Mixologists* of the Cultural Field

From the finnisage of BELL Invites, SMBA, Amsterdam, 19 March 2016. Photo: Anne Szefer Karlsen
From the finnisage of BELL invites, co-curated by Vivian Ziherl and Aruna Vermeulen, SMBA, Amsterdam, March 19, 2016. Photo: Anne Szefer Karlsen

The second issue of Mezosfera takes as a starting point a poetically written introduction. The editors Nikolett Erőss and Eszter Szakács write with spatial awareness incorporated in their metaphors, helping the reader  “see” the  “space” they want us to read from—or in. The spaces that are generated in our mind’s eye are defined by conditions that seem to apply to much of Europe today—an increasingly regulated context. They point out that “it is a lot harder to develop a truly radical form in practice than to be radical in writing about it.”1 The editors thus also highlight the conflict expressed between practice and theory (which came into full force in the context of art with the advent of Postmodernism in the 1970s and thereafter), and the authors of the issue respond with texts that discuss what I would like to call professional social practices, where protagonists of a professionalized cultural field highlight the social sphere surrounding them and their projects as well as the institutions in a self-reflexive way.

The texts, in the form of extended case studies, are based on experience—either personal accounts or spectator experience. The writers emphasize that they walk together with whom and what they write about: that bodies connect institutions, thinking, practice, and theory. Complex juxtapositions occur in every contribution, yet the writers approach their subjects and propositions with a pronounced position: expressing hope that art (in all its forms) has suggestive powers and potency to propel change. This can be perceived as a naïve position, yet the texts substantiate that those of us operating in the cultural field are indeed facing situations where the responsibility to address issues of threat to these very ideals ought to be discussed more widely. Not only on a theoretical level, but also through calculated practices set up in interdependent relationships with different powers, be they political, spatial, economic, or otherwise.

My perspective approaching this issue of Mezosfera is colored by research into the spaces that freelancing curators occupy today in relation to institutions such as museums, art centers, and biennials. Together with my colleague Vivian Ziherl, in preparation for a conference in November 2017, I am looking at the intellectual and social residue that this relatively new figure in the institutional landscape of art leaves behind in a variety of settings, as well as their working conditions within the same structures. These curators make up a “post new-institutionalism” generation who find themselves in precarious situations, yet insist upon actively taking part in shaping discourses in the cultural and curatorial field—including within institutional spaces.

One can say that curators in this generation, who are now in their thirties and forties are experiencing the hangover of the time that fostered what has become known as New Institutionalism in the context of contemporary art. This institutional modus operandi was developed by curators who took on the roles of directors of institutions during the mid- to late-1990s. Influenced by artists’ institutional critique practices, these directors, usually exemplified by curators such as Maria Lind, Charles Esche, and Catherine David, started to re-shape their institutions from the inside. This was a phenomenon which has been geographically positioned in already existing institutions in the north-western corner of Europe, and in institutions being set up post-1989 in the east/central belt of Europe.2 The term sparked by these critical institutions, New Institutionalism, first appeared in 2003,3 yet already in 2006 “critical cultural institutions [were] undoubtedly being dismantled, underfunded, subjected to the demands of a neoliberal event economy and so on.”4

Curators are still invited to take on, and are taking on, positions as directors. However, they are subject to closer scrutiny and higher pressure by, for example funders, be they public or private, leaving less room for the critical institutions from the turn of the new century. At the same time, more curators are being educated, due to a “professionalization” of this cultural role through an increasing number of educational programs in curating. Nevertheless, no parallel exists in terms of institutional positions to house these graduates, resulting also in frequent short-term, project-based engagements with art and cultural institutions. The conflation of these complex developments as well as political, financial, and social changes too wide-ranging to describe in this short text, result in a particular set of working conditions for curators. Together with Ziherl, we are specifically looking at what these “hired hands of the institution”  do and what they provide when accepting an invitation to lend their knowledge, time, intellectual capacities, and production skills to an institution. What is visible, and what is left behind? They might go about their assignment in line with the institution, basically providing business as usual. But from time to time, a twist or a turn occurs, a process behind the scenes or publicly available moments when the unexpected happens. These break with expectations and, when done with empathy and openness, can change an institution and its audiences—sometimes even fundamentally.

In his text “The ‘Independent’ Condition – Perspectives on Eastern Europe’s Cultural Sector,” Vlad Morariu confirms that there is a need to discuss issues related to these working conditions. While our interests for the upcoming conference are sparked by an investigation of the field of curators and art institutions, as educators and freelancers, we should also aim to share our speculations and findings with a wider cultural community. And I speak here of community in its singular, trying to evoke ideas of solidarity and partnerships, just like Morariu is addressing a wide variety of subjects in his text by calling on “cultural producers.”

