Elephants in the Room at Casco Art Institute
Elephants in the Room, presented by Casco Art Institute in the Netherlands in November 2018, was the first in a new yearly assembly aimed at becoming a meeting place for art organizations to question habitual institutional patterns and imagine ways of “commoning” together. This year’s assembly was designed to investigate how, in relation to ideas of the commons, “art-institutional change relate(s) to unlearning, particularly with regards to redistribution of power.” This topic was presented in relation to the collaborative project between Annette Krauss and the Casco Art Institute team “Site for Unlearning Art Organization,” a series of practical exercises that culminated in Casco’s name change, from “Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory,” to “Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons.”
Unlearning capitalist relations is a question of survival. Besides its effect on climate, capitalism has been corroding social cohesion for centuries and created the greatest inequalities the Earth has ever seen. Art (understood as the extended field of people involved in the practice of the Imaginary) should play a role in leading us to safer ground—or it risks becoming irrelevant and/or purely escapist. However, we can’t unmake and remake the world overnight, and I can hardly blame the assembly for not providing clear answers. Elephants in the Room did what its title implies: it brought into focus some glaring but difficult-to-acknowledge truths—including the fact that most of us inadvertently perpetuate problematic institutional habits and those structures of power. We need to learn to see those elephants before we can agree on strategies. As Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pignarre argue in Capitalist Sorcery, the enemy has infiltrated our very minds and bodies, which have been captured as if by a spell. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher laments that the current system is seen by many, even the ones who can see its tragic shortcomings, as the only viable one. Imagination is failing us, but without a vision that projects a new way of relating to ourselves, to each other, and to our environment, we are not equipped to stand up to the rise of neo-fascist movements which do have a clear vision of what could come tomorrow.
What follows is a very subjective account of what transpired during two intense days of learning how to better see what is here now—including some interesting, small-scale experiments pointing to alternative models.
The first elephant in the room, we are told, consists of the habits that are so ingrained as to be invisible, which is why the first session, titled Session Number Two*, led by Hodan Warsame and Ayesha Ghanchi, is designed to be an examination of the rigid division of labor present in the organizations where the assembly participants work or study. We are divided in small groups, dutifully writing down who is doing what in our organizations, what kind of contracts they have, and what their ethnicities are. When we reconvene as a group some people observe that they had a hard time with the binaries, that race is not always evident, that maintenance workers are sometimes invisible and that the issue of class is not mentioned at all in the exercise.
The exercise proves helpful in mapping the division of labor that occurs in most work environments and we are pushed to imagine alternatives to that. Casco Art Institute is already doing this differently by having maintenance be part of everybody’s workload, but also by having fluid roles in the organization and training each other. Binna explains that going against the capitalist logic of specialization and of maximizing profit and production could potentially mean losing funding, and if the funding is cut then everyone loses their job, no matter how “permanent” one’s contract is. Some left-leaning organizations are already being targeted in neo-fascist societies, she warns us.
Faisol Iskandar and Eminah Zaenah from the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, who have a long-lasting relation to Casco Art Institute and are contributors to the book Site for Unlearning (Art Organization), have been invited to describe the unsafe, precarious and often humiliating working conditions that many maintenance workers find themselves in, for work that actually requires skill and dexterity. Some of them are not working here legally, and are thus unprotected by Dutch labor law and forced to endure exploitative and abusive situations. For once, the often invisible maintenance workers are given a face, a voice, and personal stories.
In the room we all seem to agree that de-compartmentalizing activities is important, but we also wonder what that might practically mean. Would maintenance workers be interested in programming? Can art organizations play a meaningful role in social change and helping communities in need? Or is that a patronizing attitude? Binna asks a very important question: “Who decides what art is shown? Who decides what sort of projects have value for society?” It is a heavy, fundamental question, that nobody seems able or willing to tackle, yet.
Session 3: Unlearning Modern-colonial institutions
We enjoy a packed lunch (prepared by vegan chef and activist Mari Pitkänen) on a boat that takes us on a journey through Utrecht’s colonial past, led by Nancy Jouwe—a highlight of the assembly for many of the participants. We learn about the hidden/unacknowledged slavery history of the Netherlands through landmarks connected to that uncomfortable past. This is a capitalist country at its core: the stock exchange was invented in Amsterdam by the Dutch East India Company during colonial times, but its responsibility in the slave trade is not part of the national memory and is thus erased in the public discourse when dealing with the more recent forms of inequality and racism that the country is dealing with.
