BY Tirdad Zolghadr in Opinion | 01 JUN 11
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Issue 140

From a Distance

How can cultural institutions best respond to political crises?

BY Tirdad Zolghadr in Opinion | 01 JUN 11

Construction Work at the Saadiyat Island development, Abu Dhabi, 2011. Courtesy: Samer Muscati/ Human Rights Watch

This spring, the United Arab Emirates (uae) became an epicentre of contentious debate around institutional responsibility in the wake of larger political developments: the Art Dubai fair and Sharjah Biennial 10 took place in the shadow of the Arab revolution, an event as vast and historical as it gets. By the time the Gulf Cooperation Council, including the uae, were sending in troops to quell the Bahraini uprising in March, many were hoping local art institutions would respond in some way. After all, even European museums were rushing to hold timely screenings and symposia.

Other pressing developments, not quite as titanic in scope, included the boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which now includes some 1,200 artists demanding an improvement of working conditions on the construction site, and, thirdly, the Sharjah Biennial Foundation’s sacking of director Jack Persekian, ostensibly over censorship issues. Not only are these matters largely unrelated, all three examples exceed in complexity what I have room to discuss here. Which is why I won’t even attempt to address developments in the Arab world per se. Instead I’m attempting to trace, however crudely, an intrinsic challenge to institutions in the field at large, with their commendable hunger to reflect and ideally partake in historical change.

In other words, this is not about people in the thick of the current uprisings in the Arab world, but about colleagues and organizations facing similar degrees of separation from such events as myself. The current developments are especially bewildering and overwhelming to someone watching from the Center for Curatorial Studies, upstate New York, and writing this piece is an attempt to test my own preconceptions as I mumble at my MacBook amid the curators and the squirrels. My stubborn contention is that contemporary art institutions have a contribution to make which is different to that of newspapers, ngos or cultural attachés.

Generally speaking, responding to urgency with urgency isn’t art’s strong suit. That ‘art cannot represent’ has been argued ever since Plato. Others regard the very attempt to mirror history unfolding, at least in commensurable terms, as an ethical failure – ‘art should not represent’. At times, the latter camp argues that deconstructing the mechanisms of visibility, as opposed to partaking in the visibility competition oneself, will always be the forte of contemporary art; that its strength lies in a politics of time that is layered, reflexive and oblique, by virtue of which it can peruse the very channels through which a historical occurrence big or small is even thinkable as such. Because this kind of approach takes time, it’s often seen as either submissive or arrogant, or both.

On the other hand, to state the obvious, it’s not as if the well-meant, ‘urgent’ gesture is necessarily less conceited. Thinking back to the Tehran demonstrations of June 2009, if I imagine someone telling me – to my teargassed, bloated and frightened face, caked in sweat, tears and snot – that an art fair or museum multiplex was championing the cause with a panel discussion, it may well have made the teargas smell like Chanel N°5 by comparison. It’s not surprising that at this year’s Art Dubai Egyptian artists and curators stuck to their programming as initially devised, before the revolution, whereas commercial gallery booths were filled with Che Guevaras, dramatic iPhone footage and revolutionary text pieces.

Galleries aside, the leading metropolitan museums now aggressively maintain that there is no site or calamity which should be exempt from being responded to in their programming. The emblem of this breathless expansionism, I’d say, is no longer the BlackBerry but the woolly house slippers – we purport to be at home pretty much everywhere. In other words, when solidarity merely points to faraway places, it consolidates a metropolitan ‘criticality’ that can become complacent, comfortable and serviceable. Any situation produces its own set of media tropes. These tropes are especially dicey when they aren’t easily recognizable as such; when whatever is emitted by channels through which painfully difficult matters are conceptualized, mapped, and rendered recognizable for faraway onlookers is taken at face value.

I’m not implying that an apolitical art world is better than a vulturizing, self-congratulating one, but it’s worth considering whether particular types of ‘immersion’ into pressing crisis scenarios can have long-term conservative effects. Maybe the lure of proximity can move you even further away from what you’re addressing. Everyone prefers proximity – proximity as in active solidarity and close understanding. But most things tacitly imply a certain measure of distance, and perhaps a (big) art institution is not ideally suited for this, as it tends to be less a forensic microscope and more a wall of Marshall amps.

This land of Marshall amps has plenty of potential (why else would anyone write a magazine column such as this one?), it’s just that the potential has specific traits. More often than not, art institutions are not exactly subtle; they tend to circulate and amplify, historicize and monumentalize, glamorize and instrumentalize, collude and co-opt. The fascinating thing about working in art institutions is witnessing the ways you can skew and complicate their own stated ideologies, leaving complex traces with unpredictable effects. To expect much more is bizarre. In the aftermath of the Sharjah censorship fiasco, one of the curators mourned that the Biennial was a onetime ‘beacon of enlightenment in the Middle East’. Instead of chiding institutions for failing to be fantastical figurines of transformation, maybe we could be more modest in our expectations to begin with.

Imran Qureshi, 'Blessings Upon the Land of My Love', at Sharjah Biennial 10, 2011. Courtesy: Sharjah Biennial 10.

Much of this rant comes terrifyingly close to the idea of ‘sober remove’ à la old-school historiography, or even worse. Over a tense dinner in Dubai, a good friend warned me that I sounded like Theodor W. Adorno calling the cops on his students. Said friend was referring to January 1969, when Adorno explained to the press why critical theory cannot lead ‘directly’ to political action as his students were being hauled away in handcuffs. Thank you, friend, point well taken. Still, at the risk of caricature: there’s stuff out there that deserves more than just the low-hanging fruit of outreach bathos.

To put it differently; you don’t have to circulate and amplify, historicize and monumentalize everything you do. There are, I dare say, settings beyond the visibility economy, organizations less gargantuan in scope, where you get the chance to mull over the methods you employ and the positions they tacitly predetermine. Where ‘withdrawal’ is not a group-show theme or an intellectualized daydream, but a simple state of affairs. Promoting such approaches – whether they are predominantly scholarly, activist or artistic in temperament – is a contradiction in terms, but I assume you all know they’re out there.

Tirdad Zolghadr is a curator and writer who teaches at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, NY.