CIMAM´s conference takes place every year in a different setting. In this opportunity, the chosen destination was Singapore, a city that at first sight seems to have landed from a near future. Staggering skyscrapers and shopping malls merge with colorful Buddhist and Indian temples. Huge parks and gardens spread through the city offering a mind recess after so much concrete. Magnificently well designed, with plenty of exuberant plants and trees, some of these parks are inhabited by cocks, chickens and birds that may join you on your walking. The ultimate attraction is Gardens by the Bay, a futuristic garden built over a terrain gained to the sea that combines an elixir of mineral and botanical species with the latest technology. Mixed feelings arouse in this visit. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the closed gardens, the variety of plants, flowers, cactus and stalactites displayed through four different levels. However, this perfection is also a bit tricky. I can´t help a certain feeling of mistrust every time I find everything on its right and exact position.
Going back to the city, it was also a nice surprise to find simplicity and spontaneity in urban public spaces near take-away shops, where young people gather to eat or have a drink sitting in circles on the floor during the day and also until late in the evening. Singapore is one of the safest places to live, but this also comes in hand with tons of security cameras placed on every corner resembling a reality show in which policemen are dressed up as civilians. I wonder how it would be to live in a place where you are constantly observed, and how this may condition your actions and expressions. Paradoxically, the sense of fear gains terrain on a psychological level. The border between public and private becomes somehow liminal, but I wonder up to what point people are conscious about this fact as they buy their groceries in a hawker center or just walk on the streets.
Nikos Papastergiadis, the first keynote lecturer of the conference, structured his speech in three parts. When speaking about the urban condition he quoted Karl Marx, who claimed, by the end of the XIXth century, that a city is a place for a revolution that will rescue us from the idiocy of our own lives. In which possible ways can this be pursued? Are museums responsible for society’s mind awakening and development of a critical perspective? Are artistic institutions really capable of achieving those goals or are they part of a mere spectacle? The Roles and Responsibilies of Museums in Civil Society, the topic for this year gathering, attempted to bring light over these questions.
This takes me to another good surprise I had during one of our evening tours: the “Quiet Room”, in the Singapore Art Museum. Located on the second floor, on the way up to more exhibition rooms and near the toilets, this little, cozy and iconoclastic space is specially designed for visitors in need for a break. Do museums really consider the mental, physical and emotional conditions of their viewers? While speaking with one of the girls from the staff, she mentioned: “our visitors are sometimes just tired you know?” This place was the result of a “fight” they won against other areas of the institution, as these areas couldn´t understand why there is nothing hanged or displayed there. A room with nothing but comfortable couches and AC, and a name of its own, where you are not forced to purchase anything to stay.
After having the time to digest this experience, I came to the conclusion that, in my life, there will be a before and after this trip. When writing my application, I had particular expectations in relation with the topic discussed this year. I also felt curious about possible exchanges with the invited speakers and getting to know a city such as Singapore. Once back, I realized that this week was not only about a conference, but a unique opportunity to actively engage with colleagues from literally all over the world, plus getting a cultural close up of the cities we visited –in my case, Ho Chi Min for the pre-conference tour and then Singapore.