Morariu defines a certain precarious subject, the “independent,” not directly addressing the issue of financial independence, however. Their “political position ambiguously stands between subversion and complicity, between critique and acceptance.”5 It rings a bell, doesn’t it?  Isn’t it mirroring the attempts of the curators associated with New Institutionalism, but without the institution? The conditions that face the subjects of today are quite different to those of the ‘90s generation. The increasingly regulated context that is indicated in the introduction is felt on our bodies: as the suffocating demands of a socio-economic system. Unfortunately, it is not possible to compartmentalize “the business of suffocation” as operated by commercial or public agents, both are complicit. There is no longer any reason to divide the former Eastern and Western Europe in this matter, privatization and neoliberalism have mainstreamed the experience of working in the cultural field. However, there are of course remnants of different times present in whatever context you happen to find yourself in. The pre-1989 infrastructure that has been left behind in the process of privatization in the former Eastern Europe are in Morariu’s personal experience the fertile ground for a “call for arms” that he puts forward in the text. He is an employee of the Council of the Romanian Administration of the National Fund for Culture, and is encouraging the precarious, project-working, independent cultural producer to occupy the “complex cultural infrastructure” which is part of the post-1989 “socialist heritage:” “artists’ unions and their still un-privatized assets. These comprise “exhibition and studio spaces, quasi-abandoned ‘camps of creation,’ and derelict residency houses” as well as the “chronically underfinanced ‘houses of culture,’ ‘memorial houses,’ and trade-union ‘recreation houses.'”6

His point is put forth as a practical and potentially long-term solution for cultural producers. It is nevertheless possible to trace a tension between the short term and the long term, of the permanent and temporary. He is not suggesting that this strategy will clear away the conditions that makes it necessary to be “independent.” Regulating powers and capitals are neither described and debated, nor systematized in the text, maintaining the complex conditions that art (and cultural production) is surrounded by invisible forces. Rather, he envisages cultural producers who have been independent as those who can articulate a “counter statement” through “new centers run by a community ethos of solidarity and equality.”7 In effect, he is describing a constructive conflict between individuals and organized groups, most commonly referred to as “institutions,” in the process of becoming more dependent. I am wondering, if the suggestion is put into practice, could it work as a “symbolic occupation of space?”8Thus, altering the institution, if not permanently, at least temporarily.


* The title is a humorous take on how the term “curator has been adapted by many fields outside of the arts. According to a myth, a lot of the creative work and network labor a curator does happens in social settings, sometimes in bars. I propose (with humor) to adapt the term “mixologist” to define a cultural worker that is able to jump the hurdles of precarity to create a “mixed economy.”

A contribution to issue #3 Back to Basics. Responses to the Issue Inside the Mezosfera.

About the author:

Anne Szefer Karlsen is a curator, writer, and editor. Her interests are in artistic and curatorial collaborations as well as developing the language that surrounds art productions of today, linguistically, spatially, and structurally. She is teaching and lecturing in formal and informal education, and is currently Associate Professor for MA Curatorial Practice at the Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design, University of Bergen (former Bergen Academy of Art and Design) (2015–21). She was Director of Hordaland Art Centre in Bergen, Norway (2008–14). Szefer Karlsen’s writing has appeared in journals such as Afterall, Billedkunst, Kunstjournalen B-post, kunstkritikk.no, as well as in anthologies such as Condition Report (ed. Koyo Kouoh, Hatje Cantz, 2013) and Making Biennials in Contemporary Times (eds. Galit Eilat et. al., Biennial Foundation/ICCo – Instituto de Cultura Contemporânea, 2015). Szefer Karlsen was series editor for “Dublett, a book series featuring artists’ works through anthologies and artists’ books (Hordaland Art Centre, 2012–2016), was co-editor of Self-Organised (with Stine Hebert, Open Editions/Hordaland Art Centre, 2013) and Lokalisert/Localised (with Arne Skaug Olsen and Morten Kvamme, Ctrl+Z Publishing, 2009).



  1. Nikolett Erőss, Eszter Szakács, ”Future Scenarios Now”, Mezosfera 2 (2016), http://mezosfera.org/mezosfera-future-scenarios-now/.
  2. Lucie Kolb & Gabriel Flückiger, “‘The term was snapped out of the air.” An Interview with Jonas Ekeberg,” OnCurating 21 (2014), http://www.on-curating.org/issue-21-reader/the-term-was-snapped-out-of-the-air.html#.WIYaqpKZVE4
  3. New Institutionalism, ed. Jonak Ekeberg (Oslo: Office for Contemporary Art Norway, 2003).
  4. Hito Steyerl, “The Institution of Critique,” Transversal 1 (2006), http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/steyerl/en
  5. Vlad Morariu, “The ‘Independent’ Condition. Perspectives on Eastern Europe’s Cultural Sector,” Mezosfera 2 (2016), http://mezosfera.org/the-independent-condition/
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.

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