Artist Organisations International: An Interview with Florian Malzacher and Jonas Staal

This past February I attended Artist Organisations International (AOI), a dynamic “congress” initiated by artist Jonas Staal and curators Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza at Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) in Berlin, Germany. AOI brought together over twenty international representatives of artist-founded organizations who work directly addresses political, economic, education, immigration and ecological issues. In their own words, they aimed to address, “What specific artistic value and political potential do such organisations have? How do they perform? What could be their concrete impact on various social-political agendas and possible internationalist collaborations?” In the context of our current feature on networks and alliances of artist-run/centric organisations around the world, I wanted to follow-up with some of the AOI organizers to discuss these potentials further.

Florian Malzacher is a freelance curator, dramaturge and writer as well as Artistic Director of Impulse Theater Festival in Bochum, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Mülheim a.d. Ruhr. He is co-editor of “Truth is Concrete. A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics” (Sternberg Press, 2014).

Jonas Staal is a visual artist and PhD researcher in art and propaganda. He is the founder of the artistic and political organization New World Summit, which develops parliaments for stateless and blacklisted political groups worldwide, and of the New World Academy (with BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht), which explores the role of art within stateless political struggle.

Sarrita Hunn: What was your initial motivation to organize Artist Organisations International (AOI)? What is an observation? Or a specific question?

Florian Malzacher: AOI started with the observation that recently quite a number of artists chose the concept of the organisation as form for their work. Not as an organisation supporting their work but rather as the work itself. Such organisations can take very different shapes – they can be imaginary like e.g. Yael Bartana’s Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland or they can take the form of a real political organisations like Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International. But they are all part of the current shift from artists working in the form of temporary projects to building long-term organisational structures. We were interested in what specific artistic value and political potential do such organisations have? How do they perform?

Jonas Staal: In a way, the artist-organisation is also another way of approaching the notion of “composition.” Different than the singular commodified artwork, the artist organisation potentially proposes a restructuring of social relations as such. The “work of art” of the artist organisation is not a poster, manifesto, video, event or any of such expressions per se, but rather they form propositions and expressions of the formation of a different kind of social body. The artist organisation and its specific engagement with the world – whether in the form of a political party, movement, school or laboratory – is what brings the artwork into being: the making of “worlds,” in Upton Sinclair’s famous saying that artists should not make art in the world as it is, but to create new ones. The re-imagination, the performance and construction of new social relationships than is what is to be considered the work of art. That, I think, is what Florian rightfully refers to as the “performance” of the artist-organisation.

SH: AOI was framed by four defining statements:

Artist organisations are founded by artists
Artist organisations choose the form of the organisation
Artist organisations seek for structural engagement
Artist organisations propose social/political agendas

When read literally, the final definition is actually quite narrow. For example, there are many artist-founded organisations that do not have an explicit social/political agenda. Would those projects fall outside of AOI’s definition of an artist organisation? Or, does this imply that founding an artist organisation is inherently a social/political act?

FM: This was also a discussion among us as initiators of the AOI: How narrow should this social/political agenda be defined. But all the invited organisations claim for themselves such an agenda – some more outspoken, others more indirectly. The idea of the project was a result of an art focusing on the process, on the creation of situations rather than representing them. The shift to the form of organisations is a consequent development of these ideas. On one hand it expresses the desire for more sustainability, more resilience, but at the same time it keeps the notion of change: Artist organisations are living organisms – they might be more or less controlled by a single author, but they only function in collaborations that permanently challenge power.

JS: Yes, that is what I would see as the attempt to restructure social relations. Through the structure of the organisation, we perform the world differently. Although the AOI is not an organisation as such. Or if it is, then it’s one with a question mark: it opens the question if there are structural relationships between different artist organisations, if there could be, and what would happen if they would actively engage in alliances. What kind of world would we make if there would be a common agenda possible between one another?

SH: Artist Organisations International was organized to mark, “a current shift from artists working in the form of temporary projects to building long-term organisational structures.” A lot of the discussion around the recent launch of Common Field at its Hand-in-Glove convening in Minneapolis was about defining the goals of this new national network – of how and why to build this next level of support. Taken up a scale, what might be the goals of an potential international network or alliance? Would advocacy and/or mutual support be the focus? Something else?

FM: Building alliances and close networks seems to be a problem for many artistic organisations – something we also encountered at AOI. Artistic work is often about the consequent pursuit of one’s own vision. Political collaboration means also to compromise and to put one’s own agendas sometimes behind. This is a main contradiction. The question is how to make this fruitful and not to just stay in the mode of criticality but rather come up with proposals and prepositions. Solidarity could be the first and maybe the main goal of an international alliance: Solidarity between the artists or artist organisations but also (and maybe even more importantly) with the important progressive social and political struggles all over the world.

JS: Indeed, being the founder of an artist-organisation myself, I know how difficult it is to build structural alliances with other artist organisations. I work with political parties and organisations, but these are organisational bodies with agency. Artist organisations in many cases, I believe, are a response to the project-based culture of commissioning in the art world. Suddenly, one might be in residence in Denmark, reflecting upon the rise of the extreme right, while the next year one resides in Spain, reflecting on the manifestation of the new social movements since the M15 protests. Artists are often forced to follow where the money is, if there is any at all. This precariousness obstructs a more structural political engagement. I think the artist organisation is a model that is conceived to enforce institutions and financers to invest in long term programs and engagements, to end the delivery of “politically-engaged service art,” that begins and ends with the conception of a “project.” Potentially, the artist organisation outlives its “authors” and founders. But seeing that the artist-organisation is partly a response to precarity, building structural solidarity between them is yet an enormous step to take. But as a platform with a question mark, we hope to continue to invest in its potential.




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