A letter of withdrawal

Sent to Dear Curator Curate Me which is organized in collaboration with Ruang MES56 (public screening 28 March 2014) and Cemeti Art House (roundtable discussion 5 April 2014 with Ark Gallery artistic director and independent curator Alia Swastika as discussant). Dear Curator Curate Me consists of 15 videos from different makers and each time this project is organized different curators are invited to write a curatorial essay on the same set of videos. This time around, the following curators were invited: Mira Asriningtyas, Pitra Hutomo and Grace Samboh. To read all the submitted essays, click here.


I am a rather suspicious person and I am a bit cynical to the structure of Dear Curator Curate Me project just by its title. I haven’t tried to Google anything about this project and I haven’t discussed anything about this project with the other curators involved in the Yogyakarta edition of this project. I did know that a friend of mine was part of the Bandung edition of this project at Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in 2013. I read the catalog, but somehow didn’t manage to remember any part of it but the fact remains that they managed to make an invisible exhibition out of these videos about to write. That’s as much as I know. I started writing this essay before watching any of the videos included in this project. My guidelines are: I would only watch all the videos once—or at least try to watch them only once—and I will not change this very first paragraph afterwards, no matter what. So, here we go.

I started with a genuinely sensible video about the anxiety of being old, both for the person growing old and also for the young in dealing with the old, A Place to Live (1948). I wonder if having to write my impressions about all the videos I will be seeing is what is expected from inviting me to be part of the project. Writing impressions, readings of works, theorizing and discourse-generating are not the kind of things I would expect from a curatorial note nor the kind that I would write. I forbid myself from thinking too much, then, I obediently continue watching the rest of the videos and make my notes during and after watching each of the videos as if I certainly have to do something with these videos afterwards. What is it that I am expected to do?

The title of the project already suggested which part of me, or in what role and capacity I am expected to write on these videos; as a curator. Several fundamental questions can be raised from that standpoint. What does a curator do? What is curating? Who needs a curator? How does a curator work? These are big questions that have been written in many ways, criticized from many perspectives, changed to many forms, etc. Let’s be more specific by narrowing down the previous questions to the context of this project. What is expected within the given guidelines (to write a curatorial essay about all these videos and not to mention the selector of the videos)? Since some of the people invited to the Yogyakarta-side of the project are not curators, which role of a curator is the project looking for? How does this project define a curatorial practice? What kind of curatorial work is this project looking for? I am left with guessing or assuming and I am not fond of both.

I myself have never worked as a curator in a condition where a set of works is already chosen and all of them have to included in an curatorial essay (as if they are to be included in one exhibition). I am someone who thinks that a curator is someone who does not exist without any kind of show, exhibition, publication, dissemination of a certain idea in a certain form in a certain space. This role is therefore similar to being ‘a bridge’ that connects the idea, the form, the space and a designated audience. In that sense, what is to bridge here within this project? The initiating artist wishes to not be mentioned at all. The selected videos are not all consciously made as art. Yes, you can say that, “Art is whatever we put in an art gallery,” or, “Art is whatever a curator say it is art,” but I disagree to that. Not just me, but the situation that I am living in now does not allow that. A curator does not have that power. One can make bad or ugly artwork(s) and a curator can praise it like hell, but it will never make that ugly thing become good, not even have a better reputation.

As for these 15 videos, I wouldn’t dare to just write down my impressions of them as I think everyone in the whole wide world who is given access to see all these 15 videos in a set have the right to do so too. So why are my impressions (and some others that are known as curators) that are written down and published by the selectors? What makes curators’ impression more important than those of others that it needs to be written down, documented and discussed? The same goes to analysis and interpretations. Decades ago, that ‘big-bang’ statement death of the author have freed the rights of means-reproduction, means-generating from the exclusivity of certain elites.

It kills me everytime I think that parts of my essay still have to come back to saying something about the 15 videos. I cannot seem to for myself to create a discourse for them, even only a fictional one. I tried sketching three structures of essay for this project; one that pretends that I am an archivist of a new online database of moving images (so all kinds of moving images are accepted), so what I did was categorizing the videos based on the making/editing/presentation technicalities therefore genres; another one that stitch all the videos together as if there is one narrative, and, sure, that can work, but I am not happy with it; and the last one was commentaries. It all did not work out for me because those are not the kind of curatorial essay (one of the outputs of a curatorial work) that I have in mind.

Therefore, I am sending you this note as a withdrawal from the Dear Curator Curate Me project. I am aware that because I have agreed upon joining the project that even this withdrawal letter can be acted upon as an essay. I leave the decision to the initiator and organizers of the project. I am open to further discussing on the curators’ role from my point of view, but not about these 15 videos.

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Photo courtesy: Cemeti Art House


External links:

About Grace Samboh

Believes in unicorn, conviviality and the struggle towards collective subjectivities—even temporarily.
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