Art should slow us down | Mieke Bal

One of the most prestigious guests of the inaugural edition of the Valletta International Visual Arts Festival, Mieke Bal, speaks to us about her work, both as a cultural theorist and a video artist ahead of her participation at the festival, which will take place between September 1 and 7 in Valletta.

Mieke Bal. Photo by Bas Uterwijk
Mieke Bal. Photo by Bas Uterwijk

One of your key areas of interest is the subject of migration. Would you say Malta is particularly interesting in this regard?

Well, I don’t know Malta yet… I should be the one asking you this question! From what I have heard, Hal Far Camp is an awful place for arriving people to be detained. I cannot judge the details, but I am in general shocked by the idea of detaining migrants at all. Those people are not criminals. 

They are human beings living in subhuman circumstances and seeking to improve their lives. In general, the people who undertake migration are among the most active, smart and enterprising of their home countries.

How about appreciating their contribution to the host country, their willingness to work and pay taxes, their contribution to the cultural diversity, which makes any culture more interesting? Not for Malta specifically, but for all countries that consider themselves “flooded by migrants” I think the underlying issue is a change in attitude and outlook.

Do you think that the internet is democratizing art in a significant way? Given your interest in migration and your experience of curating exhibitions internationally, do you think that national boundaries are truly eroding, as far as art is concerned?

The internet, and e-mail, like all new tools, are not toys but frequently used like toys, and are then as dangerous as any tool used as toys – think of weapons, for example. As a tool, internet is great, but to what extent these media democratize art depends as always on who is doing the actual distribution.

When we have an exhibition in a foreign country, such as currently in Colombia, it is of course fantastic to be able to correspond practically simultaneously, to upload videos, and the study floor plans and offer suggestions for installation. But is that more democratic? It is more about efficiency.

About Malta specifically, the same answer: I don’t know the island well enough to have a judgment on this. As far as former colonies are concerned, they can turn their relatively weakened cultural identity into a strength by skipping the step of neo-nationalism that plagues the former colonising countries, and instead, turn the colonial relation around by endorsing the internationalism as a mode of cultural identity-shaping. By not falling for their artificial fear that the spectre of the former colonies will devour the former “motherland”.

Going by your whirlwind academic career – which encompassed everything from narrative literary theory to postcolonial thought – how was it that you decided on video documentation and video art as your preferred medium of choice? How would you describe your transition from the particular areas of academic interest you were involved in, to this particular creative vent?

There is no transition whatsoever, only extensions. I have not stopped writing; last year I published two academic books. Both in my academic interests and beyond, my attitude has always been curiosity: what lays around the corner from what I do and know? This brought me from French novels to narrative theory; which I then wanted to test on more foreign texts, and this became the Hebrew Bible. There were stories there that had been better understood, I discovered, by artists such as Rembrandt than by earnest philologists. He intuitively looked at the whole story; they went for word, syntax and grammar.

The limitation of specialization has always pulled me out of whatever narrowly defined field I was working in. And then, when I went from postcolonial thought to migration, which is a logical step, I realised that you cannot study contemporary culture in the library only. I had to interact with the people themselves to understand what happens, today, with us all – older residents and migrants. So, the documentary films were a logical extension of my research tools.

And then, when I began to look seriously at that “last frontier” we call madness – another group of people we despise because we don’t know them – documentary was no longer the most effective way to understand. This brought us to fiction. And once we had made A Long History of Madness, a project of four years that produced a feature film and installation pieces, we discovered the potential to integrate affective and intellectual inquiry through the creation of immersive installations.

So, this is again an extension. At the heart of my work remains the desire to know and understand, only the very idea of understanding has become more complex, richer, and deeper.

What would you say is the most urgent crisis assailing contemporary art at the moment?

Again I cannot answer this question, nor do I want to, because I neither recognise the terror in words like “crisis” and “assailing”, nor the idea that “art” can be defined in general terms. There is no generalisation possible about contemporary art. It is not a category. Contemporary mean that the art in question has a relationship to the time of now, and that tends to include the social world. And what is a crisis? The Dutch academic world is in crisis and has been ever since I began to work in it, some 38 years ago. The lived reality always seems in crisis, because we don’t know the future yet.

Having said this, our current project, and my research interest, is the negative role of capitalism in the constant production of a sense of, and then also real crisis. This is why we did the Madame B project. It is not particular to the art world, but that domain is surely also under the spell of the constant pressure of money. And to revert to your first question, the sense many people and countries have that the “migration problem” is growing out of hand is due to a narrow focus on short-term money. It costs money to detain immigrants. I would be a lot cheaper to be hospitable and integrate them in the work force. This is just one example how capitalism produces crisis and uses it as a tool to instil fear in people.

I believe in the value of art – not all art, of course, but the value of the fact that there is art, as one of those “things” that help us slow down, suspend our constant preoccupations, haste, and urge to be productive, and instead focus on things that are not immediately translatable into money.

