The Practice of Curating Has the Potential to Create Safer Spaces that Counter Toxic Environments
I have two distinct early art-memories. One is flipping through a Delacroix book that scared me to death when I was a child, still, I somehow managed to draw all over it with my crayons. I clearly remember the intensity of the battle images and the contorted bodies, the brightness of the colors, and the impression they made on me. I don’t think I could identify the brutality of the scenes, but it definitely left a mark and a sense of how powerful an image can be. Many years later, as an art history student, I remember similar feelings when I came across The Death of Sardanapalus once again.
The other one is a landscape painted by my great-aunt Rosa. Rosa died before I was born so I never got to know her, but my father kept a few of her paintings and a lot of memories about her. During my childhood she became a mysterious and almost mystical character. One of the paintings had a very ornate frame and hung somewhere in the house, it moved from room to room over the years, and when we moved. It was a bucolic and peaceful marine landscape, or at least that is what I remember (at some point the painting got lost). The painting, together with Rosa’s ghost, became an image of lost family stories, it did so in that particular way art objects become our affective partners without us knowing it.
I came to curating through actual curatorial practice, without really knowing or reflecting on what I was doing. At the time, around 2010, in Argentina, there were no curatorial practice courses of any kind, I studied Art History and worked at an art gallery, I wasn’t really looking to get into curating. Luckily I met some kindred spirits along the way with whom I shared interests and concerns about the institutional landscape of Buenos Aires, and it was our common desire to work together that drove me into curating. I became part of La Ene*, the New Energy Museum of Contemporary Art, an independent space in which we worked in and around institutional issues. At La Ene I curated shows, but as a collective we curated the exhibition program, the education and public program, a residency, and a collection. We also fundraised, painted walls, installed shows, cleaned the floors, and took turns opening the space once a week. So at the very core of my curatorial practice is this experience of independent collective work. Later on I became a curator at the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires, where I learned how to institutionalize my practice, as well as how to try and make the institution and the resources it offered my own. The institutional experience teaches you the ground work of administering resources, economic as well as intellectual, which ultimately is quite important. It wasn’t until a few years later that I actually got some kind of formal curatorial training at De Appel, which in my experience worked more as a residency or fellowship than as a formal training experience —maybe because of the transitional period De Appel was going through at the time, and because I got into it at a mid stage in my career. I chose to participate in the program mainly because I needed an excuse to leave Buenos Aires for a while, and give myself some time off work to think about my practice and open up new horizons, both personally and professionally. Amsterdam seemed like a good place to do that. And it did work out in that sense, it was a really productive research period for me. I did do the reverse trajectory of the typical curatorial career path I guess. Most curators get into these programs while they are at the beginning of their careers, I suppose that ends up being a very different experience than what I’ve done.
Starting a project with an artist or several artists is different every time. So the first conversation depends on how well you know each other, but also the kind of project you are doing and where. It might be a casual conversation over beers or a meeting at their studio with their whole team, it varies. But I guess the first thing I do is talk about this project that is bringing us together, and why we are doing it. In a way, I suppose what I’m really doing most of the time, especially if this is our first time working together, is getting to know each other better, and gain a certain understanding of what it will be like to do this together. I would say the second thing is to check how everyone is feeling about this thing that we are doing, are we all more or less on the same page? I guess I do this to try and manage expectations, both mine and theirs.
What I like most about working in an institution is the long-term perspectives, the things that you can build over time: teams, trust, ways of working, narratives you can develop, and most importantly: having an ongoing relationship with the audience. On the darker side of things, institutions can be very restrictive, a lot of negotiations and compromises need to take place in order for anything to happen, in addition to the energy and time-consuming administrative work. And of course, the long term relationships are not always blissful, they can be rocky and also require a lot of negotiation and compromise. After having worked at institutions for years, working independently sometimes feels like a breeze. Of course there are still a lot of compromises involved because you are always working with others, but it frees time from endless meetings and bureaucracy. It also gives you a sense of creative freedom, which is not necessarily always real. It can also be very hard and lonely, resources are very scarce, and you have no support system to help you deal with unexpected problems. You end up having to learn so much more than you expected about all sorts of things: accounting, engineering, shipping, and, of course, the politics of art. But in the end this makes you a very resourceful person, you gain skills that no one will ever teach you.
