Rethinking Curatorial Colonialism
First published in SouthEastAsia: Spaces of the Curatorial (Jahresring 63), edited by Ute Meta Bauer, Brigitte Oetker. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
How has the curatorial functioned as a form of colonial discourse in its expansion into art and activism? By what means can we identify the contradictions between its claim to agency and the complex texture of social and political disruption? This essay attempts to critique the colonizing tendencies of curatorial knowledge as it seeks to transform art and activism into an archive of knowledge directed at institutional critique, and prospect other means in which genuine engagement can take place.
This cursory essay is not so much an attempt to provide some far-reaching insight into knowledge production via the rubric that we have come to call “the curatorial,” rather than an opportunity to rethink the parameters of the currency in which the curatorial is imbricated with the political.1 By this I refer to the increasing currency in which the term “the curatorial,” in instances that have been used by writers/curators like Maria Lind or the Goldsmiths College Curatorial/ Knowledge program, have come to anxiously represent a rhetorical form of interdisciplinary knowledge mapping and discursive performance.2 In more recent parlance, it is also described as a kind of “commoning.”
This is in contrast to the idea of curating solely as an activity or a practice of putting together an exhibition or even the pre-contemporary art role of a curator as a caretaker of a collection. Instead, the emphasis on the curatorial is primarily centered on the activation of sites of discourse that purport to be socially and philosophically transformative. Such a claim is problematic, especially if we consider the kind of institutional networks that support this form of performative thinking. As a discursive spectacle that emerged from the 1990s onwards, the curatorial as the epistemological handmaiden of advanced capitalism that continues to align itself within the paradigm of reason along the tradition of the Enlightenment meant that certain blind spots continue to exist even if curatorial discourse makes bold critical claims towards discursive reflexivity.
It is the aim and motivation of the curatorial, when directed at art and activism emerging from “other” parts of the world, that I would like to try to discuss here as a problem area. The very encompassing notion of the curatorial has inadvertently carried within its thinking process an unintended colonizing framework. I believe this has to do with how the notion of the curatorial continues to frame and transform specific urgencies into a form of knowledge that is largely generated within a specific reflexive, promotional, and pedagogical mechanism. In this act of knowledge construction, third world art and activism achieves contemporaneity by becoming an archive, pressed into the service of institutional critique in the first world.
Who really cares about the sweat and tears, meat and grit of context when one is removed from the grinding reality of conflicts and negotiations, the actual pedagogical process that goes into shaping specific engagement, when this can be theorized in London?
One generous view is that this line of inquiry could help resist the uncritical adoption of a hegemonic and dominant form of curatorial forms of inquiry, as well as its attendant institutional standards, from being replicated uncritically elsewhere outside of Europe and America. This is what I took from Irit Rogoffs lecture in Hong Kong at the Asia Art Archive Symposium “Sites of Construction.”3 Her strongest argument undoes the presumption that cultural infrastructure and support automatically guarantees superior culture. In its place, she offered a tentative, but by no means exhaustive list of artist initiatives, including Raqs Media Collective, Collective Situaciones, Tucuman Arde, Oda Projesi, and X-Urban. These are artist initiatives that either take the form of social practice or proceed as engagements with critical theory. Though different in textures and responses, they exist primarily as local enterprises that respond to specific socio-political contexts, and have been clustered by Rogoff under the umbrella of art and activism.
In this manner, the notion of contemporaneity is also framed differently. It is not seen simply as a historical period but as multiple sets of shifting “urgencies” whereby the relationship of contemporary art with the past is defined by its use value for the present political/ideological struggles and critique. Even so, in one fell swoop, the enumerated list of collectives and art practices, collected and abstracted, are constellated within a framing device that renders them objects of study for a different purpose. Here, creative activism is transformed into an archive towards an enterprise whose sole aim is to unpack existing, presumably Western, institutional modes and models of curating as determining what are successful ways of discourse production. Who really cares about the sweat and tears, meat and grit of context when one is removed from the grinding reality of conflicts and negotiations, the actual pedagogical process that goes into shaping specific engagement, when this can be theorized in London?
