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Frieze London 2016

Crossing Over

Frieze Talks address the critical issue of open and closed borders

BY Christy Lange in Frieze Week Magazine | 05 OCT 16

View the full Frieze Talks 2016 programme

We often look to artists to respond to social and political crises, because art can be a form of activism, and offer a framework for asking questions in an open-ended way. Today there is no shortage of upheavals for artists to address. Worldwide recent political rhetoric has thrived on the premise of ‘securing borders’, playing on a discomfort and fear about the contingency or fragility of boundaries between what is understood as ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Deserts, cities, coasts and seas: these territories are becoming physical and symbolic battlegrounds. Are we experiencing a kind of reflex against openness? Why? And what consequences does this tension have on the contemporary art being made today, and on the artists making it?

These are some of questions that my co-curator Gregor Muir and I hope to address in this year’s Frieze Talks. For the first time, the programme at Frieze London will focus largely on a single theme: that of ‘borders’ – from the geographic and political to the social and psychological.

Each day at Frieze London, Frieze Talks will host a series of lunchtime sessions in which artists, writers and thinkers will discuss the limitations of the physical and psychological borders that we both erect and ght to break down. Participants will bring a wide range of experiences and disciplines to the conversation. They will include artist and writer Hannah Black (who explores the intersections of systems of race, class and gender in embodied experience), Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout (whose provocative and personal videos transgress social and political boundaries as the artist inserts himself into contexts that are not ‘his own’), and Jill Magid (who takes a first-person approach in her interventions, infiltrating systems of power from the Liverpool Police Department to the US Army).

Daniel Castro Garcia / John Radcliffe Studio, The Boat Graveyard, Lampedusa, Italy, May 2015: Rescued boat stands with five others as a permanent memorial to those who have died attempting to reach the island, 2016. Courtesy: Daniel Castro Garcia / John Radcliffe Studio. Images from Foreginer: Migration into Europe 2015-2016, 2016, published by MACK Books

What can creative people do in the face of constantly shifting emergencies like the refugee crisis, the impending Brexit or the rise of arch-populists like Donald Trump? Over the last year, some artists have tried to tackle the ethics and politics of borders head on. John Radcliffe Studio’s Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015–16, for example, combines portrait photography and text to counteract media sensationalism. Ahead of the UK referendum on EU membership, German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans launched a campaign of pro-EU posters that anyone could download for free. Meanwhile Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei has staged a number of interventions – from installing large numbers of life jackets at cultural sites to recreating an image of a drowned child – to draw attention to the migration crisis. Asking why Ai’s works have been accused of being flat-footed while Tillmans’ project was considered – at least aesthetically – a success, leads to another, even thornier question: Can there ever be an ‘effective’ or ‘appropriate’ artistic reaction to a large-scale human crisis? What would that look like?

To move towards an answer, we feel it’s necessary to cross another kind of threshold: that between speakers and attendees. So throughout the week, those on the stage and in the audience are invited to discuss topics as equal participants. The programme will culminate in a Summit on Sunday, when we will synthesize the week’s ideas and formulate proposals for how art can address our current crises most effectively. Responding to a growing feeling of urgency – and sometimes helplessness – about the global status quo, this year’s Frieze Talks will offe a forum to both speak as well as listen. I hope you will join in the conversation. 

Frieze Talks take place daily Thursday–Sunday in the Auditorium at Frieze London. They are curated for the second consecutive year by Christy Lange and Gregor Muir (current Executive Director of the ICA and incoming Director of Collection, International Art Tate Modern). For full listings see frieze.com

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.