What does it mean to believe? What do you believe today? What is your belief? Whether belonging to an established religion or embarking on a quest of spiritual discovery, most people seem to need some form of belief in their lives. It is evident, currently and historically, that such a yearning transcends time and space. Possessing a system of belief is a fundamental human experience — important both in personal and public life. Regardless of how mainstream or esoteric one’s conceptual framework may be, we are all seeking truth — or are we?

A 2009 study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that approximately 50% of American adults have changed their religious affiliation at least once during their lifetime. Many people are disaffected with traditional religions and practices, while others have ceased to act upon their personal beliefs. Some have turned to extremist doctrines, which often have formed the basis of the most violent conflicts in the world today. On the other hand, there is a call for a new spiritual order in societies around the globe. Our personal relationships, our work and our physical surroundings are all spaces in which faith can flourish. Why might it be important for us, individually and collectively, to believe? What is the essence underlying the framework of our beliefs? How might this evolve?

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Belief Discussion at Launch Dinner Event

Belief placemat

Belief Table notes on placemat

Following the public AIC launch event on the afternoon of Oct. 9, 2009, approximately 64 people reconvened for a dinner/discussion event at MIT’s Stata Center dining room, organized by the Platform 2 artists’ collective. Each table focused on one of the eight themes of the Artists’ Prospectus for the Nation, assisted by a commissioned placemat by a New England-based artist (see detail of one of the “Belief” placemats by Cambridge artist Mahmood Rezaei-Kamalbad below). An empty placemat at each table was used by diners to record notes from the discussion. Pictured above is the notated placemat from the Belief Table.

And here is a summary of the discussion by one of the Belief Table’s notetakers:

The discussion at our table swept over vast amounts of ground and covered nothing. We introduced ourselves and tried to find commonalities. We were all women and when trying to determine whether the table’s topic “belief” meant “religion” or something else, we somehow wound up talking about virginity. This conversation did not go anywhere in depth, but I made a note of it because the few issues it touched on seemed like they might have bearing on what belief can do, as well as ways that creative practice might interact with belief. This talk briefly investigated the concepts of reclaimed virginity in postmodern Western culture and faked virginity in societies where not being a virgin can put a woman’s life at risk.

Then we talked about pomegranates. Did you know that every pomegranate has exactly 658 seeds inside of it? I didn’t know this, and in fact I didn’t believe it. The number 658 came from Doris who said it was a known fact in Judaism-quoting something about the number of mitzvahs being equal to the number of seeds in a pomegranate. But I didn’t trust her: I didn’t know if she was making this up on the spot or if she really believed it, but she did say that she had never counted the seeds of a pomegranate herself. She did not seem to feel the need to confirm this, so I set out to count and got to 194 before being disrupted for musical chairs. Brian Knep agreed to finish counting for me when I gave him my chair, but I saw him eating pomegranate seeds.

The discussion about pomegranates and the attempt to keep neat track of what seeds had been counted led to a discussion of ritual. Questions that were asked but not answered: Is studio practice a ritual activity? What are the tribal rituals of artists? If artists have to believe inthemselves to keep working and have to convince others to believe in them, what are the rituals that construct this belief in oneself/instill the belief in one’s artistic value in others? How ritualistic is the art market?

But then we felt that we had gotten too abstract in our thinking about belief and came back to religion. Someone said that they felt it would be irresponsible of artists not to address the issue of religion-that religion was too big a factor in society to be avoided by artists. Though I can’t remember who argued this, this person implied that it was the responsibility of every artist to explore religion in one way or another. Others argued that the significance of religion in modern society was simply political. Someone said “How is religion not politics?” and then someone else said “How is anything not politics?”

After this, there was a discussion about whether or not faith in progress, especially progress wrought by technology or science, was religious in nature. Someone made the claim that belief in science is the absolute analog of religious belief in a secular/democratic society. We tried to decide if this type of belief shared any qualities with religious belief and what those qualities were, but then people started to disperse before this really got anywhere.

Heather Kapplow

Mahmood Rezai-Kamalabad

Detail of one of the launch dinner placemats for the Belief Table by Mahmood Rezaei-Kamalabad