Report: AICA International Meeting Paris28/03/2016
Paul O’Kane reports on the AICA Administrative Council Meeting and associated events, Paris, 18-20 March, 2016
“What form do you suppose a life would’ take that was determined at a decisive moment precisely by the street song last on everyone’s lips?” – Walter Benjamin, Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia (1929)
The first sign that you were leaving familiar territory was the muzak-like 80s English pop played by the driver in the 4.30 a.m. minicab taking you to the Eurostar. You were convinced that the Nigerian driver liked it even less than you but neither could be bothered to even discuss it at this inhuman hour. The previous evening, with awful timing, the temperature suddenly dropped, you welcomed a virulent cold virus into your system and, having prevented you from sleeping, its chimerical presence now accompanied you to Paris.
Arriving at the recommended hotel at 10 a.m., wanting nothing so much as to evaporate in recuperative sleep, the receptionist told you your room could not be accessed until 3 pm. Thus your anticipated nonchalant flaneurie began with more of a forced march as, exhausted, coughing and altogether abject you headed for the nearby canal, recalling a previous visit to the city when it provided an attractive companion and a reliable means of orientation. However, on this occasion you found the picturesque waterway entirely devoid of water and on further enquiry discovered that your visit coincided with its 10-15 year cycle of municipal renovation. A dry and empty canal is a strange, symbolic and slightly uncanny thing, drawing your tired and slightly sour mind to imagine abandoned weapons and discarded bodies that might have been revealed by its draining.
After visiting a typically amicable Parisian café you wandered on, allowing yourself to get a little lost, then returned to the hotel where you were finally granted access to your room. Next you battled amateurishly with your smartphone, trying to pass messages, at affordable rates, to colleagues and to the effect that you had lost all synchronicity with the weekends’ events and were now intending to do little more than sleep away the afternoon while attempting to contain and combat your symptoms.
As evening fell, you bravely rose and battled your way across the city to Palais De Tokyo, there encountering the familiar and friendly faces of several AICA colleagues. As an artful DJ warmed the atmosphere of a dedicated room it gradually filled to overflowing for a Pecha Kucha competition in which a sequence of nominated critics were given strictly limited time in which to convince the audience -via Powerpoint slides and spoken word- of the importance of an artist whom they particularly value and champion.
With the presentations over, the judges went into a private huddle while the voluble audience was ushered into a neighboring room there to be plied with champagne and elaborate snacks. This room had a terrace providing a world-class view of the illuminated Eiffel Tower and critical AICA colleagues were thus forced to concede that it remains a ‘beautiful’ experience and a beguiling phenomenon, the scale of the tower retaining its power to affect and leaving you to ponder the quasi- synaesthetic question of whether size might be considered qualitative?
Amid air-kissing, nibbling, quaffing and chit-chat somebody speculated on the likely winner of the Pecha Kucha competition. The brief conversation that ensued turned out to precisely match the final outcome. I.e. you immediately and intuitively agreed on the ‘best’ presentation of an artist (Agnès Geoffray) + critic (Emil Sendewald) combo, while also acknowledging (as did the judges in their debate) one other artist whose work was judged at least equally current, cutting-edge and contemporary but who didn’t benefit quite so significantly from the painstakingly prepared preparations of their critical advocate – in this case the curator Caroline Hancock.
This sequence of events is worth mentioning not just for the record but because it surprised you to find that in these relativist times, within such a diverse cultural milieu, precise judgement could be located and exercised with such ease. From Kant to Krauss philosophers and critics have long debated the mercurial issue of judgment, without being able to pin it down to anything adequately reliable or systematic. Yet here it was in action: judgement, clear, consensual and exerted crisply by those best placed and qualified to do so – AICA delegates. And so, as the winners were announced we congratulated ourselves too, raising one more glass and looking forward to a monograph and exhibition awarded as the substantial prize for the winning artist and critic.
