This Curated Face

We’re all natural editors, particularly those of the generations that grew up in around here (Northern Ireland) in the 1970s/1980s. We avoided certain people or certain streets in certain areas, editing ourselves out of our own locale. We were also edited out of particular futures because of our religion, skin colour or sexual orientation. We’re edited into particular grand narratives based on where we were born or where we live. In fact, people are brilliant editors generally. That’s how we believe in particular political, social and spiritual philosophies and ignore the anomalies and contradictions contained within them.

In the recent trend for publishing books based around specific years, no-one has yet laid claim to 1976. Like visitors strolling past a boss-eyed mongrel at Battersea Dogs’ Home, prospective authors have failed to see the appeal of a year that began with 15 people murdered in Northern Ireland before the Christmas decorations came down and continued in grindingly grim fashion with front pages dominated by endless tales of industrial aggro or Cod and Cold War stand-offs. Civil war raged in Angola and bombs exploded throughout London. Is this the MPLA, is this the IRA? Yes, on both counts, Johnny. [1]

In the late 1970s and early 1980s more girls actually read comics that boys did, but comics were still considered to be ‘for boys only’. For the first 13 years of my life the only German I heard was ‘Achtung’, ‘Gott in Himmel’ and of course ‘SCHWEINEHUND!’ in a WW2 context of extreme violence. Some comic-strips for example ‘Charley’s War’, were more considered and thought out but most were pretty straightforward cliches. Even the comics for little kids like the Beano and Dandy were full of violence, albeit Dennis (the Menace) would get his come-uppence as his schemes. Dennis was a bully, often picking upon the ‘simpering’ i.e. effeminate intellectual Walter (the Softy). In the 1970s we’d see Walter playing with dolls and regularly crying, with the implication that these were good enough reasons for being beat-up by Dennis. Though Dennis is sometimes seen as a rebel, his rebellion was within the societal expectations and morality of the time which specified explicit gender norms and behaviour and even this rebellion was punished by corporal punishment, for example the violence of the parental ‘slipper’.

So, what has this got to do with editing? All of us are born into a story and we absorb the action and the language that surrounds us and that we are given. It’s often hard to escape, even if you want to.  ‘The limits of my language means the limits of my world’ as Wittgenstein observed. There was a particular language of justification, blame and action/reaction spoken in Northern Ireland and in Britain middle-aged comic editors brought up in the nineteen-forties were still peddling war stories to kids in the 1970s or extoling what was essentially bullying as a reaction to difference. The language and imagery of violence soak into your skin and are maybe impossible to wash off.

Hence the Abridged is abridged. But if we don’t or can’t belong in the larger world then we’ll create our own, an edited space, a curated space that articulates how we see and experience existence. So, what is editing and curating? Well, appropriately enough, given the violence mentioned above, the concept of the Editor if not originated, certainty was prominent in the Roman Empire:

In Roman times editors were the producers of gladiatorial games, impresarios (often the Emperor himself) who staged spectacles to wow audiences while keeping a close eye on costs. Editors held the power to decree whether gladiators lived or died.  [2]

The editor commissioned emissaries to hunt and capture animals from various parts of the empire to take part in the entertainment in the area. He (and it was very probably a ‘he’) also worked with overseers of the ‘circus’ to determine who would fight as gladiators (and get an opportunity to live for another day) and who would be dinner for the lions and tigers. The editor would then pull all this together in what he hoped would be worthy entertainment for the Emperor and the thousands of attending spectators. Now we decide (sometimes with an author) what goes into a book or on our own into a magazine. It could be seen as a bit of a comedown though I can do without the blood and guts. Presumably it didn’t go well for the editor if the Emperor was not amused, or the crowds entertained. Some people would perhaps say that just as cats have never forgotten that they were once worshipped in Egypt as Gods, editors still imagine they have the power of life and death.

