Curatorial Studies

A is for Autotheory

Lise Van Acker

The Curatorial Vocabularies Glossary is an expanding collection of terms derived from the seminar of the same name. This seminar serves as a dynamic platform for contemplation and discussion, with a primary focus on pertinent issues within the contemporary curatorial field. Through a keyword-based approach, the seminar delves deep into curatorial discourse, actively engaging with current knowledge and ongoing discussions surrounding curatorial practices. The aim is to cultivate a comprehensive understanding of the profound artistic, economic, and political transformations unfolding within the art world, and how these affect and transform curatorial practice.

“But you understand, you, my self” (53) reads one of the lines in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. The sentence is illustrative of the novel’s problematisation of a fixed identity. It, simultaneously, functions on a metalevel where the narrator tries to draw the reader into the story via imagined interaction. For some, however, to no avail: modernist scholars are swift to denote The Waves as Woolf’s most difficult work – the writer’s style being perceived as anything but accessible or generous to the average reader. Ironically, it is one of the novels that par excellence succeeds in representing the Zeitgeist or the collective consciousness of the time and indicates how there is a need for collectives to make sense of the contemporary moment. Literary theory provides us with the right prescription glasses that correct our meagre understandings of a work; scholars help us see how Woolf’s construction of this layered self is intertwined with an accelerated feeling of time and the merging of private and public life. Yet, how can we drag this book out of its ivory tower and radically broaden its appeal? How can we bring its inherent relevance closer to the reader – to both you and I? Could the curatorial be of any use here?

We arrive at the heart of my quest: how can we curate experimental literature as to make it both accessible and relatable? What if, on top of theory, I as a reader bring my own identity to the curatorial table? Enter autotheory. In this text I explore what an autotheoretical curatorial practice might look like, and particularly inquire into the possibilities such a practice has in terms of audience-oriented curating of difficult literature. But let us first get our conceptual outset straight: what is autotheory? In retracing the term’s earliest appearances in literature, textbook examples are Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) and Paul B. Presciado’s Testo Junkie (2008). It is Lauren Fournier who then charted the path in theorising, historicising, and visualising the term. In Autotheory as a Feminist Practice in Art, Writing and Criticism, she offers a preliminary definition:

The term “autotheory” emerged in the early part of the twenty-first century to describe works of literature, writing and criticism that integrate autobiography with theory and philosophy in ways that are direct and self-aware. […] It is a term that describes a self-conscious way of engaging with theory – as a discourse, frame, or mode of thinking and practice – alongside lived experience and subjective embodiment. (Fournier 8)

In short, autotheory is the integration of the embodied experience of the self into theory (or vice versa) as an opportunity to explore reality in a critical and self-aware way so as to open up meaning. For Fournier, autotheory is a methodology with a “personal-theoretical, incidental, gut-centered nature” (5) wherein she draws from her own experiences, encounters, conversations, etc. Together with Alex Brostoff, Fournier observes how autotheory takes and continues to take many shapes and forms, and is described as a theory as well as a practice (491-492). As an artist and curator, Mieke Bal – to me formerly only known as a narratologist – for instance characterises autotheory as a practice; her documentary-making and theorising of film constantly infuse one another (Fournier, “Sick Women” 644). Annelies Vaneycken expands this notion of practice in describing different methods and formats; autotheoretical publications serve as acts “of making something public in whatever form, be it printed matter, performance, sound art, video, installation, etc” (3). Katherine Baxter and Cat Auburn extend this idea of autotheory as plural to identity itself:

Autotheoretical enquiries gain their insights through the distinct engagement of the autobiographical self with theory, and, furthermore, through embodied theorizing with an extended plural self. This plural self is cultivated through experimental citation, speaking with, curating with, and other forms of creative, imaginative practices. There is thus an elasticity to autotheory; its boundaries stretch to encompass literary genres, critical discourse, creative practice, and academic methodology. (Baxter and Auburn 1)

An autotheoretical endeavour thus implies a critical exploration of the plural self in relation to a given Zeitgeist. Autotheory is for that reason specifically associated with feminist, postcolonial, BIPOC, queer, and activist approaches, which critically explore their own narrative within the grand narrative as essentially constructed by DWEM’s. Vaneycken adds that autotheory is therefore mostly linked to third- and fourth-wave feminist texts, which attempt to “make theory more human” (2). Autotheory is then about decolonising theory, about expanding the access to a first person narrative. In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed likewise ponders over how theory is often found to be abstract – dragged away or wholly detached from everyday life – and vocalises the need to “bring theory back to life” (10).

