Symposium summary report: Rory Hyde
1.1 Introduction by Fulya Erdemci & Andrea Phillips
“The Netherlands sits at the mid-point between the welfare state and neoliberalism.”
With this statement, Fulya Erdemci, director of SKOR, opened the symposium by establishing the broader socio-political challenges facing cultural organisations, artists and the healthcare sector today. The recent coming to power of centre-right coalition governments in Holland and the UK in particular, and the threats to public sector funding that they bring, would be a recurring concern throughout the 2 days. But instead of resignation, Erdemci instead encouraged the seeking of new opportunities and roles for cultural agents in this altered context. In particular, SKOR aims to reclaim its role internationally as responsible to society, by providing new vision and exploring new modes of commissioning, particularly in regard to healthcare.
Andrea Phillips, director of Research Programmes at Goldsmiths University London and day one chair, expanded on this notion of healthcare to include “the cultural organisation of civility.” ‘Care’ is understood as a common concern, one that extends from literal healthcare institutions, to the concepts of social care assumed within curatorial practice, and the ways in which artists (in particular Thomas Hirschhorn’s ‘Spinoza Monument’ in Amsterdam’s Bijlmeer, and Elmgreen & Dragset’s ‘Welfare Show’) are challenging strategies of public participation or interrogating political ideology through their work.
But Phillips also cautions the use of such simplistic distinctions between ‘artist’, ‘public’ and ‘client’. Is there even such a thing as a describable ‘public’? And can we assume that it is one which needs ‘care’? Under this model, artists become carers and the public become patients. Phillips concludes by encouraging the imagining of “new forms beyond this status quo”, to enable a shift from “care for the community to a commons of care.”
1.2 Mark Fisher
If the title of British Philosopher Mark Fisher’s presentation We’re Not All in This Together: Public Space and Antagonism in the Wake of Capitalist Realism was not direct enough, he offered us a more concise, but no less bleak, alternative: Fear and Misery in Neoliberal Britain. And miserable it is. Fisher opened with a dystopian description of a staff member attempting to navigate the relentless bureaucracy and dysfunctional systems of a typical British educational institution. The swipe card doesn’t work, the phone is ringing, the room is locked, the evening streets are filled with violence and vomit, and the drugs don’t help because there’s nothing wrong with you. It quickly becomes clear that Mark himself is the victim of these infringements of civility, infringements that will only get worse as the funding cuts take their toll.
If this emphasis on the UK context were to be seen as out of place at a symposium held in Amsterdam, Fisher sardonically justifies it as a “perhaps what * Europe has to look forward to.” As the Dutch welfare state is increasingly eroded, there exists no alternative to what Fisher describes as ‘capitalist realism’ - the all-encompassing ideology of neoliberalism and post-fordism. To quote Slavoj Žižek, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism.”
How this plays out culturally and in relation to care is particularly foreboding. The Cameron-Clegg government describe a ‘Big Society’; a combination of the ultimate faith in market forces to provide better services than the state, and the rise of what Fisher dismisses as ‘magical volunteerism’. When public funding is cut, somehow community volunteers will step in to fill the void at no extra cost, which with high private debt and unemployment, is — like the end of capitalism — difficult to imagine.
Fisher’s prescription for an alternative is characteristically anarchist: the new public sphere will have to be built by coordinated refusal. Antagonism is a source of power. What might happen if we awaken from our complicit acceptance of the status quo and refuse to comply with our assigned roles in society?
1.3 Steven de Waal
Founder and Chairman of Public SPACE Foundation, and currently campaigning for the leadership of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), Steven de Wall offered a practical perspective in contrast to Mark Fisher’s preceding academic presentation. Indeed, the contrast between the two speakers could not be more striking, as de Waal seemed to advocate the precise model that Fisher had warned of moments earlier.
Described as a ‘cooporatist system’, de Waal’s work seeks to expand the role that private companies and private individuals can play in offering social care. This model is not without precedent in the Dutch context, where the original public service organisations of the 19th century — such as public housing, nursing homes and universities — were first set up by the citizens, a model which the state then copied after WWII. Many of these private non-profits continue to coordinate the public domain today, but the new strategy is to make them increasingly commercial. The reason for this stems from the economic burden on government to reduce spending, but also from a more ideological perception that in Holland “we are possibly at the end of the expectation that government and politicians are responsible for all things.” People want to take responsibility for themselves.
