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A Journey through Days 4 and 5 of the 50th AICA Congress


A Journey Through Days 4 and 5 of

The 50th AICA Congress

Paris, November 2017

by Paul O’Kane
(with many thanks to Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton and Mathilde Roman, and to everyone in AICA France who made the Congress possible, and to all of my AICA UK and AICA International friends and colleagues).


Unfortunately, I was only able to attend Days 4 & 5 of the celebratory 50th AICA Congress held this November in Paris. I rushed there from teaching a workshop in London, and arriving in Paris at 9 pm, worked until 1 a.m. on a final draft of the paper I would give the next day. I set an alarm to wake me at 5 a.m. and after a few hours’ sleep resumed working on the piece over a mug of coffee and a magnificent cake, gratefully gleaned at dawn from a bakery close to my hotel.

I have a habit of arriving way too early for appointments and then using the resulting ‘downtime’ to explore some part of a city that I would not usually encounter. I had never been to the area of Paris bordering the Bois De Vincennes before, and at 8.30 a.m. on the sunny autumn morning of 16th November 2017 the park looked deserving of a long, slow, relaxed exploration, its lake gleaming in the morning light, reflecting trees dressed in stunning autumn colours.

Sadly, the monstrous, multi-lane périphérique also carves a canyon through this South Eastern segment of the city and dives into a tunnel beneath the park at this point. Le musée de l’histoire de l’immigration is built right by the notorious orbital road, but also within view of the park. Quite stunning in terms of its scale, ambition, and the expense and skill lavished on its décor, every centimeter of Le musée seemed designed to conceptually or materially respond to its theme and title. In our age of ‘pop-up’ museums and ‘fly-by-night’ anti-institutional practices I recently found myself intrigued by more hard-wired, long-standing, site specific museum fittings of the kind that I recently saw in a Glasgow museum of religion, and also found here. They strike me as unique, idiosyncratic and increasingly hard-to-find documents of faith in the museum’s own worth, purpose and perpetuity.

Nevertheless, the congress’s packed schedule distracted most delegates from witnessing the main collections and displays sited on the upper floors, and so – along, with other AICA delegates I suspect – I earmarked this previously undiscovered Parisian jewel for a more fulsome visit on another occasion.

In one of the museum’s cavernous ground floor spaces the artist Kubra Demi performed a day-long action which emulated the prone, ignominious corpse of the late Syrian child refugee Alan Kurdi – as photographed and published worldwide in numerous news headlines. This same tragic pose was recently re-performed by the artist Ai Wei Wei, causing a controversy which Kubra Demi here seemed unafraid to perpetuate. The performance drew predictable critical interpretation from the AICA audience passing to and from the congress, but also sparked imitators among visiting members of the public, who laid down next to the artist or elsewhere in the space, some having morbid ‘selfies’ taken with the help of a friend or passer-by. They seemed to thereby imply some kind of solidarity, perhaps even claiming ‘we are all Alan’s now’, but also revealing that our age of almost universally ubiquitous digital photography is increasingly attended by a corresponding boom in spontaneous forms of performance art.

Following introductory comments from the day’s conceptual curator and coordinator Matilde Roman (writer, curator and AICA Treasurer) the morning session of Day 4 of the congress, titled: ‘Everywhere & Nowhere: Migration & Contemporary Art’, kicked off with Kim Levin (AICA USA and an Honorary President of AICA International). She set out a grim and challenging backdrop of Trump-era America where issues of immigration, borders and walls, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, campus activism, assertive black history revisionism and a general upsurge in radical Left wing debates, all currently clash with the baleful emergence of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’.

Amid this cavalcade of cataclysmic cultural conflict Levin set out examples of artists and works related to migration and immigration while occasionally evaluating those she admired or disliked. She ran out of time to contextualize, and presumably celebrate, two or three images of an enormous installation by Kara Walker that were repeatedly displayed. However, she did find a moment to briefly berate Ai Wei Wei for the “arrogant” and clumsy way in which he tends to translate his noble political stance into all-too-material or all-too-spectacular art objects.

