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Book Club

The New Curator
In Conversation with Fleur Watson
11.04.21

Book Club is an opportunity for design discourse – news, views and reviews from the world of publishing in conversation with our favourite design authors, commentators and provocateurs.

Fleur Watson is Executive Director and Chief Curator for the Centre for Architecture Victoria, Open House Melbourne. From 2013-2020, Fleur was Curator at Design Hub Gallery, an exhibition space dedicated to cross-disciplinary design exchange and practice-led research at RMIT University in Melbourne, where she is Honorary University Fellow. She is also the author of The New Curator: Exhibiting Architecture & Design; a text that examines the inherent challenges in exhibiting design ideas.

Reframing the act of curation as a creative and experimental act, Fleur advocates for unconventional modes of curating design and architecture to create shared spaces of encounter. The book is divided into six thematic pillars, each chronicling projects and conversations with influential curators and cultural producers, lending a personal tone to the narrative. Fleur’s sharp observations, supported by rich visual content, unveil the emergence of a ‘new curator’ – an illuminating study that reveals the specialised and performative capacity of curation.

Founder and Director, Neil Hugh Kenna, recently sat down with Fleur to discuss The New Curator: Exhibiting Architecture & Design. This is their conversation.

Portrait by Tobias Titz.

NHK: Hi Fleur. We’re delighted you could join us to discuss your book, The New Curator, which our team keenly read earlier this year. With your background in research and curation, I imagine the book evolved over many years in practice. Can you tell us a bit about your journey?

FW: The New Curator is, at its heart, a deeply collaborative project – it brings together a significant international community of curatorial practice and body of work and projects produced here in Australia and globally. Much of the research for the book was produced during the completion of a practice-based PhD at RMIT University and within my tenure as curator at Design Hub Gallery which provided an important space in which to test this project-based research together with my curatorial colleagues and collaborators in the creative community both within Melbourne but, also, more broadly across Australia and internationally.

Most importantly, Design Hub was a public space – open and free to experience and actively take part in the exhibitions and programs so in that respect it was a civic space and a cultural contribution to the city. It brought the academy – researchers, creative practitioners and the public together in one place and, as a result, engaged many different people from many different perspectives to grapple with the messy, iterative, process-driven realities of design. We experimented with different forms of mediation formats and methods that could explore design from a diverse set of experiences and considered how we could develop a program beyond the traditional exhibition – as an installation, a scenography, a performance, a series of workshops, or a debate and so on.

“The New Curator is, at its heart, a deeply collaborative project – it brings together a significant international community of curatorial practice and body of work and projects produced here in Australia and globally.” – FW

NHK: In the foreword, curator, editor and writer Deyan Sudjic observes that many curators started their careers as journalists. Parallels are drawn between both disciplines – specifically regarding the role of storytelling and the value of empathy. How do you feel journalistic experience enables new curators to connect with their audience?

FW: In my view, a research or ‘process-driven’ approach to curating can encompass a certain journalistic or investigative quality. In this approach, there is an ability to unearth and reveal new stories or shed new light on previously unseen or untold connections while asking questions of the world around us and opening up new ways to create a meaningful exchange with audiences.

My own background includes a degree in design, a post-graduate degree in journalism, a masters degree in curatorial practice and a PhD in architecture and urban design so I have what you might call a very ‘hybrid’ education, background and diverse range of experience. I’ve always viewed the overlapping nature of this work as contributing to an ‘expanded field’ of design practice that includes curating, writing, exhibiting, research and teaching as part of that matrix.

I think this connectivity and dexterity across modes of practice resonates with many of the curatorial conversations in the book and, this complexity – asking questions of the world around us to understand the changing role and agency of design – is more nuanced in this respect.

In fact, in his foreword, Deyan, also writes that the new curator is “working on ways to debate and redefine the subject of design. In this sense, the book is as much about [the changing nature of] design practice as it is about curating.”

Certainly, design and spatial practice continues to evolve and, arguably, must change rapidly to increase its relevance, agency and contribution in addressing significant contemporary challenges – recognising Indigenous sovereignty, responding to the climate crisis, advocating for safe, affordable and long-term housing and social justice, inclusion and access for all.

