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Generation 00: The Artist as Citizen* | Essay by Abdellah Karroum

*Transcription of the Keynote Talk at the conference “Situating Global Art”, at Kulturbrauerei, Berlin, 12, 2015
Thursday 12 February 2015

Tout va bien. All is well. This message was sent by Karim Rafi from his studio in Casablanca where he was stuck due to his request for a travel visa to Europe being refused. This refusal made it impossible for Rafi travel to Working for Change, an exhibition at the Venice Biennale where he was an invited artist (1). In the form of a photographic image, the message was sent by email. It was a way of finding an artistic form to express a subject, one that touches society and one in which the artist participates as a citizen. At stake in this work is describing a situation: the artist is in his studio; in his apartment, he works with full consciousness; conversations seem as carefree as always; the artist is visibly calm in taking this picture; in other words, all is well. But if we look closely at that day’s news, we see that we are in the full disorder of the “Arab Revolutions.” Tunisia had just witnessed the fleeing of its president and the streets of Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were overheating. Here, then, as in much of his work, Karim Rafi adopts a language that is ironic, poetic, and strongly inspired by both rap and Gnawa trance, forms of expression that are in tension with the present with a knowledge of the bases of improvisation and a consciousness of the thickness of history and of the social context in which the artist lives. This was also true of the work that precedes All Is Well, called The Show Is Over (2). In it, the artist clearly takes a radical formal position, creating a sound installation that interrogates and experiments with the idea of the end, of the circle as a symbol of the revolution of life. At stake is creating a rupture with the forms of art and the artist’s status. The latter should not be isolated from the rest of society but must interact with it in the same space-time.

This essay examines artists and their productions during the decade preceding the uprisings in Tunisia and the Arab World, along with other cultural and social movements. Its timeline, which focuses on the years between 1999 and 2011, suggests that a long decade of initiatives preceded the so-called “Arab Spring.” In what follows, I discuss and expand on my concept of “Generation 00” as a way to read art practices emerging at the turn of the century and millennium, and I employ the methodology of what I call the “Curatorial Delegation” (CD) as a tool for study and for activating concepts and dialogues.

What I would like to put forward here is a contextual reading of the origins of the two intertwined concepts, Generation 00 and the artist as citizen, and to elaborate on histories that, I suggest, contribute to clarifying the present moment. I do so not only in order to contextualize the Generation 00, but to interpret the work of these artists within the broader world that surrounds its production and exhibition. As I first defined it in a discussion of artist Mustapha Akrim, the term Generation 00 describes the group of artists who produced works in the first decade of the twenty-first century, right before the start of what has been variously called revolutions in the Arab World or the “Arab Spring.” This generation appears globally, but its members address issues that are different and they adopt equally diverse strategies of action. I focus on the decade prior to the “Arab Spring” in order to question the ways in which these historical movements have been portrayed and to raise the question of the extent to which artists—long involved in political and public protests—paved the way for these broader changes and challenges. The idea that the Arab revolutions “arrived in the street” is true in the sense that the street is traditionally the space of assembly and collective action, and every “spontaneous” movement appears first in streets and public squares with Tahrir Square in Cairo being the most significant. But it is also important to consider more organized movements that amplified these street-based movements in coordinated ways, notably community unions and student movements that have long identified themselves with a wide-range of political and ideological tendencies. If we look earlier into history at the signs of change, we can see that more than ten years before the uprising in Tunisia, political and cultural movements were beginning to construct tribunes and/or to consolidate strategies of power and to express ideas for change. Contrary to what certain media propose, intellectuals are at the heart of the Arab revolutions and of revolutions in general.

With this in mind, this essay recounts a story told through two intertwined threads: first, that of observation, based on my own reading and knowledge of artists’ projects; and second, that of experience, drawn from my more than twenty years of experience working on curatorial projects and deep involvement in exchanges and debates with artists and intellectuals. I use the concept of the “artist as citizen,” citing specific examples that reflect my work across the globe from my bases in Morocco and, more recently, Qatar. I developed this concept most explicitly in the 2012 Biennale Benin, Inventing the World: The Artist as Citizen, and it continues to drive much of my research and curatorial work. I suggest defining the term, artists and authors are citizens who look at their surrounding societies—at the world around them, at both the macro and the micro level—in order to interpret issues into or through art forms (1). The artist as citizen witnesses the society in which he or she lives or about which he or she is informed. The artist expresses ideas and suggests an experience of art and a way of living, proposing other possibilities, using new forms of engagement with audiences, and creating spaces around the artwork. If the idea of change is not yet there, the artwork can create expectations, as is visible in almost every country, from Eastern Europe to Africa, or from Latin America to the larger Arab World. Artists create languages that are adapted to the speed and the speech of their contemporary moment and this artistic language goes beyond the media space into the space of conversation and daily life.

