An Argument of Rosler’s


booksWhat follows is a lightly edited conversation between John Craig Freeman and Loudon Stearns conducted via e-mail from Sept 30 to Oct 17 2013. 


I would be really interested to hear you lecture/talk about the meaning/role/importance of the curator.


It is best to look at the role of curators in the context of the entirety of the art world, and the art world as a microcosm of the broader culture. Martha Rosler wrote an article back in the 80s titled Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, Makers, [the article starts on page113  of the linked PDF(page 206 of the book)] that was a kind of seminal deconstruction of the market forces that drive “high” culture. My life’s work is fundamentally built around challenging the basic assumptions of the art market, anti-commodity, anti-institutional, etc.

I think that what is important to you guys as graduate students, is that the study of the avant-garde can act as a road map to invention, assuming that you aspire to make an original contribution in your chosen fields.

The point is that artists don’t work in a vacuum. They work within a social system. If you choose to work outside the system, you’ll have your work cut out for you. The way I talk about Manifest.AR is that as artists, we have recognized that our role is changing in electrate, digital networked culture, and we have tried to step up to the challenge. What do you need a curator for if you can make art anywhere without permission from anyone? In trying to answer that question, new roles will emerge. For the past few years, I have been actively trying to identify institutions, curators and even collectors that, rather than responding defensively, understand that their roles are changing as well. For instance, collecting virtual art seems absurd –believe me, the art market/capitalism can commodity anything. Although I am not interested in private collectors, when institutions collect, the take on the responsibility of long term preservation and management of historicity and legacy.

Manifest.AR has been working with likeminded curators to develop new approaches to distributed, collective and networked exhibition development. I am happy to provide examples. And remember, where the avant-garde leads, pop culture follows.


In looking for the Rosler article you referenced, I found this great contemporary interview with her that touches on many of these subjects (and much more).


I can see how the curator as a museum-employee/gate-keeper may fade and even become problematic, but is curator as an archivist/collector even more important as new media doesn’t lend itself well to long term storage?


The long term storage of digital media art is at the core of the changing role of institutions, collectors and curators. It is being taken very seriously. See Smithsonian Institution’s Report on the Status and Need for Technical Standards in the care of Time-Based Media and Digital Art. Incidentally, many of the names on participants list are just the type of forward thinking people that I am talking about. I have worked with many of them directly.


Curators sustain artists’ legacies.

The new media artist can do without the curator, can appeal directly to the audience.

But, then the artist must rely on the audience to remember; a curator is a master of remembrance.

So, like always, the artist must find the right curator.

Unless, of course, the artist is truly remarkable.

Then, the audience remembers.

Do I need a curator?



Well, curators develop ideas for exhibitions. In a way their role precedes the importance of aggregation, which is what the web is all about. The curator brings work together based often on themes. Curators often work through artist to express their own ideas about the world. They act a tastemakers for institutions, museums, galleries and the art world as a whole. They decide what is worthy of attention.

It is the job of critics to describe, interpret, evaluate, contextualize and theorize about the work and the historian to cast it into cultural memory.


If we seek to go against the established art market system, as the nature if our work demands, the curator no longer must be the agent of an establishment. Their fundamental role, networking with taste, can be accomplished anywhere—as you have shown with Manifest.AR. Artists can move the system from a decentralized network (with curators forming hubs) to a distributed network (hub-less).

In this move, is there a mechanism to provide legacy and archiving? Your resources on archiving time-based media are wonderful, but it is expensive and centralized—does that make it vulnerable? Future-proofing the work is an additional responsibility the artist must take on in a decentralized system. Ulmer spoke about the artist taking on additional roles in the electrate era: is the artist consuming the curators role?




Without an institutionally funded archive to maintain an artist’s new media work, the work itself will likely degrade as technology advances. The durable references to the work becomes the artist’s legacy. The cultivation and archiving of those references is a major responsibility of the artist—as important as making the art itself? In hindsight, is an artist judged by the quantity, quality, and content of these references more than by the art itself?


I always regard the making of networked art of any kind to be a bit akin to a message in a bottle being cast into a virtual sea. Long after Layar goes belly-up, smart phones are replaced by smart implants and Google’s Super Cell project replicates and uploads every piece of code ever written, some cyber-archiologist will dig up the remains of an archaic .L3D file two meters below low-tide in the Piazza San Marco and simply run a battery of neuro-emulation test to recover an old dilapidated shanty.

Read more, note the two names from the Smithsonian list. Also, this is not particularly new. The conceptual arts of the 60s and 70s charted this course.


