Megan Arney Johnston
What is Slow Curating?
Above, installation of Liminal Spaces project space. The exhibition was a collaborative effort between the Model, home of the Niland Collection and Sligo IT. We employed a curatorial team to organize the architecture competition, public art commission, commissioning of new work by contemporary artists, and a publication.
I first coined Slow Curating in 2009 as part of my curatorial work in Portadown, in the North of Ireland. I first publically presented on the idea at Open Engagement in 2012 in Portland. In 2014 I published the idea in ON CURATING (see my second blog post). I will soon finalize my PhD, which supports the methodology of Slow Curating through four areas of work and dozens of experiments. I am also currently working on a book on Slow Curating.
Over the past 10 years, I have developed the process as a reflective curatorial framework that enables, explores, challenges, and expands museum and exhibition experiences for more relevant audience engagement. Slow Curating is a working framework that embraces methods to facilitate deep connections to community, locality, and reciprocal relationships (between people and between art and audience) that evolve over time. It is a practice that enables, explores, and expands museum and exhibition experiences for more relevant audience engagement.
Slow Curating embraces the notion of 'think global, act local', which is now somewhat cliché, but the idea is foundational in the work of Scottish scholar and town planner Patrick Geddes. He believed in a holistic view of working within a community with the environment rather than against it (Geddes, 1915: 397). The Slow Curating framework is directly inspired by the principles of the Slow Movement. Coined by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed, the Slow Movement galvanized an international phenomena toward slowing down life's pace. Rejecting the ‘rat race’, those who prescribe to the Slow Movement fundamentally want to change their life perspective and embrace life, health, the environment and local connectivity. In relation to the curatorial process, it is a rejection of the Biennale model and what I have termed ‘the Easy Jet/Jet Blue curator’—one who jets around to sites and ‘plops’ down an exhibition that is devoid of local context and relativity. Several scholars and practitioners use similar but different terminology, including Ralph Rugoff and Mary Jane Jacobs. For some time now, my curatorial process has included a meaningful and deep understanding of local context and working with local experts in the community to investigate issues that affect everyday lives.
In relation to my curatorial practice the ideas found in the Slow Movement are embodied in the Slow Curating framework, particularly in relation to curating and connecting with communities. The ‘slowness’ denotes an understanding of local context. The aim of Slow Curating is to facilitate space for cultural agency across a broad spectrum of the population while democratizing the institution of the museum.
Slow Curating is not necessarily about taking more time, although it is temporal in a relational way. The process encourages understanding of one’s immediate context, working with local experts to learn the cultural politics, understand the poetics of place, and investigating issues (conscious and unconscious) that affect everyday lives. The notion of taking time is important, as is working in collaboration with a sense of place and alongside working artists and the community. It means promoting reciprocal relationships, open-ended proposals, and outcomes that can be decided by different people and at different times in the process. The element of control and power ebbs and flows, and self-reflection and self-evaluation are continual and an important part of the process. This slow method also connects directly to radical pedagogical models and does not recognize the institutional division between the notions of curatorial and educational methods and processes. Nor does Slow Curating equate to art that takes a significant amount of time to create, although it often does take time for the projects to reveal themselves in their complexity.
Instead, Slow Curating rejects glossy, globe-trotting curatorial projects that quickly evaporate in favor of projects that are connected to the values of locality, working with local artists collaboratively, and responding to the context in a way that is relevant locally and globally. This is an intentional practice of interconnectivity. It is a rejection of the ‘EasyJet curator’ — one who continuously moves from one international project to another, curating projects that could be seen anywhere and devoid of context and relational nature to their immediate surroundings.
Another issue that Slow Curating may address is assembly-line exhibition making. Those of us in the field know that, as curators, we often feel pressured to see the next show, attend the next biennale or speak at the next symposium as part of our practice, rather than connecting in multiple ways to our immediate communities. The time pressure to roll out exhibitions, like a factory line, is addressed with a Fordist/post-Fordist or Marxist critique (Birchall 2014, 2015). I utilize Slow Curating to challenges and disrupt conventional museum and exhibition experiences for more relevant audience engagement. I hope that Slow Curating can be a useful framework in many different contexts.
The process in my curatorial practice is to create relevant engagement with audiences and local communities while critically examining that practice as it evolved and adapted to political contexts. This framework includes: researching of socio-political and historical contexts, conducting experiments and analyzing, noting outputs, responding in situ, and then re-testing. The research process was iterative, with cylindrical reviews as developed over time and place. Below are brief definitions of the Slow Curating steps.
Cylindrical chart of Slow Curating framework: Research + experiment + Observations + Reflect + Dialogue + Alter + Repeat
SLOW CURATING = RESEARCH + EXPERIMENT + OBSERVATION + REFLECTION + DIALOGUE + ADAPTATION + REPEAT
1. RESEARCH: Begin environmental mapping of the local context through dialogue, primary and secondary research, and observations. Take extensive notes. Speak with stakeholders. Consider questions that are overt and subvert. What is not being said? Over time, the nuances of the socio-political and historical ecosystems will slowly become apparent.
2. EXPERIMENT: Based and/or connected to a local context and working with others, begin to present creative experiments that facilitate further and deeper dialogue. Take calculated risks, given the research, which aims to facilitate a space that is dialogical and experiential, using new approaches and methods for engagement via multiple avenues of entry into the work. Unplanned opportunities arise within the space between art and audiences.
3. OBSERVATION: With an open, reflexive, and transparent approach, observe the experiments as they unfold within the contexts. Reflect in your journal—what is said, what is not? What works? What could have been different? Do not attempt to control the situation.
4. REFLECTION: Take time to reflect on your process, work, relationships and context as the process unfolds. Write, talk, and think about how things are going. Journal. What would you do differently?
5. DIALOGUE: Taking the above, discuss the project and process with collaborators, colleagues, and mentors. Should you try again? What would you do differently?
6. ADAPTATION: As the process unfolds, allow for changes in the project.
7. REPEAT / RE-TEST
The Slow Curating framework then is, at one time, both a conceptual/theoretical notion as well as a concrete practice based in a specific context. Slow Curating reflects approaches within community, context, and collaboration. These key processes allow for development and focus for community engagement, responding to a specific context / area, and collaboration with others. These areas of work are large ecosystems themselves, which are non-linear, responsive, and interconnected to one another. In general, with Slow Curating one must work within these areas. In the research some creative experiments focused more in one area, other projects engaged in all three processes in different ways. Slow Curating is iterative—continually creating new antagonisms, knowledge, and re-testing possibilities from previous findings.
I found several key patterns and trends in the data, including processes that informed the Slow Curating framework such as time, place or site, engagement with the community, the requirement for reflexive contemplation, and dialogue. Findings also included notions of radical pedagogy, which was a direct antagonism to more traditional education in museums as well as embracing experimentation. Ideas involving activated space, place as site, and art and memory became key patterns, as did curatorial contestation, risk, and volatile unpredictability.
Slow Curating facilitated having the experiments unfold within a specific framework while also allowing for non-linear processes. I believed that the framework could be generalized and work in multiple sites, and indeed it was. In this way, the framework reflected a practice that enabled, explored, and expanded museum and exhibition experiences for more relevant audience engagement. As a social practice, it showed new alternatives to current museology and provided a map for alternative approaches to mediating contemporary art in a museum context.
Slow Curating is a dialectical, transferable model that museum and art professionals can use in concrete and conceptual ways. Importantly, the slow curating methodology framework is not only applicable to art projects, working with artists, art educators or within an art institution. This framework is highly informed by grassroots community organizing and can be utilized in many organizations and contexts.