Curating in the Age of Digital Distribution 2
Questions on contemporary curating
In David Balzer’s 2015 book Curationism; how curating took over the art world and everything else, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev asks; How did the curator ascend? How did the curator’s practice bleed into the popular-consumerist culture?  Generally, the professional habitat of the curator is considered to be the art institution, the museum and the exhibition space, but now it has seemingly been extended to the shop window, the private home and every other imaginable space, both physical and virtual.
My first meeting with ‘curating’ was with its diffused meaning while I read an interview online about the work of an interior designer titled A Curated Life. After that moment, I kept coming across the word practically everywhere I looked online and offline; online content curation, curated fashion collection, curating your style, curated music playlist, curated experience, carefully curated menu and so on and so forth.
Everything suddenly became the curated domain of all those who referred to themselves as curators of sorts. Christov-Bakargiev’s question was mirrored in my own curiosity. Later as I studied the subject academically and approached it from the outside in, I kept lilting back and forth from the idea that everything and everywhere can be curated, to the curator who belongs to the exhibition space and whose work is intended to be devoted to art.
Subsequently arises the question of how to deal with the virtual dimension of anything physical. The rise of the Internet and social media has permeated every aspect of modern life and drastically altered the working culture and values of contemporary society, including modes of production and consumption – even in the art world. This is highly evident in art in the way that the art viewer and the exhibition-goer are both a producer and consumer of art as well as a curator due to the opportunity to capture aspects of the artistic experience to later edit and post to social media.
In turn, the role of the contemporary curator extends beyond the physical exhibition space, to the virtual realm where much conversation and exchange about the artistic event or the exhibition occur. The contemporary curator happens to be working in a time where digital culture continuously permeates the physical sphere. For the contemporary curator, this implies changes to their work pattern and curatorial tasks. A degree of curatorial planning and decision-making is being increasingly dedicated to anticipating how the exhibition audience will consume and comment about the event, and to maintaining curatorial authorship of the audience’s experience by leading and moderating ‘online panels’ of conversation and commentary.
For the art viewer, this means that their physical experience of space is altered by the way in which they consume the curated space through their camera lens and the act of taking pictures or ‘selfies’ with added cultural capital. In addition, the exhibition space is being increasingly designed to accommodate the shift to digital and new modes of consumption. With this in mind, when I visited Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures at the Austrian pavilion, I could
not help but think that the work played off the idea of consumption as the viewers themselves became the artwork, and thus, the consumed object.
Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures at the Austrian pavilion, 57th Venice Art Biennale.
Image link: erwinwurm.at/artworks/one-minute-sculptures.html
The online shift requires that every fraction of materiality has its own online identity. In the contemporary online realm, the power of reproducibility and circulation surpasses originality and ownership  in such a way that results in individual users collectively ‘curating’ their artistic experience. Repetition leads to recognition, and if an image is reproduced, circulated and seen enough times by enough people, the image achieves the status of an icon while those involved in its ‘iconification’ achieve the role of collaborators on this process. The current generation thrives on collaborating and communicating and the means by which this occurs is social media, due to the unprecedented possibilities it offers its users to express themselves instantly, boundlessly and visually.
The culture of collaboration and social media sharing has rapidly permeated every industry and aspect of private life, art and exhibition-going included. A large part of the exhibition audience will take to the internet with pictures of artworks they saw, or pictures of themselves with the work to assert their first-hand experience and association with art, the exhibition and possibly the artists’ or curators’ names if they are famous enough. These pictures are shared on social media with family, friends, strangers, and keep circulating ad infinitum in the vastness of the Internet. In the present time, experiences are largely consumed through
taking pictures of what one is physically experiencing at a point in time, and re-consumed later through the editing and sharing process of that experience, where the user also gets to contextualise their image within a narrative of their choosing by captioning it before freeing it on social media.
The visual element in social media sharing points towards the importance of aesthetic value in the artistic experience. In the words of Boris Groys, “The spectator expects a so-called aesthetic experience from art.”  What is visually attractive or appealing, fast becomes more shareable.
