Thursday, 19 July 2012

Curating Childhood: A Critical Investigation into the Curation of Children’s and Teenage Bedrooms

An essay I wrote for Cura, a publication created by a team of students in my year as part of our degree show offering. The publication explores the diversity of curation, going beyond the traditional idea of the practice as being constrained to the walls of the museum. 

“I’d like to be able to weep for once to be comforted, and anyway I’m really not much more than a child-the short trousers I wore as a boy are still hanging in the wardrobe. It was such a little while ago, why did it pass?”
The twenty-year-old Paul Baumer returns to his childhood bedroom, during a brief period of home leave.
- Erich Maria Remarque, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1929)

Rooms are the set designs of our lives; the bodies that inhabit them act as a mere footnote to their curated spectacle.  The bedroom serves as a manifesto, a narcissistic pool of water to mirror one’s desired self. Thus, the space operates as a form of propaganda, projecting the cult of personality the inhabitant wishes to see in the outside world, to the secret, sacred, space of the inside world. However, the unbridled narcissism of the curated performance of the self turns to farce when you are both the sole curator and the intended audience. This can be identified in the emergence of the ‘aged child’ in western culture. This is the person who, whilst inhabiting the age brackets of adulthood, remains in their infantilised state, still residing in that critical place of development, the childhood bedroom of one’s family home. A striking example of this can be seen in the figure of the young, unemployed, graduate. The journalist, Hermione Hoby, explains this stating that:

“One survey suggested that up to 85% of new graduates in 2011 were likely to move back in with their parents. In the UK, where youth unemployment is at an unprecedented one million, it's estimated at 27%. If one of the key tenets of slacking is simply living with your mum and dad and being unemployed, then we are a nation of accidental slackers.”
However, rather than critically responding to the dwindling idealism of youth, contemporary curation serves to fetishise and idealise this space. Whilst Tracey Emin challenged the sacred place of the bedroom in her work ‘My Bed’ (1998), Jeremy Deller, who lived with his parents until his thirties, serves a fastidious archivist of his adolescence, going as far as recreating his teenage bedroom, in the Hayward Gallery, for his retrospective ‘Joy in People’. Edward Meadham, of Meadham Kirchoff, acts as an additional example of this curation model, priding himself on “living in a permanent 1994-1995 time warp.” His office is designed as a replica of his own teenage bedroom, a mirror of the curated state of youth culture presented in Meadham Kirchoff’s 2012 S/S collection. The tumblr ‘Teenage Bedroom’ extends this archived state of youth culture further still. Created because the author’s own teenage bedroom “no longer exists”, the site encourages readers to post photographs of their own teenage bedrooms for display on the blog. The creator declares that the curatorial project “is my homage to all of us when we were still young and exciting, before we got old and boring.” Here we find that the bedroom curator retreats into a dream world, comforted by the misfortunes of the outside world through a sunny haze of nostalgia.

To understand the significance of the childhood bedroom it is necessary to consider childhood as an occupied territory. The adult may enter this state at will, through the culture of childhood, that is the image representations of the child found in films and literature, created for and by the adult. Yet, to be reinstated into the bedroom of your childhood overthrows this structure entirely. It is to find yourself, the adult, not as the occupier, but the occupied, imprisoned in a fantasy space that is on longer their own. This, consequently, challenges the fundamental belief of the self as a constant, anchored by the soul, that essential essence that renders each individual being unique. Instead, the adult on their re-entry to their childhood or teenage bedroom is met, not with the feeling of continuity or comfort but of repulsion and embarrassment. They are a time traveller encountering an alien landscape.  Here they find there is no original state of being but instead learn that the self is constructed from a series of tropes, roles to be endlessly recycled until one’s death. What was once a pleasing twin of the self goes the way of all doubles, transforming into what Freud regards as the “ghostly harbinger of death” that seeks to oust the physical self entirely. In entering the room there is an obligation to re-enter the closet, to lip synch one’s childhood, to perform the character that your previous self carefully curated through this setting. Thus the self is rendered, once again, secondary to the space.

For the childhood bedroom takes on such a profound significance for the young person because their space in the world is a limited one. Youth is an obscenity that must be shielded from view, supplemented by the more palatable adult image child, who performs the capitalist construction of childhood, an impossible web of ideals that the true child is unable conform to. Thus, the young person is contained to the inside space of the home, and the school, condemned to a self-constructed fantasy world. Claudia Elfanzanni Howat, the critically acclaimed eleven year old ‘curatorial prodigy’ who serves as co-curator in the 2012 (BA) Criticism, Communication and Curation Degree Show at Central Saint Martins develops this point further. She explains:

