The DIY Guide to Curating Performance

1. Love Your Subject

Whether you’re curating a season at a performing arts venue, an exhibition at a gallery or museum, or a festival, you need to love your subject. One time on a panel at NYU Bill Bragin and I discovered that we shared a similar origin story. In high school we were both obsessive music nerds with big record collections who loved music and the artists who made it, with strong opinions to match. Our passion compelled us to share this thing we loved with other people and try and explain to them why they should love it too. For me theater was always running in parallel to music, later the Internet, then dance came in and eventually it all blended together into one big field of endeavor around live performance regardless of “discipline”. I do what I do for love. You should too; otherwise you’re just wasting your time and everybody else’s.

2. Consider Your Public

Who are you curating this for? Is it an existing public, are you trying to create a public, or are you hoping to create a space for a disaggregated public to find each other? What conversation are you inviting them to have? What experience are you hoping to offer them? How are you hoping to affect them, impact them, inform and/or transform them? What is the “value proposition” that you are offering to your public?

3. Consider Time, Space and Site

Where is this project located in time and space and in what sites? What are the conditions and characteristics of the site, how do they work with or against the proposed performance, what is explicit, what is implicit and what needs to be hidden or revealed? How will the public interact with the performance in space over time at a site or multiple sites? How does the construction and control of the conditions relating to time, space and site affect the public’s attention? How do you work with or against the conditions and characteristics of the site to insure the public is able to have the optimal experience as relates to the artist’s intention and your curatorial aims.

4. Follow The Artist(s)

Curating is a delicate balance of conceptualization and improvisation. On one hand, it is helpful to have a curatorial lens or framework that informs the season/exhibition/festival, on the other hand if you are curating a project with a number of artists, how do you see and hear what the artists are telling you rather than trying to force them into your pre-existing frame? IMHO the best curation involves creating places that exist in space over time where attention is focused on a specific but variably interpretable idea or set of ideas. The artists selected are not selected based on specific works but on the quality of their imagination and inquiry. The curator is merely building the best possible sandbox, in the right place, at the right time and with the right people, to create the conditions for the best possible conversations.

5. Do Your Research

If you are doing your job correctly, you are building a context for a conversation — or set of conversations — to be conducted in space over time, existing at one site or multiple sites, but ultimately existing as a unified whole. Ideally, the separate pieces exist in meaningful juxtaposition and every explicit conversation developed in relation to the project will be accompanied by an infinite number of possible implicit conversations. As a curator you are responsible for both the explicit and implicit conversations. Thus very single element of the project informs every possible conversation. Just like when creating a work for the stage, every single element — intentional or accidental — takes on meaning merely by virtue of being on the stage. So DO YOUR RESEARCH.

Consider every possible facet of the project: the history of the artists, the origins of the ideas, the creative and aesthetic lineages of the project and the work(s) presented, similar conversations in different disciplines and the information likely to be possessed by the incoming public. What can you do to insure that you are creating conditions for the best conversation possible? And now, in the 21st Century, having educated yourself as rigorously as you can, and having provided as much information as possible to public, how do you invite the public in to build the knowledge? How do you create mechanisms for every exhibition to capture knowledge that enters from unexpected people and places? How do you imagine the exhibit/season/festival as a radical experiment in non-didactic pedagogy for massively open and participatory peer learning? How do we use art, artists and the public to aggregate and accrete knowledge iteratively over time?

6. Eschew Theory

Theory necessarily has to be grounded in practice — someone actually has to make something or do something for someone else to theorize about what was made or done. It is one thing to have a theory, an entirely other thing to do theory. For instance, I have a theory that the foundational concepts of Object Oriented Programming are resonant with, and can be mapped onto, live performance — but I’m not privileging theory over practice. These two things — OOP and Live Performance — exist. The theory is that by placing them in juxtaposition we can discover meaningful correlations. Now I’m doing it.

The American Model is to do stuff first, theorize after; or if you have a theory, do something to prove or disprove it, but don’t spend all your time debating abstractions and constructing elaborate hermeneutics only to “lose the name of action.” Mind you — contemplation is an action, but contemplation and reflection are still different than theorizing.

7. Contextualize Through Documentation, Discourse, Debate

Create structures for discourse that not only convey the frame of the exhibit/season/festival, but also provide opportunities for dissent, debate and opposing viewpoints. Ideally the contextualization begins well in advance of the “performance event” itself and persists after. It is not a matter of merely making a catalogue; it is about building integrated cross-platform conversations that iterate and accrete over time. Human history if a tragedy of bad knowledge management: don’t make it worse. Help grow the accumulated wisdom of society.

