Narratives of a Seminar

Christer Dynna reports from the seminar ‘New Narratives in Crafts’, Oslo, 19 November 2015

In November 2015, a seminar with the enticing title of "New Narratives in Crafts" was held in Oslo at Norway’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design – Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. This institution also hosts an annual juried craft exhibition that draws huge crowds. The seminar was fully booked and peopled largely by visual artists and crafts people, either students or professionals, but there were also art teachers and art historians.

«We only remember exhibitions that invent a new rule of the game»

Christian Boltanski to Hans Ulrich Obrist

The seminar’s title probably fostered different expectations amongst the attendees. Some might have expected the focus to be on the new, as in stories about new trends in the field of crafts; for others the title might have provoked a question about alternative paradigms – which one will come to rule the world of craft? The notion of ‘grand narratives’ and their collapse during the post-modern era is a topic of so-called Continental philosophy, it's main exponent being the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. None of these expectations reflects what was said in the seminar, for its dominant theme was curatorial practices in making exhibitions. 

The overt agreement to speak of the curator as an author is quite new, at least in the sphere of craft, and likewise the willingness to view and discuss exhibitions as objects in their own right. This topic has already been addressed in the book Crafting Exhibitions (2015), edited by André Gali. As Gali explains, the book’s aim is to make visible and render debatable "how curators think and work, and how the exhibition [as a medium] creates meaning" in its own right and not simply through the sum of exhibited objects. 

In his introduction to the seminar, Gali adjusted the audience's expectations. He raised awareness of how a typical art gallery, say a 'white cube', is mistakenly seen as a neutral space, even though, like any other space, it carries an ideology. He questioned the hegemonic way of seeing displays of contemporary craft as "singular phenomena without any relation to other objects". In such contexts, the objects are taken out of service and exempt or liberated from real life. 

Gali also challenged the idea of the curator as a benign force, stressing that an exhibited work of craft is not put in an exhibition merely as an object for contemplation, but also as the result of the curator's "meticulous choice". In "including some and excluding others", the curator sets the tone for critically assessing who it is who is being left out of the show. Along with introducing the seminar speakers, he highlighted key topics to be discussed that day. One question up for discussion was whether "the exhibition as a medium is also a natural habitat for contemporary craft". Another was about the current key narratives in craft exhibitions, and a third concerned the "degree to which curators of craft are also authors of new narratives".

«to speak of the curator as an author is quite new in the sphere of craft, and likewise the willingness to view and discuss exhibitions as objects in their own right»

Ways of curating industrial design
First among the invited speakers was Petra Hölscher, senior curator at the Neue Sammlung in Munich. Images of how Hölscher practises curating at her workplace made for a tantalising start to the day. Otherwise, she did little in terms of outlining any new curatorial narratives. In presenting a brief historical survey of her institution's varying mandates as a public collector, however, she did a lot to raise awareness of times past. Indeed, the Neue Sammlung has been innovative in displaying how industrial design is made and consumed, yet she was open about the risk the museum takes of becoming a mere "shrine to consumerism". 

Back in the 1980s the Neue Sammlung was one of the first institutions of its kind to highlight mass-production as a system of manufacturing. This is a very "German way of thinking", said Hölscher, and the image she showed as an example was from an exhibition on the work of Ettore Sottsass. The show included an eye-catching display of the iconic Valentine typewriter. Made by the Italian manufacturer Olivetti, the Valentine was a must-have item in an era peopled by radicals of all sorts. Its status was perhaps similar to how, at least a few years ago, consumers embraced Apple products on account of the brand's 'alternative values'. Despite this aura of individuality, the Sottsass exhibition did not present the typewriter as if it were the accessory of a progressive student in the '70s. Rather, the Neue Sammlung made a twist to this narrative by highlighting how an industrial system of mass-production allowed this coveted design item to be available and affordable. By filling an entire wall with Valentines – they looked a bit like a red "army of thoughts" – the Neue Sammlung conveyed a two-fold message about the scale of industrial production and the scant room for individuality in consuming industrial goods. 

The Munich museum often uses experimental modes of curating for temporary exhibitions, and according to Hölscher, they offer seemingly "boundless freedom". Well, not quite – since she attested to the fact that "the security of items and the audience is paramount". 

Hearing about curatorial strategies from an institutional vantage point made for a good start to the seminar, notwithstanding Hölscher’s claim that "Nobody believes that we have no money"; Neue Sammlung receives only two percent of its funding from the public. Yet she admitted that with design on the agenda, there are plenty of industrial manufacturers and companies willing to pay a sizeable share of an exhibition’s budget. 