The best advice I ever received in the art world is to “always answer your emails”. That was a good one, don’t leave people hanging. It sounds silly, but to me it’s about building healthy and lasting work relations. Collaboration is key, especially in South America, so it’s best to grow relations of mutual respect and cooperate from the beginning. Here a big chunk of the art system is based on a friendship economy, being able to ask for what you need and being able to help others when they need you. Otherwise, the whole thing becomes way too lonely.
The worst advice? I’m not sure, but…Someone used to often tell me: “Write as if you were writing for your aunt”, referring to exhibition texts, especially institutional ones. It wasn’t ill intended. It meant, don’t make it unnecessarily complicated, but deep down there’s also a tendency to underestimate audiences, and aunts. I don’t think that’s a very interesting way to go for anyone.
Working with a team is wonderful and also very hard, but basically to me there’s no other way to work. I learned a lot about collaborative work while I was at De Appel. There, you are basically thrown into a team with five people you have never met before, with very different backgrounds, and who you might have nothing in common with, and you are expected to work together over a one-year period. So the first step for me is to establish “house rules”: basic norms for working together, even down to the most obvious things like respecting other people and their work. It works as a deterrent for toxic behavior. So, at De Appel, in keeping with that theme we decided to expand the team to a 13-member collective, most of them people we had never or just met. Through that experience I learned some strategies and techniques to make the workflow better and to get everyone involved. I wish I had learned this years ago. Basically you need to work and plan your encounters carefully to let everyone take part and communicate: collaboration doesn’t just happen simply because you are sitting at the same table. In the past some of my experiences of working in teams revolved around having tons of meetings, a lot of them were a waste of time, especially within institutions. They do keep people updated though, buy they usually go one way and there’s no real communication. However, I have to say, the most amazing part of working in a team, especially a curatorial one, is being able to bounce your ideas off each other, opening up your ideas to being discussed and also criticized, and sharing the processes of developing a project. I think that makes projects and people that much stronger. There’s also the type of teamwork, mostly when you do independent work with your friends, that involves a lot of dinners and beers and crazy planning, which is also a great way to work, it’s a lot of fun, but it’s often chaotic and somewhat exhausting. However, to me there’s something really special about teaming up with people you love to do something you love, in spite of the occasional yelling.
I never travel without researching the place I’m traveling to, at least I try to, especially if I’ll be working with local artists. I feel I need to have some kind of understanding of the context to start connecting with the people I’m working with, so that we don’t have to start from scratch. I’m very curious about history and try to grasp a little bit of the city’s or country’s history and politics to locate myself there, to find ways in which I can relate. That usually ends up being really productive. I also usually try to get a few tips on places to eat and tourist attractions from other people because I’m a terrible tourist and always miss good things!
Asia and Latin America: shared experience of colonial history across continents. A few years ago I went to Asia for the first time, I traveled to Seoul to do a project at the SeMa museum. It was a fascinating experience because I immediately felt at ease in the city. I had expected to feel like an alien, but actually it felt less foreign than some European countries to be honest. This triggered my curiosity and drove me to continue to do research and spend more time there, and also to visit other cities in Asia over the last few years. In Latin America we have very little knowledge and awareness in relation to Asia beyond tourist attractions and some global economic news, so this has opened up a lot of unexpected research interests for me, in terms of how we understand and experience coloniality in different ways, and how Neo-colonial experiences of authoritarian governments have shaped the 20th Century in both continents. We have shared experiences of trauma and forms of memory that have been really interesting and productive to explore.
