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What is the future of arts infrastructures and audiences across North Africa and the Middle East?

Sirine Fattouh
8 May 2014


From the series Every day is another day.
From the series Every day is another day.

What role do the arts play in producing an idea of a future, or, indeed, producing future realities?


By producing an idea of the future, art transgresses official history and produces its own reality, where fiction and reality intertwine. To produce an idea of a future is also a way to imagine various scenarios for a single reality. Through fiction, it is possible to overcome stereotypes and standards to which we are accustomed – discussing sensitive subjects without being constrained by censorship, basically because those topics are covered through artistic means. It is also a means to imagine possible realities, by breaking existing borders and limits between countries, explicitly or implicitly.


What do speculations of the future tell us about the concerns of the present and the legacies of the past?


Speculations on the future allow us to apprehend the present time by imagining the consequences of different realities. Legacies of the past should guard us against the repetition of our mistakes and prevent us from reproducing the ones written in history.


How do institutions map potential futures?


By remaining open to diverse artistic practices and taking risks exhibiting projects that question their internal politics.


How can we imagine new infrastructures and institutions in the context of architectural, institutional, and practical realities?


Institutions should encourage in situ art practices and invite artists to create a specific framework for a potential audience. In doing so, it would promote a better dialogue between the artwork and the local population. But this dialogue must take place within a certain period of time and be done through various activities around the production of a work.


The aim should be to articulate different artworks, to invite artists to create not only in a specific context but also with other (local) artists and craftsmanship. New infrastructure should better take into account the needs of local audiences. To import artworks, films or performances into a specific area is one thing, but to create some in a specific context is another. Artworks are all too often cut off from their context: they are arranged next to each other like trinkets.


We need to give time back to the artists, allowing them to create in good conditions and with more resources. Curators have become the sole directors of exhibitions, relegating artists to a second level; it is necessary to reintegrate artists into the exhibition process and give them a central place, and to allow them the power to create without the constraints of the art market or curatorial policies.


What will future audiences look like and how will culture continue not only to negotiate social activity, political engagement and critical practices, but their future sustainability as ideals?


In the context of what is called the Arab world, the role of art and culture seems to be gaining in importance. This is visible in several countries where many museums, arts and cultural venues have recently opened. Schools and universities are also offering specializations in art and curatorial practices. In a few years, these experts will boost the art world, raise awareness amongst more people and hopefully develop a social and political engagement that is critical.


How will the changing nature of audiences challenge, if at all, the long-term sustainability of arts institutions?


There are different audiences in every institution, and the one that seems to be changing most is the one related to tourism. Visiting art institutions has become a touristic activity like any other – that is not to say one of the most important or favourite activities for tourists, who tend to visit the museums of the countries or cities they visit. Museums are no longer reserved for an elite audience or for connoisseurs, given that their missions are to 'democratize' art, at least in the countries of Europe and North America. From this perspective, it does not seem that institutional sustainability is at risk. However, I am more critical of what is being shown in art institutions, and what institutions are legitimizing. Institutions have a major responsibility in the writing of a certain discourse and aesthetics in art.


What role does education have in developing audiences and what role, crucially, do institutions expect audiences to fulfil?


Art is an apprenticeship as any another. The sooner we become familiar with it, the better we integrate it in our perception and language. But until now, art education has always been reserved for the elite. My view is that we need art to be accessible to a wider audience and that institutions should make much more of an effort to try to attract this audience to museums and arts centres. The approach of the artist needs to be valued. It is difficult for a non-expert audience to enjoy a work without knowing certain parameters, such as the thinking of the artist, his intellectual approach, the context of creation, the place where the artwork has been developed, and so on. By decontextualizing the artworks of their producers, we tend to distort the art piece and make it too abstract.


What is the role of the institution today in terms of developing infrastructures that respond to the needs of the times?


It seems to me that the needs of individuals are moving towards a desire for more participatory and interactive infrastructures. Institutions should therefore take this into account by offering the public the opportunity to contribute to the development of new, less rigid infrastructures. The role of the institution today should target a wider and a less specialized audience.


How have technological advances changed the way institutions interact with audiences?


With new technologies such as the Internet, it is much easier to approach the audience: as for example, the direct retransmission of events on the Internet and virtual tours of exhibitions. This can indeed give the possibility for users to interact directly by posting a comment or a question so as to engage in the wider discussions around art practice. But it does not seem that institutions interact with their audience. Interaction means that there is an exchange between two people and the respective exchange can, if necessary, lead to certain decisions, which currently is not the case. The interaction currently used in some institutions is a simulacrum: technology should be used more intelligently and less systematically.


Is disengagement with institutions the best way to imagine new forms of systemic practice and self-organized, socially engaged art practices?


I do not think we should simply withdraw from institutions. Sometimes, it is within the institutions that we must try to change things. It is necessary to introduce different art practices from those we are used to seeing. There are still too many barriers that institutions fail to break. There is this constant fear of being misunderstood by a number of people. But some institutions must open their horizons and accompany their audience through various parallel activities by taking into account marginalized art forms, practices and pieces.


How do forms of self-organizations re-articulate the function, or, indeed, rationale of institutions?


Forms of self-organization are necessary, they are radically different from institutions, very often taking risks and engaging in projects that are outside the art market or public politics. Forms of self-organization also help to open up to experimental practices that are not very common in institutions, and can also allow actors to play different roles: an artist in charge of an independent structure can, for example, also be a curator and a critic.


What is actually needed in terms of infrastructure for culture and its more discursive elements – the way in which it impacts on public space or civil society, for example?


It is necessary to create more independent cultural infrastructures and institutions than those that are close to political power. These structures should promote young artists and develop projects through long-term collaboration with cultural researchers and practitioners from different backgrounds. In order for these infrastructures to have any impact on civil society and public spaces they should, in my opinion, be located in diverse neighbourhoods and work closely with communities, neighbourhood associations and local municipalities – proposing concrete projects that have an echo with local populations. It is not enough to import cultural and artistic practices in a neighbourhood to have an impact on civil society, the importance is to be aware of the needs of the population, but also to become established in these areas – to live there and be confronted with the challenges of the every day. Nothing can replace a long-term collaboration on the ground, with local populations and a concrete context.

Sirine Fattouh

is an artist and researcher born in 1980 and has lived in Paris since 2000. She has degrees from both École Nationale Supérieure d'Arts of Paris Cergy and Paris 1 University Panthéon-Sorbonne in Fine Arts and Sciences of Arts. She taught Fine Arts from 2005 to 2011 while undertaking her doctoral research in at the University Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne. She also worked for one year at The Centre Pompidou in Paris as an assistant curator for Middle Eastern Art. Since 2006 her works have been exhibited in group shows and solo exhibitions such as the Beirut Art Center and Beirut Exhibition Center, Roy Sfeir Gallery, Paris, Visual Arts Festival Damascus @ DEPO, Istanbul and @ ZKM, Karlsruhe, 5th Contemporary Art Bienale of Bourges, Edge of Arabia in London, International Art Exhibition in Carthage, and The Empty Quarter in Dubai. 

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