One cannot help but think of how this funding situation would be if the museum focused its entire program on crafts and used the word 'crafts' in the institution's name. (A great many museums whose names previously included the word 'crafts' have changed their name in the last two decades in order to graft the d-word 'design' into their 'DNA').

«Mimicking a real clothing store, Skreddersydd had cubicles serving as fitting rooms for those willing to try on the garments»

Gallery cum shop
The theme of experimental modes of curating that can encompass both craft and design was also central to the presentation by Ingun Myrstad, a Norwegian textile artist. She walked the audience through a project from 2014, Skreddersydd (Tailor-Made), that was presented as a bespoke design and retail shop. Myrstad curated the exhibition and mounted it in a gallery space in Trondheim, Norway. Her blending of craft with design and retailing with gallery activities created mixed expectations and perhaps some confusion. This is only to be expected when bringing a new audience to the white cube that otherwise caters to an established and more homogeneous audience of fine art aficionados. Mimicking a real clothing store, Skreddersydd had cubicles serving as fitting rooms for those willing to try on the garments. But inside each cubicle, Myrstad made a miniature exhibition. These exhibitions inside the exhibition opened for another kind of spectator perspective, said Myrstad.

The strategies for spreading information about the event in the city of Trondheim (and beyond) were a core part of the experiment, as was the idea to transform the white cube – a space that sits in the city landscape like a holy shrine – into a forever besmutted space with an aura of retail and commercial activity. Myrstad told about her success in communicating the event to fashion bloggers (wielders of a new mass medium), and how their eager coverage drew groups other than the older audience who ordinarily frequent the gallery space. Most particularly, the bloggers gave access to amateur fashionistas and passionate young people.

«the main vector for the curatorial game was purely formal, so as to avoid the urge to compose a story or logic of narration»

Magic and Chinese
An alternative method for bringing about the unforeseen and creating surprises has been used by the freelance curator and exhibition designer Marianne Zamecznik. She is also one of the contributors to the aforementioned book Crafting Exhibitions. Among other things, she curated two exhibitions at Révélations, a biannual craft fair launched in Paris in 2013 at the Grand Palais, a heritage site originally built for the World’s Fair in 1900. For the first edition of Révélations, Zamecznik designed the Norwegian stand, and for the second edition, she developed and tested out a new method of co-curating. She intentionally let her curatorial control "slip through her fingers" and instead engaged in a lengthy process of collective curating. Piece by piece, the exhibition was composed through participation from four other curators. The exhibition title magic language/// game of whispers partly describes the curation process. It is informed by the children's game where one person whispers a sentence to another, who repeats it to another, and so on and so forth, until the sentence gradually becomes distorted and possibly nonsensical. The curators started off with an object of Zamecznik's choice and added to the selection by way of their own associative capacities. Thus the exhibition was composed piece by piece, like a string of words. Added to one word at a time, a phrase developed, somewhat like a system of distorted onomatopeticons. This is because the main vector for the curatorial game was purely formal, so as to avoid the urge to compose a story or logic of narration.

Zamecznik linked the results of this mode of co-curating to what she referred to as a pre-modern understanding of the world, whereby a plethora of phenomena became linked through something akin to religious and mythical belief systems. She saw this way of understanding the world as standing in opposition to an alternative paradigm introduced by the biologist Carl von Linné (1707-1778). With his scientific approach to reality, the knowledge and observations that were organised as a string of thoughts were cut, classified and arranged anew, using a method of boxing and characterising phenomena according to strict familiar traits and species. 

Zamecznik’s innovative method of curating as an associative chain allows for endless combinations, and thus exhibitions. The most intriguing thing about it is perhaps the mode of the participating curators' mind-sets; these the public actually had access to, given that the objects were all tagged with a brief label explaining the conditions for the particular curator's decision to include this or that work in the associative chain. These texts could be read on their own as a string of shared knowledge – with little overview and lots of surprises.

«Lignel could tell of "extravagant exhibition designs, [of a kind] that made you remember the exhibition, but not the pieces"»

Tales told and shown
The fourth speaker was Ben Lignel, a writer, editor and jewellery curator. In the context of discussing the need to challenge the commonly held narrative of "art being something innovative that breaks the rule – versus craft, seen as [inherently] generic", he presented his curatorial strategy for a show called Skilnad og gjentaking (Difference and Repetition) at the Kraft gallery in Bergen, Norway. The exhibition space was originally built as a bank vault, so it was truly Lilliputian. For this reason, and on account of the four week time slot, Lignel decided to make four one-week shows rather than one show lasting four weeks. The title Skilnad og gjentaking reflected on notions of craft but also on the shows themselves. Lignel's other intention, in Bergen as elsewhere, was to confront spectators with questions about jewellery being a place where "the generic and the singular intersect". 

