‘Forms of Action’

Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow

27 January – 12 March 2017

'Forms of Action', CCA, Glasgow, 2017

Katia Kameli, ‘Stream of Stories’, 2015-2016

Curated by Viviana Checchia, Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Art’s dynamically engaged Public Engagement Curator, ‘Forms of Action’ brings together the work of seven international artists, chaperoned to excellent effect by Checchia’s cooperative artistic nous. Some of the seven have been invited by Checchia and CCA to work in Scotland on new commissions, the others bring with them work ongoing from a diversity of sources and contexts. Artists in the action: Kim Dhillon, Adelita Husni-Bey, Daniel Godínez Nivón, Katia Kameli, Dimitri Launder, Victoria Lomasko, and Asunción Molinos Gordo.

As is not uncommon with our contemporary iteration of contemporary art, the exhibition is part of a programme of various forms of interaction: from a Social Intentions Symposium, through an Intentions in Action Programme, to a same-titled, parallel publication by CCA, Forms of Action, sponsored by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. The programme runs to the end of March and takes as its core concern myriad practices pertinent to effective socially-engaged actions in the here and now. 

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Asuncion Molinos Gordo, ‘Contestador (Answerphone)’, 2016

Checchia’s ambition for the exhibition within that programme has been to underline the validity of these displayed practices as ‘artistic projects in themselves’, albeit the emphasis of the show is on the ‘implementation of art and creativity as a way to address issues in society’. In neat summation, the aegis of ‘Forms of Action’ is that ‘art becomes the “how” to transform reality rather than the “what” to be delivered to specific audiences’.

Again as is not now uncommon, something of these attendant events can be accessed and considered through web legacies, and one can always stump up for the book, if one can. But there is an extremely interesting dimension to this exhibition which persists above and beyond the added value of interrelated programmed impacts; above and beyond, in actual fact, the exhibition as a catalogue of contemporary hows of socially-engaged art.

That interesting dimension sees this medium-sized exhibition make no small contribution to one of the biggest issues challenging contemporary art: the identity of – and tension between – the universal and the particular. And with this I mean identity and tension at the level of you, dear gallerygoer, and also at the level of the exhibits themselves insofar as they are particular and singular phenomenological events, grouped and displayed and readied for translation.

To save you scrolling, to address this interesting dimension directly, here’s my conclusion in advance: the abiding universal that is modestly and tellingly at work in Checchia’s clever configurations might not only be obtainable through empathy with the timeless real-world social dimensions thrown into relief by modes of engaged action between real-world humans and real-world contexts. Put another way, notwithstanding a moral compunction in socially-engaged art to relegate the (modernist, monolithic-hegemonic) ‘what’ in favour of the (postmodernist, polylithic-participatory) ‘how’, a powerful and lasting universal in ‘Forms of Actions’ arrives through particular actions in forms, if you will, in a particular exhibition, like this exhibition, for example, quod erat demonstrandum. But read on.

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Film still from installation, ‘Stream of Stories’, Katia Kameli, 2015-2016

When you make your real-world visit, take time in particular to discern the affective proto-universals arising from Katia Kameli’s show-starting and show-stopping elements in the first gallery space. This is one of the ongoing bodies of works, with the CCA iteration sharing insight into Kameli’s study of the literary contribution of 17thC French fabulist, Jean de la Fontaine. A profound three-wall plus two-video installation, Kameli’s work all told is an evocative tableau that offers the idea of intertextual and intercultural fable as touchstone for that which is universal in that so-called individual.

Just as the work of de la Fontaine is an intercultural amalgam of source, chance and function, the individual (especially the ‘dual identity’ individual understood so well by Kameli) is a product of streams of stories and contingencies and applications. Not one solitary individual among 7.5 billion alive, nor among 110 billion now dead, is exempt from that universal tenet. This fact exists at no cost to the particular, by the way, dear polylithicist. Analogously, born from the particularity of the artist’s own lived experience, the work here assesses the cultural cross-fertilisation between East and West and Kameli’s forms in action do well to challenge presumptions about the structure of any hierarchy with regard to that interchange.

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Film still from installation ‘Stream of Stories’, Katia Kameli, 2015-2016

Do not miss the eloquent reinforcing of Kameli’s artistic actions by Omar Berrada, critic and director of translation centre Dar al-Ma’Mun in Marrakech. Expressed in a short, filmed interview, Berrada with honorific reference to Borges and Eco, explains that the art of translation is to navigate an ‘outskirt’, a ‘no man’s land’ between origin and destination, a land that, because it belongs to no one, can play host to beautiful things. More than that, those beautiful things (and can we join Checchia in saying things and actions and then can we join together here in saying actions as manifest through beautiful things) can shape changes in the destination and in the origin, if ever those two things were ever fixed. Berrada’s explication of these poetics is more than informational, a fact not separable from the things of Kameli’s creative agency. Berrada offers a poignant illustration of the concept of making new meaning by way of his own translations, verbalising persuasive analogies in but one of his no man’s land linguistic locations.

