Curators’ Reflections

Visual Seismographs
Art festivals as part of urban culture
by Bettina Pelz

Temporary exhibition formats in public space have a longstanding tradition in the arts. From the Venice Biennial, founded in 1895, to INTERFERENCE, the latest initiative in Tunis, most of them stage artworks in miscellaneous urban spaces – sometimes in addition and sometimes as a counterpart to the art institutions. They respond to a world in constant change and have become an essential rendezvous to display and to discuss contemporary art.

As a format, they match the zeitgeist where new spatial flows and sedimentations associated with digital networks, transnational relationships, globalized economies and universal ecological needs are dissolving any simple equivalence between city and citizenship, participative democratic culture and urban space. In the mix of domains and interests, each festival needs a closer look to understand its specifics and qualities.

Internationally a heterogenic multitude of formats has been established. Although they gather under the roof of the same communication terms and channels, and often even share the same funding sources, in their specifics they often have little in common. Their characteristics are engendered in a mix of guiding interests of participating institutions and communities, leading personalities and funding partners. Synchronizing aesthetic approaches, conceptual agreements, economic and technical abilities, spatial options as well as communication and publishing qualities, their specifics form and define unique and often incomparable frameworks for participating artists, curators and visitors.

Curators, who choose to work on urban environments, react to complex processes that precede their interventions. Their research is based on observing, collecting and sorting as a form of curatorial practice. For each situation, they develop a unique radar to understand the framework of sites, their impacts and details, incorporated signs and systems, associated frames and contexts. The amalgam, emerging from ideas and intentions, functions and malfunction, wear and tear over time, raises their interest, sparks the inspiration and offers anchor points for a specific conceptual approach.

Co-working with the curator, artists apply their own analytic or associative access in order to adapt to a site. Temporary interventions experiment with given situations, existing architectures, sensory perception and allegorical associations. In projects and festivals, they show with often minimal or non-invasive means how architectural ensembles and urban spaces can be used or viewed differently. As much as the choice of space is part of the artwork, the artistic quality of the interventions develops along the depth of focus and artistic sovereignty, which the artist can generate working on a chosen location.

For the viewer, the known space serves as a recognizable reference. It becomes a connecting link between the everyday situation and the artistic intervention, and functions as an anchor point to an artwork which might, at first sight, be only fragmentary or partially understandable. This moment of dysfunction contributes significantly to the experience that blind spots of everyday perception are resolved and awareness is reset. The familiarity with the environment creates a kind of security and forms an Ariadne’s thread to explore the artistic position.

The focus on the interchange of space and its connotations with artistic practice corresponds with the contemporary needs of urban development, ecological awareness and community engagement as much as with an ongoing interdisciplinary dialog between the arts, sciences and technological advances. The present festival formats act as an ephemeral meeting point linking various domains having a share in the public sphere. In their ubiquity, they influence the co-constitutional process of public scope, public values and public practice.

The plethora of the contemporary art festivals can be valued as a seismograph of sociocultural activity in the public domain responding to new spatial flows, international and cross-culturalrelationships, which are asking for ongoing negotiations between public space, political culture and civic responsibility. Temporary co-operation, a variable set of partners, changeable focus, flexible approaches and limited duration, all seem to respond to the need for open spaces away from the institutional conventions and to accommodate the potential to reflect on the state of the contemporary art and its cultural relevance as well as on the state of urban space as public forum.