RESIDENCY: Abhijan Gupta in Residence at HSLU – University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Luzern, Switzerland
by Abhijan Gupta, Curatorial Assistant to the Chief Curator, Dhaka Art Summit
In May 2017, ProHelvetia New Delhi invited me to participate in a two-week research residency focusing on the techniques and methodologies of art mediation at HSLU – Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts - Hochschule Luzern. For those unfamiliar with art mediation, it is a technique that creates an alternative to the traditional top-down approach of information exchange between curator and visitor to create a dialogue that draws opinions from the visitor about the work they are engaging with, producing a non-hierarchical cultural space where all opinions are valid. Building on a previous ProHelvetia art mediation residency I attended earlier this year in Kochi, this residency afforded me an opportunity to more deeply engage with art mediation methods, and explore how they could be used as a tool to increase audience engagement during the Dhaka Art Summit 2018. The visitor numbers at previous editions of DAS – 2016 welcomed 138,000 visitors over four days–demonstrating the enthusiasm our audience has for contemporary art and the need to deploy the methodologies of art mediation at DAS 2018.
I arrived in Zurich just in time to attend the second half of ‘The Most Neglected, the Most Wanted’ one-day symposium, organised in dialogue with the Critical Writing Ensembles and the Office for Contemporary Art Norway, focusing on the art review as a form. The symposium fed directly into many of the topics I expected to cover during my time in Swizerland, but a lecture by Ellinor Landmann (Editor for Culture, Swiss Radio and Television, Basel), whose radio program produces short, but detailed reviews of exhibitions, and interviews with artists, was especially pertinent. Landmann’s lecture sparked a conversation between myself and Diana Campbell Betancourt (who was participating in the symposium), about engaging with radio programming as a site of mediation during DAS 2018. Radio is a popular medium in Dhaka, where there is a listening culture which engages people from all strata of society, particularly when stuck in one of Dhaka’s infamous, traffic jams. To explore this idea further, during my residency, I met Lucie Kolb, who ran Radio Artur for six years: a community radio project dedicated to creating art-oriented programming through a variety of formats, including artist-interviews and sound-based artworks. My discussions with Kolb opened up the possibility of creating a mediation program that works not just in the immediate context of DAS 2018, but that reaches a wider, more varied audience.
Following the symposium, I travelled to HSLU in Luzern where I was based for the duration of my residency. Dr. Rachel Mader had arranged meetings with many practitioners, both within the institution, and around Switzerland, to help develop the ideas we had begun to conceive around art mediation in Kochi.
One of my first meetings was with Sabine Gerbhardt-Fink (Director, MA Kunst and Design, HSLU), to discuss her project CAMP. CAMP was a program that she developed, with Elke Krasny and Lena Eriksson (Lecturer, MA Kunst, HSLU), between 2012 -15, to investigate the idea of the artist as mediator. I found this a particularly interesting approach in the context of the mediation program for the Dhaka Art Summit, as we intend to work closely with local artists and artist groups, to develop a mediation program that creatively responds to the programme. CAMP’s project sought to understand mediation not as something that is added to an exhibition context, almost as an afterthought, but as a central part of the exhibition-making process: creating spaces within the exhibition where people could gather to initiate conversations, and engage with works of art in not-usually-recognised ways. CAMP’s practice-based, but theoretically oriented approach fascinated me as it centred around creating practices that allowed visitors to claim their agency within a white-cube exhibition context.
To find out more about Erikkson’s ongoing work, I travelled to Basel and participated in the audio-walk, “Wastescapes” (part of the supporting program of the exhibition Times of Waste – The Leftover at Museum der Kulturen Basel). Organised by Erikkson, the walk provided a different perspective on the use of new media practices in art mediation. The audio-walk guided through the tri-border area, between Switzerland, France and Germany—an area with a long and often-contested history—using GPS-based software to explore contemporary material histories, connected to the riverine port that now occupies the area, discussing the histories of waste in the era of hyper-accelerated international trade.
