Towards Confluence
Towards Confluence

Remco de Blaaij and Kamila Wielebska present Towards Confluence
and ask each other some questions

Towards Confluence
was an international group exhibition made in collaboration between the Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten (HISK, Gent, Belgium) and Enough Room for Space (ERforS) and curated together by Remco de Blaaij and Kamila Wielebska. It was one of the CURATOR CURATOR series of exhibition projects presented in the space of The Higher Institute of Fine Arts from 6 February to 15 March 2009. The nine artists and two curators involved, coming from different national and political backgrounds, met in one exhibition space in order to see how, when and why things come together or why some things are separated and will never meet. We would like to take you on a journey of exploration Towards Confluence.

‘Confluence’ – what does it mean? According to the dictionary it is about flow: ‘the place where two or more rivers flow together: the confluence of the Rhine and the Mosel / (fig.) a confluence of ideas’. Now, we are in Gent, Belgium where most historians believe the older name for Gent is derived from the Celtic word 'ganda', which means confluence. But what does it really mean for us now, in this time, in this space? Maybe, we should think of Wittgenstein: ‘Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use’.

Towards Confluence, leaflet designed by Lauren Grusenmeyer, 2009

Still, everything starts with the word because we always try to name what we see. Erica Boom (from the Netherlands) – in short – attempts to find words. She is interested in similarity, in the connections between naming, words and languages. In doing this, could she be looking for universal rules, whatever the language? In all events, confluences sometimes appear suddenly in her works... like miracles. Sometimes we can hardly believe that what she presents from her ‘archives’ is even true. She shows certain signs without any direct linguistic explanation. It is only a Languagestream flowing throughout Europe. Where is the source? And how can we recognize it, understand it? Can we really understand each other? Especially when we come from different places, from different countries and... languages. And as Wittgenstein (that Austrian-born philosopher who spent much of his life in England) says ‘If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world’.

E. Boom, Languagestream, photo by K. Wielebska

Problems with Others
‘We’ and ‘Us’ – who are ‘we’ and who are ‘they’? And why are ‘they’ so strange? Using this word ‘we’ emphasizes that ‘we’ represent some special group of people, that ‘we’ in which we feel a part. Everyone was born in some country, sentenced to feel part of it. It sounds quite ridiculous but have a look at the national flags! They consist of a very few, simple colours: red, blue, white, black and yellow. It means: Poland, the Netherlands, Estonia, Belgium, Hungary and the United States of America.... These are ‘our’ countries, their colours define our nationality and so say something about our identity. Yet the colours would like to speak about us in a very simple, universal way. Can we really find ourselves in this idea? Grzegorz Klaman (from Poland) tries to add something extra. He created a new Flag for the III Republic of Poland by adding one more strip to the old white and red: a black one. But, at the same time he noticed one very important thing: what really builds our identity is a common life and day-to-day existence. What seems to be important for Tanja Muravskaja (Estonia) is the relationship between the national flag and the body of some particular human being, the Position that is taken. What does it mean: the nation? Is it some abstract idea? Or maybe it is an organism which consists of numbers of human beings, of many different bodies. Like Johnny Cash (famous Man in Black) sings in U2’s cover: ‘We are one but we are not the same’.

G. Klaman, Flag for the RP III, photo by K. Wielebska

G. Klaman, Flag for the RP III, photo by © Virginie Schreyen

T.Muravskaja, Position, photo by © Virginie Schreyen

Problems with identity
But how can I recognize who ‘you’ are if I even cannot be sure who ‘I’ am?
Our identity consists of many layers. They are like clothes which can put on and be taken off. Like in Patrycja Orzechowska’s (Polish artist) series Uncovering / Covering. Sometimes we can try it on and later abandon it like unwanted old stuff – it does not fit us anymore. But sometimes clothes seem to be like bonds, uncomfortable situations keeping us like in a cage, like in a prison. But what is inside – deep inside in the Heart of the Darkness? Something it is better not to know. To leave it outside consciousness... It could be really scary... Well... Maybe, in fact, it is not so horrible. It is only our fear of the unknown.

G. Klaman, Flag for the RP III i P. Orzechowska Odkrywanie / Zakrywanie, photo by © Virginie Schreyen

Sometimes we can even find such a nice surprise inside the search area, things we have never realized that we had ‘on board’. We never know until we start searching. When we decide to travel, to be in motion, is that the moment opportunities open up for us? Tamara Dees (from the Netherlands) decided to make a canal trip from Gent to Terneuzen which connects Gent to the sea. It was opened in 1827. In 1899 Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski (a Polish-born, famous English novelist) wrote his most acclaimed work that inspired Tamara Dees in making a new film for this exhibition.