An effective night’s sleep induced by a cocktail of wine and paracetamols was followed by an early morning journey to the AICA Administrative Council meeting. Strolling through Place de la République, en-route for the Metro, you noted the proud pedestal of its magnificent bronze Marianne festooned with shrine-like adornments marking and perhaps hoping to partly assuage or defend us all against recent monstrous terrorist atrocities (on returning to London you would of course be confronted with tragic news of even more, this time in Brussels). Strangely these combined aesthetics – one overtly academic, permanent, imperial; the other ad-hoc, spontaneous and collective – did not seem to jar but appeared destined to fuse, perhaps thereby illustrating how visual values might progress, influenced by real, political changes, that throw together, like refugees in history’s crowded vehicle, diverse cultures and values, thereby producing dialogues, syntheses, styles and thoughts previously rendered unlikely, or signposted as unattainable by their very ugliness.
The AICA Administrative Council meeting took place at one of Paris’ many noble art colleges (Pantheon Sorbonne, Centre Saint Charles), and it felt reassuring to be guided by a student to a seat in a lecture theatre replete with imaginatively graffiti’d work surfaces. Such places remain and retain the wellspring of hope for the future of art, and thus of society in general, despite increasingly voracious encroachments of the market on our education system, and cowering governments’ timid attempts to protect our future from the market’s ultimately inhuman and careless excesses.
A long, relatively grueling morning ensued, attending to details of statutes, regulations, budgets, proposals and plans, with primarily pragmatic presentations by delegates occasionally punctuated by flurries of more impassioned debate. Referring to one particularly arcane point in a legalistic document a delegate noted that: “Someone Might Actually Read This!” The pithy phrase rang in your ears as a suitable epigraph for use in almost any, more or less esoteric publication. You also noted that it translates into the unforgettable acronym ‘S.M.A.R.T’.
Another memorable moment came when AICA President Marek Bartelik robustly deflected one piece of nitpicking criticism from the floor with the spirited statement “We Are Not Fools!” thus providing another phrase for you to take away from an otherwise dry day of due diligence and detail. This one of course didn’t work as well as an acronym (‘W.A.N.F’) but you nevertheless savoured the image of its adamantine enunciation inscribed as a motto (perhaps translated into Latin) beneath every AICA badge, logo, shield, insignia and document.
AICA Secretary General, Marjorie Althorp-Guyton ended her own annual report with a resounding and useful endorsement of the (at certain times and in certain places, waning, vulnerable and debatable) value and purpose of art criticism, backed up by a quote from A.O. Scott, chief film critic of the New York Times and writing in his book , Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth “… that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood: that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name – the proper name – for the defence of art itself.”
The concentrated quorum went on to dutifully approve a series of amendments, only growing momentarily impassioned concerning a particular matter of political conscience when debating whether, or precisely how to amend AICA’s mission statement where it relates to “opposing censorship” and “promoting freedom of expression”. Eventually the meeting arrived at plans to hold the 2016 AICA congress in Cuba, thus reinvigorating traces of joi de vivre still dimly glowing in the hearts of the by-now over bureaucratized critics, curators, writers and artists there assembled.
After a late lunch spent with colleagues discussing active engagement with the vital Archives de la Critiques D’Art in Rennes, you returned to your default flaneur mode, idling a way across Paris alone, travelling East and keeping the Seine on your left, until you passed into the thick of the 1st arrondissement, an area punctuated by passages once patronised by Walter Benjamin in his passion to re-discover and rethink the 19th century and retrace the footsteps of poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. Despite a continual process of modernization, which might threaten to cleanse these passages of their historical mystique, they retain the power to enchant as well as the potential to deliver you into the hands of a chance encounter. First you found (and immediately bought for a euro) a small, glossy, vintage B&W photograph of a toy boat setting forth proudly on a journey across a sparkling pond. Soon after you bumped into a browsing delegate from Taiwan, and then another colleague from London. Every facet of modern life’s rich kaleidoscope can, it seems, still be located within Benjamin’s beloved passages, as long as you are not actively looking for that which you are destined to find.
