by Katja Kwastek
“Make thinking attractive again” was one comment of cultural studies icon and ASCA (Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis) founder Mieke Bal on the question if we have a chance to counter Donald Trump, during the final roundtable of our international symposium ‘As slowly as possible’. It took place at the VU a bit more than a week ago (24-26 May 2018). Other speakers at the roundtable (which took place at Perdu) were Birgit Kaiser from Utrecht University and performance artist Jeremiah Day. It was dedicated to ‘slow criticism’, to ask in how far slow practices can actually be effective societally.
I organized the Symposium together with Erin La Cour and Diederik Oostdijk (both from the department of English literature), as well as student assistant Nichoals Burman. It was a cooperation with and part of the activities of the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present.
Preparation for this conference took nearly a year, from the initial idea via funding requests, the invitation of keynote speakers, the phrasing and distribution of the ‘call for papers’, the selection of papers from the manifold suggestions sent in from all over the world, towards more practical issues of room reservation, catering, PR, etc. – so it is always great to see all those people with whom you have been corresponding back and forth for months actually show up at the VU in person, to hear how the abstracts you have selected have been worked out into fully fledged 20 min lectures, and to engage in discussion with all those people.
But why a conference on the topic of ‘slowness’? At the end of the 1980s, as the first ‘slow’ movement, the slow food initiative emerged, to encourage attentiveness both to the production process and to the consumption process of our food. It was thus far from (just) demanding that we eat more slowly, but rather encouraging us to acknowledge the complexity of processes and sensations related to food. While there are actually ‘slow art days’, which encourage us to take more time to look at individual artworks, the symposium took a broader approach, in line with what film Scholar Lutz Koepnick envisions in his book ‘On Slowness’ (2014): to discuss “recent artistic work experimenting with extended structures of temporality, with strategies of hesitation, delay, and deceleration, in an effort to make us pause and experience a passing present in all its heterogeneity and difference”.
We had invited two keynote speakers and two ‘keynote performers’ to explore such complex temporalities from various angles. Wolfgang Ernst from the Humboldt University Berlin opted for a process oriented ontology as opposed to an object oriented ontology, arguing that time is rather a human invention to come to grips with various forms of processuality, including the functions of technical operations. Taking sound (in the broadest sense) as point of departure, his lecture was entitled As (S)low as possible?: On Machinic Non-Sense of the Sonic ‘Present’, and on Digital Indiferra/ence towards ‘Time’.
Amongst others, Ernst discussed John Cage’s famous organ piece ASLSP2, which inspired the conference title. (Part of) this piece was actually performed on the organ during the symposium’s performance evening by Hans Fidom, VU’s professor of organ studies, together with Adam Rahbee (carillon) and Mirjam Meerholz (loudspeaker soundscape).
As a second keynote speaker, Mieke Bal, in a lecture with the title “Slow Looking and Visual Thinking” discussed the work of artists Roos Theuws, Doris Salcedo and Jeanette Christensen, as well as her own video work ‘Reasonable Doubt’. The latter was on view in the (former) Church Hall on the VU’s top floor during the conference, as a 5-channel video installation. Focusing on the cultural aspects of time, she discussed examples of interruption and its relation to migratory aesthetics, and strongly advocated the analytical potential of artistic practice.
At the performance night in the VU’s ‘Church Hall’, Berlin based performance artist Jeremiah Day staged his performance The Chair Remains Empty / But the Place is Set enacting and reflecting upon the dynamic of public assemblies, inspired by the writings of Hannah Arendt. Jeremiah was the very first ‘artist-PhD’ at the VU, and has brilliantly defended his thesis last year. His specific combination of lecture, chanting, and bodily performance was accompanied by the music of Bart de Kroon. Unfortunately, Belfast born writer Maria Fusco, who was scheduled to read from her experimental novella Legend of the Necessary Dreamer had to cancel her participation last minute due to personal circumstances – but was brilliantly replaced by Tom Ryan, exchange student from East Anglia University, who had spontaneously agreed to read parts of her novel.
That evening ended with a marvelous summer evening dinner in the greenhouse of the former VU botanical garden.
But also the twelve interdisciplinary panel sessions, bringing together artists and scholars of literature, art, film, media, and music studies, and dedicated to themes such as Media Dispositives, Slow Modernism, Post-colonial Temporalities, The Long Durée, or Slow Futures, were highly inspiring and lead to very interesting discussions. Topics ranged from new interpretations of signature works such as Douglas Gordon’s video installation ‘24 hour Psycho’, Michael Snows ‘Wavelength’ or James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ to analyses of radioactive photography, the relation of techno-orientalism and US immigration policies of the 1960s, the liquid materiality of Dutch landscape painting reflecting the nature of the landscape itself, concepts of time in terminal illness blogs, or the application of the Buddhist concept of becoming a stone to painting in the work of Agnes Martin.
While this was thus a broad variety of topics, the many engaged discussions among the panelists and with the audience proved how the concept of ‘slowness’ — as a kind of boundary concept — is highly suitable to encourage discussions across disciplines, and to explore the close interrelations in between aesthetic and political strategies, which are more often than not deeply intertwined in artistic practice. And last but not least, such symposia are great ways to make contacts with other scholars, exchange ideas, and build up professional networks.
Thanks to our student assistants Nicholas Burman and Thomas Kelderman for invaluable help, as well as to the volunteers of ‘Expanded Field’.
Thanks to our colleagues who agreed to chair sessions or introduce speakers. And, of course, thanks to our interfaculty research institute CLUE+, which funded the conference.
A pity that just a few students attended – they reported that they really enjoyed it…
You can find the conference booklet with all abstracts online here