Alexandra Stock

Stock, Alexandra.jpg
CIMAM 2021 grantee Alexandra Stock, Creative director, ARCHiNOS Architecture & Heritage Preservation, Cairo, Egypt.

In 2021, 50 contemporary art curators, researchers, and museum professionals from 32 different countries were awarded support to attend the CIMAM 2021 Annual Conference, in-person and online.

For the first time, and thanks to the generous support of The Getty Foundation who sponsored the virtual platform, 27 grantees attended the conference online, while 23 attended onsite.

Launched in 2005, CIMAM’s Travel Grant Program is designed to foster cooperation and cultural exchange between contemporary art curators and museum directors in emerging and developing economies and their counterparts in other regions of the world.

Alexandra Stock's Conference Report

The CIMAM 2021 Annual Conference took place both online and in-person at the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz and the NOMUS New Art Museum Branch of the National Museum in Gdansk, Poland, from 5–7 November. This 53rd edition of the event brought to light the mounting pressure "affecting modern and contemporary art museums in the context of Xenophobia and Climate Emergency."

Filmmaker and writer Oleksiy Radynski made a point to link the two themes of the conference early in his talk on Day 2 by saying that xenophobia and climate emergency are two different outcomes of a single process, namely the "destructive force of capitalism that pits various groups against each other to be able to go on with its assault of the planet." This was a point also well made on Day 3 by Senior Researcher at the Center for Arts, Design and Social Research in Boston, Pelin Tan, who said that climate emergency is directly connected to rights and spatial justice, not only of humans but also to the rights of the flora, the water, and soil that is going extinct.

Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty's opening keynote speech on Day 1 under the theme "Conflicts, Crises, and the Politics of Growth" also offered a wide-reaching perspective, one that encompasses everything that would be said throughout the conference and everything that has and will be both displayed and done by anyone, perhaps ever. Referencing the image of the "Blue Marble," the famous picture of the Earth set against the perceived blackness of outer space that was taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, Chakrabarty called this the way of seeing ourselves "the planetary," which is different from "the global." And consciously distinguishing between the two could help us orient ourselves in our current time of disorientation while facing the reality of an impending climate emergency.

The planetary is a deep history and "intentionally de-centers the human," whereas the global covers the last 500 years and is a construct humans came up with that positions us at the center of the world. The latter is not an easy mode of thinking to challenge when everything from capitalism to Abrahamic religions tells us that the Earth and its bounties exist for us alone. Chakrabarty calls this the "given-ness of the world," when in fact the opposite is the case, Earth is "the condition for our existence": Things we consider inferior forms of life–bacteria, fungi, phytoplankton, plants–were making oxygen for millions of years before we were around. It is us that need the Earth, not the other way around. Even the COVID-19 microbe that we complain about for interrupting our lives belongs to the majority form of life on the planet.

Chakrabarty praised the use of the word "times" plural in the title of this year's conference and explained that the "time of climate emergency is the planetary time, whereas the times of xenophobia is our global times." He illustrated other urgent global concerns, for example how quickly our constructed worlds disintegrate at the slightest environmental imbalance; floods, fires, earthquakes rapidly turn human politics into the politics of survival. But the injustices are also unsustainable on a daily basis; the land the global rich live on, for example, is not the land they live from, and not in small part thanks to Indian environmental activists Agarwal and Narain, we now question who is responsible for global warming instead of letting institutions deflect blame back at humanity in general.

Then, a fair question is why trust science when other modes of framing our existence can stake their claim at defining what the world is and can be? Chakrabarty defends its objectivity, "whereas all other conceptions of the planet found in all cultures are related to the human experience of the planet." Tying all this together, Chakrabarty says that we are all connected by a single planet, but there are many worlds, and therein lies the tension, how to recognize these global differences and yet unite it all as one planet.

Dr. Jarosław Lubiak set the tone for his talk by quoting Inger Anderson, the Executive Director of UNEP, who said, "Climate change is no longer a future problem: it is a 'now' problem." This somber plea for urgency is echoed in the transdisciplinary study of "Collaposolgy" that lays out the two options we as a human species have left: either we insist on saving our industrial civilization and kill the planet and ourselves in the process, or we choose to preserve the biosphere through an "intentional social and economic collapse." Any way you spin it, things will not continue as they have, either by choice or force.

Jem Bandell's concept "Deep Adaptation" sees even fewer than these two choices because the pace and scale of climate change and eco degradation are speeding up so rapidly that the option of reforming capitalism or even modern society is off the table. He sees us heading toward an "inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe, and possible extinction." Bandell's "post-sustainability" agenda, which shifts from forecasting to assessing probability, is relevant for museums in the 21st century because it focuses on resilience (What do we value the most and want to keep?), relinquishment (What do we need to let go of now not to make matters worse?), restoration (What could be brought back?), and reconciliation (With what and whom shall we make peace with our mutual morality?).