And, much like design practice itself, contemporary curators are also responding to these urgent and shifting conditions and asking questions of the role of cultural production in this context. What can curators offer in the face of the enormity of these challenges that makes an active contribution to envisaging how we can collectively work towards a better future together?

Deyan Sudjic. Photography courtesy of Design at Large.

“Certainly, design and spatial practice continues to evolve and, arguably, must change rapidly to increase its relevance, agency and contribution in addressing significant contemporary challenges – recognising Indigenous sovereignty, responding to the climate crisis, advocating for safe, affordable and long-term housing and social justice, inclusion and access for all.” – FW

NHK: You define the ‘new curator’ as a globally connected auteur – a hybrid and dexterous cultural producer articulating progressive and experimental ideas. Yet exhibiting architecture and design is still a relatively new practice, often falling into the trope of presenting finished outcomes via models, plans and photographs. How do the curatorial ‘moves’ you present in the book liberate curators to broaden understandings of exhibiting design and architecture?

FW: The book is somewhat provocatively titled The New Curator in full acknowledgement that curatorship – for spatial practice and design – is certainly not ‘new’. I’m not seeking to construct a binary between ‘new and ‘old’ forms of curatorship; nor is it my intention to reject the scholarship and custodianship on established modes of cultural production. Instead, the book seeks to explore, discuss and investigate emerging curatorial methodologies and ‘moves’ to understand the shifting nature of contemporary curatorial practice today.

The book examines the challenges inherent in exhibiting design ideas and research in expanded spatial practice and explores a range of emergent curatorial methods and strategies across a diverse range of exhibitions, projects and contexts – both within and outside the museum and/or gallery setting.

Many of these projects and case studies share a deliberate shift away from exhibiting finished works or artefacts towards a form of process-driven or ‘performative curation’ which, in turn, provides a space to test experimental methods for encountering design ideas. Here, the role of the curator is not that of ‘custodian’ or ‘expert’ but with the intent to create a shared space of encounter with audiences – a space that is porous and welcoming yet, simultaneously, ‘socially tuned’.

The book interrogates – through a series of case studies and conversations – emerging forms of curatorial practice that embrace social responsiveness, advocacy and, even activism while, simultaneously, generating welcoming spaces for exchange that are porous and generous to audiences – encouraging them to take an active part in this process.

To understand this shifting landscape, I map and considers what I call six curatorial moves: Design as Exhibit (Curator as Space-Maker), The Prosthetic (Curator as Interloper) The Hybrid to the Digital (Curator as Speculator); The Mediator (Curator as Translator of Process, The Advocate/Activist (Curator as Agent), and Event as Performance (Curator as Dramaturge).

The term ‘moves’ is a deliberate one – rather than strategies or frameworks – and intended as an exploration of this emergence of a more responsive, porous and intuitive and, even at times, invisible – curatorial hand rather than preconceived, rigid or highly authored methodology.

“The book interrogates – through a series of case studies and conversations – emerging forms of curatorial practice that embrace social responsiveness, advocacy and, even activism while, simultaneously, generating welcoming spaces for exchange that are porous and generous to audiences – encouraging them to take an active part in this process.” – FW

NHK: In ‘Design as Exhibit,’ you explore the criticism of 1:1 exhibits yet advocate for the capacity of temporal spaces to distil design ideas and provide moments of intensity for design thinking, exchange and debate. How do these types of exhibitions scaffold performance and how can they persist in a digital context?

FW: The contemporary ‘live extract’ resists the idea of simply replicating a piece of architecture at 1:1 scale (isolated from program, context and site) to create a spatial experience for performance and active exchange. In this context, it sits somewhere between theatre scenography and an ‘encounter’ that mediates architectural qualities such as compression, release, materiality, diffusion of light, and so on.

In this case, the design acts as a live test, an experiment or a 1:1 set to create space for exchange and debate. At their most compelling, these new forms of temporal, full-scale exhibits can provide a forum for design experimentation and provocations in contemporary culture amplified by a global reach via digital connectivity and platforms.

Hybrid exhibition environments are also providing rich territory for active audience engagement and performative experiences. For their exhibition Value in the Virtual, at ArkDes in Sweden, architects Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg of Space Popular invite audiences to explore the idea of what will happen to cities and architecture in the near future as more of our experiences merge the real and the virtual.

