A Conversation on Curating with Carson Chan

by Clare Ros, photos by Mike Milosh (unless otherwise noted)

During the fall of 2009 I came to Berlin to research my architectural thesis project that explored the idea of performative space in architecture. After two weeks of touring, site-seeing and exploring the various typologies of Berlin’s diverse urban spaces and architectural interventions, I found myself passing by a curious gallery quietly tucked away on Invalidenstrasse, down the street from Hamburger Bahnhof.

Upon entering Program e.V., formerly Hotel Newa — a Russian hotel — I was greeted by a minimal, white room of headphones, spinning dubplates placed on pedestals and the recorded ambient sounds of eight different exhibitions from iconic New York institutions, including The Guggenheim and MoMA. Untitled, by Andy Graydon, explored the physical bounds of location in contrast to one’s perceived concept of place. The environmental recordings became material to be molded within the gallery by the visitors who layered and switched soundtracks as desired. The recorded sounds mixed with the gallery’s ambient noise and reshaped the bounds of separate experiences. And by utilizing dubplates, a limit was set on the life span of the new spatial experience, deteriorating the recordings after about 50 plays.

Having seen Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition, Take Your Time, in both the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2007) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2008) I was eager to listen to the sounds of the exhibition recorded by Graydon in New York. Standing in Berlin, listening to an unfamiliar version of the exhibition, I was particularly moved as my understanding of what had stood out as a visually compelling experience, shifted into a new mode of perception. Left suspended between the visual imprints of memory and a momentary architecture of sound, PROGRAM questioned my own experience and the bounds through which it could be perceived.

Returning to Berlin a year later, I found that PROGRAM’s late fall exhibition, Built on Promises, similarly toyed with the idea of expanding our experiential perception and testing such limits. This exhibition, a collaboration between architect Matthias Ballestrem and artist Anton Burdakov, probed the “intimate relationship between experience and image.” Built on Promises, asked the audience to navigate through a series of assumptions created by the exhibition, to produce one’s own unique understanding of the work.

A concept effectively achieved as I initially thought the exhibition opening was a closing reception. Only photographs of what was installed were formally exhibited, while construction fragments lined the gallery perimeter and marks of the installation’s footprint suggested what was once there. After reading the statement and taking in the total exhibition, I realized that my anticipation of the work, and assumption of the viewing experience itself, had been disrupted. What was this exhibition? What and where was the work? My entire experience of the exhibition was thrown into question.

Berlin Art Link Interview with Carson Chan

Matthias Ballestrem & Anton Burdakov: ‘Built on Promises’ // Image courtesy of PROGRAM

Challenging conventions is not an unfamiliar territory for Carson Chan, a curator of PROGRAM. With a background in architectural design and theory, he comes out of a sensibility when “being exposed to ideas that are beyond design, that are about how architecture as a social construct works and how it can be contextualized in other fields, is really interesting.” Joining forces with fellow Harvard classmate, Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga, Chan founded PROGRAM in 2006 as an initiative to support such experimental collaborations between art and architecture.

In late 2010, I stopped by the gallery to visit Carson Chan to have a conversation regarding his approach as an architect turned curator. Before jetting off to Hong Kong and Marrakech (Chan is currently appointed co-curator of the Marrakech Biennale) he offered a glimpse of insight into his process, journey, and ideas about the state of exhibition design today.

So let’s start with your background in architecture. You came to Berlin first as an architect and moved into curating shortly following?

After Harvard, in 2005, I came to Berlin. I was hired right out of grad school to work at Barkow Leibinger Architects, based in Berlin-Charlottenburg. It was my first, and only, architecture job after graduate school. As much as I appreciated the designs generated by the office, not long after starting the job, I realized it wasn’t exactly how I wanted to pursue architecture. It became clear that the process of designing buildings and being invested in architecture as a discipline are two very separate things. Building design was only one aspect of architecture.

Yes, this is a common discovery for architects starting out after school. How did you become involved with exhibition design?

Barkow Leibinger Architects made a small architecture exhibition in a non-commercial art and architecture space in Berlin-Mitte, and I was working on that show. Through that opportunity, I got to know the organizers of the space, called 0047 (a Norwegian space that is now back in Oslo). It was there that I saw the inner workings of a small scale non-commercial exhibition organization. 0047 was renting out desk spaces and getting income from that, which they used to rent the gallery space and produce shows. During that time, Fotini came to visit. She saw the exhibition I was working on then, and we thought, “wait, we can do this too. This is a way we can continue to work in architecture without working in an office.”

That was in the summer 2006 and by that fall she and I were both in Berlin. The space we’re sitting in now on Invalidenstrasse was the first space we found. We were really expecting to end up with a little storefront where we could just put on some shows. The space we’re in now pretty much determined a lot of the activity that we’re conducting here. What do you do with such a large, long space like that? [pointing at the office] What do you do with a space like this? [pointing at the library] And so in that way the space determined how the course of our activity evolved.

So you and Fotini became inspired by 0047, and also Berlin’s unique spatial and economic conditions that allowed you to make your own gallery a reality.