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Element from ‘Towards a People’s Apothecary: Glasgow’, Dimitri Launder, 2016

Without engagement with complementary events and materials, visitors will work harder with Dimitri Launder’s ‘Towards a People’s Apothecary: Glasgow’ to divine the socially-engaged actions that gave rise to the forms in the main gallery space. Yet, the idea of a holistic ecology, in which botanical remedies are to be found for the very ailments arising from the growth of the city itself, is lucidly expressed by the forms of Launder’s artefacts. Close-up details of medicinal plants ascend as guardians over the city, represented as it is by tiny details on the map ‘below’.

The particularities of local flora and fauna and the application of those to local needs is fascinating, and good for preserving says Launder et al by way of the resined plant specimens. The universal lesson for us all: ignorance of, or profligacy with, integrated and finite resources such as these might mean the map fades and the organic overgrows, if we haven’t impeded its survival that is. Whatever our nationality, whatever our geography and whatever the grid-iron niceties of our respective maps, our ecology is fecund and fragile, and we benefit from collectively unearthing socially-held lore that can help us relearn the meaning and potential of the symbiosis.

from ‘Drawing Lessons at a Juvenile Prison’, Victoria Lomasko, 2010-2014

Also in the main gallery space, take time to picture the juvenile prisoners pictured in the drawings of Victoria Lomasko and to consider the carefully selected examples of progressive children’s literature commissioned from Kim Dhillon. Bend down to the height of a child and choke up when you discover that ‘Adults Cry Too’, the title of a 1970s text by Nancy Hazen. ‘We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live’, Dhillon’s contribution reminds us, and this punter is minded to state apropos the extremely interesting dimension at work in ‘Forms of Action’ that our action of storytelling in order to live is informed and formed by the active forms in which our stories are made stories.

Daniel Godínez Nivón’s ‘Tequiografias’ are creative and collective upshots of ‘tequio’, a ‘communal system of organisation expressed in collaborative practices’. Godínez Nivón’s work with indigenous communities in Mexico City seeks to ‘demonstrate another way of understanding reality’, a constructivist, co-owned way of understanding reality that shapes a communal self, together.

installation shot ‘Tequiografias’, Daniel Godinez Nivon

In the parallel publication, chief curator at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Virginia Commonwealth University, Stephanie Smith shares a ‘concern […] that the current strength, glamour even, of socially engaged art practice risks generating its own forms of institutional orthodoxy’. Smith is surely right to offer this as notice that, perhaps, even socially-engaged endeavours can evolve into a mannered formalism, of all things, a formalism that glances off the reality of lived-relations as it moves inexorably towards the gallery’s state of rest. Checchia can hear Smith’s caution, and ‘Forms of Action’ mitigates against orthodoxifying socially-engaged tactics by virtue of the what performing so well, cooperatively with the how, of course. One final particularity runs a strong leg for this extremely interesting dimension.

Film still from, ‘After the Finish Line’, Adelita Husni-Bey, 2015

Kameli’s high bar is nearly vaulted in the last event by Adelita Husni-Bey’s film, ‘After the Finish Line’, 2015. A potent audiovisual endcap to your first tour of the exhibition, the film offers close-up and beguiling images of various sportsyouths, with voiceovers that assess the merits and demerits of the proxy neoliberal programme that is the American Dream embodied in manic sporting attainment. These kids are so infected by the competitive malaise that one female athlete confesses that ‘even in a team it’s all about you’. Tequio is safely the other side of a big wall.

Importantly Husni-Bey’s protagonists come to speak of injury and the psychological damage that befalls the individual unable to live up to the unreasonable demands of their given prowess fantasy. Candid reflection by universal sportsyouths on the alienation they felt from their own, singular body after ‘it’ let them down through injury is a very memorable audiovisual what. The genesis of the filmic what is socially-engaged interaction with the protagonists, yes, but the film is the what that translates the discoveries of the how. 

From European intercultural translational actions in Kameli’s forms to active US reflectiveness in Husni-Bey’s filmic form, the force of Checchia’s exhibition is amplified, of course, by the baffling political realities of 2017. Art, in form and in method, in its what and its how, is a beautiful, commonly unowned space for endless translation, and our oftenshit contemporary world needs both types of creative attention more than ever.