Curating, as we see it, is a care work of making space. Whether this is an exhibition space, a classroom, an event venue, an online platform, or a page in a book: it is always a room that connects people and has them enter into an exchange of experiences and knowledges with each other. Making space, in the end, takes on a double meaning: it is about creating and shaping a self-reflexive and inclusive place of meeting where knowledge exchange can happen and where social bonds can be formed, but it is also about giving room to people and knowledges who are often pushed to the sidelines.
Spaces are always formed by and often replicate societal power structures. They exist in a specific geopolitical, architectural, linguistic, cultural, and historical location. As such, both their political pitfalls and potentials have to be considered. How do you create fair-pay conditions in a precarious economy? How do you make a feminist space in a patriarchical environment? How do you make an intersectional space in a neocolonial reality? How do you make a queer space in a heteronormative society? How do you make spaces more inclusive? More safe? More critical? More radical? More disruptive? More sustainable? These are difficult questions and there are no easy answers.
Part of the work is situating one’s viewpoint. We, Corinne Gisel and Nina Paim, are Swiss and Brazilian, white and latina, pansexual/queer and bisexual, unmarried and married, childless and mother, HSP introvert and extrovert, middleclass, able-bodied cis-women. We were helped by our current assistant Mariachiara De Leo, an Italian, able-bodied, cis-woman. We consciously chose to where ever possible work with references that are easily available online, free of charge.
1. Embrace a pluriversal understanding of design
Argentinian anthropologist Arturo Escobar describes design as a process of world-making. Design, as part of the modern/colonial project, has been contributing to the consolidation of the whole global world into one: a capitalist, secular, liberal, white, patriarchal, heteronormative, and ableist world. This monoverse, this one world, however, is highly exploitative and unsustainable. “We are living against the world today, and against each other,” as Escobar puts it. Instead we need to embrace a pluriverse of world-makings within the world. This also means working under a definition of design that includes all, and using design as a framework of political discourse and practice that actually can include all. “Design can thus become an open invitation for us all to become mindful and effective weavers of the mesh of life.”
2. Reach out
“An open invitation.” In theory this is a wonderful thought. In practice it is much more difficult to apply, as Escobar himself admits. Important in this regard, is that Escobar’s framework of design relies on an understanding that our existence in this world is always relational. “We are all in this together, we are all in this pluriverse, we are all interconnected and interdependent on that.” As such, in practice, we need to invite people into discussions on our pluriversal world-makings, who are beyond the Western, modernist, capitalist design establishment. Inviting is easier said than done, however. It is not just about declaring the doors to be open. We need to actively reach out to people and tell them that they are welcome inside. Activate your network to branch out, work together with local communities, and “find a way to build new doors, based on their values, that fit their keys,” as the former museum director and author Nina Simon puts it.
3. Break the tyranny of structurelessness
“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group,” wrote Jo Freeman in her 1971 essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Talking from her experience in the women’s liberation movement, Freeman dispels the myth surrounding the idea of having structureless and leaderless groups that was a move against the over-structured society. It doesn’t work, because: “Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion.” Structurelessness usually then reinforces informal power relations already in play and only supports those who are already in a position of power — be that because they are the most extroverted, the most gregarious, the loudest, the sneakiest, the most connected, most educated, most experienced, most respected, or any other personal advantage that gives them an edge in unstructured and informal situations. Structurelessness simply “becomes a way of masking power,” as Freeman puts it. To break this tyranny doesn’t mean avoiding the informal, but it is about creating some formal structures that counteract exclusion and that support transparency for all.
4. Elevate the undercommons
With the concept of the “undercommons,” critical theorists Fred Moten and Stefano Harney propose a different thinking around marginalized knowledges and communities. They are actually not at the margins or sidelines of society, but always already here, everywhere in society. Yet, they are relegated to the downstairs—unnoticed, unwelcome, unsupported, underrepresented, undermined, undervalued, underestimated. If the commons is the public space where experiences and resources are exchanged, the undercommons exists in the underground. It is the spaces inhabited and shaped by black people, brown people, indigenous peoples, queer people, female people, disabled people, poor people, displaced people, or any other people whose access to the common rooms in the upper levels of society is hindered by structural obstacles. In this underground space, life and love flourish, community and collectivity thrive, practice and thought prosper, subversion and hope blossom. The work of those in the upper strata then lies in elevating, creating opportunities, and removing obstacles for this political work that is already all around us.