If 1989 marks the physical fall of the Berlin Wall, it signifies for me the beginning of what I call the “post-contemporary” period, which corresponds to my first passage from one country to another (Morocco to Spain) and from one continent to another (Africa to Europe). The term “post-contemporary” is useful here because it emphasizes the idea of progress in a multitude of locations rather than presuming an expansion of same definition of art. The “contemporary” is seen, from this position, as a period in art history bookended by the end of the second World War in 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For me, everything that happened in this period is only information gleaned from ideas and images, since I arrived in this new geography in 1989.

This “historic” link has become an abstract reference from which to construct the meaning of these comings and goings, or back-and-forth movements, between the crossing of spaces and artistic experiments. These passages translate themselves concretely in the happenings and exhibitions of L’appartement 22, the art space I founded in Rabat in 2002, as well as in the nomadic Le Bout Du Monde (“The End of the World”), a series of expeditions I have led since 2000. L’appartement 22 is physically identified as a location that functions as an exhibition space but it is also the basis for the Expeditions and the Hors’champs publishing house. I created the space in order to meet and experiment with artists and intellectuals of my generation. In other words, L’appartement 22 was a response to a physical need and it acts as a point in a real landscape as well as an archival process that documents the experience of exchange and production. The creation of this space is also a response to the lack of investment in art and culture for a younger generation in Morocco and North Africa in general. This deficit of investment is equally visible at the political level, which created a gap between the post-independence generation and the younger generation.

L’appartement 22, then, is a place characterized by constant comings and goings, by routes shared with artists, often of my generation, whose work situates itself in spaces that go beyond exclusive small places yet still resist uncontrollable globalization where all individuality could be lost. L’appartement 22 is connected to the idea that any place can be temporarily transformed into a forum or stage, as long as the intention of the project or encounter is clear (4). These back-and-forth interactions, or exchanges between geographies, individuals, and materials, create a double visibility for the artists who appear and who transform the places where they have invested themselves into centers of their own choosing, thereby working to abolish the colonial model of the center versus periphery through creating centers for dialogue and exchange rather than centers for marketing.

The situation of artists in countries like Egypt and Algeria interests me on many levels, most notably because they are confronted by experimental political and social situations that are necessary for us to understand without necessarily judging them. Generation 00 artists are all artist-citizens: they work in the places where they actually live, such as Amal Kenawy (1974-2012) and Mustapha Akrim (1981), but they are also implicated in questions that affect the entire planet. An artist’s work is often elided with his or her biography. Being from a certain country and having a passport does or, alternatively, does not give one access to certain spaces. But the notion of a homeland remains relative and fragile. These artists insert global topics into local art production all the while creating new vocabularies and addressing localized themes and taboos, such as gender, the representation of power, religion, and the market.

As a curator, researcher, and now museum director who has long worked with these Generation 00 artists, I do not see myself as particularly responsible for the artists from the countries of the Maghreb region just because I was born in Morocco. In retrospect, I accompany and accept my engagement with the reception of artwork and the artists with whom I work as much in Europe as in Africa. The appearance of an artist in a country’s cultural landscape is tied to his or her project and to a particular institutional or media conjuncture. As such, the work of an artist can appear with force in Shanghai, Berlin, Rabat, Tokyo, New York, and Dakar at the same time. The work that I do through projects at L’appartement 22 is based on a permanent investigation, as much in Morocco as in France, and on a larger scale, in Europe and in Africa. But as soon as we begin to think in terms of a country or a continent, misunderstandings about identity paradigms metastasize. I choose not to bypass them, but to introduce myself to their symbols and representations, hence the necessity of constantly interrogating contemporary creation, its stakes, and its networks. Experiencing art renders transparent the idea of utopic capital, which gives birth to an activism that transgresses borders and boundaries.

Art is not tied to a single place. Instead, it operates according to permanent comings and goings, moving between convictions, beliefs, ideologies, ecologies, languages, and taboos in order to suggest a convivial or simply more liveable world. It is now a question of interrogating which methods are put in place to inscribe these ideas and projects in the societies that artists hope to transform. Does the artist have access to the tools of action which allow them to participate in change?

As L’appartement 22 has grown, it has evolved over time and become increasingly collaborative. Its programming is now led by the Curatorial Delegation (CD), which is a methodology that I developed for curatorial research and action linked to production and to the creation of conditions for encounters and for the activation of artworks. More specifically, as we defined in the initial manifesto:

The concept of a Curatorial Delegation evokes the speed and distractedness with which the field of art engages with politics today, often treating social conditions as subjects of or for a spectacle, extracting content, as one extracts essence from flowers, granting cultural practices the stamp of authenticity, and guaranteeing global recognition. The Curatorial Delegation aims to translate and propose more intuitive and methodical forms of engagement with available or invented spaces, suggesting ways to establish meaningful dialogue, research, production, and communication (exploration, editing, and publishing). The Curatorial Delegation operates by deploying different tools for collecting and sharing content, functioning outside of the conventional formats for conducting research and presenting forms of cultural expression. (CD initial definition, published for the first time during the MDE11 [Encuentros de Medellin 2011], Medellin, Colombia)

The structure of the Curatorial Delegation is similar to a Diplomatic Corps, and the initials CD play on this idea: it suggests the potential of the curator as a negotiator, and also the collective and collaborative nature of curatorial work in different contexts. Collaboration and complicity are important notions in the sense that, in a Delegation, the leader must adapt with every new project and new negotiation and context. This methodology offers a platform where the general idea of curating can be challenged every possible location on the globe, but it adopts tools that can be a response to the issue of how to situate global art: it offers mobility and it is very localized around each example of intervention or study.

The example of the Curatorial Delegation’s participation in MDE11 is illustrative. For MDE11, curated by Rose Roca with a group of curators, L’appartement 22 was invited as an art space from Morocco for a residency exchange with Casa Imago, an art space in Colombia. I then invited curator Juan Gaitán to take part in the residency because we had already started discussing the idea of, and possible methodologies for, the Curatorial Delegation. It was important for us not to go to Colombia with the idea of producing a pre-conceived program there. Instead, the idea was to produce a conversation-based program linking contexts in Morocco and Colombia, which we called “Radio For Example.” We started with a few ideas using open-ended terms that would help us listen to the people we interviewed: geography (mountains, countries), media (radio, exhibition), and curatorial methodologies (collaboration, cooperation). Later, in 2014, curator Natalia Valencia, who is also from Colombia, came to Morocco for an expedition and exhibition project with artists Julia Rometti & Víctor Costales. In her words, the project was one of “Julia Rometti & Víctor Costales “pursu[ing] their ongoing research on Anarquismo Mágico, a little known transnational political movement, and one of its leading figures – Azul Jacinto Marino. Rometti & Costales interrogated the historical movement’s relevance within North Africa’s current botanical, mineral, and political context. These enquiries were sparked by subaquatic communications intercepted by the artists in the coast of Ecuador.”

This is one example of how the Curatorial Delegation expands and responds to situations and to the need to initiate dialogues and create space for encounters between artists, artworks, and audiences. And it too is connected to the concept of Generation 00, which is fundamentally linked to the idea of change. Change is only possible through understanding contexts and with research, encounters, and possible action. This idea of change is important for positioning the role of the artist and the curator. It clarifies the relationship local/global and intervention/production.

Let’s return once again to the Generation 00 in order to explain in greater detail how I conceptualize it. From a curatorial view, Generation 00 is connected to perception. From an artistic perspective, it is connected to self-identification and belonging within a shared space and time. In both instances, by linking this concept to a radical number—00—this notion of generation communicates the idea of rupture with that which came before, whether it is at the level of meaning or instead, the voiding of meaning. By rupture, I mean the knowledge of the past from which the rupture takes place. In the case of many countries, it refers to colonial and postcolonial systems.

The Dakar Biennale Dak’art is one project that looks at the continent of Africa and its production. As such, it is a very particular example of an exhibition that, in its inclusion of many Generation 00 artists, seeks to be both global and highly specific to the African continent. It began in 1992 and it positioned itself as a platform for contemporary art and expression across the entire continent as well as in the diaspora. It is interesting to see how a local institution is built, especially when it looks at individuals, such as artists and writers, rather than at national projects and systems. The persistent curatorial challenge for the biennial’s curators is to define the “African element,” and to speculate about the diaspora and other connections. One interesting approach is to define the platform as the “African Biennale of Art” and not as the “Biennale of African Art.” I co-curated the 2006 edition of Dak’art, and this issue was central. The exhibition title was Afrique : Entendus, sous-entendus et malentendus, or Africa: Understandings, Double Entendres, and Misunderstandings. Each of the biennial’s six curators was in charge of a different part of Africa, and I was responsible for introducing artists from North African countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt) and of course the final selection was a collaborative one. Looking back, we might see this project as a kind of CD before CD.

In Morocco, meanwhile, the generation of artists that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s invented original and local languages, emphasizing their desire to detach from European influence. But at the same time, they remained connected to European artists and intellectuals who were also positioning themselves in relationship to political power. We saw the same cultural movements in the so-called post-war years in Europe. This, in part, is the spirit that led to independence. However, in the 2000s, which are my primary concern, the idea of change and the artist’s active participation as part of production, in order to invent materials, invest subjects, and create the conditions for an artwork’s diffusion, prompted debates that led to a confrontation with a different reality. This new generation operates a rupture with the 1960s to 1980s generation that “occupied” the art scene from the post-independence era to the media era, during the “years of lead” and the limited activation or engagement of artworks with the political and social context. This confrontation with social reality—and even with the condition of the artist as citizen, such as in the work of visual artists Mustapha Akrim, Yto Barrada, Younès Rahmoun as well as in that of their peers in cinema and music—has led to increasing an awareness of the situation of creators in other domains, for example, the realization that economic and social domains function similarly.

From the perspective of the Generation 00, it is not a question of isolated groups defined either as the masses or the tyrants, to refer to the recent body of photographs by Shirin Neshat, but something like a rhizome of exchanges and ideas that circulate in diverse political, social, cultural, and economic spaces, touching all levels of society but economic elites in particular. History will then be recounted as follows: Generation 00 is comprised of a group of artists and intellectuals, living on every continent, operating at the same time, in diverse social and political contexts, with the idea of bearing witness to and acting for change and social justice. These artists, like other citizens, receive the same global information and observe similar issues and injustices in their immediate environments.

By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest looking at “For Example ‘Le Bout Du Monde Expeditions’” as a way of situating global art, of reflecting on what methods and tools might best serve us. As I have developed this project over the last fifteen years, the expedition can take place in any part of the world, and at the same time activities and art are localized in a specific time and place. We use curatorial and visual language as tools for discussion and production, similar to different languages, such that the meaning transforms the words and the exchange produces acts for progress or change. Artworks remain in the center and the artist, as the actor/explorer in the expedition, builds temporary shelters or proposes objects of encounter that can resist an expanded time/space, moving from research to action.

The first expedition, which took place in 2000, went to the Rif Mountains of Morocco and it was an example of an experience and experiment. The only remains are a photograph of a familiar local scene that subsequently became a postcard, or what artist Jean-Paul Thibeau called the “meta-activité du champs de l’arabe,” or the “meta activity of the Arab’s field.” It shows a group of chickens in action. This picture postcard is the only image communicated to larger audiences of the expedition, and how its participants, including local farmers, the artists, and myself as curator, experienced the process over several days of discussion, walking around the village and surrounding hills, and sharing daily life. These exchanges brought out how, for example, some of the objects and activities highlighted by the guests had a different place or priority for the locals.

Were we to look at this project and try to situate it as “Global Art,” it will not make sense as a discrete object Yet it takes on greater sense if we approach it as a methodology, one that offers multiple possibilities for reading and interpretation. If we conceive of location as a temporary studio, we can in turn focus on artistic vocabulary and the notion of “meta-activity.” And if we look at the larger environment of the location and its population, then our reading and interpretation will be affected by natural history, colonial history, and migratory movements. In other words, our understanding will necessarily be conditioned by the many environmental, social, historical, and political challenges that we must take into account when developing and experimenting with different methodologies of situating art around the globe.

Notes:

1) Working for Change, 2011, curated by Abdellah Karroum and the Curatorial Delegation, collateral exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia.

2) The Show Is Over was part of the exhibition Flowers, Animals, Urbans, Machines, with Sofia Aguiar, Younes Baba-Ali, Gabriella Ciancimino, Karim Rafi, curated by Abdellah Karroum, L’appartement 22, Rabat, 2010. http://www.appartement22.com/spip.php?article295

3) See the exhibtion project The World Around You, 2008, proposed for the Brussels Biennial, and produced in Fez and Rabat, http://the-world-around-you.appartement22.com/spip.php?article2

4) On this process of creating spaces, see Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate (1968) (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).