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Michaela Crimmin – Performing Borders interview


conversations on live art | crossings | europe

Alessandra Cianetti: Michaela, you are the founder and co-director of Culture+Conflict, ‘a not-for-profit agency focusing on art produced in, or in response to, conflict and post-conflict situations across the world’. What are the conflicts and art practices you have been focusing on lately? As curator, academic and director, how would do you think the notion of border has been changing in our contemporary world?

Michaela Crimmin: International conflict itself, and especially now, has no borders. Try and pinpoint a beginning or end to a particular conflict present or past, and you soon are thrown across time and space. Allegiances shift as much now as they did in the World Wars. In acknowledgement of these realities and in the interest of neither corralling artists nor simplifying the subject of war, Conflict+Culture has preferred to intersect with places, themes, and questions that address the subject of conflict from many points of entry. Our first event, at the Free Word Centre in central London, took Baghdad’s Al-Mutanabbi Street as its context, a booksellers’ market that had been hit by a car bomb some four years before our event. This attempt at destroying a shared intellectual space had inspired a play, music, and responses from visual artists and these were represented during the course of the evening. Since then we have variously addressed other geographical locations, examined subjects such as the use of satire in addressing war, and taken the debate to a variety of venues including Amnesty International, the Imperial War Museum, the South Bank Centre, and the House of Lords, as well as to arts organisations including the ICA (the Institute of Contemporary Arts) and Delfina Foundation. At Delfina Omar Kholeif, who we had invited to chair a panel discussion, framed the debate by asking whether art’s independence was not increasingly being subsumed by politics. In his briefing note to the panel members he wrote “I hope that this session will form/create a discursive discussion for us to share and exchange ideas about the way that contemporary culture is presented, mediated, distanciated, nurtured, annihilated, re-articulated, appropriated, dissolved and constructed”. While the event at Delfina was concerned specifically with Egypt, Omar’s brief continues to be an apt lodestar for events that followed where the debate has centred on countries including Palestine, Northern Ireland and Iraq, countries where the UK has been directly involved in the drawing of borders and the conflicts that have and are taking place.

There are obvious reasons to question this strategy, including working with artists from a range of different heritages with different methodologies and interests. For the time being we are nevertheless comfortable with the fact that experiences, questions, and challenges that occur under the broad heading of ‘conflict’ provide an easily shared basis for sustained and we hope incremental exchange and debate.

In the second part of your question you ask whether I see a change in the notion of border. To begin with borders are a shared reality. The writer Frances Stonor Saunders wrote a fascinating article for the London Review of Books in March of last year (the prompt for us to invite her to speak at our recent series of ‘Promised Land’ events). In this she references Günter Grass’s Oskar from the The Tin Drum and writes “there is only one way into this life, and one way out of it. Everything that happens in between – all the thresholds we cross and recross, all the ‘decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse’ – is bordered by this unbiddable truth. What we hope for is safe passage between these two fixed boundaries, to be able to make something of the experience of being alive before we are required to stop being alive. There’s no negotiating birth or death. What we have is the journey.” It goes without saying that some people’s journeys, involving crossing many borders of various kinds, are a hell of a lot easier than others. However now in the UK we are being jolted into a prospect of not being able to travel quite so freely across certain countries’ borders that we have probably taken for granted all our lives. Having been fed the heady concept of ‘globalisation’ – given the money, the ‘right’ passport and ownership of the right technology – and having been accustomed to an unprecedented ease of communication, we in the West are perhaps waking up. There is a shuddering realisation that cyber walls are more porous than we had presumed; that drones might rather easily dodge a scrambled military aircraft; to say nothing of the nuclear threat that we have somehow buried at the back of our minds since the end of the Cold War. We know from Chernobyl that nuclear fallout is impossible to contain within a particular region. Horrifying also are the binaries between belief systems and cultures that have resurfaced over recent years, creating divisions that can seem as impenetrable as the border controls, wire, bricks and cement between countries.

