What Now? Collectivity and Collaboration, part 2

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 naturally 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 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.


Saturday began with a panel titled “Collective Bargaining,” which examined the boundaries of artist collectives.

Panelists decried the act of identifying as a permanent member of a collective—or even as an artist. Robert Sember, member of the ethnographic research and social practice collective Ultra-Red, confirmed that a number of his fellow members did not identify themselves as artists. Andy Bichlaum of Yes Men, an activist duo who subversively infiltrates large corporations, denied the power of calling their actions art. He felt the terms “art” or “intervention” afforded them no safety from government authorities. Instead, he explained, by taking on the title of comedian he and his partner Mike Bonanno could make the work relatable to almost anyone.

Bichlaum underscored the aesthetic of  “abstraction and de-familiarizing present” in the social practices of Ultra-Red. The hinge between art as effective social practice and art as aesthetic via social practice has become unavoidable since the publication of Claire Bishop’s book Artificial Hells (2012). Bichlaum’s work underscored the importance of maintaining a meaningful aesthetic even in his challenging social practice work.

Likewise, Mexico City-based collective Tercerunquinto deals directly with notions of the “aesthetic.” Tercerunquinto’s projects question public and private space. Disrupting existing spatial boundaries, like a socially conscious Richard Serra, Tercerunquinto activates communities around the construction or removal of structural elements in public spaces.

Collective responses towards institutional structures lay at the heart of Saturday’s second panel “Collective (Dis) Engagement.” Panelists cited the 1986 boycott of South American apartheid—when artists ignored the apartheid, “crossing the picket line” so to speak to bring awareness to the atrocities in the region. Laura Raicovich noted the potential to form a collective is presented when faced with such a moral dilemma, comparing those artists to the the 42 artists who withdrew from the 2014 Sydney Biennale. The Biennale’s corporate sponsor was operating immigrant detention facilities off the coast of Australia and artists took the occasion to form a collective through disengagement. The operation saw some tangible success: the CEO of Transfield, one of the contested corporations, withdrew as Biennale chairman following the protest.

Raicovich felt that similar actions would be inappropriate in Russia, the current location for Manifesta 10. In light of the anti-culturist policies of the Putin administration, the realities of a cultural shutdown are not out of reach. Tufts graduate student, Sonja Srdanvoic offered the drastic cultural shutdown in Bosnia Herzegovina as a similar attempt at national homogenization following the civil wars. Libraries, museums and cultural heritage sites were either physically destroyed or divorced entirely from state funding and legislation forcing eventual closure due to lack of funding and support.[1 A response group, cultureshutdown.net has emerged in response, with the goal of spreading awareness and joining forces with museum around the world in a gesture of solidarity and a call to the Bosnian government. The initiative has been hindered by museums’ unwillingness to publicly declare support and refusing to take what could be considered a political position.] She argued that supporting the arts in Russia, through participation in Manifesta 10 would emphasize the value of arts projects and organization to the Russian state—and that protest, as important it is, could do more harm than good.

The construction of a thriving museum institution, namely the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is likewise a site of contention and collective action. Visual artist Marian Ghani, a member of the Working Group of the Gulf Labor coalition, has integrated a drive for fair labor and living standards for the migrant workers contracted out by the museum to construct the massive project. For Ghani, the question of “Who’s building your architecture?” is inseparable from understanding the work in the upcoming museum or the building itself. Her choice, both to accept the venue for her work and to form a collective action against their practices exemplifies the complexities of the core question of the panel—when, how and why should we unite?

The discussions throughout What Now? complicated notions of the artist collective, suggesting that membership and authorship is never writ in stone. Artists may choose to act upon their assumed role, or step away, behaving without claiming authorship or remaining inert. Individual practices can form into collectives overnight in solidarity over a cause, and just as quickly and crucially, disintegrate.

Also see: What Now? Collectivity and Collaboration, part 1

What Now? Collectivity and Collaboration took place at The New School in New York City, New York April 4-5, 2014.

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