If Everyone Is A “Curator”, Who Is?
If an NFT exhibition is something that can fit on a spreadsheet, where do curators fit into the Web3 art ecosystem?
In our most recent WAC Weekly, host Fanny Laboukay and guests talked about the use and abuse of the word “curation”, and how its meaning is contested when Web3 platforms let users “curate” a gallery as easily as a playlist.
The discussion began responding to Kevin Buist’s article Curation Under Constraint in Outland magazine, then moved on to who and what the curator is in this new ecosystem, and what curatorship even means now.
What is JPG?
JPG.space is a permissionless NFT curation protocol currently running in private beta. When it launches in earnest, anyone will be able to “curate” a gallery of NFT images and videos just by linking to them on platforms like OpenSea (ETH-based NFT marketplace).
Users can do this regardless of whether or not they own the piece. This would appear to ignore the central feature of the NFT, and it’s very different from the traditional art ecosystem where the museum has to acquire or borrow the piece to exhibit. But it fits into the “permissionless” narrative that flatters the Web3 audience, despite being utterly contingent on OpenSea’s API.
Stina Gustafsson, exhibition curator and Blockchain-art advisor (Department of Decentralisation) thinks this positioning “simplifies” what it means to be a curator, and also what it means to be an artist. While much of the Web3 message is about accessibility and letting anyone do anything, banging a drum does not make one a musician.
Curation in the traditional meaning of the word is about more than choosing work for an exhibition, and even online there’s more to it than selecting images from an album.
What does “curation” mean anymore?
Curator Christiane Paul (Whitney Museum of Art) points out how this word “curation” has been diluted. People “curate” panels, playlists, shop window displays. We see advertisements for “curated cleaning services”, she underlined as a joke.
There is a difference between a link directory and an exhibition
Curation, she says, is about creating a narrative in space. One of the skills of the curator is figuring out how to translate the concepts of the piece into a spatial experience, putting each individual piece in the right context but also presenting an argument or a point of view just by the combination of pieces selected. Factors like the environment, the audience, even the historical moment factor into the decisions.
“Curating” an exhibition of NFTs is very challenging because the majority of them are just static images on a screen. When standing in front of an unchanging two-dimensional image there’s none of the emotional or even literal depth of the painting, which carries layers of the technique applied by human hands and often years of visible age in the image.
So when we see more NFT curatorship moving offline, Stina Gustafsson says, there are more physical exhibitions where the images have just been selected and displayed on a screen as if that’s all there is to it. While the NFT audience enjoys the prestige of the physical art space, the gallery offers nothing they couldn’t get just by looking at their phone screen.
But for the curator, is that challenge inherent to all digital art?
What’s digital art, says Christiane Paul, is rarely a .jpg. From virtual reality spaces to complex installations, it’s a dynamic medium with spatial requirements that the artist and curator can use to tell the story: curation inspired by physical constraints.
As it currently stands, NFT art rarely uses the NFT as an actual medium; if we follow Steve Dietz’s definition of new media art as an art of computation, interactivity, or networking, which of the prominent NFT works actually employ that? You could argue that all three are inherent properties of the blockchain environment, but how many of the most prominent NFT works use that in the way that “digital art” as a category has for over two decades?
With many digital works, the curator can ask “how does this modify the space that it’s in?” as an opening question, a way of finding a creative way to arrange, display, and talk about the pieces. NFTs present a challenge to the practice of traditional curatorship, but rarely a stimulating one. At an NFT gallery in Chicago, one speaker noticed the images moving around slightly onscreen. When she asked the curator about that, they said they’d asked the technician to make them move on a loop as the static images weren’t very interesting to look at.
What should curation look like? Who decides that?
With the Biden administration calling on U.S. government agencies to make themselves familiar with crypto and DeFi, it’s clear that regulation in the world of cryptocurrencies is coming.
The discussion touched on whether legacy institutions might have a similar, top-down role to play in laying down guidance on what collectors should be looking for, what artists should be wary of, even just demonstrate by example what NFT curation and exhibition might look like when done well.
But this would likely just fuel the anti-establishment narrative being pushed by these centralizing platforms and the venture capital firms funding them. As the Outland article and some of the group touched on, we’re seeing a similar hype cycle as when Web 2.0 was supposed to democratise everything around 15 years ago.
If it’s the job of curators to determine which works are the interesting, important, and moving ones to be preserved and exhibited as part of a larger context, we might have to wait until the hype dies down before much sober analysis can begin.
While there’s a lot to be said for the ease-of-use Web3 protocols can bring to art buying, “curation” of these works will not involve bundling OpenSea links together and hitting “Upload”. If curating an exhibition of these works is as easy as uploading one of the 720,000+ hours of content uploaded to YouTube every day, it can only add to the noise.
What is a curator for?
The Outland article concludes that “new tools are helpful, but exhibitions are meant to take viewers on a journey, one that should not be bound by protocols and sales contracts. We don’t need gatekeepers, we need guides.”
JPG illustrates the challenges of curating and exhibiting NFTs in an online space, but neither traditional museums nor the spaces popping up to imitate them can stick them on a television screen and hope it feels like a painting.
As Stina Gustafsson said at the event, the static format makes it difficult to create something that flows as an exhibition should. If someone thinks of a powerful way to exhibit NFT work, they’ll need a curator with a fully-developed understanding of the evolving space and their own fine-tuned craft. They will not be pasting in links from a spreadsheet, an email, or the Discord chat; they will be creating something that happens.
In our next session, we will discuss how to imagine innovative NFT exhibition design with Elena Zavelev, founder of CADAF.
WAC Weekly occurs as an online meeting on Zoom every Wednesday at noon ET / 6pm CET from December 2021 to May 2022. Register here to attend.