Is the curator a prosumer,
or should the question be put otherwise?

Prosumerism. It is either taken for granted by some or absolutely mistrusted by others, while mesmerising everyone with its ambiguous allegiance both to what feels like late capitalism and to apparently emancipatory struggles.

Unashamed about the transparency of its mechanics, prosumerism draws the consumer voluntarily into the process of production, no longer solely as a tester of products, a behaviour provider or, at its basest level, a smart buyer, but as a true and veritable partner. Yet, to grant powers of persuasion solely to producers would be one-sided. Prosumerism is as much an invitation from the part of producers as from consumers—in fact, given its implications, one can no longer guarantee where one ends and the other begins. Bridging distances (in the production and dissemination process) is the responsibility of both. The post-war psychoanalytical turn in advertisement relied on filtering, channelling and invigorating the projection of consumer desires onto objects and lifestyles. In comparison, with prosumerism consumers intently, and literally, imbue the production line with these same desires, but also with insights and usages at construction level.

This reciprocity can only but contribute to the term’s ambiguity. The openness of companies in granting a precocious usage of products to consumers, if not raw material itself—in drawing consumers into the conceptual processes; or in forming critical analysis of products and their dissemination—runs the risk of displacing decision-making from shareholders, with huge costs to companies at the experimental level. Even more, such openness runs the risk of appropriation, of deviation, sharing and viral circulation beyond corporate business and profit making—hence the rise of legal matters and, more acutely, of the thin line between the inclusion of consumers into production and its constrain via copyright.1 Consumers, on the other hand, suddenly find themselves in-between the empowerment of a grass roots sensibility and a capitalist exploitation of personal experimentation, as well as of labour and free time beyond any safety net, ie welfare or income for services (voluntarily) provided. The consequences transcend the production and marketing of goods, impacting on the writing of acclamations and downfalls (be these corporations or national governments), of aesthetics and ethics, and hence of history and culture.

Given the above, one could say that prosumerism implies not only the production of the social, but also the socialisation of production itself. In line with the contemporary flexibilisation of labour and the intrusion of capitalism into life(style), everything becomes production and the object of economic management. Consequently, it is authorship, and property along with it, that becomes diffuse, both on the side of corporate identity and of individual citizens. Given the mist, it would be hasty to claim a revolutionary potential in deviant prosumerism, ie the contamination of production processes or the appropriation of source material (be it a Blackberry or New York Times) for other matter (revolution or otherwise). But it would also be counterproductive to obsess on the exploitation or control it may allow, that is, on social engineering. Instead, the task awaits us of embodying the ambiguity of the trend; to understand its timely arrival; its operative cynicism.

The prosumer is not a lone trend—it is only one of several recent figures resulting from the sophistication of the means for social participation, and from the personalisation of the social. Alongside it one can find an array of other neologisms, such as ‘nowism’ or ‘ownerless’, to quote just a few. Why the prosumer then? Primarily, because prosumerism encapsulates most of the above trends, in its inclusive scope of users and dissolution of hierarchical barriers in the production line—be it the production of commodities, platforms, cultures, lifestyles, and so on. One could even say that the prosumer is the mother ship, conceptually and figuratively, from which contemporary economic management starts. However, one could just as well say that all modes of contemporary revolution, upheaval and collectivity are forms, in fact, not so distant from management: the management of militancy, the management of channels for revolt, the management of anonymity and of convergence.3 The genealogy (ie etymology) of such figures is more marketing than philosophy, or, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari would have it, philosophy hijacked by marketing. And their breeding, their shifts in meaning from field to field—their allegiances and instrumental appropriations—are as much spontaneous as clinically orchestrated.

Not surprisingly, from this horizontality of desire production, of lifestyle values and object qualifications, the curator is increasingly appearing outside of its usual circles. Out of museology and into marketing, it seems to constitute a partner for the prosumer trend, but also a more substantial ontological condition. Colloquially, though meticulously, expanded beyond its competencies and discussion within the artistic field, it is no longer appealing to appear as the specialist in art and culture (yet still as the master organiser), but rather as the overall qualifier for the introduction of a new form of contemporary ontology, beyond appropriation and circulation and into the personalisation of management and historical decision-making.5 While in the artworld the curatorial is being increasingly professionalised– opening the term and its correlated practice to an intense debate—at large it seems to walk in the opposite direction, being deployed, particularly in management circles, as referring to the supposed prosumerist democratisation process. Is this capture? Or is it freedom?
 

