Following Vessel’s introduction to their contribution to MARCH’s Publishing As Protocol feature, the following essay by Tirdad Zolghadr reflects on his experience attending Vessel’s 2015 International Curatorial Workshop (ICW) in Bari, Italy. Organized in collaboration with Monash Art Design and Architecture (MADA) in Melbourne, Australia, the four-day retreat (May 9–13, 2015) gathered together Curatorial PhD candidates from MADA, a small number of curators selected by open call, a group of invited tutors, and Vessel and MADA staff. ICW 2015 explored the process of writing as related to the “epistemologies of the South,” a term adopted from Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos.
Memories of a late arrival. A rush for the pizzeria mentioned in the email. And of a sinking feeling as I understood it was the wrong one. Same name, some other address. Oh dear. Read the memo, Tirdad. Read the memo.
The pizzeria was in a quiet residential area – nowhere near the city center. Strictly takeaway. Families cheerfully shared their food on the sidewalk. It seemed to me I was the only one who was not a neighbor. After all, there was no sightseeing to be had, no Scandinavian tourists or Bavarian sunburns. Only me. Standing around with my calzone and my dinner jacket.
The mistake did offer me a glimpse of an atmosphere otherwise not afforded a traveling professional. A rare adventure. And one would expect me to say, at this point, that it was The Best Pizza Ever. And then, building on that, to pedantically insist on going local. On forgoing the artworld hotspots. On walking the city outskirts with empty stomachs, in the hope of a perfectly interesting situation to reveal itself. A Ramadan of the curatorial mind.
To be sure, we do need checks on that “internationalism” of ours. But going local will not be helpful. There is really no need to encumber the locals. On the contrary: this essay will argue that we can and should stick to the cultural economy we emerge from just so long as we structure it a little bit differently.
We can begin with a brief clarification of terms. I am sure my readers would pass on another examination of the “curatorial,” but the term “workshop” is a path less trodden. In the sense of a site of (manual) production – where customers can come and see the goods – the English term has existed for five hundred years or more. By contrast, the idea of a workshop as a place of study, where we gather informally to discuss, debate, and scratch our heads, has only been around for less than a century. In these latter-day workshops, the notion of public display has vanished entirely – while the commercial aspect has been replaced by a casual if slightly ritualized form of professional training. A transition between the craftsman’s and the curator’s sense of the term existed until the 1930s; for a time, workshops were synonymous with the “ateliers” of sculptors and painters, arguably both production sites and places of reflection.
As for the “international” element of the curatorial workshop, at the risk of sounding like a tourist all the more, I do remember a refreshing sense of intimate familiarity all around the pizzeria that night. It wasn’t just the hellos and the banter. The customers had a way of comfortably staring at one another. The way only people from the same class and neighborhood are wont to do. Visiting curators are not like that.
Even though we are the offspring of urban middle classes around the world – almost exclusively so – our shared socioeconomic background does not offer a strong sense of intimate familiarity. Not if you compare us to people who grew up in the same neighborhood or support the same rugby team. The sense of identification only goes so far.
Of course we have empathy for one another. But we are also polite. Careful. Our support for our colleagues, and for their respective goals and ideas, is measured, thoughtful. A gentle slipstream of compassionate critique and halting encouragement. At this point, I should add that it is a very particular creed of curators who is typically invited to the said workshops. You will rarely see Alpha Type Museum Megaplex Directors, for example. It’s not that they wouldn’t have the time. It’s that they have their own ways of exchanging notes and supporting one another. Why, look at you, Old Boy. My, my. We should buy you a white horse and give you Persia.
No. The slipstream of the curatorial workshop is something else. Careful, thoughtful, self-critical. When we say “tourism,” we point to ourselves and make a sad face. The same face as when we say “neoliberalism.” Or “Venice.” (Nothing against Venice! When we say “Venice,” we mean a vernissage, not a city.)
Such is the self-effacing shade of dullness that serves as our protective armor in faraway places. Luckily, over the course of your typical workshop, the dullness is known to slip, like a cheap disguise. All it takes is a little bit of drink, or flirtation, or the topic of kids, which brings out the best in even the most difficult of colleagues.
What else do I remember? What lingers, six seven years down the line, what traces remain? For one, a compelling conceptual framework, penned by an eloquent and charismatic Tara McDowell. And her generous invitation to chip in ideas collectively ahead of time. I also remember the invitees’ punchy lectures, offering myriad perspectives that would have remained unknown to me otherwise. And I remember waiting nervously for my own chance to speak. After which, I knew, I could finally relax. Sleep a deep sleep. (“To sleep like God in France,” as the Germans like to say. Schlafen wie Gott in Frankreich.) There were also breakout groups, shared lunches and long walks back and forth across the city. With a deep-seated sense of guilt, I would do such walks on my own, being a grumpy little fuck who is easily overwhelmed by crowd dynamics, no matter how small or friendly. I should also mention the group excursions and the occasional dancing, and again I chose to forgo both these things, on account of my delightful personality.
