The double sense of cura refers to care for something as concern, absorption in the world, but also care in the sense of devotion.
All quiet on the art front. This could be the heading on any newspaper’s section on art & culture at a global scale. And it wouldn’t be that far from reality. Art in our days has lost much of its capacity to question and shock the cultural world mostly due the dullness, conformation, apathy and readiness to comply with the de facto powers (money rattles) from most of the agents involved in its actual operation. These days, the only news that hit the headlines strong is the latest sales record from Damien Hirst at Sotheby’s. (Hurrah, we’re thrilled…)
Along this gloomy series of events, we have been witnesses to a new behavior by many emerging artists, which has surged at an unbelievable rate. I’m speaking here of the artist-in-residence, the new cultural tourist which any of us might find some time or another attending some of the peculiarly exciting artistic in any of our cities. They tend to be friendly, very outgoing, frank and interesting. I myself have met a lot of really fascinating persons this way, and still am friends to some. But what this massive behavior is telling us is that there is not much of a specificity to a residence anymore, that any artistic institution that respects itself has built up a resident program in order to keep up with the trend, and that, as biennales some five years ago, residencies already lost much of their charm to an institutionalized way of making public relations and even a series of diplomatic moves.
Let’s think of it this way. If artists were really critical with their practices, if they would really hit the aching spot with their interventions, bureaucrats would not have them traveling around giving away their unsolicited opinions and developing their pieces, would they? So one of two things must have happened: either bureaucrats and politicians are doing their job unbelievably well, so that there is nothing else to comment on, or art practices have become trendy, fashionable, smooth and easy-going. From the current state of events in the world, I would say the second is true. So we have a first upshot: artists that are really critical, the ones that get involved in social or communitarian issues (if there are still some out there), tend to stay home, kind of grounded, while their confident and charming counterparts tour the world showing little tiny pieces of self-made aesthetic trifles.
Am I being too harsh? Probably, but let’s remember this is a generalization, and in that sense flawed, as any useful generalization, but that it tries to bring out the symptom so that anyone can analyze it according to his or her own needs and understanding.
Anyway, what strikes me beyond this analytical exercise, is that there are indeed, seldom but sometimes, groups of agents that really try to do things in a different way, people that seek to affect their surroundings, individuals that still believe in the creative power of art, in its facility to produce symbolic meaning, and risk it all in order to try to make a change. However enthusiastic, these persons are not heroes and never naïve, they are the utmost realists: they want to take a specific knowledge to its radical achievement: they ask for the impossible because they understand that it is the only manner in which art can justify itself. These are the persons that one seldom sees at residencies because they commit, and an institutional residency is basically a place where an artist stays for some time and then leaves. No commitment necessary.
Such engaged agents are never easy to find. But now, there was a very interesting experiment taking place in southern Turkey this year; an exercise so rich that it pays off to comment on it profusely. A couple of Turkish artists (Iz Oztat and Emincan Alemdaroglu) didn’t just go out to the community in the Bodrum peninsula and tried to start up a new cultural venture. They actually built up a sort of informal residency in which they invited colleagues from around the world in order to start thinking and acting collectively. They looked out for the funds themselves, and risked all their assets into this “creative think tank”, which I prefer to call in order to differentiate it from the colonized description of a simple, institutionalized residency. This creative think tank, a place for cure, be it individually or communally, was set up in the midst of a family house, and if someone is acquainted with Middle-eastern hospitality traits, that means really a lot, it involves the participation of a family circle that plays the role of a host, which opens itself to the guests, profusely and generously. So this creative think tank hosted within a family house behaved really in an odd but enriching way, it really aimed at the healing and restructuring of a decaying practice. Discussions took place, involvement with the community was looked after, creative research was fostered, works were shown and profoundly commented, and direct social action through the production of new art pieces was taken.
The usual questions made by an eyebrow-raiser would be: Did it worked? Was it worth it? Only, for a moment, instead of building up rhetorical answers, we should pause and ask for something else, something deeper and in a different direction, something that really stands in for the glimpse of hope that the experience produced. So, the really engaging questions should be: what does this kind of practice opens up for the art world as a whole? What does it tell about the possible practices of the years to come? What does it bring about by itself? How does it become sustainable? There is no easy and frank answer to this last question, for it is not quite easy to foresee a complex experience turned into a repeatable chore. But we can try to sketch a draft for the rest.
The scheme to bring in a group of people to think and act with a common objective and a creative stance may not by itself solve any of the problems on the community where they decide to set. The idea of producing socially engaging art practices alone may not be enough to produce a new, active subjectivity. The proposal to come closer to the people, to turn them into partners of deeds, may not end up in a more coherent set of cultural performances. And this is because there has never been in art (or for this sake, in any other human activity) a single solution to a series of deep problems. But what took place in Turkey was a huge, intense compilation of all of these. In different degrees, the creative think tank sorted out ways to imagine possibilities, to foster communication practices (and as activist Paulo Freire once suggested: a revolution in communication might be the only revolution needed), and then acted accordingly, all within a restrained budget but with a specific agenda in mind: the actual affectation of the community. The latest challenge might be now to keep it going, so it can display a glimpse of hope for the future. For this is what the creative think tank immediately produces: hopes and dreams that stem from the community itself, and shape it back showing it what it can achieve by itself, and even further with the support of these operators. In one word, socially engaged art practices inspire an understanding of one’s own surroundings and they reassure communities in their own way of world-making, as very few other activities can do. Inasmuch as art practices deal with the creation of symbols, people profit from experiencing their own hopes and dreams turned into symbolic value. But this does not imply any activism of any sort. It comes by through negotiations, through conflict and dialogue, through active engagement. And this is what the people in Turkey could bring in, at least for a start.
In an art world much in need for new political subjectivities and active forms of production of the self, we recquire to approach the lay people who haven’t abandoned their faith in cultural and artistic practices and learn with them how to reciprocaly free ourselves from frivolities, from fraudulent operations that impose class values or cynical attitudes, away from spectacularity and market-like modes of display, and get instead to exercise creativity through critical thinking.
Right now, in the midst of a generalized global economic collapse, we need to rebuild and regain the central function that art used to have within a given society, its spiritual strenght and devotion for the care of one’s own entourage. For it has been this resignification of everyday experiences, turned into gulps of fresh air, which tend to conform ideals and utopias that makes one want to live, to love, to be, and sometimes even to die for. If this energy is still to be found there, it is because it has always been part of a collectivity. How to approach it, nurture oneself from it, perform with it and ultimately build and share one’s own experience through it might be the task for the coming years. At least nowadays, while the financial turmoil keeps fancy collectors away from disruptions in all of these practices, we might find some time to nurture more engaged endeavours that usually need some time to mature. So this year was a great season to start following one promising case, a preview of what the future can bring if a little of hope still remains.
cura: 1. spiritual charge: care. 2. to restore to health and soundness, to bring about recovery: cure. 3. Root of the word “curator” in Latin; one who is responsible for the care of souls, later, one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit. 4. instrument with two or three strings that is used in folk music. 5. small sparrow. 6. the name of a short story written by Cevat Sakir Kabaagacli, also known as the Fisherman of Halicarnassus (A Flower Thrown to the Sea from the Aegean, 1972). 7. “The double sense of cura refers to care for something as concern, absorption in the world, but also care in the sense of devotion” Martin Heidegger