As a child I loved crossing country borders, adding another stamp to my passport, the palpable excitement of stepping into a new territory, going forwards. I have now come to loathe them – real borders, borders between religions, and borders between ethnicities – they are hateful things. Every time a border has been drawn or redrawn, there have been devastating consequences. But as a curator addressing conflict, borders are inevitably a subject to come back to time and again, a fascinating subject and one that we cannot, should not, ignore.

AC: In the last two months you have been co-curating with the Goethe Institute ‘Promised Land’: two events addressing the notions of Europe and the clash between its vision as a project of freedom and the reality of Fortress Europe. You have been inviting amazing speakers between academia and the art world and I would like to ask you two questions, one for each of the two events:

During the first event ‘Promised Land: panel discussion’ last October you invited artists Hrair Sarkissian and Jonas Staal; writer Frances Stonor Saunders and academic Dr. Bernadette Buckley. What do you think were the main reflections drawn at this event that are important to share with us?

MC: Frances Stonor Saunders, following on from her article in the LRB, began by asking “why, in our much-hyped globalised world, (is) the rhetoric of the Promised Land so mercilessly unequal to the reality?” (i) She went on to say “I’m trying to comprehend the world as a question, I’m not sure of any other way”. I could not conceivably do justice to her talk, nor to those of the other speakers, but happily in this case there will be a recording on the ICA website later this year, and a fuller account published of Frances’ talk. Her final question was perhaps the most devastating: “what if heaven and hell are not separate destinations?” Being given a difficult question to ponder I find more interesting than listening to any number of answers. One of the joys of art is that artists and writers of merit spare us all a reductive solution, or dogma of any sort, and instead present new perspectives for an engaged audience to consider.

ICA panelJonas Staal, Bernadette Buckley, Hrair Sarkissian, Frances Stonor Saunders at the ICA, 19.11.2016

At the event at the ICA, Jonas Staal introduced his fearless programme of work where he is testing the concept of ‘union’ alongside an acceptance of difference, be this in Rojava or the Netherlands. A reflection here was on how courageous artists can be and how far from the myth of the artist in a secluded studio. How art and politics are inseparable. Then there was Hrair Sarkissian’s moving study of belonging, and of not belonging, and of searching for identity. This was hugely moving, his images working in parallel to his words, and a reminder that art is privileged in its freedom to legitimately bring a personal account to address the political. Finally I am trying to extract Bernadette Buckley’s deep consideration of the relationship between art and politics from her so we can share this more widely.
Tania Bruguera in a recent talk for BBC Radio 4 ended by saying ‘What can we do? How can we organise? If you remain complacent and passive, you are part of the problem.’ (ii)

AC: On 3rd December you hosted at Central Saint Martins “Promised Land: one-day symposium” with an incredible range of key speakers, artists and academics. Please tell us a bit about the day and the discussions it arises.

MC: The Goethe-Institute invited us to consider Europe with its post-WW2 vision of unity, security and aspiration, and in its present day reality. The reemergence of nationalism in its most unpleasant form, division, the displacement of people, the tightening of borders, the inequality between the wealthy and what the press and the politicians call the rest of us, the ‘ordinary people’. Obviously an enormous subject area and as with the ICA event, one that was never going to make for a neat and tidy account, and quite possibly a miserable occasion considering the events of 2016 and the challenges ahead. Looking at the photographs taken throughout the day by a young artist, Nikola Zelmanovic (a number of which illustrate this piece), confirms my memory that there was actually an extraordinary amount of smiling and laughter. Not least in response to Nina Katchadourian’s Accent Elimination, readily available on her website, and a brilliantly humorous look at cultural stereotypes. Alongside humour, was a display of consummate energy by each of the speakers – artists and curators from Nigeria, from Palestine, Germany, Denmark, Austria as well as the UK rammed the event with every approach imaginable, some very directly talking about borders. We invited a young writer currently studying at the Royal College of Art, Alexandra Quicho, to summarise the day.
AC: During  “Promised Land: one-day symposium” artist Emeka Okereke stated that we cannot speak of Europe without talking about its history of colonialism in response to the idea of a European Republic presented by keynote speaker Ulrike Guérot. What do you think this implies in looking at art and conflicts in contemporary Europe?

