Michael Kaethler. The Curator as Hermes: A Mediator Between Knowledge Worlds

October 10, 2017 by Z33

Through the staging and framing of cultural artefacts, the curator creates new physical and conceptual relationships, merging audiences, spaces, and ideas into new composites that transcend their invariable appearances.

Text Michael Kaethler.

Expressions in multiple forms_web

If Apollo is the Greek god of the arts, who is the god of curating? The French philosopher Michel Serres provides a compelling account of the god Hermes as a unique and necessary character able to connect objects, persons and events through time and space. For Serres, who decries the compartmentalisation of knowledge, Hermes offers us a unique example of a knowledge operator who can forge passages between different knowledge worlds — the mimetic, scientific, mythical, physical, or put simply, between the reason of the sciences and that of the humanities or the arts. This demands new operators of knowledge and new operations, which Serres (1982) defines as interference, translation and distribution, all of which converge towards the idea of communication.

In this philosophy of communication, Serres (1994) explores the knowledge operator through Hermes — a messenger who navigates across and through space and time, forging unpredictable and unexpected associations between objects, persons and events recognising a multiplicity of knowledge worlds, which co-exist without hierarchies. Hermes is mediation, translation, multiplicity, and communication. He embodies the figure of a free mediator, a nomad who wanders through time and space to establish connections — the god of the crossroads (where statues of him were commonly erected) — between myth and science. He is also an ambiguous figure, simultaneously embodying the attributes of commerce and of theft, of weights and measures and also of creativity and invention.

This is not unlike many of today’s definitions of contemporary curating. Take, for instance Maria Lind’s (2010, p. 63) description of curating as, “…a way of thinking in terms of interconnections: linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, history, and discourses in physical space like an active catalyst generating twists, turns, and tensions.” Paul O’Neil (2012, p. 129) characterises it as a “distinct practice of mediation” and refers to exhibitions as a “co-productive, spatial medium, resulting from varying forms of negotiation, relationality, adaptation, and collaboration between subjects and objects, across space and time.” Likewise, Hans Ulrich Obrist (2011, pp. 166-167) the prolific Swiss curator refers to the role of the curator as “connecting different people and practices, and causing the conditions for triggering sparks between them.”

For Serres, Hermes represents a ‘mature knowledge worker’ who is able to create passages and transmit a more complete form of knowing, shining light on signs and symbols which are ‘hermetic’, traversing the noise of interference (incommunicability) towards the making of meaning. Serres (1995) laments our singular modes of thinking as a restraining dogmatism and argues that to overcome this will require adopting a “comparative pluralistic epistemology of the journey”. To do this he gives us Hermes as an example of, and inspiration for, unrestricted thinking, seeing beyond typical dichotomies of knowledge and instead focusing on discovering new translations or passages between different ways of knowing. In giving us Hermes, he prompts us to reflect on what roles exist today that embody these qualities?

The curator, I argue, is one of the few positions today where Hermes would find himself at home — as mediator, translator and conveyor of meaning but also as an ambiguous figure who plays tricks and denies facile classification or method. Through the staging and framing of cultural artefacts, the curator creates new physical and conceptual relationships, merging audiences, spaces, and ideas into new composites that transcend their invariable appearances. Curating is not merely descriptive; it is active and transformative. Exhibitions “test out reality” as Obrist claims (2011, p. 167), unlocking the meanings inherent in the different but relationally connected artefacts (Smith, 2015). It is the staging of a knowledge journey where the curator, at the crossroads, gently directs the entwining of different media to invoke experiential and cognitive responses. The curator is positioned as mediator between the artist or designer, the artefacts (exhibition), and the audience or participant, situated in both worlds in order to translate between them and through this translation new cultural expression emerges. The curator proactively threads together different forms of knowing to create new knowledge, or taking from Obrist’s definition above, to create the conditions for triggering sparks.

The etymology of the curator derives from the latin curare — ‘to take care of’ — and has been used across a wide range of roles going back to the Roman civil servants who oversaw public works for the public good such as bathhouses, sewers, and aqueducts; caretakers of minors or lunatics in the 14th century; priests devoted to tending their parishes’ souls; keepers who were responsible for overseeing, preserving, and organising the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ of collectors. Today, curating contemporary art and design has morphed into an increasingly dynamic and active role dealing with many similar themes of its historical trajectory, fusing social, metaphysical, and object-relations through new knowledge junctions. An ethic of ‘care’, I argue, still grounds this role, a care for the content and its social and cultural implications. This, I must add, distinguishes curating from the current market trends appropriated by prosumers who ‘curate’ their lifestyles.

With the echo of Serres’ proclamation, “let the new knowledge come” (1989, p. 177), my research has sought to understand the unique knowledge approach of curating. I do not wish to elasticise curating, stretching it to fit every domain, but instead to learn from its particular approach to knowledge — principles and practices — in order to give inspiration to other fields. To do this involves analysing curating from different perspectives such as through organisational theory or systems thinking. Moreover, in the spirit of Hermes’ mediation of new passages between knowledge worlds, it is critical to explore curating’s potential as a medium from which non-art and design fields can take inspiration. What does such a unique knowledge role mean in a variety of other settings?

Rethinking stakeholder negotiations: a curatorial approach

Today’s multiparty stakeholder negotiations are organised around a facilitator who seeks to funnel the process towards reaching a consensus in order to move forward with a set of objectives. This has been informed by managerial approaches, using incentives to find compromise. The role of the facilitator in such a case tends to take a mantle of neutrality with a disinterest in a specific outcome, instead focusing on nurturing the contributions from participants. This assumes that presenting the ‘facts’ (information) and holding a rational exchange, with the right incentives, will lead to a common understanding and ultimately a workable solution. This appears to be a process devoid of meaning, with a hollow view of knowledge and deprived of an ethic of care. How could a curatorial approach offer an alternative?

