The interview was published on the newsportal SWI swissinfo under the title “Mirar el arte en la vida real”. The interview was conducted by the Argentinian journalist Norma Domínguez.
The 'curator' might be slipping away as we speak, says Sandino Scheidegger, one of the new references in contemporary art. The young Swiss curator talks about why the term 'curator' has been been overused, misused, and abused. And how to make exhibitions a more collective experience.
When I was growing up, art and Latin America were not dominant themes in my life. Art was around me and I could appreciate it, especially given that there are a few artists in my family. But other things were more important to me throughout my teenage years.
Then, all of a sudden, my priorities started to shift toward more indeterminate things. During my law studies, I became more and more fascinated by art’s openness, especially compared to the “right or wrong” dichotomy you’re faced with in jurisprudence. Art seemed limitless. Of course, to a certain extent, that’s an illusion. But it’s one that I find highly motivating.
As for Latin America, for a long time it was basically just one country in my mind: Costa Rica. Once I learned that my dad and three siblings lived there, it was all I’d dream of. So everything that reminded me of Latin America made me think of Costa Rica. It’s always functioned as a mysterious object of longing for me. In my mid-twenties, I finally felt ready to face it in person and ask the questions I had never dared to ask beforehand.
Norma: Is that the reason behind your revolutionary name, “Sandino”?
Hard to miss, of course! The name Sandino has historical weight. It’s likely a souvenir of past times for my mother, who lived in Central America, and a reminder of my father’s values – a very politically engaged man, who always believed in change through education. Something he lived up to, spending much of his life as a dedicated teacher in Costa Rica. He taught in rural and indigenous schools, where kids walk up to five hours a day to get to the classroom and back.
The Sandinistas, a revolutionary resistance group named after Augusto C. Sandino who fought against US interventions in Nicaragua in the 1920s and 1930s, were an important reference for rural people all across Central America – especially those with a strong taste for socialism and, later on, for those fighting for a free educational system. While I’m totally at peace with my name, whenever I travel through Nicaragua I use a random alias for everyday contact with people, to avoid things getting weird – they might not understand, and I might not be able to explain.
Norma: Why? Don’t you speak Spanish?
Unfortunately, I grew up too far from Costa Rica to learn Spanish. And ever since I started learning the language, I seem to forget it as quickly as I pick it up. So to answer your question, not really.
Norma: How did you end up in Costa Rica curating for the contemporary art center Despacio?
I joined in 2015, when Despacio was already a celebrated independent voice in the Central American art scene. It was founded ten years ago by a contemporary artist named Federico Herrero. I worked closely with Federico for an exhibition in Zurich. One thing led to another and before we knew it...
In a sense, the call to be a curator at Despacio felt like a perfect chance to experiment with what an art institution could be, all while discovering a new world far from my usual references and experiences. It was also a way to get to know a second home, one whose doors had always been open but that just happened to be on the other side of the Atlantic.
Norma: Your curatorial practice is known for exploring unusual places and atypical exhibition formats. Where does this original approach come from?
Random Institute’s mission changes with each project. Since I’m not accountable to anyone, I can build Random Institute around my own interests and inspiration. This has been the case since day one, when I founded it with my friend Luca Müller. When we’re all about getting onto a cargo boat across the Atlantic, then we set things in motion to make it happen. If we want to stay home and write a book, then we write a book. It’s as simple as that: our curatorial practice mirrors our curiosity.
Our starting point is this: we don’t just ask artists to do an exhibition, we collaborate with them to find the best possible outlet for showing their work. And it turns out that exhibitions are often only one of many possibilities. As curators, our job is to give shape to an exhibition by navigating a field of conflicting needs and desires: the public’s, the art’s, the artist’s, and the institution’s.
Curation can be a balancing act just as it can be a subtractive process. Cutting out one of the parties involved can bring wonderfully new exhibition formats into being – let’s just call them exhibitions for lack of a better term. This has been Random Institute’s approach for the last decade, and of course some of the exhibitions I curated for Despacio bore similar hallmarks. If I had to sum things up, I’d say that a curator should come in looking to find the best possible form for exhibiting the artist’s work.
Norma: Is this the curator’s main task?
That depends on your definition of “curator.” First of all, it’s a term that’s been overused, misused, and abused. Second of all, once a word like that moves so far beyond its original context - in this case, art - it starts to lose ground, not to mention any energy spent regaining its foothold. We shouldn’t forget that stewardesses were once queens of the sky. Now they just announce duty free products over the plane’s loudspeaker. Things change – labels, functions, our perception of them...
The “curator” might be slipping away as we speak, turning into a catch-all term for mediocre writer, failed artist, or unsuccessful art dealer. Or maybe it’s taking a Beuysian turn – just as “everybody is an artist,” maybe we’ll soon all be curators, too. We see signs of this tendency everywhere. Recently, I ate a curated brunch. It was hilarious. And delicious.
