Where do I end and you begin
9 September – 19 November 2017
The Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art 2017 will seek to animate public discourse on a subject of contemporary social and political significance: that of the secular. What role should secularity have in society today?
Based on the principle of a separation of religious belief and non-belief from the state, contemporary Western liberal secularity strives to create the conditions that produce and protect four civic cornerstones: political and social equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains. Secularity, not to be confused with atheism, has played an essential role in society, creating the conditions for regulating complex and often divisive areas of transaction, from abortion rights and sexual freedoms, to gay marriage, social equality and freedom of expression. Its strength lies in allowing different modes of living to co-exist due to the protection of rights. Secularity has taken many forms around the world, key examples of which include the ‘Averroism’ of Islamic Andalusia in the Middle Ages, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s modernising ‘Kemalist’ secularism in Turkey in the early 20th century, the constitutional secularism of Laïcité in France, as well as the U.S. constitution.
Yet, in the midst of the geo-political upheavals at the beginning of the 21st century, secularity finds itself in crisis. Liberal secularity is now under acute pressure, part of an increasing global consciousness of fear, insecurity and precarity. The anti-pluralistic imperatives that mobilised the events of 11 September 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the founding of the Guantánamo Bay military prison and its accounts of torture, the murder of Theo van Gogh and subsequent right-wing nationalism in the Netherlands, the publishing of ‘blasphemous’ cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and the crimes of Anders Breivik on the island of Utøya, along with the rise of Islamic State (ISIL) out of the political volatility in the Middle East, the attacks on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the mass influx of refugees entering Europe to escape civil war in Syria and Iraq, and the subsequent response of different nations to the arrival of these refugees – these are but some of the events that are seen to be pushing Europe towards secular collapse.
In this state of affairs, rampant identitarianism has emerged, materialising many implicitly and explicitly conservative positions. Fundamentalisms and extremisms have morphed in all directions and many profound questions emerge about the future. What happens to secularity during moments of crisis? How should we relate to religious others entering the space of the secular? How can we sustain freedoms – social, sexual, cultural or religious – in a situation of stark cultural differences? Is secularity itself defined, as some scholars believe, by relations to others? Is it the State that is best positioned for defining secularity? If not, who should? GIBCA 2017 looks to address such complex questions on the status of secularity in the situation of its crisis. It will seek to open up a space, as Judith Butler proposes, for “cohabitation and struggle, through participation in public discourse, through cultural and educational projects, allowing modes of separateness to coincide with modes of belonging”.
GIBCA 2017 will be a multi-faceted project, incorporating an exhibition of art and artefacts, numerous site-specific projects developed in collaboration with different constituents and organisations in Gothenburg, and significant events and debates that will function necessarily at the level of the civic, the academic, the cultural and the political. It will seek to engage with some fundamental questions about Europe, the formalisation of its values, and the fine line between protection and violence. Art has an important role to play in this debate on the relations between governance, religion and freedoms, and will form the foundations of the biennial. It will look to open a genuinely pluralistic debate, independent of the mediatised landscape, allowing artistic intelligence to encounter other, perhaps conflicting, perspectives.