As contemporary exhibitions, contrary to permanent exhibits, tend to be temporary (and their contemporaneity is considerably defined by this factor), there is only so much time at hand for the event to be heard of, visited and talked about. Under this condition, the only way for the contemporary exhibition to surpass and survive its own temporal materiality is to achieve a legacy online that prolongs its ‘lifespan’ indefinitely.
Due to its complex physiognomy, the Internet opens up plenty of opportunities for revival and renewed discussion about an exhibition, way after it closes to make space for a new event.
Therefore, if the aesthetic quality of an exhibition contributes to it becoming ‘social media fodder’ and establishing a ‘timeless’ identity online, it is only logical that contemporary exhibitions are designed keeping the visual aspect at the forefront in deciding the final outcome. Having said all this, it can be safely stated that working with the pervading notion of digital culture is a main factor that differentiates and in a certain way, defines, the contemporary curator from the conventional curator.
What is particularly interesting is that people appear to tend to feel a need to re-live and re-tell a similar experience shared by others before them, whether consciously or not, as a manner of validating their own experience. This is clearly visible in the staggering similarity among pictures of and ‘selfies’ with the same object uploaded online by entities and individuals that have no real connection with each other whatsoever. Every new exhibition that is launched is a brand new experience that is yet to be wholly consumed and curated by the audience and the audience looks forward to this opportunity.
How did the curator’s practice bleed into the popular-consumerist culture?
The shift to digital gave the chance to more people than ever before to generate their own photo and video albums and store them on their devices with little to no cost attached. The process is now instant, almost effortless and there is almost no limit to the number of pictures that one can take. As a result, more things are being photographed and everything is photographed more frequently. Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur argues that the digital camera killed the craft of photography because “Everyone now is a photographer.” 
Using their social media accounts and other online platforms, it has never been easier for people to upload their visual material to the Internet and share it with family, friends and people from all over the globe. The amount of information being uploaded to the Internet daily is almost unfathomable. In 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated that every two days, as much information as was created since the dawn of civilisation up to 2003 is uploaded to the Internet. 
The Internet is a largely democratic platform, affording each user equal possibility and opportunity to upload and share content with others. The current generation thrives on communicating and collaborating and the means by which this occurs is social media, due to the unprecedented possibilities it offers its users to express themselves instantly, boundlessly and visually. However, as overwhelming amounts of information are incessantly released and circulated online, there needs to be a filtering system that sorts the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’, the
‘worthwhile from the ‘worthless’, ‘quality’ from ‘mediocrity’, facilitating navigation of this immense virtual space and blocking out the ‘noise’. Just as prescribed by the democratic model in physical society, authority online is calculated numerically, where the more the better and the preference of the majority rules.
On social media, the more ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ a user accumulates, the more leverage their content acquires, due to the probability of being seen and shared more frequently by other people. One way for a user to increase their chances of being followed by others is by ‘curating’ the content they post and share online through executing the earlier mentioned process of selecting and editing. Content that has been ‘selected’ and ‘edited’ is generally perceived as more valuable and authoritative because of the labour that is put into honing it, almost automatically placing it among the ‘good’, ‘worthwhile’ and ‘quality’ content with shareable attributes. Investing time in anything within a culture where everything is increasingly fast and instant is perceived as ‘expensive’ and therefore, potentially, of higher quality.
Repetition leads to recognition, and if an image is reproduced, circulated and seen enough times by enough people, the image achieves the status of an icon while those involved in its ‘iconification’ achieve the role of collaborators on this process. Continuing on the last point, another way in which ‘curating’ online is done, is by imitating and sharing others’ content. The action of seeing another user’s content and uploading a self-made, highly similar version of it and/or sharing it with other users supports that content’s validity and vets it as ‘good’ and ‘worthwhile’. Everyone living in the digital age selects, edits, uploads and shares content online. Everyone ‘curates’. Is the social age lethal to the curatorial profession because everyone now is a curator?
The fact that terms such as ‘curating’ and ‘curated’ have been popularly adopted in the collective strive to separate the ‘good’ and the ‘worthwhile’ from the ‘bad’ and the ‘worthless’ in the online realm, suggests that the curator is still widely perceived as an authority and an arbiter of good taste and quality. Arguably, this stems from the curator’s recent fast rise to authority (and sometimes stardom) in the art and culture realm to the point where the term ‘uber-curator’ was coined. However, lifting the title of ‘curator’ from its original context
and using it in the online domain with the aim of achieving a fast rise to online authority is an appropriation that could lead to the adulteration and commercialisation of the curator’s profession.
