An Abridged Edit/or…

I was going to try and articulate what a contemporary editor does in this essay but quickly realised how pointless and probably very boring that would be. Instead (and perhaps inevitably) I will focus on Abridged and its curatorial/editorial paradigm or curated space as I prefer to call it.

I call myself a curator more than an editor though if there was some alternative that isn’t quite as horrible as brunch or glocal I’d probably use that. Read an interview about the word ‘curator’ or ‘curating’ and you’ll very probably hear a curator complain about its overuse. From the New York Times:

In Midtown, the designer Christian Siriano has opened the Curated NYC, a boutique selling women’s wear and decorative objects. Michigan residents can buy their wedding dresses at the Curated Bride. Fashion fans keen to slim-line their wardrobe can consult “The Curated Closet: A Simple System for Discovering Your Personal Style and Building Your Dream Wardrobe” by Anuschka Rees. Those looking to move can find an apartment through Elika, a real estate company offering “curated New York properties.”

Fly to London, and at Heathrow Airport you’ll be met with the Curator, a new bar and restaurant. The Evening Standard Magazine recently referred to “your page curators” when explaining the masterminds behind a list of “in-car travel companions,” including a Diptyque diffuser that costs 75 pounds (about $95).

I mean, I would die before saying I curated a dinner,” Ms. de La Haye said. “When I see it in magazines, it amazes me. They’ve put some toiletries on a page.” [1]

I guess Ms. De La Hayes might say is all I do is put a poem or an artwork on a page. Reductionism can take the value of everything and compress it to absurdity of course. Doctors only stop people from dying sooner according to this view. That’s not to say it isn’t accurate. ‘Curated by’ has been over-used to absurdity, though it has to be said, mostly by the art world.

Of course, ‘Editing’ is never going to be as sexy sounding as curating. Editing women’s clothing or your personal style just sounds sinister. However, both in comparatively recent times were essentially about creating a canon and keeping improper things (and of course improper people) out of this canon. The Abridged came about because I never felt I was in or indeed wanted to be a part of any particular canon:

We don’t quite remember when ‘Abridged’ as a name was suggested. We did a poll amongst the denizens of our local haunts and drinking dens and everyone uniformly thought it was a terrible name. Obviously then we had little choice but to use it. What we do remember is that the very first email we ever received was one complaining about the negativity of the name. [2]

It was originally a title of a poem though it’s also a curatorial concept/construct. Abridged as a title was unashamedly chosen as it suggested that the magazine had a particular aesthetic, or if you will, an agenda that had a focus on the incomplete, missing which in our interpretation led to a concentration of the adolescent, on the black and white, on fear and its consequences. It was meant to be a world that was a few steps away from the ‘real’ with a deliberate exaggeration/heightening of emotions. Even in the early 2000s I was aware of the difficulty of art reflecting life, so I wanted to create a slightly dystopic world of my own. Over the years it has become more difficult to distinguish between the ‘Abridged world’ and the ‘real world’ it’s fair to say, which can be interpreted as either we were ahead of our time or hopelessly optimistic in relation to the trajectory of reality.

I wanted it to signify something that was more than a poetry magazine. At the time there weren’t any magazines (at least anywhere near us) that did what I wanted Abridged to do. Visually some came close. The Honest Ulsterman had some great and very subversive covers in the early 1970s. Check out the January/February 1973 cover [3] for an instance of what they got away with. But I had no interest in replicating the content inside. And if the magazine had to be (shudder) a magazine of record, we’d rather that record was loud. Actually, I had no interest in being a magazine of record. Of course, go back a couple of hundred years and you’ll find magazine editors comparing their new project to others and finding the others lacking. It’s as traditional as kids proclaiming themselves the future of any particular art-form you can think of. That’s how it probably should be. Sidebar: I do get mails from well-established periodicals that feel the need to proclaim themselves as the best/most acclaimed etc as if it was a horse race to become a national treasure. It’s not a competition. If it was, we’d all lose out to the Daily Mail.

At any rate, I became a curator, because there wasn’t anyone else at the time in the space I worked (on a government scheme – where have all the government schemes gone? ACE, Enterprise Allowance, KickStart long time passing – and much missed by the arts – a way in for people that hadn’t any money or connections that no longer exists) and I became an editor because there wasn’t anyone else to put the magazine together.

Editing may not be as sexy sounding as curating, but these days, it is just as pervasive, particularly in this social media age. We edit and curate our profiles particularly on the likes of Instagram and Facebook whereas Twitter with its ‘trolls’ is more akin to a spontaneous and performative graffiti scrawl, though even this trolling is becoming institutionalised. Russia, infamously, has a government department devoted to online trolling and the distribution of fake news, called the Internet Research Agency and situated in St. Petersburg. According to an employee:

“We had to write ‘ordinary posts’, about making cakes or music tracks we liked, but then every now and then throw in a political post about how the Kiev government is fascist, or that sort of thing,” she said.

Instructions for the political posts would come in “technical tasks” that the trolls received each morning, while the non-political posts had to be thought up personally.

“The scariest thing is when you talk to your friends and they are repeating the same things you saw in the technical tasks, and you realise that all this is having an effect,” the former worker said. [4]

In a previous essay the internet was described as a pub after kicking out time – wild, drunk, frustrated, angry and occasionally joyous. The internet when we started Abridged wasn’t as all pervasive as now in the sense that social networks hadn’t emerged as yet. Nobody chased numbers. Yeah, it was hoped that the things we produced or did were popular but having thousands of ‘friends’ I’d never met would have amazed us.