T. Dees, Tor Magnolia; E. Rubik Rubik's Cube, photo by K. Wielebska

Joanna Malinowska (Polish-born artist who lives and works in New York) also decided to go on a long journey resulting in the video Umanaqtuaq. She visited Jimmy Ekho known as Arctic Elvis in Iqaluit (Canada), a folk singer who was (he died in 2008) inspired by Elvis Presley but sang in the Inuktitut language. He combined in his own style the characteristic look of the Elvis and typical Inuk appearance. The person who he creates seems to be built of what is global, well-known and recognized all around the world (even in such strange places as the Arctic) and of very unique, regional distinctions - an iconic pop image mixed with local tradition that makes us realize that not only was he created by himself, but many other people had a hand in his appearance as well.

J. Malinowska, Umanaqtuaq, photo by K. Wielebska

We think it is very important to always keep asking ourselves such simple, naïve questions like: Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? And try to find some honest responses... It is not so easy as it seems at first. Especially, when we remember this sentence of Wittgenstein: ‘Philosophy is not a theory but an activity’.

Like Brian O’Doherty describes in his famous Inside the White Cube story: ‘The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. [...] Conversely, things become art in a space where powerful ideas about art focus on them. [...] Modernism’s transposition of perception from life to formal values is complete. This, of course, is one of modernism’s fatal diseases’. He compared a gallery with its laws and rigours to the medieval church. What we try to do now is to point out some layers of existence which could ‘say’ something not only about art... When we reach the building where an exhibition takes place, it seems on the outside to be quite official yet what do we have inside? Conversely, we try to put more life here - not in order to try to conquer reality - but to build a connection to it. Official and unofficial. Outside and inside. Maybe it is a bit more complicated, consisting of more layers and meanings than we thought? Or maybe... it is completely mixed together, transformed into a non-separated hybrid – an animal of the Confluence. O’Doherty is really not a Columbus when he says: ‘Works of art are mounted, hung, scattered for study’. Yeah, ok. But we want to play!

E. Rubik Rubik's Cube, photo by © Virginie Schreyen

E. Rubik Rubik's Cube, photo by © Virginie Schreyen

Ernő Rubik, (Hungarian) sculptor and professor of architecture, invented his Cube in 1974. The mechanical puzzle, previously called the ‘Magic Cube’ was licensed by Rubik to be sold by Ideal Toys in 1980 and quickly became one of the most famous objects in the world. We think it is quite obvious – it was and still is so popular in many countries, beyond borders, in a Europe split into ‘East’ and ‘West’ where it was a real hit on both sides of the Iron Curtain. When we were children, we all had Rubik’s Cube in our homes, on both ‘sides’ we tried to solve the same puzzle... In 1989, the Wall was knocked down. Now, twenty years after, people of this generation, from places where 1989 had different effects, are in the same space, together in an area that is both familiar and unfamiliar to us. What does it mean and - more importantly - what can we do with it? What kind of relation of influences will we bring from our respective and different sources? What we all recognise for sure is the Rubik’s Cube. But is it an art object or common stuff of life? What is the difference between them? Could something be both at the same time? Or maybe we have to choose only one option? What if we place the Rubik’s Cube into a museum showcase, declaring it an object of art and cutting it off from the fresh air? Rubik’s Cube is, similar to the space where we live, the living creature – an animal of the Confluence.

Æ (Ramon Hulspas & Erik Vermeulen), The World Filled with Stuff, Installation nr 5
and P.Orzechowska Uncovering / Covering, photo by K. Wielebska

Brian O’Doherty in his famous book also mentions the Merzbau, that strange work of Kurt Schwitters (German artist who spent many years in exile): ‘The Merzbau was a tougher, more sinister work than it appears in the photographs available to us. It grew out of the studio – that is, a space, materials, an artist, and a process. Space extended (up-stairs and downstairs) and so did time (to about 13 years). The work cannot be remembered as static, as it looks in photographs. Framed by meters and years, it was a mutating, polyphonic construct, with multiple subjects, functions, concepts of space and of art’. And the ongoing project The World Filled with Stuff from Æ (a collaboration of Ramon Hulspas & Erik Vermeulen from the Netherlands), is a random selection of stuff moved from building to building or spaces to spots. As they say about it: ‘Once we started documenting this, it took on an abstract life, going through different phases, morphing into different shapes due to changing situations and contexts’. So, it also seems to be a kind of living creature: the work in progress, the Never-ending Story. We, together with the artists themselves don’t really know what is going to happen in the space, if we are allowed to speculate about a result at all. And we take this opportunity to be surprised by the ‘childish’ responsibility to have fun. It’s dead serious.

