On Curators

Have you ever been fascinated, in the supermarket, by the contents of the basket of the person next to you in the queue?

I'm always amazed by how different, how personal, each basket is. We all come into the same store, but we end up with self-portraits in our baskets.

I generally have stuff like oranges, olive oil, and oriental microwave meals, choices which suggest my cosmopolitanism and my laziness. The person next to me might have spring onions and raw liver. And, while envious of their ability to cook, I'll probably wonder if their choice of 'real' raw materials doesn't betray a luddite's mistrust of industrial society. (Are they cranks who believe that microwaves are carcinogenic?) Someone else has baked beans, dog food and six cans of beer, and I picture a squalid life of loneliness, alone in a farty-smelling, ringpull strewn apartment with only a dog and a TV for company.

Consciously or unconsciously, by our choices we all recreate ourselves every day. We are all the architects of our own personal style. We are all curators.


Morrissey, in 'November Spawned A Monster', sings about a deformed girl who nevertheless (and decisively) will one day be 'wearing the clothes she chose for herself'. That line keeps coming back to me. It seems so important, so humane, so defiant. Ultimately, in a world in which so many choices are made for us, the freedom to pick out a shirt becomes exemplary.

Take it further, beyond food and clothes. In the world of our cultural choices, too, we curate and are solicited by other curators, every day.

What CD to buy? My recent picks: Telex I Don't Like Remixes, Kazmi With Rickies Who, Fantastic Plastic Machine Luxury, The Merricks The Sound Of Munich, Koota Tanimura Bluff Music Vaudeville, Frederic Galliano Espaces Baroque.

What books to read, movies to see? Last books I read were Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend In A Coma and David Lehman's book about the New York School poets, The Last Avant Garde. Last movie I saw was Velvet Goldmine.


Another word for curator, for the original person who has successfully forged a personal style while others were puffed this way and that in the half-hearted breezes of the intellectual and entertainment fashions of the day, is 'intellectual bully'. A curator is someone who has seen the light and wants you to react, usually by buying his stuff, or giving your attention. And that can be a pain.

There are some who say that our whole economy, in the age of information, is going to shift from one based on money to one based on attention. In the rush of fact, the roar of opinion, the shriek of sensibility, we will be solicited constantly by advertisers, artists, ideologues, curators, who will need us to be listening in order to validate their own power, fame and status. It will be dog eat dog, sink or swim, curate or be curated.

I'm definately an intellectual bully. Just ask my brother Mark. When we were teenagers, and his classmates advised him to buy the new Peter Frampton and Status Quo records, I steered him in the direction of Devo and Talking Heads. He's probably grateful for that now, but I know he also has problems with my evangelism too, one of the reasons he has become a Deconstructionist literary critic. Deconstruction takes its revenge on the curators by picking away at language, and particularily the structural oppositions languages, and hence all the mechanisms of taste, need to work.

On a microscopic etymological level, deconstruction re-curates the curatorial efforts of people like me. (Check out Mark Currie's new book, Postmodern Narrative Theory, for much more sophisticated discussions of all this.)

Other notable intellectual bullies of my acquaintance:

- Lawrence Heyward (Felt, Denim). I lived with his girlfriend / personal assistant at the beginning of the 90s, and was amazed at how well she knew his tastes. She would shoplift books of graphic design for him, send him his favourite confectionery when he was away in New York, make up scrapbooks of press cuttings about his favourite artists.

- Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, whose quiet confidence in the superiority of his musical tastes can be admirable or maddening, depending on how long you're subjected to his compilation tapes.

Probably all DJs are also intellectual bullies, architects of sound with plans for us as megalomaniacal as those Speer had for Berlin, Le Corbusier for Paris. How many buildings, rendered into pop music, would simply loop to delirium their creators' curatorial triumph: 'Frank Lloyd Wright is fucking in heaven, fucking in, fucking in, fucking in heaven...'?


A born curator, a person who has arrived at a sensibility, who has become a 'person with style', is always going to be easy to mock, easy to parody. The style he struggled towards through uncertainty, personal crisis, long slow growth, gathering independence, is suddenly there on the cultural landscape, different from the more conformist landmarks around it, easily isolated, easily copied.

Being struggling, will-to-power types, curators aren't good at this part of the process. They want to put as much work into how they're interpreted by others as they did into how they re-interpreted the world in the first place. In Nietzschean terms, they became supermen through the 'transvaluation of all values'. But when their own values themselves begin to be transvalued, they must learn to let go. The curators must learn to be curated.

