Since 2011, artists from the Arab world have experienced the fantastic power of mass protests, the promises they hold, the radically new ways of inhabiting the streets and reinvesting public spaces, as well as the unravelling of crushing regimes, the lukewarm responses of the international community failing on its promise of justice and democracy upheld by universal values used to maintain a hegemonic order.
The most recent upheavals in 2019 and the drastic aggravation of the crisis in Lebanon have revived much of the debate around the role of art in the public sphere. Art and artists have to bear the grunt of contradictory understandings, hopes, and ambitions. For some, artists are supposed to deliver on an aesthetic level, opening up our understanding of beauty and catering to our senses. On the other side of the spectrum, art is seen as yet another tool for specific political messages to come across. Moreover, and since the neoliberal turn of the 80s, institutions and cultural practitioners had to increasingly conform to the demands of a productive economy, in terms of rentability, management and outputs.
The Impulse sessions start with a reversal of the question: rather than looking at how artists are engaging within political or social movements, we should look at how movements operate within artistic practices, understanding the political as well as the artistic not as separated fields but as operating within the confines of the same world. It is then that we can start to distinguish the potentiality of certain types of art forms and practices and carve up spaces to untangle the production of art from the demands of a productivist economy.
The five roundtables will provide an opportunity to discuss processes of social transformation on the one-hand and culture-specific possibilities on the other. We will be looking at some of the strategies and directions that artists and cultural practitioners from the region have chosen to follow, the ways in which they took upon themselves the "necessary task of reinventing politics" to use the wording of philosopher Felwine Sarr – in the sense of 'reinventing the world and its form of social connection' and how this reinvention happens together – through different modes and modalities of collectivity and collaboration – forcing us to reconsider the ways in which art is created, produced, shared and sustained.
We are witnessing a collective turn that is visible in many ways: more artistic processes tend to be participatory, nurturing attentivity to the communities they engage with; questions around institutional practices have prompted a renewal in structure and mission towards generosity; interdisciplinary methodologies involving artists and other professionals are now regarded and understood with the seriousness they deserve; a vested interest in understanding independence as a movement towards interdependence is especially visible within collectives as a way to pool resources and build sustainability; and finally the development of digital platforms allowing the creation of transnational spaces of resistance towards dominant narratives.
During this session we will focus on participatory art practices that are often time invested in their surroundings, deeply rooted and in a dialogue with larger communities. For the first session, we will invite local artists and initiatives to explore different ways of engaging with communities through artistic processes.
More and more artists and cultural practitioners are engaging in collective practices that are de facto socially engaged and more concerned with the co-creation of knowledge, shared experiences and the possibilities that emerge. These practices reflect the leaderless, radical and grassroots protests that are gaining ground – protests that are more concerned with their transformative experiences than their demands.
In their essay For an Aesthetic of Encounters (2017), philosopher Baptiste Morizot and the art historian Estelle Zhong Mengual argue that "art not only transforms our perception of the world: it also transforms our way of utilizing the world, our way of understanding it and acting in it". However, and in order for arts to fulfill such a mission, an individual encounter needs to operate, meaning "a transformation of our ways of feeling, understanding, perceiving, acting". Inviting participants into the creative process, building a longstanding collaboration, working together for the realisation of an artwork is one of the ways to foster such an encounter.
Participatory art practices allow for the co-production of artworks and not only their passive reception, valuing the work for the relation it creates and not only some intrinsic properties.
Arts and cultural institutions are major pillars for their eco-systems, providing resources, tools, knowledge and discursive platforms for both – the production and dissemination of artistic works. Throughout the years, the question of their role, funding and organisational model has never ceased to be discussed and critiqued.
The second Impulse session is bringing together cultural practitioners working in cultural institutions and trying to challenge the prominent models set in place.
In light of the recent developments in the region and the demands for equality and social justice, we would like to discuss some of the ways that these concerns have transpired in their practices and the possibilities that are offered by institutional settings. What are the possibilities to operate paradigm shifts from within, that would include a reconsideration of the core values upheld and reproduced?
More specifically, we will be looking into the value of generosity – as developed in one of the 'Lumbung sessions' of Documenta fifteen – and would discuss the ways forward to imagine and practice institutions that are generous towards their communities and able to welcome a multiplicity of stories and pathways.
Generosity or the willingness to give, forces us to "recognize that knowledge is diverse, and cannot be owned or claimed". Its practice is in stark opposition to "competition, rivalry and rarity, capitalist values that have come to define contemporary lives".
Amitav Gosh argues in The Great Derangement (2016) that our inability to integrate climate change within the genre of the novel, leads to a complicity with "modes of concealment that prevent people from recognizing the realities of their plight". If we consider the aesthetic experience as paramount to the construction of meanings and our perception of the world, then any crisis "is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination".
Perhaps, the most dynamic proposition pertaining to the role and function of art, is one that doesn't limit it to its illustrative quality, but rather values its inquisitive potential, capable of "making sensible, rather than reproducing the already sensible" – to cite anthropologist Tim Ingold.
In this session, we will hear from practitioners working on interdisciplinary projects, using art not only as a tool, a framework or an outcome, but also as an integral part of the thinking process.
In addition to developing fruitful methodologies within settings of knowledge-production, these artistic enquiries open ways to a different practice of research, one that is not a mere technical operation but also "a way of living curiously: that is with care and attention" (Ingold, 2019).
Sometimes art can be used as a tool to render sensible topics or outputs, and sometimes it is an integral part of the thinking process, a methodology viewed and valued for what it is able to bring to other disciplines and within settings of knowledge-production. Without essentialising art, in this session, we would like to hear from practitioners working closely on interdisciplinary projects and questioning the borders between research, art production, and their social output.
In Joyful Militancy (2017), Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery reveal that "freedom was once inseparable from interdependence, close ties, and kinship: I am free because of others I can depend on."
The cultural practitioners invited to take part in the fourth Impulse session have been working within collective settings and pooling resources as well as knowledge. For them, independence and long-term sustainability have come to signify a deepening of our interdependence – to peers, a larger network, environment, and other-than-human.
The current art economy relies heavily on an informal network of support – where unpaid and invisibilised labor is common – to be able to sustain itself, which favours a productivist approach and offers a fertile ground for exploitation and abuse.
Against the backdrop of competition and rentability as core managerial values, in a time when institutions and artists are asked to partake in the 'productive' economy and adopt their techniques and mindset, this session will discuss 'collectivity' as a long-term and sustainable mode of organisation, and what this entails in terms of imagination, tools, resources, values and praxis.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions that ensued, have furthered the place of the internet, not only as a space for the dissemination and circulation of knowledge, but also for its production.
During this time, many initiatives emerged regionally, such as online radio stations and video-streaming websites that gained momentum quickly, while older platforms consolidated their roles. They have managed to sustain themselves and even expanded their audience and readership despite facing many challenges; linked to technical means, scalability, but also censorship and repression from the political regimes in place.
The considerable strains on mobility within the region – pre-existing the Covid-19 pandemic – have made them crucial and practical for collaboration on projects. Moreover, they have come to constitute a transnational space across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond – with members and contributors working from different countries. Their audiences situated around the world, testify of a connected diaspora and of shared struggles and interests.
The fifth and last Impulse session brings together founders and contributors of some of these platforms operating in the cultural sphere. We will discuss the ways that they understand their role and especially what they are able to provide in terms of knowledge, critical of dominant narratives – from Western sources or from the regional regimes as well as how they amplify marginalised voices and foster solidarity across contexts and continents.
ArtEvolution Impulses are curated by Marie-Nour Hechaimé