How can an autotheoretical curatorial practice then take shape? A first needed meditation is one on the position of the curator: within my active intervention, how much space do I take? Fournier borrows artist Christine Tien Wang’s apt opposition between narcissism and self-awareness (63-64) to construe autotheory – I in turn borrow this antithesis to outline its curatorial derivative. Power leads to corruption. Where a successful curatorial intervention would be a critical and self-aware one, an unsuccessful curatorial intervention is a narcissistic one; one where the ego of the curator prevails and a narrative is imposed onto others – a critique often rapidly and erroneously given to feminist artists that incorporate their “self” directly into their works (Fournier 44). Let us begin with a simplified and tangible construction of exhibition-making that involves one artist and one curator. In an attempt to concretise this, three possibilities arise wherein autotheory is at the centre of a curatorial practice:

Exhibitions with…

  • the artist as an autotheorist (option 1)
  • the curator and the artist as autotheorists (option 2)
  • the curator as an autotheorist(option 3)

from passive curatorial autotheory to active curatorial autotheory

All of these would allow for the embodied self of the curator or the artist (and implicitly, the viewer or the reader) to adopt a critically engaged stance. These options imply an upward trend in curatorial autotheory; their pertinence thus increases with regard to the intervention of the curator ranging from passive to active – too passive being radically detached and too active being overtly narcissistic. With the current premise in mind, I will swiftly go over the first option, look at the second option in more detail, and elaborate predominantly on the third one. In what follows, I mainly inquire into the underlying approach of an autotheoretical curatorial practice and thereby provide my own autotheoretical scenarios where “I” as a curator lay the groundwork for exhibition-making of concrete literary works. These scenarios are written in italics and go from description (what is written?) to interpretation (how does theory inform our reading?) to connection (in what ways do I relate?). In this way, experimental works become accessible and relatable.
Option 1: artist as autotheorist

In this first option, the role of the curator is purely that of an enabler. The curator provides a platform for the artist wherein their identity does not come to the foreground. It is the artist who employs an autotheoretical approach; the exhibition therefore displays inherently autotheoretical work. One example on this mode of passive curatorial autotheory is Kraus’ curation of the Native Agents series, wherein she showcases “autofiction written by theoretically inclined women and queers” (Fournier 58). However, a more concrete example is to be found in Lauren Fournier’s own artistic practice: she exhibited work where she as a (critical) white settler seeks modes of repair regarding indigenous communities – the exhibition being aptly titled as “Auto”Theory (Bachir/Yerex Presentation Space, 2022). Lisa Steele’s role as the curator of this exhibition was one of supporting autotheoretical work without bringing her own identity nor additional critical discourse to the equation.

Option 2: curator and artist as autotheorists

Being cognisant of our outset as a spectrum, this second option – where both the curator and the artist have an autotheoretical practice – can take various diverging paths. One such elaboration can take the form of active curatorial autotheory in the making, as a collaboration between two individuals with equal authority. Baxter and Auburn would deem this form of (curatorial) autotheory superior due to its plural authorship, since autotheory otherwise “always risks co-opting the voice of the other, even as it purports to collaborate and “speak with” these voices; this risk is due to, amongst other factors, curatorial processes”(4-5). Another elaboration is active curatorial autotheory wherein the curator adds another layer to existing autotheoretical work. Strictly following Baxter and Auburn’s statement, the latter seems less ethical. When dealing with the interpretation of texts as autonomous objects as opposed to decoding the personal beliefs, issues, and lives of artists, however, these ethicalities shift. In the following autotheoretical scenario, I as a curator set the rationale for a possible autotheoretical exhibition on Carmen Maria Machado’s autotheoretical memoir In the Dream House (2019):

