Last week I accompanied three of my Fabrica colleagues to France to take part in a conference about contemporary art and audiences. ‘A nous deux’ was organised by Frac Basse-Normandie, one of Fabrica’s partners in the Time and Place project. The two study days took place in the new lecture theatre of the École Supérieure d’Arts et Medias de Caen/Cherbourg. There was a good range of speakers, including theorists and practitioners; artists, teachers, critics, curators and philosophers from across France and the UK. The presentations were delivered in French or English, with simultaneous translation by two hard-working interpreters, so that all delegates could follow the discussions.
The conference looked at how contemporary art galleries engage with their audience, particularly in terms of interpretation, education and ‘mediation’. The presentations dealt with alternative pedagogies (such as Montessori, Steiner and Fröbel), different exhibition models, the history of mediation in art galleries and museum, going right back to the 17th Century, the role of art in education and the role of the artist in galleries and museums. This last area was what I was talking about in the last round-table event of the conference.
As soon as the conference began I was struck by how much more philosophical the French approach to education and culture is. It felt like everything was framed within a far more intellectual context. By comparison I think the British approach is more pragmatic. This ‘down-to-earth’ approach is useful sometimes, we are good at getting on with things, but it’s also really valuable to consider what one is doing through a more philosophical lens. One of the presentations I found most inspiring was from Alain Kerlan, who lectures at the University of Lyon, in the politics of art and culture in education and training. He managed to put into words things that I know to be true but find difficult to articulate verbally; essentially the intrinsic value of art as a way of perceiving the world, its fundamental value to all human beings.
He stated that there are two ways of apprehending the world, rational and aesthetic, and that both of these approaches need to be supported by education – indeed it is the role of education to support both types of experience. This is really simple and really powerful.
Another interesting statement was made by Yann Chateigné, (critic and curator, and Head of Visual Art at the School of Art and Design in Geneva) during his presentation. This was that “understanding is not the only way to engage with a work of art.” Absolutely! There are many works of art that I value greatly, but would hesitate to say that I ‘understand’. And even if I think I do understand them, this understanding will probably alter over time – it’s a fluid thing, changing as I change. I think this need to understand relates again to the emphasis in British culture on rationality, on pinning something down, making use of it, and seeing value in things simply for the ways that they can be made use of. So we feel a work of art is there to be understood, then we move on to the next thing, job done.
I realise this is a generalisation, but a lot of the discussion during the conference touched on the delicate line between providing ways into an art work on the one hand, and the violence done to a work of art when you remove anything mysterious, poetic, or unknown/unsaid about it.
There were many other fascinating presentations, not least from Nell Croose Myhill and Veronica Sekules from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art in Norwich, who each spoke about different aspects of the SCVA’s education programme, and Charlotte Morel from the Institute d’Art Contemporain Villeurbanne / Rhône-Alpes, whose education work with teenagers is covering similar ground to the SCVA’s ‘Young Associates’ programme.
I was participating in the round table event entitled ‘The artist, the work of art and the audience’. I spoke about my experience of being an animateur at Fabrica, and what this particular way of working can provide for all concerned – visitors/participants, artists, the host organisation and the exhibition. My fellow speakers in this round table were Laurent Moszkowicz, who works at the Jardin des Arts in Calais (another TAP partner), an artist duo called Microsillions (Marianne Guarino-Huet and Olivier Desvoignes), artist George Dupin, and the moderator of the round-table, Raphaël Brunel, who is an art critic and curator.
Finally, it is a month ago today since the killings in Paris, and these terrible events formed a backdrop to much of the discussion during the conference. In the art school itself students had made work in response which was displayed inside and outside the building. Here are a few photos.