Session 4: Unlearning Movement
Session Four presents the challenges of forging alliances between arts education and art institutions using tools that aren’t market-based. We learn about Another Roadmap for Arts Education and about the Arts Collaboratory, a process-oriented translocal network committed to unlearning power structures towards collaborative and horizontal decision-making. Arts Collaboratory has an interesting track record of convincing funders to relinquish control and de-bureaucratize the funding process.
I am having a hard time focusing after lunch, but I suddenly wake up when someone asks whether anybody ever leaves the network. The answer is that yes, sometimes there are personality clashes, a person was even asked to leave. I realize that so far we haven’t discussed how to address conflict and emotion. When we are asked to write down some observations about the day on index cards I write: “Undoing the violence is painful. Are we talking about it enough? Are we intellectualizing it (escaping it?)”
And—why aren’t we talking about art? The structure of the assembly starts feeling too formal, too punishing of the bodies we have, or rather are, sitting in chairs all day, listening to presenters, writing notes like eager students. I start wondering whether a truly flexible, non-capitalist institution can exist and if I can ever see it as a place that offers help instead of a repository of power. I remember the times Casco Art Institute offered its space to the affordable housing movement I participated in last year, and I wonder whether that’s really the sort of thing we need: practical help, political engagement.
Session 5: Unlearning Art Economy
The next day Ying Que, former Casco Art Institute team member, does a recap of the previous day, which involves reading some of the index cards on which we were invited to anonymously write observations. She reads my note about the painful nature of undoing violence. She interpreted it as referring to the colonial histories of violence, but I meant something more general and more insidious, the violence outside and inside ourselves, the impulse to dominate out of fear, the habit of holding on to power.
The fifth session, Unlearning Art Economy, aims at presenting examples of what an art economy could look like when it includes transactions that are not purely monetary in nature, or in which money is exchanged in a non-capitalist, local market.
Company Drinks is “an art project in the shape of a drinks company.” They explain that markets have existed for thousands of years, before capitalism came along. They have a business side that supports the rest of the work, which is centered around art. Supposedly there is no accumulation, no exploitation, although it isn’t quite a cooperative. People who participate get to decide what the value of their contribution is, and some of them work for free. They define it as a “complicated economy,” but it appears to function.
Platform BK, defined as a “think tank” and advocacy group for the arts, engages with questions like “can you go on strike as an artist? Would anybody care if artists stopped making art? Do artists have the power to control their living conditions?” I think that this approach has the benefit of stressing the difficulty of framing art into a waged labor paradigm, which historically is the only paradigm that allows a certain degree of protection. If artists are seen as their own bosses, which is often technically true, the exploitation to which we are often subjected could erroneously be seen as self-exploitation, instead of understanding what really leads to the plague of unfair payment for creative work.
Arte Útil is an open art association founded by artist Tania Bruguera. It envisions art as a tool that can change society and offers a way of thinking differently about art collecting, based on use and stewardship rather than ownership of works of art.
VANSA (Visual Arts Network of South Africa) is a platform with 6,700 members that provides a wealth of information and support for South African artists. The director Kabelo Malatsie doesn’t have a clear picture of who these members and is working on reconfiguring the role of the platform by re-examining its membership. The current priority of VANSA is to avoid being exploitative.
Casco Art Institute briefly introduces its research into ways of commoning art. Binna Choi explains that the tension between the pressure to run an art organization with a presentation focus and the desire to reconfigure the way art institutions work is challenging and sometimes frustrating. This year Casco Art Institute operates without the support of Mondriaan Fund which used to provide 40% of its funding, a turn of events which Binna connects to the above tension.
Session 6: Unlearning Funding
The written program for this session anticipates that we will hear from practitioners who work in funding institutions and who “are looking for shifts in the current art funding paradigms,” but the presentations hardly seem to challenge the current, deeply problematic state of art funding. From public organizations in Finland and Switzerland with budgets of millions of euros and whose main goal is promoting the national image through the work of local artists, to a private foundation based in New York which is able to give grants because of the extraordinary wealth of a patron, I am not sure I see anything inspiring. The DOEN Foundation is the only one of these organizations (besides Casco Art Institute) that explicitly mentions commoning on their website, but as much as it explicitly engages with circular markets instead of the linear, accumulative capitalist model, it still uses a neoliberal language.
