Cultural geographer and ZHdK lecturer Dagmar Reichert is co-founder of artasfoundation, the Swiss Foundation for Art in Conflict Regions. In many of these regions, the notion of art is strongly determined by craftsmanship — and thus far removed from the current art discourse at art schools like ZHdK. A continuing education programme offered jointly by artasfoundation and ZHdK therefore employs the term “aesthetic experience.” An interview.
BY ANNINA MARIA JAGGY
Annina Maria Jaggy: How would you locate the terms “art” and “craftsmanship” in relation to your cooperation with people in conflict regions?
Dagmar Reichert: At ZHdK and in large parts of the western world, the prevailing view is that art and craftsmanship are two different activities, each occupying different functions in society and producing divergent occupational fields. And yet we can’t simply assume that this is the case everywhere. Our CAS Arts and International Cooperation programme raises participants’ awareness of such cultural differences for their work in conflict regions.
How come the distinction between craftsmanship and art often seems so natural to us?
Well, it’s already long established in the history of Europe. The separation of handicraft and art arose in connection with medieval court art. Individual craftsmen were able to free themselves from the guilds and their strict rules by finding employment with the nobility and the popes.
But history didn’t unfold this way everywhere in the world.
Not at all. International cooperation therefore needs to define artistic work so that it is also appropriate for other cultures. My work at the artasfoundation is based on a concept of art that I believe can be used productively in all regions of the world: art is related to aesthetic experience, which is a key concept in my eyes.
Are you saying that in this respect it doesn’t matter which culture one belongs to? Art can emerge from looking at things or events aesthetically?
Yes, absolutely. Yet the question still remains which members of a society can afford such an aesthetic approach to the world and how far. Who can forgo everyday necessities to an extent that permits aesthetic experiences? All children, regardless of where they grow up, can make such experiences. Unfortunately, though, in many places they are deprived of this possibility at an early age or circumstances prevent this. Mind you, when children are invited by artists to make aesthetic experiences, this “door to the world” quickly reopens: at a workshop held at the Tskaltubo Art Festival in Georgia, for example, 12- to 13-year-olds growing up in difficult circumstances, and having to imitate prevailing norms at school designed small figures from found materials (see photographs). This gave them lots of pleasure, and they were probably themselves surprised by their works. Such workshops enable them to reconnect with their own capacities and to build a bridge from the material to the ideal: perhaps this can help people in regions shaped by war or economic collapse to envision new opportunities for their own lives.
To what extent is your work and commitment political?
Art is political because it can encourage us to have our own views and interpretations. This is where the potential for social change lies. This is necessary above all in post-conflict reconstruction phases, when interpersonal relations need to be restored and new forms of coexistence negotiated together. In addition — and this is common practice — artistic work on an individual level can contribute to coping with traumatic experiences.
Could you tell us about a concrete cooperative venture in a conflict region?
One example is Abkhazia, in the southern Caucasus, a region suffering under an unresolved political conflict and still strongly influenced by its Soviet past. In projects involving artists, people with no artistic background and children, we work with local partner organisations to create space for art and aesthetic experience. As part of the last CAS Arts and International Cooperation, we visited several such projects and project partners in Abkhazia and discussed the various ways and means of continuing the projects. Whether such freedom for aesthetic experience in our sense is “artisanal” or “artistic” is secondary. What matters most is being invited and encouraged to give space to aesthetic experience.