Interview with Karen Verschooren

Curator of the exhibition 'On Alchemy and Magic'

 

Seeking to explain the intangible

An interview with curator Karen Verschooren by Iris Stam.

 

Which role does magic play in contemporary society? That was the central question posed by the exhibition The Act of Magic, the focus of the Artefact 2017 festival at STUK in Leuven. Now it’s time for the second act in Amsterdam. There visitors can experience the wonder of On Alchemy and Magic. Karen Verschooren, whom De Brakke Grond invited to curate, gives us some hints about what’s to come.

Karen Verschooren works for STUK, a multi-disciplinary institution for dance, images and sound in Leuven. There she is responsible for substantiating the visual arts programme which includes the exhibition project Artefact. She has the following to say about determining the annual theme for this STUK-organised event: “We seek out socially relevant issues that don’t constantly occupy people, but that are alive in contemporary artistic practice. Ones that permit both a poetic and a socially critical approach. A complex subject that artists’ practices and works illuminate. As a curator I try to collate these works into a coherent whole that does justice to the complexity of the subject and the works presented.”

 

Magic is omnipresent

The Act of Magic was the name of the Artefact festival that took place from 21 February - 9 March 2017. Karen: “In an ostensibly rational society in which everything is supposed to be quantifiable and evaluable, there no longer seems to be any room for magic or the magical. However, if you use your eyes you will notice that magic is omnipresent. The focus of the exhibition and the festival programme’s lectures, performances and workshops lay on studying magic in all its facets: from pure illusion in stage magic to the deeply held belief in a world replete with magical forces in ‘real’ magic. Furthermore, it dealt with the way in which the tools and the magician’s discours are part of the systems that control modern society: military, political, economic and technological systems that are hard for us, as individuals, to influence.”

 

Connections and meanings

The second act at de Brakke Grond - On Alchemy and Magic – deals with this final aspect in more detail. Karen: “The interplay with the subtitle is of particular importance: Touching the void between the hyper-rational and the irrational. The core question being whether concepts such as magic and alchemy can help us with our interrelationships with technological systems or scientific principles that have become so complex that they are hard for us to grasp. A quote from the one-hour radio show loop Haunted Machines – Alchemy by Tobias Revell and Natalie Kane applies to all the works in the exhibition. This excerpt states that it’s about finding connections and meanings. In that area they are just like alchemy. The artists try to understand and structure the mutual relations and materials that shape our world – matters that feel impenetrable, intangible or remote.” 

 

Avoiding further explanation

“While alchemy proves a useful term for thinking about processes and interpretation, magic refers to intention, results and secrecy. The chasm between what we as humans understand and how or what a machine ‘understands’ is often bridged by referring to magic. Take, for instance, the use of the term 'magic' in articles on new technologies or advertisements for the latter. It is used to increase appeal, to cope with the intangibility or to avoid further explanation. Less innocent is the use of the term magic for things that are consciously kept intangible such as financial transaction systems. Or ‘intelligent’ or ‘autonomous’ technologies whereby objects like smartphones ostensibly give people many ‘powers’, but also use a lot of data in other contexts. The five artworks in the exhibition make visitors think about these matters.”