Æ (Ramon Hulspas & Erik Vermeulen), The World Filled with Stuff, Installation nr 5, photo by K. Wielebska

So, now we are in ‘one’ place and trying to communicate in ‘one’ language. This is the confluence. Can we discover some universal rules? Or maybe it is messier, a place where things are mixed together completely, a mythical tower of Babel? Is it possible that the search for our identity is a kind of punishment and we always dream about a previous, innocent unity that we lost? It seems that we cannot understand each other completely.

Æ (Ramon Hulspas & Erik Vermeulen), The World Filled with Stuff, Installation nr 5
and P.Orzechowska Uncovering / Covering, photo by K. Wielebska

Æ (Ramon Hulspas & Erik Vermeulen), The World Filled with Stuff, Installation nr 5
and P.Orzechowska Uncovering / Covering, photo by K. Wielebska

But are there any real limits in the place of Confluence? ‘What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence’. Yeah, Wittgenstein was (quite ironically) right. But, is speaking the only way of expression? Or the most important? Or even the most universal? Primal? We are not sure. Once we went together to the cinema. It was an American movie, In Search of a Midnight Kiss by Alex Holdridge; an independent film director from L. A. Somebody had described it as ‘very, very funny’. So we laughed together very loudly and at the same moments. It is really possible that we are all the same? Or maybe we have just got some things that unite us, allowing us occasionally to feel the same, to see the world in a very similar way... Even if you live in Los Angeles, California.

Towards Confluence, HISK, 2009, photo by © Virginie Schreyen

and ask each other some questions...

Kamila Wielebska: What is the most important for you in Towards Confluence? Certain ideas? Objects? Anything else?
Remco de Blaaij: I think more things are important, if it was only one I would seriously doubt the whole idea of confluence. Towards Confluence gives a possibility of interpreting the title in two ways. On the one hand, it is ‘Towards’ understood as heading towards new philosophical ideas, and on the other, it is ‘confluence’, the very point where ideas merge together. This phenomenon is very interesting to research at different levels. In our case we made an exhibition about that moment, so to speak, but we also invited people that we think might have something to do with the idea of confluence, it’s quite straightforward in that sense and simple.

So, to me, neither the objects nor the exhibition is important in itself, but it helps me, and, hopefully others to understand confluence through the lens of the possibilities that art provides. Inviting artists and working collaboratively on an area of shared interest is one of the main factors that spark curiosity and demonstrate the potential of public space. Also a moment that is crucial to understand, because that is where new knowledge can reach out. In our job public space and responsibility for it is a vital ingredient and feeder of our thoughts and actions, or at least, that is how I would like to see it, as an endeavor that makes us worry how and when to act when putting information and knowledge out on stage. A stage that is, to me, highly collaborative, as I explained earlier, and cannot be stepped on merely individually. The individual sense belongs to the artist, writer or curator themselves and is not placed in the limelight per se. Rather the knowledge and experiences that we are willing to share contribute to this public space, this stage.

That stage is the only place that offers us full access to the exchange of that very knowledge and if it takes place in public, another layer is added. Putting something on display is in that quite a useless effort if we don’t know why or if we, through that display, cannot access our own imagination.

So that imagination, together with the mutual exchange of knowledge is one of the key elements to consider, especially when you search for a moment where supposedly different interpretations meet and come together.

Kamila Wielebska: Can we really understand each other?
Remco de Blaaij: The question of confluence is, of course, a highly general one to ask, as you can talk about two rivers flowing together, but also about different national identities that come together in one person. I think we specifically reached out to understand that level of identity construction, something that was issued by our own experiences coming from Eastern and Western zones in Europe, but from the same era. Understanding each other begins, I think, as well as a lot of immigration policies assume, with language. It’s a classic example of being lost in translation when you don’t speak each other's language. Of course, that language does not necessarily need to be a national one, as long as there is some way of communicating; a visual language is definitely part of that, too.

In contemporary society a lot of people realize the enormous loss in translation, I think, when theory becomes practice in their own backyard. Immigration is maybe the best example of that and has attracted a lot of attention for the last fifty years. We saw the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall built and removed and a growing need for a stable European political and social situation. Excluding and including what is beyond the national borders was and still is a part of this evolution. It’s unclear why specific moments of this sense of uncertainty occur, and why it seems that necessary tools in dealing with this are just not there. Rather than talk about the necessity of the political realm and analyze its possibilities, I would strongly argue for the need of artistic processes as a contribution to understand uncertainties surrounding notions of immigration and evolving identities. Complex situations have been a common occurrence since the fifties and a response not only on the political field is necessary. Maybe art can provide instruments to bridge the gaps in society and offer imaginable possibilities to consider these changes in our times. The results of globalization in that sense are, of course, and artistic processes recognize that, very interesting to follow because, where globalization reaches out in a common understanding of the word, there are always individual and complex cases that don’t comply with this mainstream understanding. Those exemplars need to be researched in order to understand a bit of why we came up with global solutions that have their effect on society. These are aspects that are mostly connected to identity and nationalism when we have a look at the mobility of people and immigration. European physical borders have gone, and at the same time they have replaced physical encounter with emotional encounter in virtuality. A virtuality that can be accessed through imagination and can be put back into reality by means of art could become a very useful tool to understand each other, it might even be the only tool that is still left.

