Everywhere and Nowhere are Different Places29/12/2017
“Rob! What are you doing here!” Natasa Petresin-Bachelez, curator of the upcoming Countour Biennale and formerly active in AICA Slovenia, was surprised to see me at the National Museum for the History of Immigration for the 50th Congress of AICA International. What indeed was I doing here in what Honorary President Henry Meyric Hughes once described as a transition from ‘Gentleman’s Club to Human Fellowship’? The story started on a flight from Oaxaca to Mexico City last year where I was planning a new curatorial project with artist Tania Candiani, (who represented Mexico in the 2015 Venice Biennale). I am always last to get on a plane so I can choose my seat, but I was beaten to it by another passenger who turned out to be Australian/Korean curator and writer for Art Monthly Australasia En Young Ahn, on her way to the 49th AICA Congress in Havana. What are the chances of two curators who don’t know each other and write for an Art Monthly sitting together on a plane? Nevertheless, this coincidental encounter persuaded me to join AICA this year and attend my first congress.
Natasa was chairing the final session of “Everywhere and Nowhere: Migration and contemporary art” covering subjects like ‘Empathy – The artist as Migrant” “Voluntary and involuntary nomadism” and started with a great quote from UK artist John Akomfrah “ When I ask where sombody is from I expect a long answer” Many of us have very long answers to this question too. During this, the most interesting session, in my view in a long AICA week, I really wanted to ask what delegates thought of the continuous performance “The Arrivadrifte” by Kubra Khademi going on in the main lobby. The artist, a refugee from Afghanistan living in exile in Europe, decided to make a performance referring to the much-criticised recreation by Ai Wei Wei of the death of Alan Kurdi by a sea in Greece. The artist lay motionless for the entire conference (a long time in performance terms) and was almost ignored, unlike in Wei Wei’s photo-shoot. Kahdemi: “For me or anyone from a war-torn country, saving our lives becomes the priority; we leave everything behind…Are all people’s lives equally worthwhile? Yes, we say unanimously. Yet, a still body is easy to pass, on the sidewalk, in the metro. Unthinkable, but it happens.” As veteran Village Voice critic Kim Levine put it earlier in the day “ Everywhere and nowhere are different places…In times of emergency images lose their power.”
It was very interesting to hear Amnesty International France President Camille Blanc remind us that Amnesty, which in common with AICA, campaigns for international freedom of speech, is banned in China. There is also not yet a Chinese AICA, although there are many individual members and this fact seemed to resonate on the first day of the congress, where we were asked to vote for a new President but then also on the destination of the next Congress. We were asked to consider a vote on AICA taking a break for next year, for both financial and organisational reasons because of the demanding nature of the Paris congress, but the presence of a number of representatives from Taiwan and Germany reminded us that promises had already been made that the congress would be hosted in one of the those countries.
A particularly impassioned speech from Lin Chi-Ming, President of AICA Taiwan caused another vote to be taken, arguing that if Taiwan took up the financial and organisation burden, why should it not host the congress next year? The motion was won, on a considerable show of hands. However another aspect then emerged, which was that this might delay the setting up of a Chinese AICA, given the international status of Taiwan as a non-recognised de-facto Republic and the One-China policy dating back to Nixon and which affects international relations with Taiwan to this day. Cultural engagement with China is a complex issue given that, despite the grandstanding confrontations of Ai Wei Wei, artistic activity is relatively prolific there. Bearing in mind the instability of a certain other superpower’s President, China could be an important participant in any global discourse, not least considering AICA’s agendas of free speech and expression, were it to be allowed to set up there. That said, we should not let AICA Taiwan appear to be be sidelined by international power politics. It’s interesting to see, at AICA, art being affected by these global agendas. The situation continues to unfold with the election of the energetic and engaging Lisbeth Rebello Goncalves from Brazil as President. In any event, I feel these questions of hosting need to be more formalised, as they are in other nomadic international events.
One of the highest points of the congress was the keynote by the heavy-hitting theoretician Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who has brought the term ’subaltern’ – meaning one who has no power in existing political stuctures, first coined by Gramsci – into currency. In her talk ‘Halting Map-Making’ she analysed the interaction between capital and data but time and time again, one was more struck by the image of her moving from being a theoreticial powerhouse at Columbia University (she was one of the first to translate Derrida in the US) to sitting under a banyan tree in her rural education projects in remote villages with no power, no internet and no toilets, discussing the difference between the rich and the poor, living on the ‘fringes of history’. I look forward to more stimulating congresses.
by Rob La Frenais
Rob is an international independent curator and critic at www.roblafrenais.info
He writes regularly for Art Monthly UK and the Paris-based web magazine Makery.info
‘The Arrivadrifte’ by Kubra Khademi at the Museum of Immigration