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Catherine David on DI/VISIONS
Ms. David, you are following on from your work as artistic director of the documenta X with the long-term project ‘Contemporary Arab Representations’. How did you become so interested in the Middle East?
When I was working on documenta X and other exhibitions, I tried to sensitise people to the fact that when you are dealing with works of art it is always important to also consider the context in which they are produced. And that’s the reason why I initially became interested in Middle Eastern cultural productions – from a desire to understand certain works of art. The Arabic-speaking world is a prime example of the ignorance that still exists in Europe about modern and emancipatory traditions in the non-Western world. As far the Middle East is concerned, this ignorance has had a particularly dramatic effect. That’s why it is particularly important to find the ‘missing links’ in this history and see how they are articulated in the present.
What is so remarkable about Europe’s lack of knowledge about traditions of modernity in the Middle East?
Since the late 19th century modernity, through its interaction with colonial contexts, has produced extremely conflict-ridden and productive forms of articulation in the Middle East. The search for contemporary languages of form has a long tradition. In the 1960s and 1970s, Beirut was one of the most emancipated metropolises in the world. Iranian feminism is still a vital force to this day. In the dominant media, however, the region is presented as a backward cultural zone caught up in eternally recurring religious wars and rent by political-religious divisions. This generic approach operates with binarisms and simplistic comparisons. The West stands for modernity, secularism and democracy; the Middle East for backwardness, fundamentalism and tyranny. Instead of constantly reproducing these divisions, which were created by colonial and neo-colonial processes, we have to challenge these false opposites and deconstruct them.
In contrast to your earlier projects, DI/VISIONS is less about pictures than about giving artists and intellectuals from the Middle East an opportunity to speak.
Violence in the Middle East provides a kind of background, a sound backdrop. It prevents artists and intellectuals who create some space for resistance in their own societies from getting themselves heard in the West. Given the crisis in the region, it is more important than ever before that actors and observers from the area have their say and visualise their experiences. We must create a ‘resonance room’, as it were, where they can do so. In DI/VISIONS, experts from the Middle East will converge who are trying to create a new vocabulary in their social, political and historical work. For six weeks, the Congress Hall’s modern architecture will be transformed into a projection area and a forum for discussion. Anyone who visits the House of World Cultures during DI/VISIONS will have an opportunity to listen to these voices and share in the authors’ experiences: concrete perceptions and lived realities instead of clichés and abstractions. There will also be a film programme showing recent works that explore the region as it is today with great conceptual and formal precision. On two weekends, observers and cultural actors working in the most diverse fields will try to develop new perspectives that show ways out of the crisis.
Three generations, seven countries: what do your discussion partners have in common – apart from the fact that they all work in the cultural field in the Middle East?
My selection lays no claim to being comprehensive, but there is a common thread: all those who are speaking here are fighting – under very difficult circumstances – to create and defend space for critical reflection. In many of these countries, creating culture is anything but a game. Many people pay a high price for doing so: prison, exile and all kinds of persecution. Here, we are dealing with three generations: artists and intellectuals, their texts, films, works and analyses – pointing out, in an often controversial and blunt manner, the problems, challenges and hopes as they present themselves in everyday life in the societies in which they live. Their views confront us – beyond all the clichés and simple interpretive models – with complex realities and the paradoxes of a modernity steeped in conflicts, a modernity that is also ours – the moment we succeed in shedding our orientalistic nostalgia and our veil of illusions.
Whether democracy and Islam are indeed irreconcilable is one of the questions that will be raised in our talks and discussions.
The alleged irreconcilability of Islam and democracy is a thesis with disastrous consequences. The argument is often employed to discredit reformist and radical projects whose political agenda aims to bring about change in the region. In their own self-conceptions, the authoritarian regimes allied to the West are secular states. They justify ever greater repression with reference to the ‘Islamic threat’. Whether or not Islam is reconcilable with democracy is a question based on false assumptions. It is ultimately the wrong question. For Islam, like all religions, is not ‘an essence’, but a practice that is influenced by the societal and political conditions in which it exists. In their daily lives in the Middle East, people negotiate the religious rules in the most diverse ways – as every Catholic, Buddhist or Hindu does too. Politically speaking, it is merely a question of how the struggles of the youth, the women, the intellectuals and other social movements induce changes at the level of ‘governance’. DI/VISIONS will return to this point again and again.
Has your work in the Middle East changed the way you see things?
If one approaches the Middle East free from prejudices, one finds oneself on very paradoxical and bewildering terrain. It soon becomes apparent, however, that there are questions and the first signs of discussions which are important not only in that part of the world. For we face many similar problems: consumerism, a deterioration in public education, the declining quality of the communications media… To what extent does culture provide autonomous space for reflection and serve as a relay making it possible to realise alternatives? What do we mean when we talk of the possibility of a critical culture? Are there any perspectives at all indicating there will be an end to the daily nightmare that is life in the Middle East has now become? The danger is that war makes it possible to sweet-talk the status quo: a lot of authoritarian regimes legitimate themselves by creating sham alternatives: ‘it’s either us or chaos they have in Iraq’. The American solution has obviously failed and, what’s more, set a very bad example. And for the people in the Middle East, the European solution of financing NGOs does not offer sufficient support for the political reform processes that citizens are demanding. That’s why it’s now important to take a close look at the question of ‘governance’ – in other words, to look for options offered by non-state actors for controlling and regulating public affairs. What alternatives exist that allow human beings to make their own decisions and change their own societies? If the question were posed in this way it might help to create a common vision instead of divisions.
A talk with Silvia Fehrmann, Barcelona 2007
The French curator Cathérine David has been – among other things – artistic director of the documenta X, 1997, and the Witte de With in Rotterdam. In her long-term project ‘Contemporary Arab Representations’, which was launched in 1998 at the Fundació Antòni Tápies in Barcelona, she presented projects on the Middle East at the Kunstwerken in Berlin and in the HAU projects. Cathérine David is currently a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.