In the exhibition space, the curator is widely regarded as an authoritative figure with expertise in their area and authorship of the audience’s experience. Although the fields of art and culture are no longer elitist and exclusive, but now invite public engagement and opinion-sharing, the exhibition curator is still expected to lead the conversation surrounding the event, adding value and insight to the experience. On the Internet, where authority is ultimately determined by popularity, the curator becomes a democratic collective and what is ‘good’ and ‘worthwhile’ is what is most popular. How does the contemporary exhibition curator face this situation? How does the curator deal with how the exhibition takes shape virtually in a space that is beyond their control?
Spending a month in Venice, invigilating at the British pavilion during the 57th Art Biennale, I spent a lot of time looking at people who visited the pavilion and also looking at what they looked at. After becoming more and more familiar with the space and accustomed to the presence of Phyllida Barlow’s massive works, my interest increasingly and somehow
inevitably shifted to the people flowing in and out of the exhibition and how they engaged with it. As an aspiring curator, I highly appreciated the chance to spend an extended amount of time observing the exhibition audience. I was conscious of the fact that this is the crowd for whom the outcome of curatorial work is intended and yet, the curator is hardly ever directly involved with the ‘consumers’ of their work.
“The Art System is generally characterized by the asymmetrical relationship between the gaze of the art producer and the gaze of the art spectator. These two almost never meet.” Groys, B. (2016), In the Flow, Verso Books, New York City.
The pavilion fast became the space where my questions about contemporary curating, the audience as curator (or co-curator), and how time, aesthetics and digital culture shape curatorial work, unfolded in a real-life scenario.
Looking at people and what they look at
With a little imagination, Phyllida Barlow’s gigantic, colourful and chaotic sculptures could easily be fashioned into the structures of a city or a little country. The appeal to the
imagination, the flamboyancy, precariousness and sheer scale of her work makes it playful, engaging, instantly recognisable and irresistible to photograph. The strong visual factor, combined with the exhibition’s temporariness is an almost certain recipe for online virality.
Remarkably, after the first few days on the pavilion, I started noticing that a sort of uncommunicated pattern started emerging among visitors in how they made their way around the galleries, down to the detail of when they bent down, stretched sideways, reached up, reached out to try to touch the work or stopped to take pictures (of the art, of themselves, of others, or themselves and others with the art). Witnessing the audience behaving in such a manner around Phyllida’s work secretly amused me and sealed my conviction that the artist’s work is truly effective in achieving its creator’s ‘choreographic’ vision as well as people’s like-
mindedness despite their individuality. From my perspective, it did indeed look a lot like a pre- rehearsed performance in which the audience was fully engaged, unconsciously collaborating and through which my observations were reaffirmed each time a new ‘performer’ came along.
The theatrical attributes of the exhibition are particularly relevant to folly due to the way in which Phyllida’s structures completely take over and alter the space, generating a unique dynamic. Back in March while attending an induction seminar in London, Harriet Cooper, the curator of folly, delivered a session in which she spoke about Phyllida’s work, elaborated on the artist’s vision and the collaboration between the artist and the curatorial team in setting up the exhibition. Harriet said that Phyllida is capable of designing the space and creating specific paths within it. She pushes the viewer to behave differently than they would looking at a work hung on a wall. According to Harriet, how the space is experienced evokes the idea of performance, rehearsal and theatre.
“She’s really thought about how you can see through the doorway, or the door over there…”
Harriet Cooper, curator, folly
While the audience was busy documenting their experience of folly and ‘curating’ its digital legacy as they took pictures and uploaded them to social media, the curatorial discussion about Phyllida’s work and the exhibition experience also continued online. Harriet’s words about the exhibition and her insight about the works on show were quoted and regularly appeared on the British Council’s Instagram account  in combination with official photographs of Phyllida’s pieces. I wondered whether the audience’s online activity and the British Council’s (and Harriet’s) discussion about the work somehow informed and shaped each other. I was curious whether what the British Council published would be picked up and reproduced by the exhibition-going crowd, and whether I would be able
to find visual traces of their uncommunicated yet similar order of navigating the pavilion.