Editing like curation is an always evolving concept but It’s fair to say that in the commercial world editors still have to ensure that that their bosses are pleased and their audience entertained, otherwise they are out of a job pretty quickly. Editing comes from ‘edere’ – to bring forth, whilst curation comes from curare – to care for, so there is something of a disciplinary overlap. Though we shouldn’t stick rigidly to strict definitions. According to Derrida ‘nothing is less clear today than the word ‘archive’ (Derrida, 1995, p. 9). It hides in itself, lurks in ambiguity and connectivity, in states and between states, physical and conceptual; at once reactionary and revolutionary. It signifies memory and the failure of memory. It is narrative and meta-narrative. It undermines itself, working as Derrida puts ‘a priori, against itself’ (Ibid, 1995, p. 9). If we swap the archiving for the concept of editing or curating then we have a (deliberately vague) approach in which we can seek out new paths and see where they take us.

This would be in complete harmony with the practices of the ancient Greek poets following Homer who would take his work and interpret it to cater to their contemporary audiences, altering or leaving out old words or strange phrases that they reckoned wouldn’t be understood by listeners. This of course might appal people but it’s no different from updating Chaucer or Shakespeare and is a form of editorial curation albeit oral rather than written. Homer’s work was said to be collected in Athens in the late sixth century BC by the tyrant Peisistratos (died 528/7 BC), in what subsequent scholars have dubbed the ‘Peisistratean recension’. We don’t know how faithful this collating was to Homer’s original, but it is very likely that there was significant change. Importantly it has been claimed that books were seen as adjuncts of performance rather than texts for the ages at least until the Sophists articulated a desire for texts to be practical and useful.

The development of editing of course went in tandem with the rise of the book and appropriately for an essay on the editorial/curatorial the beginnings of the concept of the ‘museum’. For example, Zenodotus, of Ephesus was the first head of the Library of Alexander, who decided to classify the Greek epic and lyric poets and also edited Homer with the intention of returning it to the original text through collating various texts. Interestingly the Alexandrian Library was part of a bigger museal complex so curation and editing were geographically and perhaps conceptually adjacent.

As Paul O’ Neill comments: ‘curation is an adaptive discipline, using and adopting inherited codes and rules of behaviour’ (O’Neill, 2007, p. 12); the contemporary curator is seen as a conduit, and a highly visible one at that, between the artist, the exhibiting phenomena and the public. Though in recent times curatorial practice has evolved into a professional occupation with attendant university courses, there is still a lot of vagueness in the general public as well as with many artists about what exactly curation constitutes. Editors have often been seen as gatekeepers of canons and canonicity not always in a good light with the exclusion of women and minorities from many poetry collections for instance being questioned in contemporary times. Sparks (in Revaluing the Working of the Editor, P. 155) posits the editors as nodes as a vast network of information dissemination and things of them as builders and facilitators of networks opens up new creative and administrative pathways for them.

‘Gatekeeper’ is an awful term for an editor. It suggests something Arthurian or Raiders of the Lost Ark perhaps, guarding the literary Holy Grail (whatever that is) against the infidel seekers. It suggests a power that is a given right but without authors, editors are nothing, without artists, curators are nothing. If there’s a power dynamic in favour of curators and editors ,it is built on money and influence. There is a need to tear away the mysticism of the editor and the curator as some kind of official ‘voice’ and instead see them as an opinion or an aesthetic. Similarly, to ‘gatekeeper’. the traditional popular perception of a curator was of a person that cared for a collection of artefacts, usually in a museum. It was a definite profession with defined rules and regulations in the manner of the teaching profession or librarians for instance. As Hutchinson puts it, the old-fashioned (pre 1970) curator was of a particular collection: someone who had expert knowledge precisely because the object of their knowledge was definite and finite (Hutchinson, 2007, p. 56). In other words, both the editorial and curatorial roles were static with little room for novelty or surprise.

Perhaps if the editor/curator was thought of as a ‘middleperson’ it may assist in understanding their role (Andreasen, Larsen, 2007, p. 22). As Andresen and Larsen observe the question of what is a curator (and indeed editor) is as subjective as ‘what is art?’ Their point is that the contemporary editor/curator is not a static entity or a ‘something’ specific but rather ‘she is a performative and exemplary agent, acquiring subjectivity in and by the act of mediation’ (Ibid, 2007, p. 27).

