Summary report on arts
The following text is a summary of the complete report which is available on this site in Italian.
Everyone is engaged in intercultural projects. People working in art, in the social field, in collaborative work, in the setting up of exhibitions; people making installations or organising workshops for students.
At a first glance we could say that in the last years there has been an incredible increase in intercultural initiatives; in actual fact, it’s just more talk. Inter-culture is a key word: it alludes to a better world, the resolution of problems, dialogue, tolerance, the fight against crime, racism and incomprehension. It’s the term used in social and cultural policies, and spoken, therefore, by those who fund these policies. In the last few years there has been a widespread use of the rhetoric of the intercultural: more than describing artistic projects, it is used as a means of selling them.
The aim of Interculture Map is to show that the artistic scene has produced intercultural activities and to describe how these methodologies can be applied in other fields. Very well, but there are three problems.
The first is that the primary goal of art is not the creation, production and distribution of intercultural projects, but rather of works of art – of course.
By seeing and interpreting artistic production from the point of view of the intercultural we give central prominence to a component which is not necessarily there as such: we are selecting works not on the basis of their quality, but rather on their ability to express that component (this is a incredibly widespread phenomena in the filed of anthropological and social studies). After all, if we only take into consideration art works made with explicit intercultural goals, we reduce our point of view enormously, neglecting works and projects which, though not explicitly or necessarily intercultural, are capable of shedding new light on the issue.
A second problem is that in the field of art – more so than in other fields - everything can be seen as belonging to intercultural discourse. The idea of expression is deeply anchored in exchange and dialogue, and the world of art is inhabited by people from extremely different backgrounds and origins, working and consuming side by side. But to look for an intercultural practice whose aim is to solve problems is a different issue.
Art needn’t solve problems: art observes problems, expresses them, interprets them, turns them upside down, plays with them; but art’s purpose is not, and shouldn’t be, to resolve problems. Let’s say we have a blank wall above our fire place, and that we would like to see it filled by an image of horses; or that we have a church dome which needs a bit of colour and so we look for someone to paint it; or we have a neighbourhood with a high crime rate and we want someone who can get young people engaged so as to keep them off the street. These are our problems, not those of artists: if they become the artists’ problems, all we will get is a little decoration. There is a form of art known as decorative art – with all its languages and layers; it’s our choice if this is the kind of art we wish to tell (see the first problem).
Finally, a third problem is the use of the word immigrants, which is misleading within a cultural context. We are all immigrants, whether we like it or not; and artistic production – differently from the social sector – is not obliged to produce categories, nor to face these problems (see second point). To consider the intercultural issue in art on the basis of whether immigrants are working with non immigrants, is a process which builds tension; the process should rather be one of highlighting expression and variety, independently from the participants’ pedigree.
Art – intended as creative expression – is part of a methodology for intercultural knowledge and for learning about human rights: there are hand painting studios with Czech artists, theatre workshops with illegal immigrants, tam-tam music jams with Senegalese musicians, ballets with world costumes directed by Santa Chiara nuns…
But art – intended as a tool for team building – also exists in the more structured form of twenty children, with painted faces, dancing in a circle wearing little straw skirts.
International exchanges, cultural cooperation (e.g. Rain Artist Initiative Project of the Rijksacademy), relational art projects (Artplaces), inter and multi disciplinary works, workshops, partnerships, networks (Artfactories, Triangles Arts Trust and Love Difference), conferences, meetings, study visits and seminars; these are the kinds of activities we propose with our research; they are actually quite far from the idea of actions which produce and develop a sense of collaboration and trust among the members of a group that is more or less extended (precisely the definition of team building)
What mainly characterises art, within an intercultural perspective, is its ability to represent and to evoke.
Artists of different origins and backgrounds feel the need to tell stories about themselves and the world, to express themselves on political and social issues, to intervene. Art works are capable of channelling the anguish and desires common to everyone: feelings of belonging and exclusion, of self-alienation, the awareness of inhabiting an unintelligible world. Self-representation and the theme of identity are strongly present (see Contemporary African Database), as are the projects aimed at a specific community or territory, which, due to the nature of the present, are inhabited by a diverse and changing fauna (see the research projects Multiplicity, Milan habitable stories and the maps Wide City e Wider City, East Art Map)
But that is not all. Curators and producers of different backgrounds and origins also feel the need to tell stories about themselves and the world, to express themselves on political and social issues, to intervene. The works of the artists become part of a meta-discourse which is capable of interpreting and multiplying meanings, as well as its advertising potential. The art works’ containers i.e. exhibitions, biennials (see Biennale di Venezia, Biennale di Dakar), festivals (see Ars Electronica), institutions, museums, intercultural centres, concerts… All these can be seen as new works produced by curators-as-artists (or artists-as-curators): their artistic language is made up of other art works.
