International Branches, Local Initiatives, Or A Structure We Cannot Imagine Yet
Cairo Residency Symposium was organized by Townhouse Gallery and Fonds BKVB at the end of March 2009 and supported by the main funding institutions in Europe. Its stated aim was “to discuss in depth the significance and possibilities of cultural exchange in residency centers between artists from Europe, the Middle East and Africa”. It unraveled in the form of keynote speeches, case studies and group discussions. The structure allowed for voices of funders, institutions and to some extent artists to be heard, regarding the existence of international residency networks. The location of the meeting allowed for more horizontal dialogues to emerge and alternative views to be heard, which could have remained unarticulated in another climate.
Our host, William Wells welcomed his guests proudly to Townhouse Gallery, which proves to be a very successful institution with a strong impact on the development of contemporary art practice in Egypt and on choosing “the work to be picked up and shown in the international arena”. They also run multiple outreach programs tailored to local needs.
Lexter ter Braak from Fonds BKVB provided the first insights into the mind of “the funder”. He informed us about artists not wanting to go to “the best in the West anymore” but instead preferring “residencies in non-Western countries to discover and explore other cultures”. He structured his speech around the metaphor of mirror neurons, proven to exist in human beings by a neurologist recently. He explained that “they reflect the activities of others in the brain”, thus “we love to imitate and synchronize”. He linked this phenomenon to artist residencies, suggesting their existence allows for “seeing, feeling and understanding”. With this scientific explanation, he legitimized the existence of the whole artist residency system.
Bassam el Baroni, a writer, curator and co-founder of ACAF (Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum) was the chosen voice of “the host”, moderating the flow of the symposium in the next two days. He made it clear from the outset that the interest in the region was a post 9/11 condition, which is not only reflected by increased funding for residency programs in the region but also by major regional shows curated in the West. He walked on a cotton thread keeping his critique insistent, while making his anxiety over his role felt. He set the tone of criticism by suggesting that the residency network and our desire to construct, maintain, support and participate in it is an impulse to carry on the failed cosmopolitan project. He also referred to Boris Buden’s text “Criticism without Crisis: Crisis without Criticism”, not only to suggest the crisis inherent in this system but also to point out the necessity to reflect on the conditions of production in the art world.
Chris Keulemans, a writer and a “host to be”, gave a beautiful speech about the complexities of hospitality. He suggested, “True hospitality will be given without expectation of return”. He evoked the colonial past so gracefully, “Europeans came as uninvited guests, not only overstayed but occupied the whole house, mistreated its inhabitants and got rich out of it all”. He asked if hospitality as a traditional value would disappear. Although traces of it were felt in the next few days, it seems like institutions need a more solid language to explain their efforts in words such as expectations, evaluations and benefits.
“Voice of the artist” was a rarity in the symposium represented by Mahoud Khaled, who delivered one of the case studies “Mobility and Stability: The Dynamics of Losing and Finding Locations in an Artist’s Career”. He referred to the residency system as “part of the necessary lifestyle of a contemporary artist”. He talked about his four residency experiences and reflected on how they met his specific needs at certain times in his career. “Good living and working conditions” was mentioned multiple times, making us realize these are unusual qualities, especially in the South. He referred to the state of being a guest but his was a notion very much defined by institutional expectations and the professional needs of the artist.
Alessio Antoniolli of Gasworks and Triangle Arts Trust talked about the “Post-Residency Period”, which was unlucky. They fund so many of the artist-run initiatives in the region for emerging artists that he could have offered a lot more in sharing his experience in that direction than restating some experiences with resident artists. He referred to the residency system as “rare, expansive and a lot of work” but emphasized its crucial role in helping artists evolve. This was taken up in the Q&A session by artist Lara Baladi, who criticized this language as “infantilizing”.