A good curator resists didacticism, resists echo chambers; resists the tendency towards the inward-facing, hermetic, self-reinforcing discourse so common to the arts. A great curator invites the public into a profound conversation and creates the possibility for transformative experiences.

8. Be A Responsible Producer

Even if you are fortunate enough to have someone else handle the details of the logistics and implementation, the ultimate success of the project rests with you. Learn how to make a budget and work within it, learn about the realities of cultural production in performance, the challenges of making art with human beings that get hungry, thirsty, hot, cold or tired, who need money to pay their rent and buy food. Be aware that budget choices affect artistic outcomes, be transparent about the funding situation and provide artists with the information and knowledge necessary to make responsible decisions. Work towards mutually beneficial outcomes. It is always preferable to do less better than to do more poorly. Build realistic timelines, hire enough staff, consider the entire experience and build team cohesion. Performance is a human-based art form, so even if you aren’t or can’t or don’t feel obligated to be one, at least act like a decent human being.

9. Be A Good Host

Every performance is a social experience, regardless of discipline, regardless of platform. Make your guests feel welcome, provide space for them to mingle, pay attention to the energy in the room, help support the conversation. If the guest of honor (the artist, the performance) is socially awkward (difficult to parse, offensive, challenging, complicated, obscure, in a foreign language, coming from a different culture, etc.) do your best to prepare the other guests ahead of time with information, context and guidelines for appropriate behavior. Give them the tools to meet the work on its own terms, but don’t condescend to the guests or the artist. Be humble, be patient, be compassionate, be insightful, answer questions, encourage people to talk to strangers and give them prompts when needed. If your guests don’t “get it” — it is your fault. Don’t blame them or condescend, figure out what you did wrong and try and do it better next time.

10. Always Be Growing

A season/exhibition/festival is never complete; it is never finished and is always existing in relationship to what has come before and what will come after. A true curator views curatorial practice in the same way — always existing in relationship to what has come before and what will come after — and thus as a life practice. If you’re really going to curate performance, then the artist comes before the institution, the human beings before the objects; the public before the patrons.

Performance is not created on a canvas, pottery wheel, in a factory, photo studio or turpentine-smelling garrets; it is not an abstraction; it is embodied, real, deeply experiential and infinitely complex. It is not experienced in isolation, even when it is experienced by an individual, alone; it is always in conversation with the long arc of time moving in both directions, it is always resonating with the echoes of voices past and future, redolent with traces of sensual experiences remembered and anticipated.

If you are a true curator of performance, then you are a curator of memory, you are the creator of transtemporal spaces and fields of deep intersubjecivity; you must defy space and time. You are the diviner and the augur, the caretaker of enchantment, an interlocutor of the endless conversation, the interrogator of received truths. If this is not your life practice, if you are not committed to always growing as a person and working for the continuing collective growth of human society, then you are merely a shopkeeper, no matter how luxurious your goods.

The DIY Guide to Curating Performance Reading List

And finally, here’s a radically abbreviated reading list of a small handful of informative texts on dance, theater and performance that have almost nothing to do with curating as a practice unto itself:

Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance, Sally Banes
The Tail of The Dragon: New Dance, 1976–1982, Marcia Siegel
Apollo’s Angels: A History Of Ballet, Jennifer Homans
 The Empty Space, Peter Brook
The Presence of the Actor, Joseph Chaikin
Great Reckonings in Small Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater, Bert O. States
Certain Fragments, Tim Etchells
39 Microlectures: In Proximity of Performance, Matthew Ghoulish
Postdramatic Theatre, Hans-Thies Lehman
Out Of Character, edited by Mark Russell
Towards a Poor Theater, Jerzy Grotowski
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Lester Bangs
How Music Works, David Byrne
No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, Kyle Gann
Performance Art: From Futurism To The Present, RoseLee Goldberg
The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Ranciere
Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop
Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, Shannon Jackson
The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt
Aesthetics and Politics, Theodor Adorno
The Field of Cultural Production, Pierre Bourdieu
Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Culture and Value, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Artistic Citizenship: A Public Voice for the Arts; eds. Mary Schmidt Campbell and Randy Martin

[Originally published in a slightly different from on Culturebot, April 2014)