I’m happy to operate in a relatively undefined space for now. To me, curating means putting things in relation, putting them together, creating context where needed. Rarely do curators invent anything from scratch. They cleverly compile. They help translate the work beyond the confines of an exhibition, which requires experimenting with the format itself. Otherwise, it’d be an impossible undertaking.
Norma: I can’t believe that you make a living working for the Swiss government alongside all of your art projects. What brought you there and how do you cope with the bureaucracy?
I enjoy being grounded in another reality and working with people beyond the art world. My curiosity has always taken strange turns and law has always been a subject of interest to me. I love how it shapes politics, economics, history, and society. That’s why I finished my law studies before getting into art. Which is part of the reason why I now work for the government.
The government in Switzerland is less paralyzed by politics, as there’s been a long tradition of stability that allows for continuity regardless of who’s ruling. Though it might not be as adventurous as embarking on an art project – more bureaucratic as you say – you do engage in similar questions working there. From another angle of course, but that’s why it’s interesting.
Every government is faced with a host of philosophical questions, mostly on a more abstract, future-oriented level. What kind of society do we want to live in? Which laws do we need to enact for such a society to be free? What is the role of individuals in society and how can we build a functional democracy built around solidarity between them? These are all eternally relevant questions, even more so as digitalization changes everything we took for granted for so long.
Norma: When you presented new exhibition formats at your talk, you mentioned that one of your guiding principles was to provide something that the digital world can’t, such as real, “collective experience and shared memory.” Do you think that social networks fail in this regard?
Social media is like that annoying friend who’s always clinging to your side. They’re funny for about an hour but quickly launch into an endless series of uninteresting stories. It's a competition for attention, visibility, and, ultimately, appreciation that sounds more complex than it actually is. It’s a world whose currency is easy likes and clicks. Should we care? Of course not. Do we? Of course, because we’re tempted by instant gratification. That might be OK for a moment, but self-deception quickly becomes addictive and destructive over time.
Looking at art and visiting exhibitions in real life is vitally important. Though the digital era is full of great achievements, it’s also changing the functions that art institutions have historically served, even leading them to be overtaken by the Internet. Just think of the democratization of our access to information, the increasing connectedness of people all over the world, the new ways we have of preserving and enhancing collective memories, to name but a few major changes affecting how art is experienced today…
That said, none of this makes art institutions redundant. I think it brings them back to their fundamental strengths. Art shouldn't waste its energy competing with every other form of cultural output - online or off - for our attention. Attention is a scarce resource and it’s best used producing experiences that can later become memories we revisit.
In real life, people look at one another in the eye, they perceive non-verbal language, they activate their senses to generate an experience far more profound, and memorable, than any online exchange. How many moments in front of the computer do you still remember or consider to be important? Life takes place outside, beyond the screen. Which is why nobody goes to a party online. It’s just not as good as the real thing.
Norma: Should artists be sharing their work online?
Nowadays, artists often take on parts of the communication process themselves, especially when it comes to digital media. They can easily reach more people this way than the daily visitor count proposed by an art institution.
Does this mean that institutions are losing their authority for making art accessible to a wider public? In a way, yes. Does this mean that artists should all become self-promoting communication wizards? Please, no. It’s like studio visits: some artists are good at talking about their work, some aren’t. For those who aren’t, there’s nothing wrong with letting the work speak for itself or delegating this task to others.
Norma: Did you come across any interesting artists at ArteBA? And do you see yourself getting involved in any future projects here?
The art fair was very well laid out and conveniently sized, which allowed me to avoid being overwhelmed by all of the art. This usually doesn’t happen at bigger fairs. After a few hours of constantly processing art, your brain just blacks out.
Over the course of just a few days I discovered some great work by people like Jazmin Giordano, Lucas Desposito, Nicanor Aráoz, Leticia Obeid, Guido Yanitto, Paula Castro, Ana Vogelfang, and Eduardo Basualdo.
Buenos Aires seems to be a great place for projects. I hope that I’ll be back for one sometime, without forcing it. Most good things happen naturally. And given that any exhibition project starts with a conversation, I’m looking forward to seeing where my talk with Alejandra Aguado, who founded the internationally-renowned art space Móvil, leads to. It’s hard not to see us collaborating in some way in the future.
Norma: What is Random Institute’s mission for the future, and what are its limits?
With Random Institute, I’ve always been unbound. When I founded it with Luca Müller over ten years ago, neither of us knew where it would take us. And honestly, after over eighty art projects on all but one continent, we still don’t know where it’ll take us next. I always compare our projects to weather balloons that have been released into the air and land somewhere unexpected.
Norma: What’s your dream as a curator?
To never run out of new dreams and forget the old dreams that never came true.
The interview was originally published on SWI swissinfo in an abbreviated version in Spanish under the title “Mirar el arte en la vida real”.
The interview was conducted by the Argentinian journalist Norma Domínguez for Random Institute's contribution to the 2019 edition of Art Basel Cities during the ArteBA in Buenos Aires.