Banff residency taps top scholars for acclaimed exhibit

(Edmonton) Some of the world’s leading artists, curators and academics “retreated” to Banff this month for a University of Alberta residency program to discuss society, arts and culture as part of a larger internationally renowned arts exhibition.

The Retreat: A Position of dOCUMENTA (13) was held Aug. 2 to 15 as part of the Banff Research in Culture (BRiC) residency, a joint initiative of the University of Alberta and the Banff Centre. Six faculty and 30 international artists, curators and academics gathered to question the character of our society while engaging in artistic and cultural research.

Imre Szeman, Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and English professor at the U of A, initiated the first BRiC last year with colleague Heather Zwicker, vice-dean of the Faculty of Arts, and Kitty Scott, the Banff Centre’s director of visual arts. His goal was to create a three-week research residency for arts and humanities scholars on par with residencies that already exist for the visual arts.

This year’s BRiC residency was a week shorter but had the added bonus of being part of dOCUMENTA (13), the international art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany.

“It’s been a learning experience just to grasp the size of dOCUMENTA,” said Szeman during the closing day of The Retreat. “This year there was more at stake. It was a bit more serious than just a group of scholars wanting to stage an event on our own.”

This year, dOCUMENTA was held in four locations, or “positions,” each representing a different condition in which people—particularly artists and thinkers—find themselves. Kassel has been the exhibition’s home since 1955, Kabul represents “under siege,” and the theme for Alexandria/Cairo is “a state of hope or optimism.”

The Banff position is about scholars and artists being physically, creatively and critically in retreat and represents very different realities compared with challenges in war-torn Afghanistan or uncertainties in Egypt.

“In Banff, it doesn't feel like we have the full weight of expectations that one might have at the main dOCUMENTA site where the vast majority of art is staged in Kassel, Germany,” Szeman said. “But there is more interest in BRiC than there might otherwise be.”

Some 20 participants—including five from the U of A—successfully applied to join this year’s residency, with a goal of creating research networks that likely would not exist otherwise, Szeman said. Participants ranged from senior PhD candidates to junior faculty and practising artists.

Their schedule was packed with group activities, outdoor screenings, and an abundance of sharing work and ideas in addition to public lectures and residency seminars from each of the visiting faculty members, which included top scholars such as dOCUMENTA (13) artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, philosophers Bruno Bosteels and Catherine Malabou, and artists Claire Pentecost and Pierre Huyghe.

“When I came to the U of A [in 2009], I wanted to expose my graduate students to top people in their field and also create an event to bring some much-deserved attention to arts, humanities and social science research endeavours at the University of Alberta,” Szeman said.

“Everybody seems to be thrilled by The Retreat,” he added. “The shorter time and the expanded events given our connection to this large globally known art exhibition, for most people, was a worthwhile trade-off this year.”

Szeman also praised the ongoing relationship with the Banff Centre, an internationally renowned institution he credits for helping attract top talent to Alberta. The BRiC residency is confirmed for another three years, he said.

“The Banff Centre seemed to be an underutilized resource but it is one of the campuses of Alberta higher education. And so far it’s been an extremely valuable partnership.”

Images from The Retreat: A Position of dOCUMENTA (13)
A gallery of works by graduate student Brad Necyk and assistant professor Maria Whiteman

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