As Paul B. Preciado has
noted, as we break out of our lockdowns, we are also trying to understand what we can learn from this virus. After finding ourselves restricted in our surroundings and usual way of life, we have been forced to question how we are to learn from within an architectural field, which seems structurally complicit to many of the problems highlighted by quarantine. If we understand architectural practice as expansive, multi-disciplinary, and multi-faceted, then it is not unusual for architects to turn to other disciplines and practices in search of answers or direction. Both researchers and practitioners have for some time now been critically rethinking architecture and challenging the role, or agency, of architecture.
Only in the last decade, however, following the global recession, have we seen the emergence of a new group of practitioners and scholars who are actively pushing the understanding of architecture as a broader field of intellectual inquiry through the practice of curating. Through the lens of architecture they investigate our most pressing social, political, cultural, and ecological concerns through the exhibition of architecture, questioning its conventions and modes of representation, as well as its position within wider intellectual and disciplinary debates . As Yesomi Umolo, one of this generation of curators, has noted:
A lot of the thematics that we've touched on [in the Chicago biennial] have been activated in the last several months, especially in the US, thinking about the city, the forms of violence, forms of agency and advocacy. I think that is because the way we approached the biennial was about the living conditions of cities. We were responding to those living conditions as things were evolving, as we were not just speaking to architects and practitioners about existing projects that could be developed as a result of the biennial. Sometimes biennials are retrospective, they deal with a condition that we've just passed and it's a way to take stock. But in some ways, this biennial has prefigured a very significant moment right now. I think because there always were residues of this moment, especially in the last two years, and in terms of some of the agencies that were really defining how people understand their kind of urban experiences. It's been interesting for me, especially thinking about questions around acknowledgement, not just acknowledging land and territory, but acknowledging forgotten histories and acknowledging complicity.
The Curating as Research project aims to clarify curating beyond the conventional understanding including as a form of research. This first phase of this project engaged with thirty architects, curators, and researchers operating at this intersection, whether independently or within existing institutions. These interviews, together with their related research agendas, exhibitions, projects, and platforms, comprise the first step in articulating methods of curatorial research, while also identifying the frameworks and institutional arrangements that are supporting this kind of research-based practice.
Exhibitions, installations, and their associated related media, have been seminal in the conceptualisation and transformation of the architectural discipline. Critical scholars have read the history of architecture through the exhibition, while others have investigated the exhibition itself as an object of study. Research on the aesthetic and political relationships between architecture, curating, and public display has been conducted through project commissions, as well as more wide-ranging editorial overviews of what has become an increasingly contested set of terms and practices within our discipline.
The growing relevance of exhibitions within the field of architecture has developed in parallel with an increasing demand for the disciplinary recognition of research-based practices. Institutional experimentation within practices, postgraduate programmes, and museums have led to a new generation of researchers and curators investigating and contesting the contemporary through curatorial platforms. In response to what are now established institutions, smaller-scale agencies, collectives, organisations, platforms, galleries, offices, studios, duos, and individuals are reframing the understanding of research and curating from within practice.
I see the act of curating as a form of restitution that has to intersect a relatively broad audience. Research is much more difficult because it never has an end. It doesn't really matter how complex, deep, and layered research is, you need several formal translations to actually make it something that is able to communicate from multiple standpoints. (...) While research builds the foundation of a larger discourse, curation is a form of public restitution of that discourse.
Rather than defining curatorial research practices, Curating as Research looks at the strategies and tactics of these curators as a system of knowledge production within our field. By publishing an open-access digital archive, we aim to make this research process public, sponsoring conversations between a diverse group of scholars and practitioners interested in building new knowledge about this field and a wider audience. By sharing these primary sources online, we hope to establish a platform for further collective investigation on the contemporary.
At the core of curating and research is the understanding of looking at things through an architectural lens, which is what really defines the projects and how we work them. It's not so much talking about architecture, but rather talking about other problems through architecture. Even though I work as a researcher, and as a curator, what feeds into them is this understanding of things through architecture.
During the following months, we will be sharing these initial conversations as the first iteration of our open archive. The interviews will be published as individual cases together with a description of the set of relationships that cut across these cases. We will use the lessons from this first phase of interviews to collectively develop new questions. Through the lens of curating and research, we hope to expand an understanding of the exhibition as a form of mediation and site of research, the political economy of event-based exhibitions, decolonial institution building, as well as enacting pedagogical experiments to take place within and outside the RCA.
Both research and curating increasingly deal with and are challenged by questions of authorship, collaborative work and public relevance. (...) Whereas research doesn't necessarily presuppose the imperative of making findings available to a larger public, as it is too often understood as an exploration that is pursued in preparation for something else, the curatorial is inevitably connected to the quest of a public discussion.
The Curating as Research archive will provide a forum for ongoing discussion on this mode of practice. It will distinguish different forms of expertise at the intersection of curating and research, opening up discussion around new possibilities for this practice in our post-pandemic reality. We will ask, in turn, what contributions these ways of operating within our field make to propose new formats, develop new critical concepts, open new trajectories of investigation, and expand the very territories of the discipline?
The goal was to put together an exhibition on the architecture of the global South, that didn't just mean including work in an exhibition that hadn't been included previously, [but on] how to decolonize the very definitions of architecture that we are familiar with, that we are using. To be very committed to the kind of consequences of that decolonization. And the way that I pursued that project was to take a much broader, expansive understanding of architecture as spatial environmental modification. That allowed us to not only include things that hadn't been included before, things like the geography of the Atacama Desert, or the (Ngurrara) painting from Western Australia. It also allowed us to reconfigure people's expectations of what an architectural practice might look like and where on Earth it might reside.
— Eleni Han and Guillermo Ruiz