The thing about the editorial conceit (if that’s the right word) of Abridged is that it is aware of and indeed revels in its contradictions. It was obviously a poetry and art magazine, but it was always meant to be more than a poetry and art magazine; a curated space so to speak. Many magazines wish to be a window into an element of the literary environment from where they operate or want to change or take a new perspective on literature. Other magazines exist because the publishers simply enjoy poetry or want to give local poets a platform. All very admirable and implicitly curatorial of course. In taking an editorial position that was explicitly curatorial with the intention to create an ‘Abridged’ world or ultra-narrative we wanted to add to the context of the work that appeared in the magazine. As has been pointed out:

The relationship between an individual piece of art and a narrative framework is complex – wherein lies the narrative? Any piece of art harbours its own narrative, however abstract or conceptual. When set in a larger curatorial context, it also goes beyond its own narrative and becomes part of another story. [5]

Works that appear in Abridged whilst retaining their own context become part of a bigger contextualisation, a bigger theme, Contagion for instance, or Mercury Red (we used a mythical explosive as a metaphoric theme). We wanted to create a ‘world’ that was based upon ‘real-life’ but was exaggerated to a few degrees in the same way perhaps the gothic in particular exaggerates emotion and the dramatic to heighten the horror. Of course, we didn’t factor in the real world becoming almost indistinguishable from our Abridged creation though we always thought that the online environment would become as ‘real as ‘reality’ at the same time as reality weirdly became an exaggerated factor of the real.

Editing (and curation) I consider is essentially a fluid application of philosophical, historical, social, cultural or artistic concepts to pre-existent or anticipated objects, in this instance literary and visual art. Often this is also tied to administrative and managerial functioning. The contemporary visual arts curator is now often completely subjectively implicit in how an artist’s work develops, in the form of commissioning agent or facilitator and is concerned with every element of the presentation of that work, from the physical installation and presentation to the intellectual and social contextualites. Andresen and Larsen correctly consider in my opinion that the question of ‘what is a curator?’ is as subjective as ‘what is art?’ They suggest that the 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’ (Andreasen, Larsen, 2007, p. 27). I would add that the editor is equal as fluid and complicit.

Traditionally, curation was used to emphasise power and status. For example, Francesco I de’ Medici’s collection (termed at the time ‘studiola’) can be considered an attempt to appropriate and assemble the world in miniature and build a place from the centre of which the prince could claim dominion over the entire natural and artificial world. It was a place of contemplation and philosophical investigation but his studiolo thus also visually articulates and reinforces his (in his mind at least) god-given position of dominance. This would be further reinforced when he dismantled it in 1584 and incorporated it into the Uffizi. This opening of the private to the public was not altruistic but was the need to legitimise the Grand Duke and his dynasty [that] meant that the ‘glorification of the prince…had to be exposed to the eyes of all and to be impressed on the mind of every subject’. Thus, the curation in a sense has become explicit rather than implicit; the viewer was encouraged to read the collection in a manner that emphasised the taste and power of Francesco and his family. However, the point is that a social concern is to the fore. Art arguably has never been an autonomous creation but has been a conduit of communication emphasising for particular belief, agenda, philosophies etc. Similarly, the role of the editor has traditionally been used to keep the barbarians out and establish a Western upper/middle-class mostly male canon that still hasn’t completely disappeared.

Museums have traditionally been notoriously conservative, and the bigger ones played no small part in imperial colonialism. This protection of their ‘language’ is as equally as futile as it is reactionary. It’s true that ‘curating’ has become sexy. A long time ago when I worked in a contemporary art gallery it would never have occurred to me to put a particular exhibition as curated by Gregory McCartney. It was our job and self-evident that we put the show together. It was only comparatively recently that the curator’s names started on to appear. Both curating and editing in comparatively recent times were essentially about creating a canon and keeping improper things (and of course improper people) out of this canon.

In fact, curation was used directly to justify empiricism. One of the first and extreme examples of Museum curation with the object of having on display at the Louvre the world’s (or the Western European version of it) most impressive art collection was that initiated by Dominique-Vivant Denon on the instructions of Napoleon. The concept of the Louvre, as a spectacular public museum had actually been conceived under the ancien regime but after the Revolution the curatorial opinion was that it should promote, or at least not be in opposition to revolutionary goals. The rationale (other than conquest booty) behind the stripping of other nation’s cultural heritage was the avowal to civilize France and ‘empower the imagination’ in much the same manner that the Romans had done when they stripped and transplanted the works of Classical Greece to Italy (Schubert, 2000, p. 20). There was a claim that the works would be in ‘safekeeping’ in the ‘land of reason’; this rather spurious reasoning was still being made in the latter part of the Twentieth Century in relation to the Benin Bronzes which were being held ‘in trust for mankind’.

Even at the time there was concern at the curatorial strategy of glorifying France through the asset stripping of other nations. Goethe for example was disturbed by Napoleon’s systematic removal and repatriation of European art treasures. He realised that the ability of a museum to frame objects as art and claim them for a new ritual attention [the curatorial strategy of glorification of France as the guardian of civilization] could entail the negation or obscuring of other older meanings. Thus, even at this point there was realisation that the museum was not a neutral environment but a concept driven entity articulating its own particular vision.

Equally, the book (and magazine) is not a neutral space but full of the drivers behind the lives of those that created it. For Abridged, this was realised at a very early stage and instead of trying to mitigate this I dived in fully and created a curated space that articulates our particular vision of the world in all its gothic and adolescent (non) glory. I am an editor, I am a curator. I still haven’t come up with a word that covers both.

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





[5] The Resilience of the Periphery: Narrating Europe through Curatorial Strategies Katarina Wadstein MacLeod