JSalloum on Mon, 22 Oct 2001 00:56:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> everything and nothing, or art and the politics of war

[article for the School of the Art Institute]
everything and nothing
or art and the politics of war

Lets pay attention to language now. Its getting us into a lot of trouble.  
But, then again it always has been especially when we forget to recognize
it. And now that seems like an important thing to do. To question how
things are being said, how we are saying things, framing, conceptualizing,
grasping, and coming to terms with our lives as artists and citizens of
this whole wide world. So now, how do you position yourself in the midst
of all this. Is your relationship to your neighbours different? Has our
role as artists changed?  If it has then were in more trouble than I
thought. What I mean is that..  what makes us decide to have an agency in
our work? an embracement of the social sphere or an engagement with
politics that would make others want to do the same. Or what makes us want
to run away from it all, maybe its the same thing.

As artists we do pay attention to these things, language and relationships
to the social and political. I fell into the trap of believing that I
understood what that meant. Being identified as an Arab now has the same
repercussions as before except they are heightened. The repulsion and
exoticism of us still exists side by side, collapsing into each other and
swallowing us with it. We cannot just have an art exhibit without somehow
having to relate it to Sept. 11th. We are not allowed to, it is the first
or second question out of the journalists mouths and they demand an
answer, one that fits into a sound bite, or is said in a way that they can
rewrite you as being one of us, or one of them. So, how can this be used
in a productive sense. Well, with difficulty. In our recent little
struggle with the Museum of Civilization (MOC), in Hull, Quebec (across
the river from our nations capital, Ottawa), a few of us arab artists
(Rawi Hage, Laura Marks, and myself) found out that a story has a life of
its own whether true or false. And this is what gets picked up on. On a
recent Monday after a recent Tuesday the MOC directorship postponed an
exhibition of 26 Arab-Canadian artists that had been in the works for 5
years. It was stated as an indefinite postponement with the need to
revisit and review the content of the exhibition and to provide a broader
context to the work following the events of Sept. 11th.  The MOC is the
largest public museum in Canada and has very little experience in working
with living artists, one thing they always provide though, is a didactic
context. To make a long story short(er), we sent out an email letter of
protest that afternoon, by Tuesday over 200 responses were coming in from
around the world directed to the museum and our politicians, by Wednesday
the Prime Minister spoke up in our favour in the Parliament (again calling
for tolerance as opposed to empathy), Thursday it had unanimous support in
the Senate, and by Friday the Minister of Culture had spoken up and the
MOC which is supposed to be an arms length institution reneged and
reinstated the exhibition as originally planned due to political pressure.

With all factors combined and snowballing, it became a national and
international news story (even my friends in Beirut and Chicago were able
to catch it on CNN).  Well, the show is open, about 3,000 people came to
the opening last night, and the directors have not taken any
responsibility for their actions and avoided mentioning any of this like
the plaque. They didnt apologize nor admit any error. They also never
bothered to discuss anything with the artists at any point in the debacle
to try to resolve their concerns before going public. At a time when
public institutions need to show the most leadership, this museum failed
profoundly. Their need for spin-doctoring and packaging of the artworks
backfired and inflamed the sensitive content of the works bringing the
issues into a context of sensationalism, hysteria, and (their) arrogance.
In the current climate of suppression and repression of any debate and
dissention, discursive activities such that art can be, may be one of the
few domains left to us to express unpopular ideas, resistance, and the
complexities of our lives. We need to protect our right to be
self-inscribed. This is one arena that we should not give up on easily,
this cultural sphere, these domains of discursivity. We have struggled for
this space to call our own and it is one that we can still use to champion
difference and provide a means of contemplation that can counter the
'manufacturing of consensus that goes on around us.

-Jayce Salloum, 10/19/01


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