And that’s not all. I won’t repeat the whole phrase, but governments and financial institutions of different origins and backgrounds also feel the need for someone to tell them stories about the world; and, while they are doing so, they might resolve a couple of problems. Art becomes an instrument, promoted at times by very precise competition guidelines, to the point where there is a production of ad hoc projects (it is basically a way of outsourcing projects designed and organised by the institutions that are funding them). Other times there is a more open attitude, which allows for works to change perspective on the intercultural issue and to experiment with confusions and re-readings so as to produce something other.
It becomes very difficult to operate distinctions among those working in art: everyone does a bit of everything. There isn’t a system comprised of elements i.e. artists, curators, critics, musicians, producers, gallery owners, collectors, commissioners, cultural operators, funding bodies; there is rather a fluid context, in which however can simultaneously occupy more than one role in succession. This is visible not only in the professional organisation of the environment, but also in the very nature of the works produced and presented nowadays. Far from being a new phenomena, we see how answers and content are being sought across different fields, encouraging exchange and interaction between different disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, inter-culture, engineering, computer, cooperation, etc. There are collectively created works which, though not made to be works of art, become leading models (e.g. in visual art: the archive projects AAVAA, InIVA; in architecture, performance, design, sound, and writing: Third Text e Revue Noir). The role and concept of the artist are now blurred and ready to morph according to his own needs or those of the curator. It’s easy to get a sense of the problems this raises for institutions working within education.
By including works that are very different in technique and language, the sphere of the artist’ influence is enlarged out of proportion. But not only this: the work is expanded so as to include and become a project. Being a project is the quality that best describes contemporary production: the artist’s work expresses and manifests itself within a large collection of actions which, once added up, become the work. The expanded definition of artist and of art work as project enable the sphere of artistic production to include all those elements which are traditionally considered separate: institutions, exhibitions, pavilions, collections…
The intercultural issue is therefore a characteristic that permeates the whole art system and which cannot be scrutinised on the basis of the relation between maker and outcome. We can instead pick out two tendencies which can be summed up as the desire to represent and to participate.
As we were saying, both artists and curators (and all the subsidising institutions) feel the need to tell stories about themselves and the world, to express themselves on political and social issues, to intervene. This need is connected to heritage and to the more extensive debate on culture, inter-culture, trans-culture and multi-culture. A need for knowledge and new understandings encourages the exploration of the world, both far and near; there is work on history, on rewriting it, emphasising the role of other players and searching for different ways of narrating the past. And the excluded ones are added up.
This large reflection on the others yields to an inclusive politics within events, and to the public giving more attention to the issue. Events monitor the percentage of those represented, in the effort to produce a rainbow show. Nations count the races and communities present on their territory and define their priorities: more exchanges with a certain country, more exhibitions with artists of that group, more inquiries on those consumers (and readers), more subsidies for those who have them.
With the growing mobility and the ever increasing use of the internet as a tool for long distance work, freedom of expression, and concealment of nationality, institution and artists are looking for other paths, geared more towards power than inclusion. The promised land of the West is made up of a handful of large and international exhibitions and rich galleries spread over no more that five countries which, through a great metonymy, have come to coincide with Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. The mirage of the West is beginning to fade. Organisations from the excluded world i.e. all those who live in a desolate land, untouched by the air trajectories of VIPs – are getting organised in order to do what they want to do, in the ways they want to do it.
There is a change in the concepts of place, artist, and work; other modes of representation and participation are being experimented with, leaving behind the word “culture” in order to focus on a new old word: complexity.
Iolanda Pensa is an art critic and researcher. She collaborated with several magazines, with the research agency Multiplicity in Milan, with the art centre Doual’Art in Douala, Cameroon, and with Africa e Mediterraneo. With a university degree in Art history and a final research on the Dakar Biennale, she is now a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the EHESS in Paris and in Urban Territorial and Environmental Planning at the Politecnico of Milan, doing a research on the impact of international grants on culture, in particular in Africa. She is a member of the Technical committee for the African participation at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.
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