Next Andre Kovalev (AICA Russia) launched into a paper that I have to admit I found difficult to grasp. By now I was mentally preparing to give my own paper and, as a result, partially detached from my surroundings. Kovalev showed slides relating to high Russian modernism, and seemed at one point to assertively claim that art history could or should be read as a catalogue of affronts and antagonisms. Marek Bartelik, the outgoing AICA president, reassured me later, with characteristically insightful wit, that this talk may have been conducted according to the esoteric Russian concept ‘Zaum’ (зáумь), referring to sound symbolism and linguistic experiments conducted by Russian futurists. Marek seemed to suggest that, if I didn’t immediately grasp the whole, then the words might have been designed, not to be understood by ear and mind but rather to impact on the body itself, there to sew latent seeds of some yet to be recouped value and meaning.

By the time Sophie Ravion D’Ingianno (AICA Martinique) gave the next paper I was so thoroughly absorbed in predicting any perceived weaknesses of my own paper and its pending presentation that I failed to register many of her points too. However, when she referred to metissage (a kind of cultural mixing) I noted that she tended to address migration in conceptual and formal terms, including the ‘global’ and the ‘total’, the presumption of ‘putting down roots’, or the idea of nations as would-be ‘totalities’. So, when I registered a references to ‘worlds’ it gave me hope that it might be possible for me to smoothly segue into, and connect this idea to my own presentation, titled: ‘The Other Side of the Word: Translation as Migration in the Anthologised Writings of Lee Yil’.

When I eventually took the stage however, I realized I had drawn a slightly ‘short straw’ in being the last speaker of an already over-extending morning session. With the audience keen to get through to the plenary and on into lunch, I was advised to ‘keep it short’ and therefore set off at an uncomfortably fast pace, getting about 80% of the way through my paper before noticing Mathilde Roman haunting the space in front of the stage, her body language and air of anxiety clearly indicating that it was time for me to stop. And so, after several months, during which my paper had expanded into an inspired exploration totaling 15,000 words, before being severely distilled (even in the small hours of that very morning) to 4,000 words, it hereby experienced what might be called its ‘final edit’ (or coup de grâce). Nevertheless, its nervous debut dispensed with, I find myself now confident enough to summarise the piece in just a few words, saying: “… it is about worlds within worlds, and words within words”.

The plenary for the morning session was chaired by Nicolas Liucci-Gutnikov of the Pompidou Centre. He made some general remarks that attempted, bravely, to gather these diverse papers into some kind of coherent summary, with respect to migration, but both this and the Q&A that followed seemed slightly cramped and disconnected, perhaps diverted by considerations of pending lunch. Nevertheless, Jean-Marc Poinsot (AICA France and Director of les Archives de Critique D’art , Rennes) used a question to expand on my paper, providing his own insights into the ideas of the Korean art critic Lee Yil and his relationship with Paris. Another question, raised by Elisa Rusca (AICA Switzerland), concerned the problem of potential spectacular-ity regarding various artists’ responses to migration. A related question, from Liam Kelly (AICA Ireland), challenged the panel to explore the most appropriate choice of media for disseminating issues migration (the questioner himself suggested video testimony, a la Willie Doherty).

During a buffet lunch, with all enjoying lively conversation, I met and chatted with the day’s ‘simultaneous translators’, the largely unsung heroes of such events, heard but rarely seen as they crucially enable the noble cause of internationalism from the confines of an unprepossessing soundproof booth placed somewhere in the shadows of the auditorium. I was able to ask them about issues of translation referred to in my paper and gained some interesting feedback from their expert point of view.

Beral Madri of AICA Turkey started the afternoon session, presenting reflections upon several decades of her own curatorial projects as concerned with the issue of migration. She cited a project based on Stuart Hall’s famous reference to the “long answer” inevitably given to the classic postcolonial question: “Where are you from?”. She also cited, and enthusiastically championed a series of videos collected under the title ‘Sahara Chronicles’ by artist Ursula Biemann.

Marek Wasilewski of Poland spoke next and, though sleep deprivation had started to tell at this point, he soon rejuvenated me by presenting an entertaining vision of radical Slavic geopolitics emerging among shifting power blocs that he provocatively designated as “East of the old Soviet border and West of the Great Wall of China”. One of the most significant art groups enthusiastically promoted in his talk was named ‘Slavs & Tatars’, but he also pointed out a certain theme of perversion, absurdity and black humour running through, not only their work but many other examples too. Ultimately, a range of references that even included two Rembrandt portraits (of a ‘Polish nobleman’ and a ‘Polish rider’), suggested that this theme not only has ‘legs’ but a long history too.