Case studies presented by four different institutions proved that it is impossible to speak about a single model and that the structure of the institutions should be articulated based on local context. In her presentation “Residencies Around Urban Matters”, Marilyn Bell from Doul’Art in Cameroon explained their strategy of working, in which an artist is invited for a short stay of approximately one week and is invited back again whenever they come up with a project proposal to be realized. Goddy Leye, who is an artist also working in Douala, started the initiative “Art Bakery” not to get depressed and out of his own needs. He saw the lack of education and infrastructure, which led him to develop the portfolio program geared towards producing and presenting artwork. Meskerem Assegued presented her utopian vision for Zoma Contemporary Art Center in the ancient village of Harla, Ethiopia. Resident architects and builders, who will use local construction methods, will construct the center. They are working in close contact with villagers and tailoring the program to their needs.
The only case study outside the African continent was “Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center” from Istanbul, Turkey. The center was started by Vasif Kortun soon after 9/11, when people were already looking at the city. He defined Istanbul as “ a flux city, which does not remember having been the capital of an Empire but feels it”. The center was even more specifically contextualized on Istiklal Street, which has been historically politicized and still is the site of most public demonstrations. From the start, he aimed at creating an “A League” institution and worked towards this vision as his negotiating power with funders increased. He emphasized the necessity of choosing the resident artist from a shortlist that is prepared by the partner institution most likely in Europe. He insisted on a local decision-making mechanism that can create the alchemy between the right artists and the city. Developing regional residency programs for artists from the Balkans and the Middle East has been a priority for Platform and Kortun emphasized the role they played in strengthening the networks and developments in the region. Platform set a unique example in tailoring the institution to the local needs, while determining how the local art scene will become part of the international art world.
The next speaker was Mouktar Kocache from Ford Foundation with his speech “Evaluation as a Funder and Host”. He shared the experience of working hard to include artist groups and foundations supporting art, in a conference of community based foundations working on social justice. They were the least prepared and most demanding among the participants. He called for the necessity of developing the knowledge and tools in the sector that will allow them to “remain at the table”. Chus Martinez raised an important point in the Q&A session about the power of funding institutions in defining the content of production.
Two ideas were central to the discussions; mobility and migration. Todd Lester from freedimensional, which is an international network that advances social justice by hosting activists in art spaces, introduced a perspective that is neglected by most of the people working in the field. He insisted on elongating the mobility discourse to other vocations. Although artistic mobility is central to the residency system, the concept of mobility was not dissected to reveal its relationship to many other contemporary debates about power and post-fordist working conditions. Thus, it is necessary to approach artistic mobility with some caution, questioning its connections with an expanding market and other flows such as capital, oil, information, labor, refugees and tourists. Still, I would like to end with a positive evocation of mobility as “a freedom from constraint, from the methods of confinement and conformity that nation-states, academies and other orthodoxies practice.”
Migration seems to be the main current that makes the whole system move. Let’s recognize the contradiction from the outset: Why is there a language of diversity and tolerance in the cultural field, while the harsh political language of Europe’s closed-door policy emerges when we start speaking about borders and security issues? As Jakob Myschetzky from Inklusion stated, many Europeans are retiring and newcomers are needed as a workforce. It is necessary to include the new people by using creative means. And of course, newcomers are not only arriving because they are needed. There is an accelerating increase in migration to Europe motivated by economic, political and professional realities “at home”. Most of the funding from Europe for arts and culture is focused on finding ways to deal with, mediate the increasing diversity within Europe. One of the participants drew attention to the fact that many regional exhibitions shown in the West are closely linked to migration processes and issues of integration. And Bassam asked, “Are we peeping into the culture of the minority through the artist?”
From all the ideas that have been voiced, some tendencies and shifts became apparent: Instead of exporting giant institutions that are expensive to maintain, foundations are leaning towards supporting individual artists with their specific needs. Local initiatives are already articulating the necessary models that function well and influence the formation of the art scene in their contexts. Support for regional networks and exchange should increase for constructing a truly international art world. We shall see how the results of the meeting manifest themselves as cultural policy at a global level.