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How can cultural differences be ‘articulated, mediated and enjoyed'?

A report on the first Frieze Projects symposium, ‘Working Across Continents’ 

Adriano Pedrosa’s fiction, ‘The International Curator and the Ibero-American artist’, from an early issue of frieze magazine, recounts a visit by the titular curator to an anonymous Latin American country, whose comically earnest attempts to learn while also clinging to a sense of their own authority culminates in them proposing their institution acquires what the curator believes to be a mural but which, as the artist observes, silently, is in fact ‘simply the layered and scraped off, weathered and peeling, old and seasoned walls of his studio.’ During one of several studio visit momentarily panics:

She circles some names and underlines others, makes more and more notes, and realizes she has misspelled Bhabha and has only a couple of pages left. ‘Maybe it’s the heat,’ and she glances at the broken fan. ‘Maybe it’s the language’, and she questions what, until now, she considered to be her absolute command of and perfect fluency in the Ibero-American tradition.

While absurdist in its exaggeration, Pedrosa’s story could also be read as an interesting parable about the pitfalls of the art professional’s engagement in the field of another culture. The Frieze Projects Symposium ‘Working Across Continents’, held at London’s Goethe Institut in November 2016, sought to interrogate these situations with an attention not just to the challenges posed, but also with a sense of the productive outcomes of this kind of work. ‘We engage with much optimism and hope’, Michaela Crimmins (co-director of Art + Conflict, and symposium co-programmer alongside Marcel Bleuler and Raphael Gygax) said at the day’s outset.

The starting point for the endeavor was the decision by Frieze Projects Curator Raphael Gygax to invite Operndorf Afrika (‘Opera village Africa’) - an initiative begun in Burkino Faso by the late German director and artist Christoph Schlingenschief to be an infrastructure for a social space where every day-life, education and art would merge – to participate in the 2016 edition of the non-profit commissions at Frieze London. Marcel Bleuler (Project Manager at Swiss-based mediation and peace-building foundation, artasfoundation) began the first of the day’s panels discussing the ‘opera village’. Though there is much discernible activity at the site – it provides a school where local children would otherwise have none, as well as a medical centre staffed with Burkinabé doctors, and operates artist’s residencies as well as a varied year-round arts curriculum - people often ask of the project, he recounted, ‘where is the art?’

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Operndorf Afrika school, December 2015. Image: © Aino Laberenez

This, Bleuler argued, sometimes results from a kind of category error, in which art initiatives – such as the ones he himself engages in the Southern Caucasus (where the extended fallout of the Russo-Georgian conflict in 2008 has led to much instability, including many IDP or Internally Displaced Persons) – are expected to have recognizable manifestations and observable outcomes. When the kind of theatrical or performance projects geared towards social resolution – what Bleuler called ““art and peace building” are highly goal-driven, they risk putting external people – e.g. the target participants - as seemingly selfless helpers or leaders. On the contrary, he argued the potential of artistic collaboration in fragile contexts because, unlike a goal-driven medical initiative, for example, they can be an open-ended space for encounters and exchange. The key, Bleuler says, is for activities to be “underlined by difference” – to accept resistance, confusion and consider even our own notions of art; to learn to negotiate the questions ‘where is the art?’, or ‘what is the art’ or ‘what is the point? To truly learn to perceive the Other means to ‘learn one’s own capacity or incapacity for such’, which is to say to ‘make visible the interruptions, insecurities in these interactions - what we think to know about art, or about ourselves”. The idea resonates with Schlingensief’s own proposition – innately tied to the Operndorf project – of “learning from Africa”. This, the speakers agreed, was not intended as romanticization of an “Other”, local wisdom but as a dynamic process of encounter and unknowing. Perhaps this, in turn, provides a clue to a question posed by the artist Sonia Boyce, which the symposium took as a kind of touchstone – namely how ‘cultural differences might be articulated, mediated and enjoyed?’