Promised Land Emeka© Nikola Zelmanovic, Promised Land event, Emeka Okereke , Central Saint Martins, 03.12.2017

MC: Ulrike Guérot’s proposal for a new European Republic sought to respond to the inequalities of past borders and exclusive nation states by re-imagining multi-cultural populations living in new cities and regions with more devolved local governance. Emeka was right, as was a member of the audience, to bring Colonialism directly into the conversation. How can we conceivably talk about the present or the future without looking at cause, and as such Colonialism simply must not be side lined, nor the historical clashes between religions and nations that feed so directly into the present. Ulrike agreed but at that point unfortunately had to leave for an appointment. She subsequently sent the title of an article she had co-written that she said she would have referenced had there been more time (iii).

AC: As you know this blog focuses on live art, although with your work we are digressing into how wider art practices are able to tackle broader issues linked to conflicts. I wonder whether in your projects you have been collaborating with live artists and in what way you think live art can contribute to the aim of your work.

MC: There are so many artists that we reference, that we enormously respect, artists who can be working in extremely dangerous contexts, many of whom you might categorise under a label of ‘live art’. For example Tania Bruguera who works prominently in the public sphere in Cuba but who has been detained on a number occasions by the police (ii). There is Regina José Galindo from Guatemala, Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal, and Rabih Mroué from Lebanon. Brilliant artists. Live art is of course sometimes the only medium an artist can use because otherwise they and their audiences are too vulnerable. Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, spoke at one of Culture+Conflict events and who has more recently been working with Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina (“If you don’t run in front of the train, then you’re nowhere”). There are artists such as Jelili Atiju in Nigeria, who bring their concerns for human rights and justice into the streets, who encourage participation. This direct engagement with people, in a particular moment of time, has a different and a complementary power and potency to the art that is seen in a gallery.

Finally I must say how much I admire the important work undertaken by the Live Art Development Agency over such a sustained period, and with consummate generosity.

AC: Unfortunately conflicts do not seem to end and the year that has just ended has been quite challenging in that respect. Do you have plans to address this in 2017?

© Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, still from Quicksand, 2016© Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, still from Quicksand, 2016/17

MC: We will most definitely continue to address the relationship between art and conflict not only this year but long after. We have initiated two research residencies at King’s College London in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection. This is a partnership with their amazing archivists Geoffrey Browell and Catherine Sambrook. Palestinian artist Bisan Abu Eisheh has just started exploring the extensive material held, and we will be in conversation at the Mosaic Rooms on Tuesday 22 February to discuss his observations. Jananne Al-Ani, born in Iraq, will also be hosted at King’s and we greatly look forward to their insights from their different cultural perspectives.

We premiered a new work by Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen titled Quicksand, commissioned by the Goethe Institute in partnership with Culture+Conflict, which is a sound installation on the subject of reverse migration – Westerners leaving a future UK by the same routes as refugees are using to come to Europe at the moment. The work is being further developed with a visual element and will be shown in an exhibition as part of the Hull UK City of Culture activities this spring. Orna Kazimi, an artist from Afghanistan, continues an MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, made possible by funds raised by Culture+Conflict. Plans are in development featuring research, further events, an exhibition and book.

We are especially keen to instigate more conversation between panel and audience and will make this a priority. Equally we would very much like to hear from readers of performingborders who would like us to publicise events and projects, artworks, and activities; and to hearing your views; or who would simply like to be added to our mailing list.

Promised Land Bisan and HansiPromised Land audience 2

© Nikola Zelmanovic, Promised Land event, Central Saint Martins, 03.12.2017

Meanwhile, very best wishes for 2017 to everyone!

i. Frances Stonor Saunders, Where on Earth are you?, London Review of Books, Vol. 38 No. 5, 03.013.2016, pp 7-12
ii. Tania Bruguera, Imagining the New Truth, BBC Radio 4, 05.01.2017
iii. Ulrike Guerot and Robert Menasse, Europe and the Reconstruction of the Free World, Green European Journal