Playing in the Wunderkammer

Carson, J, Miller, R ORCID: and Allmer, P 2011, Playing in the Wunderkammer , in: Modern/Contemporary Art and the Curiosity Cabinet, February 5th, 2011, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, US. (Unpublished)

Full text not available from this repository.


In 2009 Manchester-based collaborative artists Carson & Miller were invited by Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections and the North West Film Archive (UK) to curate an exhibition which explored the museum and archives varied collections, ranging from pots, toys and Victorian ephemera to scrapbooks and albums. The exhibition was called 'The Story of Things'. Drawing on the tradition of the Wunderkammer and surrealist explorations of it, the curatorial selection and arrangements of 'The Story of Things' (or rather dis-arrangements) were based on contingency - a word which designates ‘chance’, ‘accident’, ‘a fortuitous happening’, but which also stems from the Latin word tangere ‘to touch’, implying ‘con-tact’, connection, affinity. This curatorial process took as its premise the Wunderkammer, displaying the “deliberately random and undisciplined journey” (Carson & Miller, 2009) taken by Carson & Miller. Roaming through the collections and archives available to them, the artists began to cross-reference the materials they found there, sometimes, as they explain, “relating things by type, sometimes throwing the unlikely together, sometimes remembering something they already knew, sometimes uncovering things unknown to them” (Carson & Miller, 2009). This paper will argue, by exploring Carson & Miller’s exhibition through both theoretical and practice-based perspectives, that the Wunderkammer opens up alternative, playful curatorial strategies (of placing and misplacing, joining and dis-joining, relating and separating objects from each other), “systematic bewilderments”(Ernst, 1948) in Max Ernst’s terms, which draw heavily on notions of childhood play and playfulness. The notion of play is present in a number of ways in the concept of the Wunderkammer, ranging from the Wunderkammer’s early association with an exclusive leisure activity to its later association with an activity which “anyone could master” (Gordon, 2006); from the significance of toys in collections to the similarity of children’s collecting patterns, to the surrealist understandings of the cabinet of curiosities. These playful strategies construct narratives through producing ‘fortuitous encounters’ and tease out the element of ‘wonder’ in objects and play with curatorial conventions and viewer’s expectations. The paper will argue that the Wunderkammer opens up spaces of what Gilles Deleuze termed ‘ideal game’, where one begins when one wishes and stops at will. This approach disrupts linear narratives and fixities of definitions, immanent in Western ideology and conventional curatorial strategies seeking genealogy, unfolding the meaning of the displayed objects and their relations as unfixed, rhizomic, shifting, spreading, wandering. Here ‘things’ and their meanings slip, and reveal what Bill Brown terms “misuse value” of objects, leading us back to the “tactile tryst” (Brown, 1998) of a child, a primal state of exploring and seeing the world. It will be argued that this playful approach, inherent in the structure of the Wunderkammer, challenges conventional optic vision associated with the exhibition environment, introducing haptic vision which does not move in one direction but is exploratory or ‘all-over-the-place’, focusing on the material details rather than the narrative line. The sense-making invited here has shifted from the conventional exhibition environment which focuses on genealogical, chronological, biographical or thematic matter, to making-sense, to an exploration which leaves linear narratives behind (an exploration which becomes sensory) and in which the playful juxtaposition of things reveals new links and relations, forming new poetic constellations, like Alice’s “world of twisted logic and nonsensical rhymes” (Carroll, 1865).

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Themes: Media, Digital Technology and the Creative Economy
Schools: Schools > School of Arts & Media > Arts, Media and Communication Research Centre
Refereed: No
Related URLs:
Depositing User: JR Carson
Date Deposited: 17 May 2011 10:37
Last Modified: 27 Aug 2021 19:56

Actions (login required)

Edit record (repository staff only) Edit record (repository staff only)