Curated by James Taylor-Foster, Lesmes and Hellberg developed a series of propositions on what the city of Stockholm might look like and be experienced when physical architecture is blended with virtual augmentation providing an important opportunity to interrogate the implications of physical and virtual architecture and the role of the designer and the value of aesthetics alongside the ethical implications of the role of the designer in this matrix.

Value in the Virtual by Space Popular at ArkDes. Photo by Jeanette Hägglund.

Value in the Virtual by Space Popular at ArkDes. Photo by Jeanette Hägglund.

Value in the Virtual by Space Popular at ArkDes. Photo by Jeanette Hägglund.

“At their most compelling, these new forms of temporal, full-scale exhibits can provide a forum for design experimentation and provocations in contemporary culture amplified by a global reach via digital connectivity and platforms.” – FW

NHK: In the conversation with curators Catherine Ince and Prem Krishnamurthy, Prem highlights the value of a simple curatorial idea: ‘insist that everyone is at the table from the beginning.’ What can be gained by engaging with a multidisciplinary, collaborative team from the outset?

FW: Embracing a highly collaborative and multi-authored approach at the ‘get-go’ of the conceptual, curatorial and design process is a very natural move for many of the curators and projects profile in the book and yet, today, it still represents a stark departure from the usual ‘silo’ of the institution. In many museum and gallery contexts, the exhibition design is generally developed in isolation from the early stages of the curatorial process and then responds to a fixed object list or the collection of works, developing an aesthetic form or ‘wrapping’ for the exhibition.

As Prem so succinctly describes in his conversation, this idea of ‘everyone being at the table’ is vital so that the framework can be shaped from multiple points of view and that there is a fluidity of roles and a porosity that allows question, shift and challenge established power structures that might otherwise go unquestioned or unseen. Only then is there a chance to expand or challenge the singular voice of the institution.

Prem’s concept of meta-curation where collaborative units are formed to consider and construct future scenarios in which to explore concepts for an exhibition is also really, really interesting. From my perspective at least, this feels aligned with the notion of the curatorial dramaturgy. How can you set the conditions or framework for a multiplicity of voices, approaches, positions and perspectives and, as Prem describes ‘rewrite the rules in a playful way?’

Finally, I’ll circle back to Prem and Catherine’s comments that the ‘exhibition is still a fantastic demonstration room for ideas’ and that the exhibition’s role is not as an end to something but rather as a starting point, a catalyst. This position clearly connects with many of the other curatorial conversations and case studies in the book.

“As Prem so succinctly describes in his conversation, this idea of ‘everyone being at the table’ is vital so that the framework can be shaped from multiple points of view and that there is a fluidity of roles and a porosity that allows question, shift and challenge established power structures that might otherwise go unquestioned or unseen. Only then is there a chance to expand or challenge the singular voice of the institution.” – FW

NHK: In the face of current global crises, many design exhibitions are turning their attention to themes of creating better futures – a provocative undertaking to uncover new knowledge. Can you share some examples of how new curators are tackling significant societal, environmental and economic issues and how this elevates the value of design?

FW: Design exhibitions exploring how we can collectively work towards ‘better futures’ can be problematic. On one hand, it’s critical that cultural production responds to the conditions and challenges that we collectively face, yet, within an exhibition environment, the result can often feel overwhelming or, worse, disempowering when faced with an overload of didactic information and data.

In contrast to this approach, Occupied at RMIT Design Hub (2016) was an exhibition, series of performances, residencies and research-driven workshops created in collaboration with David Neustein and Grace Morlock of Other Architects who instigated, co-curated and designed the project from the initial stages of the curatorial process.

Occupied responded directly to a widely reported yet startling statistic that was receiving much media attention at the time: By 2050, the city of Melbourne is projected to overtake Sydney as Australia’s most populous city, with 8 million inhabitants to Sydney’s 7.5 million. The exhibition was an important opportunity to discuss and exchange a diversity of approaches, research and projects from other cities around the world that were grappling with similar pressures of rapid growth within their own context.

