What Now? Collectivity and Collaboration, part 1
How might people gather to combat the effects of people gathering? Groups interested in institutional critique face this paradox: that a group of people with a name has in some sense instituted, and that very format seems to lend itself to dehumanization. The move from people to object, as similarly minded individuals take on a collective name, begins as a fiction and somehow solidifies. The two day conference What Now? Collaboration and Collectivity at The New School attempted to tackle this dilemma of institutionalization and explored alternative models for art collectives and organizations. What Now? also addressed the power of disengagement in light of recent events surrounding the Sydney Biennale and Manifesta 10 in Russia.
The first panel including a group of small arts collectives that together form APRIL. To some extent, the definition of APRIL seemed to rely on the panel itself—as moderator Sarah Rifky put it, “What is APRIL? What is a network? We don’t really know. I’m not going to lie to you. But it exists in so far as we are all here today.”
As a collective APRIL promotes communication between like minded organizations. Each panelist co-directs or heads a very small arts organization and there are around two to five people in charge.
The keyword of the panel was “precariousness”— a gift and a curse. As Anne Barlow, director of Art in General, analogized, if she didn’t drive the bus seven days a week it would come to a screeching halt. The organizations run on the total devotion of their members, as they must succumb to the demands of their projects to the point of “self-exploitation.” This incessant need for nurturing was a challenge APRIL had discussed when they first met as a group last year. One audience member asked whether an institution that’s small is always precarious and difficult to transfer. The question incited a moment of tension—Johan Lundh’s Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane had asked Jens Maier-Rothe’s Beirut in Cairo to take over operations for the holidays. Lundh said the takeover did not work. Maier-Rothe cut in, “What do you mean! It was easy!” Lundh responded, “Our staff was very concerned. Confused.” The question of how best to move responsibilities between members and among collaborating organizations remained unresolved. Most of the panelists seemed to regret how much work they had to put in on a regular basis, but had no solution for how to take breaks or give responsibilities away without adding more people to the organization.
Yet, the precariousness that seems to undermine their work actually gives organizations freedom to respond to change. Radical adaptability sets these institutions apart from large corporations whose bureaucratic procedure makes it difficult for them to be socially and environmentally responsible.
Business relations also retain a sense of flexibility. Panelists cited friendship as a professional strategy in their projects. The intimacy of work relations makes tasks more personally satisfying, but also makes roles more difficult to move between employees. Connections live and die with individual members of the collective.
An audience member questioned the use of the term “friendship” and how it could potentially lead to exclusiveness. Pieternal Vermootal of FormContent offered that the term was used loosely. When working with artists there may be some pushing against one another, but that the institution and the artist come out of the experience somehow bonded.
Charles Esche of Van Abbemuseum spoke alone after the panel, offering a more structured approach. Esche’s institution is big, a fact he spent some time lamenting in the introduction to his talk, pining after the panelists’ organizations’ tininess. Yet, he has maintained a sense of flexibility in his institution by inviting a merger of “the hostile and the hospitable” or what he calls a “productive agonism.” Progress, he said, must come from differently thinking people.
Such a fissure occurred between Van Abbemuseum and the artist Li Mu from a small Chinese village called Qiuzhuang. Mu was invited to collaborate with Van Abbemuseum and challenge the relationship between the institution and the artist. Mu acclimated into the museum as an employee—underscoring the fact that on the museum’s payroll, he was now earning significantly more than an artist working in China. Mu also worked with Van Abbemuseum to reproduce key works from the collection for Mu’s hometown. There, in Qiuzhuang, pieces were instrumentalized: Dan Flavin lit a city block, Sol Lewitt served as shelving units. Then Mu produced and sold drawings of those artworks in their new contexts. The work questioned “cultural colonialism” and asked, as Esche put it, “Who is colonizing who? Who is making use of who?”
By inviting a dissenting voice as collaborator, Van Abbemuseum challenged institutional power and the opened up the idea that a museum can stand for things opposed to its own existence. The museum then exists in an oppositional space of inhabiting and challenging its roles.
Esche pointed out that this kind of push and pull was modeled in his own speech. He called the speech format “incredibly hierarchical” in the sense that the audience is supposed to be silent and he is allowed to speak. He embraced the speech format as a form in which to challenge it, and that critique transformed the circumstance. He was interrupted at that moment by the audience. “You’re right.” he replied to the voice I couldn’t hear. “We just need more people like you!”
What Now? Collectivity and Collaboration took place at The New School in New York City, New York April 4-5, 2014.