"It's impossible to know where you're heading if you don't know where you came from," says Katerina Gregos. This was the starting point from which she formulated the theme for this year's Contour festival in Mechelen: Hidden in Remembrance is the Silent Memory of Our Future.
Mechelen’s fourth biennial of the moving image is its best one ever
Gregos, formerly the artistic director of the Argos Centre for Art and Media in Brussels, hand-picked some of the most famous video artists working today for Mechelen's bi-annual event. Though I say "video" at my peril. The first thing Gregos did when she was asked to curate Contour 2009 was remove the moniker "video art". Now it's called a Biennial of Moving Image.
"Video is VHS, like a documentation tool more than an art form," she explains. " ‘Moving image' encompasses old analogue forms, like 16 mm, to high definition and digital."
You will indeed find as many methods as narratives in this fourth edition of a biennial that has this year taken a noticeable leap in quality and design. Add to this the creative spaces chosen to house each installation, and you have one of the most unusual, enjoyable art treks ever staged in Flanders.
Presenting art in offbeat venues is nothing new (especially for Belgium). But this meticulously curated and architecturally arranged programme uses Mechelen's specific historical role as the former capital of the Low Countries and the seat of the Archbishop as an integral part of the show. The city is known for having more than 300 listed monuments and three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and Contour puts them to good use. From a former Franciscan monastery to a 19th-century school to a convent-turned-brewery-turned-textile outlet, discovering history according to international moving-image artists is - incredibly effectively - also discovering the history of the city of Mechelen.
"We live in a culture of present-ism," Gregos contends. "We believe, mistakenly, that the past has nothing to teach us because we are moving full speed ahead with this idea that the future will always be better than the past. I find this extremely problematic - to think of the past, present and future as being disconnected from each other, when in fact they are a complex continuum."
This assertion is reflected in many of Contour's 18 installations on a walking circuit of 12 venues, but perhaps most urgently by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila's "Where is Where?", one of two installations that clock in at an hour. You are rewarded for sticking it out.
Ahtila's work is based on a real event from the 1950s in which two young Algerian boys killed their French friend as revenge for the hundreds of thousands of Algerian deaths that went unpunished during French colonisation. Seen through the eyes of a present-day European woman, time goes back and forth and viewpoints shift. By the end, you find yourself disturbingly able to understand the boys' justification for the death of an innocent, as well as struggling with many of the accusations and questions in the dialogue (such as: "When you die, where are you, and where is where?").
Ahtila's work is also one of the most effective in terms of technique: four large screens on four walls show different scenes. What you choose to watch shows your own preference for narrative: do you watch the screen that shows the character or do you choose to see what the character is seeing?
Colonialism (and related interventions) are in fact a big topic at Contour: Pakistani artist Maryam Jafri's single large-scale screen is perfectly positioned facing away from the entrance to a huge room in the Art Nouveau wing of the 19th-century Scheppersinstituut. Like some other installations, it requires a bit of inquisitive assertion on the part of the visitor to find it. Like Ahtila, this much-shorter piece explores colonialism's effect on the present day - as nightmarish consequences for the invaded turn around to infect the perpetrator.
In the same building on an upper floor is "Vita Nova" by Belgian artist Vincent Meessen - a record of the artist's trip to Burkina Faso to find the saluting child soldier featured on a cover of Paris Match in 1955. Weaving together historical facts with fictional interpretations, it questions the use of propaganda as a tool to write a preferred version of history. As your eyes adjust to the dark of the room, you suddenly find yourself surrounded by glass cases filled with stuffed animals from Africa. (It's simply part of the school's property but, in this case, rather eerie indeed.)
Contour is this year arranged so that all the venues holding the work of the artists are within an area of about one square kilometre. You receive a walking map with numbered venues; follow the suggested order or pick and choose the pieces you want to see. However you choose to experience it, you'll never have to walk more than 10 minutes between any two venues.
The largesse of installations is not necessarily an indication of their impact. I found myself, for instance, not being able to bear more than 15 minutes of UK artist Nathaniel Mellors' hour-long "The Time Surgeon", despite its gorgeous multi-level screening technique, but was riveted by Belgian Herman Asselberghs' "Black Box". In a small room so dark an assistant has to guide you in with a flashlight, you're confronted by a small screen of blurred, dark images of protesting crowds and quiet whispering - one phrase, over and over: "Historical moments only assume a meaning once they're over." And then, finally, much louder: "It all depends on what happens next."
Contour is open from Thursday to Sunday from 13.00 to 20.00, and you could get through all 12 stops in one long day. Your entry armband, however, is valid for the entire run of the event. All written information, including subtitles, is available in English.
Until 18 October
Tickets and starting point:
Mechelen Culture Centre