Early awkwardness every time one starts a project. Every project goes through different paths and requires you to adapt, learn new things, acquire new skills, and meet new people. I guess to me the one thing that always needs to be in place is a guiding principle for the project that will eventually lead to its final shape. Sometimes it takes a while to have clarity on what you are doing. This is especially so when I’m working on a commission. Over time, after having built a certain body of work and research, and a certain philosophy of work, it has become a smoother process, but still it never ceases to be a slightly awkward phase in every project before things fall into place.
What I love most about curating is bringing people, ideas, and objects together, diving into their relations, discovering unexpected and unsettling meaning in their encounter. Putting something out there for people to enjoy, reflect upon, share, disagree with. Those are all the things I really love. But ultimately, I think any curatorial project has the potential to contribute to creating a more critical and sensitive pubic sphere. There are so many toxic images in the world that contribute to the propagation of violence in so many ways, and not enough counter images and spaces to develop environments of care, community, and understanding, whatever shape they may have. Curatorial practice is one of the ways in which we can contribute to the creation of such spaces, whatever form or shape they may have.
I’ve always tended to fill all my free time with more work. Especially when I was working at the Museum as well as running La Ene. I used La Ene and independent work in general to counteract the burdens and stresses of my institutional work. I couldn’t really conceive doing one without the other, but it didn’t leave much time for anything else. That worked for me for a few years. I think as I get older it has become a lot harder, and I’m learning to take better care of myself, I’m still not very good at it, but I’m on my way. The one thing that is super important to me is food, it is one of the things that brings me the most joy and comfort, so I cook quite a lot, but I especially love it when other people cook for me, it’s such a loving gesture.
I read a lot of literature, and this is really important to me both personally and for my practice. Personally, I just love to read novels and short stories. My parents instilled in us the habit of reading since we were very young, and it has stayed with me.
In terms of my practice, in the past I was very focused on creating historical and political contexts for each project, I guess that is a reflex for anyone with a background in any kind of history. Nowadays, I find references in poetry and literature that help me broaden my understanding of an artist or a particular work, I do also try to reach out to other forms of art to create broader contexts, but literature is my main source. In the past two years I’ve become a science fiction reader, this has been wildly productive to work with. I think literature has opened up a new language for me to think and write.
My two last favorite books are “Nuestra parte de noche” (Our part of the night), by Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez, I read it months ago and I’m still thinking about it. It’s an amazing and captivating novel that experiments with different types of fictional writing along its 700 pages, but it does it seamlessly. And her characters and the environments she creates are truly captivating, I couldn’t put it down.
The other one is “Towards a Global Idea of Race”, by Denise Ferreira Da Silva. It’s a book that’s been around for a few years now, but I only got to it during the pandemic, about the time George Floyd was murdered and the BLM came into the spotlight, so it was a very intense reading for me. Argentina is a deeply racist society, but it has historically denied its racism. Basically, it has denied its indigenous origins and African descent by creating the myths of a white European country, and that myth is very much active today. In 2018 former president Mauricio Macri declared in Davos that “in South America we are all of European descent”, which means denying a large part of Argentine citizens their origins.
Ferreira Da Silva’s framing of the racial as a structural category within modern thought, has hugely broadened my understanding of race and coloniality, and helped me weave the Latin American perspective of coloniality with her tracing of modern western thought.
I love Buenos Aires and the sense of familiarity and belonging I feel here, this is where my family and friends are, and why I decided to come back. I love going to cafes, even though the coffee is usually terrible. I love the streets even though they are usually super noisy and occasionally dirty. I love its history and its people, even though they are both deeply conflicted. There’s a unique experience here and that is the sense of belonging when at a political manifestation: it is the sense of expanded community you feel when you get together in the streets to claim what you believe is right. We argentines are very passionate, especially about football and politics, we love the epic of politics, and it can be very intense.