The official voice is a relic of the canon and the canon is essentially an archive of the official ‘voice’. The earliest archives were attached to ‘Royal Memory’ i.e. recording the various elements making up the rule of a king or ruler and even those that were relative precursors to the modern archive were what Osborne terms ‘centralized expressions of enlightened despotism: Peter the Great at St Petersburg in 1720 and Maria Theresa at Vienna in 1749’ (Osbourne, 1999, p. 55). Though of course the opposition to the ‘official’ can often be equally if not more problematic. For instance, the Nineteenth Century German Romantics states Huyssen attacked the museal methodologies of their predecessors and determined a museal or archival strategy of collecting folklore and privileging the Middle Ages as a type of past Nirvana and future Utopia. They in essence constructed an archival strategy of including the things that the previous century had marginalised or ignored but for an equally narrow philosophy which would be used as part of the basis of German nationalism (Huyssen, 1998, p. 1).

Though originating as noted above in ancient European and Asian power systems archives eventually became essentially their own worlds where the general public were not generally allowed to enter without the necessary password or qualifications and where everything became regulated with a moral encompass which imbued the archivist (as with the editor in the literature world and the curator in the visual art world) with an almost quasi-mystical guardianship of the documents in his (and it was nearly always a ‘he’) possession.

Some commentators see the archive less as a room, or a house (Derrida’s interpretation of arkheion, (Derrida, 1995, p. 2)) and more of a sprawling ever-growing city, especially since the advent of the internet:

a repository of material that has only been loosely classified, material whose status as is yet indeterminate and stands between rubbish, junk and significance: material that has not been read or researched [thus the] adequacy, propriety, truthfulness of the materials, entities and objects that constitute an archive cannot be judged by their appearance in the archive as such.  (Moss, 2008, p. 73).

I’ve always, for the Abridged at least, liked that the editorial/curatorial position was bang in the middle of this potentiality rather than in the midst of a strict or narrow determinacy. It may be useful to at this point consider the editing, curation, not to mention archives in relation to Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia. As Foucault in an online article posits:

The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Thus it is that the theatre brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of a three-dimensional space (Foucault, 1984).

So instead of a gate-keeper, making sure undesirables are keep out. the editor/curator is a conduit, finding new paths to new worlds for others and for themselves. In a region such as Northern Ireland it could be argued an archive was a heterotopia within a geographical heterotopia; the North of Ireland, a place intimately connected with yet marginalised from Britain and southern Ireland, a for the most part closed society that emphasised links with utopian political and religious ideologies that could not possibly have existed (and in Britain particularly certainly did not exist) in the absolute form their adherents required.

As Steadman observes: ‘the Archive is not potentially made up of everything, as is human memory; and it is not the fathomless and timeless place in which nothing goes away, as is the unconscious. The Archive is made from selected and consciously chosen documentation…’ (Steedman, 1998, p. 67). The archive is thus itself a place of definition and potentially redefinition and is a subjective construct rooted completely in the social/exterior contemporary environment.

In 1684 French philosopher and encyclopaedist Pierre Bayle created the Nouvelles de la république des lettres (News from the Republic of Letters) often considered to be the first literary magazine. Though written in French, the work was published in Amsterdam to avoid censorship. Bayle was part of a loose intellectual network called the Republic of Letters, also known as Men of Letters (again it was mainly men involved) that exchanged ideas and philosophies, crossing borders and continents. Though it was defined by class and sex it is an early example of the editor being part of an information exchange network.

Most new literary magazines these days promise to be more open, accessible, and egalitarian than (presumably) those that have gone before. This started early. It’s worth quoting part of the rationale behind The Dial, a magazine founded around 1840 in New England by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others with Margaret Fuller as editor. It was a Transcendentalist publication. Transcendentalism was an American literary, philosophical, religious, and political movement to which both Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson belonged. The idea was to reject religious and cultural conformity and influenced by romanticism and the scepticism of Hume they wanted people to find a personal or ‘original relation to the universe’:

The Dial was not to be seen, Emerson urged, as a coterie journal. Its potential devotees “are of all conditions and constitutions,” he wrote, describing a varied and by no means privileged Dial public. “If some are happily born and well bred, many are no doubt ill dressed, ill placed, ill made — with as many scars of hereditary vice as other men” (“Editors” 2). His catalog of the economic and class conditions of Transcendental souls is Whitmanesque in its inclusive embrace: “in lonely and obscure places, in solitude, in servitude, in compunctions and privations, trudging beside the team in the dusty road, or drudging a hireling in other men’s cornfields, schoolmasters, who teach a few children rudiments for a pittance, ministers of small parishes of the obscurer sects, lone women in dependent condition, matrons and young maidens, rich and poor, beautiful and hard-favored” (“Editors” 2). [3]

