The 2016 March Meeting
The first session of the 2016 March Meeting, themed around education, engagement, and participation, felt like the 2012 edition, which was centred on working with audiences and artist residencies and commissions. 'It's happening again,' a colleague whispered excitedly during the first break: 'It' being the sense of urgency that fed into that 2012 Meeting, charged as it was due to the events of 2011.
Indeed, as 2012 opened with a rousing keynote speech by Salah Hassan, calling for the end of western hegemony over the articulation and exchange of knowledge within the field of visual culture (responding in part to the international outcry that followed the events in Sharjah in 2011), so William Wells, fresh from having dealt with a government raid and the closure of Townhouse Gallery, named three threats facing culture and knowledge production today. The first is a global 'neoliberalist policy,' in which 'market forces determine value in the art world' and 'control the formal education system.' The second is a real and palpable resurgence of nationalism worldwide. The third is the 'precarious financial situation of institutions and organizations', which leads to a reliance on international and and government funding, which have their own agenda, and in the latter case, are shrinking everywhere.
Wells ended his speech with an urgent insistence when it comes to thinking about the worth of art institutions offering alternative forms and models for learning and practice, such as Townhouse. 'Is it relevant to survive?' he asked, rhetorically, to his audience. 'In reality, we need to survive … what we are going through for the sake of those who come after us.' But if survival is a must, the question Wells essentially posed was: how? Responses were diagrammed in the many institutions and projects invited through an open call to deliver 10-minute presentations that spanned the world, from Guatemala to New York, and Hong Kong, to Vietnam. As Hoor Al-Qasimi noted in her opening speech, the intention of the 2016 March Meeting was to 'exchange ideas and develop ways of working, including experimental formats, by bringing artists into the process collaborating with institutions and contexts within which we are working'. Education, engagement and participation, as Al-Qasimi explained, are at the centre of the Sharjah Art Foundation's work.
The first panel consisted of Wells, Al-Qasimi, and Anna Cutler of Tate Learning; three figures representing three very different institutions, all working with and within different models and contexts. In the case of Tate, we heard about the ways in which Cutler, having spent a decade developing Tate's educational programmes, has dealt with the restrictive context of working in a big institution which in turn must respond to big funders, including the need to counter reductive thinking – the need to fill quotas, for instance – with progressive thought. Cutler noted a recent institutional-wide recognition of a need to adapt to a world in flux. 'It's taken 10 years to think through this', she added, with emphasis; this being a need to learn 'how to speak with one another rather than at one another'. But of course, to change attitudes and behaviours is the hardest thing of all, Cutler pointed out. Especially when it comes to insisting on a view of learning as a way to 'build profound processes for change' by taking 'a singularity and to unpick that for the many,' Cutler explained. 'Engagement is a long-term project.'
These sentiments fit well with those of Sharjah Art Foundation and Townhouse, both committed to their contexts and working with the many publics that inhabit them. The main intention of SAF, Al-Qasimi explained, 'is about removing barriers and museum walls' between the public and the practices of art. 'It's not about elite visiting museums,' she noted. The Sharjah Art Foundation is an open space, free and open to the public without a ticketing system: 'It's about being accessible to everybody because we are community that is a mixture of professions, generations and backgrounds.' Wells echoed the same philosophy when describing the position of Townhouse amidst many scenes made up of different players and communities. When it comes to the audience, for example, 'it's impossible to refer to it as one'. For Wells, this complexity enabled a certain reconfiguring of social space. In general, he noted a benefit to long-term projects that engage with the communities that exist within and around the institution. 'You would find that the diversity of its participants is staggering,' Wells noted. 'And within that diversity, you have potential'.
It was this diversity and potential that came through in the presentations that followed, which included Toleen Touq discussing Spring Sessions; Stefan Benchoam from the artist-created and artist-run museum, NuMu in Guatemala; Yara Bamieh of Riwaq, which works with communities in Palestine in order to revive and connect a social and historical fabrics; and Sylvia Franchescini discussing the recent iteration of the Kyiv Biennial, the School of Kyiv.
