As urban curators, can we live the imagined worlds of our projects?

Jennifer Aksu and Gilly Karjevsky

Jennifer Aksu accompanies institutions and actors in times of change. With 15 years of process experience as an independent executive in the cultural, creative and urban field (games, user-centered design, socially engaged art), Jennifer uses her training as an organisational consultant to help people and institutions work together productively and purposefully. Her Masters in Theatre Studies and Urban Culture, Society and Space have trained her in artistic and strategic methods which she remixes to create well-made interfaces.

Gilly Karjevsky is an urban curator. She has co-initiated the gathering Alles ist schon da, together with the PARKS team and Jennifer Aksu, looking at urban curating as a relational practice drawing from the site and situation at hand. Gilly is visiting professor of the social design class at HFBK Hamburg 22-24. She is curator of "Climate Care" festival in Berlin, and curator in residence at the Spatial Practices program in CSM, London.

Urban curating, and urban practice, are opening a space between projects that dream and projects that do. Projects that dream are representations or imaginaries of alternative forms of living together. They dream up models alternative to the dominant structures in our society – the family unit, institutional structures, democratic governance models and so on – all pointing to different ways for communities to make decisions and live together. These dreamed-up models are communicated and performed by the projects that dream to the general public, bringing these ideas to their audiences, to learn from and discuss through participation in short presentations. The larger public, and the public funding bodies among them, see the projects that dream as they communicate their dreams in stories, images, events, and build their remit on this communication, introducing dreams and visions for the future.

Projects that do, do not concern themselves only with the future, but labor to figure out the present mode of opposition to normative power. Projects that do play the long game of building up these alternative models which manifest dreams (or imaginaries) into realities, which are often precarious due to their nature of resistance to norms. Usually tucked away from public scrutiny to allow for testing of different models, structures, and relationships both between groups of people, and beyond the social, they reconfigure our relationship to land and ecology, to community living and governance. These experiments tend to be known mainly by their participants and the few who might take part in small activities that open up the experiment for short visits.

As the practice in these project typologies is highly relational, it takes a lot of time and its dynamics are complex and complicated. Where the site-specific work of urban curating is based on, and works with relationships – between people and institutions, people and people, people and places, places and histories etc – the work gets deeply rooted in social interactions, interpretations and communication. Wherever people come together to share a mode of working and living, questions of power are always at hand. Power comes with resistance. Resistance comes with conflict. Conflict comes with rigor. Rigor is often perceived as limiting to creativity, openness, adaptability, and transformation.

Maneuvering between alternative modes of relationships and power in respect to neighbours, communities and communal structures within current existing and dominating structures of everyday life is a paradoxical undertaking. Projects that do often get caught in the conflict Adorno refers to as "there is no right life in the wrong one" (Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im falschen). But if urban curating and urban practice asks us to also act in the ways we imagined a more just society will act, to already live the imaginaries of our work, what do we need to consider (from now on, at all, better)?

There are several hypothesis at stake:
Legitimation lies at the heart of certain power dynamics in the Urban Curating field. The more legitimate a practice is, the more power it can lend to its actors and processes.
Legitimation comes with professionalisation, and professionalisation comes with education. The better we understand a matter, the clearer we can teach and transmit it. In order to understand something, we need to reflect on it and evaluate it.

Do we understand enough of the dynamics at hand in urban curating processes in order to better address the aim of living the imaginaries of our work within our work? We will argue that the systematic evaluatoin and learning are missing from the field of urban curating and urban practice at large. Learning requires evaluation of the process. And evaluation is rarely met with openness or serious interest in urban curating and urban practice.

Evaluation has many functions. Two of the central and most talked about are learning and legitimation. Because of the latter, evaluating as part of processes always comes under criticism. It is said that collecting numbers or writing reports for funding agencies is usually a purely contrived and irrelevant means of justifying the public funds that urban curating processes often use. It is perceived as burdensome and postulated that art cannot be judged by the given criteria. In the shadow of this criticism, there are few approaches that develop criteria or methods of systematic consideration of the processes. At the same time, resources are so scarce that all there is to give is given to the interventions and the artistic expression of the project.

The result is that the possibility of learning from the processes remains within the discursive realm, often within the university context, rather than within the on-the-ground project network. But, what if we had better means to observe urban curating practice, to understand the processes and to collect insights many can relate to? Could having better evaluation practices within urban curating lead to a better integration of the practice into transformation processes?

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