Going Public

The development of current art spaces in the region

Since the beginning of the nineties, many have perceived a new development in the art scene in the Near East: the conquest of public space. Particularly during the past few years, one could observe a steady increase of private art initiatives that experiment with “space” and “setting.” Artists and curators come together — over both shorter and longer periods of time — leaving conventional gallery frameworks behind. The results — events and exhibitions — indicate a new openness in format and conception. These not only break through the four “walls” of confined gallery spaces, but also the understanding or self-image of art spaces in general and particularly, their role in society.

It is always difficult, slightly superficial and often simply incorrect to draw up general conclusions from observations that one has made at a few locations or periods in time. Developments are too multifaceted — the general conditions are too diverse, the processes too fast moving. For this reason, Bidoun has decided against a static overview on the development of public art spaces. Instead, we would like to offer room for some of the “doers,” activists and artists to have their say.

—Alia Rayyan

It is nearly impossible to give a resume of the experimental art spaces in the region because of several reasons. One is that the region acts with a degree of provisionality. Things are provisional because the governments and even the states are provisional nowadays, so are the fundamentals of governance. Having to work with skimpy resources does not help either. Continuity is the exception and not the rule. Funds available have international criteria and are focused on the concept of the institution, or projects that provide large-scale public awareness; there is little interest in individuals or local initiatives. This often leaves cultural producers in an atmosphere of volatility and allows the “outsiders” to come in and revamp the discourse into their pre-established agendas, or hijack and often totalize and freeze-frame a discourse in flux. The artists, too, as well as the professionals have to agree to the funds offered them and are then requested to represent or de-present their geography abroad. This is never a relationship between equal partners, and a sense of locality is hampered. These are problems that we are all aware of, but at the end of the day you have to bring home the bread while maintaining a precarious balance.

It is also impossible to make a comparison between the cities and their structures. The vastness and the density of Istanbul, the haphazard and extreme conditions of Cairo and the precision of Beirut are cases in point. Aside from the generic problems of funding, levels of censorship and self-censorship, religion, space, structural and intellectual support exist. The problems for art production and display in each city are extremely specific. There is no single remedy. The only remedy is the establishment of direct, unmediated contacts between these nodes of density, such as Cairo, Istanbul and Beirut. The foresight exists to set up regional platforms of negotiation without inviting the mediating agencies from outside who often arrive with their own set of agendas.

Despite all, the situation keeps flourishing. Nevertheless, there is almost a generic development in contemporary art practices and spaces that takes place not only in the region but also globally. This change has also to do with the changes in the political arena that favors a certain kind of economic and political system, that in turn at least tolerates and benefits from contemporary art. The notion of art spaces that have a public mandate and operate largely, or in part via public funding is an anomaly and anchored only in certain geographies. What one experiences in our region is that institutions with public mandates are more often than not supported by private interest, or are directly for-profit even though in exercise they do not operate like commercial structures.

Furthermore, the notion of public is not a generic term that can be applied cross-culturally. The “public” funds in our region may not actually be subjected to the same kind of codes that would for example exist in Central or Northern Europe. I should also say that the art market, in whatever its skimpy or developed mode of existence, exists differently in different parts of the region as an anomaly as well. The transience and provisionality that I have described as a constant in the region apply here as well. Some of the great artists from the region are now in the stables of established galleries in Europe and the United States. A situation like this would have been unthinkable two decades ago. However, this does not imply a sense of reciprocality, there is little in the way of the contemporary great collector from this region who stakes an interest in acquiring and maintaining a common cultural history of human kind. In the end, this implies a drain of the most vital cultural output of the region, away from the region. This is by no means a new situation for in order to see the best Impressionists from France one has to go the United States; the best antiquities are in Berlin or London. I am glad that someone is maintaining these works. Although the region’s sense of historical memory is radically strong — too strong and sometimes too ignorant for its own good — its sense of pseudo-scientific or manic categorizing of history is not as strong. This would imply the absence of the museum, but if this makes way for investment in contemporary culture, so be it.