In his presentation Lignel discussed findings from a book he launched in spring 2015. The main part of Shows and Tales - On Jewelry Exhibition Making consists of a series of commissioned articles on landmark exhibitions. These and other contributions to the book make it a survey of sorts. Lignel could thus speak with insight and authority on how expectations for exhibitions have changed in the last fifty years. Given the book's scrutiny of recent developments in a large array of jewellery exhibitions, Lignel could both show and tell of an "evolution of more and more extravagant exhibition designs, [of a kind] that made you remember the show or the exhibition, but not the pieces". At the same time, he proposed presenting works of fine craft through filmic media, instead of showing the works themselves.

This latter idea was elucidated further when Lignel took part in a staged tête-à-tête with Zamecznic, who also has experience of presenting works in ways that do more than just put things on show. One example of this was when she curated a graduate show consisting of models of works, called avatars, rather than the works themselves. Before the graduate show, each student had already presented his or her work to the public, in a way and at a site that took into account the work’s logic.

«The most hilarious contribution was a pile of sticks and twigs, chewed on for the most part, that were put under a glass box and set on a white plinth»

Who's afraid of chewing sticks?
Emily King's talk put the program back on the track of institutional practices. As a freelance curator for the 2011 Lisbon biennale, she successfully challenged standard curatorial narratives and paradigms. Her take on the task, she said, was to "do as little as possible to achieve what you want done". For the Lisbon biennale, this meant not putting up a huge show in a grand venue but instead using the many small historical museums in the Portuguese capital for presenting her selected displays. A city-centre tram assured the connectivity of the biennale's venues, for the most part overlooked and old fashioned museums, some true museological gems of a bygone era. 

Kings explained her strategy of doing things repetitiously and on a small scale, somewhat similar to the four one-week shows in Bergen curated by Ben Lignel. But King did not focus on any particular material or format. Her exhibitions consisted instead of small, personal collections of disparate material value. One friend lent her his collection of record sleeves; another offered his soda-can collection, and so on and so forth. The most hilarious contribution was a pile of sticks and twigs, chewed on for the most part, that were put under a glass box and set on a white plinth. These belonged to Snoopy, a friend's dog, who had collected them for her owner during daily walks in the neighbourhood park. Stories such as this seemed to engage the audience, perhaps due to the playful qualities that so readily conveyed King’s curatorial credo: curators should do as little as possible to achieve what they want.

King talked about the films and interviews she did in conjunction with an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London, Martino Gamper: Design Is a State of Mind. The show followed a logic of personal collecting much along the same lines as the Lisbon biennale, but it was somewhat less vernacular or amateur since there were no Snoopies involved, only designer friends who gave access to their private collections and how they presented them on shelves. Next, King offered a vague nine-word apology: "I was going to relate all this to craft…", adding that the current trend is to make "no big distinction between craft and designer makers". One reason for the erasing of boundaries, she said, is technology. Craft has the ability to "disturb hierarchy, disrupt economic systems and divert attention”. These claims were however not developed further. Perhaps they were like sweet frosting on a nutritious cake, to make it a bit more edible to a reluctant dinner guest. King struck a personal note by divulging that she herself had a "huge fear of stuff", and that making "exhibitions on collecting was a way of dealing with this fear". She had learned that one "cannot collect for a living, it has to be amateur, or else you become a dealer, like Saatchi is".

«Artists are perhaps the best curators of their own work, but not perhaps in making new narratives»

Jorunn Veiteberg

Let’s work together
Art historian Jorunn Veiteberg, who has a long list of publications to her name and is an guest professorat HDK Gothenburg University, tried provoking the audience in the opening question of her talk: "Are artists the best curators?" Quite the contrary, she said. Her mode of curating was "to show what I love [as] I want to share it. […] It shouldn't be necessary to have other reasons than this”. Veiteberg then admitted that of course it is not that simple, since curating is part of "a social game", and one must therefore argue for one’s choices. To reduce exhibition curation to the level of a social game probably should have ignited the part of the audience that had become tired after a long day. 

The remainder of her talk was more orthodox, and Veiteberg was the first that day to try to expose "narratives that are in the air" or prevalent in the crafts today. Her list of narratives came to five, some illustrated with examples drawn from recent exhibitions she herself loved. The first was of "finding one's own place in the world", illustrated with Hildur Bjarnadóttir's use of "plant dyes extracted from Iceland”, used in her art like a "recording device". Veiteberg stressed how Bjarnadóttir's Colour of Belonging reveals the process "in the end product, if you can see it". Craft made in this way, according to Veiteberg, treats craft as "a verb rather than a noun".