A statement from the audience put a human face on what this might mean in practice; “It’s very troubling to go into a Dutch nursing home and to not know whether your mother has been washed this week or last week * the state is not doing a good enough job, when there could be an informal system put together with women from the neighbourhood.” To enable family members and members of the community to assist in these kinds of scenarios could not only lessen the cost on government, but could also lead to greater social cohesion. As de Waal concluded, “we need to explore these various options for informal care — not because of finance — but because it’s what people want.”
1.4 Alfredo Jaar
Chilean artist, architect and filmmaker, Alfredo Jaar, presented a number of public projects from spanning three decades. A museum in Skoghalls, Sweden, was intentionally burned after only 24 hours; 1 million passports in Helsinki in a comment on Finland’s immigration policy; a musical dialogue bridging the US-Mexico border in memory of those who had died attempting to cross; a conversation space centred around a chandelier in a derelict church in Leipzig; a light installation that gave an ambient presence to the homeless of Moreau, Canada; and a lighting installation in memory of the victims of the Pinochet regime in Santiago.
What connected each of these projects is an exploration of alternate possibilities for public space. As Jaar stated, “Public space is disappearing quickly, it is under threat from corporations and governments. We need to try and create little cracks, to convert these spaces of consumption into spaces of resistance; spaces of hope.” Developing out of a process of research and public consultation spanning years, Jaar’s interventions are not imposed from above, but firmly grounded in the concerns and ambitions of a place.
The success of these projects is ultimately tied to the artists’ independence. Jaar firmly asserts his freedom from constraints of a client and a brief. His work is not instrumental in government’s regeneration or beautification programs, but operate autonomously as a means for creating new modes of awareness about a place or about an issue. Perhaps because of this independence from larger forces of development, Jaar admits “frustration at not achieving more,” and yet defends the scale of these interventions as “even though projects achieve very little, these matters need our attention.”
1.5 Edi Rama in conversation with Fulya Erdemci
“The city was like a train station with everybody trying to leave.”
When artist Edi Rama became mayor of Tirana Albania in 2000, he inherited a city of anarchy and dysfunction, and a budget that did not meet his ambitions to repair it. Instead, he painted decrepit buildings in bright colours, deploying colour as a tool to effect social change and creating a new relationship between the municipality and the people. In a city ravaged by war and a political vacuum following the fall of socialism, Rama managed to shift the public consciousness to something more optimistic. “For the first time, the conversation in the country turned from how to get out, to colours.”
To spend money when there is little available on what is seemingly an artistic exercise in beautification seems unjustifiable. Rama recounts an EU advisor’s shock, “please stop it, taxpayers will not tolerate it, and it is not European standard.” But Rama insists “it is not an artistic intervention, it is politics with no money.” The colours stood as a symbol of change, and instilled a sense of pride and ownership amongst the inhabitants. As Rama states, “people began to care about their place. We didn’t add more police, but people felt safer. And in the coloured streets, we had 100% tax collection.”
Despite the overwhelming success of the painting program, Rama insists it is not a model that can be exported to other circumstances, but simply “a response to a city that was completely dysfunctional.” However he concedes it does stand as a source of inspiration, “that beauty can be effective in improving the rule of law instead of repression or control.”
Rama also plans to expand the program by inviting international artists to paint particular buildings, transforming Tirana into an open air contemporary art museum, attracting investment and the tourist dollar to further energise Albania’s economy.
1.6 Anton Vidokle
Anton Vidokle, artist and founder of e-flux, presented his explorations beyond the exhibition format to engage the public. In a cultural context where the public has been replaced by a passively entertained audience, Vidokle’s projects seek to reclaim the transformative function of art, through new models of participation and new platforms for dissemination.
We are given a brief spin through his key projects over the last decade, beginning with e-flux, the website and mailing list he co-founded in 1999 that has since spawned a journal, video lending library and established itself as a key broadcaster of art events and information with a global reach. While e-flux engaged the web as a legitimate platform outside existing means of production, other projects including the Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life, the Martha Rosler Library, Pawnshop and United Nations Plaza each similarly challenge the space for and means for dissemination of cultural production and value.
Vidokle’s latest project Time/Bank is a “platform where artists, curators, etc can engage time and skills * ideas and actions that seem to have no value can gain a sense of worth.” Via the website, participants can exchange their skills or services for ‘time credits’ which can be used in further exchange, or to purchase books in the New York Time Store. Vidokle explains his hope is “to create an immaterial economy, to help create a value for the many exchanges that already occur within the field of art.”
