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Issue 10

School of Thought

The Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne aims to encourage ‘productive dissent’

BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Interviews | 28 MAY 13

Anna Verena Müller, Photograph used for the launch of the Youth Academy of the Arts of the World’s first lounge Licht und Schatten on 25 May 2013 (courtesy: Anna Verena Müller)

Since its founding in October 2012, the Academy of the Arts of the World has caused quite a stir in Cologne and the Rhineland. It features an impressive roll call of members (including, among others, Ekaterina Degot, Tom Holert, Liza Lim, Walid Raad and Ali Samadi), a provocatively international programme and a mission statement that includes theatre, dance, film, music and literature as well as fine art. The Academy’s first elected president is the Israeli curator Galit Eilat.

Timotheus Vermeulen Your website states that the Academy has no permanent home but you do have an office in Cologne’s Mediapark. It is here that your talks programme Salon is hosted. I’m confused – do you have a space, or not?

Galit Eilat The website is correct in that we do not host exhibitions or performances at our Mediapark office; they are organized elsewhere. We want to reach out to the art community in the city. Setting up exhibitions and performances across Cologne, working with a different space each time, allows us to engage productively with the existing scene and to make our discussions travel. It also raises the question – one that we are very keen to open up – what is the relation between place and practice? Does the Academy need to produce knowledge inside its own four walls? Or can it work in different ways?

Few of the board members reside in Cologne. You, too, work elsewhere most of the time. Is this a problem?

GE I think that precisely because the board is so varied, with people coming from all over the world and from all kinds of disciplines, we can inspire an intercultural, multidisciplinary discourse that is rare, not just in Cologne, but generally.

What is your particular goal with the Academy?

GE What I want, what we want as a group, is to create a discourse that does not simply reflect or even criticize society, or any one group’s position within society, but that proposes change. I feel very strongly that if you criticize something you should also be able to offer alternatives. This is difficult, of course, but also very exciting. At our first Salon the audience remained silent, passive. They acted as if they were in a theatre. But what we want, and what we see happening more and more, is interaction and exchange. The academy and the speakers, the speakers and the artists, the artists and the audience – they need not agree with each other but they do need to enter into a dialogue.

How do we see this idea of constructive critique in the programming?

GE What we want all our speakers, our fellows, the artists we invite, to do is to offer alternative models. People like Dmitry Vilensky, Donna Williams, Rasha Salti and Sarah Rifky come from contexts – both in terms of artistic practice and cultural background – different to many of us on the board and our audience members. So they have different experiences, different ideas. Let me give an example with regard to cultural difference. For a long time, the pre­valent governing system in Central Europe was the welfare state. This system was good, of course. But it also created docile, dependent subjects. Now that this system, because of the crisis, because of changes in politics, has come to an end, those subjects are at a loss. They do not know what to do. Other countries have never had a welfare system. The US, Egypt, Lebanon – they don’t recognize this principle at all. In Israel, where I come from, there is also a different kind of structure. These different systems create different subjects. What is interesting, I think, is to ask people from these different systems about the models they create to cope with conflict, with inequality, with poverty. The programme seeks to translate these models to the European or German context. Not necessarily to implement directly, physically. But to create an archive, a capital of thoughts.

Founding members of the Academy of the Arts of the World, 2012, from left to right: Lemi Ponifasio, Tom Holert, Madhusree Dutta, Galit Eilat, Liza Lim & Liao Yiwu (Photograph: Halm Dogan)

What are your plans for the near future?

GE I am planning an event on conflict. Not on any one conflict in particular, but the idea of conflict. What does it mean to be in conflict? It means something different for me, coming from Israel, than for someone from the Netherlands. It will also mean something different for a musician and a writer or a psychologist. On another note, but related to this, the Academy has invited Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti within the fellowship programme to set up a ‘campus in a camp’. Sandi and Alessandro have worked with Palestinian refugees in the Dheisheh Camp in the West Bank. What they aim for is to make the refugees see themselves not as victims, but as part of society – as people who can contribute something. This summer they will set up camp in Cologne to bring some of these refugees into contact with inhabitants of Cologne.

So the Academy of the Arts of the World harks back to multiculturalism, in spite of Chancellor Merkel’s pessimism towards this concept?

GE No, not entirely. Multiculturalism was about consensus. What I want to create with the Academy is productive dissent. We get further by disagreeing, by constantly problematizing and reestablishing our positions.

There has been some controversy around a performance the Academy is supporting in cooperation with the Israeli artist Yael Bartana. Bartana has asked inhabitants of Cologne to join her on 28 June in commemorating Jom haScho’a, Israel’s Holocaust memorial day. The plan is to hold a two minute silence in memory of the Holocaust’s enduring legacy, ranging from ‘the Israeli occupation of Palestine territories’ to the ‘displacement of minorities in Eastern Europe’ and the recent ‘NSU killings’ in Germany. Is this what you mean by ‘productive dissent’?

Stephanie Thiersch/MOUVOIR, Mitumba – The Happening, 2013, Performance documentation (Photograph: Ursula Kaufmann)

GE What I find interesting is that people have criticized the performance without having seen it. They also seem to know little about Yael’s other work such as Trembling Time (2001) or And Europe Will Be Stunned (2012). Unsurprisingly then, they have misunderstood what the performance is about. Yael’s point is not to criticize the principle of Holocaust memorial day, or, as some papers have put it, parody it. Not at all. What she wants to problematize is its exclusivity. She questions its ownership. The performance seeks to make the memorial available to other cultures as well, memorizing other genocides and traumatic events. Not to minimize the magnitude of the Holocaust, but to give equal thought and reverence to the tragedies still taking place today. This is how we can give the past meaning in the present. But if this causes confusion, raises questions, that is a good thing. We need to think about remembering, work on it. And yes, perhaps that is what I mean by dissent.

Raising questions rather than answering them?

GE Yes. The act of remembering cannot be something we do unquestioningly. It will fade, lose its meaning. We need to debate it so as to keep it vital, to keep it important for the present. What are we remembering, why, how?

Given that the Academy’s mission statement stipulates one of its chief goals is to reach younger people, isn’t it odd that most of the board members are in their 40s and 50s?

GE You’re right. This is something that needs to be looked at. We’ve only just begun. So give it time. In the meantime, we have established a parallel board made up of 14 teenagers. They come from Cologne and other towns in the vicinity and represent not only the region’s youth but also its cultural diversity. They reflect on the Academy’s programme and propose new ideas. So far they’ve been doing great. But again we have to put in some more work on that.

Yael Bartana’s performance Two Minutes of Standstill will take place at 11 am on 28 June in Cologne. Phil Collins’ installation My Heart’s in My Hands …, a project supported by the AdKW, runs until 21 July as part of his current show at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

Timotheus Vermeulen is professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo.