About: Still (the) Barbarians
Interview with Eva Barois De Caevel
Questions by Mira Hirtz and Johanna Ziebritzki
(conducted via E-Mail on 25. March 2016)
1. The Ireland Biennale, which will open on April 16th 2016 in Limerick, bears the title Still (the) Barbarians. The term barbarians is not further explained. It could refer to the curators and artists or to a undefined ‹them›. The cultural supremacy of the colonial powers impacts the interaction between individuals and cultures in different ways. One example of such a colonial (or rather imperial) conditioned relationship is the seemingly descriptive act of calling peoples without western education and values barbarians. Who are (the) barbarians within the framework of Ireland’s Biennale of Contemporary Art 2016?
First I have to say that the Biennial has not yet started, and that the catalogue, the speeches, the colloquium, and the artworks themselves will elaborate on the choice by Koyo Kouoh, the curator of this edition, of this term ‘Barbarians’. As I understand her idea, the term has been chosen as a thematic direction, the Barbarians being, as Kouoh sees them in Cavafy’s poem entitled Waiting for the Barbarians (‹Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were a kind of solution.›), a generic figure for those who endure contempt in a given society because of their difference but who are essential to the cohesion and efficiency of this society. It can then apply to the colonial situation where, for structural reasons, a whole society is both exploited and humiliated by another, humiliation being a way to legitimate the exploitation, which accordingly justifies the humiliation.
But beyond this thematic use of the word, this question, ‹who are the Barbarians?›, became a very concrete one for me as I was working on the production of the Biennial. When a huge part of our work, in this time of globalized exhibitions, consists in trying to obtain visas for artists living in post-colonies so that they can come and install their work in Limerick, we clearly feel that we are still in a time when a vast majority of the world population is deemed too alien to be able to take part in ‘our’ globalized cultural celebrations. In Greek, ‹barbaros› referred to the people whose language was unintelligible: all you could hear when they spoke was ‹bar bar bar…›. The use of the term ‹Barbarian› always questions the rationality, and hence the humanity, of those we cannot understand. We really had a lot of difficulty to get visas for many artists, especially when they come from non-English speaking former colonies. So, ironically, a lot of the artists whose work will be shown during the Biennial are actually treated as Barbarians regardless of the form, concept or content or their work. Of course it would have been the same if the theme of the Biennial had been completely different, but the fact that we experienced these difficulties is an example of the relevance of its title.
2. The statement declares that ‹the curatorial project wishes to engage with practices displaying aesthetics of subversion, transcendence and reappropriation.› Are these barbaric strategies? Or do they serve to counteract barbarism? Does barbaric art exist? Does non-barbaric art exist?
These are the words used by Koyo Kouoh to describe her selection, and I can’t answer for her. But you point to something very important: what would be barbaric art today and to whom? I think of other categories that are used whenever art cannot find its place in Western art history, like ‹primitive art›, or ‹outsider art›. These two notions rely on the same fantasy of discovery, of purity, and more importantly on the ever-unquestioned bias of progress. Any form of art that appears ‘outside’ of the undeviating course of Western art history cannot be taken as seriously, and tend to be despised. In the art world as much as elsewhere, Western epistemologies are the standard that apply universally and allow despising, with varying degrees of subtlety, anything that does not tally with them, much like when the Greek citizens deemed ‹barbaroi› those whose language was totally inscrutable to them. That’s how I would understand the idea of a ‹barbaric art› today.
3. Has the figure of the barbarian – as a mindset or a political stance – influenced the working mode of the curatorial team? If so, how did it affect the process of selecting artist or the handling of the supporters?
As I said, the concept was not experienced by the curatorial team as an active working frame but more as a thematic and historical framework, but I hope this Biennial can actually enlarge the scope of dominant art history. When it brings an artist like Ican Ramageli, who is a member of the historic laboratory Agit’Art in Dakar, Senegal, to Limerick, alongside prominent ‹traditional› post-conceptual Western artists, it includes him in a global history of art in which different ways of considering what is art can coexist without contempt. But the coexistence of these forms in the homogenizing space of the Western exhibition does raise other concerns, the most alien forms always running the risk of appearing ‘extradited’ in the white cube, where their radical difference might be understood only superficially.
4. The website of the Biennale is foremost in English, only the concept and the text on the curator Koyo Kouoh are also available in French. Even though Irelands colonial past is the point of departure of the thematic concept, no part of the website is available in Irish. Why so? Considering art as a means of communication, what kind of public is the curatorial team aiming at?
Koyo Kouoh decided for that reason that the exhibition guide for the Biennial should be fully bilingual, in English and Irish, for the first time. And in her accompanying curatorial essay, she wonders whether Irish is a token to Irish society or not. What interested me the most in the process of translating this guide to Irish was to realize the difficulties the translator was confronted with. In many respects, Irish is not a ‹modern› language and these texts are so contemporary-art-catalogue calibrated, written with all the expected jargon, in the idiolect of contemporary art English. These semi-automatic utterances in English have to be invented in Irish. It is funny because I wrote most of these texts, and all the while, I was wondering why they had to be so calibrated. Of course, I understand that the Biennial, and all the things around it, are a genre, a genre with its codes. But this raises the question of the Barbarian again. What if you are outside of these codes? What if you are unable or unwilling to respect them? And maybe this global art catalogue language and calibrating is colonizing everything! And this might actually be a matter of greater concern than the fact that all materials related to the Biennial are not available in Irish.
Regarding the issue of public, it is not my job at all, but there are some people in the team that work hard to bring all the kids from Limerick schools to the Biennial, for instance, which is great, and to communicate about the events. But there too, you have to make choices: an ad in a prestigious art magazine or a banner on the local supermarket? The public is both real and symbolic, and part of the public is this imaginary population who is supposed to make the Biennial’s fame, whereas local outreach is also important. But I don’t think that ‹the public›, considered generically, should be an issue in my work. Usually, the success of an event is assessed through big figures that you put in columns to tell officials or your supports how right they were when they decided to fund you. But these figures don’t say anything about what was actually ‹communicated›.
Eva Barois De Caevel is currently based in Paris, France. She is an independent curator, co-founder of Cartel de Kunst (an international collective based in Paris), currently working for Raw Material Company (Senegal), EVA International – Ireland’s Biennial, and The Institute for Human Activities (The Netherlands, Belgium, Congo).