A Curious Inquiry: What is Curatorial Constellation?

Notes from Paul O’Neill’s “The Curatorial Constellation and Paracuratorial Paradox”

I recommended this text to friends who are working together for an exhibition that is scheduled on August at Bangkok City City Gallery this year. As part of our preparation we started from the processes of research, however, the initiator of this project wanted to approach it by problematizing research in relation to the performativity of working together to produce an exhibition. This convivial form of working together reminded me of the most recent critical practice in curation that refuses to be defined. So I proposed to have a reading group to examine this “always emergent-praxis” in exhibition making that hopefully trigger a prefigurative discourse within and outside the proposed exhibition. To begin, we started by defining the term Curator/Curation, which has been taking over the life of contemporary art world.

Curation = Cura – To take care of
Curator = Caretaker, Gatekeeper of knowledge
Contemporary Curator = Cultural producer, Imparting knowledge, and exhibition maker
Contemporary Curator = Consumer/producer of knowledge/information

Irish curator and researcher Paul O’Neill in this essay try to understand an emergent curatorial practice that came out from the intense curatorial production and debate in the past 20 years. He didn’t try to interpret it as a synthesis of the debate nor “inscribe certain constructions, limitations, and definitions of what curating should be, or should seek to be, and to determine which bodies of knowledge will have enduring consequences for the practice of curating and its parallel discourses and histories.” Instead, he wanted to problematize it.

In this four-pages-long text, the focal point of his problematization was the praxis of the paracuratorial – production tactics that first emerged as a facilitating process for discursive proceedings in biennials and art fairs – which, according to O’Neill primarily operates “as a means of falsely bolstering critique in support of their market-oriented economies.” However, on the other hand, O’Neill also see the importance of the paracuratorial not from the utilitarian and conservative origins of it but precisely because the discursive nature of the paracuratorial has the political potentiality to set things in motion within the curatorial paradigm. Some curators also saw this potency and, thus, it is here where I believe they developed their critical practice in “resisting the narrative-oriented authorial model of curation”. Thus, according to O’Neill, to allow the potentiality of the prefigurative in the curatorial he stated:

“The discursive aspect of curatorial work should be given parity with—rather than being perceived as contingent upon—the main event of staging exhibitions. Similarly, the work of exhibition making is not only there to legitimize the para work in relation to it; rather, processes are set in motion in relation to other activities, actions, and events within the curatorial. Instead of conforming to the logic of inside and outside, a constellation of activities exists in which the exhibition can be one of many component parts.”

What O’Neill is trying to say here is that the discursive nature of the paracuratorial, by recognizing its importance, does not only destabilize the curatorial paradigm but also emboldens it. From this paradox, he outlined his premise of the Curatorial Constellation – a curatorial practice that sets the paracuratorial in equal footing within the curatorial paradigm. To further explain his premise let us go back to the discursive processes of the paracuratorial. O’Neill said that, “…the paracuratorial facilitates an extended artistic practice in which diverse activities commingle while employing an existing cultural form within which, and through which, many other ideas and propositions intersect and interrelate.” This commingling and intersections in the curatorial are conceived by O’Neill as a constellation where the static relationship of the curator-artist-spectator triumvirate is destabilized in favor for “a more semi-autonomous and self-determined aesthetic and discursive forms of practice.” O’Neill further explained:

“The constellation, in this sense, is an evershifting and dynamic cluster of changing elements that are always resisting reduction to a single common denominator. By preserving irreconcilable differences, such praxis retains a tension between the universal and the particular, between essentialism and nominalism.”

To better understand this hypothesis by Paul O’Neill let us look at the projects and curatorial works he described as “an always-emergent praxis” that challenges the “hermetic exhibition as primary curatorial work”:

Paracuratorial exhibitions/projects:

1. Cork Caucus: Art, Possibility, and Democracy (2005), co-curated by Annie Fletcher, Charles Esche, and Art / not art, was realized in the context of Cork, Ireland’s year as European Capital of Culture. Exhibitions and commissioned projects were curated alongside performances and discursive events across multiple formats, from seminars and lectures to workshops and publications. Exhibitions, events, and extensive formal and informal discussions took place in and around the city of Cork, each corresponding to the others as part of a curatorial whole.

2. The Paraeducation Department (2005), Fletcher invited the artist Sarah Pierce to collaborate with her, and together they resisted the conventional exhibition as the default curatorial format by setting up a common discursive space in a room on the floor in between the two institutions, where the employees of both could meet informally. In the process, an informal network of individuals was established that generated a multidirectional dialogue with temporary communities, audiences, and gatherings programmed across the project, some of which (such as a reading group) continue to this day. Fletcher and Pierce enacted a response instead of responding reactively.

3. The Blue House, “illustrates the ways in which such nonrepresentational processes of communication and exchange can form the content and structure of the work of art as a kind of paracuratorial practice.”


To conclude this meta-text of Paul O’Neill’s essay that outlines his Curatorial Constellation – a concept he derived from the development of paracuratorial praxis within the curatorial paradigm – I would like to say that this praxis one way or another gives hope to those who are restless in their quest for another alternative to the burgeoning trend of the curatorial turn in the global market of cultural production. However, as O’Neill also concludes in his text:


“I do not wish to fetishize process over product, nor to see curatorial discourses superseding praxis. Rather, my intention is to problematize the recently manifested desire for more procedural, exclusive, dominant, or instrumental forms of curatorial production. This is registered by a number of curators and commentators who have called for a regression to the artwork-first model of curation: curating as selecting from an already-sanctioned art market; the disappearance of curatorial self-reflexivity; curatorial labor restricted to object-oriented exhibitions; curating reduced to working within institutions; establishing a canon or selecting from within a canon; curating associated with, or working within, a private collection or museum context as the only way forward. “

Jong Pairez
Bangkok, Thailand
May 2017


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