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

Paul Vandenbroeck
29 July 2014

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


I think art brings forward not-yet-understandable/intellectually tangible dimensions of the 'time-to-come. The 'creative imagination' at its best (as present in the 'strongest' art works of a period) does not present mere 'phantasies/phantasms', but presents (not re-presents) a reality 'yonder'; the Andalusian mystic Ibn 'Arabi (1165–1240AD) rightly spoke of creative imagination as a faculty giving access to realities almost unknowable. Thus, creative imagination implies a kind of predicting, non-cognitive  knowledge. In art, we are not so much concerned with the cognitive processes in which a culture formulates its ideas but also, and primarily, with the ever-changing, heterogeneous, gliding and coalescing border zones in which world-making and sense-giving take shape, through the affect-laden psycho-corporeal interspaces. How can a culture attempt to reconcile itself with the world in which it lives and with itself? Interacting and wrestling with the unutterable and the unimaginable, a process that fights a way via the elliptical paradox of the excessive experience and in-cessive return, through the religious, ethical and aesthetic impulse. Art's role is fundamental: it is not a mere derivate of society but a primary shaper of collective coping with life, of collective (un)consciousness. Art offers a glimpse of the not-yet, of the almost inconceivable, of the almost elusive, of deep-rooted drives and desires.


In North Africa and the Middle East, 'political' art may play an important role in raising consciousness. But art's role should not be restricted to serving a political cause, however good it may be. If an art work is operating only on this level, it will soon be forgotten and irrelevant. It must possess an aesthetic force that transcends its direct goal and preoccupation, it must be able to live its own life – even long after the disappearance of the societal/political constellations it questions or attacks. A good example is Hela Ammar's Tarz (2014): even when a viewer is not aware of its background, the work 'stands'. It is this quality that is indispensable. Otherwise a political art work is like an average pedantic creation made for the 'instruction' of the dummies, like countless pictures of, for example, Soviet Realism : at its best 'interesting', but they will not touch nor transform us.


I think that openness also to 'traditional' forms of aesthetic expression is necessary. For example. in North Africa traditional weaving contained wonders of beauty that seem to be threatened now; religious confraternities create and maintain beautiful performances during their hadhra (chanting, praying, singing, music making); folk musicians deliver fascinating improvisations at popular festivities; traditional vernacular architecture remains a source of inspiration. These artistic forms are, or can be, strongly inspiring and beneficial. All too often contemporary art lovers consider these aesthetic forms to be detached from our time, to be 'remnants' of a time gone. But in my opinion, one has to see 'through' the appearances to discover deep-rooted aesthetic affinities and correspondences with contemporary creations; and if not, we can learn and be changed in a positive sense by that which is 'beyond' us. 'Yonder' is not a world we should discard or expel. In Islam, there is the salat el ghaib, the 'prayer for the absent'. Similarly, we should look and care for what, at first sight, we see or know not; for what is invisible or neglected in our culture; for what is to be found 'within' our blind spots.


We should not over-estimate the cultural 'centres'. However important they may be, however great the possibilities they may offer, the peripheral and the non-canonical may contain the germs of new or forgotten aesthetic sensibilities, possibilities and forms that can inform and change us. I spoke of the traditional art forms – their strength is an aesthetic one that is able to move non-participants too but they bear an existential dimension that is sense-giving and meaning-creating to the participants – they touch the complete person. This is what 'strong' art should do: touch us deeply, transforming us in a way we could not access before our 'encounter' with it.


How do institutions map potential futures?

The relevance of an institution depends on the sensibility and intellect of its directors and collaborators – if they do not bear within themselves sufficient sensibilities beyond direct intellectual understanding, they will belong to the arrière-garde and their institution, however rich and 'important' it may be, will be mediocre and will not be able to map potential futures. But it is not mere 'obeying to the murmuring of the streets' that will guarantee important and necessary innovations. Every human, every group is subject to error and misguiding. An institution must be critical and engaged at once – not only critical towards a despicable reality, idea, situation, but also towards its own ways of engagement, convictions and attitudes. The institutional and artistic engagement must produce quality, not mere political correctness or 'preaching to the saved'.


