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The arts and culture on show at Davos 2023

A diverse, thought-provoking and inclusive Arts and Culture programme has been carefully curated for Davos 2023.

A diverse, thought-provoking and inclusive Arts and Culture programme has been carefully curated for Davos 2023. Image: Refik Anadol Studio

Joseph Fowler
Head, Arts and Culture, World Economic Forum
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Society and Equity

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Art helps people understand, negotiate and navigate their way through the challenges of the modern world.
  • A diverse, thought-provoking and inclusive Arts and Culture programme has been carefully curated for Davos 2023.
  • Reflecting upon the theme of the Annual Meeting, Cooperation in a Fragmented World, the Arts and Culture programme for Davos 23 is designed to embrace technology, the imperatives of climate change, gender equality and the global refugee crisis.

The arts have a significant role to play in helping to address global issues. When thinking about how people connect to one another, to communities, to people from other places, to the past, present and future; arts and culture are central.

The arts help people understand, negotiate and navigate their way through the challenges of the modern world. They also help us explore what divides people in a way that fosters understanding and cooperation.

Life is an ever-evolving process. It is a continuous change within which the arts hold a highly significant role. The arts stimulate society by translating experiences through space and time and influencing the opinions of people through visual and audio inspiration. The arts do not demonstrate to people what they should do, but they propose alternatives. They reform by projecting a blend of imagination and reality that influences the way people think and live. The feelings and emotions the arts create spur thinking, engagement and, in some cases, action.

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Curating an arts programme for Davos 23

Drawing upon the above and reflecting upon the over-arching theme of the Annual Meeting, Cooperation in a Fragmented World, I set about curating, what I hope, is a diverse, thought-provoking and inclusive Arts and Culture programme for Davos 23. It is designed to embrace technology, the imperatives of climate change, gender equality and the global refugee crisis.

36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy, an extremely destructive and strong Atlantic hurricane, devastated New York, its suburbs and Long Island. At least 43 people died in New York City due to the storm and thousands of homes and an estimated 250,000 vehicles were destroyed. The economic losses in New York City were calculated to be in the realm of $19 billion.

In May 2022, I was introduced to interdisciplinary artist Sarah Cameron Sunde, a native New Yorker who was in New York when Hurricane Sandy struck. She described to me the impact this life-changing experience had on her. It was the catalyst for her project 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea, an artistic reflection upon the fragility and vulnerability of ourselves, as well as our cities and urban environments in the face of extreme weather events, climate crisis and rising sea levels.

What began as a poetic gesture with Cameron Sunde standing in water for a complete tide cycle (12 hours and 48 minutes), while the tide rose and fell on her body, evolved into a complex, collaborative, evolving series of works. It spans nine years and six continents and has been developed in collaboration with communities in Mexico, San Francisco, The Netherlands, Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya and Aotearoa-New Zealand.

“The surface simplicity of the work belies the complexity of its theoretical, aesthetic and political potential. 36.5 offers an opportunity to approach questions of art, performance and the human place in nature from a variety of discursive and disciplinary perspectives: feminism, eco-theory, theories of space, embodiment and affect, questions of resilience, histories of performance, art history, as well as questions of transnational art activism and modes of fostering eco-spheric consciousness,” explains Una Chaudhuri, Eco-critic, Professor, Dean for the Humanities at NYU

Davos 2023: Jeremy Dennis for 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea
Jeremy Dennis for 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea Image: 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea

Artificial Realities: Coral

As one of the foremost practitioners of what he calls 'data painting,' the Turkish American media artist Refik Anadol is a pioneer in the aesthetics of machine learning. His works explore the space among digital and physical entities. He creates a hybrid relationship between architecture and media arts with machine intelligence. Anadol is the recipient of the prestigious Lumen Prize and has had his work featured at the Venice Architecture Biennale and in shows at the National Gallery of Victoria and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

When I first spoke to Anadol, I was instantly struck by his incredibly contagious energy and his awe-inspiring creativity. He speaks with immense passion about the challenges and the possibilities that ubiquitous computing has imposed on humanity and what it means to be human in the age of AI. What is particularly fascinating about Anadol's work is how it bends our perceptions and provides new ways of interpreting data, as well as alternative ways of seeing and thinking about form, colour, shape and movement.