Southeast Asia as Curatorial Conceit
If one assumes this is strictly an East/West division, let me provide an example of how such curatorial process and thinking can also emerge in other parts of the world by attending to a specific case study.
Take the recent political situation in Thailand as an example since it represents a scenario and a series of evolving and shifting political battle lines that is not entirely black and white. Suffice to say, the complex political scenario suggests that the typology of mass movement, which we so often take to represent the people as a kind of political force, does not always align with democratic processes, even if it claims to.
Ironically, just as the anti-government protest was taking place out on the streets, right outside the doorsteps of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), a survey exhibition “Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia” was being held inside it. The exhibition attempted to bring into discussion art practices that demonstrated “locally-rooted conceptual thinking used to actively engage audiences [...] CCC investigates the close connection between conceptual approaches and social ideologies in Southeast Asian contemporary art of the last four decades.”4
The antinomies between the kind of struggle that was taking place outside on the street and the abstracted grounds of contestation drawn out inside the gallery, where social justice calls the artist activist/conceptual figure into being, could not have been more stark. The exhibition constellates a group of conceptual artworks from “Southeast Asia” and presents them as both an archive and social critique.
Are there phenomena out there that resist the curatorial?
Besides the fact that most of the artists showcased are in fact household names in the art collector circuit, the curatorial premise that argues that a significant feature of Southeast Asian conceptual practice is colored by a political commitment is extremely vague to the point of uselessness.5 How this is political is not enumerated other than facile artistic engagement with notions of history, memory, and politics.
It seems that in this instance, the curatorial has signaled the ever-present possibility in which institutional discourse subsumes radical politics. While the curatorial premise held out some posture of reflexivity by considering the region as a comparative frame in order to postulate a shared history over and beyond the silos of national art histories, it is achieved at the expense of addressing certain blind spots within its own discursive mechanism. In the case of the exhibition, not only are specific positions and histories abstracted through the conceit of the comparative, in comparison with the energy on the street outside of the BACC, what the curatorial did was to flatten the texture of protest, its motivation, context, and concept – even as it claims to recover these potentialities as strategic archives.
The Artful and the Artless
The comparison above therefore brings to the fore the question about whether “contemporary art” as an ecology and institution really has any special purchase on the present. The following discussion attempts to address this through a number of case studies. In an Art Basel Hong Kong’s talk program some years ago, an interesting observation was made during the launch of a newly released monograph on the late Tsang Tsou Choi, the mad graffiti calligrapher, who is better known as the King of Kowloon.6
What piqued my interest was that during the talk the Chinese cultural critic Ou Ning took the opportunity to draw parallels between Tsang’s practice and a relatively young figure in Hong Kong’s activism scene, Joshua Wong. Prior to the umbrella movement,7 the then fifteen-year-old Joshua Wong was already seen as a kind of boy wonder figure who founded a movement called Scholarism in 2011, where he managed to mobilize a group of secondary school students to oppose the Moral and National Education school curriculum introduced by the Hong Kong Education Bureau.
The new school curriculum sought to revise how Hong Kong history is being taught. This change was perceived by the youth of Hong Kong to be ideologically skewed in what it says about Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, even under the “one nation, two system” arrangement, Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese government in 1997 under the promise that the island would retain a large measure of internal autonomy, including universal suffrage, which the country still, debatably, does not enjoy today. Here, it is significant to highlight how Ou Ning had managed to connect these two phenomena together.
Now I want to compare Ou Ning’s statement to a statement made by Ili Farhana, a Malaysian writer and activist. Farhana noted on her blog:
“Up until today, involvement between art and activism in Malaysia is still a rare occurrence. Not to say it doesn’t exists, but it is rare. Protests in Malaysia if compared to those that took place in other countries, lack color. It is often about speeches and heated admonition that at the end of the day weakens the momentum of the masses if it is the only thing that is being offered to the masses. We do not ask to be entertained but to seek the intersection between the artistic/cultural and the mass movement, that should come together to bring about change in the country.8”
On the one hand, we have in the Malaysian case an anxiety that social protest in and of itself is insufficient if it does not possess a creative element – elements I presume that are meant to add a little creative spark to the protest, to make it exceed the dullness and tedium of politics. In doing so, not only does it seek to transform the terms of art, it also seeks to quite naively rethink politics as possibly more creative. While on the other hand, you have someone like Ou Ning, who has no desire at all to seek out that “creative element” or spark within a social protest movement. So it’s almost as if the entire protest form itself, without any form of creative additives, was sufficiently artful on its own terms and that what art or culture (or the sphere we operate within as historians, curators, and artists) needs to do, is to make a claim of this discourse. We don't really have anything to add to this space really, all we have to do is to consume it and make it part of our own “cultural discourse.”