For curator Joanna Sokołowska (formerly of hosting institution Muzeum Sztuki), the conference's focus was also highly personal. Speaking with a mix of intense urgency and utter fatigue, she beautifully articulated how Poland, the host country of this year's conference, continues to be affected by violent rightwing policies and what she calls a "radical indifference" and a "lack of care and solidarity and support for any common, future-oriented, life sustaining ideas for the future of the earth." Nevertheless, Sokolowska tries to resist the fear, denial and paralyzes of the current moment by asking if the work we do with art and museums can offer hope or more life-affirming visions for the future that transcends the present hopeless moment. She links to her own work, curatorial projects based on ideas of sisterhood and planetary citizenship that, at their core, use the medium of the exhibition to work with the imagination, to trigger healing of the collective consciousness. As Sokolowska says, it is time for us to produce visions for the future and change the infrastructure, the economy, and the social credibility so that these visions we conjure won't be rejected by society.

With a nod to both Chakrabarty's talk and the COVID-19 pandemic, artist and choreographer Alex Baczyński-Jenkins spoke about the politics and urgency of touch and the ways of being together that are addressed in his work. He also talked about the relationship between the intimate and the planetary and how we scale from a micro situation to a macro.

Adapting performances to the format of a weeks-long exhibition or working collectively throughout a year-long artist residency also shaped his considerations of how "change unfolds over long durations and how we're sensitive to perceiving time over longer durations." Finally, he scaled this perspective to our institutional infrastructures by asking how museums can "engage in rehearsing proposals for communities of the future." In the meantime, Baczyński-Jenkins emphasized the importance of parties and celebration amongst our mourning, despite the losses that we're dealing with, which was mirrored in Lubiak's earlier talk, where he proposed to expand Bendell's Deep Adaptation to incorporate the framework of "Libidinal Ecology," which means considering the emotional relations between people, especially pleasure and enjoyment, as part of our resources.

TJ Demos began his keynote on Day 2 under the theme of "Museums as Spaces for Recognizing Differences" by laying out how museums, especially in the West, have become "zones of conflict" and demands to repatriate objects are mounting. While we cannot generalize the unique history and geo-political situation of every museum, we can avoid the dangers of engaging with harmful framings of issues that need to be addressed in this context, for example, the so-called Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) complex that has grown from demands placed on liberal institutions to de-colonialize, repatriate, and restructure themselves economically. Instead of helping, the DEI complex has become a billion-dollar industry that grew around these demands and is more active in managing diversity and inclusion without committing to changing anything. As Demos says, in practice this often plays out in four stages: something happens to a marginalized community, then follows a statement of outrage, then and a listening session, and then it's dropped until the next awful thing happens. Above all else, however, the DEI complex ensures that the ruling order of dominant institutions is never actually challenged. Even if social moments develop, the DEI acts as a buffer that ensures the unbalanced class divisions remain intact. This and the crumbling of "ill-liberal institutions" that perpetuate "violent un-freedoms of the dispossessed"–for example MoMA with its "death-dealing oligarch" board of trustees who use art as an instrument of accumulating and shield for their violence–are eroding the social legitimacy of art institutions.

Like the urge for us to act both planetary and globally in the keynote speech from Day 1, Demos urged that we must connect the intersection of environmental action and social justice emergencies. Museums can and should participate in transforming class hierarchies, public-private conflicts, and social differences towards something that works for more people than it does now and transcend the empty gestures of "harm-based repair" like with the DEI complex. By knowing where we want to go and knowing what pitfalls to avoid, museums have the power to become platforms that acknowledge the current conditions and their historical roots and actively work to change the status quo for the better.

Hilke Wagner shifted the perspective back to Europe specifically by introducing the complexities of directing the Albertinum in Dresden, a museum in a city that saw a tumultuous 20th century, from the allied air raids in 1945 that destroyed 90% of the city to the trauma of the divide and reunification of East and West Germany. The complexities of the scars of history are further are exacerbated by the current political climate. Until now, the conference talks had spoken about integrating voices that are traditionally seen as more leftwing, but what when the push to be acknowledged comes from the far right? To this day, Dresden remains an extremely homogenous society. So the question posed to Wagner in her position on a daily basis is whether to engage with reactionary political voices like PEDIGA and risk normalizing their view or ignore at the risk of alienating and perhaps radicalizing the movements further. In 2017, the museum and its director found themselves in the crosshairs of a dominant right-wing political party, AFD that railed against any inkling of multiculturalism and took aim at the Albertinum. After the museum was flooded with hate mail and calls and Wagner started to get harassed in the street, she boldly called up every one of her harassers. Remarkably, each conversation turned into a constructive and even positive encounter.

