporary art (Noack, 2008, p. 1).  documenta 12 curator Ruth Noack has explained that the stakes are high  for global recurring shows: extensive media coverage, large visitor numbers and high-visibility funding contribute to a pressurised situation in which experimental or complicated curatorial practices, especially those that resist providing reductive sound-bites, risk being misunderstood and misrepresented (Noack, 2008).  These present potential challenges.

The 18th Biennale of Sydney lends itself to a case study precisely because its proposed relational model is being made explicit.  If the stakes are high for the feminist politics and ethics of the Biennale, as thinking on feminist art curating has indicated is plausible, there may be tensions in the way it plays out.  Simultaneously, the curators have extensive experience working ‘relationally’ in high-profile roles, which would suggest that this situation may come as no surprise.  Indeed the Biennale may develop its own strategies of circumvention as it unfolds.

At the time of writing this abstract, it is my intention to prepare for my visit to Sydney in July by foregrounding the potential issues and tensions, and by tracking the Biennale’s increasing elaboration in the public domain.  This precedes my encounter/s at the Biennale itself, which will enable deep insights into the relational model, but obviously will also present unforeseeable, and perhaps extra-discursive experiences.  Subsequently, by drawing on press reviews, my own relational encounters in the exhibition and critical reflection I will develop my analysis.  For example, by closely reading the responses of the press it will hopefully be possible to surmise how the Biennale can do the feminist work it is clearly setting up for itself.

The paper hopes to make a contribution to thinking on feminist art curating, especially on relationality as a curatorial model, and on the feminist work of global recurring art shows. Will the depth of relationality proposed by the Biennale curators be signified/signifiable in the media coverage?  How will the two curators each negotiate the high-profile and high-responsibility position of ‘co-director’ while maintaining their commitment to a relational way of working?  Overall, by looking to the 18th Biennale of Sydney, the paper will ask what can be learned from current feminist-inflected curatorial practices.


Interventions in Public Spaces in Los Angeles – performative actions by ASCO

Eva Zetterman, PhD, Karlstad University, Sweden, [email protected]

Starting in the early 70s, the city of Los Angeles in southern California has been a major visual art scene for interventions in public spaces. These include exhibitions, projects and collaborations departing from feminist perspectives, as the feminist art program at California Institute of the Arts, the Womanhouse (1972), the Woman’s Building (1973–1991) – comprising an art school (Feminist Studio Workshop), a graphics and printing centre (the Women’s Graphic Centre), art galleries, feminist-owned businesses, and Lesbian Art Projects – as well as several public performances. Examples of these are In Mourning and in Rage (1977) at the City Hall, Three Weeks in May (1977) documenting rapes, and actions by L.A. based performance groups as Sisters of Survival, the Waitresses, and the Feminist Art Workers.

In East L.A., political, economic, social and cultural structures among low-income Mexican-Americans and Chicanos gave rise to other kinds of interventions in public spaces departing from post-colonial perspectives. Being silenced and discriminated against within U.S. majority society, their history and presence were visualized and made present through performative actions, murals, wall paintings, graffiti and tags, using the spaces of streets and highways in the urban L.A. city landscape. Both the feminist and the Chicano activities in Los Angeles were exhibited in fall 2011 through a huge curating project, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–80, with a series of over forty concurrent exhibitions across Southern California.

The aim of this contribution is including different kinds of critical perspectives and broadening the scope beyond gender and sexuality to bodily demarcation lines such as skin-colour and ethnicity/cultural identity. Rather than delivering answers, questions are raised, such as: Which theoretical departures and critical perspectives separate feminists and Chicanos and which do they have in common? What have the main obstacles been for inclusion in the ‘high’ fine art field? Focus in the presentation is the Chicana/o conceptual art group ASCO, with its four members: Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk (Glugio Nicandro), Pattsi Valdez and Willie Herrón. The most interesting with ASCO is that their interventions in public L.A. spaces not only departs from their attachment to the Chicana/o community in East L.A., but that they apply critical perspectives on the Chicano community itself and issues related to this socio-cultural context.


The Central, the Peripheral and the Contra-National: Three women’s curatorial strategies in Israel from the 80’s of the 20th century until today

Osnat Zukerman-Rechter, PhD Cand, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, [email protected]

Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792) and Olympe de Gouges’s “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” (1791), are both considered to be a cornerstone text of modern feminism and from a chronological perspective, happened to appear just around the period of the emergence of the first modern national museums. Yet the motivation to establish an interconnection between the concept of “feminism” and the concept of “curatorship” involves two mega-narratives such as “the birth of feminism” and “the birth of the museum”, and it is in and by itself a part of the same grand-gestured modern, perhaps male oriented, ambition.
Though this paper swings and swirls between these major concepts of feminism and curating, I would like to limit myself to a rather small scale issue and focus upon three curatorial actions of three different women curators in Israel.

Sara Breitberg-Semel, is one of the most important female figures in the Israeli art field. She began working as an art critique and by the end of the 70’s was appointed a curator of Israeli Art at the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art. She held the position for ten years during which time she brought a new style and spirit to the museum and arranged some of the most influential exhibitions of the eighties. During the 90’s she became a chief editor of Studio Art Magazine, which became thanks to her editorial decisions the leading art magazine in Israel. I would suggest looking at her curatorial strategy as a “friction from within” meaning that from her central position in the art establishment she worked in order to enable visibility for women artists and due to her actions she served as a model and paved the way for other female curators to enter the field.

The second woman curator I would like to discuss is Galia Bar-Or, which unlike Breitberg-Semel always worked from the periphery turning the supposedly disadvantages of the peripheral into an advantage. Bar-Or has been the chief curator and general manager of the Ein-Harod Museum of Art since the mid 80’s. She has managed to turn a kibbutz-museum into a well appreciated art institute that plays a center role in the art agenda of Israel, no less than the big city’s museums do, although her curatorial decisions always managed to bring to light lesser-known, unappreciated or forgotten artists. I would argue that her strategy, unlike what we might expect, is not based on creating an oppositional stand to the well established city art centers but on defining anew her locality and strengthening it.

The Third woman curator in my talk is Ariella Azoulay, a visual culture scholar and researcher, a freelance curator and a left wing activist, who has been striving for over 20 years through the visual and especially through the medium of photography to bring to light political blindness in Israel. I would like to examine her contra-national and civil-rights oriented strategy as a feminist move that encapsulates a struggle against silencing.

The three different strategies would allow us to draw three courageous and uncompromising curatorial lines that might be linked to a feminist point of reference, thus offering a delicate, local and personal-oriented interconnection between feminism and contemporary curating.