“The museum is a place where the asymmetrical war between ordinary human gaze and technology armed gaze not only takes place, but also is revealed, so that it can be thematized and critically theorized.”
Groys, B. (2016), In the Flow, Verso Books, New York City.
If so, it would be difficult to measure how and to which extent, however I assumed that it was much likely to happen to some degree. Having an online presence is usually a two-way process involving acquiring followers as well as following others’ activity. As the commissioning body of folly, who worked directly with the artist and the curators, the British Council’s online activity would be regarded as a primary source from which to gather insight about the exhibition and probably mirrored by numerous people. Simultaneously, the British Council could easily keep up with how the exhibition is being received by the audience and devise ways of interaction. In addition, the tendency to reproduce and repeat others’ pictures as a way of asserting one’s own experience would lead to numerous pictures that are ‘the same
but not quite the same’ being shared.
Image link: instagram.com/brit_visualarts
In order to find out if there was any truth to my assumption, I decided to resort to Instagram, widely considered as the most visually-oriented of all social media. If my assumption that the exhibition audience ‘curated’ the exhibition space online in the same way as they physically moved through it, within the large pool of images of Phyllida’s artworks taken from various angles, I was expecting to find ones in which the same artwork kept reappearing and being photographed from (almost) the same angle.
“The artist has filled up the space in very specific ways that do seem to have created an unspoken prescribed order of how to move within it. There are no signs, nothing to show this, yet most of those who come in from the front tend to venture towards Gallery 2 first, try to squeeze through between the wooden panel and the two suspended pieces and look into the giant roll in Gallery 6.”
Excerpt from journal entry dated Tuesday, June 6th, 2017.
Makings GIFs of the British pavilion
Using the British pavilion as testing ground, I created a series of digital collages using pictures of Phyllida Barlow’s folly, in order to visualise how the audience consumed the exhibition and the exhibition space. My process involved searching for images on Instagram, using hashtags such as #britishpavilion, #phyllidabarlow and #ukinvenice and indiscriminately downloading each picture that appeared featuring any aspect of folly. Due to the time frame within which I was working, the pictures I collected were uploaded to Instagram between May and July. For this exercise, I used around 500 pictures, which I sorted according to the part of the pavilion in which they were taken and the artwork that they portrayed.
I employed the JPEG and GIF forms in my visualisation as these are the lightest forms of data distribution and the GIF is also one of the most popular way of communicating through sequencing images. Employing this mode of visualisation continues to be in line with the notions of abundance and availability of pictures of the same thing that are posted online, as well as the idea that cheap and easily distributable images are synonymous with the democratic and populist principles by which the Internet functions. With the help of a graphic designer in using Photoshop, I sequenced the images on a frame timeline in
order to generate a GIF for each gallery within the pavilion, as well as the outside area.
“What makes the weak artifact powerful is not its resolution or quality, but its abundance and availability – the fact that everyone can possess it, whenever one pleases, often for little or no cost.”
Goldsmith, K. (2016), Wasting Time on the Internet, Harper Collins, New York City.
Through this exercise emerged a visual pattern in the way that the audience posted about the exhibition and ‘curated’ it online. In the midst of all the variety, there were numerous recurring pictures portraying particular artworks from almost the exact same angles. The exhibition-goers collectively, albeit unknowingly, collaborated and decided which artworks would become the most shared, photographed and talked about to the point where a small number of images can almost become stand-alone icons for the whole exhibition.
All these pictures taken in gallery 6 of the British pavilion were uploaded to Instagram.
One of them was uploaded by the British Council.
This process is significant because the combination of curatorial input and audience engagement contributes to the emergence of a digital identity for the exhibition. The importance of this identity increases after the biennale is over and the tangible form is dismantled. As the physical set-up no longer exists, its digital version serves to preserve its memory and prolong its legacy.
“Images can survive but lose their places.”
Lippard, L.R. 1997, The lure of the local: senses of place in a multicentered society, New Press, New York.
This exercise in creating GIFs was my first time gathering and sorting user-generated content and using it to produce digital work. I consider it to have been a small-scale social experiment as well as a technical experiment that serves as a promising starting point in visualising the abstract concept of space consumption. As contemporary curating is highly audience-oriented in the strive to claim people’s attention and compete with other leisure activities, I consider it to be a social practice as much as it is an artistic and cultural one.
