Activities and Vocabulary, Discussing and Sharing Art Projects At LargeDecember 14, 2010
I may not have been the only American to spend Thanksgiving in Morocco, but I was one of two at a conference on contemporary curating organized by Abdellah Karroum, curator of the AiM Biennial Marrakech and head of L'appartement 22, and Georg Schöllhammer, an art publisher and one of the founding members of the curating collective tranzit.at.1 The assembled group of a dozen curators, artists, and academics presented ideas on a wide array of strategies for realizing contemporary art projects both inside and outside of the museum. The group met in closed sessions for two days before making public presentations to a group of assembled students and artists. Though the topic seemed very broad, the conversations were fruitful and, over two days, the group collectively designed a program that meaningfully investigated the relevance of archives, history, and memory to contemporary artistic practice. Curators and artists from Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe, and California presented a wide array of recent projects and approaches for coming to terms with them.
“Activities and Vocabulary” seemed an apt title indeed because it became clear after everyone went around the room to discuss our projects that some ideas would need to be redefined. For example, according to the outline of the conference, one of the central themes to explore was the “Sweet ’60s.” Yet, after hearing curators from Hungary (Dóra Hegyi) and Bulgaria (Dessislava Dimova) discuss the lack of any transgressive upheavals in their respective countries during that period, it became clear that the 1960s, and particularly 1968, was not a universal point of reference.2
Our host Karroum and the other Moroccans in the room (artists Ivan Boccara and Karim Rafi) explained that the important revolutionary dates in Morocco began in the 1950s and everything was concluded by 1965. Our relative understanding of key terms such as “museum,” “market,” and “public engagement” was also quite distinct, and the point of the conference, it seems to me, was to put everyone in one room and see if there was such a thing as a common language for contemporary art. Vocabulary, even among artists and curators working today, would clearly be a problem that needed to be worked out.
Activities, on the other hand, seemed to be something we could all agree on. Aside from some devil’s advocacy on my part, the assembled group seemed to be perfectly willing to engage art, however it is being defined by artists and however tangential the museum’s relationship to it might be. Though I came to the conference from a museum that devotes a lot of time and attention to building a collection and promoting emerging artists, I was in the minority there, as most of the others were primarily driven by projects, including exhibitions, biennials, and what is known on the West Coast as social practice. The
Situationists hover in our collective consciousness as the market produces undesirable commodification while preserving inequalities. The current social structure that produces the market—Charles Esche characterized this as “the oligarchy,” and this seemed to stick—was a straw man that we all wanted to set ablaze. What we might find when the smoke cleared was the exhilarating possibility that we all seemed to grasp for.
In this sense, I suppose one could call this gathering utopian in nature—a group seeking a collective means to construct an alternative world, more just and more equal, while acknowledging the limitations of the current scenario. This connection of the present to the future was the primary focus of many of the minds assembled, but questions of the past inevitably came up. In a wonderful and broad-ranging philosophical discussion, we sought to come to terms with how the present relates to both the past and the future, contrasting history with memory. I found it surprising that, for this group, history was something like a dirty word, that which had been written by the victors. Memory, by contrast, was valorized not as the voice of power, but as the voices of those subject to it. The multilayered nature of memory was seen as a productive model for exploring the texture of contemporary life on a networked globe. I must have been seen like a throwback, but I felt the need to defend history and to point out an example that had come up already—Walter Benjamin. I cited his highly contingent and open-ended history of nineteenth-century France, The Arcades Project, as an example of what history could be, a model for researching and engaging with the past while keeping one’s eye on the present state of the world.
While I was not willing to cede history to those in power, a more general sensibility among the group was that history was something that needed to be approached with great trepidation. How we see and understand our respective pasts is perhaps not the most pressing subject for contemporary art, but there is a point of crisis in contemporary life that allows history to appear as a means of focusing our collective existence; questions about archives arose throughout various presentations. Unfortunately, I can only point to a few representative presentations here. Galit Eilat, from the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Holland, spoke on artists and archives, specifically addressing the Arab Image Project and her current exhibition The Politics of Collecting - The Collecting of Politics. Juan Gaitán, a curator who is from Colombia but is working at the Witte de With in Rotterdam, questioned whether it was possible to have (and to remember) a revolution without an image. Anne Szefer Karlsen’s (from the Hordaland Art Centre, Bergen, Norway) intervention titled "Nowstalgia" took up the concomitant development of art centers and oil wealth in the past generation in Norway and the project-based works that have resulted.
In the end, we had good discussions and succeeded in moving the discussion forward. The conversation needs to continue, and indeed there will be an online publication that will appear as part of L'appartement 22 and tranzit.at. Perhaps the signature characteristic of this conference was that it was convened in Marrakech, so far from the art centers one already knows, and the view from there allowed the conversation to take a number of unexpected turns; in this way the art world acquired a whole new dimension.
“Activities and Vocabulary, Discussing and Sharing Art Projects At Large” was held at the École Supérieur des Arts Visuels de Marrakech, in Morocco, between November 22 and 25, 2010.
1. Sadly, Georg was ill and could not make it, but Abdellah did an admirable job holding everything together and was aided by Emma Chubb, from Northwestern University, who was the other American in the group. For a full list of the proceedings see http://appartement22.com/spip.php?article288 and http://at.tranzit.org/en/news/0/2010-11-22/activities-and-vocabulary-discussing-and-sharing-art-projects-at-large.
2. In Hungary, it was an uprising that was crushed in 1956; and in Bulgaria, nothing of the kind happened until the 1970s.