One memorable work involved Refleksja TV and Krzysztof Wójtowicz, independent journalists who video-recorded the public’s (largely negative, inadequately considered) responses to the (cleverly contrived and politically baited) question: “Do you think Arabic numerals should be taught in Polish schools?” Another promising project involved Jana Shostak, a recent Fine Art masters graduate, provocatively campaigning to have migrants to Poland renamed ‘Nowak’, which is the most popular name in the country but also happens to mean ‘newcomer’. The same artist is apparently striving to have all references to ‘migrants’ supplanted with use of this more benign, positive, welcoming and communal term (‘newcomer’). And as a possible sign that the campaign may already be working, I recently heard the same word deployed effectively by a Northern Irish politician referring to the cosmopolitan-isation of Belfast in ‘post-troubles’ times

Paola Camargo Gonzalez of Columbia spoke next, first presenting the bold equation that: too much money = tourism, and not enough money = migration. She then relayed emotive statistics regarding Colombia’s intimidating surges of violent power and criminality, which lead to high levels of internal (rather than international) migration, whereby people regularly and repeatedly move in fear of hardship, intimidation or violence. Her figures implicated 15% of the population of Colombia in various forms of forced migration.

She listed “three types of migration” which, as well as ‘leaving’ and ‘returning’ involved ‘pendular’ migration, i.e. the kind of hesitant and repetitive conundrum characteristic of those unable to leave their country and yet forced to move around within it – a disturbing dimension, not addressed elsewhere during a rich day of diverse perspectives on the issue.

Paola showed a disturbing clip from a Mauricio Arango film titled: ‘Revolution’s A Lie’ in which a modest shack, serving as a temporary home, is insidiously overwhelmed and destroyed by a sinister para-military gang emerging eerily out of some nearby vegetation. She also cited several other artists, including Liliana Angulo, who documented the complex hairstyles of migrants, braided in ways that can be used as maps, codes and secretions for valuables, as well as Santiago Escobar Jaramillo who created the indelible image of a ‘Phantom Village’.

One of Paola’s final examples introduced us to a project by the ‘Estamos en Obra’ collective, composed of Ximena Velásquez and Alexandra Mc Cormick. Here, the audience, who may find it difficult or impossible to leave their country, are encouraged (ironically) to ‘Visit the Old World’) while directed to sites and addresses in Bogota that have European names. The piece is thereby designed to make the audience into ‘tourists’ or ‘foreigners’ in their own country, further illustrating the condition of ‘pendular migration’.

Paul Groot (AICA Netherlands) introduced himself and his work via a preamble which referred to an interesting-sounding publication by Mieke Bal which describes Rembrandt as a proto-filmmaker. He then went on to show clips from, and make sophisticated appraisals of his own new film, titled ‘Beyond Index’ which tussles with complex cinematic conventions, and tries to update the ethics of representing otherness by means of cinema.

The plenary for this session seemed both more protracted and more effective than that for the morning session. Led by independent curator Natsa Petresin-Bachelez, it drew out many of the issues-raised into a productive discussion. One idea made a deep impression on me when Marek Wasilewski spoke of the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s claim that globally pervasive and increasing anti-migrant feelings might be derived from feelings of shame related to a denial and repression of everyone’s secreted experiences of some form of historical, personal or cultural migration. Wodiczko’s interpretation then seemed to call for a mass-therapeutic solution to counter the increasingly ugly and destructive hatred and xenophobia, emerging worldwide and rapidly reversing any aspiration to ever-increasing socio-political progress.

In the evening we assembled at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam, located in a supposedly ‘no-go’ zone of Paris (though the AICA delegates bustled boldly through its streets nonplussed). Curator of the Institut, Bérénice Saliou led us around a lavish curatorial project involving variations on a theme of calligraphy, here and there merged with sculpture, installation, street art and perhaps a legacy of action art too. The show included works, series’ and some courageous installations by Ammar Abo Bakr, Etel Adnan, Mustapha Akrim, L’Atlas, Fayçal Baghriche, Khaled Ben Slimane, Mounir Fatmi, Parastou Forouhar, Heather Hansen, Rachid Koraïchi, Nja Mahdaoui, Hassan Massoudy, Mari Minato, Bahman Panahi, Sara Ouhaddou, Hossein Valamanesh and Bernar Venet. The same Institut later hosted a lively dinner in their social space, which myself and a few AICA colleagues followed with at least one glass of Cognac in a nearby bar.