5. “Nothing about us without us”
Stemming from disability activism, this phrase is used to indicate that those affected by ableist structures of marginalization should be the ones at both the discussion and the decision making table. The same goes for any aspect of power structure that has an effect on someone’s lived experience, such as racial, colonial, patriarchal, heteronormative, or classist aspects. Queer people should be there when it is about queer issues. Women should be part of feminist discussions. People from countries with a past of being colonized ought to be the ones to mainly talk about decoloniality. Migrants should be involved in talks about migration policy and politics. Mothers should be talking about their needs and policies that would help change structural difficulties they are facing. The list goes on.
6. Beware of tokenism
On the flipside, beware about tokenism: “the giving of a token or relatively unimportant, but positive item while withholding more substantial or significant assistance or involvement,” as Brad J. Hall has described. In the case of events, this is often in the form of inviting a token representative—often the same person over and over again—of an underrepresented group as a way of appearing inclusive, while avoiding in more meaningful, structural, and possibly uncomfortable acts of equality. The invited person finds themselves alone in an environment that is riddled with structures oppressive against their own identity. A single individual is expected to represent the various positionalities of a whole group. The person is only ever invited to talk about issues relating to their identity. The person is treated as the exception, the non-canon, othered. There have also been sociological and psychological studies on the effects of tokenism. Because these singled out people are mostly seen as a representative of a group, they often feel that their individuality is not recognized and that they are subject to much higher scrutiny. Failure is not an option for tokenized people, as they would not only fail themselves but the whole group of people they are seen to represent.
7. Curating and Sustainability
Museums and curatorial practices should think of sustainability on many levels. Because creating an event is also world-making. And without conscious counter-action it all too easily replicates the exploitative structures of the capitalist monoverse. How do you make sure your event does not exploit people and create precarious working conditions? How do you make sure you do not exploit yourself and run into a burnout or into other existential difficulties? How do you make sure you don’t exploit the experience of a personal of a marginalized identity to uplift your own personal profile? How do you make sure your event does not exploit the environment and create unnecessary pollution? Ecological questions and social questions always need to be thought entangled. “Urgent action is required to produce knowledge and cognitive frames that will give rise to new ways of thinking and acting to promote a livable planet for the long term,” writes the museum scholar Fiona Cameron. She sees important agency especially in museums to do so, because, “they are instrumental in shaping visions of the world, of culture and cultural difference, human relations with the non-human world, technology and science.”
8. Political work is a fractal practice
Author and activist adrienne murray brown refers to the relevance of understanding the “fractal nature of the world.” That the same patterns we see on the macro-level, are also found on the meso and micro level. As she explains, as an organizer “what that means is that we have to pay attention to what we’re practicing and doing at a small scale if we want to see it on a larger scale.” This is relevant in both directions. Looking from the small to the large scale, it means that doing incremental structural changes in every aspect of your work, will eventually trickle up and may affect change on the meso or macro level. In the other direction it also means that if we want to instigate discussions and change on large systemic issues, the same politics have to be applied on the small scale. Raising discussions about queer issues also means reflecting on how to use genderneutral language or bathroom facilities at the host-venue. Inviting disabled people means offering all the support they need. Engaging in feminist discourse also means offering breastfeeding facitilites or child-care options – during the event but also beyond that.
9. Be persistent, be adaptive, and be hopeful
Political work is not about quick fixes. It needs a long-term commitment. Because it is fractal, it can never end, even if personal or institutional circumstances change, then it simply needs to adapt to new circumstances. “It’s not being reactive,” adrienne murray brown says. “it’s about adapting to the current changes” with one’s intentions still intact. At the core of all this work is a fundamental need to stay hopeful that one’s contribution will fractal out into the world, that it will slowly change people, one by one by more by many, and that civilizational transitions and structural change are possible. In this, we have much to learn from social movements and activists. “Recovering hope as a social force is the fundamental key to the survival of the human race, planet earth, and popular movements,” as Mexican activist Gustavo Esteva puts it. “Hope is not a conviction that something will happen in a certain way. We have to nurture it and protect it, but it is not about sitting and waiting for something to happen, it is about a hope that converts into action; in movement we can change things.”