Occupied at RMIT Design Hub. Photography by Tobias Titz.

Occupied at RMIT Design Hub. Photography by Tobias Titz.

Occupied at RMIT Design Hub. Photography by Tobias Titz.

FW: The exhibition took direct inspiration from Offset House – a speculative project by Other Architects for the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2015. Offset House’s proposal to ‘un-supersize suburban McMansions’ by retrofitting existing homes and adapting the typical brick veneer project home into a more flexible, environmentally efficient and economical form provided a point of provocation for the exhibition.

As co-curators we posed the question: “how can architecture respond to this rapid growth by doing more with less, retrofitting, adapting and repurposing existing structures and environments in a way that is both transformative and optimistic?

In response to this provocation, we invited 23 local and international practitioners (from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Bangkok, Santiago, New York, London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Madrid) to exhibit their small-scale, contingent and design ideas and projects that operated at the margins or the in-between, within bureaucratic grey-zones or emerging economies.

Taking the form of built and ongoing projects, installations and models, residencies, processes and performances, smartphone apps and collaborative platforms – including an in-situ residency and Airbnb-like space within the exhibition itself – the works created for the exhibition ranged from pragmatism to installation to speculation. We were interested in bringing a diverse mix of people and ideas together to really thrash out these quite complex issues, with the different modes of mediation and translation performing the issues of the time and inviting direct exchange with the audience.

Offset House by Other Architects. Photography by Tobias Titz.

“Design exhibitions exploring how we can collectively work towards ‘better futures’ can be problematic. On one hand, it’s critical that cultural production responds to the conditions and challenges that we collectively face, yet, within an exhibition environment, the result can often feel overwhelming or, worse, disempowering when faced with an overload of didactic information and data.” – FW

NHK: In Chapter 6: ‘Event as Performance,’ Paola Antonelli summarises aptly: “it’s not relevant anymore to tell people that ‘this is the way it is’. Instead, the position might be: ‘I have an idea and I think it’s interesting now and I’d like to share it and talk about what it might mean…’” Moving towards a more discursive and performative approach to curation, how do you believe the role of the curator will continue to evolve?

FW: This quote from Paola resonates deeply with me and, in many ways, sums up the entire project of this book. One element, however, is certain. Curating is not an activity that can take place in isolation – either from the wider landscape of design practice or from the specifics of institutional or social politics. The audience is an integral and active part of the equation.

I think we’ll continue to see an evolution in the moves that contemporary curators continue to make as they experiment with ways of creating ‘radically welcoming’ spaces that embrace diversity, access and inclusion and pursue new forms that support ethical and sustainable modes of exhibition-making.

This also resonates with a new project that I’m working on with co-curator Associate Professor Tara McDowell from Monash University that considers a distributed and ‘light footprint’ approach to a curatorial project using the city – ‘as found’ public, private and social spaces – as exhibition environments.

Take Hold of the Clouds is a new curated project that intervenes into the annual Open House Melbourne and is distributed across the city of Naarm (Melbourne) for one weekend at the end of July, 2022. The project invites artists, architects, and designers to choose a building or public space included in the Open House Weekend program. Rather than simply placing artworks in buildings, Take Hold of the Clouds stages a series of thoughtful encounters between artist and architecture, in which each project responds to the form, context, and issues endemic to its site, adding a new layer to how we understand these buildings in the world.

The exhibition draws our attention to the unbuilt as well as the built aspects of our architecture: the built environment as porous and leaky as much as solid and physical; the bodies rendered invisible or obsolete by buildings, and the use and misuse of space by bodies in turn; utopian architecture as linked to utopian community building; the natural world that the built environment has eclipsed; and lastly, the atmospheric effects of the manmade.

In this respect, Take Hold of the Clouds is a curatorial experiment that sets up the conditions for a series of critical interventions into the format of the large-scale festival.

NHK: Fleur, thank you kindly for joining us.

FW: Thank you for a generous conversation!

The New Curator: Exhibiting Architecture & Design is published by Routledge Publications and available for purchase at Bookshop by Uro.

“Curating is not an activity that can take place in isolation – either from the wider landscape of design practice or from the specifics of institutional or social politics. The audience is an integral and active part of the equation.” – FW