Cause & Result: Curating Performing Arts

by Florian Malzacher

In: Frakcija 55. Eds. Florian Malzacher, Tea Tupajić, Petra Zanki (2010): 10-19.

What comes first
what can happen
next, and what
alters what has
Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion Cheap Lecture

Around the artist, around art. Among the professions that are rather close to art or even right within, but not artistic themselves, not directly artistic themselves, the curator has the youngest and most unclear profile. In the visual arts, where he became a star within a short time, he is standing in the midst of a controversy that is essentially driven by himself. In the field of dance, theatre, and performance however, he is still rare and, above all, mostly unheeded. Which is all the more surprising since he has long played an influential role in independent performing arts, defining and organizing art, discourses, formats, and finances.

Terminology as scarce commodity

Well, it belongs to the profile of many jobs in the free and experimental international theatre (that is, theatre outside of the fixed structures and relatively fixed aestheticisms of the repertory city theatres, which are mostly active only within the limits of their countries and languages) that there is actually no clear profile. What does a dramaturge do without a drama, an art critic without a catalogue of criteria, a dancer without dance, a theatre director without a text that should be staged? But the theatre curator does not even have an outdated model of reference at his disposal: the terminology and job description has been borrowed from the visual arts, as their particular way of dealing with formats, with art and artists, and with economies and audiences, suddenly seemed transferrable.

Before that, in the 1980s and early 1990s, a good part of the independent theatre landscape had changed considerably: radically new aestheticisms, and later also new working structures and hierarchies within ensembles, collectives, and companies came into existence along with new or newly defined theatre houses and festivals. Above all, the concept of the kunstencentra, which with their open, mostly interdisciplinary approaches paved the way for many of today’s scene-heroes and re-classified the audience, spilled over from Belgium and the Netherlands into the neighbouring countries and made it possible to reinvent theatre as an institution.

With them arrived a new, often charismatically filled professional profile: that of the programme maker (who, depending on the institution, would be officially called artistic director, Intendant, dramaturge, manager, producer). As the name already shows, the accent was on taking a grip on things, on making. A generation of men of action defined the course of events – and even if their attitude seems occasionally patriarchal from today’s point of view, the scene was actually less male-biased than the society and the city theatres around it. This generation of founders, which at the same time redefined and imported the model of the dramaturge, established some remarkably efficient and stabile structures and publics: it was a time of invention and discovery, which has had obvious repercussions into the present day. Professional profiles were created and changed – also that of the artist himself.

This foundation work was largely completed by the mid-1990s at the latest (at least in the West), not least because financial resources were becoming more scarce. What followed was a generation of former assistants, of critical apprentices so to say, and with them a period of continuity, but also of differentiation, reflection, and well-tailored networks, of development and re-questioning new formats – labs and residencies, summer academies, parcours, thematic mini-festivals, emerging artist platforms… The difficulty of the plains replaces that of the mountains, the struggle over quality criteria and discourses replaces the often socio-cultural founding-impetus to let very different cultures coexist equally.

The picture is still dominated by transition models, but the strong specialization of the arts (exemplified by the visual arts), the subsequent specialization of the programme makers and dramaturges, and a generally altered professional world – which also here increasingly relies on free, independent, as well as cheaper labour – along with increasingly differentiated audiences, again require a different professional profile: the curator is a symptom of these changes in art, as well as in society and the market. His working fields are theatre forms that often cannot be realized within the established structures; artistic handwritings that always require different approaches; a scene that is more and more internationalized and disparate; the communication of often not easy aestheticisms; transmission and contextualization. Last but not least, the curator is the link between art and the public.

Whether the stolen term curator is the most suitable here for this job or not is currently a popular point of dispute and, above all, polemics. However, there is more at stake than personal gain in distinction to programme makers, who might not feel appreciated enough. And the difficulty of naming and defining this new job is just symptomatic for a genre in which terminology is a scarce commodity anyway and which does not even have a reasonably good name itself: Experimental theatre? Free theatre? All biased or misleading. Time-based art? Live art? At least attempts at defining the genres within different borders. Devised theatre, that is, a theatre that must evolve again and again from scratch? New theatre – after all these years? Postdramatic theatre? At least one successful, marketable keyword. But how does the kind of dance that has been so influential in recent years, but is also still looking for a suitable name, fit in here: conceptual dance?

As a clandestine romantic, one might consider the missing slate to be a subversive gain and fashion it that way in the first place – an elitist thinking in niches, but out of defensive resignation rather than self-confidence. In fact, the lack of terminology indicates above all a lack of articulation, a lack of communication not limited to advertising, a lack of more than purely intra- disciplinary discourse in the performing arts, which remain amazingly speechless in this respect. Thus it again signals the necessity of curatorial work, which – as can be seen in the visual arts, where catalogues, for example, are an integral part of almost all exhibitions – consists to a large extent of verbalization, communication, and discussion. As a part of the central task to create contexts.