Erikkson also organised a meeting with Emilie George (Kunsthalle Mulhouse), with whom she had been developing an artist-as-mediator programme. The Kunsthalle has been developing a very experimental mediation program, oriented to the specific circumstances of the context of Mulhouse. It is one of the few spaces for contemporary art in the city, in a town that has seen the effects of de-industralisation: the Kunsthalle itself is in an old, disused foundry. Mulhouse has also, in more recent years, seen the resettlement of refugees, which has sometimes led to tensions with the rest of the population which George used the mediation programme to directly address these issues, creating spaces to resolve conflicts and initiate dialogue.
Using the artist-as-mediator, George and her team furthered the possibilities for how mediation in institutional context could operate. In the exhibitions at the Kunsthalle, the curatorial team invite the exhibiting artist to propose a specific format of mediation that would work for the show in question. It was in this context that Lena Eriksson developed the ‘korrespondenz’ tool, that was also used in the workshop in Kochi, which draws upon French sociocultural educator Fernand Deligny’s exercises with autistic children, where drawing and map-making is used as a tool to understand the world. Here participants were invited to draw on sections of folded paper, which they would unfold at the end of their exhibition walkthrough, to reveal a map of their intellectual and spatial engagement with the show. Operating in often-difficult terrain, Kunsthalle Mulhouse’s programme has successfully created a context-specific mediation methodology with minimal resources.
While developing the Kunsthalle’s programme, George has also used her experience with ‘forum theatre’ (a methodology developed by Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatre director and innovator, who wrote the Theatre of the Oppressed in 1973) to destroy the distance between the actor and the spectator, creating spaces for the most marginalised members of society to exercise their agency. George found great application for these techniques especially in her work with refugees and migrant communities. The methodology had many resonances with the third theatre form (developed in Bengal by Badal Sarkar in the 20th century, which centred around the idea of the ‘anganmanch’ (the forum, or courtyard)), to create open-form structures of theatre. The intersection between art mediation and theatre practices would be fertile ground to explore in Dhaka, which has a rich vein of theatre traditions.
Later in my residency, Dr. Mader also introduced me to artist/activist, Dr. Habib Ahmed Afsar, who has developed projects which use art as a mode of social intervention in Uster’s refugee community, near Zurich (part of a large collaboration—which includes refugee rights’ groups, lawyers, leftist youth activists, local church organisations, as well as artists and performers). Uster houses many refugees who are being processed by the Immigration Bureau to determine their refugee status; during this time, they are not allowed to work, are housed in World War II era bunkers and must report to the police twice every day. On Sundays and during holidays, Dr. Afsar and his collaborators create a safe space where refugees and migrants can explore and express themselves, and interact with members of the local community. Able to participate, I set up an Auschweiss Kiosk, inviting participants to create their own documents of permission, subverting the unfriendly bureaucratic system to create spaces of healing and renegotiation, whereby humanity could be reclaimed.
During a visit to Bern, Dr. Mader introduced me to the ‘stammtisch’ (an informal group, where all opinions are admissible and normal societal hierarchies suspended), which formed part of the mediation program at the experimental theatre festival Overexposure in Bern. After watching, The New Europeans—a play which dealt caustically with European anxiety about the intake of refugees and migrants within its borders—we were led to participate in a ‘stammtisch’ with the players and members of the audience to dissect and discuss the production.
Towards the end of my residency I met Franz Krähenbühl, the curator and organiser from the community oriented project TRANSFORM, which over six-years, explored the idea of art in public spaces and created a roving ‘off-space’ (laboratory situation for artistic confrontation in public locations). For the last three years, the project was not site-specific, and instead embraced working with artists and local communities to realise a variety of modes of engagement across Bern.
My time in Switzerland was an opportunity to explore and discuss how best to rethink institutionality: embracing the techniques used in the Swiss context while thinking about how they could be used in Bangladesh. While the workshop in Kochi taught me techniques around mediation in the context of the exhibition, the residency in Switzerland opened up opportunities to engage with mediation as a wider culture, outside the gallery walls. Re-thinking the city, perhaps, might be a useful metaphor for how we might understand the model of mediation that could work within the context of DAS 2018. Institutions have a central role in thinking infra-structurally about what is required to make usually rarefied, exclusionary contemporary art spaces, truly public spaces, which allow different modes of navigation through them, and are able to listen to a variety of different voices, and modes of speech. As bearing points within a landscape, they can allow for certain re-mappings of navigability.