I am reading the Rossler article you suggested. She makes a point(or maybe I am reading into it incorrectly) that I agree with, but troubles me greatly:

High art serves to reinforce the divide between high and low culture: high and low social classes. Not only in a trivial-surface way, but wen in the minds of the “lower class”:

“It helps keep people in their place to know that they INTRINSICALLY do not qualify to participate in high culture.”[emphasis mine] -Martha Rossler

I cannot accept that my work will limit people’s conception of themselves and their capabilities—that would be a major failure. I begin to question if I want to put my work in a museum. The archival, support, and legacy it affords is tempting; but, is that simple narcissism coming at too high a price?


Video: Savvy East New Yorkers Now Charging $20 To See The Banksy


The video of the guy is great: It don’t matter to me… What does it matter to you?!

This guy, charging admission to see a Bansky, is an opportunist. In not caring he gains power over the upper class, and the artist gave him that power. So, even if they don’t care about the art, at least they can profit from it, turn the tables, become part of the dialog.

But, even with this shift, the art is still acting to support the high-Low “culture” division..


Banksy Has Unannounced Art Sale with Genuine Signed Canvases in Central Park, Sells Almost Nothing

Disputed Banksy Work Brings $1.1 Million at Auction


Banksy’s page about his “residency” is amazing. I love the audio recording at the very bottom of the page.

He is creating a residency in the street and it has and audio commentary track that is wonderful, lampoons “high art” perfectly, a quick must-listen.

Thanks for this, the artist appealing directly to the audience, eschewing the art industry, and relying on documentation, or personal ingenuity, to maintain one’s legacy is appealing.

How do they get the paintings off the wall? Do they just cut a huge portion of a wall away and then transport that?


Yes, In many cases. Here is the one we lost in Boston, Essex Street two blocks from Emerson. It was simply painted over.




That is sad(the graffiti being painted over), but it is right, in a way. Graffiti is a temporal art, it has a lifespan. Isn’t that central to the fervor around his work? His work is supposed to be painted over. Preserving it is the artificial act.


Of course


His taking on the art establishment is perfectly in line with his earlier work. His graffiti has always been situation-aware. The charm and innovation of it has largely been how it interacts with its environment. Now, he has been thrust into the realm of “high art” so his art continues to comment on its environment.

I find that commenting on the art world is much less important than commenting on urban decay and ubiquitous surveillance–two of many themes in his work.

Is meaning overwhelmed by value?

When people speak of monetary value more than content, does the question of “value” diminish the social and political impact of his earlier work?

Or, has the act of graffiti always been a comment on the “art world” and this is a the climax of the most important theme of his life’s work: achieving fame allows him to comment on the form itself.


After over 23 years practicing activist, public art, I find it is useful to keep one foot in the art world and one foot out. Banksy seems to be using the attention he has garnered to call into question just how distorted our values have become.


Who actually makes the money off of one of his pieces being cut from a wall? He can’t get that $100,000, does the owner of the building make the money?

I see what you are saying, like anything else this is a balance not a binary: Don’t make a firm decision to be pro- or anti-establishment, instead find a path that blends both, and with every move consider the whole system(and anti-system).

There is a need, in my view, to be true to the piece itself, its original intention. If you are defying an original intention the defiance is part of a new meaning: to defy the original intent solely for monetary gain is foul.

Placing a Bansky-wall in a gallery solely to make money is different than placing it in a gallery to comment on high art culture. But then, regardless of why it was placed there, the effect is a comment on high art, isn’t it?


In the case of the Slave Labor (Bunting Boy) case, The building owner cut the piece out of his own wall. Banksy would not have gotten a penny, as I understand it. I think the point is that you don’t burn the house down just to burn the house down (too much like tea party). Institutions (museums/government) have intrinsic value, but should be kept in check from run away capitalism and other corruption, by the constituency they serve.


Thank you for this conversation. I have a deeper understanding of the relationships between art-culture and art and culture, but the implications for me are still unclear—requires serious time and thought.

Your comment about keeping one foot inside and outside the establishment seems to parallel institutionalized art education. I have recently been confronting my role as a music teacher: teaching music for an incredibly high cost to high-school grads who will leave college with an enormous debt and few prospects for jobs. Am I contributing to society in a positive way? I question the very foundation of expensive music/art education just like I question high-art culture.


I have struggled with this my entire career. All of higher education in this country has been corrupted by its expense. Let’s not forget that higher education has more important goals than vocational training, such as collective knowledge and creativity development, preservation and dissemination. Also remember that art and music have a much longer track record of relevance and endurance than capitalism.


One Response to “An Argument of Rosler’s”

  1. loudonstearns Says:

    Banksy’s residency is done and he(they?) left this final message:
    “Banksy asserts that outside is where art should live amongst us. And rather than street art being a fad, maybe it is the last thousand years of art history is a blip when art came inside in service of the church and institutions. But art’s rightful place is on the cave walls of our communities where it can act as a public service, provoke debate, voice concerns, forge identities. The world we live in today is run — visually at least, by traffic signs, billboards, and planning committees, is that it? Don’t we want to live in a world made of art not just decorated by it?”

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