Symposium: Art and Risk

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In the times when possible terrorist attacks and the effects of the migration crisis are making their marks on people’s perception of national and personal security, a recent symposium at Turner Contemporary in Margate addressed the notion of risk and its manifestations as channelled through the works currently on view in the gallery.

Organized in collaboration with the University of Kent, the event stemmed from the speakers’ desire to define the key term and to trace its positive and negative connotations, interpretations and applications. Risk is also the title of the latest exhibition here that investigates its many forms – literal, figurative, poetic- in approximately 80 works by world-famous artists, such as Marina Abramović, Sophie Calle and Ai Weiwei.

One of the first explored areas that the concept of risk led to was contingency and chance which Margaret Iversen illuminated in her talk through works of Edward Hopper. She noted the framing of some of his paintings which directly references a moving train or a car and exposes his fascination with capturing fleeting moments. Iversen then drew parallels between his imagery available through the window of the train or car and the filmic one projected on the screen. The fragmentation of the unified, wholesome and continuous reality that accompanied the processes of modernity enabled Iversen to introduce unpredictability and incompleteness as sister terms of risk.

Similarly, Matthew Kieran contemplated issues of uncertainty and unknowability as beneficial, if not essential for an artistic endeavour and exploratory creativity. However, instead of a full embrace of free experimentation and unrestricted wandering off, he warned against ‘a wrong kind of risk’. This, from Kieran’s perspective, is likely to happen as a misdirection because of an artist’s conceit which ultimately results in an inferior work suffering from incautious implementation of ideas. Risk and control are not, nor should they be, mutually exclusive.

Particular examples of risky, even provocative tendencies were later debated through first-hand accounts of Parisian artist collective, Claire Fontaine and English photomontage artist, Peter Kennard. The bodies of their works conceptualize risk not only as a potentially dangerous (offensive, irritating, alienating) situation but also as instability or openness of meaning. Kennard juxtaposes images to produce complex, but often unforeseen associations while Claire Fontaine’s installations traverse countries, languages and thought systems and elicit mixed responses.

The most resonant examination of the topic, however, came from Michael Guggenheim, only topped by the poetic lure emanating from the talk by Hillel Schwartz. Both men study and work with the population- the former a sociology lecturer at Goldsmith, the latter a cultural historian and a poet- and structured their contributions to the symposium around the human (personal and collective) awareness and perception of risk. Guggenheim started off by distinguishing between risk as something that is not out there, something we construe, and danger as something that is objectively there and exists outside of human control. By comparing the British and Swiss response to the nuclear threat in the 1970s, he demonstrated the varied assessment of that volatile situation by two very different cultures and their governments. However, he also noted their later shift from the singular risk of the nuclear war to dealing with ‘all hazards’ and issuing reports that multiply the potentially dangerous scenarios for the countries’ security to the point of homogenizing them. Such measures stoke the sense of anxiety and paranoia and forbid us from a realistic understanding of what/who actually poses a threat. For Guggenheim, the interesting aspect of risk assessment and management is predominantly the process (the power?) of decision-making that separates what is on the risk register and what is not.

The same question, veiled by its poetic and perfomative aspects, permeated the talk by Hillel Schwartz, ‘Proximity Fuses’. He researched that as early as 10 months after being born, babies possess a see-it-coming awareness, detecting the presence of a looming danger in their immediate surroundings. Despite our innate ability to be alert in such situations, we, over time, grow increasingly unresponsive to many visual and aural signs alluding to an emergency. (What noises have been considered as the ones announcing a threat and how such signifiers gradually change are directly related to Schwartz’ comprehensive study on noise and its interpretation over centuries.) Another intriguing binary is fleshed out when discussing the positive and negative impacts of a risky moment- bodies that have found themselves in danger undergo a process of reconstitution, says Schwartz. They become other through their inner bio-chemical reactions. On the other hand, stress can be also damaging, leading to deterioration of one’s physical and mental health. The speaker clearly intended for everyone to be able to make up their own mind by presenting two sides of the coin, although his appeal to reason and sensibility was apparent. Exaggerated protective mechanisms could actually misguide not only the artistic production but our personal and collective defence strategies, too.

Risk is on between Sat 10 Oct 2015 – Sun 17 Jan 2016.


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