Is the management of curating the same
as curating management?

 Going through the writings and lectures of Don ‘Wikinomics’ Tapscott, one finds plenty of references to the curatorial as that which sits alongside the prosumer. In fact, it is by being set in relation to prosumerism that the curatorial is thus doubly presented by Tapscott as a particularly productive site, but also as the space for a particular kind of production. For Tapscott, prosumerism is a space through which the production, reproduction or non-production of knowledge through accessibility, contextualisation and distribution of discourse, flows. Apparently, the case is not so distinct from its debate within the arts. The difference, or at least the first of differences, between its use in the arts and in management may reside in its actualisation as an exercise, neither isolated nor acted out from any given original point and authority, but rather from the confluence between distinct intentions and intensities, where none of the actors can be said to have a particular stance on authorship—which does not nevertheless exclude issues of dispute. It is out of this scenario that the curator is set first and foremost as a prosumer: an engaging agent of knowledge and creativity, both inclusive (in its multiplicity and openness to collaboration) and exclusive (in the selection and variabilities it vocalises).

Yet, there is a distinction to be made between both figures. A distinction attested by the evolution of the vocabulary used in Wikinomics and Macrowikinomics: while in the former book (2006) the emphasis is on prosumers, in the latter (2010) it shifts, shyly but with preciseness, to curating. If prosumers are at first posited as ‘consumers [that] actually co-innovate and co-produce the products they consume’, to the extent that they ‘do more than customise or personalise their wares; [that] they can self-organise and create their own‘, the curator is suggested as a figure of distribution, mediation and gathering—that is, of management. As such, while the former is framed as an autonomous agent of production, no longer waiting ‘for an invitation to turn a product into a platform for their own innovations’, the latter appears ambiguous, yet instrumental, in regards to the creative position of the prosumer.

In these terms, both figures remain somewhat captive of a dependency: the prosumer—even if past a tester of products—is dependent on pre-given matter, while the curator is dependent on prosumerised contents. It is only when the creative autonomy of both figures is radicalised, that they can be said to blur and overlap politically. The radicalisation of the prosumer may be exemplified by its capacity to answer back to consumer necessities and wills beyond pre-given market rules—I guess, not without a pinch of irony, that this is what Tapscott’s might mean by ‘participating in the economy as an equal’. This endows the curatorial with the basic premise that it is not only an organisational site, but also one of originality and bottom-up creation—instead of being strictly a top-down selective exercise.      

The curator seems thus to be making its appearance in the discursiveness of management circles not only as an economic figure, but as a true and veritable economist, rearranging the disparate, chaotic, contemporary oikos to the infra-level of a personalisation—as allowed by prosumerist strategies and the nodal exoskeleton of the www. If this is indeed so, this process is placing the curator one step beyond Michel Foucault’s notion of neoliberal economic subjectivation. For Foucault, the intrusion of neoliberal economics into lifestyles has led to the all pervasive notion of homo-oeconomicus, where ‘by encoding the social domain as a form of the economic domain, cost-benefit calculations and market criteria can be applied to decision-making processes within the family, married life [and] professional life’, composing henceforth of the citizen into the shape of a entrepreneurial self-analyst. For the managerial approach to the curatorial, nonetheless, this bio-economics surpasses economic rationalisation towards (interpretative) organisation and distribution.

From this perspective, the curator is the one that is aware of (eco)systemic relays and, attesting to his neoliberal freedom, makes these his own creative conduits. He channels accumulated intensities in the direction of knowledge, imagination, power, profit: the making of the past, present and future. Put otherwise, the curator is the one in tune with a regime of equality between radically distinct—though overly confluent—objects, contents, references, all sorts of actors, as well as of—and this has proven the most relevant—production, (self) representation and gatekeeping.

It is at this point that one may perhaps find the distinction between this new curatorial figure and that of the prosumer, or even remix culture. As with the latter, the curatorial still concerns the manipulation of referents, yet it is the character of the manipulation that seems to be other. One that comes not so much from formal change, but from a distinct contextualisation, from parallelisms and unfathomable proposals on the placing and productivity of referents within the ecosystem. Even in the artistic context this is not so strange. The motto ‘everyone’s an artist’ may very well be soon substituted by ‘everyone’s a curator’.10 The difference may be that for the curatorial infosphere as an ideal, it is no longer Taste nor Art—those two degrees of aesthetic inclusion—but the ‘freedom act’ of either making something one’s own property or of sharing property, that is, to be involved in the continuous (re)making or (re)affirmation of values, matter and codes at each exercise of distribution, that testifies to the egalitarian possibility of ‘anyone’. One could go further and affirm it as the act of inviting others onto property. For his part, Tapscott justifies such claims by stating that ‘if you make it profitable for costumers to get involved, you will always be able to count on a dynamic and fertile ecosystem for growth and innovation’. It becomes clearer now why the curatorial is a privileged, if not exemplary, field for contemporary disputes: the collective is at its core.