Not enough time is spent dissecting what I consider this session’s elephant in the room: the seemingly unshakeable power differential between the foundations and the artists who apply for their support. There is a palpable dissatisfaction in the room: an observation from the audience introduces the idea that funding shifts power dynamics in collectives: when one person gets grant money and the others don’t, collectives can suddenly feel divided. Another artist asks whether money is possibly immoral in itself.
The representative from the Swiss foundation intervenes: he is skeptical about the possibility of having horizontal power relations. He affirms that power can be analyzed and acknowledged but not erased.
A person stands up: “is it is possible to hear the things that are not being said?” I think I can. But maybe we don’t mean the same things.
Casco Case Study
At this point we break into small groups and discuss case studies. I choose to participate in the one about Casco Art Institute. Binna presents an organization that was tired of operating in a neoliberal paradigm. Commoning was a way for them to find focus. According to her, this collective studying is what they “did well” (they purposefully refuse to use words like “succeed” or “achieve”) in the past couple of years. But the unlearning of busyness and other neoliberal habits, the relentless studying of the commons, all the meetings, the exercises, all this making themselves vulnerable, did not encounter the favor of some funding bodies including Mondriaan Fund. Luckily the Foundation for Arts Initiative stepped in and provided financial support.
Binna talks about the psychological effect of losing the funding. She is tired of writing applications, getting rejected has had an impact on her self-esteem. Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy, director of the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, interjects that it is problematic to lose confidence and that the anxiety is solvable through focused action. She explains that her organization is forced (by legal agreements with the funders) to fundraise up to 30% of its budget. Their plan was to start selling drinks but the city isn’t granting licenses on that street anymore. In the meantime she is looking into crowdfunding models like Kickstarter, which supposedly show that people are interested in art projects and are eager to support them. Then she starts talking about opportunities to protect the intellectual property of the research that Casco Art Institute is doing, ways of monetizing the skillset acquired through it, finding what makes the organization unique, branding strategies, she says that Binna should start charging for attending events, and not just for books and material objects.
At this point I lose my composure and go on an emotive rant about how everything she is saying is in open contrast with Casco’s values, and that we can never go beyond neoliberal paradigms if we don’t lose this neoliberal language. This incident with the Mondriaan Fund, I say, is an opportunity to build solidarity. I say that I love how radical and openly anti-capitalist Casco is and that the problem lies in the current art ecology, not in what Casco is doing or not doing.
A person holds up her hand and says that when Casco Art Institute started transitioning she wondered whether the organization was going to “go full radical.” She then comments that full radicality is hardly sustainable, and that the point is maybe to experiment with alternatives, to show different models.
When we reconvene as a big group we discuss what transpired during the case studies. Some concepts emerge: VANSA doesn’t want to be a “service provider,” because that concept implies “consumer” expectations. Only momentary transactions get recorded, but what about the affective and in-kind exchanges? They are invisible (in a capitalist economy), but they have immense value. The Company Drinks folks like the idea of “commoning” as an active verb. Arte Útil sees itself as an ecology of communities, a system of relationships with the shared value of sustainability, engaged with the question of how the ambiguity between caring and controlling could be balanced. We talk of usership as opposed to ownership, of going beyond the concept of authorship. Of custodianship, of creating value through use. The value created inside of it is non-capitalistic.
Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy mentions my rant and asks: “How much is art valued now? How can we find ways of working in both systems, the Commons and the capitalist market?” I don’t recall hearing an answer to that.
Session 7: Unlearning Future
Before the start of the assembly we were invited to contribute a voluntary monetary donation, and over the course of the assembly we have been asked to think about in-kind donations we could offer to our temporary community. The seventh and final session is an experiment in the practical act of commoning, with the goal of deciding what to do with the collective pot.
Kate Rich, the initiator of Feral Trade, is going to be our guide. Feral Trade is a grocery business and an art/social project which uses travel infrastructure to deliver goods. It is an experiment in commerce outside the capitalist logic, following principles of pre-capitalist exchange: money changes hands but there is no accumulation. It is also a way of identifying the many things that money can do. The question the project asks is: what can be done with the capitalist infrastructure? Can it be used in non-capitalist ways?
She describes the massive amounts of olive oil cans stacked in her bedroom, which store value and would keep her alive for a long time, if necessary. My mind goes to the looming ecological collapse. She explains that the name of the project is inspired by the concept of the feral, of the domesticated animal that becomes wild again, as a way of looking beyond rigid dualisms, of envisioning a “varied ecology.” She speaks quickly and excitedly about devising complementary currencies, of resources that in some communities don’t flow. Devising a currency is one way of making them flow again, but value exists also in the absence of currency: land supports human life without flowing. She loves Community Land Trusts. She tells us that the Taos Film Festival used to give land to festival winners, so there is a spot in New Mexico where film directors might be riding horses next to each other.