With In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado wrote a memoir on memory, sexuality and power. The narrator uses “I” and “you” interchangeably to refer to herself and employs various tropes to reconstruct an abusive same-sex relationship. That is why critics agreeingly point to the highly intricate literary techniques Machado uses. Dženana Vucic indicates the memoir’s “blend of autobiography and critique” that comes close to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, yet is “less theory-driven and more formally experimental, too”. In similar vein, Katherine Connell also contrasts these works: “while the meandering, diaristic in-betweenness of The Argonauts often withholds or obfuscates a more rigorous interrogation of the self, Machado’s voice and identity pulsate through In the Dream House”. It is precisely via the experimental nature of her memoir that Machado succeeds in telling her story in an utmost compelling, captivating and at times haunting way; it allows for the work to surpass a purely individual experience. Where Connell argues that the memoir links its personal recount “to a larger assemblage”, Vucic goes even further and offers a personal reflection to Machado’s line “Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal”: “It is in a section entitled ‘Dream House as Ephiphany’. I am having an epiphany now”. It is only via these shared epiphanies that we can elevate our personal issues to collective ones, and there find some needed comfort and understanding. Opposed to physical abuse, emotional and psychological abuse are less apparent, more hidden for the outward world. They are terrorisations against our inner beings – hard to catch cycles of being loved and loathed, of distracting and diverting, of devaluing and discarding. It is through shared epiphanies that I eventually began to realise that accusations were confessions.

Option 3: curator as autotheorist

The third option is the pinnacle of a (self-aware) autotheoretical curatorial practice. In this mode, the exhibition does not display work that is inherently autotheoretical; it is, rather, the role of the curator to bring critical discourse or theory to the table and subsequently draw on their own experiences. In this form of active curatorial autotheory, the curator highlights their own reading and adds a personal layer to an existing work in a way that simultaneously speaks to the masses. The intervention is now more aptly described as creating within a narrative rather than relating to a narrative (as in option 2). When the outset of such an approach is undeniably an idiosyncratic reading, the outcome must be an open one – one that offers a look into the self of the curator while also succeeding in connecting I to you to us. In the following autotheoretical scenario, I as a curator set the rationale for a possible autotheoretical exhibition on Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel The Waves (1931):

With The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote a polyphonic novel that chronicles the lives of six narrators (Bernard, Neville, Louis, Rhoda, Jinny and Susan) in a fragmented whole of internal thoughts. Their intermingling interior monologues are alternated by poetic interludes which reflect the scenery and set the overall atmosphere. Similar to the characters themselves, identity, time and space all seem to intertwine. These intricate representations of minds and temporal experiences have then, to no surprise, led people to characterise this novel as Woolf’s “most difficult book” (Matz 90), and as a “poetically dense” whole that could arguably lead to “defamiliarization” (Matz 71). For the same reason, Georg Lukács argues that the radical subjectivism of modernist texts ignores an external material reality (25) and that its style is nothing short of experimental distortion (33). Other scholars, however, see the relevance to the broader public in Woolf’s experimental work: Julia Briggs, for instance, indicates that the writer’s narrative technique altogether defies an individual and encapsulated reading in presenting a more collective consciousness (76). It is Matz that additionally points out how the disjointed nature of Woolf’s novel aims to “match the deformations of modernity” (60), thereby extending its fictional collective mind to the collective mind of the era itself. The characters have no single body, not one life, they often cannot pin down their identity – perhaps it matters in the sense that it does not matter. Woolf’s style ultimately succeeds in capturing the noise of time as she assembles fragmented pieces of individual experiences, and represents the collective mind of the era as to make sense of modernity in unison. Similar to the modernist characters living in a rapidly changing world, I sometimes also do not altogether know who I am – my sense of self changes with time, with every encounter, and is tested in every conversation I have, is liable to the greater shifts in time and space. As much as the idea of not having a fixed identity can be nerve-racking, the idea of a fixed identity is nothing but an unproductive utopia. For all that, I can also find peace in the idea that I am forever in transformation.

