What does a conference want vs what does it actually do
In a recent discussion with artist Salwa Aleryani we contemplated what it would mean to rewrite a project’s statement of intent –a school to be preise– in the present tense. The statement would serve as a more honest formulation that corresponds to the changing reality of a project from imagination to a state of ongoing realization. The premise and questions which were set out for the CIMAM 2014 Annual Conference in Doha were largely left unaddressed or completely answered. The space they created was generative, yet the overarching ambition, to be able to adequately address topics as vast as Building institutions in the African and the Middle East contexts (one of the conference’s three major themes) in a single day’s agenda, is simply implausible.
A whole series of conferences probably would not be enough to do so, especially considering the geographic range that ‘Africa and the Middle East’ implies. The countries this encompasses, spanning from Morocco to the Gulf, have little in common from the vantage point of cultural policies, economic and legal infrastructures for the arts, and varying resources, starting with completely different basic challenges, such as the rate of literacy in some countries. The entire African continent was represented by the single presentation and intervention of Gabi Ngcobo from Johannesburg. But it was interesting to witness a discussion arising around the problematic that such definitions and geographical groupings imply even if not a programmed topic of debate.
There certainly was an unspoken frustration that lingered in the absence of an in depth address of the hosting context, which could have played a role of great interest with respect to the other topics the conference set to investigate, such as private collections taking on the role of museums and what this implies, the educational role of museums in writing local histories, private resources and public mandates, etc. What felt like circumventing certain discussions of the specific context created an elephant in the conference room. Silent questions loomed loud –even if only implicitly shared amongst participants, or in private side-conversations.
In general I wonder if shedding some of the political correctness and being less ‘globally’ ambitious, focusing more on creating an involved and directed situation out of such large-scale conferences, could bring about less approximated discussions but a more critical and incisive debate for the future of the institutions involved. Particular interventions and presentations are worthy of pointing out: Hito Steyerl’s keynote speech on new institutions existing on the verge of secrecy; Maria Lind’s lecture through which she managed not only to present (or as usually happens, celebrate) her institutional work but to tie it to the broader considerations investigated by the conference; the empirical (and more than speculative) presentation by Olav Velthuis on the real influence of the market in determining the value of works of art; and the seemingly transparent statements of Luiz Augusto Teixeira de Freitas about the dangerous dynamics at work in relation to the influence of privates in museums policies (and speculations).
Allocating more time for discussion was necessary. The structure of the conference presents the question of whether some flexibility could be introduced in pre-conceived schedules to accommodate for urgent questions and debate as they emerge through discussion. This same reflection can be extended towards how we conceive our institutions: will we ever afford to be flexible and responsive to changes in our surrounding contexts and in relation to continuously unfolding events? Can programs evolve more organically rather than correspond to a rigid and predetermined plan of action?
What a conference achieves is not solely measured by what happens on stage. Many of the unresolved questions or inspired reflections onstage informally populate discussions over breakfasts, lunches, dinners and late night rendezvous. The experience was overall rewarding, becoming more personally and professionally acquainted with the varied range of participating people and institutions. It exceeds the function of networking towards the possibility of forming new much needed networks. My hope is that this conference will continue to lead to new relationships through collaborations, and feed further discussions over time, with the prospect of more incisiveness for our institutional becoming.