Well yes, and actually I skipped a step. During the time that I started making shows as a freelancer, I also stopped working at the architecture firm. I started working at the Neue Nationalgalerie, which had an architecture curating department at the time. During this period, I was becoming aware of how architecture exhibitions are made, and understanding what is both working and not working in what I see. What didn’t make sense to me at all is that most architecture exhibitions show predominantly drawings of buildings such as plans, cross-sections and elevations, as well as simply photographs of buildings. These are representations of buildings, not architecture proper.

When you go to an art gallery or exhibition you see the art. When you go to an architecture exhibition you see representations of it. This was one thing that I thought was bizarre in the field of architecture exhibition making. Another thing I realized was that the gallery space could in fact be a place for making architecture rather than a place for simply showing it. And in this making of architecture, architects can really utilize the space to test ideas that they’re not able to do on the construction site. Without spending 45 million euros on a building—and making a million other conceptual compromises in the process—the architect’s initial idea could be tested in physical space. In an exhibition space the scale is smaller, one can execute things for cheaper, it’s much easier to test out ideas immediately. I saw the exhibition space as having this potential. Also our thought was to work with practitioners, like artists, who are used to working in exhibition spaces and used to making shows. By having artists and architects collaborate, we aim to reveal new potentials in both fields. In the end, if you ask an artist to make an architecture show, the results could teach architects something they would never find out themselves.

So these were the three main reasons as to why we started the space: reexamining how architecture exhibitions are curated, using the gallery as a space for making of architecture and not only the representing of it, and creating a testing ground for the potentials of multi-disciplinary collaboration.

Over the last five years running the space, what curatorial lessons have you learned?

Speaking in general, here [at PROGRAM e.V.] is where I really learned about curating, or exhibition making. At large, often state run institutions, the process of exhibition making is less challenged; At PROGRAM, as neither Fotini or I had much prior curating experience, we had to figure it out ourselves. The biggest lesson I learned is that curating is equal parts being conceptually and theoretically interesting and having something to say; being a mediator between artists, sponsors, the exhibiting institution, and the audience; and being, in many ways, a politician, because you have to be convincing. Funding is a huge aspect of curating. But all of these issues that I’ve encountered in the last several years have been invaluable lessons. I think another lesson I learned from PROGRAM is to trust artists—to trust your exhibitors. The exhibition is authored by the curator, but the artwork, or architecture or whatever work you’re showing, is something that a curator must trust. A curator could direct, but never control what an artist produces. The trust should be mutual—it goes both ways. So you have to really understand what aspects of the exhibition you can determine and what aspects you shouldn’t determine. And learning that separation I guess was a good lesson too.

To what degree do you get involved with helping develop the shows? As an architect you probably have to pull back and let go of some of the responsibilities you might instinctively grasp onto.

I try not to micro-manage. Well, it varies with all the different shows. For the wall painting show Streams, torrents, lakes… (2007), Fotini and I just gave a basic premise. We laid out some ground rules and that was it. We had everyone sit at a table, we had coffee, and said: “come here, pick a spot in the gallery, talk to your neighbors in the space, work things out,” and that was it. Of course we told them the idea, but we gave them very simple rules. With the wood and the wall painting show The Traffic of Clouds (2007), we brought everything together — from the concept to the participants to the scope. We introduced the artist, Jan Christensen, and the architect, Hackenbroich Architekten, to one another, organized the meetings, found the funding, and we oversaw the development of the ideas.

Berlin Art Link Interview with Carson Chan

Elena Bajo, Leigh Bridges, Ethan Hayes-Chute, Keiko Kimoto, Mark Neufeld, Nathan Peter, Markus Shimizu, Norio Takasugi, Brent Wadden: ‘Streams, torrents, lakes, glaciers, rocks, waterfalls, steep slopes, cliffs, peaks, firs, beeches, stumps, wind, storms, snow, sunrises, and sunsets, for example.’ // Image courtesy of PROGRAM

Berlin Art Link Interview with Carson Chan

Hackenbroich Architekten & Jan Christensen: ‘The Traffic of Clouds’ // Image courtesy of PROGRAM

We organized a collaboration between Vladimir Karaleev, a fashion designer and Yukihiro Taguchi, an artist, in 2008, and though we brought them together and oversaw the show’s development, at some point when the creative process started, it was made very clear that Fotini and I would back off and let the show take care of itself. When that freedom isn’t allowed, when curators have a show installed and completed already in their minds beforehand, the show can end up quite boring.

For example with Built on Promises (2010), it was a long process — a tough birth so to speak. We started work-shopping ideas about a year before the show opened. Matthias Ballestrem, the architect, and Anton Burdakov, the artist, came up with different proposals, and we would discuss these as a group. I think this is where architecture, or the process of architecture, informed our curating. Every decision was provisional until the moment Anton and Matthias started installing. I think this is somehow an architecture school ethic: “You’re never actually done. You should keep working until the moment you present.” I think this method was new for some artists; They would come in with objects and drawings and say, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do.” As curators we said, “Well, let’s step back, let’s look at the idea. Let’s look at the space. Let’s look at the potentials of each decision.” By the end of each meeting we’d come up with ten other ideas, which could have been really interesting to follow as well. So in my mind, that’s the curating part. It’s talking with the exhibitors to really bring out something new.

How do you go about selecting your exhibitors?

We never do open calls, and they’re usually artists or architects that we have some kind of connection to, even if indirectly. That has worked really well for us, because we’re not selling this work; We’re not looking for artists who are the most “bankable,” so to speak. Our interest comes from working with people with similar interests, or from working with people who have completely different ones, but could show us something new about our interests. This always comes through conversation with friends and other artists, curators and architects. At times, we’ve made shows with unsolicited material that was sent to us, and they have worked out really well, but this is rare.

Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to discuss the curatorial process with Grimmuseum curator, Despina Stokou. She mentioned that you had expressed to her a growing need to distinguish between the processes of choosing the artists, organizing a show, exhibition design, and curating.

Right, what I told Despina was that I thought the term curator is inaccurate in most cases when it’s used. As a title, it’s often abused. I was at a restaurant recently where it said, “music curated by” so and so on the menu, and my response was, “Well no. This is a DJ and the DJ selects music.” So why can’t we say that? There’s a cultural cache now, to be a curator, and to curate things—whatever that means.

The way that we understand the word now, is modeled after the independent exhibition makers of the 60s and 70s. Before that time, and even now, the word curator is used for someone who takes care of or manages a collection. So not necessarily someone making exhibitions all day long, or researching and doing studio visits, but someone that is taking care of a collection in a museum. This has changed largely with Harald Szeemann when he was the curator at the Kunsthalle Bern. By thematically bringing together works, he really saw his exhibitions as things that he authored. He commissioned artists and did all these things as an independent curator that commissioners would have done in the past. The way that we think of curators now is really modeled after him. But having said that, and given the looseness of the word curating in today’s usage, there’s no codified definition as to what the role of the curator is. It’s used for people that research in museums, or for people that organize or administer exhibitions, or people that simply select artists. It’s not a problem, unless we’re talking about the word and the title in an academic way. Then we have to be pretty precise about what we’re talking about. In that sense we have to say, “She organized the exhibition, but she didn’t curate it. Or she selected artists, but didn’t curate it. She found funding for it, but didn’t curate it.” So what is curating?

Going back to Szeemann’s idea of the curator being the author of the exhibition, it’s really very much the experience of the exhibition that is being authored, and obviously not the artwork. The curator is putting things in the room, or wherever the space may be—indoor or outdoor—in a manner that allows visitors coming to the space to apprehend the artwork in a way that makes sense. Curators allow for the work to be communicable. Take for example, Marcel Duchamp’s urinal; Placing it in the corner of a room, installing it in the bathroom or placing it on a pedestal in the center of a large space with spotlights trained on it will all express a very different aspect of the piece. Which way is correct? Well, there’s no correct way, but each way says a completely different thing. If we hang work from the ceiling it says something, if we put it on the floor it says something, if we put it outside the window and you have no physical access to it that says something else entirely.

So all of the different messages being conveyed through the positioning and placement are the work of the curator. So whether or not the curator organized the exhibition, doing the funding, administration, or shipping, is one thing, and whether the curator selected the artist is another; but how all of those things are put into a space, how they are contextualized in a way that makes sense and is readable is the curator’s job. With curating the primary aspect is a sensibility towards manipulating space, because without this sensibility, you just have a bunch of artworks somewhere. This is the curator’s craft, and this is what makes an exhibition more than simply a display of works, but a meaningful experience.

Additional Info

Carson Chan (1980) is an architecture writer and curator. Chan studied design, history and theory of architecture at both Cornell and Harvard University, where he received a Master’s in the History and Theory of Architecture. After working at Barkow Leibinger Architects and the Neue Nationalgalerie’s architecture exhibitions department in Berlin, with Fotini Lazaridou-Hatzigoga, he founded PROGRAM in 2006, a non-commercial initiative for art and architecture collaborations. He has variously curated and overseen more than 30 international exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture.

His writing on art, architecture and contemporary culture appears in books and periodicals worldwide, including Kaleidoscope and 032c (Berlin), where he is also a contributing editor. Chan has interviewed a broad range of contemporary practitioners, including Thomas Demand, Udo Kittelmann, Adam Caruso, William T. Vollmann, MVRDV, Greg Lynn, Rick Owens, and David Simon. He has recently lectured at the Schaulager (Basel), GAMeC (Bergamo), 12th Venice Architecture Biennial/ Nordic Pavilion, Bund Deutsche Architekten (Berlin), 0047 (Oslo) and he will be speaking at the Fondazione Ratti (Como) this spring.

Chan is an active advisor to several cultural institutions including DLD (Munich), Europan, and the Premio Furla – a biennial prize given to the most promising emerging artists in Italy. In 2008 he organized an evening of panel discussions at the Neue Nationalgalerie (Berlin) with leading artists, architects and curators to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Mies van der Rohe building. Chan was also recently appointed curator of the Marrakech Biennale 2012, along with Nadim Samman. He is currently working on a series of essays on exhibition making in both art and architecture.


Program e.V.

Invalidenstraße 115, 10115 Berlin, click here for map


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