Although contemporary literature is often described as being post-postmodernist and is rapidly attributed with notions like empathy, inclusion and accessibility, today’s writers sometimes simultaneously employ an originally modernist kind of experimentalism to evoke the intricacies of the mind. If we can throw open inaccessible worlds of modernist literature, the potential to make a contemporary text come alive is indicated. In the following autotheoretical scenario, I as a curator set the rationale for a possible autotheoretical exhibition on Lauren Groff’s contemporary short story “Ghosts and Empties” out of her collection Florida (2018):

With “Ghosts and Empties”, Lauren Groff wrote a short story wherein we follow her narrator-observer as a flaneuse on her daily walk through the neighbourhood. Groff employs a style reminiscent of the modernists via her poetic phrases, polished aestheticism, numerous similes, and the representation of mental processes. Winternheimer therefore asserts that the piece “dazzles on the sentence level” and unveils the author’s “special iteration of her ability to craft an incredible sentence”. Groff’s narrator at the same time succeeds in representing the voice of the neighbourhood’s voiceless. She finds comfort in creating a mental assemblage of fellow inhabitants as to cope with her own loneliness. Although the narrator is presented as a clearly defined “I”, narratologically, she shies away from the foreground –nNotably, this main character remains nameless throughout the short story. As the reader gets primarily familiarised with one part of her identity – the woman being “full of grief and angst and terror” (Kosack) – the general tone of the story renders it “a portrait not so much of a place as of a particular kind of feeling about a place” (Elkin). Lauren Groff has written a short story with a lengthy list of characters – the everywoman-like narrator hereby mentally uniting them in order to project and soothe her own malaise within a comforting multitude of individuals. Groff’s flaneuse therefore strikes a particular chord in my own being. It resonates with the unhealed parts of me that are prone to saviour complex behaviour. Is unhealthy altruism really nothing more than a soothing distraction of one’s own issues? Is outward care and concern, just like in the short story, an unhealthy manner to momentarily avoid inner distress? The irony of loneliness is of course that it is a universal, shared experience. Groff’s portrait of her flaneuse brilliantly depicts how we are lonely in unison, while constantly trying to connect with others.

Through this text I have tried to pave my own way towards audience-oriented curating of experimental narratives. I firmly believe that through curatorial autotheory – and thus a practice informed by (literary) theory as well as an embodied experience – we can unveil the ability of an (anti)aesthetic, experimental, and altogether difficult work to be socially engaging concerning contemporary issues (f.i. identity, gender, sexuality, race, the environment, technological developments, and other aspects related to the experience of time and space). This is an inclusive way of curating to further render the meaning of experimental literature accessible; to shed a light on the contemporary issues they touch upon; to create a space to explore, interact, empathise and learn; to move away from very internalist and individualist readings towards externalist and collectivist ones… and in that way, to break open “encapsulated” worlds of “difficult” works and elevate seemingly individual matters to collective ones. An autotheoretical curatorial practice is about merging (literary) theory with the own lived and embodied experience of the curator, about daring to be personal as to open up and expand – implying a critical turn inwards that serves an outward purpose. The autotheoretical scenarios are thereby the grounds of all curatorial choices the exhibition-making process engenders: Which pages are shown? What is mentioned in the wall text? Which additional research is provided? Which personal stories are shared? Which other texts, audio or visuals can help tell the story per juxtaposition? And how can readings, panels, or various public programmes come into play? This way, we can begin to imagine ways to curate experimental literature as to make it both accessible and relatable – be they exhibitions that circle around shared epiphanies on domestic abuse, collective experiences of porous identity, or universal feelings of loneliness.

You were not always just a You. I was whole – a symbiotic relationship between my best and worst parts – and then, in one sense of the definition, I was cleaved: a neat lop that took first person – that assured, confident woman, the girl detective, the adventurer – away from second, who was always anxious and vibrating like a too-small breed of dog.
--- Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House, 22

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known – it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life’, it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.
--- Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 199

I stand squinting in the daylight wanting to yell, looking to find a displaced person. Please, I think, please let my couple come by, let me see their faces at last, let me take their arms. I want to make them sandwiches and give them blankets and tell them that it’s okay.
--- Lauren Groff, “Ghosts and Empties”, 12


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