Thessaloniki Forum establishes a network for artists around Southeastern Europe

Over the past several years, exhibitions have become increasingly inclusive of art by non-Western artists. In a globalized, post-colonial world, the idea is that art and its institutions should extend beyond ethnic and cultural borders, respect cultural differences and enable differing artistic expressions. Liberal as all of this may sound, its realization is not without conflict, risk and controversy. Equality, openness and accessibility are, after all, not value-free notions. So while cultural events are proliferating all over the world – largely as a result of this multicultural surge – and the margins seem to be moving closer to the center – skepticism has arisen on related issues such as the assimilating effects the cultural centers hold over the periphery, or the risk of stereotyping cultural complexities. This roughly describes what are two sides of one, inseparable reality: reflexive questions that critically examine the very situations that breed them. The Forum on European Cultural Exchanges, which recently took place in Thessaloniki for the third consecutive year, is a cultural event aimed specifically at targeting such issues. Its area of interest is Southeastern Europe and its purpose is to foster collaborations and artistic exchanges across the region and in respect to the rest of Europe. The Forum’s theoretical concept is by Dimitris Constantinidis, director of the Strasbourg-based Apollonia: European Art Exchanges, the cultural institution which, along with Thessaloniki-based ArtBox-arts management, is the Forum’s organizer. (It also has the support of the Greek Ministry of Culture and a collaboration with the State Museum of Contemporary Art.) The forum is basically a two-day conference in which artists, curators and other people in the arts are invited to lecture on topics in keeping with the forum’s general theme, which this year was the broad title «Artistic Mobility: Contemporary Utopias – Situations.» The forum was also complemented by several exhibitions at the city’s various art venues as well as discussions and, this year at least, visits to artists’ studios. Such parallel events are what give the forum a more casual atmosphere and differentiates it from conferences in the more academic field of art history. Less like a heavyweight intellectual event and more like a workshop with a practical objective, the forum serves as a meeting place for artists and a platform for presenting specific artistic projects. In fact, some of the most challenging lectures given at this year’s forum were by artists. Stewart Ziff’s presentation of his collaborative project, particularly, was one of the most interesting. The forum’s context, however, remains theoretical and is, perhaps, rather vague and broad as compared to the more practical nature of the lectures. In general, the forum revolves around the concepts of mobility, artistic exchange and alternative ways of producing and presenting art. Video art, new media art, and art on the Web seem to be favored, as are collaborative and interdisciplinary artistic projects that are not static but move around the world. Apollonia, which along with ArtBox is the forum’s principle organizer, is planning an art exhibition which will be shown in trucks instead of in traditional exhibition halls. In «Black Sea,» another of Apollonia’s forthcoming projects, a boat will be transformed into a kind of laboratory and travel the Black Sea. Other existing projects have developed from Apollonia and are represented at the forum each year. These include the e-magazine Gazetta, the Sofia-based journal Gazet’art and the SEECAN network database in Skopje. What ties all these activities together is their common objective: to help the development of art, especially in the countries of Southeastern Europe. Serving as a network and a support platform, the forum does indeed provide artists and curators with some practical benefits. It provides them with exposure and the opportunity to meet people in their field. One way of doing this is via the forum’s complementary exhibitions which travel to Brussels and Strasbourg after first having toured Thessaloniki, Veria and Kavala. The exhibitions for this year’s forum included works by the Romanian group «subREAL,» a large and richly varied exhibition of contemporary photography from the region of South Caucasus; another photography exhibition of the work of Mirnaib Hassanoglou and Max Sivaslian (from Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively) as well as «Tbilisi, Baku, Yerevan: Three towns, three visions,» a photo exhibition on three contemporary photographers from the Caucasian republics. The exhibition also included images by the 19th-century photographer Alexander Roinashvili. Also part of the forum’s parallel events was a video-art festival on artists from the Caucasus and a festival of films from the area. With these exhibitions, the forum also helps raise issues that many countries in Southeastern Europe are in the process of exploring: cultural identity, coping with the cultural past and incorporating Western influences in artistic production, to name a few. For the public, they also help expand an understanding of other cultures and foster awareness that culture is not a monolithic concept but a rich matrix of influences with many manifestations. As to the more specific question raised by this year’s forum, no specific answer was provided. Does mobility iron out cultural differences or help develop new, interesting situations? Again, the question brings up a favorite topic of artistic debate the past few years: how the center influences the periphery. It is projects that will evolve out of the forum that are the most likely to provide the answer. But it is perhaps helpful to remember that projects like the Thessaloniki Forum are initiatives that originate from the so-called «center.» It is from there that most art springs. Seen in this light, the attention toward the «periphery» is perhaps no more than the center’s need to tap more cultural resources, or perhaps one of its own utopias.

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