The next day I woke with an inexplicable malady and the realization that I had not paid for my drinks. Somewhat ill-affected in both body and mind, I nevertheless, and once again, arrived at the starting point for Day 5 of the Congress well ahead of schedule. This time it was by the banks of the river, at a point where it coincides with a canal. Avoiding the intense and polluted rush-hour roads that border and criss-cross the Seine, I killed time wandering around a quiet and colourful marina evaluating variations on the theme of the houseboat.

At 10 a.m. I joined my AICA colleagues to enter La Maison Rouge and enjoyed a guided tour of the exhibition ‘Etranger Resident’ which staged the formidable collection of Marin Kermitz. Fortunately, its mainstay was B&W photography, my own first (and enduring) love among the visual arts. The collection also involved many other, mainly late 20th century artists working in various media, along with some traditional, ethnographic objects. Fueled by generously supplied La Maison coffee, we were conscientiously guided through an expansive progression of atmospherically dimmed spaces, absorbing images and objects by André Kertesz, Alberto Giacometti and Christian Boltanski, Kara Walker, Michael Ackerman and Lewis Hyne, Josef Koudelka, Annette Messager and Man Ray, Duane Michals, Oscar Schlemmer and W. Eugene Smith, David Heath, and Gordon Parks, as well as enjoying an unexpected encounter with a painting by Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864 – 1916).

Having expressed our gratitude and said our goodbyes we boarded a coach which soon began to exacerbate my already queasy condition. The fact that it was delayed by Friday traffic and at one point seemed to make a detour, only added to my discomfort, so that I began to long to disgorge, even though the closer we got to ‘La Defense’, which was our destination, the less welcoming it seemed to look. At one point we passed what might be described as a ‘distressed-chic’ social housing project. I assumed that it must be notorious in Parisian cultural circles, as, from a distance at least, and in the day’s rather grey, unflattering light, it looked almost ‘pre-destroyed’, designed perhaps by some attention-seeking radical architect unafraid to mock and intimidate its presumably impoverished inhabitants. Subsequent research however revealed that it can look more charming, clever, and accommodating in close-up. Its name is the ‘Pablo Picasso cité’, a housing development in Nanterre.

Eventually, and, it seemed, almost reluctantly, the coach arrived at La Defense where, grandiose business-style architecture loomed over an unsheltered concourse, laid out like an enormous sacrificial stone beneath the faceless glass and steel of La Grande Arche – itself an over-inflated post-historical caricature of the city’s more famously, ‘triumphant’ neoclassical arch.

Despite the busy crowd hurrying across the cast concrete zone the area felt bereft of life and humanity; the occasional provision of semi-simulacral, boxed-in ‘natural’ vegetation failing to alleviate a pervasive sense of insensitivity. I began to notice adverts for goods and services that apparently no longer require slogans, product names, or indeed any text at all in order for them to effectively do their business in public space. The branding of our environment and psyches is, it seems, now so thorough that we are predisposed to respond to nothing more than a few abstracted colours and forms, e.g. a high definition close-up photograph of the red and yellow curves of a cardboard McDonalds French-fries pouch, magnified 100 times and placed unavoidably in our path and in our vision.

As the crocodile of AICA delegates, now a little late for our next appointment, jogged along feeling both part of the La Defense crowd and simultaneously critical observers of it, one of my colleagues suggested that the experience might best be described as a “capitalist safari”. Soon after, Raphael Cuir, (President of AICA France), making a way for us all through the unforgiving cultural desert, called back to his followers: “This would perhaps be a good opportunity to open a bank account!”.

After negotiating tight security and some awkward chaperoning arrangements, we finally entered the ‘Contemporary Art Collection’ of the Societe Generale, a monumental bank whose towering flagship building seemed, on the inside, to be constituted of almost entirely vacant airy foyer space, thus conjuring the image in my mind of capitalism as a kind of enormous soufflé, irresistible to consume but ultimately weightless, worthless and inevitably corruptive.

We were all issued passes, checked through turnstiles, and, efficiently subdivided, like figures on a spreadsheet, into manageable sub-groups for our respective tours, which, it turned out later, may have witnessed quite different collections housed in different buildings.

