Parallelisms: Intimacy in the Informal
The Museums in Progress: Public Interest, Private Resources? programming, panels and conversations highlighted and reinforced ideas prevalent within contemporary museum practices. Over the course of three days, it brought together museum directors, world-renowned curators, fine artists and fundamental cultural practitioners working actively worldwide in the formation and validation of the institution.
Focusing on various limitations and constraints from economies of scale, praxis, programming and possibilities of engaging with new audiences, along with ethical and practical codes deeply embedded in the ecosystems of institution, the conversations and discussions proved more pragmatic than I anticipated.
As the director of an autonomous art publication/ platform and cultural instigator working across the wider Caribbean, the emerging status of both regions –the Middle East and the Caribbean– fell into a kind of mirroring where the articulation of new narratives need space and structure in order to enter the public arena with more legitimacy, veracity and tenacity.
German artist, Hito Steyerl, opened with a powerful keynote address around the future of museums and modes of confinement that indicate a new type of visibility and affirmation within the art world today. In a place like the Caribbean where the museum doesn’t function to engage with the wider public, what systematic and structural re-workings and methodologies can lead to the dissemination of art? Would this be socially bent, focusing on collaboration and building local infrastructure? If not, then what is the regional suggestion? Who is leading this current charge, if not autonomous initiatives? Since there is more or less only invisibility, what can our containers, actions and agency look like if defined by the genuine needs and context of the space?
What other points of value arise from this historically privileged moment to maneuver the territory of First World established institutional paradigms? For a region that exists within embryonic/cyclic development, Steyerl’s problematic introduced something more complicated; the act of removal, the act of emptying a space of its heritage, and the setting up of a quarantined vacuum of valued work for the wealthy and the franchise. Her introduction was elliptical and meandering, providing grounding for the real context of the hierarchies and visible powers that control the art production, market and distribution.
Gabi Ngcobo, curator and educator at Wits School of the Arts in Johannesburg, South Africa tied her practice to an act of constructing spaces and opportunities that combat isolation, while rearticulating her practice around vestiges of colonization. As someone invested in historical legacies and traumas birthed through this system, the issue of independence and its practiced mythology that framed Ngcobo’s understanding of building institutions as a creative act to counter the ennui and dysfunction of nationalist agendas spoke strongly to my experience of working in the region.
The founding of liminal spaces can end up being a potent vehicle to confront lived and practical realities. The challenge lies in constructing the specific language to enter into first world narratives, and the pervasive struggles faced while trying to depart from reductive assumptions and singularities.
The informal network and the intimacy that it breeds are crucial to developing countries. Within the conference, sustainability, public engagement and new practices to reinvigorate the life of the institution were recurrent topics. This became especially apparent during moments where the discussion shifted from more prestigious museums to the work done by numerous independent working professionals. They voiced concerns about the catch 22 around funding and nationalistic cultural schemes, issues surrounding the market, the importance of collaboration and the creation of more open platforms –spaces of experimentation– piloted by the institution.
The sustainability of this cultural work seems to be hanging by threads and swaying. Finding new ways to counteract existing models that work in opposition to institutionalization and with ‘Post-Independence’ rather than the contested and fraught ‘post-colonial’ discourse seems like the work of the future. The immobility of cultural workers, failure of government agendas and the limitations of adaptation were augmented as a plague to freedom.
The conversations weren’t all dire, however, and far from pedantic, regimented and exclusive. The 32 travel grant recipients supported by the Getty Foundation, Qatar Museums/Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and Fundación Cisneros/ Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros broadened and infused the academic and practical dialogues. These meetings became the most fruitful point of interest, departure, and entrée into CIMAM’s community.
During our evening sessions, we spoke comprehensively about parallel ecologies that could allow for collaboration across our spaces, leading to a healthier, dynamic structure intrinsically feeding into the culture and vibrancy of formal institutions. It was important for me to find a way to address cultural and collective infrastructure and think about the prescriptions that we often deposit on our public and participants within the field. It was clear from the discussion that most of us had similar experiences working in our local areas, and that the problem laying at the center of our ecosystem is one of communication and embedded established value.
I came across a study presented by the Yams Collective back in August that stated that it will be another 130 years till the institution casts its eye on work that has been marginalized and undervalued; that is, work lying outside of the established canon. That is another century before work by people of color has the representation and support that it deserves. As a region that has suffered from various stereotypes –exoticization, primitivism etc.– how then do we think about diversity, public access and new ways of considering the museum, not as some stringent, bureaucratic entity, but as a space that will serve as repository of ideas?
Alternative models offer spaces of freedom and surprise to the public. Within the rapidly changing demographic, what are the contingencies being developed to ensure that evolving social trends, reinforced hierarchies and shifts in cultural diplomacy could enter into the public sphere in dynamic ways? This perhaps is the notable question that is continuously being assessed internally.
I can’t say that the CIMAM conference provided any definitive answers to the questions that it posed around the designated theme, but it certainly created the opportunity to understand the similitude that exists culturally in a first world arts industry, while providing its participants with fodder to consider the growth, expansion, immediacy and relevance of contemporary approaches to social practice.
Can museums ever be viable, valuable and relevant to the Caribbean region in the way that we need them to be? I don’t know, but I do hope that with the birth of the industry, the rise of academia and social activism/consciousness that we can certainly see a change manifest in a way that works in tandem with our contexts, cultures and histories.
Many thanks to the board of the Fundación Cisneros/Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros for offering me a chance to further explore practices which will undoubtedly bolster the criticality of ARC’s focus, and perhaps even point to future collaborations.