Whatever the barricade, the curatorial seems thus to imply more than the possibility of any individual becoming his own context provider, which is the same as saying his own genealogist. It extends this possibility further to any actor.12 And this is of the utmost relevance if one wishes to comprehend its strategic role for and against politics. For, it is only in this sense that the likes of Tapscott can bridge the term between any individual and headless or organogrammatic platforms so apparently disparate as Amazon.com or national governments. The curatorial is the form of a hub. A space station. A port. A condensed point, extending and retracting simultaneously, open ended and penetrable, but not without interests and intentions – in fact, from this perspective, is it not a plural making or multiplicity of wills?

On the question of governmental structures, roles and competencies, there is an interview where Tapscott replies ‘[Answer:] they [government] should be a leader, but not to do it themselves. They should be a leader in creating a context whereby society can self organise. [Question:] A platform again? [A:] Yes, they should be a curator.’ Or, from the same interview—Tapscott is obviously fascinated!—‘the new model is government as platform, and what that means is that governments can provide capability or be a curator of public value that gets created in new ways.’ Undoubtedly, this is a liberal view on the curatorial, as well as on governance, if not a downright neoliberal one. In-this-guise, the curatorial hub is that occupied by governments yielding to the free will of the markets. It is an instigating site, catering to the needs of a managerial economy.

Surprisingly, despite the myriad of corporations Tapscott talks from and talks to, Amazon.com or Ebay.com are treated in similar vein to governments-as-platforms. Understood as curatorial managing sites, these are creative platforms not for the exclusive or originality reasons, but rather by their methodologies of inclusion and fostering of the creativity of third partners—this is why these may prove, for neoliberalists, exceptionally productive examples in comparison to governments, weighted down by the debate around their historical legacy. These platforms survey the vastness of the citizen (as consumer) pool, its depth and width, its wastelands and embryos, structuring mechanisms of capture and condensation which mimic liberation unashamedly in the form of user-friendly interfaces and under the excuse of the opportunistic freedom offered by flexible labour. These are in the form of apps and widgets fishing for creativity, for attachments and fusion. By comforting associates and marketplace sellers, ‘Amazon harnesses the strength and breadth of its developer ecosystems to release updates to its platform frequently and builds in powerful feedback loops.’ In this field, the curatorial is a model, not a practice.

And as a model, the curatorial might appear as all-inclusive, transversal and traversed by the many, but if taken as a given it proves to be a fallacy. As such, it becomes rather a position to be contested at (and for) the individual level. This position is at the interstice between the equivalence of the banishment of social welfare to the blind spot of society and the appraisal for the connectivity of users via pre-formatted interfaces. It is also between the (porno)graphic fragmentation of citizenship to individual self-indulgence and the synthetic quality of voluntary agents guided by the liberation of space and between the concentration of imagination in space station servers and the reshaping of solidarity anew, that we must aim. As Guattari once wrote, ‘[artists and intellectuals] produce toolkits composed of concepts, percepts and affects, which diverse publics will use at their convenience’. Yes, but also ‘any micropolitical approach consists precisely in the attempt to assemble the processes of singularization on the very level which they emerge'. That is the ambiguity at the centre of management. It is also at the centre of the curatorial. And this is, in fact, something even Mr. Don Tapscott, along with his optimistic generalisations, would have to agree with.
 

If curators are platforms,
concepts are contestation sites.

