Learning to Live Together: Artist Residency as Think Tank

In the summer for 2014, I found myself in the midst of an existential crisis (aka privileged mind-fuck). I was fresh out of school and on my first artist residency in rural Wisconsin, surrounded by 60 interesting and sociable people in an aesthetically pleasing post-work environment where all of my meals were prepared for me by a crew of volunteer staff (artists) and each day included at least three thought-provoking conversations. I couldn’t understand how any of this was possible. (Yes, I was sharing a room with two other soon-to-not-be-strangers. Yes, my bed was filled with sand despite constant sheet-shaking. And yes, this whole experience, while on the “cheap side,” cost 3x my rent in Chicago.) But all things considered, I had ended up in a magical place where creative thought was the primary activity demanded of me. Just how exactly did I get here?

Of course, I was wracked with guilt.

Why should I get to be here (using my vacation days from my full-time day job) while my mother trudged through overwork and underpay just hoping to have an evening to clean or knit in front of the television? A specific brand of American-working-class-capitalism-induced-self-torture had its hold on me. Shouldn’t I always be working / tired / miserable? Who was I to think I deserved (the closest thing I had ever taken to) a vacation?

An artist residency isn’t exactly a vacation, but for many of us flailing towards professionalism in this hyper-productivity-endorsing-(art)world, it may be the closest we’ll ever get. So what compels us to spend our vacation days cut off from cellular service, sharing rooms, meals, and vulnerabilities with strangers?

ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) in Steuben, WI. Image courtesy of ACRE.

It’s important to first acknowledge the easy answer. As much as we may not like to admit, attending artist residencies is seen as an investment towards our careers; a status marker that many artists will pursue regardless of whether they actually work well outside of their regular community or studio environment. From a financial standpoint, attending artist residencies is a risky business: often requiring the artist to quit their job, temporarily vacate or sublease their dwelling, and cut themselves off from all familiar aspects of life. Residency hopping, though professionally glamorous, requires one basically become unemployed, homeless, and subject to the emotional and psychological effects of prolonged precarity.

For the most part, we don’t bat an eye at this. We have yet to experience an uprising against artist residencies without stipends, academic-art positions that require constant instability or relocation, or exhibition venues that are far from WAGE-certified. No matter how much you personally object, odds are one of your friends will still shell out $4,000 for that career-boosting residency or €100 for that might-as-well-be-fake exhibition in a foreign country they’ll never visit.

This is all due to the fact that once we enter the contemporary hyper-professionalized (art)world we are constantly bombarded with subliminal messages that in order consider our careers more as artists, we have to consider our lives less as humans.    

I too have stayed awake for days on end to finish work for an exhibition, or fed myself total shit in order to buy materials to create new work. Once, after a fellow artist explained how she decided to decorate a bathroom at a gallery as her artwork because she could never imagine spending that same money to decorate her own bathroom, an art critic rightly asked, “What the hell is wrong with all of you?” Meanwhile, the dean at an internationally renowned, extremely expensive, art school told the incoming class of MFA students “Don’t worry about getting enough sleep, you should really prioritize attending openings and making connections!” This is all to say that artists (in the US at least) have been taught to develop a type of asceticism turned against all non-art related indulgence.

Now, this is not to say that residencies (as the vacations we allow ourselves to take in the name of career advancement) are completely sadistic. They can also be productive and/or utterly enjoyable. There are many models of artist residency, including some in which the resident is literally employed to make art in isolation, or matched with a range of professional connections and opportunities. However, the type of residency I’m interested in engaging here is the kind where you could easily not make anything. While the artist colony of the early 1900s and the secluded utopia of the 1960s certainly feed into this phenomena, there seem to be a plethora of artist residencies arising lately that pose as experimental-community-think-tanks.

Since the aforementioned farm in rural Wisconsin, I’ve found myself in a former thrift store in North Carolina, and most recently a community garden/pseudo-cult in Paris, all the while grappling with the question of why we as artists and cultural producers put ourselves in these situations, and what trends this might represent within the (art)world and our broader cultural landscape.

The Ark, organized by Grace Ndiritu at Les Laboratories d’Aubervillers, Paris. Image courtesy of Rafaela Lopez.

In the Summer of 2017 I was asked to participate as the writer-in-residence for a project called The Ark organized by the artist Grace Ndiritu at Les Laboratories d’Aubervillers, Paris. The Ark was a proposal for living in a cross-disciplinary art-working environment, inviting people from different backgrounds to work and live together for eight days, exchanging ideas and experiences in relation to making collaborative and shared artworks and art-thinking.