Inspired by the ocean environment and the plight of the coral reefs, Anadol has created a new site-specific piece to be unveiled at Davos called Artificial Realities: Coral. This large data sculpture uses approximately a billion images of corals that have been processed with machine-learning classification models. Combining science, technology, and visual arts, these exciting new workplaces focus on the preservation and sustainability of corals. It connects a digital ecosystem of data and a landscape that is home to many living ecosystems with the aim of using the potential of both Metaverse and blockchain economies to alleviate global climate change issues.

Davos 2023: Artificial Realities: Coral, a work by Refik Anadol
Artificial Realities: Coral, a work by Refik Anadol Image: Refik Anadol Studio

The Colour of Resilience

According to UNHCR “at least 103 million people are forcibly displaced around the world, 4.9 million are asylum seekers and 32.5 million are refugees – more than at any time in documented history.” Over half of the world’s refugees are children. Many will spend their entire childhoods away from home, sometimes separated from their families. The exposure to conflict, violence, displacement and gender inequality, to name a few, leads to long-term effects and barriers to successful transitions to adulthood. But children are incredibly resilient. By learning, playing and exploring their creative skills, they can find ways to cope, drawing strength from their friends, families and communities.

Creative education provides a framework that enables children to reimagine who they could be and how they can change their world. It helps to articulate trauma and express emotion, hopes, dreams and aspirations.

Artolution, a global community-based public art and education non-profit organization founded by Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) and Dr. Max Frieder, has over the past 14 years been activating positive social change through creative, participatory and collaborative artmaking around the world.

In collaboration with Artolution, the World Economic Forum commissioned a large-scale mural entitled The Colour of Resilience.

Davos 2023: Artolution is a global community-based public art and education non-profit organization founded by Joel Bergner.
Artolution is a global community-based public art and education non-profit organization founded by Joel Bergner. Image: Lead Artolution Syrian refugee teaching artist Semir, Artolution co-founder Dr Max Freider, Muhammed Ibrahim and young painting participants in the Azraq Syrian Refugee camp

Throughout the creative process, Artolution led four separate groups of refugee youth living in the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, the Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda, the Rohingya Refugee Camp in Bangladesh and the Venezuelan refugee and internally displaced communities in Colombia. Each group designed and painted a large-scale piece of art with each artwork visually capturing the story of the global human displacement crisis and statelessness shared through the participants’ personal life experiences, stories and aspirations.

This large-scale unique piece of art is the first collaborative, transcultural and internationally made work of public art from crisis contexts around the globe. It is a celebration of resilience in the face of the global displacement crisis, while each individual section will be a physical artifact that represents the community where it was created and a way forward through one of the most pressing crises of our time.

The Only Woman in the Room

I have always been and will always be a firm believer in gender equality and the empowerment of women. At the beginning of this year, I came across a book called The Only Woman by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, television producer and author Immy Humes. The book is a compelling gallery of women who made their way into a man's world, shown through group portraits each featuring a lone woman.

Davos 2023: This is a 1975 photo of Katharine Graham, first woman elected to the Associated Press' board of directors, who is seated at left during a board meeting in New York City
This is a 1975 photo of Katharine Graham, first woman elected to the Associated Press' board of directors Image: AP/Shutterstock

Inspired by the book, I reached out to Humes and found the author to be just as fascinating as the book. Together with Humes, I curated an exhibition entitled The Only Woman in the Room – featuring images from the book The Only Women (Phaidon) by Immy Humes.This includes a series of handpicked images from the book tracing a timeline of 100 years (1922 – 2022).

Davos 2023: Together before appearing on Meet the Press are Democratic presidential nomination candidates (left to right, top row) Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.); Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota; Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine; (left to right, bottom) Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington; and Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York.
Shirley Chisholm, politician, New York, USA, 1972 Image: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

This original approach to gender equality is a striking pictorial statement bringing to light the compelling and undeniable phenomenon of 'the only woman,' across time and cultures, from countries including the USA, UK, France, Peru, Mexico, India, China, Japan, and Australia. Featuring both unknown and well-known women from a diverse range of backgrounds through the exhibition, Humes reveals and reframes how women and men have related socially in surprising and poignant ways.

Together, the collection of curated images captures moments along a wide, slow current of change. Each offers forensic evidence of patriarchy on parade, along with all the other forces of domination. This is a fresh contribution to the visual and cultural history full of unheard stories, courage, achievement, outrage, mystery, fun and above all, extraordinary women.

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