It was important for me to understand how the audience thinks and behaves, especially since I was bound to share the same space with them for roughly a hundred hours within a month. In the present, whenever the notion of ‘social’ comes up within virtually any ambit, it is almost inevitable not to refer to social media and the ways in which technology has radically altered communication, which partly accounts for why and how the subject of digital founds its way into my work.
Now that more months have gone by and so many more pictures and material has been uploaded since July, it would be interesting to gather and organise all that material to find out whether the same patterns that have been spotted have persevered or new ones created. Another layer that could be added to the project is collecting pictures that were used by other media in covering the exhibition, such as online newspapers and journals, and trying to trace whether user-generated content might also have been influenced by other authoritative sources such as critics, academics and other practitioners.
Where is my work going?
Towards ‘curating place’
Looking into the way that people consume space in the digital age paved the way for further research in ‘curating place’ where the curator’s working ground is extended to outside the exhibition space, particularly the touristic destination, where visitors, particularly mass tourists, consume iconic landmarks and sites with their gaze  and their cameras. The reasoning behind lifting the contemporary curator from the exhibition space came about after numerous parallelisms, despite certain differences, could be drawn between the formal
exhibition space and the place outside of it, particularly when dealing with space consumption and digital identity, leading to the question of what would happen if the curator were to extend contemporary curating methods to places and spaces outside of their conventional designated exhibition area.
The focus on places with an established touristic image is particularly relevant to the notion of ‘identity’ as these places tend to struggle the most with embracing or rejecting the image of them reinforced by the tourism industry to make them sellable. Quite often, the identity and character of these places is neatly packaged and reduced to a set of iconic images that are sold to the prospective traveller as an experience. Online, the touristic image is further reinforced by the travelling masses who set off to consume first-handedly the perceived experience that they bought into. Later, the content of the experience is edited and captioned (or rather, curated) and finds its way online.
As an example, when thinking of Paris, almost automatically and instantly one would mentally conjur the Eiffel Tower. As clichéd as the image of the Eiffel Tower has become, its iconic status sells hard and fast and still compels everyone who travels to Paris to re-capture their own version of the picture that has already been infinitely reproduced. Conversely, ‘you haven’t seen Paris if you haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower’, despite Paris offering and being so much more than this large-scale monument.
Google search results for Eiffel Tower
The subject of exhibition identity in relation to place identity attains a special significance within biennale culture and similar artistic and cultural events taking place across numerous destinations around the globe. As observed by Paul O’Neill in The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), “Biennials assist in the creation of a type of viewer who, as a global tourist, is always on the move.”  In fact, biennials and art festivals are being increasingly adopted as integral components of cultural tourism strategies aimed at generating economic profit and attracting a certain type of visitor. In this scenario, tourism and the artistic and cultural sector overlap, finding a literal common ground in the location of the event.
The link between the tourist and the exhibition viewer and the possibility that in many cases they are also one and the same person culminates in the ‘cultural tourist’. The cultural tourist’s primary aim is that of experiencing the heritage, special character and arts of a place away from their normal place of residence in order to satisfy their cultural needs.  In the same way that at times the exhibition-goer cannot be separated from the tourist, the exhibition
space, particularly the biennale exhibition, cannot be completely separated from the wider place in which it exists. Venice exemplifies this observation.
Despite not being a static monument or a piece of architecture, but a dynamic event with changing artistic and cultural content, the biennale can still be regarded as a distinct aspect of Venice as a physical place. It is inextricably linked to its host city, to the point where the event is distinguishable from others of its kind due to the fact that it takes place in Venice. The name itself, La Biennale di Venezia – the biennale of Venice is heavily suggestive of a sense of belonging to the city. The main physical structures of the biennale, mainly the Giardini and the Arsenale are unique to Venice; they cannot be easily lifted out of their current context and taken somewhere else, or replicated outside of Venice without a
heavy loss of context that would impact the quality of the biennale.