A person in the audience asks whether money should be used for fighting against the erosion of social welfare instead of being funneled into art projects. “Refugees don’t need art projects, they need housing!”
As we wait for the collective pot to be brought into the room I overhear fragments of a conversation between my immediate neighbors: “Yeah, Unlearning funding, they called it, but then it’s all about the money!” “Artists could also organize themselves…” “Personally I have never applied for grants. I didn’t want public funding because then I wouldn’t be free to do what I wanted to do!”
Binna Choi brings the physical pot into the room. It is time to decide what we’re going to do with these resources. Kate Rich explains that we are going to read the pot the way we would read tea leaves. A person says that they assumed the collective pot was really just for the organization hosting us, because they were providing a service: the assembly. We haven’t paid to attend these two days of collective studying, not even for the delicious food. Shouldn’t Casco Art Institute keep the money as payment? Binna looks pensive but doesn’t reply. She throws the contents of the bowl on the floor. There are coins, paper bills, notes offering time, cleaning, poems, volunteer hours.
The reading begins, voices come in and out:
“Money is smooth, scalable, easy.”
“The in-kind resources are sticky, embedded, hard to read.”
“Small change goes the furthest.”
“Non-monetary resources are triangulated by 50 euro bills”
“There is a reversed question mark, a Spanish question mark.”
“Resources “come out of the blue” (the notes are written on blue card stock).”
“There is an S shape: success story, storytelling, space.”
“I see the Chinese character for “human”.”
We look at each other. We don’t know what else to say, or what to do.
Ying Que: “We should give the money to the Indonesian cleaners!”
Binna: “Should it go towards next year’s assembly”?
No procedure to make decisions or to balance out personality and power differentials is established. Most people stay silent.
The young woman standing next to me says, “Shouldn’t we make a forum? A platform to discuss the commons. To keep working and studying together!”
Some faces light up. I support her idea vocally. Objections are raised: some people seem worried that it will take too much work, that not everyone has time for that, that it might fizzle out. Someone else observes that it isn’t an obligation, that people can choose to be involved or not.
It’s the end of the Assembly. The forum idea was approved, but it might just consist of a page on the organization’s website where resources and contact info will be listed. We are past the scheduled closing time. People start chatting in groups, grabbing drinks in the other room, hugging each other, handing out business cards, talking about communes, dreams. I say goodbye to my new German friends, who need to catch a train to Düsseldorf. Someone offers to say a prayer for me, out in the garden, in front of the pluricentennial tree.
Precarious Institutions, Reimagining the Future
Living in conditions of precarity isn’t sustainable. Human beings can only thrive when they are able to count on material and moral support, and I empathize with the art institutions (or rather the art organizers working in said institutions) that are struggling to find the financial support they need. On the other hand, I wonder if this instability might have a positive effect as well—that is, help foster true solidarity with the segments of the population whose wellbeing is supposedly the focus of many of these art organizations. As long as most of the funding and support go to projects that look good on paper, that are fashionable, polished, with the most potential to draw the best-dressed schmoozers, then we are still moving in the neoliberal realm, even when the content of the supported projects appears to be subversive.
I applaud Casco Art Institute’ s radical research and I believe that alternative art institutions could play a role in shifting power relations in the art world (and beyond!), including transitioning to a decentralized, non-paternalistic, de-bureaucratized system. But I often wonder whether the focus of alternative art organizations should shift to more direct political action. Political organizing aimed at the implementation of a universal basic income, for example, could liberate many artists and activists from the burden of meaningless jobs that subtract energy and time from their work, which would in turn make art much more accessible, multiplying the total human energy at work in re-imagining the future. Some arguments in favor of a universal basic income are also based on the commons and follow Thomas Paine’s idea that natural resources belong to everyone and that the dispossessed have a right to reparations. I ultimately think that as artists we will have to look beyond institutions, beyond leadership, beyond well-meaning but paternalistic philanthropy, to ways of self-managing our work and our resources.
* because “[h]ow would we relate to each other, think, live and work with each other, if we started counting from two instead of one, not pretending that we know where and how things start, but that our selves are always already two, if not multiple…?” Unlearning Exercises, Art Organizations as sites for Unlearning, pg. 20
Images courtesy of Casco Art Institute. Photos: Filippo Giuseppe Iannone