Second on her list were "gestures of resistance". This she illustrated with pictures of works by Theaster Gates, from a show at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon. The third narrative was "post-disiplinarity and the crafts", or sloppy craft as the more prosaic saying goes. Veiteberg cited works by Bjørn Mortensen to exemplify this narrative of "welcoming and embracing coincidences and mistakes". This can especially be seen when an artist without technical skills works with a material deemed "a craft medium". Veiteberg saw this narrative as resulting from changes in education and from the reign of inter-disciplinarily in most educative systems today. "The material based art that makes its way through the gallery system is made like this", she asserted.

The fourth current narrative on Veiteberg’s list was "when craft becomes a theme in the fine arts". This makes one "lose the compass and it creates instability". Rhetorically she asked: "Could that have happened five years ago?" The present state of things creates "so many narratives on craft that we have to face and engage in".

Narrative number five she called "the magic of things". "Magic is forgotten by our museums' scientific perspectives", she said, but magic qualities still draw crowds to some shows. There was for instance great success when a film maker designed the anniversary exhibition at Georg Jensen, there were also spectacular results from Philippe Starck's alternative twist in the staging of a porcelain exhibition at the Groeningen Museum back in the 1980s, and an example from 2010 was when Hans Stofer made a personal installation at Gallery S O, called Walk the Line. From this, Veiteberg concluded that "Artists are perhaps the best curators of their own work, but not perhaps in making new narratives – that is where we can work together”.

«today there are innumerable vernacular exhibitions online. Perhaps they will soon reify into physical reality»

The new Uber curator
Attending a seminar that announces "new narratives" in big letters, one runs the risk of being disappointed, perhaps all the more so when it is hosted by an institution that dates back 140 years. There are higher stakes to making narratives and putting up exhibitions than simply forwarding what one cherishes. Making new narratives without including new voices is seldom more than an emperor in yet another seemingly new frock.

"We only remember exhibitions that invent a new rule of the game", said the French artist Christian Boltanski to Hans Ulrich Obrist back in 1991, then a teenager – today a star curator. Changing the game is what Obrist says he has been trying to do ever since, early on with shows like Take Me (I’m Yours) (in 1995 at the Serpentine Gallery, London), and many times later through exhibitions that audiences can experience and engage with through more than just their eyes. Obrist was early in seeing an exhibition "as a medium in itself", one result of which was that a whole new aesthetics in the arts came about – via new artists like Felix Gonzales Torres and others.

To have new audiences – bloggers and others – come to see your exhibition in an old venue, may be aligned with change – but it’s no game changer. All kinds of stuff are regularly posted online, as so-called social online media are still in an eruptive phase. Millions of people are feeding personal data into the algorithms of software, the only logic of which is to associate the one bit of data with that provided by others. Through combining a variety of elements via new technology, social media in particular, new associations and narratives are being created continuously. This way of "organising information" seems somewhat similar to the string of thoughts that Zamecznic put into play with her four co-curators.

Technologically enhanced ‘sharing’ is the big buzzword. Uber, Airbnb and other online platforms have sparked a new ‘sharing economy’, one similar to the game of whispers structure. We are all connected and inter-dependant. This happens to the detriment of old-school businesses. Technology empowers the non-professional and lets the amateur do the business. And when the collaborative means have exponential growth such as we see today, this creates a wider audience whose taste for authorship arises from sharing, blogging and so on and so forth. Lignel's idea of mediating works of fine craft by showing movies instead of the actual things is therefore highly relevant; this is what thousands of people do online after they have seen a show with the actual things in it. This is perhaps only ‘parroting’, but once the public reach a higher level of sophistication, they will become less dependent on the expert's "meticulous choice", as Gali put it. 

The changes brought about by new media will slowly but also explosively make an impact on our daily lives. Again, how better to give a narrative structure to these changes than through testing out ways of engaging a wider public and letting go of, as Gali says, the privileged curator's power of "including some and excluding others"? Would one truly new narrative be what King touched on briefly in her talk, of how craft can "disturb hierarchy, disrupt economic systems, and divert attention" from the logic of old society? Well, today there are innumerable vernacular exhibitions online. Perhaps they will soon reify into physical reality. So prepare for chewed up sticks and twigs of all sorts, it will soon hit a plinth near you, 'cause Snoopy is off her leash and in the room …