I find both examples interesting in their desire to bridge this almost unbridgeable chasm between the larger political issue and the location of the creative and the aesthetic within this space. Our desire to fetishize mass movement and energies is apparent: think of Egypt, Taksim Gezi Park, Istanbul, Syria, Bangkok, and Taiwan. We search for a creative sign of life within turmoil, but what exactly are we in fact searching for?
In recent years, I find myself following some of the most artless controversies that have visited Asia. For example, Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee, or known collaboratively as Alvivi until their recent breakup, was best known for sharing their sex videos online. They also ran a confessional and bare-all sex confession channel on YouTube in 2012 that has made both Singaporeans and Malaysians recoil in horror at their antics and derring-dos.
What happens to things that you cannot explain away by reason and discourse?
The other personality that has made recent headlines is Singaporean rabble-rouser Amos Yee, who incidentally calls himself an “artist” on his Facebook page. Though he started making YouTube videos at the age of thirteen, which ranged from a review of Moby Dick to homemade movies, his claim to notoriety can be attributed to a video that lambasted both the Christian Right and Lee Kuan Yew, shortly after the latter’s passing in 2015.
What do these YouTube personalities have in common? In a sense, their deep-seated distrust towards cultural norms is expressed through a refusal to play by the rules of the system, harboring a deep suspicion for any systematized and industrialized forms of pedagogy. Unlike Simon Castets’s and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s search for post-1989 digital natives who still operate within the glib performance of civil discourse, Alvivi and Amos Yee are decidedly belligerents in their refusal to even be civil or governable through the regulatory and spectacle power of discursive performance.9
Is it therefore not surprising that in within a kind of curatorial ecology that increasingly prizes curatorial education in centers such as Bard College, Goldsmiths, and de Appel that a certain discursive density emerges from which the above “artists” cannot be assimilated or tamed due to their belligerence? Ultimately, this leads me to the question: are there phenomena out there that resist the curatorial? If we assume that the curatorial owes some of its operative logic to the faculty of reason of the Enlightenment and yet is a thinking process that has emerged specifically in the era of late capitalism, can there be a space where we can escape from the curatorial? What happens to things that you cannot explain away by reason and discourse?
Now, I am not going to be like Ou Ning to say that what Alvivi and Amos Yee did constitute a kind of cultural practice (let alone “art”) that suddenly needs to be framed in relation to some kind of curatorial knowledge about the contemporary condition/culture or art. I don’t want to colonize what they are doing into our knowledge, whether this is art historical or curatorial. Including them in a story about Singaporean and Malaysian visual cultural history, or exhibiting them, doesn’t seem to do justice to it.
What I want to suggest here is the incommensurable gulf between what Alvivi and Amos Yee are doing as a possible space for activism that exceeds what we are trying to frame or discuss when we try to understand the precarious and slippery concept of art and activism combined. In fact, I want to hold them up as a mirror of the kind of conceptual blind spot on our part to recognize the limits of the curatorial as a field. A field that continues to call itself progressive still believes that it is trendy, liberal, forward thinking, yet at the same time seeks out the entirely formulaic and repetitive. Do we then need to revise the terms of our engagement?
Where do we go from here? There is really no new method that I want to suggest here. I would only tentatively suggest what has been understood by most if not all curators, yet this is something that is often held up as more of an ideal than a necessity or a precondition for any form of work that one does. One must work from a genuine compulsion to know, driven by curiosity rather than urgency.
