When Alina Belishkina, Yana Klichuk and Joana Monbaron first got in touch about the 2020 Curatorial Symposium, their invitation was for the participation in an in-person event in St. Petersburg. However, the COVID-19 outbreak and the restrictions of movement and gatherings imposed have forced cultural practitioners to reimagine our programmes otherwise. Instead of the public event, the organisers proposed formats in compliance with the new normal. I was asked to engage in a written conversation that I am here kickstarting, with you, Felicity Allen, Sepake Angiama, Laurence Rassel and Françoise Vergès. The focus of the organisers of this year's Symposium is the educational role of cultural organisations — and curating — in the wake of the educational turn. Moreover, and for the purpose of this written conversation with you, we were asked to also touch upon the power relations in institutions and how these power relations, within and outside the confinements of the institution, are affected or, even, enacted by the institutions' archives. As a curator and researcher, I come to this conversation with a special interest in these topics and, furthermore, in how these ideas relate to the research capabilities of cultural programming and the subsequent repurposing of the function of contemporary art institutions.
The archive can be seen as the literal collection of objects held hidden from the public eye in storage, or made public in permanent exhibitions. The archives of European Museums, from Natural to Ethnographic, are frequently the result of colonial pillage, being central components of processes of epistemological domination, territorial occupation, and oppression. While the colonial origins of these archives have been under scrutiny for some time, there has been very little change in the structures of legitimacy and validation of the workings of these institutions, let alone the displays and their interpretations. As we know, and we have seen unfolding quite prominently in the last couple of months, the archives of colonialism are not only present within the four walls of museums. Critiques to the long-lasting presence of colonial references (and archives) in the public space have been irrevocably accentuated in the latest protests across the world after the killing of George Floyd in the hands of the US-American police in Minneapolis. In the UK, we saw the memorable toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the city of Bristol, whereas, across the world, statues of Priest António Vieira (Lisbon), and King Leopold II (Belgium) have been daubed in red paint.
While I write this account, the UK newspaper The Guardian publishes an article on the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, one of the many European museums with a problematic colonial past and present.  The news tells us that the organisation has accepted to remove from the museum's display the tsantsas,after consultation with indigenous Shuar community from Peru and Ecuador, in orderto overhaul insensitive use of the artefacts. However, removing an item of the collection from display might only help to deflect the attention to the very modern/colonial matrix that configures the visual cultures of the museum. What is rendered visible is as political as what is rendered invisible by the means of visibility.
While some cities and museums are eventually trying to deal with the quotidian and epistemic violence of their public statues and collections, the reason why archives are a key node in the structure of power relations is not so much because of the objects they hold, but because of the statements that the artefacts render possible. When reasoning about the formation of archives in the context of the natural Sciences and the Humanities, Michel Foucault reminds us that archives are not only the physical collection of artefacts, artworks, objects, and data.  For the French philosopher, the archive precedes the acquisitions, the objects, the interpretation and the cataloguing. It is an apriori of what these objects come to articulate. The archive is what governs the formulation and appearance of statements, including the statements then used to legitimise the formation of institutions of display, their acquisitions, and the interpretation captions in their exhibitions.
To slightly change focus, without leaving the productive tensions between archives and statements in institutions of display, I would like to focus on the functions of non-collecting institutions of display. Until late 2019, I was Head of Public Programmes and Research at Nottingham Contemporary, where led an exploration of the capabilities of research, beyond the protocols of academia, in the context of the contemporary art gallery.  Following up on that body of work, I would like to argue that these institutions can provide an opportunity to shuffle the expectations and principles that for some time had governed museums, i.e., the looking-after of the objects in the collections, from research to conservation and display.  Moreover, the question is: What is left for the non-collecting institutions to 'care for', without archives to look after? What are the political and archival dynamics that these institutions mobilise? In other words, where are the ontological 'archives' of non-collecting institutions? Returning to Foucault for a quick clarification, nothing is devoid of its regulatory system of utterance, visibility and statements, since the archive precedes the institution. Institutions are founded in archives of power relations, legitimacy, and protocols that validate their doings. But how can we assess them and, eventually, enact them otherwise?
I have argued elsewhere that research-led organisations can provide critical tools in and for the formation — and reformation — of the principles that ground these institutions, from the (re)definition of their functions, to the temporality of their programming, and the use of their infrastructures (physical and epistemic). I would like to argue that 'enacted-research', in the context of an institution, offers the tools and the conditions to generate an apriori critical postcolonial archive beyond the expectations and principles of the modern institutions of display. There are a few angles to consider here. First, in this argument, research resists the normativity of academic research, i.e., as a practice of repetition of the validated protocols founded in Eurocentric traditions of knowledge production. I draw on Arjun Appadurai's call for the "right to research," where research stands for the tools available to all those who want to learn something new, to foster "inquiries into those things we need to know, but do not know yet."  Instead of being exclusive to academia, research is claimed whenever and by whoever needs to delve into unknown matters. In practical terms, research can be mobilised in any context and its tools can be found in the advancement of research questions. This process can be enacted in the context of institutions. By claiming research, the institution acknowledges that it is always-already in an ongoing state of enquiry, fostering a culture of debate and collective investigation, not led by consensus but by the collective effort to unpack and reformulate. The collective of research is not based on predetermined audience segments; instead, it is a collective in the making that comes together in curiosity. Finally, a research-led organisation also acknowledges a different temporality, resisting the neoliberal pressures to deliver novel and appealing cultural products with already determined target audiences. The type of programming I advocate for here assumes the form of longitudinal lines of enquiry activated by the research questions and is capable of hosting multiple modes of address and formats, from public facing events (exhibitions, events, talks, etc.) to the reformulation of the institutions' internal protocols.
Although this is a long-winded way to come back to the conceptual framework of the symposium, i.e., the post-educational-turn, I wonder if there is something to be said about the relationship between the research capacities of institutions of display and the contributions of educational practices within the field. By mobilising new modalities of education beyond formal education, curating and art have developed the tools for a culture of collective and open-ended dialogical practices. I wonder how these practices might have generated the foundations for an enacted-research approach, in the sense of an ongoing and plural engagement with what we do not know yet.
«efore passing on these brief notes to you all, I would like to add another question to the ones provided by the organisers of the symposium. Given the direction of my argument, I would like to ask your thoughts on the capabilities of, what I am calling, enacted-research in an institutional context as a way to reorient the functions of these infrastructures beyond the modern/colonial models.
I look forward to reading your thoughts and continuing this conversation in the flesh.