Zeina Arida

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CIMAM 2021 grantee Zeina Arida, Director, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon.

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.

Zeina Arida's Conference Report

"We have never lived so well" is how Dipesh Chakrabarty decided to start his keynote lecture stressing the inevitability and urgency of the climate crisis. A bittersweet realization as we acknowledge that our lifestyle is unsustainable – 'inhabitable' to use terminology more attune to the planetary.

A quick search on the web confirmed my suspicions. The weather was strangely dry and hot for this time of the year. Using November 8th as a reference date, it was clear that the temperature was slowly rising. On this day in 1990, the highest temperature attained 24˚C. In 1998, it reached 25˚C, 26˚C in 2006, and since 2017, it has been closer to 27˚C.

It has been hard, though, to focus our energy and attention on what climate change requires us to change; to critically examine our consumption and how we have been operating as a museum. Ingrained habits, supposed best practices, material limitations, and lack of time and energy are factors hindering any goodwill. So, what when the strenuous day-to-day of living in a country in deliquescence, rooted in toxicity and corruption, makes this job nearly impossible? How can we think of the necessary changes to implement when running around frantically to secure fuel to operate and keep the collection safe and the Museum secure? When holding on to any semblance of normality is what actually allows us to survive?

But what if instead of holding on, we acknowledge that we have reached the point of no return, that we have reached the threshold of "destructive plasticity" to borrow from Catherine Malabou and think with CIMAM's speaker Jaroslaw Lubiak, also referencing Malabou and asking 'how to make a plastic institution'? Echoing Lubiak, T.J. Demos pushes us to think beyond the confine of the traditional Museum and listen to the bodies and voices on whose exploitation we lived on so well, recognizing that the status quo was built on colonial genocide and environmental violence, and the continuous destruction of the ecosystem. And thus, that the only way forward is to follow a more radical approach as we "imagine a future beyond the Museum as it currently exists."

The work at bay looks daunting. Luckily the speakers also gave hints and tools to operate these paradigm shifts. As such, during Jaroslaw Lubiak's talk, we were introduced to the concept and process of 'deep adaptation' and the four steps we could apply. They offer very useful insights and essential points of discussion to think of our priorities and mission as a museum: resilience (what do we most value), relinquishment (what should we let go of), restoration (what should we bring back), and reconciliation (look for friends and allies).

As we embark on this reflection, it is impossible to think along the same line of 'growth' as we previously did. Our quest for 'more' and 'bigger' came to a crashing end in 2019, with one of history's worst financial, economic, and political crises. It will be hard enough to maintain what we built when the bubbles buttressed on Ponzi schemes, and paramount debts hadn't burst yet, swallowing our savings, salaries, and infrastructures. We are no longer at the edge of the precipice but entangled in the fall. Growth is not an option anymore. Still, de-growth remains a conscious choice, one that is associated with its specific set of values and artistic productions, as Binna Choi pointed out.

Again, she highlights that "we have never lived so well" during this great acceleration period, but have we? Art offers new perspectives in that regard, questioning the status quo and what we think we know, showing us new perspectives on 'living well. What if we were to slow down and take the time to regenerate together with our communities?