Wagner figured that if the direct dialogue could interrupt the spiral of hate, then the same should be possible on a larger scale. (This sentiment is also reflected in Baczyński-Jenkins' earlier telling of how micro-gestures can scale to the size of institutions.) This thinking was the basis of launching the podium discussion "We Need To Talk." The first iteration took over three hours, saw 600 members of the public come to the Albertinum to speak directly with politicians and art professionals, and was based solely on questions from the audience. Due to the success and high demand of the idea, no less than twenty-four more iterations of the event followed, where people from opposing sides of nearly every issue participated; there were even encounters of former Stasi agents and artists who, prior to the reunification, had been prosecuted by the state security in the DDR. The success of this 1:1 approach initiated by Wagner also carried over into other projects at the Albertinum because it was seen as proof that working from this direct form of interaction is the best way to affect change on a larger scale.

As part of Day 3 under the theme of "New Perspectives on Climate and Commonality," Antwerp-based visual artist Otobong Nkanga opened her talk with a poem. What a change of pace. She then wove a beautiful tapestry of thought processes leading to a performance in a scarred landscape and then to her ongoing project in multiple stages called "Carved to Flow."

Driving through present-day Namibia in 2015, visited the "green hill" where there once was a mound of malachite because she wanted to see what it was the German colonizers had desired, but there was nothing left of the bright green semi-precious stone, only a gaping hole in the ground and ruins. She imagined the lives of these metals that were extracted from the grounds and were used in industry in Europe, places that were now decaying as well. Nkanga staged a performance at this Tsumeb Mine in northern Namibia to appease the wounded landscape and–considering that the site once had a combination of 260 types of minerals and crystals, she thought solemnly found in this location how this hole has made other places, in Europe, richer.

The artist read a second poem and segued into the question of how one can think of other ways of doing things. In Athens, Nkanga carried with her a sense of mourning and sadness at the thought of how colonizers and extractors stifled the potentials of the people and places they plundered, but also how damaged landscapes were left behind instead of repairing things so that something new could grow. In 2017, Nkanga pondered how a project could turn into the cycle, where something can go "from the material to the non-tangible things, to other things that will be able to support other things within that landscape," which expanded into the ongoing project "Carved to Flow," a "work surrounding the production of soap, gradually unfolding between Athens, Kassel, and Nigeria," that was "conceived as a support structure actively embedded in the social sphere" ( that was conceived for Documenta 14.

Binna Choi, director of Casco Art Institute, turned the focus on CIMAM itself as an institution and read out loud the original invitation extended to the CIMAM 2021 speakers nearly two years ago in early 2020. Choi called the event the COP26 in the field of art and asked if there was indeed a future beyond the Anthropocene and pondered why we can't let go of the kind of life we live. The latter question looped back several times to Chakrabarty's keynote on Day 1, where he said that warnings had been coming from the science community for decades, but at the same time, we had never lived so well, which made it easy to forget or to dismiss. But, as was also stressed by other speakers, this well-being (or the notion of "living well") came at the expense of all non-human beings on the planet but also other humans with different genders, races, countries, cultures, abilities, and pieces of knowledge. Per Choi, the relevance and potential of art in this context is that it offers different experiences and new perspectives on "living well," which can mean that while we are addicted to growth, art can also show us different ways of growing.


I sent off my application to attend the CIMAM Annual Conference from the Faiyum Oasis in Egypt, and when the event came around, I zoomed in from rainy Rotterdam. After the final talk ended, I closed my laptop and looked out the window, thinking about the burden and opportunity of accessing this immeasurable wealth of information. Of course, there was a lifetime of literature I wanted to look into and projects I wanted to read up on, but I was also struck with a taste of the "experience of the edge," a concept from process-oriented psychology that Joanna Sokolowska had mentioned in her talk, which is an odd cocktail of fear, denial, aggression, and paralysis. How can we ever live up to the responsibility of our privileges, even the smallest ones? Most of the speakers generously suggested ways forward, but where to actually begin in our own practices and lives? The whole conference left me with much food for thought, so thank you foremost to all of the speakers for showing us something I cannot (and truly do not wish to) un-see.

I would also like to thank Inés Jover and Susana Carnicero, as well as Victoria Noorthoorn, Agustín Pérez Rubio, Eugene Tan, and Ernestine White-Mifetu, as well as the members of the board of CIMAM, and the CIMAM team onsite in Poland, especially the tech team that made the live feed run so smoothly. Last but certainly not least, I would like to thank The Getty Foundation for the much-appreciated support.