ith three sessions, punctuated by stimulating question and answer sessions, the day, many tentative answers to Boyce’s questions were posed. Artist Uriel Orlow expanded notions of what might constitute engaging across culture – and the qualifications required to do so - challenging  ‘a specific fetishization of a certain authenticity in relation to identity in the art world that artists are often expected to perform’: considering, for example, that a viewer of the looted Benin bronzes, say, might be implicated in the question of an ethical, responsible response to these works and their originary  cultural and imperialistic contexts simply by being a viewer of them, rather than having a genealogical connection with either their makers or plunderers. ‘I want to be careful that art is not an instrument…not a propagandistic instrument relating to a positon’, the artist said, adding that for him, ‘criticality also extends to form - the way we speak about something is as political as what we say.’ Rather than working for or on behalf of someone or some group, Orlow said, ‘we need to move to from speaking for or learning from towards learning with’; paying attention to ‘processes of conversation rather than representation.’ Bleuler voiced skepticism, noting that this aim all too often becomes a gesture; both speakers agreed that a commitment over time was crucial.

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Aino Laberenez (far left) and Marcel Bleuler (far right) with visitors to Operndorf Afrika at Frieze Projects 2016. Courtesy: Frieze

Aino Laberenez (far left) and Marcel Bleuler (far right) with visitors to Operndorf Afrika at Frieze Projects 2016. Courtesy: Frieze

Andrea Thal, Artistic Director of the Contemporary Image Collective, Cairo, also emphasized duration as a crucial aspect of making engagement meaningful. Moving from Zurich to Cairo, she noted, she wanted to think about histories and the practices that ‘we carry with us’, noting that in Egypt, contemporary art has historically been very linked to the West. It required a special effort to, for example, subtitle films CIC show in Arabic and not just English, she said, as well as producing written texts in English and Arabic in parallel, ‘rather than translating out of one language only’. ‘These are small practical gestures’, she admitted, ‘but they often take a very long time’. Bleuler asked how Thal approached these ‘de-colonializing’ efforts as a Westerner, to which Thal responded that a simple model of centre-periphery didn’t apply in a situation when ‘even as a researcher in Egypt, you have to go to archives which are in Europe - and more so in Uganda’. Instead, she said, ‘it has been important to localize and situate a practice wherever I am. I want to confront the idea that the Western art context is somehow “neutral”. We need to address these questions wherever we are, not just wherever we go somewhere “else”’.

Deepening the sense of the locality or sphere in which engaging this ‘else’ or otherness might take place, Alexander Koch spoke about KOW, the project he co-founded in Berlin in 2008. The guiding idea of KOW is of a contemporary art space run as a commercial gallery but with a conscious societal aim, in the manner usually associated with a public space. This has involved working with and supporting the practices of artists who are both (partially) situated in non-Western contexts and those whose work explicitly addresses cultural difference, ranging from including the semi-investigative or documentarian efforts of Alice Creischer, Mario Pfeffier, Hito Steyerl and Clemens von Wedermeyer to artists like Hiwa K (the Iraq Kurdish artist recently included in documenta), Candace Breitz (who represented South African at Venice Biennale 2017) and Chto Delat (the Russian collective who have explored artistic capitulation of the conflict in Ukraine) who situated in non-Western contexts, as well as more abstract responses to social issues such as Michael E. Smith’s invocations of a ‘ruined social body’.

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Hiwa K., When We Were Exhaling Images, 2017. Installation view at documenta 14, Kassel. Coutresy: documenta

Hiwa K., When We Were Exhaling Images, 2017. Installation view at documenta 14, Kassel. Coutresy: documenta

KOW’s infrastructure brought audience engagement and – again, over time – financial support for the artists, though Koch emphasised that individual exhibitions rarely sold, and acquisitions tended to come as a result of long-term institutional relationships. Koch explained the motivations for the model with reference to artist Renzo Marten, and his engagement with the challenge that by engaging in commercial activity, artist would ‘reproducing the blueprint of neoliberal machinery’ – a conviction that ‘big money is always stolen money’. Martens’ counter-claim (to bowdlerize Koch’s exposition) was that if the premise that art exchange is merely about financial growth is accepted, why not direct that growth to the places you want it? Koch discussed Martens’s initiatives in establishing an centre with a practical curriculum in Congolese plantations. ‘If I understand the problem, I want to have it. I want to inhabit it’, Koch said about the artist. In this move, Koch argued, is not just a going beyond traditional situated spheres but also to acknowledhe our limits – being conscious of where ‘we can and can’t get out of.’ 

