Walker Art Center
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Content, Context, and Cultural Commitment: Curating the Performing Arts


Obviously, when I do present the work, there will be a great need for contextualization. How will I prepare my audiences? How will I contextualize the work? How will we talk about the representation of Arabs, Muslims, the Middle Eastern world in our art facilities? There is a whole new layer of concerns, other than just bringing artists from another part of the world. How do I now deal with them in the atmosphere of fear and, perhaps, ignorance?

PB: It seems like there's an opportunity here to potentially battle that ignorance by offering responsible, well-considered presentations of Islamic-based cultures.

BS: Yes, but I think it will take me longer now to understand the complexities.

PB: Because it requires a longer time frame to be able to build that contextualization and understanding?

BS: Exactly.

PB: It speaks to this question of traveling to places you've never been to before. In the last year, my travel life, due to opportunities related to this initiative, has exploded. And I've been learning a great deal about what I don't know. For instance, in traveling to Brazil or even to South Africa, I didn't expect the artistic communities to be so immersed in and knowledgeable about global contemporary work, to have such rapidly evolving yet underfunded systems for developing new work. There was a high level of intellectual discourse around contemporary practice, not just their own but that of artists from all over the world. Of course I knew there were important contemporary artists from both of those countries, but I underestimated the level of the discourse. I knew that the financial base for contemporary art was not equal to what we have here in the States, and certainly not equal to what's available in Europe. Yet it became clear that finances don't necessarily define the vitality of a cultural scene.

Often in our field, we travel internationally when a foundation or a foreign government invites a group of curators to go and experience a range of work together. There are great benefits in traveling as part of a group. But on recent trips, I've traveled solo. I was forced to do my own research, to not depend on anyone else to create the map for me. Often, the trips did not even coincide with festivals, so I invested a lot of time and energy in researching who is doing what in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, or Johannesburg. That meant not only connecting with artists and administrators in those countries and cities but finding everyone I could within the U.S., and elsewhere, many of whom I didn't have previous relationships with, who were experts on contemporary Brazilian music or dance. Suddenly, there were new relationships that developed which I'm benefiting from today.

When I traveled alone, I found myself in corners of those cities, in people's homes and studios, in very underground performance venues--places where no governmentally organized or foundation-based trip would have taken me. That was a valuable experience. The work felt rawer, more rooted, less packaged, and certainly more connected to its place than work seen on more "guided" trips or at international art festivals and showcases. It was both awe-inspiring and discouraging; artists were persevering in the midst of very difficult economic circumstances. Communities of artists, and young audiences, seemed to support one another's work, as they do here as well, in instrumental ways.

BS: This is so important, Philip. Traveling solo is absolutely my preference. It gives you a much deeper sense of the country and its culture, as well as of the art being produced.

I remember the first time I went to Japan and, of course, the people there were trying to direct me, wanting to show me their "best." I said, "No, I don't want you to show me your best. I want to see your entire cultural landscape. I want to see as much as possible. I want you to show me the things that you think I shouldn't see." Again, I aspire to be open to a wide range of aesthetic ideas and artistic practices that I may not understand intellectually. Sometimes people are resistant to or even fearful of the unknown. Instead, I simply try to empty myself during my travels so that I can take in and fully experience where I am.