Spectacle and the New Curiosity
When I began working at the Coney Island Museum in 2003 I came to the project as an artist, not as a museum director. I had more interest in the idea of performance art in an institutional setting than I did in ways of communicating a particular kind of history to the public. As the museum came together and I grew accustomed to the demands of running a physical space situated in the heart of a place of international significance, several new programs emerged that were designed to engage the public with a more esoteric set of interests. Since 2007, Coney Island USA’s Congress of Curious Peoples has been a way of exploring that interest in performance and scholarship around the history of display. And since adding the scholarly component, the Congress for Curious People, we have played with the lines between scholarship and performance, theory and spectacle. Now, having successfully taken it on the road, I can say that there is a rapidly growing interest all over the world in these subjects that is complex and hard to understand. It turns out that a set of wonderful and exciting tendencies did converge in this conference – and that they transcend the worlds of academia and art.
I am so grateful to the people who made this year’s Congress happen: Petra Lange-Berndt, Joanna Ebenstein, and Mark Pilkington in particular, but also to the speakers, performers, interns, and guests who showed their enthusiasm and played their roles so diligently. A lot of things came together to make this happen, but none of it would be possible without a thing I am calling the New Curiosity.
When I look at the events of the past seven years of the Congress, I see a hunger for earnest dialogue and a desire for participatory enthusiasm. And I see artists and scholars looking beyond the boundaries of their professions to explore things they are genuinely excited about instead of things they ought to be studying. This extradisciplinary approach is largely driven by curiosity, which is a simple and unprofessional quality that is usually championed by laymen or amateurs. And it’s not surprising that such an approach is accompanied by an interest in history – especially the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – when laymen and amateurs were producing incredible cultural artifacts. It’s especially exciting to me to have held such a gathering in the middle of London, at the heart of what was a churning center of innovation and spectacle in the nineteenth century.
I have spent a lot of time over the last few years really trying to get at the essence of the relationships between collecting, cultural display, the history of museums, sideshows, and spectacular culture. There is a particular way of looking at these objects that is different in the twentieth century than it was in the nineteenth. And yet, a good number of the institutions that we rely on to make sense of the world were founded in that different era. In fact, one element that accounts for the surging interest in these histories is our growing awareness that the cultural ground under us has shifted and many of those institutions – the museum, the amusement park, the department store – are no longer useful the way they once were. And that makes us uncomfortable even as it opens up amazing and wonderful opportunities for play.
Many years ago I started to notice something happening among artists I was working with and interested in. After years of critical discourse bent on tearing down boundaries and rethinking hierarchies, there was a spirit of enthusiasm for history that came as a breath of fresh air. People were beginning to explore new ways of configuring their disciplines and new, playful approaches to the cultural artifacts they had grown up with. This new spirit of enthusiasm can be found at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore, and the many newer venues and experiments in writing and speaking that have sprung up since (Los Angeles’s Machine Project, the Velaslavasay Panorama, and London’s Strange Attractor Press, Last Tuesday Society, and UCL Department of History of Art’s forum Curious Matters are also colleagues worth noting). In New York, it can be seen in spaces like Proteus Gowanus, projects like Atlas Obscura, and events like Trampoline Hall, and the Secret Science Club among others. In each of these places, people are making earnest efforts to regain a sense of wonder and joy in thinking, learning, and making.
Much of this new enthusiasm, this New Curiosity, stems from a sense that artists and scholars need no longer be bound by discrete media and discipline so much as by the limits of their own individual practice and interest – and the fields are wide open outside of the academy and the ‘art world’. But it also comes from a huge interest in art and scholarship by people for whom these are not careers but passionate interests: the amateur, the hobbyist, the enthusiast. Because our world of institutional constructs is so slow to change, these are the people who get it. This is where the action is. The center has shifted and we, the people, are momentarily at the heart of cultural production once more. It is an exciting time.
Like the late nineteenth century, we find ourselves at a crossroads, where profound technological shifts and cultural changes have left the functioning structures we have taken for granted – the phone systems and highways, the museums, the retail outlets, the movie theaters and the art galleries – feeling archaic and useless. As these institutions are being re-imagined, there’s a spirit of invention and exploration outside the walls of the academy: a sense that anything can happen. And this is what draws us all to the Congress.
I do not mean to imply that academics and artists are not leading the charge. But it seems to me that it is through their roles as amateurs and enthusiasts that this is happening, not in their curricular space. Like the quick-thinking individuals who discovered electricity and built the first dime museums, it is people with enthusiasm who are in front. With the walls breached and the rules we used to be bound by up for grabs, we are finally making new connections, new rules, and new ways of seeing these ideas and it takes curiosity to make it happen.
And there is a lot of lost time to make up for since the early twentieth century when these canons became established and rigorous experimentation was relegated to the fringes of cultural production. A lot of scholars and artists are looking to the past for clues about branches of thought and practice that were abandoned, but could have had interesting futures. Experiments with phonographs that were never finished, ways of photographing the spirit world that were only followed through on the fringes of society. I see this as a therapeutic act. It is a correction of the course of history after decades of tearing down systems and throwing out old ways of thinking. That is not to say the new curiosity lacks critical impulse. The scholars, artists, and rogue scholars who join us on stage and in the audience do so with wit and attention that are often focused on the institutions and media in which they work: David Wilson, Fred Wilson and Mark Dion on the museum, Zoe Beloff on the institutional film, Wendy Walker on the modern novel. Joanna Ebenstein and Andrew Beccone on the library.
In short, I think we who gather for the Congress for Curious People are on the forefront of a wave of a new enthusiasm. A way of looking at the world that is eager and excited about possibilities, even as it is smart and self aware. And this year’s Congress embodied that eagerness. It caught the zeitgeist of the New Curiosity and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. We are lucky to have such interesting compatriots, and I am lucky to have been in a room with so many amazing and interesting people, who are themselves curious in every way.