An economist, a landscape architect, and I were invited by the region of Lazio to host a three-day workshop to revitalise a 400+ hectare asset of land in the city of Rome. The land in question has been held up in an intractable deadlock for nearly three decades. Our task was to identify a common vision for it amidst a multitude of differing and antagonising positions. To do this, we began exploring a curatorial approach to participatory planning in public space; how can we entwine different forms of knowing, what is our ethic of care, what does a stakeholder meeting-as-exhibition look like? If an exhibition is a ‘knowledge event’ (Martinon, 2014) then why not frame or stage the stakeholder meeting as an exhibition?

Our first step involved looking at different definitions of curating across a body of literature. We identified a number of relevant themes: a curator as caretaker, which we took to signify a deep interest in the process and outcome of the event; a curator as mediator and translator of different types of knowledge, working with analytical and poetic messaging; a curator as meaning maker, framing the event towards transferring significance; a curator as narrator across scales, giving attention to the constitutive and constituted narratives, which emerge at the micro-to-macro / matter-to-meta level, from the individual artefact to the overall message of the exhibition.

The three-day event, attended by policy makers, urbanists, representatives of business interests, and local initiatives followed Hermes’ trajectories, working between knowledge worlds and creating passages between individual and collective interests, between rational pursuits and emotional sensibilities. The most significant shift from traditional approaches was the pursuit of meaning-making in lieu of consensus building. Our intention was for participants to leave with a renewed connection with the site and a belief in its potential for the local and regional community.  We believed that this was more important and lasting than focusing on finding a solution that was agreeable to all the stakeholders.

The role of the curator was to frame and promote individual and collective explorations of multiple types of knowing in relation to the context — from deeply personal to collective, from analytical to experiential. We framed the event as an exhibition, which included a series of artefacts acting as sensorial stimuli, physically situating the participants within a gallery. Analytical discussions, such as using systems thinking to understand the context, were paired with creating visual artefacts that represent the discussions — each group established a socio-technical bricolage of images, sketches and even poems to represent their ideas, desires, dreams, and future trajectories. These artefacts, we anticipated, would better retain their memories and inspiration from the event than any written policy report afterwards.

As curators, we subtly guided the processes with an interest in creating significance around certain themes for particular objectives. Our care for the context led to carefully reframing debates, nudging themes towards our own ideological interest. This is a controversial element, whereby the curator is ideologically present within the ongoing negotiation. To avoid overt questions of accountability and transparency we attempted to be clear about our personal interest in the event and our desired outcome.

In this case, the curatorial approach for multiparty stakeholder negotiations is a prime example of rethinking the way we engage with singular forms of knowledge. To call what we did ‘curating’ is a stretch; nevertheless, it is inspired by, and borrows from, the curatorial, providing a new mode of engagement that produces meaning. It was a successful engagement that fostered new intersubjective and subject-object relationships. Interviews conducted by a social-psychologist researching the event noted a sense of overwhelming positivity and optimism when discussing the future of the site with the participants, highlighting a common theme of ‘collectivity’. Whether a concrete action will occur directly related to these three days is uncertain. However, we hope that the new relationships the ‘exhibition’ inspired will overtime result in sustained and meaningful future developments.

Just as Hermes created passages between worlds, so can a curatorial approach forge connections between the physical and mythical, rational, and intuitive, between objects and subjects, and intersubjectivities. A curatorial approach is a suitable response to Serres’ calls for a ‘new knowledge’ or a ‘mature knowledge’, an operation that connects knowledge worlds, time and space, that eschews method and provides meaning. Serres stresses the difficulties of translating between knowledge worlds; it is not as easy as opening one door and stepping through another. However, it is in these spaces between where messages become transformed through the act of mediation and it is here where creativity and innovation emerge — in the passage. The curatorial works within that space — traversing the divide — helping one navigate through complex territories like Hermes waiting at the crossroads to offer direction or inspiration. •

The article was originally published in a book ‘Trading Places – Practices of Public Participation in Art and Design Research’ (DPR Barcelona), published in September 2017. ‘Trading Places’ rethinks, develops and tests design-driven practices and methods to engage with participation in public space and public issues.
The book follows ‘TRADERS – Training Art and Design Researchers in Participation for Public Space,’ an EU-funded project (2013–17) that focuses on developing a methodological framework for participatory work in public space projects. Z33 House for Contemporary Art is one of the cultural and academic partners of the programme.
DPR Barcelona: Traders – Practices of Public Participation
TRADERS programme (2013–17)

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Martinon, J. P. (Ed.) (2013). The curatorial: A philosophy of curating. London: A&C Black.
Obrist, H. U., & Lamm, A. E. (2011). Everything you always wanted to know about curating but were afraid to ask. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
O’Neill, P. (2012). The culture of curating and the curating of culture(s). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Serres, M. (1982). Genèse. Paris: Grasset.
Serres, M. (1989). Éléments d’histoire des sciences. Paris: Bordas.
Serres, M. (1994). Atlas. Paris: Julliard.
Serres, M. (1995). Genesis (trans. G. James & Nielson, J.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Smith, T. E. (2015). Talking contemporary curating. New York: Independent Curators International


Michael Kaethler is a PhD candidate and Marie Curie research fellow at KU Leuven (B). His work looks at knowledge formation and transference in contexts of curating participatory art and design. Previously, he was involved in policy formation and human rights research in conflict and post-conflict contexts for the United Nations. He holds an MA in Slavonic and Central Eastern Studies from the University of Glasgow (UK) and an M.Eng in Human Settlements from KU Leuven.