Empty Stages, Crowded Flats Peformativity As Curatorial Strategy

Edited by

Florian Malzacher & Joanna Warsza



Performing Urgency #4

A publication by House on Fire

House on Fire is supported by the Culture Programme of the European Union.

The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

House on Fire are:

Archa Theatre (Prague), BIT Teatergarasjen (Bergen), brut Wien (Vienna), Frascati Theater (Amsterdam), HAU Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin), Kaaitheater (Brussels), LIFT (London), Malta Festival Poznań, Maria Matos Teatro Municipal/EGEAC (Lisbon), and Théâtre Garonne (Toulouse).

Edited by

Florian Malzacher & Joanna Warsza

Performing Urgency Series Editor:

Florian Malzacher

Graphic Design:


Copy Editing:

Harriet Curtis

Editorial Management:

Laura Lopes


John Barrett, John Elliott, Abraham Zeitoun


Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1969, Keith Sonnier, Martin Argyroglo, Thomas Aurin, Lutz Becker, Dunja Blažević & Student Cultural Center Belgrade (1, 2), Mahdi Belhassen, Dunja Blažević & Student Cultural Center Belgrade, Heithem Chebbi, Oli Cowling, Mikołaj Długosz (1, 2), Jürgen Fehrmann, Hugo Glendinning (1, 2), Adler Guerrier, Elsie Haddad (1, 2), Christopher Hewitt, Martina Hochmuth, International Festival, Toril Johannessen (1, 2), Florian Malzacher (1, 2), Robertas Narkus (1, 2), Akiko Ota, Caroline Pimenta (1, 2), Pere Pratdesaba / Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, Thomas Raggam, Wolfgang Silveri, Tomas Sinkevicious, Bartek Stawiarski / Museum of Modern Art Warsaw (1, 2), steirischer herbst, Urszula Trasiewicz, Dorothee Wimmer


Susana Sá



Verlag Berlin

Fredericiastraße 8

D-14050 Berlin


Live Art Development Agency

The White Building

Unit 7, Queen’s Yard

White Post Lane, London E9 5EN

ISBN: 978 3 89581 469 3

© 2017 the authors and House on Fire

For reprint and subsidiary rights, please contact Alexander Verlag Berlin

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.


Essays & Conversations

Shannon Jackson

Performative Curating Performs

Florian Malzacher

Feeling Alive:

The Performative Potential of Curating

Joanna Warsza in conversation with Catherine Wood

Reinventing the Template

case studies

Exposing Constellations

Marcia Tucker & James Monte’s Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials (1969)

Beatrice von Bismarck

On Performative (Self-)Production

Belgrade Student Cultural Centre’s Oktobar 75 (1975)

Jelena Vesić

Through Days and into Nights

Christine Peters’ Portraits (2000)

Tim Etchells

The Borders of Visibility

deufert&plischke’s B-Visible (2002)

Gerald Siegmund

Foreign Strangers

Matthias Lilienthal’s X-Apartments (2002-)

Lina Majdalanie

Too Much, Too Soon

Tor Lindstrand & Mårten Spångberg’s International Festival (2004-2010)


A Personal Alphabet

Hannah Hurtzig’s Blackmarket of Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge (2004-)

Karin Harrasser

Rehearsing the Political

Joanna Warsza’s Stadium X:

A Place that Never Was (2006-2009)

Ewa Majewska

Curator as Dramaturg

Pierre Bal Blanc’s The Living Currency (2006-)

Ana Janevski

The Curator-Critic

Kjetil Kausland & BIT Teatergarasjen’s No Más (2008)

Knut Ove Arntzen

Spectacular Insurgency

Carnival, the Curatorial, and the Processional (2008-)

Claire Tancons

Every Exhibition Needs a Panel Discussion

Boris Charmatz’s expo zéro (2009-)

Claire Bishop

Invading the Medias

Selma & Sofiane Ouissi’s Dream City (2010-)

Rachida Triki

Fear and Love in Graz

steirischer herbst’s Truth Is Concrete (2012)

Maayan Sheleff

Micro-Revolutions on the Periphery

Agata Siwiak’s Wielkopolska: Rewolucje (2012)