“I mean I think that there are a lot of things in the world that adults can do and I can’t. Lots of places where adults can go and I can’t. At first that was just a really unfair way to do things. But when I started curating I wanted to apply my really limited space, my sort of limited world view of things, to create something really good, something that reflects who I am. You see what you like is really important, because it helps people know what sort of person you are. I think curation shows my personality because it shows everyone the art that I like, and that shows people what I’m like. Like if someone liked things that are weird and put them on display in a big exhibition it shows everyone that they are weird! I think the main spaces I look at now are the ones that I experience, mainly the classroom and the bedroom, oh and also tumblr too, and I think people really like that, because I’m not trying to be someone I’m not. Like, for instance, before I started curating actual exhibitions in galleries and stuff I tried curating my room and my friends room and that sort of thing… I really want to develop these ideas at the degree show, especially the classroom one. CSM is a school too so I guess I can share all my experiences in that sense.”

For the positioning of Claudia in the contemporary art world is telling, serving as a critical example of how we perceive the child prodigy, that most beloved myth of childhood. The child prodigy model of ideology critically denies the class inequalities of British society through the unfaltering belief that the child, who is inherently exceptional, may succeed from talent alone. We favour the young genius over the old master, thus any potential benefits that higher education and the maturity of adulthood may deliver are rejected outright. Here the child prodigy sustains the total abjection of the unemployed graduate in their childhood bedroom. That is not to deny Claudia’s gifts and refreshing intellectual curiosity. Her unique talent was vividly demonstrated by the bold curatorial methods she applied to ‘Boom! The New Faces of Manga’. Rather, in the collaboration between Claudia and the CCC degree show team, we intend to critically deconstruct the mythic narrative of childhood, utilising Claudia’s original insight to greater depict the curated state of childhood.

For the bedrooms that are the most beloved are the ones that closely adhere to our idealised vision of childhood. These spaces are curated for the pleasure of the parent, for the admiration of other parents. For, it is the adult, not the child, who created the capitalist construction of childhood, and the artificial ideology of youthful innocence. This belief system is reflected in the fact that the bedrooms that most clearly abide to this aesthetic framework are the adult’s cinematic projections of the capitalist ideal of the white middle class girl. This model of curatorial idealism is evidenced in the representations of the bedrooms of Juno in the Diablo Cody’s film of the same name, Enid Coleslaw in Terry Zwigoff’s ‘Ghost World’ and the Lisbon sisters in Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides’. Here the curated clutter of feminine girlhood provides a guise of spontaneity, seducing the viewer into a carefully created dream world that poses as reality.

The German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, supports this interpretation. In his work, The Essence of Christianity (1843) he argues: “our era prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, appearance to being.” Here the children’s bedroom remains in accordance with the Platonic critique of the image, for it is, as Susan Sontag argues, “true as it resembles something real, sham as it is no more than a resemblance.” For the curated childhood bedroom can be seen as a critical parallel to the image child found in the family photograph album. We find that the room is not viewed as simply a likeness to the inhabitant by mere proxy, instead it is identified as an extension of the child. Consider the fact that when an unwanted son or daughter departs the family home the parent takes joy in boasting to their friends and workmates that they have converted the child’s dwelling into their own personal gym or office, the posters and keepsakes condemned to the trash. Thus drawing a parallel to the vengeful ex-lover destroying photographs of their previous beau.

The room of the child takes on the role of a soothsayer, the parent as private detective combs the setting to seek an explanation of the child itself, and to critically confirm their beliefs of what the child may become. The limitations of this model are evidenced in Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ (2011). The significance of the room as identity model is first signified when Eva, the mother to Kevin, the child who we learn carries out a high school massacre in his teens, decorates her personal room with maps, signifying her own desire to escape from the family home. This model of personal curation is derided by the young Kevin as “dumb”, and the setting is consequently desecrated by him. Yet, Eva defends her need for a room of her own, citing her need to reflect her personality in her surroundings and make the space “special”. His accusing questions of “what personality?” “what do you mean special?” powerfully overturn this curatorial model, challenging both the room as identity trope and, consequently, the constructed space of childhood itself. Later, Eva searches the room of Kevin’s teenage bedroom to find evidence of his character, whilst ‘In my Room’ by The Beach Boys plays in the film’s soundtrack. However, in accordance with his previous mocking of the cult of selfhood, of a unique ‘personality’, she finds nothing. For Kevin, like all individuals, is the conscious curator of his setting, the curator only displays what they wish to reveal. Thus, Kevin, in his minimalist white cube form of curation, reveals nothing.

For the curatorial models that repel us are those that challenge the fixed narratives of the self. The aged child as bedroom curator is rendered an abject being, serving as a threatening omen in their conscious blurring of the distinct stages of life, the child, the teenager and the adult.  Thus, the adult that retreats to the womb of the childhood bedroom serves as both a critical denial, and a constant reminder, of one’s own mortality.

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