Geography and Art – Notes on the RGS/IBG conference 2011

Just spent three days at the RGS/IBG Annual Conference. This year, the programme featured a mind-boggling amount of art-related sessions and papers – Mobile Geographies of Art, Art and Science, Art and Geopolitics etc – so I couldn’t help but check out what all the art-craze was about. So far, I have determined two directions: the first one could be described as ‘disciplinary soul-searching’ and the second could be described as ‘art and politics’.
The first one seemed very concerned with methods: what do art and geography have in common, what is being done differently, and what can collaborations, trans/inter/cross-disciplinarity sensitise us to? (A useful overview on this subject recently came out in Geography Compass, written by Harriet Hawkins). Such discussions also seem to follow very much in the same vein of much recent art and science discussions, which often look at art as either producing form/beauty/harmony/emotive responses/the sublime or critique/alternative imaginaries.

The second mode was mainly present in the ‘Art and Geopolitics’ session, which touched more intensely on the question what kind of impact art has on the shaping of political imaginaries. Amongst other things, it looked at the ways some political art travels across times, spaces and audiences and at potential artistic tactics for intervention. One of the questions that came up in the last session – the panel discussion – was about appropriation and counter appropriation. What can artists do if their tactics keep being appropriated by the very systems they are critiquing? Would counter-appropriation be an appropriate tactic?
According to the person next to me ‘The Conquest of Cool’ by Thomas Franck is a must-read on this topic. Not having come across it before, I had to draw on another book, namely Régis Debray‘s ‘Du bon usage des catastrophes’ (On the good use of catastrophes). The latter book comprises a sarcastic manual on ‘how to become a prophet’ in times of crisis, ultimately attempting to raise consciousness regarding the instrumentalisation of endemic problems by those wishing to gain power. The ‘Art and Geopolitics’ afternoon discussion at the conference made me wonder whether someone should take up Debray’s manual to attempt an art project of epic proportions: to become a kind of ‘counter-prophet’ as an anti-dote to those who are in it ‘for real’. Of course such a thing can go horribly wrong, considering what kind of artists harboured delusions of grandeur in the past, but I find it an interesting thought nevertheless. Imagine some president turned round and told you it was all an art project. Personally, I’d hope that his/her rule would be a little more inspiring…

What I found a little perplexing was how little the amount and form of the art-related papers presented were at the centre of debate. Similarly perplexing was the apparent lack of attention in debates to wider links from current funding politics (art being in the situation where it is having its funding withdrawn, but, at the same time, is supported as part of interdisciplinary projects) to their reflection of the current intellectual climate.
It seems to me that the popularity of art is tied to the desire to generate counter-strategies in the current political situation, whether these aim at securing financial security against all odds through seeking links with better funded disciplines/ combination of lesser funded disciplines or building resistance or impact ‘in the world’ through new kinds of ‘methods’. The danger seems to be that if the wider picture is not constantly kept in mind, a preoccupation with art can end up as a distraction from the issues it is hoped to help with. To bring back the ‘fear art’ image from a few blog posts ago (see above), the current level of interest in art makes me ask myself: if art is feared by those in power for its potential as an agent of change, are we aware enough of this power?

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One thought on “Geography and Art – Notes on the RGS/IBG conference 2011

  1. I like the optimism of your last sentence, but why would those in power have anything to fear from art, if those producing it have surrendered the ‘threatening’ power of their own medium to the last cycle in the pursuit of timeless beauty and the sublime? I mean, no one feared gunpowder until it stopped only serving pyrotechnic spectacles..

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