The Ark turned out to be more of a social experiment than a residency. Though not briefed on all the rules beforehand, participants were asked to turn in their cell phones, laptops, cameras, keys, wallets, and passports upon arrival. We were further instructed not to leave the premises, nor to communicate with anyone from the staff or general public for the first six days of the project, lest we contaminate our soon-to-be-molded minds.

The Ark, organized by Grace Ndiritu at Les Laboratories d’Aubervillers, Paris. Image courtesy of Rafaela Lopez..

Each day we awoke to a gong and went about our business under a purposefully ironic banner that read A HAPPY WORKPLACE IS A PRODUCTIVE ONE. Our beds were set on a repurposed stage and our actions were recorded as quirky social media posts. What ensued in addition to programmed talks by residents, activities, meditation, and the best food I’ve ever eaten, were many guided conversations about the project itself and its place within a social history of intentional communities. And perhaps because of the meta-turn in conversation, much of my thought revolved around the question: who has time to think?

Our organizer enjoyed reminding us that we all surrendered certain freedoms in order to participate in the project, and for what? For myself at least (and I assume for most of the participants) that something was a highly valued head-space.

Since entering this imaginary (art)world eight years ago through a magic portal opened by rubbing together student loan debt and a one-way plane ticket, I’m constantly taken with this rare and valuable resource called critical thinking. It’s something that was remarkably absent during my upbringing. I remember my father telling me as a child that adults don’t have time to read; capitalism protects itself by keeping the working-class too busy and tired for reflection. There are certainly tons of things about daily life and society we might object to, but we rarely have the time and mental energy to imagine alternatives, much less manifest them. Who can blame someone for working to afford their rent rather than protesting to make rent more affordable?

While artists might not be part of the middle-class financially, we are oh-somiddle-class in our abundance of thought, self-reflection, and self-ordained purpose. And to me, attending artist residencies has always been an analog for pretending to be rich.

But psychological class-hopping aside, what is afforded to us by these opportunities to think? Or rather, what is the importance of social structures for critical thinking in our current cultural landscape or political climate? And finally, what is it about us artists and the desire for these constructed spaces of seclusion and forced community? What lack in life causes us to enter into these temporary, partial utopias?

Though these utopian art experiments may have a 60s vibe to them, the stakes for us in the present are certainly different. The lack we face might be quite easy to diagnose as a late-stage illness resulting from prolonged exposure to capitalism, individualism, and social media (let’s be real, the later two are definitely manifestations of the former).

We live in a time where social imagination has been foreclosed on; alternatives are seen as entirely fanciful if they are entertained at all; and even political action is plagued by feelings of preconceived failure. In the introduction to their book Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, Antony Dunne and Fiona Raby state:

We believe that by speculating more, at all levels of society, and exploring alternative scenarios, reality will become more malleable and, although the future cannot be predicted, we can help set in place today factors that will increase the probability of more desirable futures happening.

They explore how after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of omnipresent market-led capitalism, social imagination and corresponding reality shrank, limiting our view of the possible to that of the probable. This has been enacted in part by focusing on the individual as the site of change or world-management. Social, political, environmental, and ethical responsibility has been redirected from a governing state or collective towards the individual. We are asked to personally manage our access to capital and resources as well as our exposure to toxins and oppressions.In her book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, Alexis Shotwell discusses how purity politics and healthism, a view that holds individuals accountable for managing their own bodily intake of toxins or vulnerabilities to oppression, “perpetuates the difficulty of perceiving how bodies are embedded in and fixes of the flows of capitalist production.” We see this at work when Republican Congressman Mo Brooks openly suggested that poorer Americans don’t deserve affordable healthcare because they are personally responsible for their bad lives and resulting illness. The fact that people of color, women, and those living below the poverty line are systematically subjected to hazardous environmental conditions and workloads is instantly brushed aside. Beyond health, this focus on individual responsibility carries over into education (re: student debt) and politics (re: wokeness). As Shotwell states, the plight for individual purity “is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair.” This is compounded in the present by social media as a supposed outlet for expression and political solidarity. Caught in a feedback loop of sharing but never reckoning, we perform affective labor to the point of exhaustion. In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton cautions that:

The more we pass on or react to social vibrations, the more we strengthen our habits of channeling and the less we practice autonomous reflection or independent critical thought…we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers.

