On 12 July 2010, two Russian art curators were found guilty and convicted of the crime of “inciting religious hatred” at the Tagansky District Court in Moscow. The nature of their seditious act consisted of organising the Forbidden Art – 2006 exhibition, which featured artworks juxtaposing Eastern Orthodox iconography with signs of forces like communism and globalisation that have shaped Russian society and politics. By convicting Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, the Russian court (and the ultra-nationalist groups that pressed for their conviction) can be seen to effect both the suppression of artistic expression by juridical means and, inadvertently perhaps, the recognition of curatorial power in the political sphere. Yet surely, one avers, is this not an overreaction to the mundane practice of curating, which can be defined most simply as the administration of artefacts for collecting and display? Indeed, is curating not ubiquitous today as the dominant metaphor for all those routine tasks involving sorting and organising?
According to cultural studies scholar Tony Bennett, museums and galleries as curatorial spaces are not merely repositories for artefacts, but function as “civic machines” that seek to form certain types of subjects through their visual (and other) experiences. Bennett calls such arranging for experiential affects the “sensory regime” of the exhibition. So while the organisation of objects are certainly tasks of the curator, the undertaking of the latter is in no small part also cultivate certain types of persons through inciting experiences in relation to the objects on display – a function that places the contemporary art curate not too distantly from her clerical predecessors responsible for the ritual “cure of souls.” In this sense, the Russian court and ultra-nationalists are correct to view the curators of Forbidden Art – 2006 as political agents actively engaged in the incitement of particular sensibilities and visions of what being Russian - and indeed, of what being Orthodox - should be like in our time. Where the curators’ opponents are mistaken is in assuming that the display of objects assembled in peculiar ways – whether religious or otherwise – necessarily represents a denigration of those objects rather than an opportunity to (re)activate them for new civic visions through the sensory regime of the art gallery.