In Glasgow this November, around 450 art professionals gathered for a conference titled “Location Aesthetics.” Several speakers, among them Scottish artist Martin Boyce, addressed issues such as identity, democratized authorship, and the benefits of the arts for society. Parallel to the conference, the NEU/NOW Festival presented works and performances by artists who have recently graduated. The conference, organized by the European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA), was hosted by the Glasgow School of Arts and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and transformed the Scottish city for a couple of days into a European meeting place for the arts.
Conference's opening act
ELIA is an organization that connects art schools throughout Europe and provides a platform for exchange about topics in art and education. This edition of ELIA’s biennial conference promised to offer thoughts on location and aesthetics, which in a global art world, seems a relevant topic. Most of the invited speakers seemed interested in the question of what is important now in art education, and of what the current context is in which art schools operate. Both local specifics and shared European concerns came up--for instance, the growing nationalism in multiple countries, the changes in public appreciation of the arts, and the “crisis of values” that came along with the financial crisis, as Gerald Bast from the University of Applied Arts in Vienna pointed out. Those particular developments have put the arts in a defensive position, but, he added, “A conference like this is a meeting place for cultural optimists.”
The most performative and confrontational keynote speech came from Josette Bushell-Mingo. As a black British woman working in Sweden, she addressed the issue of identity and diversity in the arts. “I'm not in this brochure,” she noted, pointing at the conference program. “It's a beautiful publication, but I'm not in there,” she said, referring to the fact to no black people were depicted in the illustrated brochure. “Who decides about identity in the arts?” she asked her audience and pointed out that the diversity of a country's population is often not reflected in art institutions or programs. For reasons of “quality,” minorities are excluded, but then again, who is deciding about quality? In Sweden, Bushell-Mingo works as the director of the Swedish National Touring Theatre. "Sweden is at the beginning of its understanding--it has to question identity,” she remarked. Minorities are no longer accepting exclusion or stigmatization. People are waking up as the result of some recent racist incidents. And in these situations, “location” does matter. In comparison to Sweden, the United Kingdom has more experience with identity issues because of its colonial history. In the round table discussions that followed, Bushell-Mingo's speech was dismissed by some delegates as being moralist, while others felt that she nailed an important issue. Marja Nurminen, who is a lecturer Aalto University in Finland, thought Bushell-Mingo's speech was “the strongest performance and most clear in content” of the four keynote speeches. It offered her thoughts to discuss with her colleagues in Helsinki, about policy in accepting people of different backgrounds into the art school.
“The House” by Anna Siekierska
Another keynote speaker, Geoffrey Crossick, took the opportunity to teach his audience some realities about the effects of the artist in society. As the director of the Cultural Value Project of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), he looks into public appreciation of culture and researches in what way art is beneficial to (or harm) society, in measurable terms. Facts are necessary, because people from the arts are not very good in explaining their causes, he stated. Crossick went on to call the distinction between the intrinsic and instrumental values of art “not very helpful.” Arts can be useful and good for health and well-being, some research has proved. His speech seemed to offer a toolbox for people who have to apply for government subsidies, to know which words should be used, and which ones not. Sadly, not much light was shed on the topic of “location aesthetics.” Moderator Gerald Bast had one question for this speaker that seemed to imply criticism of Crossick’s position: why is it that banks are not challenged to prove their so-called system relevancy, while art institutions are now put in the position to legitimize their work?
The last keynote speaker was the Glasgow-based artist Martin Boyce. The former Turner Prize winner addresses in his work (the ideals of) Modern art, architecture, and design. In his presentation, he showed photographs while reading some self-authored stories, making the audience witness to a trip to California where he lost his camera, and other travel memories. Through reading this “documentary fiction,” and more than any of the other speakers, Boyce addressed the artist’s perspective of the relationship that exists between being in a certain place or landscape and the aesthetic experience. In his case, a somewhat detached, melancholic view of life seemed to inform his work. Asked about the local context of the conference itself--the city of Glasgow--Boyce stated that clearly Glasgow is not like New York or London, in terms of arts infrastructure. The good thing about that is that you are not thinking about the art world, but about art.
In other speeches, this year’s fire at the historic Mackintosh building of the Glasgow School of Arts was memorialized. A dramatic event for the art community, it mobilized support from all over the world and seems to have generated a spirit of resurrection in Glasgow. As one of the speakers put it, “We've come from a dark place, but it's getting lighter.”
During the conference, the number of exhibitions and performances in Glasgow was high, thanks to the NEU/NOW Festival, which presented work of recent graduates from art schools throughout the world. But having both events take place on the same days also meant that many conference delegates were not able to spend a lot of time at the festival, which for the performing artists who came was not exactly an advantage.
“Between” by Annina Thomann
The Glasgow School of Arts hosted the festival’s group exhibition in the Reid Gallery, showing, among others, a wooden structure called “The House” by Anna Siekierska and ceramic/rubber “interventions” by Annina Thomann throughout the gallery space, which “disturbed” a walk through the exhibition in a nice and unexpected way. In the Glasgow Film Theatre, a program of short movies was shown, with some good films, such as Adam Janisch’s “Forcing Function,” which explores the power of electronic media over life, to an extent that is both absurd and uncomfortably familiar. Another highlight was "Rings of Life" by the Stockholm-based filmmaker Ida Lindgren, who spoke to a seven-year-old girl who lost her sister. The narration of the movie addresses loss and memories from a child's perspective and through the child's voice. Meanwhile on screen, one follows images of a tree that is cut in the woods and then ends up in a carpenter’s workshop for further processing. Impressive in this work is how image and text both act independently, as different perspectives, while slowly converging as the movie proceeds.