Through the creation of this economic network, the aim is to also cultivate new social networks within the artistic community. Importantly, unlike the art world, which is “a demonic predatory space”, the art community already holds an incredible amount of trust. “Time / Bank is a means to expand this trust beyond local communities.”
1.7 Chto Delat / What is to be Done?
Dmitry Vilensky presented the work of the Russian artist collective Chto Delat that builds upon the early 20th century Soviet radical art and architecture that blurred the distinction between art and life. Drawing upon the concept of ‘crystallisation’, Chto Delat transform institutional spaces into platforms for political debate and public engagement. Like the previous presentation by Anton Vidokle, Vilensky also laments the passivity of contemporary art audiences, where “a visit to the museum could be compared to a visit to the opera; there is something very wrong with that.”
In an attempt to short-circuit this complacency, Chto Delat look back to a point in Russian heritage where aesthetic and political agendas were indivisible. In particular, Alexander Rodchenko’s 1925 design of a Soviet Activist Club is a key source; which Chto Delat rebuilt from original photographs in Eindhoven’s Van Abbe Museum in 2009. As a space independent from state organization or from formal education systems, the Activist Club offers an alternative forum “where art can attain its emancipatory role in society.”
Despite the end of socialist rule in Russia, the collective have not had a solo show in their home country since 2006, due to ambiguous state restrictions that Vilensky describes as “a form of soft-censorship.”
1.8 Panel discussion: Steven de Waal, Gavin Wade and Mark Fisher, moderated by Ann Demeester
After the conflict of opinion raised earlier in the day between Mark Fisher and Steven de Waal, many in the audience were looking forward to this opportunity for each to defend their positions. The session opened with Gavin Wade, director of Birmingham art space Eastside Projects, reciting a spoken word piece by the artist group FREEE. By endorsing the lines “fuck globalisation * we are not the tailors of utopia * nor the humanitarian curators”, Wade’s views would seem to align with Fisher’s extreme opposition to the neoliberal state. But instead of merely resisting it, Wade described Eastside Projects instrumental complicity within the larger forces of capital and gentrification; “we understand our position as improving the value of the property, and we respect that and use that to get things done.”
This instrumentality of the art space, led to a discussion with the rest of the panel as to the instrumentality of the art work. Wade defended art’s right to be “something you didn’t ask for, it necessarily has to have a function of nothing”, a point which Ann Demeester, director of de Appel, contested in terms of the limits of this position in practice. “If we say ‘art is what we want it to be’, the government will simply say ‘well do it yourself.’” De Waal, with one foot in government and one in the private sector, attempted to strike a middle ground by highlighting this conflict between art’s need for subsidies and the desire for independence. Alternatives include the American model, where private philanthropy fills the space of public funds; or for art to enter the political arena, thereby increasing its cultural relevance. Fisher dismissed this model as “literally capitalist realism”, whereby everything including culture is subsumed by the need to justify its economic value.
As the general volume amongst the panel members and the audience escalated, it became clear that this issue would not be resolved today. It was clear however, that with new governments and the threats to the cultural sector they bring, art and its institutions need to develop new models that enable them to navigate this changed terrain while protecting the values they have come to stand for.
Actors, Agents and Attendants is a series of symposia initiated by SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Domain
Concept and Format Fulya Erdemci (SKOR), Andrea Phillips (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Markus Miessen (nOffice)
SKOR Editorial Team Nils van Beek, Mariska van den Berg, Christina Li, Theo Tegelaers
Curator Expert Meetings Mariska van den Berg
Curator Artist Positions and Film Programme Christina Li
Project Coordinator and Co-curator Artist Positions Fleur van Muiswinkel
Project Assistants Hanneke Janssens and Simone Kleinhout
Curatorial Assistant Film Programme and Symposium Benoit Loiseau
Communication and PR Nienke van Beers
Logistics Merel Driessen
Spatial Design nOffice
SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Domain is an internationally operating art institution based in Amsterdam, which advises, develops and creates art projects in relation to public spaces. SKOR forms alliances and partnerships with art institutions, central and provincial governments, healthcare and educational institutions, project developers and architectural offices, in order to create a collective platform for art in public domain. The projects organized by SKOR react to socio-political changes in society and new developments in contemporary art, urban design and landscape architecture. Through addressing such current topics, SKOR contributes to the debate about the politics of the public domain.