There’s equally a memory of honest feedback for the organizers on the very last day, blunt but well-intended, and I remember our hosts taking it all on the chin with dignified bonhomie, which is more than most of us can muster in these situations. The one critique I remember in detail was that “retreat” was a misnomer. A springtime trip to southern Italy to spend quality time with articulate colleagues is a “treat,” for sure, but given the ambitious schedule and the social intimacy, packaging it as a “retreat” was pushing it perhaps.
Another thing to remember and appreciate: there was little of the routine criticality we consider the sonics of intelligence in contemporary art: “But have you ever considered whether perhaps this is problematic in the sense that . . . ?” or “But wouldn’t you agree the Global South framework is more cogent in terms of the atmosphere it sparks, rather than in terms of any existing realities on the ground?”
As a matter of fact, the latter critique was proffered by myself. I grumbled about the “Global South” in the assumption that the term was just another fad. When it’s been around for half a century. Oh dear. Read the memo, Tirdad. Read the memo.
More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic had us wondering whether we should weigh each international journey more carefully than before. How, we asked ourselves, can we make the most of every single airline ticket? Not that this appetite, however genuine, will translate into change overnight. The same curators who would bemoan our Carbon Footprint a few months ago, and hailed the virus as an opportunity, are already flying in their artists transatlantic, for a night or two. Change of this kind only tends to unfold over decades. It is measured in eras, not in biennials.
So one day, we will once again quarantine our artists and students in tight enclosures, for pedagogical bursts of strict isolation, over months at a time. (One must always hope for the best.) But for now, we’ll continue to look to buskers as our working models. Month after month, work will continue to expand to fill all time available, one workshop per time zone. Roving Seminars, Planetary Readings, boarding passes, train vouchers, receipts, Google Maps, Airbnb, sandwiches, Wi-Fi passwords, local informants. What we find along the way can be absorbed then and there or filed away for future reference. You could say it’s the pink neon dayglow testosterone that was spawned in the 1990s and boosted by cheap airline tickets – or that it’s something else altogether. Either way, for now, this very mobility will attract the best minds of one generation after another, eager to bid farewell to walls, to all manners of walls, of any kind whatsoever; auditoriums, disciplines, top down, left right, queer, straight.
I myself do not know more about Bari – not to mention Liverpool, Doha, or Moscow, other towns I’ve visited for curatorial workshops – than I do about Houston, which I visited only via Zoom. But again, my knowledge of the local is not the point. What is more relevant is the resulting sense of all-round accessibility, of farewell to walls and borders melting into air. As we are thrown from one contingency to the next, we become natives to a landscape conceived for professional extraction. A landscape that includes even the neighborhoods where we are based, for when we turn our flats into short-term sublets, we contribute to the Rent Gap spirals of gentrification we know so well.
What would I begrumble if I were back in Bari today? Nothing at all. Least of all the terminology. It was such a rare privilege to be there and I know it. But I would be eager to brainstorm the future of the format at hand, given that, precisely for the aforementioned reasons, sooner or later, a shift is to be expected after all. One fine day, we can be sure of it, resources will be deployed to safeguard the option of staying wherever we happen to be. And our invitees will be determined by long-term educational significance, not by curatorial circumstance. To a given degree, follow-ups and growth will replace one-offs and fresh faces. Meanwhile, the digital will inevitably find its own portentous role in all of this.
To the likes of those future workshoppers, institutional memory will mean what the project economy means to the likes of us today. Of course, this requires more than goodwill among the workshop hosts. The forces who have willed us to be present, thus far, on-site, have their own agendas in mind. (“Come put our town on the map. Make the difference between a good calzone and The Sidewalk Pizza Discovery.”) They will require a little something to replace that glamor of placemaking internationalism. So the prospect of ecological and intellectual regeneration, for example, will need to grow in exchange value, along with that of collective entrenchment and pride of place. Incidentally, this is what art has always been good at: a kind of soft propaganda that initiates a sea-change over time.
Easier said than done? Yes. But we can always start with a workshop.
Tirdad Zolghadr is a curator and writer. He currently teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts (Graduiertenschule UdK) and Bard College Berlin. Curatorial work includes biennial settings, long-term collective efforts, and a curatorship at KW Institute for Contemporary Art (2016–20). Published writing includes fiction and curatorial research such as REALTY: Beyond the Traditional Blueprints of Art & Gentrification (Hatje Cantz, 2022).