Pooja Sood of KHOJ, based today in south Delhi, explained the organization’s contrasting emphasis on crossing borders in a more specific context, that of the Indian subcontinent. Founded in 1997, Sood explained the pre-internet sense of disconnection among practitioners in India, wo had minimal sense of what was happening in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Afghanistan (and vice-vera). She explained pressures – such an extremely right wing government in Bombay, which caused issues around an inaugural exhibition of paintings included on depicting Lord Krishna as a body-building actor, for example, or the continuing difficult of getting visas for visiting artists (in a moment when even famed Bollywood actors of Pakistani origin are turned away at Indian borders, she noticed). Sood’s perspective was perhaps less theoretical than Koch’s, but no less urgent for it. ‘I don’t know if you would call what we do an art project, or just something we did because we needed to do it’, she concluded. In relation to the commercial aspects of supporting this activity, Sood observed that ‘only in last 10 years can Indian artist survive just on their art - not doubling as a graphic designer, tutor, etc.’ KHOJ doesn’t sell art directly but was happy to contribute to the growth of institutions and market and the sense of what practices are now viable. Koch added that he did not know any artist ‘who I feel close to who feels its problematic to sell art’. Sood added that for her, art that is produced through KHOJ’s manifold forms of support – including workshops, residencies, exhibitions, talks, and community art project - is essentially a common good: ‘they belong to the people – the artists just make their fees’.

In the day’s last session, the different stakes of artistic cross-cultural dialogues in an explicitly public realm were addressed in turn by Reema Salha Fadda and David A. Bailey. While Fadda acknowledged the greater visibility of visual cultures form the Middle East she noted that this was wedded to spectacle of high end global cultural brands such as the Louvre and Guggenheim and the pervasive practice of ‘soft power’. With specific reference to the Palestine Museum, which opened in 2016 despite lacking any exhibits (it hosted its first exhibition, curated by Reem Fadda, in summer 2017), Fadda asked if the aim to ‘enjoy cultural difference is even possible given the highly political economy in which culture operates”; she then examined different responses to the ‘ambiguously defined cultural comfort zone…a binary of rage or cooperation - both of which are defined by the rules set by the occupation’ which cultural programming in the Palestinian context required, in particular emphasizing the opportunities (explored by among others the 2016 Qalandiya International ‘The Sea is Mine’ and the Sharjah Biennial’s programme across six cities) in opening up beyond locality, in particular to diaspora communities outside national space.  

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Barby Asante, As Always a Painful Declaration of Independence: For Ama. For Abab. For Charlotte and Adjoa (detail), 2017. Installation view at Diaspora Pavillion, Venice 2017. Image courtesy: International Curators Forum

Barby Asante, As Always a Painful Declaration of Independence: For Ama. For Abab. For Charlotte and Adjoa (detail), 2017. Installation view at Diaspora Pavillion, Venice 2017. Image courtesy: International Curators Forum

The seasoned curator David A. Bailey was well-placed to address this area, being a key driver of the Diaspora Platform (the term ‘pavilion’, he said, was restricted to accredited nation states only) at this year’s Venice Biennale. Citing the 2016 symposium in Gwangju, ‘Is the Curator an agent or double agent of Cultural Identity?’, Bailey asked how diasporic art movements and the mobilizations and dis-mobilizations of biennials might work together. Bailey discussed the forming of the International Curators Forum (ICF) in Venice in 2007 as a response to the ‘displacement of bodies that move around all these biennales’ and an effort to create a space in which people could be collegiate and hospitable. Bailey granted that the manifestation of this effort was a kind of poor image – to an observer, such meeting would ‘just looked like people in a room, or on a podium…the pictures are not sexy’, but suggested this belied the value of the discussions produced: in 2009, he noted, an ICF conference on the middle east was the first-time Tate Britain and Tate Modern worked together on a single event. Outside of this context, Bailey also talked about the disruptive, aspects of aligning different practices and expressions in the context of examining cultural difference, discussing the influence of Orson Welles’ controversial 1936, all black “voodoo” production of Macbeth in 1997 exhibition on the Harlem Renaissance which he co-curated, ‘Rhapsodies in Black’.

