In what way and by what right could we undertake projects outside New Zealand? In the case of Raqs Media Collective’s exhibition Sarai Reader 09 in 2013, our proposal was based on a long and intermittent history of visits to Delhi and to Sarai. Sarai – from the word for ‘a place for travellers to rest’ – is a programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) co-initiated by Raqs, and described as ‘a coalition of researchers and practitioners’ and ‘a place for research, practice and conversation about the contemporary media and urban constellations’. Since 2000, Sarai has hosted an extraordinary range of conferences, events, publications, and fellowships – all marked by multi-disciplinary enquiry and the desire to recognise subjugated knowledges and practices. In 2005, members of Local Time were able to host Raqs at the Cultural Futures event at Hoani Waititi, where we were able to reciprocate hospitality in New Zealand.

Local Time’s ostensible mission for Sarai Reader 09 was to work on our collection of recorded discussions with collectives on the ethos of their collaborative practices, and to interview Raqs Media Collective as part of this process. Our participation in the exhibition site at Devi Art Foundation at Gurgaon involved an open invitation to a six-hour discussion inside the reading room where all the proposals of the participating artists were available for perusal, starting from a dialogue on questions of creative process and the environments that support them. Around fifteen people attended, crossing a range of disciplines. Our ‘space within a space’ of the exhibition’s open platform raised a number of questions about how much responsibility we should adopt as a visiting artistic collective and what kind of artistic hospitality we could provide within the curatorial hospitality we received. Levinas describes the essence of language as itself hospitality,[19] and this was our main contribution in this case alongside gin and snacks.

While the intensively urban setting of Delhi appeared to offer few hooks for our customary ways of navigating landscape – despite a visit to the well at Sarai – this ‘ungrounding’ brought questions of artistic responsibility in the exhibition site to the fore, a topic our hosts Raqs Media Collective have explored at length in their essay ‘On Curatorial Responsibility’.[20] In this essay Raqs describe, ‘crudely and for heuristic purposes’, an accepted division between art practice as ‘the engaged, passionate, subjective production of meaning and affect’, and curation as ‘the careful, apparently disinterested, ostensibly objective imperative of display, arrangement, and discourse’.[21] Displacing this binary is important to Raqs, who describe a responsible exhibition as ‘one that can look good and think acutely, not one that thinks cleverly yet acts shabbily, or one that looks handsome but thinks dull, predictable thoughts’.[22] For them, the emergence of the artist-curator – a fraught role they have taken on perhaps more effectively than anyone else in recent times – brings the possibility of this responsibility as reconciliation between the false division between making and thinking. They have in view an open future of artist-curatorial hybridisation, where we ‘may yet be surprised by who or what we might still become.’[23]

Raqs’ essay is typically nuanced in its account of the various political, economic, and aesthetic pitfalls that curators find themselves in, so the sense of positivity that they bring to the open future of their conclusion strikes a surprising note. While most artists and curators would share the desire to keep ‘assurance about what it means to be something in abeyance’,[24] how does this optimism toward hybridisation relate to the institutional conditions of responsibility, which we experienced as quite different between the artist and the curator? Can we describe the hospitality extended by the curator as hybridising with that of the artist as Raqs suggest, or do tensions remain?

In a way, Raqs’ account of hybridisation seems in step with the times. The curator as collection expert in the knowledge-holding museum is now a residual or legacy form. The emergent star curator is commissioned to curate large-scale international exhibitions and trades in their aesthetic subjectivity. This curator is more like a film director, coordinating the talent to produce a satisfying outcome for audiences, within the resource constraints set by producers. The curator as event director is working ground that was once more likely to be undertaken by artists, and the occupation of this role by artists can only be positive.

Yet, the way Raqs locate the site of responsibility in the practices of artists and curators as producers or authors, rather than in the practices of readers and viewers, requires further consideration. For Raqs, ‘there are two kinds of responsibility theorists: (a) those that accept the excuses of those who say they could not have done otherwise, and (b) those who don’t’.[25] This division seems surprisingly blunt, as if excuses would be self-evidently able to discharge responsibility, but it becomes clearer that this framing emerges from their reading of theologian/philosopher Hans Jonas and analytic philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who both work with European accounts of free will that speak of a generic ‘person’ who makes decisions. Philosophy’s enduring alliance with the Kantian legacies of the Euro-American contemporary art world partially rests in its attempt to make subjectivity universalisable (this accounts for the popularity of the thinking of autonomy proposed by Rancière over, say, Judith Butler). This is not a criticism of Raqs’ methodological decision as producers – it became clearer in Delhi that to read and mobilise the archives of European modernism from within postcolonial India creates a completely different political effect than to do so from within settler-colonies such as Australasia or North America. Nevertheless, what is elided in Jonas and Frankfurt, when read from a Euro-American position, is the post-structural conception of a speaking and authoring subject with a consciousness constituted through differential languaging. Such a subject does not fully ‘hold’ or ‘take’ responsibility, but comes instead to sense the different lineaments of subjectivity, perceived in the potential of answerability to the other. 