It calls for a kind of anthropology of sustained inquiry. This means that one does not treat the curatorial simply as a deconstructive paradigm. One’s research needs to proceed from a genuine unpacking of assumptions rather than navel-gazing at the epistemological processes that inform the curatorial.
Proceeding from the above, an understanding of the world does not stem from the violent enterprise of mapping. It has less to do with how many disciplinary terrains, knowledge domains, and geographic localities one can traverse and bind together through the stagecraft of the curatorial or what kind of descriptive paradigm one can summon to bring the world into relief. Instead, a turn towards curiosity calls for a genuine desire to know another through experience, so that the other not only becomes valuable and urgent, solely when it becomes an archive for those in a privileged position to critique their own institutional procedure.
As an example, I will not turn to an exhibition but to a film, and one that embodies such an expanded notion of curatorial knowledge. This suggests I am not so much against this expansion of the curatorial as a form of knowledge and practice than the specific vectors that such discussions have so far engendered. This is also in keeping with the spirit of the curatorial to dislodge the exhibition space and practice as the primary site in which the curatorial could manifest itself. I refer here to Tan Pin Pin’s documentary film Invisible City, in which she cataloged the obsessions that the world at large might not deem to be significant, but nevertheless resonate with those individual actors who have lived through a certain moment in Singapore’s history.
Reflecting on the documentary, Tan notes: “I decided to seek out people who, like me, choose Singapore as the topic of their work. I don’t mean where Singapore is the setting for their work, but where Singapore is the main subject.”10
Her film explores Singapore through the viewpoints of four idiosyncratic, but highly colorful residents who have lived through Singapore at the cusp of her independence. They are: Ivan Polunin who produced numerous films of native communities in Singapore and Malaya in the 1950s; Marjorie Doggett, who has a collection of photographs she took from the 1950s of old buildings that are now demolished; Han Tan Juan, a student activist who showed a collection of photographs connected to the Chinese middle school student riots; Lim Chen Sian, an archaeologist excavating a sixty-year-old military bunker on Sentosa island. These are personal obsessions, traumas, and memories at best, but stitched together with their voices ricocheting against the other they offer a vision of the island-city through the lens of social and cultural history that is vastly different in tone and texture from that of Singapore’s political history.
This catalog of obsessions is fascinating to me on two counts. All our talks of a transnational turn have occluded those committed to localities. The focus in this instance demonstrates a stubborn refusal to speak of the global only from one particular vantage, from one particular frame of mind. Does digging up a fifty-year-old Coke bottle in a Singapore army bunker, in the annals of archaeology, have any global resonance? However, the film-making methodology as a curatorial device here takes the risk of translating one archaeologist’s obsession, compelling the filmmaker to take responsibility in the way we read the other instead of abnegating this responsibility in favor of solipsistic critique of the very enterprise of curating.
In doing so, the film is also committed to a trenchant refusal towards parity or a sense of coexistence that has been taken as a hallmark of contemporaneity. Rather than pit the global as a circuit against the national, the local offers other historical frames of reference that are equally significant and that are equally multitudinous in their ability to challenge official national history. In this argument against the coexistence of concepts, one turns against the desire to catch up with the world, and instead argues for a speaking to the world from other positions. The history of the world can be shaped through other visions and locales outside of putative centers.
In a wonderful exchange where director Tan Pin Pin is interviewing Ivan Polunin, a medical officer who shot color footage of native communities in his study of tropical diseases in the 1950s, reached a kind of impasse when confronted by a subject who reflected on her curatorial gaze.
Off camera: Can I ask you ...
Ivan: You can definitely ask me, but whether you get an answer is another matter.
Off camera: I’ll try any way.
Ivan: Whether you get a satisfactory answer is very much another matter.
This leads me to the second point. The above exchange demonstrates a struggle on the part of the director to come to grips with her subject and in that scenario, it also shows us something akin to curatorial sincerity when one is summoned to the task of interpretation.
In what Tan does, her curiosity does not merely become a catalog of obsession in order to deconstruct disciplinary thinking, but extends beyond the need to address the anxiety of genuine political transformation, to manifest and give the very obsession of her subjects a voice in their particularities. In this way, the film does not need to anxiously declare its relevance as an emancipatory space of the political, since the curiosity of the other that drives Tan’s filmmaking is already transparent. The question of ethical sympathy is less of a sleight of hand than a willingness to listen. So too, I think, should be the curatorial.
