Jonathan Carroll: Could you give an overview of your approach since being appointed guest curator for EVA 2014 in February 2013?
Bassam El Baroni: I’ve been visiting Limerick and Dublin since early May 2013. Since then I’ve established a rhythm of research visits – including studio visits – that have given me the chance to get a good insight into and overview of art in Ireland. I’m sure this will be a resource for me for many years to come. There was no direct brief, rather, there has been an emphasis on working closely with the team in Limerick and developing the project in relation to the context of Limerick and Ireland in general.
JC: What’s the thinking behind the three symposia that preceed the EVA exhibition – Limerick (14 Dec 2013); Marrakesh (24 – 25 Jan 2014) and Dublin (22 March 2014), collectively titled ‘Artistic Justice: Positions on the Place of Justice in Art’?
BEB: The symposia were conceived as a generator for reflections on the question of art’s relationship to justice – a contested area of debate that always seems to surface in large art events such as EVA. The symposia series has been generously funded by the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation, which is based in my hometown of Alexandria, Egypt.
The Anna Lindh Foundation encourages projects that seek collaboration between institutions north of the Mediterranean and south of it. Omar Berrada, a writer and translator who works at Dar al-Ma’mûn, a cultural centre and artists’ residency in Marrakech, Morocco, is a good friend and we both agreed that collaboration would be very productive, so developed a partnership. We thought that a good introduction to EVA 2014 could come out of forging connections between the cultural and intellectual scenes within Ireland and in other contexts, familiarising the Irish public with a context such as Morocco and vice versa.
It was interesting for many people attending the Marrakech symposium to learn of historical and present-day similarities between Ireland and North Africa regarding how notions of justice are formulated within socio-political and cultural frameworks. Declan Long and Aislinn O’Donnell, for example, made some interesting new connections with the North African artistic and academic contexts and vice versa.
BEB: Yes. We’re slowly developing the publication. It seems like it will be half documentation of the exhibition and events leading up to it and half texts and interventions expanding on project ideas and areas of interest. We’ve developed a partnership with Motto Books (www. mottodistribution.com) as a publisher and distributor, which I hope will make the publication more visible both locally and internationally. Omar Berrada is also in search of means to turn the symposia into a separate publication.
JC: I attended the Limerick symposium in December – ‘Documenting, rewriting, forgetting, excavating: Doing history justice’ – which included discussion of art and ‘post-Troubles’ Ireland. Are similar issues informing the exhibition in any way?
BEB: Looking at such history is important in that it helps us understand that history is never quite situated in the past. It’s also a strong motivation to look towards a future, but not in the naive sense of projections that imagine everything will either be rosy or apocalyptic. Rather in the sense of a kind of mental adaptation to a future where conflicts and troubles will remain ever-present – despite technological and scientific advances. The exhibition in Limerick focuses largely on this idea of adaptation – how we adapt our logic by slowly working through our relationships with other beings (including animals), historical ideologies, post-colonial narratives and speculations about the not-so-distant future.
JC: How will the exhibition explore these concepts?
BEB: The majority of works presented in this year’s EVA will be working through these ideas, which are really areas of interest that have been captivating artists and philosophers for many decades now.
EVA 2014 will be titled ‘Agitationism’. In philosophy ‘agitation’ describes a moment when the mind attempts to determine something that it perceives as previously undetermined. In the case of the EVA title, it refers to the exhibition project itself, which aims to leave people experiencing feelings close to the agitation one feels in the midst or aftermath of socio-political upheavals.
For example, personally, over the last three years, agitation is what I went through as I tried to determine what was happening in Egypt. I think agitation in this sense is a feeling or experience that many people in different parts of the world are going through at the moment. They’re trying to negotiate living in the past, present and future. These three tenses overlap in the contemporary moment, creating a kind of palimpsest of half-undone histories, half-imagined futures, and a present of phantasmal opportunities. This is what the exhibition attempts to capture.
JC: How did you square your interest in articulating these ideas with the open submission structure of EVA?
BEB: The ideas I just described grew out of looking at artists’ work and interests via the open submissions, research and studio visits. I didn’t have any criteria or concept in place in advance of my appointment. Open calls have an inherent value; they calibrate how one operates as a curator in terms of what artists are currently interested in.
For example, during the submission selection process, I was completely blown away by This Monkey, a video by the late Patrick Jolley, filmed in India a short time before his death. (His estate submitted the work.) The video creates a very haunting connection between monkeys and humans (I won’t say anymore; it would spoil the film.) This work eventually led me to invite a number of artists that articulate the relationship between man and animal. This became a constellation of work within EVA 2014 that I think will add an interesting layer into what sits behind feelings of agitation.
JC: Did you have any artists in mind before coming to Limerick?
BEB: Not really. I started with a blank slate. I don’t have a roster of artists that I always work with. I did invite a few artists whose work interested me to apply – via the open call. I asked them to make proposals for me to consider.
I’m working with some brilliant artists for the first time such as Amanda Beech, Michael Patterson-Carver, Garrett Phelan, Seamus Nolan, Jacqueline Doyen, Praneet Soi, Luis Jacob, Rana Hamadeh and Nicoline van Harskamp. Some of the artists I have previously worked with include Luis Camnitzer, Walid Sadek and Metahaven. I became familiar with Garrett Phelan’s work during a studio visit, where I saw his project Our Union Only in Truth for TBG+S. In light of this I asked him if he would be interested in developing an identity for this edition of EVA, which could also function as an art work in its own right.
JC: Can you reveal anything about any exciting new spaces that will be used as exhibition venues in Limerick?
BEB: We’ve discovered quite a few, but as yet we can’t publicly confirm them. We will be creating at least one purpose-built temporary exhibition venue in a currently empty property as well as presenting new works that will activate public spaces.
Bassam El Baroni is a curator and art critic based in Alexandria, Egypt. Baroni was co-founder / Director of Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (2005 – 2012) ; co-curator of Manifesta 8 in Murcia, Spain 2010. Currently Baroni teaches at the Dutch Art Institute, Arnhem and is PhD researcher on the Curatorial / Knowledge programme at Goldsmiths, London.