Ways of Seeing: Internet has changed curating rules

Language evolves. You can find any number of interesting articles on words whose meanings have changed radically over time (“awful,” “clue,” “naughty,” are good examples). With the Internet insinuating itself into most aspects of our lives, slews of words have changed in the brief span of pre-internet time to internet-now: “troll,” “ping,” “handle,” “cloud,” “catfish,” “tablet,” “pad” come to mind.
“Curate” is the word on my mind today.
Not the noun, whose meaning is connected to the verb that has me in its grip — a curate being a member of the clergy whose job is the spiritual oversight and care of parishioners and lay-folk. But the verb, which means to select, organize and look after items in a cultural heritage institution, say, a museum or a gallery, an archive or a collection.  Curators, who are often specialists in a chosen field, work in such institutions with a mission to store and care for, preserve, and possibly exhibit items of interest. They educate and facilitate as well.
The Internet, more specifically social media, has had a profound influence on the meaning and use of “to curate” and on who now counts as a curator.
Up until now, curators have been educated in their chosen field, and by and large, are chosen for an area of expertise.
But in our digital world, land of social media, where we are experts on ourselves, we curate our public  (and dare I say private) selves as we present to the world whatever it is we wish to present.
In some sense the notion that we curate what we present of ourselves is not new — it is just that the field of vision is potentially much larger. While what we chose to present of ourselves before was only evidenced by our peers, colleagues and family members, now it can be out there for all the world to see (and hear and read).
So curators are no longer found only in museums, we are everywhere. And anything —absolutely anything — can be curated. We choose what to present and share online: via Face Book, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Grinder, and on-line dating sites. Any place where the intentional crafting of an image or text is relevant, we curate what goes up. Sometimes what comes down.
And anything can be curated: a concert can be curated, a wine list, a meal, heck, you can curate the napkins at a fancy party.
The young artists I know are masters of their own curation. Frequent postings are required: a new work, an account of process, evidence of progress, an observation, a description of a current mood, or emotion, a fleeting thought, it is all part of crafting one’s image — and then burnishing it. Curating is all about creating buzz, getting the work “out there,” getting one’s self “out there,” generating interest.
A gallery owner recently said to me, “You have to do it all. The market has changed, and how people access an artist’s work has completely changed. The access can come from almost anywhere.”
Those of us who make art must therefore manage our image, our publicity, our sales. We must now all “do camera” which means photograph, create video, and edit sound and text as we upload and edit content on multiple digital platforms.
In New York recently, I had the pleasure of dining with two folks who do not use their computers for anything other than occasional email communications, word processing, data retrieval and storage. Barely any Internet. One, a scientist at Rockefeller University, only puts his phone on when he is expecting a call from his wife. He never shops online. He barely uses his search engines. And the camera on his computer is covered. No one can track him. The other, an author, never shops online, barely ever uses research engines, and emails only sporadically. No social media ever. What are they curating? In the digital world, they wish NOT to exist.
I find their attitude refreshing.
I have younger friends, painters, who share every mood shift, every experiment in paint, the preparation of canvasses, their food, their social gatherings, what they look at in museums, with photos and text.
Are they/we sharing truth?
I know we create truths. But truths, like words, are alive, and shape shifting. If my young brilliant artist friend’s marriage is in trouble, is that evident in the paintings posted, the poetic musings about life and happiness? Or should I read into the evidence of weight lost in a selfie portrait, the sudden absence of a family member in photos that are re-curated and rushed back into the public eye? As in any form of deep reading, I believe we read into what is curated and what is not, and we wonder what is real and what is not?
Curating is, after all, choosing what to present, which means it is also about choosing what NOT to present. A means to an end — whatever that might be: an idea, a product, or an experience. Is the medium itself ever the message? Have we become too precious if we speak of curating napkins at a party, rather than the fact that the food products curated for the shelves of the specialty food shop are too expensive for many to buy?  What are we choosing to believe if the kid who does not yet have a job announces on social media that they have become a philosopher and then assiduously curates a believable facsimile of this persona?
How do we know what we know? What do we think we know?
It seems that media literacy — in an age of fake news — is more important than ever.
How do we decipher what has become a consuming social construct?
And how do issues of truth and privacy overlap?
To wish to connect is human. To wish for transparency and truth is human.
To hope for understanding is human. I feel a bit at sea with the digital possibilities.
Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”

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