Todd Haynes' 'Velvet Goldmine' is a polemical essay, his personal curatorial take on Glam. Maybe that's why Bowie refused to collaborate. It's always hard for an older generation of artists to accept that they've become curatorial fodder for younger artists, whose admiration may be mixed with artistic license, postmodern nose-tweaking, fluff, slint and a personal slant. Ironically, it's often precisely the most referential, curatorial artists who object most vociferously when their turn comes to be recontextualised. Bowie took exactly the same liberties, in his early records, with figures like Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan that Haynes is now taking with him. And my own current style of parodic baroque seems to have irritated precisely those who, themselves, parodied the Baroque.

Nevertheless, an artist who is not worth recontextualising is not worth remembering. The older generation should be tolerant: if they ever had enough power to censor all rereadings of their own work which didn't exactly match their own self-assessments, they would undoubtedly end up writing themselves out of history. Bowie claims that he withheld the right to use his music in 'Velvet Goldmine' because he is planning his own film of the subject. Well, personally, I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Until cloning comes along, immortality in art as in life is best achieved through influence. Our genes survive by reproduction, although our children may not resemble us in every detail. Our memes survive by influence, although not always in the shape we might wish. We are born as artists when we find a style, in other words when we become curators. Our work survives to posterity, though, when we allow it to be curated. For that to happen, we have to learn to let go, just as parents do when their children grow up.


David Bowie's objection to 'Velvet Goldmine' seems partly based on what we might call its homosexualisation of Glam. Recent conversations on Bowie's website with fellow Glam architects like Mick Rock and Tony Visconti have been at pains to point out that wearing eye-liner and a dress in 1972 was the norm, not a homosexual act.

Personally, I don't care what the original glammers got up to - although I was tickled by the T-shirt the stylish and ironic Horie-San, from the Kahimi Karie live band, was wearing onstage during our concerts in Japan: a photo of David Bowie with the slogan 'I Fucked Mick Jagger'. I don't care whether it's true or not. What matters to me is that it's exciting, shocking, and resonates with the myths. The spirit of songs like 'Width Of A Circle' and 'Time' was defiantly homosexual.

I'm not gay, but I've always thought that homosexuality must give you a real headstart if you want to become a really great curator, a person with a truly exceptional style-vision. Homosexuals, who, like the left-handed, are born with their heads wired differently, learn to take nothing on trust. Since the media so rarely represents them as they see themselves, they become adept at making transgressive readings, secret interpretations coloured by their own very different fantasy needs. Gays are unlikely to see art and entertainment as mere distractions on the way to life's ultimate purpose, heterosexual reproduction, and much more likely to see these sacred spaces in culture as experimental areas in which new social roles can be tried out, tolerances tested, sensibilities honed.

Haynes posits the origin of Glam in the birth of Oscar Wilde, perhaps the most stylish individual who ever lived, a man who turned every oppressive received idea about the world on its head and made it into something amusing, subversive, liberating.


I've just finished Douglas Coupland's novel 'Girlfriend In A Coma'. In this millenial novel a girl goes to sleep for two decades. When she wakes up she becomes the mouthpiece for Coupland's concern that in the late 90s people have become directionless, passive, uncommunicative, too 'electronic'.

I disagree. I think we're moving from the First Electronic Age, the monolithic and conformist age of Broadcasting, to the Second Electronic Age, the pluralistic, creative age of Multicasting. I think we're all going to have to assume more responsiblity as curators, even if we're only curators of our own websites and wardrobes.

Just as there's nothing more disheartening than looking into your neighbour's shopping trolley and finding only beer, fags and dogfood, so there's no sadder sight than a personal homepage with a couple of 'Under Construction' signs (they've been there for six months) and a sad little notice that says 'Drop me a line if you can think of something interesting to put on this page'.

In the second electronic age, that's just not going to cut it. Create, curate! It doesn't have to be a website, it can be a dirty playing card collection or just the way you put a bunch of secondhand clothes together. I leave you with a photo of a girl I met in a Tokyo restaurant. I don't know her name or what she does for a living. I just know that when I saw her, I instantly recognised a fellow curator, a person of style.

And, call me a romantic, but, for a while, a boyish Japanese girl curating the bizarre sartorial pattern clash of tribal Lapps or Mongolian nomads made the whole world seem sweetly delirious with possibility.

Momus, London, December 1998

Previous Columns:
On Columns
On Flatness
On The Couch
On The ROM
On Quality
On Image
On Oasism
On Scenes
On 1996
On Unsuccess
On Negritude
On The Job
On Hong Kong
On Ghosts
On The NME
Story Of An Eye
On Transgression
On Shopping