Unpacking what it means to curate

Unpacking what it means to curate

Everyone seems to be laying claim to the word ‘curating’ these days. We ask Mark Teh, Sharmin Parameswaran, Seelan Palay and Yap Sau Bin about their thoughts on curatorship.

By Rebecca Yeoh

Google the word ‘curator’, and you’ll likely find that it refers to someone who works in a museum and ‘oversees’ or ‘cares’ for its collections. Some curators specialise in a specific historical period, while others, working in a national institution, are tasked as custodians of a country’s cultural heritage.

As someone who aspires to be a curator, I have found curatorial positions in established institutions to be rather intimidating. I imagine the years of study and work required for such jobs. To learn more about alternative routes and different types of curators, I chose to speak with those who have been working in independent contemporary art curation without any formal training.

From my conversations with Mark Teh, Sharmin Parameswaran, Seelan Palay and Yap Sau Bin (all are Malaysian except for Palay, a Singaporean), I was struck by four aspects of curating:

(i) The Latin origins of ‘curate’ which is ‘to care’
(ii) The research necessary for sound conceptual reflection
(iii) The negotiation needed when working with institutions
(iv) The connection building between artist, art and audience

To care for

The notion of curating has become especially trendy these days. Some social media influencers even use the term to describe their Instagram lives, for instance. But Palay offers a sense of clarity about the practice.

An artist and organiser, Palay founded Coda Culture gallery in 2018. Coda Culture has become a platform that supports artists who are often overlooked in the Singapore art scene. He was also recently appointed as Programme Manager at The Substation, an important independent art space on the island.

Seelan Palay (left) at the Opening Party Show! exhibition

While one could argue that Palay takes on the responsibilities of a curator in both his roles at Coda Culture and The Substation, he prefers the term ‘organiser’ as he was not trained in curation. He finds that a formal training in curation offers ‘clear structure to understanding of history and knowledge related to art’ and curatorial practices.

Opening Party Show!, 2020, curated by Seelan Palay, exhibited at Coda Culture

Yet, Palay consistently brings a great deal of attentiveness and compassion to whatever he does. Fulfilling the role of ‘caring’ that is required of a curator. ‘The meaning of curate is to care for, and I do care for the artists, the artworks, the production and the audience’, he concludes.

Research and excavate

Mark Teh is a curator of performance, director, and lecturer. He is interested in how we express and share stories that are related to history, memory and politics. He curates ‘discursive events or performative events’ as platforms to best tell a story or a particular history and memory. In his work, Teh is always asking, ’What has not been covered enough?’ To him, ‘the research, the excavation, is a large part of curating’.

Mark Teh (right) at The Breathing of Maps (2019, Tokyo) Geo-Bodies Across Eras lecture by Thongchai Winichakul. Photo by Ryohei Tomita.

Consider, Baling, a documentary performance project centred on the 1955 negotiations between then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and leader of the Communist party Chin Peng. Teh says that he and his team ‘found a lot of extra material that couldn’t fit’ into the performances. They then decided to curate a series of daily talks, performances and participatory events titled Re:Search Re:Source (as part of the Emergency Festival 2008) to share that information.

Baling performed at the Kyoto Experiment Festival, 2016. Photo by Yoshikazu Inoue

By raising questions such as ‘Who is the hero? Who is the terrorist? Who is the leader?’, these talks interrogated assumptions about nation and history, and attempted to reframe expectations of how theatre can tell the stories we as a society tell ourselves.

Provoke and intervene

Yap Sau Bin is an artist, lecturer and curator. He is a founding member of the artist collective Rumah Air Panas and got his start in curating by organising exhibitions with his peers. Notably, he co-curated ESCAPE from the SEA (2017), a group exhibition exploring issues of identity, sense of belonging and history through the politics of borders.

Photo by Isabel Yap

He believes that one of the roles of contemporary art is to provoke or intervene. While curators should always try to push boundaries, they should also be highly sensitive about the ‘politics of spaces’, as every art institution or space comes with its own distinct set of aims and missions.

In small to medium-sized spaces, the same curators and artists may be able to experiment more freely than in big museums, which tend to be more bureaucratic. But larger institutions, such as national and international ones have the resources to develop more ambitious artistic projects. Curators, including independent ones, have to become experts in navigating the possibilities and parameters of the different institutional circumstances that they choose to operate within.

Yap Sau Bin co-curated ESCAPE from the SEA exhibition, 2017, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. Artwork featured: ChronoLOGICal (2015) by Roslihsam Ismail (ISE). Photo by Satoko Wakiya

Connecting artwork and audience

Sharmin Parameswaran graduated as an accountant but has always been creatively conscious. Following her interests, she moved into advertising and currently works with Astro Malaysia. Along the way, she also embarked on curating contemporary art projects. Her first show, At First Glance (2012) was based on the premise of encountering artworks for the first time; a self-questioning of why we like art, and what it does for us. 

Photo courtesy of Sharmin Parameswaran

To Sharmin and all the others I spoke with, a curator is principally someone who builds relationships — between artists, curators, writers and administrators. For some artists, a curator’s role may be to guide, offer direction and have critical discussions about their practices. Most importantly, a curator role is ‘to be the bridge between the artistic concepts and works to the wider audience.’

Sharmin (left) curated Ajim Juxta’s TUGU|UGUT show, 2019, Hin Bus Depot

One way to provide greater audience access to the creative processes of artists is through wall texts and exhibition catalogues or brochures. The job of writing and public communications is something that is not always emphasised as an important curatorial skill, but it is arguably just as crucial as the more visible task of exhibition-making.

Do roles change in a pandemic?

As with everything else, Covid-19 has completely upended the art world. One concerted response has been the rise of online exhibitions and projects. Palay is skeptical about these and says that most online exhibitions ‘don’t cut it’ because they are curated as digital stand-ins for physical exhibitions. He feels that some aspects that are crucial to art exhibitions, such as the spatial interaction and experience, are absent in an online presentation.

With most online presentations, it is hard to overcome the sense of being distanced from the works we are trying to interact with. We are using our fingers to navigate a screen instead of moving our bodies to walk around an installation. Curators must thoroughly think through how to use digital spaces, just as they have thought through how to use physical spaces.

Works that work best in a virtual setting are ones designed to be shown in a virtual setting. Last month, artist Chong Yan Chuah ran KYPHOSIS_BETA, a digital installation, live on his website.

Sharmin believes that the role of a curator in building relationships will not change drastically despite the change of formats. She is hopeful that these ‘weird and interesting’ times produce equally fascinating art: ‘How artists relate to the situation today will influence how they produce their work’ tomorrow.

In a similar contemplative mood, Yap has been using this time to quietly observe and reflect on the discussions about art and the pandemic. As larger arts organisations and institutions with greater capacities shift more readily to create exhibitions online, Yap feels that artists and curators who work with all kinds of spaces should still try and ‘push our discourses’.

Taking an existentialist vein, Teh encourages his fellow curators to ‘reflect, realign and review’. He feels that we have to think about issues of ‘wastage, sustainability and spending lots of money on certain projects.’ This may mean that we will have less globe-trotting star curators helming ambitious biennales, and more co-curating on a more modest scale, with an emphasis on ‘collective learning, and creating while sharing burdens and curiosities.’

Rebecca Yeoh is a curator and writer. She graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia and King’s College London. With a Certificate in Curatorial Practices, Rebecca has curated in Penang and Venice.