The best art is art that slows us down yet keeps us moving, emotionally, intellectually, physically. Art that produces an intensity in people, so that they feel excited, which is the best way to think. And since we all live in the world, that thinking implicates the world. This is how it is political. The best political art is art that is not about politics but performs this intensity I just described, triggering in viewers the excitement of new thought.

What will you be showcasing during the Valletta International Visual Arts festival, and how do you hope it will be different from other setups of the same work in other contexts and countries (Columbia, Poland etc)?

Each show, even if the artworks are the same, has different effects, because each context is different, and at cannot be indifferent to context. This is an aspect of art I find fascinating, and convinces me there is indeed no generalisation possible. I have no doubt our work will be unique in Valletta, incomparable to any of the other shows so far.

In Poland, where the exhibition project Madame B premiered in the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, we had the privilege of showing the complete exhibition in the oldest modern art museum in the world, and in a city that had suffered crisis after crisis, going up and down the capitalist madness.

The exhibition was held in a 19th century palace built by an industrialist with the usual megalomaniacal aspirations to nobility. This was a wonderful location for our project, which harbours a critique of just such aspirations, the class divisions attached to it, and the impossible economic inequalities that result. The interest of the inhabitants of the city was amazing, and surely connected to the economic crisis they are living quite sharply.

On Åland, an island currently belonging to Finland but with an autonomous government and Swedish speaking, the exhibition was held in a building that we also used as a set for some major scenes. In fact, 70% of the footage was shot on this island. As a consequence, many of the inhabitants already knew about the project, which had been publicised in the newspaper at the time of the shooting. So, this is yet an entirely different kind of response. The show was unorthodox and very different from most, in that each installation has its own gallery room. This gave the experience an intimacy and a quietness that made the exhibition one of its kind.

In Colombia, there were actually two exhibitions, related yet separated in many ways, both in social class and in distance. The two shows share some works and split up the rest. In SALA U, at the public university Universidad Nacional de Colombia, sede Medellín, the large art gallery is devoted to the beginning of Emma’s life up to the final attempt to borrow money to pay her debts. There are also many photographs, beautifully printed, exhibited in a space next to the gallery.

There, you already hear Sara Pinheiro’s Emma’s Soundscape, the mysterious, almost abstract sound work that predicts sound motives in the videos. In the photo gallery as well as in the video gallery the space is enormously generous, and yet aesthetically appealing. The delicate balance between overload and emptiness turned out perfect. The famous sound of the animals of Emma’s adolescence recurs in the entire gallery, rivaling the beautiful piano music by Leticia during the Reception scene, gorgeously installed in a corner.

EAFIT is a private university, some 30 minutes away, in a very different neighborhood with a very different student body and public. Here, the first thing you see is a number of display tables. We have exhibited some of Emma’s dresses and jewelry, to make some of her dream of glamour tangible. Also, the clapper board, the script with a page of an important line we hear Homais see to Emma in the gallery next to it, the call sheet, and other small objects that pertain to the practical realization of the scenes in the shoot. There are also photos. Both exhibitions are posted on a huge poster outside of the respective buildings. In EAFIT, some scenes overlap with Sala U, but here the emphasis is on the ending.

For the first time we have this projected in a row of seamlessly contiguous projections, flat on the wall. The added serendipitous bonus is the reflections of these images on the floor, as if Emma were already buried. In both exhibitions, Loving Léon is installed exactly as we had envisioned it: in a cinema-like space. In both spaces, the public consists largely of faculty and students, and others with enough intellectual and artistic interests to penetrate through the very serious security gates.

In view of what I just said, we have selected for the project in Valletta elements address the predicament of capitalist lures clothed in emotions – we call it “emotional capitalism”. We have eliminated the story that inspired the larger project – Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary that predicts both psychoanalytic and Marxist insights from decades later – and limit the installation to a descriptive-experiential presentation of an issue that is in fact new for this work and so far, unique for Valletta: the reversed logic of cause and effect. In terms of the material, it overlaps largely with the exhibition we had in Estonia earlier, plus the photographs included in Valletta and not in Estonia.

The works were especially edited from our footage to show states of stagnation. The way we present these in the festival takes advantage of the long corridor-like space.

This allows us to make a long range of works addressing the effects of emotional capitalism, and only then the causes – in disappointment, boredom, communicative poverty. We feel very lucky that Raphael Vella is clearly very communicative and an expert curator, with a fine sense of the space and a deep understanding of the works. This is where email and internet are fantastic tools.

And the Valletta International Visual Arts festival is a brilliant context for this work. We are very pleased and proud to be part of VIVA, and of the curatorial school. It’s exactly right for our work, and I am sure interaction with the other guests and artworks will be very inspiring.

Mieke Bal’s ‘State of Suspension – SOS’ (in collaboration with Benny Brunner) will be showing at Pjazza Teatru Rjal on September 3, while ‘Madame B’ (in collaboration with Michelle Williams Gamaker) will be showing at the same venue on September 4. Both events start at 21:00, and are free of charge. For more information about the festival, log on to:

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