Simon Soon is a researcher and senior lecturer in Southeast Asian Art History at the Visual Art Department of the Cultural Centre, University of Malaya. He completed his Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Sydney under an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship. His thesis “What is Left of Art?” investigates the intersection between left-leaning political art movements and modern urban formations in Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines from 1950s–1970s. His broader areas of interest include comparative modernities in art, spatial-visual practices, the history of photography and art historiography. He has written on various topics related to twentieth-century art across Asia and occasionally curates exhibitions, most recently Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond. Together with Malaysia Design Archive, he is working on a crowd-sourced Jawi to Romanised script transliteration project of writings on art in the Malay language from the 1950s–1960s. He is also co-editor of Narratives of Malaysian Art Vol. 4. From 2015–16, he is a participant in the Power Institute’s “Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art,” funded by Getty Foundation’s “Connecting Art Histories” initiative. He is a co-editor of SOUTHEAST OF NOW: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art, a peer-reviewed journal to be published by NUS Press in March 2017.
* Cover photo: Amos Yee. Curtuesy of the artist.
 The ideas expressed in this essay have previously been presented on two occasions. This was first presented in a panel discussion at Art Stage Singapore in 2013. The preliminary concept was expanded and then presented as “Resisting Curatorial Colonialism” in a one-day symposium, “Practicing Resistance,” at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art in 2014.
 See “Maria Lind on the Curatorial,” Artfomm, October, 2009. Goldsmiths College website further notes,“The conjunction of the title ‘Curatorial/Knowledge’ implies an understanding of curating as the production of and engagement with knowledge. Thus ‘knowing’ is not the absorption of information and materials, and neither simply analysis and interpretation, but rather something we actively produce through our various practices.” Available at: http://www.gold.ac.uk/pg/mphil-phd-curatorial-knowledge/.
 See Irit Rogoff, “The Expanding Field,” Yishu (March/April 2014).
 “Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia,” 2014. Available at http://edm. bacc.or.th/edm/201402/eng.html; See also Concept Context Contestation: Art and the Collective in Southeast Asia, ed. lola Lenzi (Bangkok: Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, 2014).
 In fact, one of the curators is a collector of a number of the artists featured in the exhibition. The ethical quandary here relates to what extent the curator needs to declare his or her self-interest. This is especially pertinent when the exhibition prides itself as canon-making and the selection is an attempt at writing a kind of “art history.”
 ArtBaselHongKong,Salon2S,May2013.Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DL13IHM3n6A.
 Umbrella Revolution was the name given to protests against a decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing made in August 2014 to have the candidates for the Hong Kong Executive first be elected by a committee before presenting them to the people of Hong Kong. The protests lasted until December 2014. In 2016, Joshua Wong was found guilty by a court as the leader of the demonstrations (Editor’s note).
 Ili Farhana, “Adakah Seni Kita Sedari?” PohonBintang, January 2, 2014. Available at: https://pohonbin-tang.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/adakah-seni-kita-sedari/. “Hingga ke hari ini, penglibatan seni dan ak- tivisma di Malaysia masih dilihat sangat kecil, bukan tidak ada, tetapi kecil. Protest-protest di Malaysia jika dibanding kan di negara-negara lain masih kurang warnanya, dan hanya tentang ucapan-ucapan atau pesan-pesan amarah yang akhirnya akan melemahkan momentum massa jika hanya itu saja yang mampu ditawarkan pada massa. Kita bukannya minta untuk dihiburkan tetapi mengakrabkan gerakan massa dengan hal-hal kesenian dan budaya yang seharusnya berjalan sejajar dalam menuntut perubahan negara.”
 89 Plus is a long-term research project that began in 2014. See: http://www.89plus.com.
 Tan Pin Pin, “Director’s Note,” Invisible City (2007). Available at: http://www.tanpinpin.com/invisiblec- ity/IC%20SYNOPSIS%20BIO%206.4mb.pdf.