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


Education, until now, sees art as an object of cognition: one has to 'understand' art works. One of the main frustrations of the public having visited an exhibition or a contemporary art manifestation is 'not to have understood' what it was about. As long as art is seen as a cognitive affair, people will fail to experience art works and will have recourse to 'theories', 'guides', explanations of an intellectualist nature. Education will not lead us automatically to the appreciation of art forms, only to a cognitive approach and an intellectualist reduction, unless the educational systems re-evaluate their own approach to art.  Openness, willingness-to-feel/experience, absence-of-fear is an essential key. A slogan of the 'Arab Spring' in Tunisia teaches us: la abadan el-khawf, no more fear! And most importantly: dare to feel and experience! 


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


It is clear that, for example, social media has enabled people to share, to organize, and to realize: the 'Arab spring' would not have been a wildfire without them. But we must not forget that the bodily, the physical – or maybe better – the psycho-corporeal is a basic condition: the so-called 'Arab Spring' achieved real political changes through the presence of the people in the streets, by their mental and physical determination. Similarly, any virtual contact with and knowledge of cannot substitute the direct encounter with an art work and its 'deep' impact. The experiential (not experimental) contact is irreplaceable.


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


Neither identification with an institution nor disengagement from an institution guarantees fluid, sensitive attitudes and openmindedness.  


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

New forms of self-organization can, in some cases, inspire institutions, but those new forms are not sacrosanct and must be evaluated against their background and the whole societal field. Time is essential – lack of retrospect is a source of dazzle and delusion and so we cannot always realize by immediate intuition something's (un)importance.  


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?


Developing not only infrastructure for what is generally understood as 'contemporary' art, but also seeking to establish contacts with, and to lay bridges towards, 'traditional' art forms (performance, music, weaving and so on) is needed. These artists – though they might view their own activity as not primarily 'artistic' but rather 'real' despite contemporary artists and the public often discarding them as backward and irrelevant – are living in our time, and often there might originate a deep connection. A Sufi master and his disciples are primarily focussed on experiencing the 'Other' through one's devotional practice, but sometimes they are great performance artists too. Their sites (zawiya) are also a cultural infrastructure and could perhaps be involved in a multi-faceted network. It is important not to construct barriers within the different constituents of cultural infrastructure. The same is true for women weavers and their house-bound workspaces, for male silk weavers and their workshops, for example, in Jerba. Some cross-overs have already been realized in Tunisia as in weaving workshops in Kerkennah. Also the official offices of the Tunisian Office Nationale de l'Artisanat (ONA) could be asked to collaborate.


It seems important to me to involve living sites of cultural heritage in this process. I also would like to propose the re-use of disaffected historical monuments/sites within the medinas, as ateliers and exhibition spaces. And, above all it is important to not forget the rural areas. For example, in the project De colline en colline (From hill to hill), organized by the Tunisian artist Faten Rouissi in 2013, linking the branché Sidi bou Sa'id with ancient, but impoverished hill sites of the Berber population, Takrouna and Chenini (Tataouine). Here, contemporary artists entered in dialogue with the local inhabitants.


The 'Arab Spring' was born from the despair of a poor man in marginalized Sidi Bouzid. The countryside and the periphery co-determine the heartbeat of a society. From them, we can learn a lot, not only about regaining courage and determination, but also about the heartfelt link between (traditional) art and life. And is this not what contemporary art pursues: the mutual influx of art and life?

Paul Vandenbroeck

Paul Vandenbroeck has worked with the Collection Research Department since 1980 and he has held a part-time professorship with the Social Sciences Faculty of K.U. Leuven since 2003. He is an Art graduate from that same university and obtained his PhD in 1986. His main research interests are the oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch, abstract North African textile art, contemporary art and topics on the interface between art and anthropology, including the relationship between folk and elite culture, the specificity of art in female religious communities and the relationship between therapeutic ritual and artistic creation. Vandenbroeck is also the scientific editor of the museum Annual and is preparing an exhibition entitled La vivante, on the energetics of aesthetic creation, and a book on the same topic.

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