The current star, or most recent acquisition of the collection that my own group saw was Fahamu Pecou “… born in 1975, an interdisciplinary artist whose works combine observations on hip-hop, fine art and popular culture. He made his mark early in his career with his faux covers of leading magazines such as George, Art Review and ArtNews …” (according to the collection’s blurb).

Elsewhere, a heavily framed Pierre Soulanges painting looked quite incongruous among mostly more recent works, but in truth the curating throughout could be easily criticised for trying, unsuccessfully, to accommodate a wide range of works of art in spaces and rooms whose shapes, surfaces, lighting, access etc. were clearly intended, and far better equipped for the kind of bureaucratic and financial transactions presumably taking place elsewhere in the building. 

With a one-word announcement from our guide, our much anticipated ‘lunch’ was reduced to “brunch!” and we were ushered into yet another multi-purpose function room or ‘event space’ now to enjoy gastronomic delectations seemingly inspired by some as yet unpublished chapter of Gulliver’s Travels. These snacks took the form of tiny, complex, highly decorative but probably protein-rich snacks, even including a kind of micro-soup served in something like Vodka glasses.

At this point, beginning to fret now about my own schedule and travel plans, I made my congress goodbyes with the usual flurry of awkward air-kisses, handshakes and man hugs while gushing promises to internationally correspond and collaborate that all-too-often remain unfulfilled by the time of the following congress.

Alone now, and in search of an atmosphere imbued with greater vitality than that offered by La Defense, I walked down and out of its grim, grey concourse to try and locate a small cemetery that I had glimpsed from the windows of the coach as we had arrived. Sad to say, on arrival at the ‘New Cemetery of Neuilly-sur-Seine’ I found it to be horribly walled-in by a 2-3 meter high ribbon of concrete which blocks-off, and thus renders both redundant and absurd, its once welcoming, proudly pedimented stone gates.

The offending wall then caused me to circle almost the entire cemetery, always walking by a busy service road on a narrow and irregular pavement, before I was able to access the cemetery’s only remaining entrance, apparently the old ‘back door’, previously reserved, I suspect, for groundsmen and strictly utilitarian purposes. This once graceful, sacred and respectful place, lying under the gargantuan gaze of La Defense, thus felt badly profaned, and I couldn’t help wondering if the architects of La Defense had perhaps regarded it resentfully, as an insurmountable obstacle to some even more comprehensive plans to thoroughly dehumanise this area of Paris.

Making a rapid tour of the graveyard helped me reorient and ground myself mentally, physically and spiritually, and though I didn’t, on this occasion, come across any great art historical names of the kind I have enjoyed paying respects to in Paris’ larger and more famous cemeteries, I later discovered that the ‘New Cemetery of Neuilly-sur-Seine’ is in fact the last resting place of one – perhaps slightly lonely – Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1864 -1944).

Having retraced my long perambulation of the cemetery’s obfuscatory wall, I made my way from La Defense to Gare Du Nord after waiting on a packed platform for a very crowded overground train. Before checking-in for the Eurostar service to London I used my last half hour in Paris to explore the Rue De Maubeuge. There I soon found myself haggling, in broken French (on my part) and broken English (on the part of the trader) over a tiny trinket that I aimed to take home as a gift for my partner, the artist Bada Song, who – as well as Korean academic Shim Chung, Henry Meyric Hughes (AICA UK) and myself – worked so hard and conscientiously on the translation from Korean into English of Lee Yil’s writings, the very process that led to the writing of my paper and thus my presence here in Paris.

The proposed gift was, I thought, a very unusual antique toy, the miniature replication in painted lead of a narrow pier and lighthouse. However, failing to account for the exchange rate between British and European currencies I balked at what was, in retrospect, a quite reasonable offer of “eight” (Euros) for the keepsake (originally priced at “twelve”) and eventually left it behind, only to realise soon after that as a consequence I will now be forced to think of it, occasionally at least, and always regretfully, for the remainder of my days.

It would be ideal to here conclude with a literary, possibly Proustian flourish, that literally, allegorically or metaphorically connects ‘piers’ and ‘lighthouses’ (as well as miniaturisation perhaps) to the 50th AICA Congress or its ‘Day 4’ on which we explored the pressing issue of migration. However, I will leave that task to the creative imagination, the skill and critical faculties of any AICA member who might have followed and endured the journey from the outset of my (surely over-long, somewhat self-indulgent, and thoroughly unassigned) report, to this, its ultimately arbitrary destination.