Yet halfway through the first day, the 2016 March Meeting seemed to deviate from its intentions 'to open the doors of debate widely' in order for all participants 'to reflect critically on our own achievements and what we want to achieve' on a platform built on 'dialogue and sharing responsibilities'. A panel featuring Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist, moderated by Al-Qasimi, began with an hour-long presentation of recent MoMA projects by Biesenbach (the entire panel was scheduled to be 30 minutes), followed by a roughly hour-long presentation of do it بالعربي [in Arabic] curated in Sharjah by Al-Qasimi and Obrist.
In a two-day gathering, in which real urgent questions were being posed, and which included a line up of people working in and responding to the very real conditions Wells described in his keynote speech, what was lost during this stretch of time was the potential for smaller institutions to come together and share and debate their experiences through moderated discussion. As Wells pointed out, it is the smaller institutions that 'have a greater understanding of how to connect and engage, especially when it comes to the development and enactment of common practices, and 'who connect as a network' and who 'understand process; the process of learning, discussion debate, and mediation.' Thus, the imbalance in the first day's programme highlighted a problem that the 2012 March Meeting also suffered: little space was available for panel dialogue post-presentations, during which, in the case of the 2016 edition, the question of 'how?' could have been further interrogated through moderated discussion.
Regardless, the second day picked up, with a spectrum of participants, from a panel on special education, with Maha Elazar of Awladouna Center for People with Disabilities in the UAE, Mohamed Bakr Taha, of Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services, and Aisha Deemas, of the Sharjah Museums Department, to a platform on biennials as spaces for education and knowledge production, featuring biennial directors, founders, and/or curators: Reem Fadda (Marrakech), Riyas Komu (Kochi), Patrick Mudekereza (Congo), Alia Swastika (Jogja), and Sally Tallant (Liverpool).
The day ended with a refreshing panel comprised of all artists engaged in social practice: Rick Lowe, artist and founding director of Project Row Houses in the US, Sandi Hilal, founding member and co-director of Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency in Palestine, Farid Rakun of Indonesian artist's initiative, ruangrupa, and Oscar Murillo, due to speak on his project, Frequencies, which includes covering school desks around the world with canvas, and allowing students to do what they want with that. (Murillo then collects these canvases, creating an archive that was recently presented in the Arsenale at Okwui Enwezor's 56th Venice Biennale.)
It was during this final panel that Reem Fadda, speaking for Murillo, announced the reason for the artist's absence: he had thrown his passport mid-flight to Sydney, where he was due to participate in the 20th Sydney Biennale, and was currently in transit. In his statement, he talked about creating a certain kind of entropy through the action: a way to reconnect to how he started – as a child of Colombian immigrants brought to London as a teenager. It is interesting that Murillo effectively made both an announcement and a statement at Sharjah: a site outside of the western centre, within which the Sharjah Art Foundation has positioned itself as a platform for the so-called Global South. Weeks later, at Art Basel in Hong Kong, Murillo called for the non-western art world to respond to the 'second wave of colonialism' that has circulated this earth through the mechanisms of contemporary art during a panel discussing the legacies of imperial mechanisms on present conditions. In both cases, Murillo highlighted what was already palpable: That it is on the peripheries that new institutional practices are emerging, with Sharjah Art Foundation acting as an important point of exchange within a burgeoning post-western paradigm within which, as Rick Lowe noted in his presentation, art is understood as a powerful tool we can and must learn to use. This understanding is something that underpins the March Meeting as a project.
To this end, what the 2016 March Meeting offered was a view of a global platform that comes from what might once have been a periphery, but is now establishing itself as a centre in its own right. As always, the March Meeting presented a dynamic range of projects offering an overview of global practices navigating the complex and precarious global situation William Wells outlined in his keynote speech. Though timings were indeed an issue, inevitably conversations occured between talks and during other programmed events (including a magnificent sound and video performance in the Mleiha desert by Uriel Barthélémi and Taro Shinoda, titled Lunar Reflection Transmission Technique, and exhibitions featuring Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Simone Fattal, Farideh Lashei, and Tarek Abou El Fetouh's The Time is Out of Joint.) Thinking back to Hassan's call for the removal of binary thinking, and the doing away with the division between the particular and the general, or the local and the global, the 2016 March Meeting offered a glimpse into a world in which binaries are being broken down.