Curators guide learners without telling them what to do

In 1977, NASA launched their Voyager II space probe. Its primary mission was to study the outer planets of our solar system, Uranus, and Neptune. The probe also had a secondary mission, from which it would never return: an interstellar mission to venture beyond the outer reaches of our solar system.

The Voyager II would be the first man-made object to leave the solar system, so would be "a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials." For this secondary mission, NASA equipped the probe with a golden record with 115 projected images, and sounds that were chosen by NASA, to represent life on earth: a breast-feeding mother in an orange, floral dress, a recording of birds chirping, a Bulgarian folk song, a horse and cart, greetings in 55 languages, from Korean to Latin to Sumerian.

Carl Sagan was a well-published astronomer and famous popular science media personality, known for speaking in a slow, soothing tone:

“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

He led the NASA committee to gather the content for the golden record to be included in the Voyager II, which he described as "a bottle into the cosmic ocean".

In 2002, visitors to an art exhibit on the Voyager II probe had a completely opposite response.

The exhibit, called "Once Upon a Time", seeded doubt about the representativeness of the golden record, raising big questions like why "the images [should] be any more comprehensible to aliens than the gibberish babbled by religious enthusiasts are to the rest of us?" or how "a bias towards Western concepts of progress emerges" or a conclusion that the Voyager probe images "barely hint at the complexity and history of the human race".

"Once Upon a Time" was created by artist Steve Mcqueen. McQueen is now an Academy Award winning film director, for 12 Years A Slave, but in the 90's, he was part of London's Young British Artists movement - post-modern "shock" artists whose pieces included overt sexual, materialistic and anatomical depictions. One of its most iconic artists was Damien Hirst, famous for bejewelling a human skull with diamonds and slicing a horse into 12 even pieces, each exposed in its own glass vitrine.

Steve was more subtle. He worked with video installations, and his break-out piece called Bear featured him wrestling naked with another Black man, exchanging glances that ranged from aggressive to flirtatious. It caused arguments about whether it was about race or sexuality, or both. A few years later, he recreated Buster Keaton's famous video of a house facade crashing around him, but he is untouched because he's stands exactly where an open window leaves a safe hole. It was shot from multiple camera angles, a commentary on perspective. An almost unnoticeable detail was his lack of shoelaces - a reference to life if prison maybe? A more playful video is set to the Bob Marley's Exodus, and follows two Black men in suits and hats, walking down a London street, each carrying a large, calmly-waving coconut palm. It ends when they get on the bus.

Using his talents for film making, Steve Mcqueen made a wave with the "Once Upon a Time" exhibit, riffing on the original content of the golden record that was aboard the Voyager probe.

Hans Ulrich Obrist was the curator that supported Steve McQueen on the exhibit from his position at the time at Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He speaks with a nasal Germanic-Swiss intonation, that only makes him even more credible as a top-line art curator:

"What is at the origin, at the point of departure of all my exhibitions, ever since I started in the early nineties, are conversations. It's kind of an infinite conversation with artists, architects, scientists, philosophers out of which the necessity for exhibitions is born.

These are not journalistic conversations. As in; once they're done, they're not done. These are very long conversations that take place, and there might be breaks in between of many months. And after a break one catches up again with all the projects that they're working on, which adds a new chapter."

"In the case of the exhibition of Steve McQueen, he decided to produce the whole exhibition with the researchers of NASA. So the museum's role was establishing contact with NASA to get the researchers to Paris. To give Mr. McQueen access to the archives of NASA. To set up that kind of structure."

Through Hans' curation efforts, McQueen was able to work closely with a NASA researcher and adviser to the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) laboratory, who had worked on the original golden record. It enabled McQueen to find and buy the rights to the entire sequence of visuals.

Hans describes his mentoring approach to the curation behind the project:

"This is kind of like the thing which I think is the red thread in all my projects. It always starts with a conversation with the artist. A lot of the decisions that follow are based on that principle. I try not to have any curatorial ideas in the beginning, but instead start to listen what the artist really needs, and what is urgent, and necessary, and take it from there."

About his choice for the "Once Upon a Time" exhibition format, Hans explains:

[The exhibition] created a new type of monographic show (-showing the work of a single artist). It in a certain way applies to the monographic show, a kind of junction making, creating bridges to other fields of knowledge.

The result for the exhibition was a “National Geographic–like” (McQueen's words) projection of the photos. But in this version the images were not accompanied by clear human greetings and nature sounds as on Voyager's golden record, but by a soundtrack of glossolalia, the “speaking in tongues” often associated with evangelical Christians chanting in ecstasy.

"For me the images in "Voyager II" are all about our so-called knowledge. It's all about what we apparently know." says McQueen, " With the sound, for sure, it's all about what we don't know, or 'nothing'."

Steve McQueen - Once Upon a Time (2002) from obscura on Vimeo.

The audience for "Once Upon a Time" was provoked to ask what truly represents humanity. They started asking questions to better understand the world. The exhibit exemplifies how curation is a form of education.

"The best thing a curator can do, is elicit a response", says Hans Ulrich Obrist, and that is exactly what any educator dreams of accomplishing.

Educators get people to formulate their own questions. Knowledge transfer has become a secondary function, since an inspired learner will be able to find knowledge for themselves.

Museum curators, film-makers, talk-show hosts, conference organisers, community managers work outside of a classroom teaching paradigm, but from the perspective of inspiring people to think differently, they are educators.