When people started sharing increasingly negative or complex content on Facebook, the company responded by offering five additional emoticons with which to express reactions. I can only see this move as an attempt to circumvent conversation about what it means to “like” an article about police brutality or a school shooting. While I believe that information should be shared, I worry that the type of passing on that social media allows elides fully reckoning with the content or it’s causes. How often do we stop to think critically about the articles we read and the events they recount before scrolling on to the next tragedy? All of this enforced resonance leaves us little time to think critically, radically, and speculatively about the world we have and the world we want for the future.

These are some obstacles we do tackle (or at least momentarily escape from) in the artist-residency-as-think-tank. I can’t help but think that these limitations are also what make these residency scenarios increasingly important and appealing to us as artists. The opportunity to interact with others in-person with intensity and immediacy seems wholly rare outside of protest or religion. These residencies demand a much extended time bracket of attention and engagement. We are made to not only hear, but to consider and dialogue with others. Furthermore, these residencies may provide opportunities to re-collectivize. They allow us to momentarily enact different forms of economy and exchange. They require us to be responsible towards a community and (hopefully) give us the strength to work through the overwhelming feelings of immobilizing despair.

The Ark, organized by Grace Ndiritu at Les Laboratories d’Aubervillers, Paris. Image courtesy of Rafaela Lopez.

The results of The Ark were, perhaps necessarily, complicated. Willing connectivity sometimes rubbed up against power plays or personality-based tension. Vulnerability is scary precisely because it opens one up to any range of possibilities: negative or positive. Some of my final notes from the project read:

But our little world — one built for learning, and perhaps against loneliness — is starting to fall apart. Tides of anger, confusion, and frustration seem to retreat and then resurface, never fully ebbing. We are still in the world after all. Our world that is filled with both brilliant and troubling things. Utopia is always fractured, crumbling. The most one can do is to steal a few pieces and pocket them; carry them out into the onslaught. Purity is dangerous. Contamination is always already unavoidable.

While it might now seem melodramatic, it was also an accurate temperature of the room. Wondering around Paris afterwards, we felt a bit like recently released abductees (or MTV Real World participants), grappling with subtle forms of the cognitive dissonance we had so often discussed during the project in relation to cult mentality. We found ourselves telling the story over and over again. How would we confront both the good and the bad of our experiment, our society, our world? Was I really crying uncontrollably like Jane Poynter upon her release from Biosphere 2? It was clear that in some way, our lives had changed. But what exactly were we bringing back with us into our respective routines and communities?

Despite our pervasive confusion, almost none of us regretted our time-out-of-time. Over the coming weeks we would begin to piece together new understandings of our humanity and how it sometimes snagged against the people-plowing-career-making-(art)world. Through ongoing conversations, we would begin to deconstruct and re-assemble our strange moralism.

It turns out my Ark cohort and I weren’t the only ones constructing momentary utopias that summer. Once I arrived back home and logged into social media, I saw a friend’s status update: “Now that I’m back in Chicago, I keep having really intense dreams about being at [RESIDENCY]. I want to live somewhere in nature that also has jobs, art, and radical community…so I guess a commune? Anyone know any good communes? Or maybe other jobs at art residencies? I just want to live at art camp forever, please advise.” A commenter had already responded: “Aaah life without the overburdening soul crushing effects of capitalism!!! If u find an escape pod art camp commune plz give me an invite!”

Several other friends had just returned from Summer Forum, “an ongoing experiment in discourse and connection” this time in Kaneohe, Hawaii, where the theme of the session had been “persevering in one’s existence” and radical kinship. Organized by Sara Knox Hunter, Summer Forum selected residents from an open call and aimed for total collaboration around a shared syllabus that combined new materialisms with critical race theory, social justice activism, and local cosmology.

Koki Tanaka, Provisional Studies: Workshop #7 How to Live Together and Sharing the Unknown [Provisorische Studien: Workshop #7 Wie zusammen Leben und das Unbekannte teilen], 2017. Image courtesy of Skulptur Projekte/Henning Rooge.

Koki Tanaka’s Provisional Studies: Workshop #7 How to Live Together and Sharing the Unknown was on view at Skulptur Projekte Münster, wherein the artist orchestrated a live-in workshop with eight participants from the city. Local non-artist participants volunteered for the workshop, and their activities were heavily documented by Tanaka as what he considered to be a non-collaborative work of art.  Participants were led through activities ranging from conversations about personal history and identity to role-playing games simulating government policy meetings.