Once at play in the field of systems management, the curator is unavoidably profaned out of its professionalised role within the arts—in fact, henceforth, the curatorial may well be all about profanation.16 Notwithstanding the discursive intensity in the arts and curatorial studies about its contours, leverage and reach, the discussion remains to a large extent insular and oblivious to its usage in other fields—the same, nonetheless, should be said of managers who don’t really care that much for the complexity of its terminology.17

  As with several other books of the kind, Tapscott’s enterprises read similarly to Alvin Toffler’s futurology, inflated here by the a guise of self-help manual for emerging companies, both private and governmental, as well as all sorts of entrepreneurs interested in adapting to paradigm changes. Simultaneously an action and a position, but also a condition for survival (in late capitalism), for Tapscott the curatorial is affirmed, rather positively, as central to such a paradigm change. Imbued with a sense of (or will for) equality, this change may be traced back to the mid-20th century cybernetic and ecosystemic revolution, but in overall it is economic in shape and results.19  The correlation has a long and intricate history, extending well beyond my reach here, connecting ecology with capital by way of ecological energetics, ecosystemics with financial markets via systems dynamics, and cybernetics with statistics via pooling and management, all guided by the increasing individualisation of society and the personalisation of its actors under neoliberalism.20 In fact, a comparison to ecology’s (ecosystemics and cybernetics included) conceptual ambivalence may prove exemplary, if not due to the impact of ecosystemics+cybernetics in contemporary management. Management, so says Tapscott, is what the curatorial is actually all about. Is it? Tapscott may not be wrong, or at least we must take his word seriously. For if so, it may very well be us (in the arts) and not he, that are being conceptually conservative.

Historically, as we can now see it, the dynamics of reciprocity between ecology and economics was (at least) double. On the one hand, it may have been more, or at least as much, from the inclusion of Green issues in the strategies of large and medium size companies and particular lobbyists (mostly translated into the vocabulary of sustainability), rather than by way of activism, citizenship and governmental policies, that ecological discourse entered most effectively (that is, most economically) into mainstream consumer habits. On the other hand, the structural relevance of ecosystemics plus cybernetics for the contemporary financial systems and its correlated evaluation mechanisms is unmistakable.21 While ecosystemics and the postwar ecological revolution may have been consciously working towards socio-planetary equality and a cybernetic emancipation of the cosmos, undercurrents were already, if not from the beginning, structuring the basics for what was to become the contemporary management of capital, of life and of corporate development.22 While the latter example testifies to the ambivalence of concepts in regards to any ideological loyalty, the former example (that of the Green economy) highlights their shapelessness, that is, their volatility, extension and contraction, according to given needs. Selling ecology as Green may have its benefits, but it has mostly, though not paradoxically, perpetuated the same modern partitions that an ecosophical thought hopes to transform or even abolish – to be more precise, it is selling the form without dealing with the contents: fundamentals that cannot but break with the modern views of technological industry, citizenship and, more importantly, humanity.23 There is no such thing as ecological modernisation, only ecology.

All of the above, though in the apparent shape of a slight detour, should serve to highlight the ambiguity within concepts, bit or small, and in this case within the concept of the curatorial, curating, and even curator. It should also serve, from the turn of the century onwards, for a parallel, that is, a non museological, genealogy of curating yet to be done. Or, put otherwise, the consolidation of a contemporary space for curatorial activity—as it is now being called—in the midst of financial, image and data overabundance, and a multiplicity of related yet wilfully autonomous spheres (cultural, ideological, etc).

 Locating the exercise on the meaning and role of the curatorial within a new economic paradigm cannot but make one feel as if semantics are spreading outside (the artistic sphere) while we (the arts) are happily discoursing. In other words, that a particular set of terms and discourses has already spread to other fields of specialisation, if not to common usage. On the one hand, this might mean, in the way of Guattari, the potential for an individualisation of terms and notions, functions and roles, at the level of the personal imaginary and beyond the scope of specialisation.This dilettantism contributes to the creation of unexpected, yet urgent, existential sites of appropriation, where new languages, postures and aesthetics can be developed and linked to other discourses and thus be claimed differently. On the other hand, one is constantly aware of the potential territorialisation of concepts (in this case, the curatorial) under the machine of economics, particularly in order to push through particular sets of organisational ideas in regards to others (in this case, neoliberal flexibilisation of labour, identities and resources).

As such, if following Deleuze and Guattari, concepts are ‘centres of vibration’—a-discursive resonances allowing for action and the expansion of the imagination that do ‘not refer to the lived, by way of compensation, but consist, through its own creation, in setting up an event that surveys the whole of the lived no less than every state of affairs’, they are also projection screens for desire. What this means is that, as Guattari often wrote, yielding to all interests involved and traversed by all sorts of parties, concepts are contestation sites tending as much to the liberation of subjectivity as to the constitution of fascistic nodes within relations. As a degree zero of intentions, these pledge no allegiance and are attached to no one except to themselves or to other concepts—to the point that even the concept of concept can be seized.