Post-structural subjectivity sees the impossibility of hybridisation as freedom rather than a constraint. If the goal is, as Raqs acutely characterise it, to avoid allowing exhibitions to become ‘cosmetic surgery for ageing and depleted rhetorical expressions’,[26] it is perhaps resisting the hybridisation of artist and curator, and expanding the gap between them, that leaves greater potential for critique of these different accountabilities, and therefore for responsibility to emerge. Rather than the outputs or identities of those who do artistic and curatorial work being hybrid, we can think of them as structured by multiple responsibilities to both institutions and discourse that overlay each other in conflict, and never resolve themselves into a happy accommodation where theory and practice converge. The terms ‘artist’ and ‘curator’ do not simply represent personal qualities and personal responsibilities – something to be expressed or adopted freely – but describe distinct roles in institutional fields that are constructed in relation to one another and in tension with one another. This is not to say that the terms ‘artist’ and ‘curator’ are stable, but that as fields they become not so much fused as ruptured by practitioners adopting multiple personas, as Local Time have ourselves discovered in our forays into both worlds.

From an institutional perspective, the downstream differences in how responsibility can then be understood and where it might lie are substantial. As Daniel Buren describes it in the same volume, the benefit of exhibitions curated by the artist who organises (who he calls the artist-organiser) instead of the organiser who authors the exhibition as his or her work (who he calls the organiser-artist) is not that the work done by the artist-organiser is necessarily better, but that this approach deconstructs certain assumptions about the role of artists and curators – as Raqs agree – likely resulting in what Buren describes as ‘an immense outcry of lamentations from … destabilized artists.’ The reasons for the outcry ‘will be intelligent, stupid, and revealing at the same time … founded on jealousy, on the one hand, and fear of the artist-organizer's positions, on the other’.[27] For Buren, the discursive value of the artist-organiser’s intervention is not seen as emerging from the evolution of an individual (or even a collective) who acts responsibly, but from a community that remains divided, and through this division dynamics of power become thinkable in a critical fashion. In Buren’s account, the response of artists, the most critical of communities, will not be a ‘reasoned’ or even ‘reasonable’ response, let alone a responsible one. Yet it will allow the call of responsibility to operate in the gap between theory and practice, between organiser and artist.

The work of Derrida and Spivak on responsibility emphasises that the ability to ‘answer to’ and ‘answer for’ is overdetermined by the institutional constraints that distribute responsibility in advance. At the moment, where one ‘takes’ responsibility for authoring one’s actions, one precisely fails to take responsibility for the fact that one can decide to take it. As Spivak puts it, the question of ‘Who should speak?’ may be less important than ‘Who will listen?’[28] – or, we could analogise, the question of who will produce (as a curator or artist) is less important than who will register these traces of production. The pressing issue here becomes not the taking or relinquishing of responsibility, but opening fissures in the distribution of responsibilisation.

Spivak’s essay ‘Responsibility’ (first published in the journal boundary 2 and then collected in her book Other Asias) tracks Derrida seeking the moment when Heidegger gives away responsibility for and to the actions of the Nazi Party in his Rectorate address. Spivak formalises responsibility in the following way: ‘all action is undertaken in response to a call (or something that seems to us to resemble a call) that cannot be grasped as such,’[29] but ‘responsibility annuls the call to which it seeks to respond by necessarily changing it to the calculations of answerability’.[30] The experience of responsibility is heterogeneous to the conditions of its emergence. ‘There can be no assumption that “pure” responsibility can appear, unstructured and unstaged. The call is a gift, but the response is, unavoidably, an exchange-effect’.[31] It is the power of the (necessarily institutionalised) exchange-effect or response that can be critiqued, but only from the other side, from what calls our responsible response.

Spivak then points to the ‘task or lesson’ when the other is face-to-face, ‘of attending to her response so that it can draw forth one’s own.’ Responsibility is thus not something to adopt, as it irrupts in the relation across institutionally fragmented roles: ‘Perhaps there is no answer to this question but the constant attempt “to let oneself be approached by the resistance which the thinking of responsibility may offer thought.” Perhaps to be responsible to the question of responsibility is not to resist what will have happened, that the reader(s) will have judged, necessarily with and in spite of standards, necessarily related and different.’[32]

Responding to the call of curatorial hospitality extended by Raqs in Sarai Reader 09, it became clearer to us that as artists there was no clear way to mirror or equalise this responsibility, as the exhibition only emphasised the degree to which artistic and curatorial roles overlap rather than hybridise. Creating a platform in a platform, in an attempt to extend openness the way we would usually feel comfortable, seemed a gesture that would only empty or interfere with the hospitality already extended. Raqs’ call seemed to invite its opposite, their curatorial responsibility signalling the potential of or desire for irresponsible responses from the artists, or at least for the artists to attend to a different set of responsibilities than the structuring responsibilities of the exhibition adopted by Raqs as curators. Whether Local Time’s conversation was up to this challenge is unclear – perhaps less something to take responsibility for than to retrospectively register, in preparation for when we have future cause to visit.

Next: VI. Conclusion / Approaching hospitality, again

[19] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. by Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 1979), p. 305.

[20] Raqs Media Collective, ‘On Curatorial Responsibility’, in The Biennial Reader, ed. by Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2010), pp. 276–92.

[21] Ibid., p. 277.

[22] Ibid., pp. 278–79.

[23] Ibid., p. 288.

[24] Ibid., p. 288.

[25] Ibid., p. 282.

[26] Ibid., p. 282.

[27] Daniel Buren, ‘Where are the Artists?’, in The Biennial Reader, ed. by Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal, and Solveig Øvstebø (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2010), pp. 212–21 (p. 217).

[28] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post-colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues, ed. by Sarah Harasym (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 59.

[29] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Responsibility’, boundary 2, 21.3 (1994), 19–64.

[30] Ibid., p. 58.

[31] Ibid., p. 79.

[32] Ibid., p. 59.