The Dial was also intended as many to this day proclaim, that they will explore and articulate the literature and subjects that other magazines fail to do. There’s always been a competitive edge to literary magazine publishing, originally to establish credentials and create income which lasts to contemporary times. I still get emails that describes particular magazines as the ‘premier’ or the ‘best’ as if we were all in a horse race. I suspect these claims were just as annoying to people in the 19th Century. The Dial was also unusual in having a female editor in the shape of Margaret Fuller and it gave her the opportunity to platform her philosophies, as well as of course her writing and editing skills:

In providing her the opportunity for frank self-expression, the Dial prepared the ground for Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the book which reflected the building feminist energy of the 1840s, and ignited it further. [4]

Like many magazines since, it was always struggling for funding and contributors and Fuller and then Emerson would eventually depart editorial duties with the magazine only lasted for around four years.

It is important because it articulated an editorial vision, of something new and something better in both societal and literary contexts, which many other magazines down the centuries would attempt to follow. Of course, when you decide what literature should be you become as much a gatekeeper as those you are rebelling against.

Two hundred odd years later the Honest Ulsterman would similarly proclaim in its first issue editorial: ‘Each man is the principal actor and audience in his own life.’ There was no doubt many such determinations in the years between.

Abridged never envisaged a better world or was naïve enough to think we could change the world or the literary world. Rather we created our own, filled with nettles and permanently overcast but with sudden and unexpected shards of beauty everywhere, the wreckage of something that never existed and probably never will but still with sharp edges able to cut deeply. We created a curated/editorial mutant or hybrid space that crossed disciplines. We were never afraid to take as our own and modify the curatorial concept. Some in the contemporary art world complain that ‘everything is curated now’ whilst ignoring the fact that art borrowed the term from the museal sphere.

For the Honest Ulsterman I take a very different view, otherwise it would essentially become another version of the Abridged. There is and have been many voices involved in choosing interviewees and featured topics in the few years I’ve been editor. The HU is therefore very eclectic and isn’t themed. It also isn’t ‘mine’. I’m just the latest editor. Whoever is next may have a different approach.

I’ve always thought that a degree or other academic qualifications don’t necessarily make you a better writer or artist and this is particularly the case with the academic structures that have grown up around the curatorial concept. Knowing a lot about Marxism or Post-Fordism doesn’t on its own make for a successful exhibition without the addition of the practicalities of display for example. Beyond the occasional creative writing course there doesn’t seem to be the same academic discourse in relation to the Editor and editing. A cursory search on Google will find lots of video-editing and post-production course but not a lot on editing a literary magazine for instance. In the academic sphere itself, there isn’t a host of articles on being a contemporary editor on JSTOR in comparison to pieces on curation. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. I figured curation as I went along (and am still learning) and did (and do) the same with being an editor. I like that there isn’t one sort of approach to editing a magazine, or one that people who mark exams approve off. Most people only have a vague notion of what they’re doing when the create a publication. The early Abridged issues are probably an example of that…

As the opening paragraph of this essay indicates, I’m a child of the late 70s/early 80s and the Abridged reflects that though Susanna Galbraith’s influences are very apparent (and very welcome) these days. I’m also somewhat of a magpie and will borrow and integrate into the magazine anything I find interesting. We’ve put all our older issues online [5] but I want to create newer versions of them and make them similar to the ‘Abridged ‘Zone’ issues. [6] Archivists obsessed with the concept of authenticity would be horrified I’m sure. However, I believe in the concept of the archive as a continual and dynamic restructuring of pre-existent materials both physical and intellectual to create new ideas, contexts and methodologies of engagement with archival material. I’ve always been one for evolution or perhaps more accurately re-creationism: new forests from old, new paths in and out of them. I’ll leave it for other people to decide if it works.

Thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for their very valued funding of this essay through their SIAP programme.


[2] .


[4] Ibid