The openness and ambiguity of concepts, their cynical alliance or bending by capture and contamination, appears foremost as territories of struggle, vigilance and care—not to mention of creativity: in reshaping them anew, or in exchanging them for other more appropriate concepts if need be. If indeed the personalisation of production and the politicisation of networks complexify the territories and methodologies for political insurrection, such struggles may well have to start with concepts themselves. Not defensively, in the ways of retrograde critique, but as aggressively as in the streets of Tunis and of Athens. Not in order to substitute them for other concepts—though it may be needed—but not to lose track of their connectivity and the traces of their associations.27 We have to fight for concepts, because concepts fight for (or against) us.

While the overall feeling might be one of an abandonment and/ or substitution of concepts, terms and models, emptied out or adulterated, once these begin to spread, dilute and mutate throughout the social sphere and the variety of disciplinary realms, as is the case with ecology but with the curatorial as well, should one not rather find the strength and the tools to dive into that same dispersion? To affirm those concepts whilst they are being transformed in the hands of others, friends or foes, while also acknowledging, working with or against their life processes? For again a reminder from Deleuze and Guattari should be noted: ‘every concept always has a history, even though this history zigzags, though it passes, if need be, through other problems and onto different planes. Is it not then this history, its hybridisation, unfaithfulness and even invalidation, which should be made core to militancy? Once again, the curatorial appears, structurally, as a privileged site for the effort of such contestation. According to Tapscott, it may very well be its name.
 

  • 1. In this logic, one could see prosumerism accompanying the turn in financial economics towards risk and accountability.
  • 3. 2011, in all its revolutionary singularity, from Anonymous’ DDoS counterattacks on PayPal and Mastercard (in defense of Wikileaks) to the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, proved an exemplary case of management, with implications to both terms: management; and exemplarity.
  • 5. In this text, I will only touch on this ontological quality, or consequence, of the curatorial obliquely. Yet, a more direct speculation is necessarily due.
  • 10. My question arises from the intuition that the latter’s apparent success thrives from that same aesthetic gesture of proposing something as art—owing to Thierry De Duve’s notion of public judgment and jurisprudence—even if the proposal no longer refers to making art but to a value coming from the centrifugation of heterogeneity.
  • 12. For an introduction to the social twists in the meaning and scope of the term actor. See Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • 16. This would also imply a voluntary or involuntary co-option of Giorgio Agamben’s war concept of ‘profanation’, in one more example of the reciprocity of capture.
  • 17. Evidently, appropriation is not the exclusive game of artists. Also, and also evidently I hope, the purpose of this essay is not to reappropriate the curatorial concept, but rather its opposite: to follow it where it goes, and explode it at each necessary time, at each turn and fold.
  • 19. The recent documentaries by Adam Curtis, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, are particularly affirmative in this respect, mainly episode two of three: “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts.” It can be found in the video archive of www.thoughtmaybe.com.
  • 20. For ecological energetics see the original material by John Phillipson, Ecological Energetics (London: Edward Arnold Publ., 1966) and by Eugene and Howard T. Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology (W. B. Saunders, 1959), and the historical analysis by Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977–1994). For systems dynamics in business, see John Sterman, Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World (Boston: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 2000).
  • 21. See among others, Benedict Seymour, “Shorter Circuits: Finance, Feedback, and Culture in the Second Wave of the Crisis” in: Mute Magazine, Double Negative Feedback, Vol. 3, n. 1 (London, 2011) or “The Cybernetic Hypothesis” in: Tiqqun, n. 2 (2001).
  • 22. In fact, in a more than ironic case of contemporaneity, the book St. Gallen Management Model by the Management Department of the University of St. Gallen, singular for an early systems dynamics approach to business, was published in that same year of 1972 in which Anti-Oedipus answered back to Lacanian psychoanalysis and late capitalism with schizoanalysis, desire and all of those guerrilla concepts that, years on, came to define Guattari’s chaosmic ethico-aesthetic paradigm. The ‘coincidence’ should not be taken purely as such.
  • 23. For the referred ontological variability and the expansion of the term human, in contrast to Mankind, see among others, Bruno Latour, The Politics of Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), Eduardo Viveiros de Castro , Métaphysiques Cannibales. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2011) and Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitiques, I-VII (Paris: La Découverte, 1997).
  • 27. In this respect, ‘actor-network-theory’ may indeed prove to be a fruitful war strategy. See Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).