Currently I’m working on two different, but related, strands of research. On one hand, I continue to do research around the institutionality of art in Latin America, mainly focusing on the paradigms that build institutionalism through the museum as colonial devises, and searching for alternative genealogies that scape the modern universalist canon. I’m co-editing a book that attempts to trace some of the projects that could build this genealogy, it includes some museums, or at least specific periods of their history, as well as what I call soft institutions and artist museums. All of these projects have at some point deviated from the canon of western museums.
On the other hand, lately I’ve shifted my research to a wider understanding of decoloniality and the decolonization of the unconscious, particularly the way in which art can contribute to this process. I’m interested in how to unsettle the traces of coloniality in our every day lives.
I’m still thinking about “Xenogenesis”, the Otolith Group’s retrospective at Van Abbemuseum. First of all, because it was the first time I got to see their work live, seeing how their narratives build on top of each other over time was really inspiring. But also, because I felt so moved by the last work of the exhibition,The Third Part Of The Third Measure. This idea of “an experience of watching in the key of listening,” feels very powerful, it impacts your body in a way that I could only compare to listening to a powerful political speech in the middle of a sea of people (this might be too Argentine a reference). It brought me to tears.
Today, on August 25th, Buenos Aires is still under confinement. Not extremely strict, but without gatherings, not a lot of usage of public space, and limited mobility. This means a lot of people have lost their livelihood and their homes. Others have kept their jobs, but are having difficulty dealing with anxiety and the collapse of their domestic lives. We are all dealing with grief. It’s been now about five months. The number of cases is still growing, but the health system hasn’t collapsed, thanks to the careful planning of our government. The future is nothing but uncertain. To me this has been a learning curve, learning patience, implementing strategies to manage anxiety and stress, finding new ways to work, learning to curate through a screen all the way across the world, finding new work, imagining new ways of relating to my loved ones through social distancing, trying to avoid emotional distancing in the meantime. We are opening a show in Seoul in September, not only have we gone through the whole project at a distance, we are not even going to get to see it, which is quite sad. There are too many new experiences to process. But honestly, I feel most of my energy has gone into not letting fear of what is to come—the economic crisis all over the world mostly—get the best of me, and making an effort to imagine the ways in which to coexist with Covid-19 in the long term. I also started doing yoga.
I don’t think I could ever be an art collector, I’m the opposite of a hoarder. Accumulation gets on my nerves and I tend to get rid of things periodically. That is probably not a great trait for a collector.
I imagine my 10 years older self is visiting me from the future today and they tell me: “You survived climate change!”. It would be nice if in 10 years time the world had slowed down at least a little bit. I’m not feeling too optimistic right now, but I guess it’s worth imagining it. It would be nice to find out that in 10 years we will be producing less plastics or eating less meat, for example.
What would I do if I wasn’t curating? I always wonder about this, but I’m not really sure. I like to think that I would own a greenhouse, but I’m pretty sure that is not very realistic.
- * See also Curtain Profile of Marina Reyes Franco, co-founder of La Ene in Buenos Aires here
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Sofía Dourron is an independent researcher and curator based in Buenos Aires. From 2015 to 2018 she was a Curator and Curatorial Department Coordinator at the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires, where she curated exhibitions by Edgardo Antonio Vigo, Sergio Avello, Elba Bairon and Lino Divas, among others. Since 2011 she has been a member of La Ene, Nuevo Museo Energía de Arte Contemporáneo, an independent art space founded in 2010 in Buenos Aires, which she directed from 2015 until 2018. In 2015, together with artist Gala Berger, she co-founded Paraguay Independent Printed Art Fair. Dourron holds a BA in Art History and Management, an MA in Latin American Art History and was a participant in the De Appel Curatorial Programme 2018/2019. In 2019 she was an International Research Fellow at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Korea.
Her current work researches the relationships between the Latin-American decolonial perspective, the notion of the decolonization of the unconscious, artistic practices, activisms, and traditions in different regions of the global south. She also continues her work on art institutionalism in Latin America, focusing on the paradigms that build institutionalism through the museum as colonial devises, and searching for alternative genealogies that scape the modern universalist canon.