These three simultaneous experiments—The Ark, Summer Forum, and Provisional Studies—each had different structures and dynamics. However, all three projects emerged in response to crisis: Fukushima, Brexit, Trump, ongoing racialized violence, and escalating climate change. Each asked of its participants: how do we live — despite trauma, disaster, intentional media distraction, and political paralysis? And furthermore, how to we live together — with those both inside and outside of our like-minded communities, with our human and non-human kin?

These are questions we should be asking ourselves regardless, but a lot of times life (work, survival, subsistence) gets in the way. Perhaps these residencies provide moments to really sit with this cognitive dissonance (I can’t go on / I’ll go on) that we experience on a daily basis in gnawing blips between reading the news and going about our business as usual; between the height of the protest and settling back into prescribed movements.

Like philosopher/artist Joanna Zylinska, I too believe that we are experiencing a crisis in critical thinking (which does not exclude feeling) that often results in either fast, superficial action or total impasse. Can we take time to consider our complicity in order to move beyond the reproduction of cultural norms? How do we take these moments back with us as artist-people in the world? At what point do our actions in one selective cultural sphere filter into the mainstream?

These situations, though temporary, ask us to spend a little more time in the present. This presence is necessary for recognizing the ground from which we can imagine from; our complicity in the very systems we hope to change. In We Are Here, But Is It Now? (The Submarine Horizons of Contemporaneity), Raqs Media Collective presents a speculative conversation between a drowned Rhinoceros and a Deep Sea Diver:

Rhinoceros: The alternatives between utopia and dystopia are by now well rehearsed. That song can be sung in any portside karaoke bar. But it is more difficult to hum the uncannily familiar tune of the present moment. We think we know it, but it slips us by even as it haunts us. It is that elusive earworm.

Diver: So what song would you rather be singing?

Rhinoceros: I’ve been thinking we need a whole new set of ballads.

Diver: Where in the middle of the storm of today do you think they will find the reason to imagine how things will be when the tsunami quietens?

Taking time to consider the present is an important step towards imagining and constructing a better future. By considering our present and all the factors that make it what it is, we make reality more malleable. Many people don’t have the opportunity to step away from the storm, or to hunker down and think during times of crisis. It’s no secret that the tsunami Raqs invokes rages at entirely different intensities over different continents and against different communities. We could easily use this logic to further immobilize ourselves. However, guilt does little to solve this problem. To continue speaking of storms, as Audre Lorde said “Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees.” So guilt aside, how can we think in order to make change rather than simply buy time? Must doing and thinking, speculation and action, be separate? In the introduction to the reader Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements Walidah Imarisha states:

“Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction. Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world.”

I believe that to some extent, many artist and designers also dedicate their lives to envisioning other worlds. When we chide ourselves into thinking that our work exists in a vacuum, that the (art)world is separate from the world, we fail to take our own social dreaming seriously. Imarisha asks “are we brave enough to imagine beyond the boundaries of ‘the real’ and then do the hard work of sculpting reality from our dreams?” In this paradigm, envisioning is creating if we do it critically, generously, and radically. So, what exactly did we do upon exiting our momentary utopias this past summer?

For different reasons, both The Ark and Summer Forum decided to cancel their planned publications. While for The Ark this had to do with representation, for Summer Forum I believe it came down to a question of embodying values rather than simply declaring them. For me personally, attending an artist-residency-as-think-tank didn’t cause an outpour of art making, writing, or creative production in the expected sense. But I did find that I was making changes in my life, and many of my peers from The Ark and Summer Forum were doing the same. These changes we were making weren’t art things, they were human things: leaving jobs, ending relationships, asserting ourselves within whatever spheres of interaction we had access too.

But beyond these seemingly very personal, individual actions, what I hope we are doing is collectively shaping a new ethics towards our respective communities: a new list of demands for our (art)world and subsequently our world(s). The space for critical thinking is both a side effect and product of art making that we really ought to take more advantage of. However, doing so means stepping out of our cultural mania for competitive busyness. Rather than buying time through the default of busy behavior, together I hope we will take time furiously. I hope we harbor it until it multiplies into a million sparkling presents, that we might start to take more of a stake in our collective future.

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