Cura/tor: A Psychosocial Approach to Curating as a Practice of Care

Abstract prepared for Cultural Crossings of Care, University of Oslo, 26-27 October 2018
Vanessa Bartlett, UNSW Art and Design, Sydney

The etymological genesis of curator comes from ‘cura’ — implying a practice of care. Originally caretakers of objects, discourses such as socially engaged art and arts and health have evolved contemporary curators into custodians of audiences, communities and the psychological experiences contained within them. Concurrently, a growing emphasis on curator as researcher in the interdisciplinary academy is foregrounding the gallery as a site for producing knowledge about lived experience of health and wellbeing.

This paper proposes a psychosocial approach to curatorial practice, which uses experimental methods to produce new knowledge about contemporary mental health. In contrast to clinical frameworks, psychosocial studies understands the individual psyche as deeply intertwined with social context. It does this by aligning care-taking paradigms from object relations psychoanalysis with political and social discourse — making it highly suited to exhibition-making that engages with sensitive issues such as mental distress.

This paper uses audience responses to an exhibition of digital art called Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age that was curated by the author. This exhibition investigated complex relationships between digital technologies and mental health in contemporary culture. The paper will deploy audience research data generated on the Group Therapy exhibition using an innovative psychosocial method called the visual matrix. It will pair this data with theories from object relations psychoanalysis to offer insights into the psychological experience of living in a digital society, that are uniquely articulated through aesthetic and curatorial modalities.

The paper will argue that as the aesthetic interfaces of the digital world increasingly shape the psychological experience of everyday life for many people (in the form of apps, websites and games), innovative, aesthetically driven research methods that move far beyond clinical paradigms are essential to understand their impact. It will suggest that curatorial practice-based research within a psychosocial framework can offer a unique set of insights to fulfil this need. With the entomological genesis of curator as carer in mind, the paper will examine what it means for a curator to become custodian of the complex psychological experiences that unfold for audiences in exhibitions of digital art about mental distress.

Featured Image: Audiences interact with Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, at UNSW Galleries Sydney

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