This little book poses a couple of big questions: are contemporary curators co-opted by the art institutions they work with, or, does a vibrant strain of opposition and alternative positions continue to draw on the legacy of institutional critique?
The best essays in the collection directly engage with the impact of the fall of Communism and the aggressive deregulation and liberalisation of Europe’s economies. Eleven texts are drawn from the Mousetrap Conference held in 2005 at Wyspa Institute of Art, located among the Gdansk shipyards of Poland. There is enormous variation and quality in the book. While while suffering from poor translation and proof reading, it nevertheless includes excellent and insightful analysis of the central question’s resonance from Aneta Szylak, Barnabás Bencsik and Barbara Steiner.
Barbara Steiner’s historical analysis suggests that the ideological deconstruction of historical and cultural institutions in the 60s and 70s led to, ‘…the position of artistic opposition (being flexible, critical, mobile, innovative, creative) becoming the “perfect models for the new era”’. Thus, strengthening the system was the subject of artists’ critique. Maria Lind suggests that art institutions are embedded in neo-liberal governmentality signalled by the influx of managerial practice. While this can help to remove institutional dogmas it, ‘…can also slim an organisation down to the point of artistic and intellectual starvation…the most recurring stumbling blocks today are slim budgets, demands of high attendance figures and the gradual disappearance of the venerable “arm’s-length-principle”.’ Given the erosion of this principle in the transition from the Scottish Arts Council to Creative Scotland, we should perhaps take note.
The Gdansk shipyard was the birthplace of Solidarity (the first non-communist trade union in Poland) which defeated Poland’s communist government in 1989 in a historic moment of collective social action. More recently, the shipyard was split in two by a European Union economic rescue package. This left the eastern dock as a functioning shipyard, with the western one 73 hectares of lots that ‘…are supposed to be transformed into a new city quarter—the Young City’.
This history becomes a backdrop for the co-editors and organisers of the conference to assert the principal problem facing Wyspa is party political interference —Szylak was even invited to stand for elected office because she is such a ‘political curator’. This fear of party political instrumentalisation misses the wider point that art galleries are integral to urban and regional regeneration projects. A trend Wyspa, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and even Dundee Contemporary Arts for that matter, are clearly part of.
In ‘How To Jump a Moving Train?’ Barnabás Bencsik succinctly analyses the implications of this trend in central Europe after the introduction of free market economics. He suggests that contemporary art centres are being built to compete for ‘suitcase shows’ and argues for the establishment of ‘peripheral’ networks. The point is clear – the application of the business models of late capitalism to art institutions is homogenising curatorial practice and challenging the claim that globalisation allows the flow of local and personal stories into a transnational dialogue.
This book is part of a complex and urgent debate, but rests on too many assumptions to become an authoritative text. Its catchy and playful title perhaps defines and limits the project from its inception. The mousetrap reference is a jokey analogy between contemporary art institutions and Rube Goldberg’s drawings of ‘big and funny machinery which accomplishes little’. Can’t we expect more of an institution and of this project?
Luke Collins is an artist based in Glasgow