This discussion of physical location – including that of the ‘traditional’ exhibition space – rooted the conversation back in the germ of the symposium – Schlingensief’s Operndorf, and Gygax’s decision to bring the opera village into the fair. At the beginning of the day, Bleuler emphasized that it was central to Schlingensief’s ‘Learning from Africa’ strategy that whatever is learned be brought back to ‘“our” art world…to ‘challenge what we think to know about art’ and change a context that is ‘somehow stuck, maybe’ (a clip was shown from Schlingensief’s 2010 part-Burkinabé-part-German ensemble play Via Intolleranza II – which Aino Laberenz, Schlingensief’s collaborator and now director of the opera village, noted was the starting point for the Operndorf - in which a Burkinabé child actor addressed the audience as: “perverts…You flee into your dreams to avoid breakdown in your own life”).

Exploring his motivations for the invitation to be part of Frieze Projects, Gygax described Schlingensief as being underrepresented outside of Germany-speaking art scenes, despite being ‘possibly the most important German artist of the early 21st century.’ He explained that Frieze Projects had been committed since its inception to have no commercial motivation, meaning he was not pressured to only work with artists who work with galleries, but could expand perceptions and discussions (while the Schlingensief estate is now represented by Hauser & Wirth, Gygax and Laberenz clarified that the artist himself never exhibited with the gallery and they were not involved in the Frieze Project). Why not, then, bring in an NGO, which is not the sort of thing that was usually visible in this environment?

This in turn led to another question, of how to represent something like Operndorf, especially in the specific context of Frieze London. Gygax and Laberenz explained that an “Expo style” presentation would not work. Instead, as the Art Newspaper reported, they utilized a sculpture made by Andy Hope 1980 and Laberenz, Burkina Tower (2013), which provided a satellite link between the fair and Burkino Faso, over which Skype conversations were held daily. A display of structures from the set of Via Intolleranza II included videos, such as Boubacar Sangare and Gideon Vink’s documentation of fall of Blaise Compaoré in 2014, as well as 18 monitors screening records of daily life at the opera village, filmed by locals (70% of images of the African continent taken to date are by Westerners, Laberenz noted at a later point).

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Operndorf Afrika at Frieze Projects 2016. Courtesy: Frieze

Operndorf Afrika at Frieze Projects 2016. Courtesy: Frieze

Did Frieze London have an impact on the Operndorf, an audience member asked? Laberenz did not discuss material support that arose from the presentation, but emphasized the value of conversations and engagement - ‘Even for myself I need input’ she said, ‘It’s not like I know everything. I need to develop the project - I need input from artists, from other views. Not always a positive response – but discussion.’ One fair visitor in attendance at the fair joined in, recounting:

Amidst the mayhem and excess of Frieze, I ended up there and we chatted - my experience was extremely confusing, it was absolutely disruptive to my experience of Frieze. I couldn’t quite take it in. But the project has stayed with me.

Unlike Pedrosa’s fictional curator, this admission of disruption and even confusion echoed Bleuler’s opening remarks about the need to accept one’s own limitations of comprehension and perception, and thereby to re-consider our own assumptions and ‘knowledge’ about art. Laberenz remarked ‘We have a medical centre now, a school, and I could leave it at that. But I really want to lead this conversation.’ The day showed that, whatever challenges posed by working across continents, this critical element of open conversation was in plentiful supply.

— Reporting by Matthew McLean & Frieze.com

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