Towards the Other
10 October 2011
State Museum of the History of St Petersburg, Peter & Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, Russia
Curated by Maria Veits and Ana Bitkina of TOK
Produced and co-curated by Eva Koppen of the Netherlands Institute Saint Petersburg
Concept of the exhibition
In four groups of videos, the exhibition tries to achieve two, seemingly contradictory, goals at once: to celebrate the positive aspects of the cultural transformations migration has brought about in European – here, Russian – culture, and to understand, and sympathise with, the difficulties migrants experience upon entering that culture. The first goal is meant to benefit in the first place people who are used to Russian culture and sometimes ill at ease with the current mass migration. Foregrounding the conceptual, aesthetic and sensual pleasure these transformations offer, the videos aim to encourage a positive, indeed festive mood. The second is meant to benefit in the first place immigrants who feel met with suspicion, tension, or even outright hostility. Here, sympathy may help to change a reticent ambiance into a hospitable one. In both cases, the move towards the other stands for an outstretched hand, a keen interest, a desire for encounters, a joyful and fearless wish to endorse change as liveliness, not as threat.
“Otherness” does not mean an immutable strangeness but a relative distinction both sides would always experience: for migrants, the Russians will be “other,” while for Russians, people coming from other countries will be somewhat different from the usual. Different from the usual: isn’t that attractive, curiosity-inspiring, drawing us all out of habits that seemed so natural until we noticed that all those routine, everyday gestures, thoughts, and opinions are not natural at all, but embedded in a cultural framework with historical and social roots – in short, enriching?
My artistic concept includes turning a medium that is naturally a temporal one into an immersive, sculptural work. It is also premised on the importance of something uneasily called “beauty” in the encounter with otherness that is the thematic heart of the project. To be represented with dignity not in spite of but in their different backgrounds, the migratory subjects cannot be voyeuristically documented nor represented in caricature. The videos present them in dialogic form, often, against the grain of traditional documentary, looking straight into the camera, addressing “us,” the visitors, on a footing of equality. Hopping from encounter to encounter, visitors are roaming around on a market place, picking and choosing what they like best. And, like a real market in the city, the exhibition is a public space where others move around as well. Who knows what happens?
The exhibition consists of the following works: Access Denied, Colony, Becoming Vera, GAPS (Road Movie, The Alcazar, Caution and Rockefeller Boulevard), Lost in Space, Mille et un Jours, A Second Chance, Separations, State of Suspension, Un trabajo limpio, and the installation Nothing is Missing. For A Second Chance, see the exhition Landscapes of Madness / Sissi’s Treatment.
Mila Chevalier, thanks to whom...
Mila Chevalier, director of the Nederlands Instituut Saint Petersburg, here sitting on the left talking to me, initiated, organised, and sponsored the exhibition. She was persuaded of the importance of an artistic and positive vision of migratory culture, now more than ever. Against many odds that she kept to herself, she managed to pull it off nevertheless. Always with good cheer and utter efficacy, she held a very complex situation together. Thanks a million, Mila!
The dutch consul speaking at the opening
Jennes de Mol, the Dutch consul in Saint Petersburg, has very enthusiastically and generously sponsored the exhibition. Here, he expressed his support for the project to the crowd that came to the opening. I am deeply grateful for his support.
Eva Koppen and Robbie Schweiger
Eva was involved in the project from the beginning, doing everything from curating, maintaining contact, selecting works, and getting it all done, and has beautifully designed the Nothing is Missing gallery, which she delegated to intern Robbie Schweiger. With Robbie, they hunted for furniture and disposed everything up to the tiniest detail. I cannot find a photo for their very effective helper Ferry Devilee. Eva, Robbie, Ferry, you were great. Thanks!
One of the lovely ideas that Eva and Robbie developed was to make a “migratory map”. This map of the world makes links with thin rope between the place where the mother lives and the place to where her child migrated. This map drew a lot of attention from the audience.
This woman, it turns out, spent two full days in the exhibition, following each video from beginning to end, and more. Here, she is “encountering” Massaouda from Remada, Tunisia, the mother with whose story the project Nothing is Missing began.
The exhibition of six works from the Mère folle project was installed in the foyer of the Ankara Goethe Institute, one of the two venues of the Festival on Wheels. This distinguished the exhibition from others related to the project.
First of all, many people would pass by on their way to the theatre, see screens and stop by, rather than come specifically to see the show. In view of this type of audience, the organisers-curators had made extensive wall texts, one general, and one for each work. I found it noticeable that many people actually took the time to read these texts, and then spend a rather long time with each work. This made the show less of a unity but attracted more in-depth viewings.
Second, the works had much more space, since the space was large. Again, this enhanced the autonomy of the works. For this reason, our choice had been for this occasion to balance the Folly works with the Madness works, rather than foregrounding the Madness works, as we had done in the more intimate and unified space in Dublin.
Then, because of the size of the space, the exhibition lent itself to long viewing, and the sofa installed in front of the one work that was shown on projection - Folly Resurfaces - invited people to use the work as a break between film screenings. This was a nice change from the more intense visits other set-ups had invited.
Ersan Ocak (left) and Ahmet Gurata (right), from the faculty of Communication, Design and Architecture of Bilkent University, had initiated and organised the exhibition., and suddenly found themselves curators. I had met Ersan before, and appreciated very much his intelligent vision of the integration of making and analysing that I am so keen on myself. Ahmet, who is chair of the department, clearly pursues similar goals. For the faculty in which they teach, this integration is extremely important. The strong presence of theory puts that department on the forefront of contemporary academia. Their cooperative spirit contrasts nicely with the sibling rivalry between the Fools on the screen behind them.
The installation photos give an impression of the ambiance of this exhibition, and the various ways it contrasts with the one in Dublin.
Workshop on Curating: from Film to Exhibition
On January 5th, 2012, we held a workshop on the relation between film and exhibition at the City Library of Turku, by way of opening the satellite exhibition there, organised by Gunnar Högnäs. The workshop was organised on behalf of the Curatorial Program De Appel in Amsterdam, and was also open to curators and scholars of Turku and Helsinki universities. To my delight, my colleague Marga van Mechelen of the Art History Department of the University of Amsterdam, as well as my assistant Margreet Vermeulen, had also made the journey to participate.
Preceding the workshop, a screening of A Long History of Madness, the evening of the 4th, served as an opening of the satellite exhibition, and some time was left to also view the pieces there.
The morning of the 5th, Pamela Andersson, coordinator of the exhibition at the museum, gave an introduction. Her simple-sounding but profound remark that the exhibition allowed visitors to “choose a secene, enter it, and spend the time they want inside it” gave the crucial idea of the relationship between the two works. After her introduction, the participants went off to experience this insight first-hand. There were two hours reserved for an extensive visit to the exhibition. After this, a brief meeting allowed participants to blow off steam with their first responses.
Then, in the afternoon, at the Studio Space of the Library, the workshop became a discussion session. First, three brief presentations started this off. I gave an introduction, explaining how I see the “spatialising” of film. Mia Hannula gave her view of the relation between documentary and fiction in the face of traumatic events such as the violence underlying the emergence of madness according to our project, and Anna-Helena Klumpen analyzed the sound effects in a particular scene, offering insights that are important in view of the sound leaking that is part of the exhibition.
The discussion went on for almost two hours beyond the allotted time. Since this was such a golden opportunity to discuss curating in light of art-making in different ways, we were all reluctant to break it off. It was a long but very rewarding day.