When Attitudes Become Form: A Curatorial Fanfiction

Fanfiction and fanart generally exist far away from the exhibitions of highart, but in the age of the internet entertaining parallels sometimes occur between how online denizens engage with the media love and the cult classic of fine art exhibitions. Among these cult classic exhibitions is Live In Your Head: When Attitude Becomes Form which was put together in 1969 by curator Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle Bern in Germany. This exhibition was revolutionary in more than one way, perhaps most notably in the way that it shifted the view of a curator as a kind of facilitator who worked with the collection of the institution where they worked, to something much closer to an artist in their own right. That shift is worth considering (and is the topic my professor actually received a paper on) but I would also like to discuss the 2013 reinstallation of When Attitudes Become Form as part of the Venice Biennale as a kind of curatorial fanfiction that seeks to mimic the original work without being fully able to capture the spirit of what made the original great. Anyone who engages with fan culture online will know that there are some combinations of fic style and fandom that work better than others though and the 2013 reinstall of When Attitudes Become Form seems to me to be one of the worst types: a self insert. 

The original When Attitudes Become Form included 69 artists who Szeemann invited to create work in the Kunsthalle Bern with very few limitations. It showcased several forms of conceptual art just as the movement was starting to take shape – it was an exhibition of new art and a new type of curator. This newness is lost in the process of reinstallation and since the exhibition is primarily remembered for being a radical departure from curatorial norms the loss of novelty is a major blow to the reinstallation. Realistically, the people who were viewing the 2013 reinstallation at the world’s most important art event were people who already knew and cared about the original enough to notice where the recreation fell flat. This is one the major problems that also occurs in bad fanfiction where the author is attempting to recreate a work for an audience that is intimately familiar with an original. It is not that the author of the fanfiction or the curator of the reinstallation do not love the original – they are in fact trying to demonstrate love and care for the original work – but they want to feel a part of that original work so when they present their recreation they have inserted themselves into it. In fanfiction this is most often done through the inclusion of the author as a character in the plot but in the 2013 When Attitude Becomes Form the curators inserted themselves through choices like blocking out missing artworks with white tape reminiscent of the chalk used to mark the position of evidence at a crime scene.  Reviews of self insert works of fanfiction and curatorial reinstallation alike often point to these additions to the original as being detrimental to the experience of the work. The gap between the original and the recreation creates a kind of uncanny valley between the work that is loved and the new version which is just slightly wrong because of the way that the new author has attempted to include themselves.

Something I found interesting when reading about the restaging of When Attitude Becomes Form was that some reviewers seemed surprised that the reinstalled exhibition fell flat of the original. This path of self insert rewriting is a familiar one in the world of fanfiction so poor results seemed to be predictable but are apparently less so for curatorial fanfictions. Upon further consideration this makes more sense since art exhibitions today often tour to multiple locations without major difficulty. However, these shows are most often popular because of the works included in them while When Attitude Becomes Form is primarily considered important because of the way that Szeemann changed curating. What was radical and transformative when Szeemann first put on the show has now become a standard part of how curators and artists work together so while When Attitude Becomes Form is remembered fondly it will never have the same immediate impact on visiting art folks that the original did. Although I am by no means an expert I would speculate that the reaction to the failure of the 2013 reinstallation was a learning moment for people across the arts in the same way that reading a bad self insert fanfic is a learning moment for engaging fandom online. Sometimes when you love something it is best to just leave it alone because you can never be quite sure why you love it and attempting to engage it too directly may just destroy the illusion created by the original author.

This post was written while working on the initial parts of a paper for Professor Robertson’s Greatest Shows on Earth course at the University of Western Ontario. A short list of sources is included below. If you liked it please let me know and if you really like it please consider buying me a coffee HERE – it will help fund more posts like this one as I head toward graduate school.

Sources Read

“The Curator as Arts Administrator? Comments on Harald Szeemann and the Exhibition When Attitudes Become Form” by Christoph Behnke, in The Journal of Arts Management, Law and Society, 2010 

“Reconsidering the exhibition When Attitudes Becomes Form curated by Harald Szeemann: form vs anti-form in contemporary art” by Marina Biryukova in the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, 2017. 

Mark Rapport for Art Review: https://artreview.com/september-review-when-attitudes-become-form/ 

Press Release available through e-flux: https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/32601/when-attitudes-become-form-bern-1969-venice-2013/ 

Christy Lange for Frieze: https://www.frieze.com/article/55th-venice-biennale-do-attitudes-still-become-form 

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