A Case For Context

– why you should spend the equal amount of time setting the stage for the work you do as it takes to produce it

Two years ago I took a train to Basel, Switzerland. On my own. Vacation. Nothing on the agenda except drinking coffee, cocktails and culturizing. At the time, Kunstmuseum Basel had an exhibition with three artists working with an abstract expression. Before we move on, I am not an experienced art spectator, my reaction to abstract art is usually flat out, ”I don’t get it”.

So, same story this time, I really didn’t get the big fields of color with a brushstroke of contrasting color splitting the canvas in two. I mean, it was just fields of color! Didn’t get it. Then I made an important decision. An hour later I walked out of the museum and saw the world differently.

Beyond content

Humans are really good at making quick binary decisions. Judging whether something is good or bad, on or off. But we tend to be much worse at taking the time it takes to fully understand what we just made a quick valuation of.

For me it’s obvious that in a world where content is abundant and where complexity is on the increase we need to spend more time engaging in the hard-to-digest context of the content (images, people, talks, products etc etc) we take in. For conference producers, journalists and other curators, this is where we really need to make an effort — offer our audiences help to connect the dots between the content we’re putting on stages, paper and walls.

As a conference curator I keep getting the question, who’s speaking? That’s what we are judged on. But if you think about it, it makes very little sense to judge a conference on its content only. The speakers at The Conference are usually unknown to most people and you can read up on their thoughts in blogs etc already.

What you really should judge us and other curators on is our ability to put the single pieces of content into a bigger context.

”Life is physical but it is also metaphysical, only those who understand the meta can understand the physical” — Barnett Newman

The invisible hand

What happened at the museum in Basel was that I went back to the reception and asked for an audio guide. With the curator talking to me from the other side of the audio guide I was able to put the big fields of color into context.

The curator told me about the paintings’ relationship to art history, the era they were crafted in, the movement around it, how the pieces related to each other and how it related to the other artist in the exhibition. I was given references on what to read next.

I became equipped to ask myself what beauty was. How details affected the bigger picture. I learned that the single brushstrokes of color were referred to as zips and that they were there to define the spatial structure of the work. I learned that the artist wrote an essay in 1948 called The Sublime is Now, describing his incentive to question centuries of European artists that had portrayed beauty by trying to paint as precise and realistic as possible.

I understood that it was possible to look for things in the world that was more beautiful than my eyes could see.

I learned to appreciate the art of context.

By being the invisible hand that guides the audience through any kind of work you provide the necessary context to help them reflect on what they’re actually consuming or taking a part in. You help them to come to their own conclusions and gain understanding of the complex world we live in.

This is why I recommend you to spend the equal amount of time getting the packaging, stories and communication right, as you do on creating or putting the content together.

Context is the new content.

* The artists name is Barnett Newman. He was one of the founders of american abstract expressionism movement with stars like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.