Within those very passages ‘La salle Walter-Benjamin’ is a seminar and lecture room forming part of L’Institut national d’histoire de l’art, and which now provided an apt and convenient location for discussion pertaining to art and politics in Turkey. During the earlier AICA meeting, reports had arrived of a suicide bomber killing scores that very day in Istanbul and this news seemed to haunt the air as you listened to pained, frustrated and slightly resigned presentations given by Firat Arapoğlu (Vice President AICA Turkey) and Burcu Pelvanoğlu (Chair of Censorship Commission, AICA International) under the title ‘Behind The Art Scene in Turkey Today’. The grim conditions for artists, critics and curators they described, within a country rapidly running into compound crises, seemed, furthermore, to present just one piece of a rapidly disconnecting jigsaw of European, North African, Asian and indeed global political contingencies and concerns.
As an antidote to such cries of woe and howls of anguish the seminar closed and decamped to nearby Bistro Vivenne whose staff hurriedly provided an upstairs room with an extended table at which about 20-30 delegates spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking and generally making merry. As you left in a slightly drunken haze (your cold symptoms effectively banished now by wine, food and good company) you thought you heard someone providing an unconfirmed speculation that Walter Benjamin had roomed at this very hostelry.
The next day you heard that, for some, the party went on into the small hours, relocating to various bars and clubs, but your own Sunday morning started bright and early once again with the hotelier recommending a combination of buses to take you to an informal meeting hosted by Mathilde Roman (AICA Treasurer) concerning the emerging AICA online writer’s ‘Platform’ as overseen by Elisa Rusca (Chair of the Website Committee).
The first bus delivered you to Oberkampf where, as you struggled to locate the next required bus stop you wandered into a sprawling flea market. Hurried as you were by the pending appointment you couldn’t resist rapidly tasting with thirsty eyes many rich examples of the special exotica found exclusively in a flea market of a city other than your own. After pocketing one uniquely eccentric object and asking for directions from the seller you once again went astray and had to retrace your steps. Walking past an unusually colourful building you were moved to realise it was the Bataclan entertainment venue where so many young music lovers (and therefore lovers of life itself) were so brutally murdered or maimed by the recent terrorist attack.
Eventually you found the correct bus stop, bus, and, finally, your way to Ménilmontant where the ‘Platform’ meeting was held. This area immediately befriended you with its gentle hills, mixed communities and varied architecture, all set within an atmosphere of unpretentious modesty that now seemed to offer respite from the more self-important and self-consciously powerful and historic city’s centre. Nevertheless, walking to the meeting, your crude translation of a sign outside a grand-looking building informed you of its connection to those legendary chroniclers of proto-modern Parisian life, the Goncourt brothers (worthy mentors for this, hopefully accurate, entertaining and historic report.)
Having exchanged ideas about the possibilities, approximate price, and potential pitfalls of the proposed ‘Platform’ it was time for everyone to work out their very own Sunday afternoon journeys and destinations. Serious commentators on art thrive on social and intellectual exchange but when it comes to seeing and judging art while mentally preparing to write and publish a response
you invariably prefer to work alone (notwithstanding the exceptionally collaborative – and of course blood-related- Goncourts). Thus a metro journey back into town that started with a crowd of chattering colleagues grew progressively quieter as it was divided and diminished by a sequence of hurried goodbyes at relevant connections.
Eventually you found yourself once more alone in Paris, but free to roundly imbibe and evaluate the Helena Almeida exhibition currently showing at Jeu De Paume. Heightened security concerns meant a subsequent plan to enter Le Grand Palais accompanied by your wheeled luggage was blocked (what would Benjamin have done in this situation you wondered?) and so you visited the adjacent, relatively neglected Petit Palais instead, discovering several Courbet paintings there whose names and faces were familiar but whose location had previously been unknown to you.
As the cold grey skies began to darken over Paris you steadily hiked up Rue St Denis and Rue St Martin, past Centre Pompidou and on to Gare du Nord, where, all too soon you found yourself once again competing for status and scraps of fast food within a jostling melee of native English speakers anxiously corralled within the overcrowded Eurostar departure lounge. A few hours later, having passed time on the train consulting more wise words of Walter Benjamin, you were back in London, home yes, and thankfully sans virus, but with that awful 80s pop song now returning, repeatedly, unwilled and unwelcome within your head.