Kasia Tórz

Curating as one Dreams

Raimundas Malašauskas’ Oo (2013)

Vanessa Desclaux

Flipping the Table for Curating Colonial Legacy

HAU Hebbel am Ufer’s Return to Sender (2015)

Nedjma Hadj Benchelabi

For a Speculative Policy

Bruno Latour & Nanterre-Amendier’s Le Théâtre des négociations / Make It Work (2015)

Frédérique Aït-Touati

An Exhibition of 60 Minutes

Alexandra Laudo’s An Intellectual History of the Clock (2016)

Joanna Warsza

A Small Step, A Huge Gap

Teatro Maria Matos’ Marvila Maria Matos (2016-2021)

Rui Catalão

House on Fire



‘You are more than entitled not to know what the word “performative” means. It is a new word and an ugly word, and perhaps it does not mean anything very much. But at any rate there is one thing in its favour, it is not a profound word.’ With these critical lines British philosopher John Austin characterised his own invention in the essay ‘Performative Utterances’ (1979). And it is still true: during its impressive career over the last decades the term developed many parallel, sometimes opposing meanings in the humanities, philosophy, anthropology, arts, and economics. While we even witnessed in recent years a ‘performative turn’ that built up the influential discourse, it at the same time became overused, misused, and abused.

When we propose to apply the notion of the performative in the context of curating it is with the hope that its very openness unfolds a potential that so far has been mostly neglected. On the one hand we follow Austin’s and Judith Butler’s belief in the performative capacity to transform reality with words and other cultural utterances — in short, performativity as ‘reality-making’. Maria Lind referred loosely to this concept when she introduced the term ‘performative curating’ relating ‘to a pragmatic interest in the means and conditions of production’, as she says in ‘Going Beyond Display’ (2011).

This book also emphasises the often dismissed, colloquial, and yet more frequently applied notion of the performative to describe something that is related to the live arts, something being ‘performance’ or ‘theatre-like’. Not dividing these two strands but rather considering them as interdependent agents opens up a whole range of possibilities. Therefore we claim that using the notion of performative in curating can mean: adapting ‘theatre-like’ strategies and techniques to enable ‘reality-making’ situations.

Empty Stages, Crowded Flats: Performativity as Curatorial Strategy investigates a whole array of situations from choreographed exhibitions, immaterial museums, theatres of negotiation, and discursive marathons, to street carnivals and subversive public-art projects and inquires how curating itself has become staged, dramatised, choreographed, or composed. The opening essay by Shannon Jackson offers a detailed overview of the understandings and misunderstandings of the term performative, and how it can be situated within the concept of curating. Florian Malzacher then outlines how curatorial thinking and performative strategies can be combined, drawing on several examples from its practitioners. Tate Modern curator Catherine Wood, in a conversation with Joanna Warsza, describes her own approach of integrating live arts into the context of a museum which is set to present only objects — and how this becomes a performative challenge to the institution.

The second part of the book assembles 20 case studies mapping a field of the possibilities of performative curating, following the practices of both artists and curators in the words of their fellow colleagues. Marcia Tucker’s and James Monte’s Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials from 1969, described by Beatrice von Bismarck, is an early example of maintaining an exihibition, which, for its duration, was in progress and subject to change. Jelena Vesić’s portraits Oktobar 75 at the Belgrade Student Cultural Centre in Yugoslavia, as a participatory endeavour of the community cultural workers — artists, critics, curators, and friends — gathered around the gallery, was based on the gestures of not-showing and non-representationalist exhibiting. Such negotiations between performing and visual arts continue with curatorial projects like the theatrical exhibition The Living Currency by Pierre Bal Blanc (penned by Ana Janevski), Raimundas Malašauskas’ Oo (described by Vanessa Desclaux), as well as the Musée de la Danse and its éxpo zero, devised by choreographer Boris Charmatz and, as Claire Bishop shows, as an exhibition without any sculptures, installations, or videos.

