Reflections on the 15th ELIA Biennial Conference

Elizabeth Giorgis and Berhanu Ashagrie at the 15th ELIA Biennial Conference: Resilience and the City: Art, Education & Urbanism

From November 21st through the 24th, the Willem de Kooning Academy and Codarts hosted the 15th ELIA Biennial Conference in Rotterdam. Two years in the planning, we welcomed over 460 delegates from art academies across the world. The conference titled Resilience and the City: Art, Education & Urbanism explored four wide-ranging themes: Shifting Centres, Shifting Margins; Art and Social Cohesion; Art and Economy and Art and Innovation. With De Doelen as the central venue, there were also mobile sessions, Pecha Kuchas, tours, and workshops hosted across the city at WORMTENT RotterdamMaassiloBlueCityTheater WalhallaCircus Rotjeknor, and Codarts Circus Arts.

At the risk of sounding confessional and nerdy, my highlights was to moderate Jeanette Winterson’s Q&A session. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Thank you, Paula Crabtree and Janice McNab, for sending photos to assure me that it actually happened.

Novelist and memoir writer Jeanette Winterson spoke of the transformative power of the arts and the intimacy of reading stories. Speaking candidly about her childhood which she chronicled in her book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she sees the arts as a lifeline rather than a luxury. Professor and art historian Elizabeth Giorgis and artist Berhanu Ashagrie discussed the postcolonial trauma experienced by cities in the Global South. They spoke of the displacement and marginalisation of minorities in their own city of Addis Ababa, and how the arts have the potential to mobilise resistance and create collective forms of remembering and mourning. Maria Balshaw, the Director of Tate, addressed the challenges of connecting to the city and questioned how the museum could go beyond just welcoming publics and instil a sense of ownership. She showcased examples of how the Tate as a civic institution has promoted community curated projects, questioned its own role in the process of gentrification, and sought ways of engaging with artists on longer-term projects. Finally, there was a discussion moderated by Catherine Somzé with singer Roufaida Aboutaleb, theorist Elke Krasny, artist Antoni Muntadas, and writer and producer Y.M.P. (YoungMichPoetry). Echoing Winterson, Y.M.P. discussed how he was using the spoken word to process his own past and help others foster their own voice and vision. Elke Krasny questioned the notion of resilience and the potential violence of always having to bounce back within a neoliberal society. She questioned the very tenets on which certain modes of resilience are demanded. Muntadas was wary of telling students what to think and found it crucial to focus on their intellectual development rather than being prescriptive. Most notably, Roufaida Aboutaleb and Y.M.P. emphasised the importance of cultural diversity within the art school. If the arts do not reflect the demographics of the city, there is a risk of absolute obsolescence. 

(continue reading the full article on the Willem de Koning website)