Remco de Blaaij: If you were to describe the notion of going towards something, the act of approaching, how do you see that implemented in your own practice?
Kamila Wielebska: The notion of approaching is quite important to me not only in art. I understand 'going towards something' as a kind of process which is necessary when we would like to achieve something, to understand something, to move our way of thinking into another dimension – in other words, for me this is a primary process for every activity. The basis for 'going towards something' is to be open to changes. It sounds simple but, in practice, it is quite hard. Actually, this is a kind of experiment hinging on the magical sentence: 'let the energy flow'. This is a ubiquitous rule... If you ask me about my own practice, my work, I would like to say about two sorts of activity I deal with. Writing, especially writing about art is one of the most important things in my life. I always try to treat it as an experiment, not to be afraid of testing new things but to be open to changes. I can say that writing, for me, is a kind of never-ending story. But it doesn't mean that something like 'the perfect text' exists. Each time I try to write the best text for this particular moment. Life is changing so the texts should follow the flow.

The other area, organizing art exhibitions is more complicated because it entails working with other people. As a curator I am a freelancer, I am not connected with one single institution. I think we can call this attitude also a kind of experiment. When you freelance you should be especially open to changes as well as to the hesitation and uncertainty in various meanings. So I drift from one place to another in order to spread certain ideas, energy and ask a few questions. Like a medieval minstrel... (laughter).

Remco de Blaaij: As we saw in the Rubik's Cube various elements can merge together. Games, design and even some social thoughts can come together in a product ready for a large audience. Do you think that this invention of the Rubik's Cube and the way it conquered the world because of the sophisticated organization and smartness, could be a blueprint for the much demanded need for audience in contemporary curatorial practices? And can we still speak of the West and East?

I think that the Rubik's Cube is a unique phenomenon. Very complex and very simple at the same time. The Rubik's Cube is like a poem. And it is quite impossible to turn a poem into a law, make a rule from it. But, of course, we can be inspired by it...

I think that the West and East (despite the fact that the Rubik's Cube and many other things spread everywhere) are still here. I see two main reasons. First, we (in Eastern Europe) still don't feel that we still don't feel that our reality has become 'fully western'. Try to imagine the situation: we have been waiting for the West to come so long and now we are a bit disappointed. This is the West? Maybe not yet? Or maybe the West has always existed only in dreams of the Eastern people? Another thing is our experience, our memory, the burden, as we say in Polish "luggage". We should speak of the West and East until the last person born before 1989 has died.

Remco de Blaaij: Regarding the forming of identities, as we saw it in almost all of the works shown during Towards Confluence, what is the crucial discovery for you?
Kamila Wielebska: Maybe I would not call it a discovery, it was rather a good opportunity to see it in practice. I mean, those things we had described in the curatorial text before the exhibition, where we drew our attention to the multiple layers that our identity consists of. Therefore, we tried, together with the artists, to build a construction based on these premises in the gallery space – not homogeneous but revealing different layers simultaneously. Thus, this construction could be seen from numerous points of view. But we had had also a plan to spend time before the opening with all the artists, and it happened. Almost all of them were there in Hisk and I think that this 'international meeting' was really an invaluable part of our activity as curators.

Remco de Blaaij: How do you think those elements of play which are mentioned also in our text can or should be part of what you are doing?
Kamila Wielebska: Plays are for playing. So in my work I would like, with the help of these elements, to provoke the situations of interaction with other people to involve them in something that is, in my opinion, meaningful or valuable. And the way to use the elements of play depends, of course, on a particular situation. I believe that art is a good 'place' to start interacting with people, because in contact with art they are usually more open than in other, everyday life situations. That is why so often people try to seduce each other in art galleries...

Remco de Blaaij: What is your experience of working in another country?
Kamila Wielebska: Everything depends on the people not territory lying within given borders. And, of course, there are certain stereotypes which, in fact, sometimes work. It was my third exhibition, and each of them was a completely different story: different place, different people, different problems, ideas, indoor, outdoor... So every time I felt like a foreigner in a way. Like I was doing an experiment. But there is also this burden I mentioned above, so I think this time it was quite natural to compare 'Western' and 'Eastern' people in many 'un-touristic' situations, and I have made a lot of observations in this context. It could be really hard to tell you about them in only a few words. Some things are, of course, universal and appear under every sky.

Gdynia-Eindhoven, July-August 2009

Interview proof-read by Ola Hołubowicz