A number of case studies go back to the early 2000s, which, in retrospect, was a moment when the fields of theatre and dance started to become interested in a more considerate, more pronounced approach to curating, and to an understanding that programming performances, theatre works, dance pieces, or music can be more than just selecting or producing shows and instead emphasising larger contexts and the interaction between the different works as well as with the audience. Examples of this turn are Christine Peters’ series of Portraits (described by participating artist Tim Etchells) that commissioned theatre makers to present their own work and to contextualise it by inviting additional guests, or Matthias Lilienthal’s X-Apartments, the Beirut iteration of which is introduced by Lina Majdalanie. Comparable context-specific approaches are part of Joanna Warsza’s Stadium X, which used a derelict soccer stadium and its surrounding market for rehearsing the political, as formulated by Ewa Majewska; or Marvila Maria Matos, created by the Lisbon theatre with the same name, that focused on work with its direct neighbourhood as witnessed by Rui Catalão.

Using the public sphere as stage, content and context is also the aim of the Tunisian Festival Dream City, curated by Selma and Sofiane Ouissi and depicted here by Rachida Triki, as well as Agata Siwiak’s Wielkopolska: Rewolucje, the only example of a project in the book that purposely leaves the city and addresses the Polish province, in the words of Kasia Tórz. Claire Tancons’ practice is rooted in the tradition of the carnavalesque and how it informs her curatorial projects, which themselves often become carnival-like exhibitions. A different kind of mass event is analysed by Knut Ove Arntzen, who looks at Kjetil Kausland & BIT Teatergarasjen’s No Más. Here the black box became the site for a Mixed Martial Arts showdown between the artist and a professional fighter, which created high level political discussions about the borders of art and curation in Norway.

Understanding art not in, but as public space — to use a distinction by art theorist Miwon Kwon — might be one of the most important contributions of a performative curating that puts its focus on creation of a (temporary) community and spaces of mediation. Théâtre des Négociations was a political, diplomatic, scientific, and artistic experiment described by Frédérique Aït-Touati, initiated by Bruno Latour, where some 200 students from all over the world simulated an international conference on climate change. Maayan Sheleff portraits how Truth is Concrete at steirischer herbst festival invited hundreds of artists, activists, and theorists as well as a broad audience to discuss and rehearse the relation between art and politics in a seven-day around the clock marathon of 170 hours. Nedjma Hadj Benchelabi writes how HAU Hebbel am Ufer, in its programme Return to Sender, investigated the colonial legacy from an African perspective through a system of delegated curatorship.

Hannah Hurtzig’s way of creating a discursive public sphere has been developed over many years by her performative installation Blackmarket of Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge, one of the most influential artistic knowledge platforms, introduced here by Karin Harrasser. Blackmarket, together with other projects, are both curatorial and artistic works at the same time. Artists that not only curate but also see their curation clearly as a performance are also deufert&plischke, whose B-Visible presented at Kunstencentrum Vooruit is pictured here by Gerald Sigmund as a project that pushed the notion of queerness and played with the functions of time and space. While Tor Lindstrand & Mårten Spångberg’s International Festival (portrayed here by Galerie, an art project itself) can be seen as one of the few works of institutional critique in the field of theatre and dance, Alexandra Laudo’s An Intellectual History of the Clock (described by Joanna Warsza) is an exhibition in a form of a narrated lecture performance referencing other works without showing any of them.

Obviously this list is subjective and incomplete, lacking some famous examples like Il Tempo del Postino curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno, proclaimed as ‘The World’s First Visual Arts Opera’ presenting in 2007 time-based art on the theatre stage. Or the use of curatorial strategies in performances by Tino Sehgal or recently by Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen, as they are mentioned in some of the essays in this book. And most of all, we also lack an essay devoted solely to the patron of the genre, Harald Szeemann, as much as his spirit can be felt in several texts. Even before knowing the term curator, he actually used to say that his exhibitions were staged. In this regard we consider ourselves in line with his thinking when we propose that the field of performing arts has more to offer to the field of curation — both in its form and its content — than one might think. Empty Stages, Crowded Flats hopes to encourage the practice but also the thinking about these possibilities.

Essays & Conversations

Shannon Jackson

Performative Curating Performs