Returning today to Eindhoven, I chanced upon Yuko Hasagawa from Tokyo and Victoria Lu from Shanghai MoCA in the airport. We got talking and Victoria spoke about a plan to work in public spaces across west China. She spoke about her “dream” of constructing contemporary cultural systems in the west of the country, about how the prime minister had approved the project and now came the tricky task of working out what that approval really meant and whether she could stay in charge.
Victoria’s enthusiasm was convincing but what struck me more was the obvious ambition to create something new and the idea of a dream of (call it) enculturation in the west of china. In contrast, Looking at the results of the European elections – and not only in the Netherlands – and considering our western European ways of thinking about how and why to organize cultural provision, the lack of new imaginative possibility in (former) western Europe, was a suddenly distressing – rather than only depressing – experience. Victoria’s plans forced me to ask myself what kind of dream would we be able to share and to build in west Europe today? What kind of aspirations are our cultures offering to our citizens? What do we – in this small euro corner – want to become in the next years? These questions came on top of a recent observation that research into average Dutch attitudes reveals relatively high levels of contentment with the present but extraordinary levels of anxiety for the future. Moreover, it is this anxiety that is much more telling than their current ease for people’s actual political and social behaviour.
It seems to me that our potential to dream in this part of the world is disabled by this anxiety as much as it weighs on our everyday lives. Our dreams are disabled, limited, restricted in ways we probably cannot yet begin to comprehend. We cannot put this down only to the familiar mantras of failed political leadership, overcommodification of culture, state implementation of fear. These are also present in most other parts of the world. In Egypt, South Africa and Korea (to name only three) the failures to revive political possibility and the reality of precarious life is more apparent than here. In Europe, however, the cultural conditions of the imagination seem much worse even while the economy remains relatively prosperous.
Here, it often feels as though dreams are seen as childish, idealistic in a negative sense, even dismissed with deep, entrenched cynicism. In culture, just as in politics, the functioning paradigm is fundamentally conservative, obsessed to keep what we have, not let the values of the past erode or change, and closing the mind to ‘unknown cultures’ that seem a step too far. In a recent review of our Sanja Ivekovic exhibition, the writer even when as far as to call for the rebuilding of the walls that once defined the now strangely cosy Cold War world before 1989.
It is so hard – and therefore so distressing – to think how we in west Europe might be able to shake off these feelings of insecurity, lethargy and fearfulness. It does no good to tell people they have never lived longer, been safer, had more material comforts. All that only seems to encourage is the fear that such a situation cannot last. Anyway, the whole idea that such a proposed information campaign or political action might achieve something is largely discounted. The meaningfulness of political debate is under attack, enough people take no part to make it seem irrelevant. Concepts such as consciousness raising or lifelong education are seen as patronising. Even raising awareness is under threat in a context where information is overabundant and mostly cynically (if willingly) received.
My questions about dreams remain and grow however. How do we think ourselves out of this condition? How do we challenge the cynicism of others? How to we make agreements to aspire for things in common and without personal recognition? How do we connect the world that is “only one world” (Badiou) to the ideas of making parallel worlds that was the subject of the curated show in the Venice Biennial?
Thinking about that show, it was clear that the start of an answer to my questions lay elsewhere. Between the Singapore, Korean and Palestinian pavilions perhaps, or in the tensions of Wodicko’s strange aesthetic projections and reality soundtrack. I don’t really know.
What I do know is that we curators and art institutions have to be attentive to a change in the tenor of the times at this moment. We have to look and listen carefully for attitudes changing and try to understand what they portend. In that way perhaps something of the possibility of dreams might return….and it cannot happen too soon.