Bethinking One’s Own Strengths. The Performative Potential of Curating

by Florian Malzacher

In: Curating Live Arts. Critical Perspectives, Essays, and Conversations on Theory and Practice. Eds. Dena Davida et al. New York & Oxford: Berghahn, 2018. xvi-xxi.

Maybe it is symptomatic of the strange untimeliness of theater that it has introduced the concept of the curator to the field of live arts at what seems to be a rather badly chosen moment: for even though curation remains a buzzword in the visual arts where it has experienced an unprecedented boom over the last decades, it is also increasingly criticized. Does the curator aim to be a meta-artist, ultimately creating art without artists? Is the curator a neo-liberal agent, fulfilling the market demands even before the market itself demands them, well wrapped in seemingly anti-capitalist discourse? And is it not anyway a diluted, empty term by now, when every shop window is subject to curating?

So it does not come as a surprise that now, as the concept of curating slowly makes its way into the world of the live arts, it is confronted with quite a bit of skepticism. After all, theater tends to consider itself one of the last places of resistance against the imposition of the very neoliberalism that the visual arts, with their especially close relationship to market economy, is so much part of. And is not the title of a curator already actually just a sales device, used in the desire to snatch some of the glamour of the shiny world of galleries and biennales, appropriated by theater and festival programmers, producers, and dramaturges for its sexier sound rather than as a token for a real commitment to changing one’s own practice?

Resentment meets some good arguments in these debates, which are often conducted as a superficial substitute for other discussions. This has most prominently been seen in the recent heated exchanges around former Tate Modern director and visual arts curator Chris Deron taking over the legendary Berlin theater Volksbühne after the exit of the ground-breaking Frank Castorf. The debates rage over theater versus visual arts, repertoire/ ensemble theater versus international production house, drama versus post-drama, local versus global, ethos versus post-politics, sustainability versus event, social democracy versus market, and so on. The figure of the curator is a stand-in for many of these battlefields and became a symbol for the changes and challenges that confront mainly ensemble-based and text-based repertory theaters. But a deeper consideration of what curating in the live arts can actually contribute to artistic, aesthetic, political, discursive thinking is symptomatically not part of this debate.