The biennale’s prestigious reputation borrows from Venice’s illustrious history and the art audience’s experience of the biennale exhibition is inevitably shaped by the city. The most straightforward way how this happens is the fact that in order to reach the exhibition, the audience needs to physically traverse the city. On the way to the exhibition, the physical and mental condition of the viewer is altered by their physical surroundings. Some conscious individuals choose to engage with this process and recognise the role it plays in their overall experience. Another way how this could happen is if the artists and curators working at the biennale create exhibitions that engage with the host city and include their audience in this conversation.
Through the British Council, my fellow colleagues and I had the opportunity to meet Jane da Mosto, director of the non-governmental, Venice-based organisation We Are Here Venice.
The primary aim of Jane’s movement is to address Venice’s pressing environmental, social and economic challenges.  Although Jane’s background is scientific, in the time we spent with her she raised a highly valid curatorial question; To which extent do exhibitions and installations set up around the city during the biennale months actually connect with Venice and look to the city for inspiration? Mentally, I added; To what extent should the content of the biennale engage more with its place? To what extent does this fit in with curatorial responsibilities?
June fellows meet Jane da Mosto. Image link: instagram.com/brit_visualarts
Artists have long taken to employing their practice as a form of environmental activism as well as a way of raising awareness and influencing political decision-making and public action in this respect. At the Venice biennale, several artists responded to the city’s pressing social and environmental challenges by creating work, often site-specific, talking about these imminent issues or setting up their work space in the place they are responding to. However if this form of activism and sensitivity exists within curating too, it is much less evident and practiced, despite the suppositions that every biennale is site specific and should interact with its
setting , and in view of public spaces being all the more turned into curated pop-up exhibition spaces inviting an exchange between the tourist audience and the local audience.
As such, my research is fuelled by the belief that developing a relationship with place (both in the sense of primary working ground or as a wider backdrop to the formal exhibition space) is a curatorial field with much potential. The curator’s personal experience of a particular place coupled with their capacity of approaching their subject insightfully, delivering a concept and initiating conversation, can greatly contribute to re-shaping perception around place identity. In a similar manner as the contemporary curator sets foot into a blank-walled gallery and brings it to life through the exhibition, there is the possibility to bring new perspective and introducing new metaphors to a place that already has its own history and character.
Curating work for two realms
The online realm winds its way into working with physical spaces due to the near inevitability of everything material to be documented and released into the infinity of the Internet. As the current age is defined by its drive towards digital, every work produced is made to exist in two realms – the physical one from which it originates and the digital one in which it continues to circulate in its ‘afterlife’. In the context of places, particularly touristic destinations, the importance of documenting diversity and new ways of seeing and transferring these experiences online helps to move away from popular clichés and
the restrictive definition of identity brought about by icons.
Imagine that all of Paris was completely wiped out following an immense catastrophic event. Nothing remains of its streets, buildings, monuments, cafes, museums and inhabitants. Yet, all the websites, pictures, videos, films and stories about Paris - everything that stood for and shaped the city in some way that was uploaded to the Internet along the years can still be looked up online. After collecting all that material, how much of Paris remains and how much is lost forever? What is the quality of those digital remains?
Balzer, D. (2015), Curationism: how curating took over the art world and everything else, PlutoPress, London.
Goldsmith, K. (2016), Wasting Time on the Internet, Harper Collins, New York City.
Groys, B. (2016), In the Flow, Verso Books, New York City.
Keen, A. (2007), The Cult of the Amateur; how today’s internet is killing our culture, Currency, United States of America.
Schmidt, E. (August 2010), for techrunch, Every 2 Days We Create As Much Information As We Did Up To 2003
(online article), website link: https://techcrunch.com/2010/08/04/schmidt-data/.
British Council Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/brit_visualarts/
Urry, J. (2002), The Tourist Gaze (second edition), Sage Publications, London.
O'Neill, P. (2012), The culture of curating and the curating of culture(s), MIT Press, Cambridge, London.
Cohen, E. (1972), Towards a sociology of international tourism, Political Economics Vol.39 n.1, pp.164-182, The New School.
We Are Here Venice, NGO, official website link: http://weareherevenice.org/.
Gioni, M. (2013), In Defense of Biennials, pp.171-177, in Contemporary art: 1989 to the present by Dumbadze,
A. & Perling Hudson, S., Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester.