In Conversation: Place and Revolution

In Conversation: Place and Revolution is a series of blog posts that put the place and context of socially engaged art at the fore. Beginning in March and continuing each week leading up to Open Engagement 2015, respondents from places across the world will each reflect on the issues in their locations and how socially engaged art is playing out in their backyard. The respondents will then be in dialogue about the issues, challenges, and possibilities of creating engaged work in the world. Edited by Gemma-Rose Turnbull


Terry Kurgan

Nine Urban Biotopes, or, a view of Johannesburg from Berlin.

 
During 2013 and 2014 I worked, initially as South African creative-coordinator, and then as one of the selected artists, on the project Nine Urban Biotopes – Negotiating the Future of Urban Living (9UB), which was a South African-European socially engaged art project that produced research, dialogue, exchange, and in some cases, objects, in relation to the perceived challenges of contemporary urban living.

The project was conceived and directed by Stefan Horn, of the Berlin based organization, urban dialogues. He developed a complex, networked project that comprised 11 partners, (several more associates), and nine artistic projects in five countries on two continents!

Nine artists––whose practice incorporates working in participatory, performative and ‘public-realm’ ways, were parachuted into best practice social citizen initiatives in 7 different cities: Berlin, Johannesburg, London, Durban, Turin, Cape Town and Paris. By implementing 9UB within a South African-European partnership structure, local answers to global questions were explored on both sides of the equator.

Between January and October 2014, 4 European artists––Armin Linke, Antje Schiffers, Marjetica Potrč and Anthony Schrag––worked in South Africa, while 5 South Africans––Athi-Patra Ruga, Dan Halter, Taswald Pillay, Rangoato Hlasane, and myself, Terry Kurgan––worked in Europe. Three projects ran simultaneously; each for a period of three consecutive months and the idea was to see how each artist, working in their own particular way, and in their own particular formal language, might imaginatively approach and respond to each partner organization’s work and concerns.

Each artist and residency projects’ research, process and final presentation were documented as they went along, and could be followed and tracked in a range of media on the 9UB project’s website timeline.

“Let’s Talk: 30 Days at The Spreefeld”

The ‘Mobile Laboratory’, at the Spree River, Berlin, August 2014. © Terry Kurgan

The ‘Mobile Laboratory’, at the Spree River, Berlin, August 2014. © Terry Kurgan

BERLIN

Between July and September 2014, I went to live and work in Berlin. I was paired with the organisation id22 – The Institute for Creative Sustainability, who focused on, amongst other things, the development of alternative cooperative housing cultures. They work against the tide of gentrification and privatization, in an attempt to prevent the city of Berlin from being sold to the highest bidder. I had to try and find my own project within theirs.

So. For my first few weeks, and in search of an idea, I interviewed a range of urban practitioners, artists, activists and others, to try and understand where I was, and what it was that mattered most to people who were living in Berlin. And then I decided to focus my project on an area measuring one square kilometer, (including the offices of my host), located along the Spree River between Kreuzberg and Mitte, right on the former border between East and West, because it was my sense that this particular neighborhood, represented a microcosm of the topics that I had just come to understand, generated some ‘heat’ and ‘light’ at the front of things in Berlin.

Rising pressure on the Berlin housing market had directed keen attention towards this part of the city, resulting in heated conflict between public and private interests, and with regard to ideas about possible development paths to follow. And, the area I chose to work in, contained three distinct and contrasting housing developments: firstly––the three brand new, barrier-free, eight-storey communally owned and managed, eco-friendly buildings of the Spreefeld Housing Cooperative, secondly––an informal settlement of self made plastic shelters called Teepee Land, an idealistic experiment in communal living evoking the spirit of Berlin’s early 1990s; and finally, the Seifen Fabrik, an upmarket residential development, and transformation of a former soap factory into luxury apartments for private investment. Linking these three barrier-free quite different universes were the extensive public, semi-public and private spaces running all the way along the Spree River front, and upon which all of them rest.

(I have to add that at the same time, and in keeping with the preoccupations that run through my larger body of work … I was keeping my eye open for ‘ghosts’. Berlin, it was my sense, more than most other cities I have ever visited, memorializes its complex and difficult past at every turn).

Together with Stefan Schwarz and Ingrid Sabbatier of ISSSresearch&architecture, and their summer school students, we designed and built a mobile ‘laboratory’. For 30 days I wheeled my “Let’s Talk” trolley––a mobile “SpreeLab” ––around the neighbourhood surrounding the three newly erected, buildings of the Spreefeld Co-operative housing project, situated, as it is, upon the scars of the old division between East and West, in the heart of this controversially, but nonetheless rapidly, gentrifying neighborhood on the banks of the River Spree.

Most days I set up my kitchen table for four to five hours at a time, in the middle of the many public paths that run through and towards the Cooperative, close to the river I asked strangers to talk to me. I offered them tea. And then I asked them to satisfy my curiosity about their origins, their occupation, and what they were doing on this particular spot at that moment.

In Conversation at The Spree, Berlin, August 2014. © Terry Kurgan

In Conversation at The Spree, Berlin, August 2014. © Terry Kurgan

In Conversation at The Spree, Berlin, August 2014. © Terry Kurgan

In Conversation at The Spree, Berlin, August 2014. © Terry Kurgan

During my process, conversations took their own turn depending upon whom I was talking to and which threads I decided to follow. I was offered recipes and advice: how to make good duck soup, build a tree house, and be successful in love. How to buy real estate along the Spree, or join a “Right to the City”organisation that opposed it. Somebody sang me a Marlene Dietrich song, and somebody else told me where in the city I could buy stylish shoes for my ‘too big’ feet. But almost everybody at some point returned to what appears to be the Berlin issue, that of real estate speculation, greed and gentrification; the pressure coming to bear from both the city and private developers, and the threat that this poses to the fragile eco-system of the surrounding neighbourhood, and the diversity that has long characterised the social fabric of this City.

In Conversation at The Spree, Berlin, August 2014. © Terry Kurgan

In Conversation at The Spree, Berlin, August 2014. © Terry Kurgan

The smartphone photograph taken at the end of each conversation seals the exchange, and exists less as an object and more as a gesture: the remnant and proof of participation in a process, and acknowledgement perhaps, of human connection. My presentation of this process represented a selection of these many conversations, (and it’s noteworthy to mention that in this time, I didn’t meet one single person who was originally from Berlin). The exhibition comprised a short stop-animation movie, capturing my process and the density and diversity of human traffic in this spot,  and a series of portrait photographs and their linked narrative texts that was installed into a perfectly intact former GDR river police boathouse (and after the fall of the wall, a famous club) right in the middle of the square kilometer within which I’d been roaming.

Installation View, Boathouse, Spreefeld, Berlin © ISSSresearch&architecture

Installation View, Boathouse, Spreefeld, Berlin © ISSSresearch&architecture

Installation View, Boathouse Spreefeled, Berlin © Terry Kurgan

Installation View, Boathouse Spreefeled, Berlin © Terry Kurgan

Installation View, Boathouse, Spreefeled, Berlin. © Terry Kurgan

Installation View, Boathouse, Spreefeled, Berlin. © Terry Kurgan

Wheeling myself about, the close proximity of extraordinarily contrasting but seemingly peacefully co-existing people, objects, and layers of both past and present struck me most particularly. There were many different kinds of co-housing communities, ranging from people choosing to live on the banks of the Spree, informally in tents, to high end globally-marketed, river-view luxury apartments, to the self organized, sustainability-focused Spreefeld Cooperative in the middle of these extremes. There were some fragments of the wall and the late 19th Century industrial past poetically evoked by the ruins of three grand old buildings that had endured both world wars and produced things with distinct textures and temperature, like ice, wood, and soap. And then finally, there were the more recent traces of the informally built but internationally famous bars and clubs which were a manifestation and celebration of the unique condition and promise of this city in the early 90s:Kater HolzigKiki Blofeld and across the river, Bar 25.  People talked about them. Quite a lot! And so my sense was that in the end with all of Berlin’s complex and layered mythology, history and modernity, it was these quite contemporary ghosts that seem to haunt this particular spot at this moment.

Installation View, Boathouse, Spreefeled, Berlin. © Terry Kurgan

Installation View, Boathouse, Spreefeled, Berlin. © Terry Kurgan

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In late September, when I exhibited the project, at an evening event and then for a further four or five days while it was open to the public, the conversation at that red kitchen table continued, surrounded by the film, photographs and their narratives, which existed as by-products or documentation of my process.

JOHANNESBURG

Finally, I’d like to reflect in the space of this Open Engagement blogging project, upon my own project and process in Berlin and how it enabled me to understand close up, but with the advantage of distance, something about a fault line running through my own, and many other socially engaged, participatory art practices in Johannesburg, my home city in South Africa, (which is still, one of the most unequal societies in the world). A fault line beyond the extraordinary tension (always) between artistic and social narratives, or beyond the issue of inequality and power relations, and that sometimes-messy bunch of questions about who participates, in what ways, under which circumstances, and at whose expense.

In the South African context, with its deep history and legacy of racial and social injustice and inequality, public engagements are often funded upon the condition that they are in the very first place, ameliorative. That they ‘help’! Public and private sources of arts funding are often predicated upon fantasies of reparation, and funds are granted on conditions such as “skills transfer, education, and sustainability”. Artists are placed, and place themselves under pressure to ‘help’.

In Berlin, it was such a great relief somehow to be working amongst people who mostly lived in a country with a strong social contract between citizens and the state. People did not need my ‘help’, and it was an extraordinary coincidence that while I was thinking about this, with lightness and relief, my counterpart in Johannesburg, artist Anthony Schrag, (from Edinburgh ) with his insightful outsider eyes, picked up on exactly this issue in my home context during his residency in Johannesburg, and provocatively walked through the inner city with a huge sign saying “Art cannot help you,” engaging in conversation about this as he passed people by. Our projects and our different (opposite?) responses to our contexts, became interesting counterpoints – poetically highlighting the bogey of unequal social positions that can dog socially engaged artistic processes in the South African context.

Anthony Shrag: Nine Urban Biotopes in Johannesburg © Anthony Shrag

Anthony Shrag: Nine Urban Biotopes in Johannesburg © Anthony Shrag

If you are interested in finding out more about Shrag’s project, and the Nine Urban Biotopes the project as a whole, the 9UB e-Publication has just been RELEASED

 
For Android tablets:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=net.urbanbiotopes.ub 

For iPads:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/9-urban-biotopes/id975043145?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D4


About the contributor: Terry Kurgan is an artist, writer and curator based in Johannesburg. Her artistic interest is in photography, and in the complex and paradoxical nature of all photographic transactions. She explores this through a diverse body of artwork that foregrounds notions of intimacy, pushing at the boundaries between the private and the public in the South African public domain. Her projects have been sited in spaces as varied as a maternity hospital, a public library, an inner city park and a prison. She’s been awarded many prizes, and has exhibited and published broadly in South Africa and internationally. Her book Hotel Yeoville was published by Fourthwall Books, Johannesburg in 2013, and recent exhibitions include: Public Intimacy: Art And Other: Ordinary Acts In South Africa, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), 2014; Sharp, Sharp Johannesburg, La Gaite Lyrique, Paris (2013) and Public Art/Private Lives, Gallery AOP, Johannesburg (2013).

She is currently Artist in Residence at WiSER, Wits University, Johannesburg––where she is producing an artist’s book comprising a series of linked, narrative non-fiction essays that develop in relation to the evocative power of photographs as objects.

terrykurgan.com


Curating Organisations (Without) Form

Toilet Tissue and Other Formless Organisational Matters

 
An edited excerpt from Curating Organisations (Without) Form: A public conversation between Antariksa (KUNCI), Binna Choi (Casco), Syafiatudina (KUNCI), Emily Pethick (The Showroom), and Ferdiansyah Thajib (KUNCI) on how commons-orientated organisations work in the field of art, culture and social practices, across Indonesia, the Netherlands and UK. Held on 31st January 2015 at KUNCI Cultural Studies Center, Yogyakarta. Transcription by Edwinna Brennan.*
 
Syafiatudina (Dina): In Indonesia OTB, Organisasi Tanpa Bentuk, or organisations without a form, was a term used by the Government during the Suharto regime as a name for a group of people who were conducting illegal or illicit activities related to Communism or other forbidden ideologies. These were unregistered so they didn’t have a legal status.

In the late 1990s to 2000s many art and other organisations started registering themselves as legal organisations and started to adapt formal structures, such as with a director, a manager, an accountant, a board as required by the government. We have been talking about how these positions or these job titles affect how these collectives or groups of people operate––that’s also how we decided to name this conversation. Before it was quite horizontal, everyone chips in, in a way that they believe in, and contribute however they can. But after the legalisation what happened, or changed, what didn’t change and what is still happening?

For example, Antariksa mentioned the expression hanya di atas kertas, or “only on paper.” On paper there is a Director, there is a Manager, but in the reality of daily practice, they are still collective and fluid. But is this really fluid? There is a tension between structure and non-structure in organisations.

Emily: I started working at The Showroom in 2008 and before that I was at Casco from 2005-2008. In both cases I arrived at a point when the organisations needed some restructuring and rebuilding. I had to move both to new spaces, which also involved developing their programmes, audiences and also their economies and building networks for them in order to strengthen them. Both organisations felt quite vulnerable, and perhaps still are. This got me interested in how as a director your perspective is on the organisation as a whole, which means thinking about the structure in relation to what you’re producing, and how the projects and ideas become quite embedded in how you work.

I’ve not been working on this alone as when I moved to The Showroom and Binna took over my position at Casco, we decided that we would continue to work together. Over the last five years we have collaborated on two programmes­––Circular Facts and Cluster––which were funded by the European Union. Through this, there has been a loose ongoing exchange between our organisations over a period of six years, which has not only been about producing projects, but about how we produce and the structures that are needed in order to do this.

Binna: Over last week, we have visited and been having conversations at various organisations, including Forum Lenteng and ruangrupa in Jakarta, and Lifepatch and, Teater Garasi in Yogyakrta, and KUNCI of course. The focus of our conversations was “how” they are organising in terms of their organisational structure, physical space, finance and process of working, while they are programming, whereas the usual approach to an organisation is just to hear about the program, the visible result.

We aimed to gain insight into shifting organisational structures, the economy and relations and also probably conflicts within these and then how this interacts with their programmes. I think this interest comes from various experiences and one, which Emily mentioned, is the Cluster network which is a network of eight organisations ranging from a museum just outside of Madrid, to spaces like us and Tensta Konsthall (Sweden), and the Israeli Centre for Digital Arts in Holon. We all operate quite differently from any other museum practices and most of us are located in residential areas and on the “periphery,” so we started asking how we are different, what actually we are doing differently from others, and what our values are.

Emily: One of the things we as Cluster did was to visit each other to get to know each other’s work, which included walking around each other’s neighbourhoods as well as what was inside the organisations, and looking at how each is constituted through the relations with our environments and what this can produce in terms of an organisational environment.

Photo: Marianna Dobkoswka.

Photo: Marianna Dobkoswka.

Binna: One of the commonalities amongst these organisations’ situations is what you might call “community works”: working with a community of concern, and community, or a place nearby, is a very important factor. This kind of practice, although it could be easily co-opted, is something that is not always valued by the cultural policies of the countries in Europe where we are, and that’s part of the thing that brought us together in 2008. The Global Financial Crisis that affected many countries in Europe had a knock on effect of funding cuts. Organisations like us are the best target of those cuts because we are in between art and social practice, our identities in terms of “art” aren’t clear and so… By working together, we not only secured certain financial supports for our programme, but our position in the field as well. The Showroom and Casco informally became sister organisations, sharing practices.

Speaking about that, we never labeled this as such, but feminism is a very important struggle, theory and practice that shapes us, and our work, and relates to this interest in organisational matter. One could compare an organisation to a house and a household, where mostly mothers are still in charge and those ‘jobs’ are rarely made visible and not considered to be public work, just something that enables public work. The gap could be even more intense in our type of practice. So I think another reason for this investigation is to have a feminist reading and validation of the work that we do, this against the capitalist mode of validation. But when we were at Bumi Pemuda Rahayu (BPR) two days ago, there was a sense that we’d better not talk about “capitalism.” (laugh)

Antariksa: More or less, yes. I think most people there didn’t really want to talk about capitalism in an abstract way.

Binna: But I have to say, I think capitalism––patriarchal in nature––is really infiltrating everywhere, so we are really thinking and acting through the idiom of this. Only seeing and thinking of the product belongs to that. If our organisations are working for an alternative to such rule of capitalism, I think it’s important to speak of the language and mode of our organisational practice, I would say, as part of anti-capitalist struggle. That’s why we have begun this research, and a series of meetings at various organisations last week, which was very inspiring!

Antariksa: So we want to know the result?

Emily: Well the aim was not to have a concrete result. The reason we titled this event Curating Organisations (Without Form) is about this tension between structured and informal ways of working.

In my position at The Showroom I have to organise in a structured way, but at the same time I also have to make room for openness, for things to take their own course and have their own life. I worked in a bigger institution in the UK where the structure was so rigid that everything had to fit into it and there was no room for anything to be responsive, or for feedback to occur between the organisation and what it was producing.

Here in Indonesia it has been interesting to see how and where these kinds of tensions occur, if at all. Many of the organisations we met seem to have evolved through friendship and have then become more formalised at certain points, often in order to accept funding. A lot of that funding comes from outside, so I’m interested in how you continue to do what you do without having to respond to outside agendas.

In the UK, there is language and structures that you then have to take on to gain and sustain your funding. With the group Common Practice, The Showroom has been developing a critical approach towards these and an ambition to develop our own language in order to talk about value differently. Funders always want to measure what you do and assign value to it, so we are keen to create our own view of the value we are producing.

I was talking to Antariksa about the relationships between organisations and funders and he was saying that KUNCI is not dependent on them, that you would do what you do anyway without those funding opportunities, and it seems that this is the same with Lifepatch, who seem to have resisted going down the route of seeking funding so that they wouldn’t have to respond to outside agendas.


Binna:
Teater Garasi even decided to re-informalise and downsize, which includes get riding of their salary system and making the majority of members part-time.

Emily: Forum Lenteng talked about how to enter into the political domain and start to influence from within. Hafiz (Rancajale) has been working with the Arts Council, as is Ade (Darmawan) of ruangrupa, and they wrote a policy proposal. Certainly what kept coming up is how do you relate to the outside, and how do you keep doing what you do without compromise? It’s the same kind of question that we are faced with in the UK where there has been a big shift towards the privatization of culture, so all the arts organisations are under pressure to solicit funds from private sources, which creates a situation where you have to adjust the way you do things. There comes a point where you start to question, how far you have to go with this.

Ferdianyah Thajib (Ferdi): What interested me from our last conversation is when you asked us how we do our daily conduct, and also when you shared what happens in your own organisational practice, a lot of it had more affective aspects to it and its unaccountable––almost unaccountable. This kind of investment friendship and passion for work and producing what we are producing is something that is not actually thought of by funding bodies as valuable, where as we are actually creating values not just among ourselves as organisations but also with the communities that we are engaging with. But we always seem to fail to translate that into quantitative terms. I don’t know how Hafiz would do it when he wants to approach policy or if any structure would be able to value these other kinds of values, immaterial values.

Emily: In fact, for the Common Practice conference we are holding next week, we will shift our focus from value to values, and how to hold these at the center of our work. This is something that links the three organisations represented here today. We are all working with very diverse communities, but it’s happening in an intimate way through long-term engagements, which is difficult to assign a value to. The communities range from the Researchers’ Affects team who are in residence here [at KUNCI] this week, students that come here and engage with the organisation, and the communities who you work with in the kampongs.

It’s the same with The Showroom, on one hand we are bringing in academics, hosting PhD research groups and holding theoretical discussions, we also work with artists and students and with a wide range of local groups, then we are part of networks, such as Cluster and Common Practice. These are all different communities that we are closely engaged with in ways that are long-term and open ended. Once we have finished a project we often don’t just move on. Once a relationship is formed you can actually do more because you trust each other, you have a friendship, you can understand each other’s needs and desires and where something productive can take place.

Binna: Our experience at Casco could be useful too. Around 2011/12 under the threat of the general budget cut in the cultural sector in the Netherlands, Casco’s Board at that time thought that we needed to strengthen our financial capacity and that we needed to hire a financial manager, or a fundraiser, just as in many other companies and organisations, which creates a further hierarchy. They were also rigid about pre-existing job descriptions, their divisions, and the contract matters in the name of professionalization. But in fact, these were the last things that we needed. Our small team believed that we needed people who could work together on the content and share certain values together, which functions as a fundamental basis for generating necessary money. We had to struggle hard to keep this conviction into practice, which eventually resulted in the change of the whole board who did not support this idea. And this struggle was not possible without support of a community of friends. It was a worthy struggle as it turned out to be a breaking point for our organisation to grow externally and internally.

Lifepatch is another example to consider. There everyone of the group has particular skills that they bring, and its not like one person is in charge of PR and the other of fundraising, but everyone is doing something in relation to a project, and bringing their respective knowledge into what they do. The same goes for KUNCI. You went through this structural change where you decided to call everyone as a member. ruangrupa who now has more than 35 members, just went through the restructuring: Before they had a somewhat abstract, conceptual division of their work like Research and Development Division. Now they got rid of this kind division and structured the whole team around projects and a “coordinator” for each project, while they still keep the directorship and the board “on paper”. All of these show how professionalization or standardization is the way of truth: how informality that is inclusive of the affective aspect of an organisation is an important value to protect. And besides the articulation of this values as we do, I think we also should work in common, let’s say “organising” ourselves.

Photo: Marianna Dobkoswka.

Photo: Marianna Dobkoswka.


Dina:
I will reflect on my experience at KUNCI. Two years ago Ferdi proposed to either to make us all Directors or make us all Members and the response was that we should be all Members and that everyone would be responsible for a project. So for this project I will be the project officer, someone will be the researcher, and on another project Antariksa will be the project officer and I will help maybe as a researcher. So I think this shift is an example of working collaboratively or ‘in commons’ where everyone supports each other. But in this very lose term of Member there is not really clear job divisions on how to run the space. For example, we are all members but does it mean we are all responsible for toilet tissue when it runs out? Or is everyone responsible for buying Cephas [KUNCI’s dog] food when it runs out? It’s already empty!

Ferdi: It’s your responsibility Dina! (Laugh)

Dina: No it’s Wowok’s.

Antariksa: Yes it’s in your contract Dina. (Laugh)

Dina: And then as I contemplate when I am in the supermarket buying toilet tissue, I wonder if we had someone specifically in charge of buying toilet tissue, buying Cephas’ food and checking that we still have water. We have a finance manager who pays the electricity and the internet bill, but if we had a person in charge of small errands for the domestic work, would I, as an intellectual, write more? Would I produce better quality projects because I have more time to think? Because I worry that if I start to think this way, then I will start to put domestic work or ‘mother’s’ work, it’s downsizing its quality, or potential for more engaging intellectual work or masculinity. Now I am interested in working with the mothers of this neighbourhood, but how will I approach the mothers if I see domestic work as a burden to my intellectual life? Maybe this is something outside of our conversation but I know that I’m not alone, for example Lifepatch are a collective but they are also living together, and how does this separation work between who produces the idea and who enables this idea to be produced come about there? Is it being separated or not? For example MES 56 also has a manager.

Wok The Rock (Wok): I feel guilty now. [Wok the Rock lives at KUNCI] I feel like a parasite here. I don’t buy toilet paper, I don’t buy water, I just live here. I only pay rent and maybe lock the door at night, because I have to take care of another collective.

Binna: And there are you buying toilet paper for them?

Wok: Yeah!

Dina: We are in the same position for different spaces.

I don’t know if anyone wants to talk more about who produces the intellectual property and who enables this intellectual property to be produced by doing the domestic work in these sorts of organisations?

Emily: I think these things are intertwined. For example, I do a lot of management and fundraising and all sorts of things that are not where my main interests lie. But if you take it as a whole, you see how these things inform each other, without doing those things we wouldn’t be able to realize our programme, so the content and the structure are integrated and shape each other. If you separate off the menial tasks, you would be a different kind of intellectual to the one who is sometimes mopping the floor. You could see these things as part of an organisational practice. It is a way of thinking that is also particular to what we wanted to highlight when looking at these organisations.

In a large institution, everything is segregated. I worked at Tate and was a very specialised cog in a massive system, and have to network with all the other departments. The dynamics of multitasking to me is an interesting way to work. Your consciousness works in a different way, you’re aware that you have to buy loo roll and do this and that, so maybe your intellectual work does suffer with this split concentration, but I also think it produces a different kind of position, which is not un-valuable.

Edwina Brennan: This reminds me of my time in public institutions in Australia. On one of my first days in Sydney, when I was interning as a 19-year-old, I was so nervous and petrified and was in the staff kitchen where there were all these dirty plates and I thought I would be a good little intern and stack the dishwasher, this fancy pull out dishwasher. So I asked this really very hard-nosed curator how to turn the dishwasher on and she glared at me and replied “Can’t you ask somebody else who actually has time!” So the next person to come in to the kitchen was actually the cleaning lady so I asked her and she said “Oh you don’t need to worry about that, but you just press this button under here.” So it was one button, but this curator didn’t have time. I also thought afterwards that it was probably also code for the cranky curator not actually knowing how to turn the dishwasher on.

I think its interesting once you get deeper into those big institutions because you realize that no one actually knows what they are working for. There isn’t a common vision. So I really like what you said Binna about using the organisational structure to also define your values as an organisation and what you are actually working for. That’s really the worry of big institutions; nobody knows how their cogs fit together anymore.

Binna: Actually at Casco we have recently started cleaning together. So the picture we put on Facebook for this event is of our second session of cleaning together. Somewhere in the book Grand Domestic Revolution Handbook, there is reference that we took, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Maintenance Manifesto.

She did cleaning in front of museums as a series of performances and she wrote this manifesto for maintenance art where she contrasts maintenance to development. Where she did this cleaning performance alone, however, at Casco we did it together. And it was not only for symbolic representation: we had exactly that dilemma of who is cleaning and who is not. For example, two staff members were signing off an email to the rest of the team, sarcastically, with ‘Thank you, Your Lovely Housewife.” While working with domestic workers in the Netherlands, many of whom in fact come from Indonesia, in fact it’s a global structural problem that we can find in our houses and in our organisation as well. Hence, we decided to clean our office every Monday all together after our regular general meeting. At first we cleaned for an hour or even more. Then, as we do it every Monday, it does not take a long, and we set a rule not to do longer than 30 minutes. It’s manageable. Also what this brings is a kind of physical relation to our space, so we feel more ownership I guess, to use an economic term.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance:Outside, 1973 performance at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT, part of Maintenance Art Performance Series, 1973-74 (source: http://sites.moca.org/wack/2007/07/25/mierle-ukeles-manifesto-for-maintenance-art-1969/)

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing, Tracks, Maintenance – Outside, 1973. Photo: Mierle Laderman Ukeles/Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Annette Krauss & the Casco Team, Unlearning exercise #3: collective cleaning, as part of Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation), 2014, at Casco, Utrecht.

Annette Krauss & the Casco Team, Unlearning exercise #3: collective cleaning, as part of Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation), 2014, at Casco, Utrecht.


Emily:
The Showroom also works with a domestic workers union in London (Justice for Domestic Workers), who lobby around immigration issues. One of them told me about how a politician complained to her about unskilled labour in relation to immigration, which upset her, she responded that domestic workers are highly skilled: “We can cook, we can clean, we can look after children, we can organise…” There is a different kind of value that they are campaigning for in order to shift the social perception of their work. I think that’s something that one can keep in one’s own consciousness in relation to what’s valuable use of time. Some of the work that is more about caring for things, like feeding the dog, is important to what this organisation is and does.

Antariksa: I have to admit that KUNCI wasn’t designed as a modern organisation. It was started, I think more from a circle of friendship. But I think I it happens everywhere in Indonesia, I don’t know if it also happens in Europe. But we started hanging out together, sharing ideas together and then, well why don’t we make this together. It was as easy as that. But then after one or two years, we thought to be able to become a proper research center, we needed to have a physical space, a library, an office, so all these ‘needs’ then also constructed our way of working. So we needed to have this new system, an inorganic system. We just followed this ‘new culture of organisation’. So you need to have budgets, annual planning, that kind of stuff and at the end of the year you need to have an annual report. Suddenly having this organisation became no longer fun.

It was very interesting when we had conversation with Teater Garasi, because now they define the notion of sustainability into two categories: sustainability of ideas and economic sustainability. So more often for us, when we think about sustainability, we think more into economic sustainability, how we can raise more and more money because we need to pay our bills every month, we need to rent a new house, we need to publish books, but we never were really thinking about sustainability of ideas. Sometimes when we negotiate, for example, with funding agencies, in most cases actually, they will also intervene in our ideas, so economically we became sustainable but they actually don’t really give a damn if our ideas will sustain themselves or not. As long as we can finish the report every year and we can send them beautiful photos and videos and publications––that’s it, its done.

So I was thinking how can we negotiate more with this original culture of organisations based on our own interests and how can we negotiate with the needs of funding agencies, lets say to develop a more ‘modern’ understanding of organisational practice or modern definition of sustainability, for example.

Based on our experience, again we registered as an organisation officially and we have, on this piece of paper this structure, Director, Manager, Finance Officer etc. and every single time when we should sign a contract, we should put at least one name of someone as Director of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center. Each time even though in fact, we don’t have a Director, we are all members. Its impossible to let them know that actually we don’t have this structure because then we will loose our opportunity to get this money. So it is really hard to find a way to negotiate this with funding agencies.

Emily: You talked about this progression, or evolution, from a group of friends exchanging ideas to having a space and then becoming more formalized, but also in that process you go beyond this and build a wider community. Then you start to have to take on a bit more responsibility because you are starting to become an important place within your locality, for the communities that we described earlier.

Binna: Well I think we should have, not in a progressive way but by occasion, a shift from organisation to organising. So what Hafiz told us about negotiation––I think he used the word negotiation almost in every sentence!––was that he and Ade together started organising this nationwide collective, the Artists Coalition, which brought them to the Jakarta Arts Council, which represented a great shift in Jakarta Arts Council policy. This gave them contact with the ministry and the ministry then asked them to write the policy paper. This move is very interesting and it is also similar to what we experienced at Casco when we had a crisis, a power of organising.

Curating Organisations (Without) Form:  A public conversation. Photo: Fajar Riyanto.

Photo: Fajar Riyanto.

Ferdi: If I may beg to differ to what Antariksa was saying earlier. I actually see a cultural value or an organisational value at KUNCI that has existed from the beginning, which is our culture of ngeyel or resilience. Because we don’t use negotiation that much, or in a sense that Antariksa said that we are always reporting back [to the funding agencies] but still, we are always reporting back in the way we want it, in the time that we want it, whether the funding body is happy or not. If the funding body is knocking on our door asking for that report we still say “wait, we are still doing something else.” So that’s also a culture which sticks. Even the decision to not buy a piece of land for office building for instance, because we knew that once we bought a piece of land we would commit to something big, and we don’t even buy a piece of land for ourselves so why would we buy this piece of land for this institution? Because we know maybe one day the organisation will dissolve and we don’t want to be burdened by that. And I think that’s also important, this positioning that Emily was talking about. We are good at that, “not negotiating,” at the same time we are also good at putting forward what we think is important. Even when we got commissioned to do something, usually we say yes in the beginning, but it’s actually just for the beginning, later on we develop it to something that suits more to the process development. Of course at the end of the day, a compromise is still needed, like when they required us to submit a narrative report. But usually we use this opportunity to clarify why we modified certain things, the reasoning behind it, as we always see the need to adapt to unfolding processes. So for me it is not a matter of what is organic or inorganic anymore.

Emily: Maybe its just pragmatism. I wonder whether there is an issue of leadership––you don’t want to be leaders? You have this flat membership model, but actually if you have a space and have created this context, you also can’t avoid being leaders. Hafiz has been quite strategic in this respect, entering into policy, taking leadership in that system on behalf of others.

Edwina: Actually I wanted to ask a bit about the role of mentoring. There are sort of inbuilt social hierarchies in Indonesia, for example if Antariksa meets a senior from his university its always very polite, if one of Antariksa’s juniors from university it’s the same. While KUNCI is a lot flatter now, do you still think there is a form of hierarchy based on age and experience? I just wondered, you know, as a younger person seeking informal mentoring or as an older person and your responsibility to lead, I guess––going on from what Emily was saying about responsibility as well.

Dina: I think well, based on my experience in KUNCI there is never really a direct mentoring from KUNCI, they sort of push me to the hill.

Ferdi: Everyone is pushed.

Dina: Everyone has a specific skill and we believe that each person here has a specific skill or perspective that can enrich our being collective, or being together so in a sense its also quite horizontal. The tension, or the question of regeneration is also part of the discussion in many other organisations, but I have never felt there is a need for regeneration and I, with the younger generation, will continue this heritage.

Ferdi: There is an organisational age though, it matters when you started to join the organisation. I’m not saying what went on is kind of knowledge transfer, because we believe everyone has their own knowledge and then they bring that to the collective. But it’s more a transmission of awareness of what we are doing. That is something that is a bit tricky. Of course a lot of people come here just to hang out because this place is cool or whatever, but actually there is more to it than that, there is a kind of a shared value that ties us together.

Dina: I think I would like to add to what Ferdi had to say. It took me I guess two years to have the courage to say my opinion on what KUNCI is, and have my own voice about what KUNCI is doing. It’s not because there is often occasions for that, but it’s also the courage or knowledge of information that I received by being here a lot. That kind of awareness that is transmitted not in a very formal way or like a class about KUNCI history, but instead by making a coffee together or sitting here and talking about what KUNCI is, or even guests coming here and asking about KUNCI, and I keep thinking “Oh so that is KUNCI”.

And for example, now we have a few new members working with us. Acong came after me. And then after Acong there are others. Well they are interns and work on programs. But I am looking from a distance wondering if they are going to join us for good or are they going to go after the projects are finished. So it’s also the transmissions of awareness of being a collective or being together in time and space.

Binna: Many organisations we talked to responded on the question about membership that there is no formal procedure. It’s all based on “hanging out”. And then in the case of the artist Jompet Kuswidananto, they found out by reading an interview with him that he had said that he was part of Teater Garasi, which they were surprised about, as they didn’t consider him as a member. I wonder whether KUNCI can tell us a negative case, because I know you have a history of having other members who have left, besides personal reasons, inevitable personal reasons, are there other cases?

Dina: Do you remember I joined KUNCI with one other person?

Antariksa: Dimas! Oh yes, we tried having this kind of formal regeneration so we did a series of interviews with people and it was even worse actually, they left the organisation within six months, not even a year. So we decided that wasn’t a good way to have new members.

Binna: For me I had exactly the same experience. Interviews and open calls rarely work.

Antariksa: And even when a member left KUNCI, it was never really official. So they just disappeared little by little. They came to the office once a month, then next once a year, and then suddenly disappeared, but we still have actually friendship and relationships with them, and we also always ask them to come to KUNCI. So we have sort of common ground, you are no longer an official part of KUNCI for example.

Christine Wagner: Do you have an aim to grow? Or is it like you have to sustain the people to do the work? I there an interest in growing actually?

Dina: Growing the number of people?

Antariksa: We never really think about that. Well sometimes we need more people.

Ferdi: We always need more people. Because there is always more demands than we can meet, but it’s always quite pragmatic in the beginning, and if people decided to stay, then of course we will welcome them but it’s really open. A lot of these commissions, or demands, are project-based and involve salaries, but then when the project ends and we said “Hey, we can no longer pay you, if you want to continue to hang out here we would be very pleased, but if you want to go elsewhere and come back here again when there is a project, that’s also fine.”

Dina: In my case I actually want to have more KUNCI members, because I need someone to buy toilet paper.

Raquel Ormella: You need more KUNCI members like you!

Dina: Well actually one of the changes in the arts and cultural landscape in Yogya is that it is becoming more and more professionalised and the professionalism can overturn friendship, it is becoming more competitive. Like what professionals do, such as “This curator will meet me, but not meet you”. But this kind of competition can also make you feel quite excluded or lonely, so [I keep thinking] who is my ally and who can I work with? The nature of friendship is also changing among most cultural practitioners in Yogya, so I think in a sense, for me to have more KUNCI members is to have more allies, but I am also not just looking for registered members of KUNCI, I also am looking for comrades––ooh that also sounds very war-like––but I’m looking for more friends and colleagues in these arts and culture fields to work together, so not just at KUNCI but partners, or types of cooperation, not membership, but a working network perhaps.

Photo: Fajar Riyanto.

Photo: Fajar Riyanto.


Binna:
A certain looseness has been possible it seems because the living costs are very low here. So you also compare to the Jakarta arts scene, for example, where living cost is much high, that’s why they are more ‘professionalised’ and that’s why ruangrupa had this division and that division. But it’s coming here as well right?

Dina: Yes.

Hans (Knegtmans): And that’s one of the risks when you’re growing.

Binna: And when the city is growing.

Hans: Even the organisation gets bigger with more partners, more comrades, then you wall compartments as well. That’s the risk.

Antariksa: The problem is this growing system is becoming more and more oppressive. They push us to do things that sometimes we don’t want to do. So the challenge for growing organisations I think is how to make them not only survive but also to make them unique and to maintain their own principles. That’s why the notion of sustainability of ideas was really interesting. How do we deal with this?

Emily: I would like to ask about the sustainability of a political position. Most of the organisations we met with talked about this moment in 1998, and about building networks around shared activism, and how after the fall of a dictatorship suddenly there was a moment when you could set up organisations. A lot of the organisations we met are trying to understand where they are now through looking at the past, after all of these shifts and turbulent times, where a lot of things changed and were redefined, and people were redefining themselves. How do you locate yourself in relation to this now? What is the consciousness of the organisation now?

Binna: Hafiz said the enemy became horizontalised. So house, family, media all became their enemies, and before their enemy was the Suharto regime. That’s why they started Forum Lenteng, focusing on alternative media.

Emily: In the UK London is being taken over by corporate interests to the point at which it’s hard to continue small projects that are carving a small space for something else. The public sector is shrinking, and the dominant culture is that of spectacle. We work a lot within our neighbourhood, collaborating and entering into conversations with local residents, through which we have been able to read the political on a micro-scale.

I see this here at KUNCI through what you’re doing in the kampong or the other kinds of research happening here. When we were talking, you skirted away from having to define it. In a way KUNCI can be defined by the different things that you do, but when you look at the library you and see this in the different sections of discourse––feminism, post-colonial discourses, European philosophy––you can see how you’re maintaining a complex position of intersecting discourses.

Ferdi: I’m always referring back to the individual aspirations that we project to the collective. For me it’s about working against normativity, and that actually allows us to go to different directions. Right now, for instance, people talk a lot about collaboration or relational art and it’s increasingly becoming a new norm in valuing art, and then for us it’s to actually find a niche, to position ourselves as a counter balance to these new social norms. The only word that we can pull out of these experiences is ”criticality”, but of course criticality itself is a bit overrated. Critique for its own sake have never really been our interest, but for us to be able to articulate how normativity works, so that we can see our own positioning in the discourse, either we speculate for it or against it.

But again, this is still my individual projection on the collective. Of course or Antariksa or Dina would have a different perspective, and these collective perspectives are perhaps what define us. At the same time, not all interests could directly translate into a common ground. So that is why if I don’t see it fit to KUNCI’s I do it elsewhere, like in the Researchers’ Affects Project. Not all of our individual interests are accommodated by the collective, I think it is important to accept that.

Binna: I wonder whether there are common causes shared among organisations or in an organisation in Indonesia though. As Emily said, all the organisation we met talked about 1998, which is not a long ago. It seems to be quite particular for the Indonesian art scene.

Antariksa: Yes, of course there is. I believe there is a common cause but I want to bring this idea in, well maybe its very Indonesian, or very Yogya, but from my point of view is it possible to understand KUNCI for example, for myself through the idea of family? Family doesn’t really need a common cause. They just happen like that. You’re my brother, you’re my sister, you’re my mother and you’re my father and we don’t really need a common cause. We cannot really express it how it’s possible, it’s really difficult but somehow things happen and we work together for different reasons and I feel like KUNCI is kind of my extended family.

Ferdi: Awww

Antariksa: If you see it in this way… and sometimes you need to escape from your own family. So of course we have these values that you can position in the political history of Indonesia especially because we were founded just after 1998 amidst this freedom and of course we are against certain values such as censorship. But it could be difficult to formulate our values in a very solid form. It’s really difficult.

Binna: Why?

Antariksa: I feel like I have a second home so the place that you can stay and you can work and sleep––safely.

Dina: I agree with what Antariksa said about KUNCI being a safe space for everyone and about being a family and that we take care of each other but I think the forms of family do not eliminate the common cause but I was driven to this family because I have a common cause with the common causes of the rest of the family. So it’s an ideologically driven family. It’s not like this family with geese and that family with cats. But also maybe, and this might be coming from my position coming from an activist family, but my common cause moving into this field of arts and culture is to fight inequality. It sounds quite abstract and quite heroic in this time of chaos and crisis but I think this has driven me to move closer toward criticality. I am also interested in intellectual works as modes of thinking and doing in practice, not only just in theory but also in life, on a daily basis––for example in my attitude to local politics. In this way I feel I can move closer to KUNCI as my family or my safe house from the places I feel rejected from.

Brigitta Isabella (or Gita): I would actually prefer to KUNCI a gang rather than a family.

Wok: Woah, so tough!

Gita: I was also interested to talk about membership and I was thinking to myself if it is possible to be an ex-member of KUNCI? I thought even if I have a different vision to what KUNCI is doing now, as Ferdi also said, you can also accommodate it outside of KUNCI whilst still investing something in KUNCI as well. You don’t see KUNCI as a working place anymore but a place that you invest things and for that, for me, you cannot be an ex-member as long as you have a shared vision. Unless of course you did something really bad and someone kicked you out of KUNCI. Everyone always says that we have a very informal bond and I think that’s what makes this unstructured structure stronger because of that rather than from making more solid and committed stuff.

Regarding to the diverse interest, I also see it that way. Like Ferdi has his own research on queer issues, Antariksa has his own interest in history research and I have my own interest in philosophy and I think what also makes us stronger is we have so many different perspectives and we can accept more jobs!

Sometimes I don’t do some of KUNCI’s projects because I’m abroad or I’m engaged in other projects but you are still a member of the team although you don’t really work. For example, Nuning (Nuraini Juliastuti is KUNCI’s co-founding member) has been doing her PhD for four years but there is always emotional engagement with the whole vision of the organisation.

Dina: This formula is very specific to KUNCI but its also not proven to be successful yet. For example we still find it hard to decide who will buy toilet tissue.

Gita: OK Dina, I’ll buy the toilet paper. I’m sorry! (Laugh)

Dina's table the day after the public conversation with a gift from the team Researchers' Affect (audience). Photo: Binna Choi.

Dina’s table the day after the public conversation with a gift from the team Researchers’ Affect (audience). Photo: Binna Choi.


*A Glossary of Names of Collective, Initiative and People:

– Bumi Pemuda Rahayu is a newly formed art center in Imogiri, Yogyakarta which aims to support a vision of ecological sustainability of life with arts on practical and theoretical levels. It aims to run programs that are innovative and creative for the local area within an international context. (bumipemudarahayu.org)

– Edwina Brennan is an Australian cultural producer based in Yogyakarta who has been actively working with disabled artist.

– Casco––Office for Art, Design and Theory is a non-profit organization for artistic research and experiments. We consider artistic practice as a way of engaging with the world we live in and as an investigative, imaginative, and inventive practice. The artistic practices we focus on are cross-disciplinary, open to collaboration and process driven. Our work traverses design, theory, and the wider social sphere. Correspondingly, our activities encompass not only exhibitions, but also research, production, applications, workshops, forums, debates, actions, performances, screenings, education, and publishing. Central to these activities is the support for artist-led projects and other collaborative initiatives, initiating long-term visionary research projects, and fostering meaningful partnerships. Binna Choi is director of Casco whose team consists of 10 people (all part time). (cascoprojects.org)

– Forum Lenteng is a Jakarta based collective that intends to empower society and disseminate information by spreading education through journals, videos, and all kind of media Forum Lenteng is co-founded by Hafiz Rancajale. (forumlenteng.org)

– Koalisi Seni (Indonesian Art Coalition) is formed in 2012, its mission is to strengthen Indonesia’s arts sector by engaging a network of stakeholders to mobilize resources and advocate public policies for a sustainable infrastructure. (koalisiseni.or.id)

– KUNCI Cultural Studies Center inhabits a precarious position of belonging to neither this nor that within existing disciplinary boundaries while aiming at expanding them. The collective’s membership is open and voluntary, and is so far based on an affinity to creative experimentation and speculative inquiry with focus on intersections between theory and practice. Since its founding in 1999 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, KUNCI has been deeply preoccupied with critical knowledge production and sharing through means of media publication, cross-disciplinary encounter, research-action, artistic intervention and vernacular education within and across community spaces. (kunci.or.id) Other than Antariksa, Syafiatudina and Ferdiansyah Thajib attending the public dialogue are KUNCI member Brigitta Isabella, KUNCI librarian Hayyu Al Qayumi (aka Acong), and web administrator Wok the Rock. Co-founder and member of KUNCI, Nuraini Juliastuti, is in Netherlands completing her PhD at Leiden University.

– Hans Knegtmans is owner of Kebun Bibi an art space-coffee shop in Yogyakarta.

– Lifepatch is a community-based organization that works in a creative and appropriate applications in the fields of art, science and technology. In its activities, lifepatch approach focuses on the art and science through education practice in the use of technology that is useful for the community.It is implemented through the development of creative and innovative in the field of technology; such as biological technology, environmental technology and digital technology. (lifepatch.org)

– Raquel Ormella is an Australian visual artist cum academic who was at that time joining Gertrude Contemporary (gertrude.org.au/) exchange in Yogyakarta.

– The Researchers’ Affects is an interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, primatologists, and literary scholars examines the affects of researchers in the field. The team centered its activity in KUNCI during an ethnographic workshop situation. (loe.fu-berlin.de/en/affekte-der-forscher/index.html)

– Ruang MES 56is a non-profit institution comprising of artists, and function itself as a production laboratory and idea dissemination of photo-based art, which emphasizes in the exploratory and experimental approach, conceptually and contextually. With mission to develop contemporary art discourse and visual culture, while also optimize art network in the South East Asia region through several programs and activities . (mes56.com). Wok the Rock is the current director of Ruang MES 56

– ruangrupa is an artist initiative established by a group of artists in Jakarta. It is a nonprofit organization that strives to support the progress of art ideas within the urban context and the larger scope of culture by means of exhibitions, festivals, art labs, journal publication, workshops, and research. The list of co-founders includes Ade Darmawan and Hafiz Rancajale. (ruangrupa.org)

– The Showroom is a centre for contemporary art based in London UK that is focused on a collaborative and process-driven approach to art production. Through feedback and reflection, The Showroom aims to draw discourse from its work as the organisation evolves. We firmly believe that honesty and transparency are pivotal and that risk-taking and learning are integral parts of our own development as much as it is for those who we work with. Organisational partnerships are key to expanding the potential of our work, and we collaborate with a broad network of like-minded organisations both in the UK and abroad. Emily Pethick is director whose team consists of six people (all part time). (theshowroom.org)

– Teater Garasi is a multi-disciplinary artist collective, based in Yogyakarta, that explores and devises many possibilities in performing arts creation as part of an attempt to read, unveil, and understand changes happening in our ever transforming-world. Jompet Kuswidananto is listed as one of the collective’s resident artists. (teatergarasi.org).

– Christine Wagner is currently acting as the Netherlands Culture Fund Coordinator at HIVOS.


Synthia Griffin and Anthony Luvera

What is the role of artists in defining place and creating change in the world?


Anthony Luvera:
I find this an interesting question to tackle with you Synthia, as a curator working in a large public institution. For me, this question spins out a whole bunch of considerations not only about the role of artists, but about how artists and communities can be implicated in the agendas of cultural organisations.

Synthia Griffin: I think my perspective is an institutional one and I’m interested in the balancing of all of these different kind of voices or relationships of power. Arts institutions like Tate Modern play a big role in cultural led regeneration. They have a vested interest in the set of power relations that surround them but are often also advocating the role culture can play in a local area helping to celebrate and preserve specific histories. They also play a role in helping to strengthen the arts infrastructure and cultural economy that they are part of. In the case of Tate Modern, we help steer initiatives such as the South London Art Map––a network of smaller galleries in the area surrounding the gallery. We have also supported architecture collectives, such as Exyzt, who have done a series of temporary installations on a site that is about to undergo redevelopment in the neighbourhood near to the gallery.

Reunion, Exyzt, Union Street, London.

Reunion, Exyzt, Union Street, London.

South London Art Map.

South London Art Map.

Anthony: I think you hit on something there when you mentioned the idea of balancing voices between those who have power and those that don’t. It seems to me, in many ways, these types of practices and the communities and places they’re situated in can often be positioned to give shape to the corporate social responsibility of the commissioning organizations.

Synthia: I sit on a kind of Corporate Responsibility Group and the agenda for that group is purely philanthropic. Its aim isn’t to instrumentalise the work of artists.

Anthony: Regardless of the good intentions of the organization I find it interesting how, inescapably, there is always a groundswell of agendas that sit beneath the very real human relationships built by the artist in the places they’ve been commissioned to work in. Their activities and the outcomes are meant to reflect not only the artist and the people taking part, but are often also supposed to represent specific things about the commissioners and funders as well.

I work in ways that are often described as participatory, collaborative or dialogical. I’m interested in inviting the people I work with to contribute to making or saying something about themselves and the places they live in. 2014 was a busy time with the culmination of two long-term projects in Brighton. The first was co-produced by three organizations: Photoworks, New Writing South, and Pink Fringe. I was commissioned to create a new body of work with queer people, titled Not Going Shopping, which was exhibited in outdoor public sites across Brighton and Hove as part of LGBT History Month throughout February.

Documentation of Not Going Shopping, Anthony Luvera, 2013 – 2014.

Documentation of Not Going Shopping, Anthony Luvera, 2013 – 2014.

At the same time, 3,000 copies of the Not Going Shopping newspaper were distributed free throughout the city to accompany the exhibition. I also co-edited Queer in Brighton, an anthology of creative writing commissioned essays, photography, documentation of cultural ephemera, and extracts from over 100 oral history interviews. Ideas to do with representation and language, family, politics, and place, drove the making of this work. It was conceived to celebrate the cultural heritage of queer people in Brighton and Hove, as a way of preserving a social history of place which may not be otherwise represented in mainstream accounts.

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Installation of Collaborative Portrait of Sarah Magdalena Love from Not Going Shopping, Anthony Luvera, Brighton, February 2014.

Installation of Collaborative Portrait of Sarah Magdalena Love from Not Going Shopping, Anthony Luvera, Brighton, February 2014.

The second project was Assembly, a body of work created over a twelve-month period with homeless people living in Brighton exhibited in October as the headline exhibition for the Brighton Photo Fringe festival. Assembly is an extension of the work I’ve been making with people who have experienced homelessness in towns and cities across the UK. As part of Assembly I initiated a partnership with the Brighton Housing Trust support services, First Base. This Regency period hall was formerly located near the Pavilion Gardens and was one of the most popular assembly rooms of eighteenth century England before being moved brick by brick to Montpelier Place, where it is now the home of First Base Day Centre. It’s an extraordinary building. I was interested in somehow responding to this unique environment. So in addition to inviting participants to work with me to create photographs, I was keen to create sound recordings and to work with a community choir.

First Base Day Centre from Assembly, Anthony Luvera, 2013-2014.

First Base Day Centre from Assembly, Anthony Luvera, 2013-2014.

The organisations I’ve worked with have commissioned me in various ways. Sometimes this has been through their education or participation programs. At other times the production of the work has been initiated with curators interested in working with artists using ideas of pedagogy, collaboration or dialogue. In either case, what can often bring about a certain type of conversation, and sometimes a source of tension, is the way in which the organization may seek to frame my practice as having social benefits or being able to bring about change to the people and places I work in. Part of the challenge is to negotiate these expectations and agendas, and to make work that first and foremost reflects the participants and me, our process of working together, and the things we want to say.

Installation of Assembly by Anthony Luvera at Phoenix Brighton Gallery, Brighton Photo Fringe, October 2014.

Installation of Assembly by Anthony Luvera at Phoenix Brighton Gallery, Brighton Photo Fringe, October 2014.

Synthia: That gives me a really good sense of how you as an artist have worked around these kind of complexities of space, people, physical space and how groups are identified and then how you’re then commissioned to navigate those relationships and do something meaningful. I think it’s quite interesting that you said the body of work took at least a year to create. These kinds of transient ideas of what place is, what it represents and who it represents, take time to reflect on. It responds to this idea of a city as a living, breathing thing itself that’s in a constant state of flux.

In the context of Tate Modern, in ten years there has been rapid change. In terms of Brighton there are strong perceived characteristics of what the city is and who it appeals to, for example the big student population or the gay community. The image we have of the classic British seaside town and how that changes over time is actually very different to inner city London. In 2012 I commissioned artist Ahmet Ögüt to develop the Silent University. We worked with migrants and with people who had experienced being refugees to establish a knowledge exchange platform. The group we worked with would move from week to week to a different part of London. So their experience of place was constantly shifting. The focus of the Silent University was focused on knowledge and how it’s valued, alternative currencies, power relationships and silence as an active state and contested spaces, be they imaginary, physical or otherwise. These are the kinds of the realities that some communities in urban locations face and perhaps there are some similarities with the experiences of the homeless groups you have worked with.

Silent University Resource Room, Tate Modern, 2012.

Silent University Resource Room, Tate Modern, 2012.

Anthony: I’ve worked in London with people who have experienced being homeless since around 2002. Working in the city I live in, having a sense of knowing the city and being part of it is very different to working in a city I don’t live in. When I travelled to Belfast to create Residency in 2006 I had a sharpened sense of my position as an outsider not only in terms of my economic or social position, but also in relation to my political and cultural identity. I began by identifying a homeless support service, the Welcome Organisation, that was willing to host me, and I worked in their kitchen cooking and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Through doing this I invited the people I met to take cameras away and to photograph the things they were interested in, and to share their photographs with me. I also invited them to create an Assisted Self-Portrait. As part of this I asked participants to take me to places that have some kind of personal significance to them.

Documentation of the making of Assisted Self-Portrait of Maggie Irvine from Residency by Anthony Luvera, 2006-2008.

Documentation of the making of Assisted Self-Portrait of Maggie Irvine from Residency by Anthony Luvera, 2006-2008.

I spent many days being taken on interesting walks throughout the city to the sites where we worked together to create Assisted Self-Portraits. Through this process one of the things I noticed was how––perhaps because of the way people identify with place, socially, politically, and in terms of religion––there were very different kinds of conversations to be had in relation to issues to do with housing, homelessness, social care, and the experience of living in the city. It seemed to me that for many people you’re not just from Belfast you’re from a particular part of Belfast and this can weigh in on how you identify with the city and how people perceive you. And when your claim to a geographical address is stripped from you, a whole other set of issues can become quickened. This seemed to be particularly heightened at this time––between 2006 and 2008––when urban regeneration was really beginning to take hold in certain areas of Belfast, literally changing transforming the place, architecturally, economically and socially. So when it came to working with the photographs created by the participants, one of the ways in which I was curious to look at the collection was to consider ideas to do with the changing topography of the city and the demarcation of place, but without wanting to be too blunt about the geopolitics of Belfast.

Assisted Self-Portrait of Maggie Irvine from Residency by Anthony Luvera, 2006-2008.

Assisted Self-Portrait of Maggie Irvine from Residency by Anthony Luvera, 2006-2008.

Assisted Self-Portrait of John Lowans from Residency by Anthony Luvera, 2006-2008.

Assisted Self-Portrait of John Lowans from Residency by Anthony Luvera, 2006-2008.

Synthia: I don’t know whether you would agree with this, but you kind of touched on it when we began talking, this idea that artists are put into quite complex situations perhaps sometimes with not enough time to really map a place. I guess that whole process of how you work with people in a location is a sophisticated and a complex one. At Tate Modern we worked with artists French Mottershead to create “Walkways” working with four residents who lived in some of the neighbouring boroughs near Tate and exploring their daily walks in their neighbourhood thinking about performance in relation to how they engage with their neighbourhood. Exploring their different rituals, how that connected with their own interests, life and aspirations and capturing some of that really interesting undocumented knowledge. Some of the performance work looked at the decline of markets. Then there was a resident who unofficially manages their housing estate and as such she was a purveyor of undocumented knowledge.

In Belfast, do you feel like you were side-stepping the politics all of the time or did you feel like that wasn’t of interest to you? Did you feel like it was more about the people and their connection to the city and collective histories?

Anthony: I initially went to Belfast because I was keen to study an archive of photographs initiated by a grassroots organisation. I spent time researching community photography in the UK and I was particularly interested in the work of Belfast Exposed Photography. Belfast Exposed began in the early 1980s as a collective of photographers brought together by a shared dissatisfaction with how their home was being represented by the media through the Troubles. They put a call out to the communities of Belfast to send in photographs that showed ‘the real Belfast’ and organised touring exhibitions. They also hosted workshops with groups of people in the different communities of the city. The photographs created by the photographers and the participants of their workshops have been held together over the past thirty years or so, and a very interesting organisation has grown up around this archive.

So Belfast Exposed seemed a good place to approach to think through the practical, theoretical and ethical issues involved in handling a collection of photographs made by other people. I met the curator––an astute woman called Karen Downey––and talked to her about my interests. We came up with a two-strand residency. Alongside working in the Welcome Organisation I would also study the formation of the Belfast Exposed archive. I spent time with the collection and with documentation related to the archive. I interviewed the staff, volunteers and community groups involved with the organisation, its founding members and its Board of Trustees. Throughout this process the connections people have to the city and their collective histories were very much of interest to me. The politics of the place are woven through these narratives yet they weren’t the primary reason for my enquiry.

Photograph by Maggie Irvine from Residency by Anthony Luvera.

Photograph by Maggie Irvine from Residency by Anthony Luvera.

Similarly, while working at the Welcome Organisation issues related to people’s social, political and economic experience of place factored into many of the conversations that drove the making of the work. So while I wasn’t there to directly address the politics of Belfast I didn’t feel I was side-stepping the politics of the place. Spending time getting to know the people who work and volunteer with the organisations I work with and the people who use the services is really important to me. And it’s important that this period of time takes place organically to enable me to talk to people about why I’m interested in them, to find out what they’re interested in, and to see if we there is a way that we can work together.

Synthia: And you can’t really shortcut that, can you?

Anthony: No, I don’t think you can.

Synthia: I think if we are thinking about how artists can help shape a sense of place, a big factor which contributes to how meaningful that work is, is duration and the timeframe in which they are asked to respond. I’m not convinced it can be done quickly, are you?

Anthony: Relationships with people and places take time to build. Which isn’t to say that short-term is bad or long-term is good. Both are different and the terms of the invitation need to be made just as clear in either case. For me it’s important to have the ability to take time. This is something I learnt early on when I spent almost two years working with people dealing with addiction issues in the Specialist Addiction Unit at Homerton Hospital. I never did anything with the work we created. It was purely about going in every week, working with people, facilitating their image making, and talking to them about photographs. And it was a valuable experience. I realised that the period of time you take to getting to know people without fixed ideas about what you’re going to do with what you make together is absolutely key.

Synthia: Yes absolutely. I often find that you can begin to connect with people about their territory or place but in order to do that you need to build a sense of mutual trust and the longer that is given to develop the better. In terms of your practice, you’ve worked with groups who meet around an area of need or interest e.g. homeless groups or the gay community in Brighton. The ethics of representation must become really heightened when you’re working with such a defined groups. How have you dealt with such complexities?

Anthony: The problems of representation have always been very much of interest to me. This became even more acute when I was invited to work with queer people in Brighton. Initially I thought, ‘Why would I?’ But then I thought as a gay man it would make sense for me to try to understand queerness through my practice. Especially if one of the things my practice predominantly is, is an inquiry into participation and self-representation of other people who are generally overly spoken for.

When beginning to create Not Going Shopping, I was keen to access participants through a local community organisation. I wasn’t able to find just one that would reach all of the different kinds of people who might define as queer. So I organised a callout through a number of different networks inviting people to meet with to me. The group of people that came together, while determined by one way of describing themselves, brought with them very different questions, experiences and points of view about that label. I think it was this multi-vocal perspective that was a valuable component of the making of this work.

Synthia: I’m just asking you this because often, I’m just thinking about the kind of briefs that we develop at Tate Modern and a recent commission involving the photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews in 2014. The brief was to explore changing neighbourhood’s responding to the Tate Modern project; the capital project to create a new eleven story building. After a period of research, she was inspired by the rise of faith groups in South London in particular African Black majority Churches. A lot of the space the churches were occupying were former industrial spaces, empty office blocks or empty bingo halls and often they’re neighbouring artist studios art galleries and it seemed to signify the change in the High Street. We’re becoming more of a secular society but actually it depends where you look, and the kind of particular way in which she worked and developed this body of work was really about responding to that kind of change and transformation. Her area of interest was really about the contrast between various architectural exteriors and interiors, ecstatic worship and services, and the kind of collective experience of faith and modern notions of what spirituality and religious practice. But it was closely linked to architecture, and therefore the kind of people came second and I just wondered if you ever worked around place from different starting points that weren’t necessarily from a group’s perspective?

Sunday Service, Chloe Dewe Mathews, 2014.

Sunday Service, Chloe Dewe Mathews, 2014.

Sunday Service, Chloe Dewe Mathews, 2014.

Sunday Service, Chloe Dewe Mathews, 2014.

Anthony: In a number of ways I have, although I’m mostly interested in the ways people experience place and how this impacts on their lives. When I first approached First Base I couldn’t help be struck by the fact the centre is situated in St Stephen’s Hall, a former ballroom from the Georgian era. I spent time researching the different ways groups of people have used the building, historically and now. The building has an extraordinary history and wonderful acoustics, and a number of choirs use the main hall as a rehearsal space. I became fascinated by how I might work with the users of the centre not only to explore photography but to also create sound recordings. I wanted to record conversations with people, as well as the process of working with people to create Assisted Self-Portraits. I also provided digital sound recorders for participants to take away and record their experiences of Brighton. In addition I worked with a community choir to sing and create recordings together in the Hall.

All of these different sound recordings were then edited together to create a soundtrack to accompany the visual material. I found it fascinating using sound in this way and was especially interested in how the distinctive sounds of Brighton feature in the recordings, capturing a sense of place that can’t be represented in any other way. And when the work was exhibited in the Phoenix Brighton gallery for the Brighton Photo Fringe, without any prior warning in the middle of the launch event, we all sang together. This created such a wonderful atmosphere that really disarmed the gallery audience and turned the event in a great celebration for everyone.

Launch of Assembly, Phoenix Brighton Gallery, Brighton Photo Fringe, October 2014. Photograph by Jo Renshaw.

Launch of Assembly, Phoenix Brighton Gallery, Brighton Photo Fringe, October 2014. Photograph by Jo Renshaw.


About the contributors: Synthia Griffin leads Tate Modern’s work on Regeneration and Community Partnerships, she is passionate about the role contemporary art and culture can play as a catalyst for discovery about the way we interact with social and public space as well as the built environment. She will be part of the Open Engagement Social Practice and the Art Museum panel, moderated by Allison Agsten. Room 310, 3rd Floor, College of Fine Arts Building, CMU on Saturday from 5:00PM-6:30PM. tate.org.uk/modern/transformingtm/community,
tate.org.uk/about/projects/silent-universitytate.org.uk/modern/building/garden/

Anthony Luvera is an Australian artist, writer and educator based in London. His photographic work has been exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces and festivals including the British Museum, London Underground’s Art on the Underground, National Portrait Gallery London, Belfast Exposed Photography, Australian Centre for Photography, PhotoIreland and Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie. His writing appears regularly in a wide range of periodicals and peer-reviewed journals including Photoworks, Source and Photographies. Anthony is Course Director of BA (Hons) Photography at Coventry University, and has lectured for institutions such as Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London College of Communication, University for the Creative Arts Farnham and University College Falmouth. He also facilitates workshops and gives lectures for the public education programmes of the National Portrait Gallery, The Photographers’ Gallery, Barbican Art Gallery and community photography projects across the UK. luvera.com


Dr Elena Marchevska

Solidarity and self-organisation as generators of change: The role of self-organised art initiatives in Macedonia

 
The links between identity and memory are, right from the start, subtle and intimate. Like history itself, memory is a fundamental matrix in building one’s identity. What does one remember?

One recalls the memory Western Europe had of the Balkans at the beginning of the twentieth century:

They found its geography too complicated, its ethnography too confused, its history too intricate and its politics too inexplicable. Although there were plenty of books dealing with these matters, each year that passed made room for more, as the situation continually changed, always introducing something new to record, a new subject to depict, a new problem to explain, a new complication to disentangle. (Jezernik, 2004:26)

Not much seems to have changed and the image of instability continues to be projected on the countries of Balkans or (South) Eastern Europe[i]. The Balkans, far from being only a neutral geographical or historical denomination, began to carry from the end of the nineteenth century “the negative connotations of filth, passivity, untrustworthiness, disregard for women, conspiracy, unscrupulousness, opportunism, indolence, superstition, sluggishness, unprincipled and overzealous bureaucracy, and so on” (Goldsworthy, 1998:ix).
 

ivana

Ivana Dragsic, Eleven––drawings series for a poetry book.

 
The wars in Yugoslavia, unjustly generalised as ‘Balkan wars,’ have nevertheless generated a Balkan crisis. The region suddenly came to be perceived as a threat to the security of its Western neighbors and it brought back to the surface a concept that apparently had faded during Communism. Unlike the majority of East Europe, the Balkans had never been fully accepted as part of European Union, but always confined to its margins, somewhere close to the Orient. In the region itself the Balkans are always thought to be elsewhere, to the southeast of wherever one is.
 
 
Image: Igor Toshevski “Territories” (2004-2011).

Igor Toshevski “Territories” (2004-2011).

 
In the heart of the Balkan, both geographically and politically, lies a small landlocked country: Macedonia. Its capital Skopje was described in many travelers book and journals since the 16th century as a summa of the Balkan’s multifaceted identity (West 2006, Celebi 2011). Divided with the river Vardar, the cities North side is historically more deprived and predominately Muslim, and the South side infrastructure is more developed and the population is predominately Christian. The country has undergone an enormous transition in the last 20 years: politically, socially and economically and it still remains on the fringes of Europe.
 
 
Image: Igor Toshevski “Territories” (2004-2011).

Igor Toshevski “Territories” (2004-2011).

 
In order to explain the activities of the self-organised art-initiatives, I need to first explain the complex problem of urban space planning in Skopje, Macedonia.

The centre of Skopje was largely destroyed by a catastrophic earthquake in 1963. This gave rise to the idea of rebuilding the city centre based on an international design competition. The competition, financed by the UN, was won by the Japanese modernist architect Kenzo Tange. However, the proposed design was never completely realized. This empty underdeveloped space in the central area of Skopje became a focus of the Macedonian ultra-nationalistic government in 2009. Their five-year plan called Skopje 2014 (SK014), sparked a public debate and numerous protests. The initial government idea was to re-connect the Macedonian capital with the European architectural legacy. The greatest challenge to this effort is the absolute need to invent this heritage that was never present in this city. The purpose of this infusion of historicism is to negate the oriental and modernist layers that dominated Skopje’s urban landscape.
 

Matej Bogdanovski “Skopje Rados Ti Ke Bidesh” (2009).

Matej Bogdanovski “Skopje Rados Ti Ke Bidesh” (2009).

 
Discussion and dialogue from a distance

Skopje is also the city where I was born and raised. When narrowing the subject of this post I dwell into an area subjective and problematic, difficult to navigate, but also so familiar and comforting at the same time, that I ostensibly knew I was on the right track. The past is not as separate from the present. The past is constantly broken down and reintegrated into the present. This process can surely be characterized by many as nostalgic, since I left the country in 2008 and I am currently based in UK. I am using reflective nostalgia as a method to position myself on a flexible historical trajectory and to challenge the erasure and falsification of unwanted heritage in the Macedonian capital Skopje through the government-funded project Skopje 2014.
 

Gjorge Jovanovik “Silent night” 2014.

Gjorge Jovanovik “Silent night” 2014.

 
In order to do this I invited four artists/activists from Skopje to answer five questions about self-organisation as a principle of their work through Skype or email:

Ivana Dragsic (member of Raspeani Skopjani)
Gjorgje Jovanovik (member of KOOPERACIJA and associate member of Raspeani Skopjani)
Filip Jovanovski (member of KOOPERACIJA and associate member of Raspeani Skopjani)
Igor Toshevski (member of KOOPERACIJA)

 
These artists have been involved in a self-organised movement in Macedonia since 2009, and they are representing inter-generational perspective on the current situation in the Macedonian capital Skopje.
 

Matej Bogdanovski “Skopje Rados Ti Ke Bidesh” (2009).

Matej Bogdanovski “Skopje Rados Ti Ke Bidesh” (2009).

 
The activists in Macedonia felt compelled to self-organise after a protest by students of The Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, Faculty of Architecture that they symbolically called First Architectural Uprising on 28th March 2009. 
The students were peacefully protesting and collecting signatures from the citizens on the city square “Macedonia,” when a significant group of counter-protestors violently attacked and physically injured many of them. This created a strong reaction in the public and many debates around the right to protest and the right to protect public space. Few self-organised initiatives were formed shortly after this incident, among them:

  • Raspeani skopjani (Singing citizens of Skopje) is a self-organised group of activists which stream from the core group of those involved in the First Architectural Uprising. This city choir is composed of core group of 10 people, however significantly larger group of protestors are involved in certain actions, mobilized through social media. They use songs and urban singing as a performance tool to react to the urban and social upheavals in Skopje, including taking away the right to disagree.
  • KOOPERACIJA is an initiative whose purpose is artistic activity outside the inert institutional frameworks, thus suggesting an exceptional approach to the creation and experience of contemporary art. KOOPERACIJA stands for shifting and redefining the borders between public and personal space. Its objective is to unlock questions concerning the dynamic role of art in the context of centralized cultural politics and social discourse. KOOPERACIJA strives to encourage the interaction between the artist and audience. KOOPERACIJA’s basic strategy is the occupation of temporarily free space dispersed throughout the urban landscape and exhibiting via a chain of blitzkrieg events.

 

Gjorge Jovanovik “Silent night” 2014.

Gjorge Jovanovik “Silent night” 2014.

 
In the interview with Filip Jovanovski (video below), he clearly states that his life has significantly changed since the protests in 2009 and that his artwork and activism has a different purpose. He vividly remembers the moments when the Government published the plans for the project Skopje 2014 and the reaction it created among young activists and artists. Filip thinks that the ultimately this project created strong links between different communities and mobilized them to produce change.
 
 

 
 
Below are the answers to my questions from Ivana Dragsich and Igor Toshevski

Elena: Skopje went through a political and urban upheaval in the last five years since the start of the government led project Skopje 2014. Many artists have been vocal in their dissatisfaction with this transformation and with how the government falsifies the history through this project. What do you think is the role of artists in defining place and creating change in Skopje? What an artist can offer?

Igor: As a political construct, Skopje 2014 is a paradigm of the devastating consequences of populist neoliberalism reinforced by xenophobic nationalism, and hegemonic propaganda. When you add to this the ongoing ethnic divisions, which SK014 has only managed to increase, the picture looks pretty bleak. Still, this condition also helped define many artists’ views in relation to politics and critical art. A few of them have remained loyal to the idea of art as an instrument of truth, and continue to challenge the practically totalitarian narratives imposed by the current government. Although art does not posses the power to directly intervene and fundamentally alter a particular political condition, it can certainly inspire a social movement toward a better understanding of that same society. But, before it can do anything at all, art must first free itself from any conformism and establish a new front where it can act resourcefully, creating ultimately a new or different set of values.

Ivana: Artists have a major role in claiming and defining space. With their investigative, insightful and even acquisitive nature, they tend to deconstruct myths, claim forbidden territories and pose questions left aside. Unfortunately, in the case of Skopje 2014, some artists had a major role in constructing the ravaging, sexist and criminal myth about the past we never had. The common ground for both types of artists is their bigger access to public opinion, public space and media.

Our choir was created amidst a very polarized dialogue, run by the media, confronted with various types of repression, violence and threats. Anyone stating an attitude against the government policies and politics was marked a “traitor,” “a foreign collaborator,” or having tendencies for a political position/function. Our idea was to find another way of transmitting a message, claiming space and air, but also making a strong statement by repeatedly appearing in front of physical representations of the power: monuments, public institutions, squares. We were also hoping that people would hear what we sing about, since they were already indoctrinated to ignore our words, but look for our family relations, professional or political background, sexual orientation. After a period of practicing that approach to protesting and articulating political thought, we came to realization that choir (unison) singing IS power, of a different kind. Our performances grew, they were more complex, sometimes even with choreography. We were counting on transmitting a political message in a very censored and repressive state.
 
 

 
 
Elena: In “There is No Alternative: THE FUTURE IS SELF-ORGANISED” Davies, Dillemouth and Jakobsen proclaim that collaboration with institutions is should cease immediately and that the self-organised is the tool with which artists need to work in opposition to predominant systems. What was the role and the approach to the self-organised in the work of Raspeani Skopjani?

Igor: It is unfortunate that all of the institutions are now under total control of the state apparatus. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean KOOPERACIJA is a priori against the institutions as such. Frankly, if the circumstances were any different, KOOPERACIJA would probably not even have been established. What this initiative is trying to accomplish is to demonstrate that the art scene here has much more to offer than just formalist paintings, pseudo post-modernist art or the monstrous academic kitsch cherished by this government. In the process, we have also found a technique to achieve this and it is a successful model, which others can adopt freely through self-organized and self-financed engagements.

It is crucial that KOOPERACIJA remains unconnected with any political wing or NGO whatsoever, because both of these options still remain vulnerable to corruption and sluggishness, due to their bureaucratic mechanisms. When it comes down to developing new, authentic means of emancipatory initiatives, self-organized undertakings are indeed a much more effective tool. Our particular model is based on cooperation between artists, but also between the artists and the private business sector. Of course, it is not the perfect method, which is why we’re still searching for other modes in order to improve this strategy and its impact. But the main commitment remains the same: to stimulate and deliver critically charged works, actions or public events, which otherwise are not an acceptable standard within the framework of the political correctness of state institutions.

Ivana: “Self-organization,” as a term, is thrown around recently like some kind of social sanctity. It is also positioned as highly opposed to something institutional, or institutions themselves. Instead, we propose another looking at it. Self-organization appears even in centralized or regulated institutions and systems. It actually appears in spite of regulation. Such cases are the small market economies, such as the Macedonian, where the market, although regulated, has its own rules, coordination or unwritten social contracts.

Self-organization was not our primary goal when shaping our collective action into a choir. As a matter of fact, the institutional choirs in Macedonia are much more efficient and successful, with less social impact, though. We also came to realize that it is extremely difficult to self-organize, especially in a schizophrenic political state of our being (having to work and react on all topics of public interest being under attack by the regime), constant run/rush for basic living conditions and intense intimate relations between the individuals involved. It is a double-sided sword; it empowers the individual, but also demands serious commitment. Question is––how far does the given socio-political state allow or necessitate self-organization? We have had highs and lows, we are on the low now, given the fact that many of the core members are in their thirties, seriously working on figuring out their survival in a country with very poor living standards, with a completely destructed political system and institutions.

Elena: Did the urge to self-organise came from the struggle to survive in despite being daily faced with such a megalomaniac project as Skopje 2014?

Ivana: The urge to self-organize came after the urge to sing, or at least try to convey a political message in a different way. At the beginning, there is initiative, enthusiasm, spontaneous functioning and leisure. The urge to self-organize appears at a later point. As performances grew more complex, the production requirements increased, as well as the personal duties. So, in a way, self-organization needed to be institutionalized in order to be more efficient, perform more often and keep pace with the political turmoil. We settled for a more laid-back, but still internally structured mode of working. Self-organization inevitably leads to structure, hierarchy and ultimately systematization/institutionalization, in my opinion. They are not exclusive to each other, moreover, they might cause each other, or at least the need for the other.

Igor: Initially, KOOPERACIJA’s program developed from the pragmatic need for physical space as a communication platform. This, of course, implies public, as well as temporary gallery space. Since a method has been established, the rest depends on a liberal creative process based on teamwork. However, although KOOPERACIJA is mostly open to any form of collaboration, we do have one general principle: no artist who has contributed in SK014 is, or will be invited to participate. Naturally, this somehow explicitly defines this initiative as an opposition, there’s no way out of it. However, we live in times where being objective and speaking the truth almost automatically brands you as a traitor of “national values.” But, that’s something everyone has gotten used to dealing with here.

Nevertheless, KOOPERACIJA does not officially support any specific ideology, nor does it propagate one. It also does not offer any “instant solutions.” It does, however, embrace the right to question certain given values, to remain skeptical at times, explore alternatives in social networking and perhaps, propose new concepts of interaction.
 

image4

Matej Bogdanovski “Skopje Rados Ti Ke Bidesh” (2009).

 
Elena: Is it dangerous to claim that self-organization holds transformative potential in itself?

Igor: It’s not about claiming, as it is more about actually putting it into action. But here comes the paradox: precisely because this model can obviously function outside the institutions, it poses a threat not only to the institutions, but also to the ones who somehow see themselves as “legitimate” and accountable advocates for change. So, while it is important to remain independent, this still doesn’t make the job easier. For example, recently, I was surprised to learn that many still believe Soros or some other NGO is financing KOOPERACIJA. It goes to show how much people here have become weary of any form of ideological platform promoting social change for a “better tomorrow.” So, even if independent models like KOOPERACIJA can function successfully, in reality it is a difficult task to actually reassure people that purposeful alternatives indeed exist. It takes time…

True, in the last years, KOOPERACIJA has indirectly helped encourage other groups and individuals in establishing themselves as self-financed, autonomous culture centers, which is definitely a progress. Still, it’s not just the model that counts, but also its substance, which further defines its political role and the message it tries to convey. This, of course, comes with the price of not being so popular––a price which many in Macedonia are not willing to pay. Simply put, KOOPERACIJA is not here to entertain anybody.

Currently, we are working on developing new strategies based on practical collaborative projects, as well as publishing theoretical works regarding critical art theory.

Regardless of any radical social changes, which might occur in the geo-political region, Macedonia still remains far from attaining elementary democratic standards, including the much-needed boost regarding art and cultural identity altogether. This is why, for now, KOOPERACIJA continues to focus mainly on issues concerning art practice and its potentials within a troubled society from which it originally derives.
 

Matej Bogdanovski “Skopje Rados Ti Ke Bidesh” (2009).

Matej Bogdanovski “Skopje Rados Ti Ke Bidesh” (2009).

 
Elena: Do your performances hold transformative potential in itself? What do you gain from singing?

Ivana: The performances are abounding with transformative power. Ranging from weirdness, self-awareness, empathy, to empowerment and uplifting energy that ultimately depends on having to listen to the other. In a philosophical and practical manner, it is a very cathartic personal and collective experience.

We have come so far: we initiated a regional network of self-organized choirs that meets biannually, we are being mentioned and referenced in various social/critical theory essays and books, various initiatives in need of public attention invite us to raise awareness about a certain topic of matter. Obviously, none of it is important or strong enough, as we are on a hiatus now, all absorbed in out public-private battle state in our country.

Elena: What are the next steps? Is change possible? And how the choir needs to get involved in propagating change? (Especially considering the recent elections in Greece and the return of the left.)

Ivana: Macedonia is in a state of institutional crisis at the moment. This is bigger than any small, grass-root or self-organized initiative, and change is only possible through international mediation combined with home independent expertise. The events in Greece mainly serve as an encouragement that change is possible, with no bigger impact on current politics.

The members of the choir are all individually dedicated to propagating change even before the choir, so I guess the involvement is more personal and/or with different collectives/groups/initiatives.

Link suggested by Ivana Dragsic:
http://globalvoicesonline.org/2009/11/23/macedonia-singing-skopjans/
http://mastazine.net/node/224
http://www.balcanicaucaso.org/bhs/layout/set/print/zone/Makedonija/Macedonia-He-who-sings-means-no-evil-55778

 
[i] Erhard Busek, the Austrian politician heading the Stability Pact for South-East Europe, recognised that in order to change the attitude towards the Balkans that sees it as a region of permanent instability, one has to start by changing the name: “We need to say farewell to the term ‘Balkans’ and call this part of the continent ‘southeast Europe.’ Why is that? The term ‘Balkans’ is associated with a psychological note of condescension which most certainly affects the people thus denominated.” (2003:online)

Bibliography:
Busek, E. (2003) ‘Austria and the Balkans’, in Blut und Honig: Zukunft ist am Balkan (Blood and Honey: the Future’s in the Balkans) Vienna: Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg.
Celebi, E. (2011) An Ottoman Traveller: Selections from the Book of Travels of Evliya Celebi. London: Eland Publishing.
Goldsworthy V. (1998) 
Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, New Haven: Yale University Press
Jezernik B. (2004), Wild Europe: The Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers, London: SAQI
West, R. (2006) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. Edinburgh:Scottish Arts Council.


About the contributor: Dr Elena Marchevska is an interdisciplinary artist and researcher based in London. For a number of years, her primary interest was on the use of the screen in performance. Through exploring performances which brought together screen, somatic performance practice and auto ethnography, she has increasingly turned her attention to relationships between performance, female body and digital writing. Dr Marchevska is currently engaged in research on radical self organised performance practice in South East Europe.

Dr Marchevska will present on Raspeani Skopjani at Open Engagement, from 2:30PM-4:00PM Saturday. Room 310, 3rd Floor, College of Fine Arts Building, CMU


Coralie Winn, Gap Filler

City Ecologies – why small stuff matters

Ash Keating, Concrete Propositions, in collaboration with Christchurch Art Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne Australia. Photo: John Collie.

Ash Keating, Concrete Propositions, in collaboration with Christchurch Art Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne Australia. Photo: John Collie.

This piece is about Christchurch/Ōtautahi, New Zealand/Aotearoa, a city and country that are far away from most places. It’s a city in transition. Christchurch has its roots as an agricultural service town, begun in the late 19th Century, and is now in the process of rebuilding 80% of its central-city area. This is as a result of a number of earthquakes that devastated the city in 2010 and 2011, the most serious of which claiming the lives of 185 people. The rebuild of Christchurch is expected to take at least 20 years. Thousands of homes been abandoned and then demolished (seldom re-located) along the banks of the River Avon/Ōtakaro due to land slumping and damage. Businesses have had to relocate, adapt, close or move online. Schools have closed or merged, families have left, thousands have moved here for work as part of the rebuild, the city is dusty and bumpy. Whole city blocks are vacant and the occasional new building is springing up amidst the emptiness. The rebuild is underway now though, it would seem, four years on.

It’s been a time of upheaval, change, heartache and optimism for this place. Things are not simple. Everything takes longer than you imagine. And why has the recovery been so slow you might ask? Why is it only after four years things are getting underway in earnest? In a word: insurance. You have no idea how complicated insurance payouts, assessments and arguing with the Earth Quake Commission is…

Christchurch has changed irrevocably in the last four or so years and creative people and practices have been at the forefront of the revival of the city in this time. We’re four years on from the most serious quake and the mood of 2015 is divided. In some parts it is one of excitement that things are finally happening, and in others, resignation to where things are currently at. And fatigue. People are tired. In some ways it s a tale of two cities: those making a tonne of money from the rebuild and those living in stasis as they wait for those insurance payouts, repairs, decisions and action.

It’s been interesting over the last four years to observe the responses to the disaster and the state of the city by the established arts community and others. I personally felt rather disappointed by how many established artists and, I guess I should say, visual artists, weren’t doing anything much in the city. Granted the loss of studios and galleries was a blow but I think I realised how tied these people, who I respect as creative forces, were to the art-making systems that had been utterly disrupted by the quakes. But there’s been an abundance of socially engaged projects that are responding to the post-disaster context in Christchurch.

My own organisation (Gap Filler), is a creative urban regeneration initiative and led the creative charge in the early days post-quake, with projects like temporary garden/gathering spaces for music and outdoor films, a dance floor, artworks, book exchange, a large pavilion and so on. The projects we undertook then were about replacing lost amenity but then adding something more. Amenity PLUS. In the first, I’d say, three years after the quakes, the role we were playing was offering people the opportunity to participate in shaping their post-quake city to create connectedness, a sense of empowerment and to help people deal with recovery from the trauma they had experienced. As time has passed, Gap Filler has become more assured of its role in contributing to the ecology of the city and our work has become about what is lacking, or what do we need to draw attention to.

The future city that the people of Christchurch, and indeed the country, are being sold is the one championed by the national government (the National Party––conservative, right-wing). There is a master plan, or blueprint, for the central city rebuild comprising a number of ‘anchor projects’––a library, convention centre, children’s playground, health and emergency services precinct, justice precinct, performing arts precincts, covered stadium and river parkway. These are multi-million dollar projects in a four billion dollar rebuild. With a government like this, it feels like the role of ‘the arts’ is to entertain and ’pretty things up’ if there’s money left over from doing the ‘real stuff’, the stuff for the good of the economy. New Zealand as a young post-colonial country founded on pioneering, farming, and bloody hard work has a somewhat difficult relationship with the arts and artists.

But amidst all the blueprints, big plans and renders on billboards of imminent flash, new apartment buildings for middle class pākeha (non-Māori) to occupy and help repopulate the city, there has been an abundance of creative activity making use of some of the hundreds of vacant lots that abound in the city, the product of countless demolitions. There is what’s been called the transitional movement in the city, comprising a range of organisations and people, some of them artists who have been getting busy doing projects since mid 2011. The momentum really picked up in 2013 thanks to the creation of a vacant-space broker organisation by Gap Filler called Life in Vacant Spaces to respond to the demand for vacant sites. The use of vacant spaces had become a movement. In the face of nothing much that was visibly happening in the city: temporary activity was thriving. The power of many small things to have an impact was evident.

The idea behind the temporary activities was and still is to bring people into the city, to allow people to participate in its recovery and in shaping the urban environment. It is about bringing life, energy and people back to the empty city landscape to support and contribute to the recovery. Key projects have included The Social––an artist collective championing socially engaged art practices. They have held events, run an artist residency using a small caravan situated on empty sites and supported art projects in the city. Raw, cheaply done and utterly engaged, it has been a vehicle for a number of the city’s more alternative and performative artists to contribute to the post-quake landscape.

Cardensity, Artist: Seek (2012)

Cardensity, Artist: Seek (2012)

Then there’s been street art (sanctioned and unsanctioned), which was frustratingly slow to get going (in my opinion) but has now become a loved and important part of the landscape. One of my favourite unsanctioned artworks was a sculpture playing on one of those distance-marker signs (Sydney 2000 kilometres, London 10908 kilometres– know what I mean?) that was installed on a vacant lot and pointed out all the car parks that were, like a virus, taking over the vacant lots as buildings came down. Cardensity was the artwork’s name, a play on the Garden City moniker given to Christchurch by a previous council. The artwork has now gone but it remains anonymous.

Gap Filler was one of the first organisations to undertake large-scale, wall-based projects here (just think about how many walls have been exposed here due to demolitions of neighbouring buildings!). Collaborating in late 2011 with the Christchurch Art Gallery which was closed (and still is, four years on as repairs are undertaken), we undertook what has become New Zealand’s largest painting by artist Wayne Youle called I seem to have temporarily have misplaced my sense of humour. And later in 2012, we worked with local artist Michaela Cox on the Faux Arcadia project and in 2013, with Ash Keating (Melbourne) on Concrete Propositions (pictured at top).

Faux Arcadia by Michaela Cox, supported by Gap Filler.

Faux Arcadia by Michaela Cox, supported by Gap Filler.

FauxArcadia2

At the end of 2013 and across that Summer into 2014, the RISE Street Festival began bringing big names in street art to the city for some fantastic big wall mural projects. The festival included a Banksy exhibition housed in the city’s museum, which had dedicated its large exhibition space to a celebration of street art. No big deal? Well, for a small provincial town like Christchurch, the museum hosting street art is kind of big deal. And it was their most successful exhibition ever, which is saying something. Since there’s so much street art going on now here, Gap Filler no longer undertakes such projects as part of our aim is to lead by example to reflect the context of the city. Lots of street art going on? Great, we don’t need to keep doing it. But what else is missing? What can be done to draw attention to that newly articulated lack?

Ballerina, Artist: Owen Dippie 2014 in collaboration with Rise Festival

Ballerina, Artist: Owen Dippie 2014 in collaboration with Rise Festival. Photo Owen Dippie

And us, what have we done? Well, Gap Filler has realised more than 60 projects in four years, ranging in scale and style. We’re a registered charity (NGO), so we’ve been able to attract funding to do these projects and pay the fantastic project coordinators who make them happen. As I alluded to just before, we’re about testing new ideas, leading by example, fostering collaboration, resourcefulness, creativity and experimentation. We’re a values-driven organisation. We began as a purely voluntary project that has morphed into an awesome little paid team of 8 (4.3 full-time equivalent). We’ve become part of the fabric of the city, supported by our city council and we’re in part responsible for the creative re-birth and re-branding of this city post quake with coverage in the New York Times, Lonely Planet 2013 City Guide, the Guardian and more. We sometimes get referred to as the ‘militant arm of council’ (by an ex-city council urban planner) which is interesting.

Gap Filler’s projects, to name just a few include:
The Dance-O-Mat: a coin-operated dance floor powered by an adapted ex-laundromat washing machine.

Dance-O-Mat, 222 St Asaph Street. Photo: Trent Hiles

Dance-O-Mat, 222 St Asaph Street. Photo: Trent Hiles

Dance-O-Mat, Corner of Cashel Street and Oxford Terrace. Photo: Gavin James.

Dance-O-Mat, Corner of Cashel Street and Oxford Terrace. Photo: Gavin James.

Where the magic happens! Dance-O-Mat. Photo: Gap Filler.

Where the magic happens! Dance-O-Mat. Photo: Gap Filler.

Dance-O-Mat, 222 St Asaph Street. Photo: Gap Filler

Dance-O-Mat, 222 St Asaph Street. Photo: Gap Filler

The Superhero Dance Squad in action on the Dance-O-Mat! 222 St Asaph Street. Photo: Gap Filler

The Superhero Dance Squad in action on the Dance-O-Mat! 222 St Asaph Street. Photo: Gap Filler

The Royal Dance-O-Mat – HRH Prince Charles dances up a storm. Photo: Gap Filler.

The Royal Dance-O-Mat – HRH Prince Charles dances up a storm. Photo: Gap Filler.

Dance-O-Mat, Corner of Gloucester and Colombo Streets. Photo: Gap Filler

Dance-O-Mat, Corner of Gloucester and Colombo Streets. Photo: Gap Filler

The Pallet Pavilion: a community venue for music and events made from 3000 blue wooden pallets and built, activated (18 month duration) and then deconstructed by a total of 600+ volunteers

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Guy Jansen, 2013.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Guy Jansen, 2013.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Guy Frederick, 2012.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Guy Frederick, 2012.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Maja Moritz, 2012.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Maja Moritz, 2012.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Maja Moritz, 2012.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Maja Moritz, 2012.

The Pallet Pavilion by night – a beacon amongst the emptiness of abandoned buildings. Photo: Maja Moritz, 2012.

The Pallet Pavilion by night – a beacon amongst the emptiness of abandoned buildings. Photo: Maja Moritz, 2012.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Maja Moritz, 2012.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Maja Moritz, 2012.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Murray Irwin, 2013.

Pallet Pavilion. Photo: Murray Irwin, 2013.

Gap Golf: a central city, post-disaster mini-golf course

Fairway to Heaven Version 2, 70 Kilmore Street. Photo: Gap Filler.

Fairway to Heaven Version 2, 70 Kilmore Street. Photo: Gap Filler.

Pallet Mini Golf, 100 Peterborough Street. Photo: Gap Filler.

Pallet Mini Golf, 100 Peterborough Street. Photo: Gap Filler.

Vitamins C & G, 220 Kilmore Street. Photo: Gap Filler.

Vitamins C & G, 220 Kilmore Street. Photo: Gap Filler.

Framed, 146 High Street. Photo: Gap Filler.

Framed, 146 High Street. Photo: Gap Filler.

– a Cycle-Powered Cinema

CPC1

Cycle Powered Cinema. Photo: Gap Filler.

Cycle Powered Cinema. Photo: Gap Filler.

Cycle Powered Cinema. Photo: Gap Filler.

Cycle Powered Cinema. Photo: Gap Filler.

Cycle Powered Cinema. Photo: Gap Filler.

Cycle Powered Cinema. Photo: Gap Filler.

Sound Garden: musical instruments made from recycled materials and junk located on a vacant site within a garden space for people to jam

RAD (Recycle A Dunger) Bikes: a relocatable, architecturally designed, volunteer-built bike shed for learning bike repairs and for up-cycling old ‘dunger’ bikes for gifting on to those who need them

RAD Bikes – a community bike shed. Photo: Richard Sewell 2014.

RAD Bikes – a community bike shed. Photo: Richard Sewell 2014.

RAD Bikes – a community bike shed. Photo: Naomi Haussmann 2013.

RAD Bikes – a community bike shed. Photo: Naomi Haussmann 2013.

RAD Bikes – a community bike shed. Photo: Mira Hansen 2013.

RAD Bikes – a community bike shed. Photo: Mira Hansen 2013.

The Grandstandium: a mini, relocatable grandstand for creating impromptu public spaces and supporting the watching of the city’s demolition and rebuild.

Grandstandium, The Commons 2014. Photo: Gap Filler, 2015.

Grandstandium, The Commons 2014. Photo: Gap Filler, 2015.

Grandstandium, The Commons 2014. Photo: Aaron Campbell, 2014.

Grandstandium, The Commons 2014. Photo: Aaron Campbell, 2014.

– We have also facilitated and hosted many, many more projects, lending support, tools, volunteer power, publicity and more.

One of the interesting challenges for those involved in temporary projects in Christchurch as the years between the quake and the present increase, is how the outpouring of temporary creative activity continues to be a part, and indeed a valued part of the city long term. There is a lack of understanding here about the role this activity plays in the health of the city. Temporary projects are seen as a post-quake, feel-good phenomenon and, for some, their relevance is now questionable. While this attitude is understandable, within the global context, the decline of city centres due to a set of shared circumstances is a hot topic and talk of meanwhile or temporary uses to breathe new life into cities, support urban design processes and enable social change is increasingly being given air time by municipalities and governments. Last year we organised the Congress of Adaptive Urbanism here in Christchurch, which brought 70 people from a broad range of disciplines from around the world to our city to talk about this term, adaptive urbanism. Issues and experiences are shared world-wide and creative solutions are increasingly also being shared and adapted in this global context. But back to Christchurch, where we are struggling to change the understanding from quake response, to healthy city.

Another challenge is from the established arts community. At seeing the strong support and interest in temporary projects, coupled with the lack of progress on any permanent arts facilities (for established theatre, orchestra and music school), there’s been a lashing out at temporary creative projects. “We need proper art!!” they cry, “enough with the temporary candy.” I get it. The city’s Art Gallery has not been a priority for restoration when the stadium had (we had a temporary rugby stadium built in 100 days. Lack of rugby facilities is an emergency here, it would seem). But it’s not an either/or. Surely we need all kinds of art-making and art practices here? And for Gap Filler, projects in the city occupying vacant spaces be they lots or vacant buildings are more than just art projects, they’re acts of DIY urban design and urban intervention.

In our view, the role of creative people and indeed creative activists to create a culture of engaged citizenship and actually contribute to physically shaping the city by creating opportunities for a wider-than-usual modes of participation has never been more possible than it is right now. We can see in Christchurch how the building of a city normally rolls out. There’s a standard way of doing things. And it doesn’t involve most people. It involves developers, designers, councils and a range of construction workers. Through temporary projects, we have the chance to continue to allow a wider range of people to participate. We’ve had four years of trial and error from which to learn, and here and now in this fourth year since the quakes, we’re starting to try to embed some of our long-term learning in a range of ways. We’re working with the City Council to adapt the regulatory and funding framework to continue to create a fertile ground from which creative interventions and responses can spring. We’re working with schools and kids to engage them in the city they will inherit. We want to challenge the way people think about the ownership and ‘user-ship’ of their urban environment.

It’s been an exciting, exhausting and challenging time in this city these last four years. But the role that creative people have played has been instrumental in Christchurch’s recovery. It will be fascinating to see how things will play out and what kind of city will emerge and whether our vision of a city, in which creative temporary use embeds as a way to test, nurture and engage, continues.


About the contributor: Coralie Winn has a mixed and varied background. Before the existence of Gap Filler, she has been involved in the arts scene in Christchurch, New Zealand; running the University of Canterbury’s SOFA Gallery at the Arts Centre, performing and collaborating with Free Theatre Christchurch, working for festivals and in 2009/2010 running and developing the Arts Centre’s public programmes, including the Artist in Residence Programme. After being made redundant from this role as a result of the September 4, 2010 earthquake, Coralie and two others created a post-quake urban regeneration initiative called Gap Filler to bring creativity and life to Christchurch’s vacant spaces. Revised and expanded in light of the more destructive February 2011 quake, Coralie now runs Gap Filler full-time as its Director. Gap Filler has completed more than 60 projects to date in Christchurch gaps or empty shops and has facilitated and inspired many more.

Coralie started off her tertiary education in Public Health and Sociology, with a degree in Health Science from the University of Adelaide, Australia. She also holds a degree with Honours in Theatre and Film Studies from the University of Canterbury, specifically working in the discipline of Performance Studies. Coralie grew up in Australia, spent some time in her twenties travelling around Europe and living in Japan and has resided in New Zealand since 2005. gapfiller.org.nz


Torika Bolatagici, Léuli Eshraghi, Taloi Havini, Ioana Gordon-Smith, Leilani Kake, and Ema Tavola

Socially Engaged Art Practice in Oceania

 

MALE- Māori or Polynesian, photographic series, Leilani Kake, 2014.

MALE- Māori or Polynesian, photographic series, Leilani Kake, 2014.

 
Torika Bolatagici and Léuli Eshraghi spoke to leading practitioners Leilani Kake, Ioana Gordon-Smith, Ema Tavola and Taloi Havini who work in art production, writing, curation, cultural heritage, community liaison, and research. Between Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Narrm Melbourne, the conversation takes on the dynamics and issues of contemporary socially engaged practice in the growing, global Pacific arts sector.

Do you position your work as a public artist/intellectual with social responsibility?

TORIKA BOLATAGICI I don’t intentionally position myself with that framework. However, being an educated Fijian-Australian woman living and working within a first-world context is a privilege and I absolutely feel a social responsibility to make work that reflects that perspective.

LÉULI ESHRAGHI The projects I work on have critical cultural commentary at their heart, whether it be artmaking, writing, arts project management, curating or event/publication coordination. Everything that we do as Moananui peoples in this region is political and cumulative. I hope that we are generating small changes that together progress public discourse and possibility for all of society.

IOANA GORDON-SMITH Absolutely. I enjoy a huge editorial privilege as a curator working in a public space, and with that comes accountability to the audience as well as to the artists that I work with. The trickier question is what does it mean to work in a socially responsible manner? I fundamentally believe that art offers a way to be vigorous about the assumptions and principles that underpin how we organise ourselves. Presenting challenging, inspiring and generative exhibitions and projects is one key way I aim to act with social responsibility. That said, I’m conscious that the community or audience these projects are intended for isn’t the homogenous group it is usually made out to be. I try to bear in mind that one size doesn’t fit all, and that diverse content and approaches are vital for thinking about groups who can fall to the wayside when using dominant methodologies.

TALOI HAVINI I consider myself as a person who has strong social responsibility to my family, my Nakas clan (in Buka, Bougainville) and my community here in Australia and in Bougainville. I spent my childhood in a village environment so you learn from an early age to be mindful of your relatives, extended clan, Elders, and there were and still are many social and cultural obligations to fulfil. So many years later when I was a young adult, I decided to go to art school and naturally my art making is influenced from both being born into a position of inheriting Nakas traditions and in living in Australia and practising in contemporary art spaces.

LEILANI KAKE As an artist I choose to engage my whānau/family and community first. Being a part of that community I believe that I can utilise the language of art to raise discourse that deals with social affect and effect. I do feel responsible in maintaining tīkanga/values as well as creative innovation. I believe being Māori/Cook Island/Pacific is not just an individual declaration of identity and ends when you leave a marae or family home or Island, but is also about a shared socio-political responsibility.

EMA TAVOLA Not in those words, but I’m open about only really wanting to work with artists whose work contributes to the socio-political development of Pacific people, in direct and indirect ways.
 

Torika Bolatagici

Torika Bolatagici

 
How have you deployed artistic interventions in your practice in ways that specifically engage Pacific communities?

TB When I have made work of an interventionist-nature, it has been directed at non-Pacific communities, to address issues that effect Pacific communities. For example, in 2009 I made a public work called ‘Missing Pacific’ that responded to the absence and erasure of Pacific texts in the Frankston library. So the goal here was not to necessarily to engage Pacific communities, but rather to make a comment about institutional collections, archives and material culture.  But then other aspects of my practice have been made specifically for Pacific communities – and certain projects have specifically engaged only Pacific communities. The Pacific Photobook Project is an example of a project that was only open to young people of Pacific Island heritage to learn photographic skills and publishing from more established artists of Pacific Islander heritage. The intention here was to create a culturally-safe space for young people to learn, dialogue and tell their stories their way in a nurturing environment – where their voices and ways of knowing were respected and privileged. 

LE Some of my art and curatorial projects are specifically aimed at Moananui peoples in terms of conceptual frameworks, artistic production and linguistic parameters. My curatorial work is usually more activist in terms of hopefully loud, generative propositions around cultural appropriations, the place and politics of West Papuan and Timorese refugees in printmaking, and aesthetic complexity in a strongly monocultural society such as contemporary colonial Australia. Talanoa or shared conversational spaces with Moananui arts practitioners as mentors, have been strong platforms for engaging members of communities not often seen in participatory workshop-based arts projects, the Pasifik Young Artists (2013 at Footscray Community Arts Centre and Colour Box Studio) and West Papua, Timor-Leste and Bali (2014-15 at The Ownership Project) projects.

TH As a maker I am interested generating art that can hopefully also creates a dialogue that has the ability to transcend borders and brings regional issues to the forefront.

LK My work seeks to always ‘speak’ to Pacific/Māori audiences because I believe that’s how I ‘speak’. I utilise cultural key markers such as time, space, symbolism, narrative, place and language. Tīkanga pono or ‘correct way of doing’ is also the foundation in which I work because it’s the governing factor on how I conduct my arts methodology and employ key cultural markers. 

ET By locating opportunities to engage with Pacific artists in safe Pacific spaces, i.e. within contexts that are comfortable, approachable and don’t represent a threatening or intimidating dominant culture kind of air. In these spaces, engaging in discussion/talanoa about the artwork and inevitably, the artist, ideas are exchanged and the artwork brings the audience into its relational space.
 

Léuli Eshraghi

Léuli Eshraghi

 
Do you see your work as representations or provocations or both?

TB Both.

LE Definitely both as reflections of, and provocations for, multiple possibilities in terms of cultural practices and interfaces therewith.

IGS Both, but mostly because I see my curatorial work as (re)presenting the work of artists who provoke and drill into key questions regarding the reality that we live in. With regards to contemporary Pacific art, I often feel that simply highlighting how many artists are working now and the contexts that they work within is in itself a provocation to preconceptions of what contemporary Pacific art should look like.

TH In my art I am commenting on ideas around representation more so than provocation. I make visual commentary about the social aspects of my life and the current state of being Indigenous to the Oceanic region. I have been making work around human rights, land rights, labour, matrilineal inheritance, the environment––and all this can seem highly political to some and therefore provoke certain moral issues.

LK Anything that is represented IS a provocation, whether the result is directed or accidental. Sorry that’s a yes to both.

ET Both.
 

Ioana Gordon-Smith

Ioana Gordon-Smith

 
What kind of research do you undertake before and during a project?

TB It depends on the project and the nature of the work. It ranges from oral testimony, to discussions with friends and family, to travelling to international archives to seek particular records and it can include collaborations with experts in other disciplines. That’s what I love about research, it can, and should, take you anywhere. It’s a really personal and individual journey. 

LE I draw on measina/treasures in Euro-American-based museum and gallery collections of plundered imperial gains, oral historical material, anthropological research (with many, many grains of salt), and cumulative critical discussions around aesthetics, epistemologies, Indigenous Moananui ways of being and knowing with Elders, peers and friends near and far. 

IGS It’s quite organic: my research process differs from project to project, but it mostly consists of lots of reading and many conversations, and the same after a project too really.

TH For me ‘research’ involves observing and having time to think through the entire process. For me the process is just as, or more, important than the end-outcome. Before taking on a project I ask myself, “Will I like or respect this project in five years time?” If the answer is “yes” than I put everything into it so that I can sustain the idea and make it happen. Projects vary so much and more often I work with other people, Elders, Aunties, friends, artists, and so getting people on board to co-create works of art, exhibitions, or community projects is a real effort. The concept of ‘research’ for me is participatory meaning consulting and involving people as much as possible.

LK I often think about the outcome and the reason for why I am making the artwork. What do I want to say? and to whom? and how will I best convey that idea? I then research the practical factual aspects of the subject matter than move onto the more philosophical theoretical facets. Often I use family, friends and peers in my industry as ‘sounding boards’ or either just to test whether my approach is culturally sound.

ET Dialogue with artist, and people in their environment, community, family. Some research of the issues, less from academic texts and more from news media, social commentary, grassroots responses. I look at the ways other artists have responded to similar themes, and other artists who employ similar aesthetics. Then, to embed a project in a site, i.e. an exhibition in a particular location, I look at the context and community of that site, and how an exhibition or project can create value for local people, particularly young people, and particularly Pacific communities. Always interesting to see how projects with similar themes or ideas have been done in other indigenous and minority community contexts… I often look to Studio Museum Harlem for inspiration.
 

Leilani Kake

Leilani Kake

 
Who are your support mechanisms within your community?

TB My family, colleagues and closest friends. But it also depends on the project. Being a multidisciplinary practitioner means that I often interface with experts in parallel or disparate fields of knowledge. A recent project has seen me working with peace activists, nuclear veterans, journalists, military personnel, historians, gender theorists etc… 

LE Open communication lines, shared community spaces of eating and talking about art projects and life practices in general are extremely important to me. My Elders in the islands and diaspora such as Aunty Sana Balai are key to ongoing support structures, including with friends and peers in Narrm Melbourne, across Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand especially. In my recently begun Curatorial Practice PhD at MADA, I’m drawing on, and sharing discussions with local and global Indigenous colleagues in curation, writing, and artmaking.

TH Usually as artists we support each other. For projects that I have done in Bougainville (Blood Generation) I have asked on many occasions advice from my father (who is a chief of his Nakas clan), my aunties (matrilineal women chiefs), and some highly respected leaders––mainly women. On the other hand I have consulted with the most vulnerable groups of people––the young, the school dropouts and unemployed, the ‘rebels’ or ‘rascals’ and I got support from them when I was travelling and making the art project. Socially engaged art projects should be accessible to all and as many interested people as possible––especially if there is a social narrative.

IGS I belong to more than one community, and so my support mechanisms vary quite widely, from Tautai Pacific Contemporary Arts Trust, who have played a big role in initiating a lot of the professional arts relationships I have now; the local RSA; my colleagues; artists that I’ve worked with over long periods; my peers and my family and friends outside of work too for those moments when a bit of perspective is handy.

LK My family, friends and peers are my support. Without them I would be working in a vacuum.

EM The artists who I work with frequently, who are my collaborators on many projects. Artists like Leilani Kake, Tanu Gago and Luisa Tora. I often draw on networks from within the art school I went to, where I currently teach part-time. Grant Thompson is the Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts now but 12 years ago, he was my contextual studies lecturer. Since then we’ve worked on numerous projects together and I always feel like he knows where I’ve come from, and what value and potential there is in working in arts education and arts development in South Auckland. My indigenous curatorial peers Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai, Leafa Janice Wilson, Nigel Borell and Sean Mallon all offer me excellent insights and advice. And in terms of creating projects with real social purpose and benefits, I draw on the insights of my mother, father and sister, who all work in the social and economic development sectors in the Pacific.
 

Ema Tavola

Ema Tavola

 
Who are the audiences for your socially engaged practices?

TH I think the ‘audience’ has to be global and timeless. To be socially engaging means you need to be speaking with all levels of the community and people need to feel part of it or at least become introduced to a new idea and become enriched by it. As makers we can be the ‘audience’ as well 

LK Predominately Māori and Cook Island audiences though my work deals with universal themes such as life cycles, identity and spirituality so my work can be enjoyed by various audiences.

ET Intergenerational Pacific audiences, conscious and socially aware non-Pacific audiences, Pacific diaspora virtual audiences worldwide.
 

Taloi Havini

Taloi Havini

 
Are funding bodies adequately responsive to socially engaged art practices?

TB Yes, in an Australian context I believe this to be the case. I think that there is funding at council, state and national level that is open to, if not specifically designed to generate innovation for socially engaged art practices.

TH I have tended to fund my own or fundraise. In general I think funding bodies tend to have too many restrictions.

LK I have been lucky enough to be funded by the Pacific Arts Board of Creative New Zealand on a number of projects. They have believed in my kaupapa and my work and thus have been able to help facilitate me to deliver my work to my own and other diasporic Pacific communities internationally.

ET Sort of.

Do arts and mainstream media accurately appraise your socially engaged practices?

TH The ‘media’ is a business and will always report and promote the ‘mainstream’ over socially engaged art projects. Authorship has widened and there is a plethora of online platforms and social media. This digital age has allowed people to engage in what we are interested in––and this is what we have on our side. 

LK I have had reviews about my work from varying sources. Often arts and mainstream media industries are caught up on ‘what’s in fashion’ and seldom really ‘see’ what’s behind my work. Ema Tavola, TJ McNamara and Mark Amery have written and understood my positioning as an artist who endeavors to engage my community, but its the every-day person on the street that gives the best feedback and inspiration to continue what I do.

ET Mainstream media barely cares about Pacific people, let alone artwork that acknowledges and empowers us.
 

Ngā Hau e Whā photographic series, Leilani Kake, 2011

Ngā Hau e Whā photographic series, Leilani Kake, 2011

 


About the contributors:
 
Ema Tavola (Viti | Fijian) is a Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland-based curator, arts manager, blogger and visual artist. She is the former curator for Fresh Gallery Ōtara (2006-2012), holds a Master of Arts Management from AUT University and always works in sync with her love and loyalty to Oceania. pimpiknows.com

Leilani Kake (Ngā Puhi, Tainui, Manihiki, Rakahanga) is an artist and educator. She holds a Bachelor of Visual Arts and Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Arts from the Faculty of Creative Arts, Manukau Institute of Technology, and a Master of Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. She works as Gallery Coordinator at Papakura Art Gallery and supervises postgraduate students at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. Her arts practice is rooted within New Zealand and Cook Island Māori ideology, speaking to the universal human condition of identity, culture, tradition and change through deeply visceral personal stories.

Taloi Havini (Nakas) is an interdisciplinary artist working in ceramics, photography, printmedia, video and mixed media installation. Her practice centres on the deconstruction of the politics of location, and the intergenerational transmission of Indigenous Knowledge Systems. In her research, Taloi engages with living cultural practitioners and Oceanian material collections and archives. She often responds to these experiences and sites of investigation with experimental ceramic installations, print, photographic and video works in solo and collaborative works. She is actively involved in cultural heritage projects, exhibitions, research and community development in Melanesia and Australia. taloihavini.com

Ioana Gordon-Smith (Sāmoan) is a curator and writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. She previously worked with Artspace, Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust and Unitec, and has worked on exhibitions for Fresh Gallery Ōtara, Papakura Art Gallery and Gus Fisher Gallery. Ioana currently works as Curator Kaitiaki Wakaaturanga at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery.

Torika Bolatagici (Viti | Fiji) is an artist, lecturer and PhD candidate at the School of Art and Design, University of New South Wales. Her interdisciplinary practice investigates the relationships between visual culture, human ecology and contemporary Pacific identities. Torika’s work has been exhibited in the United States, Mexico, Aotearoa New Zealand, Indonesia and Australia. Torika is a photography lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Melbourne where she teaches contemporary theory and practice. torikabolatagici.com

Léuli Eshraghi (Sāmoan, Persian) is an artist, curator and PhD candidate in Curatorial Practice at MADA, Monash University. His practice is centred on connection to place, indigeneity, memory and erasure, body sovereignty, and multilingual plurality. Léuli holds qualifications in Indigenous Arts Management and Cultural Studies. He was Tautai Trust Artist in Residence 2015. He is Guest Editor, Oceania Now publication, Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival and Guest Curator, Coconut Water exhibition, Caboolture Regional Art Gallery. leulieshraghi.com


International Caucus of the Women’s Caucus for Art

Considering Socially Engaged Art in China

 

“Journey Markers” ritual. Photo Christine Giancola

“Journey Markers” ritual. Photo Christine Giancola

In April 2014, artist volunteers from the Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA) created an exhibition and interactive events for women artists in China and the U.S. at Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang, China, entitled “Half the Sky: Intersections in Social Practice Art (HTS:IISPA)” We were invited by the academy’s president and gallery director, who wished to create a dialogue between artists and their works about women’s issues. WCA has a 40+ years history of activist art, yet the choices about the collection of art and the events we brought to China were greatly influenced by the political and cultural restrictions there. Here is a conversation about our decision-making and reflections over time about our experience from some of the thirteen working delegates who went to China as key figures in this project. 

Delegate artists in front of the Art Gallery of Luxun Academy of Fine Arts. Photo Christine Giancola.

Delegate artists in front of the Art Gallery of Luxun Academy of Fine Arts. Photo Christine Giancola.

This project,with a documentary video of interviews of Chinese participants, will be presented under the title “Considerations and Challenges: Socially-Engaged Art in China” at Open Engagement Conference, Saturday, April 18, 2:30-4:00 pm, Room 307, 3rd Floor, College of Fine Arts Building, Carnegie-Mellon University. 

Blog participants:

  • Kay Kang (HTS:IISPA De-installation Coordinator/Delegate Artist, artspan/kaykang)
  • Sandra Mueller (HTS:IISPA Cultural and Community Events Director/Delegate Artist, WCA Vice-President/Special Events, profile/sandra-mueller)
  • Christine Giancola (HTS:IISPA Documentations Director/Delegate Artist, Webster University Adjunct Associate Professor and SIU/Edwardsville Photography Lecturer), christinegiancolaphotography.com)

 

PRISCILLA OTANI: We had a serious debate just prior to our social practice art interactive pieces. I recall that we felt conflicted and debated as to whether we should cancel or go forward with the performances. In the end, we decided to go forward. I felt our discussion, and what ensued, was an important milestone. Some of the unease came from a cultural sensitivity, a feeling of not wanting to impose Western values and standards on Chinese students, artists and academics who may not have the same perspective or readiness. I remember making a comment that our role was to “sow the seeds of discomfort,” to bring forth concepts and ideas that may be new, strange and uncomfortable. Of course I didn’t know if in fact we would have any impact at all, or if we would have even an audience. In the end, I felt very good about the events of the day. And after viewing the short video created by Mido Lee, I was surprised at how much of an impact we did have, and based on recent letters, how the women-based exhibition and performances continue to have on students at the Luxun Academy.

Nearly a year after our Half the Sky project, in what ways have your views and opinions about what happened with our socially-engaged events at the Luxun Academy changed or evolved?

SANDRA MUELLER: Taking the time to weigh our intentions and consider the risks permitted the full group to make a shared commitment to the morning event.  It was no longer that several delegates were presenting four events––two that addressed sexual violence––but, all these offerings now stood as a core reason why we as the WCA delegation were there and why Half the Sky cultural exchange and exhibition itself was a social practice project. The morning permitted the projects rooted in community engagement to come alive for everyone including our own team of delegates––which, in turn, permitted the social justice content of all the artworks in the exhibition to be more apparent.

Mann and Chan’s “Myths and Facts of Rape.” Photo Christine Giancola.

Mann and Chan’s “Myths and Facts of Rape.” Photo Christine Giancola. 

Shifting from  “exhibition” pieces that documented past efforts to “social practice” works required building solidarity in our group––a point that Jing Deng, who was responsible for our invitation made clear when she offered to do the Mandarin portion of the “call and response” in the “Myths of Rape” piece.

The breakfast discussion was also a culmination of thoughtful multiple exchanges with artist teams that began months prior with the selection of those teams as delegates as we had all known these works and the participatory elements were politically and personally sensitive.

Cornett and Mueller’s “Holding Up Half the Sky.” Photo Christine Giancola.

Cornett and Mueller’s “Holding Up Half the Sky.” Photo Christine Giancola.

The sequence of the morning mattered as well. By opening the participatory events with attendees saying their name in English or Mandarin, they symbolically held up “Half the Sky” and then everyone, who wished, writing in their respective language, what they did or wished to do together, ground was laid to experience the events that followed in a communal, participatory mode.

The respectful tone that was so necessary for the morning had been thoughtfully woven into the traditional tools of the exhibition with the bi-lingual catalogue, the installation of the exhibition and the ongoing documentation at the outset of our time in China. Rosemary’s thoughtful consideration and exchange with each artist on their work and partnering with the gallery director set a tone of shared involvement that placed respect and consideration into the fabric of our time at the academy as did the non-intrusive, yet thorough, mode of the documentation.

It was my experience with the “Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence”––a social practice project that I wrote about in my catalogue essay––that there comes a moment in these projects when the terms of  “community or social engagement” need to come to life that is very, very sobering. That is, it is one thing to write or say the words but quite another when it comes to enacting them. Hence, I might suggest that our morning deliberations were a communal pausing to acknowledge what that looked like at that moment and taking stock of the resources available.

Louder Than Words’ “These Walls Can Talk.” Photo Christine Giancola.

Louder Than Words’ “These Walls Can Talk.” Photo Christine Giancola.

NEDA MORIDPOUR: Half The Sky: Intersections in Social Practice Art provided LOUDER THAN WORDS (S.A. Bachman+Neda Moridpour) an opportunity to create an interactive installation solely for the purpose of a cross-cultural exhibition and exchange. Our project, THESE WALLS CAN TALK, addressed domestic abuse and included “domestic violence” wallpaper, video, information on gender violence, and “don’t remain silent” stickers. The project was represented in both English and Chinese and our aim was to generate public dialogue about abuse.

During the five days of our visit, I believe the most crucial aspect of this project occurred during our multiple gatherings with all of the delegate artists to have conversations around “Lazy Susan” round tables while sharing food. Our conversations created cycles of interaction, shared experiences, collaboration, preparing, performing, and installing that informed the exhibition content. The delectable Chinese food extended a concrete, tasty meaning into our dialogues on issues of gender, power, cultural identity, sustainability, and community. And by adding these meanings to the exhibition, I believe we tried to stretch the boundaries between art and everyday life as well as breaking the common art disciplinary traditions.

I represented LOUDER THAN WORDS in China and, as an Iranian- American artist, I am keenly familiar with the western representation of modern China, Orientalism, and the pattern of dictatorship in both China and Iran. Although censorship has become a part of the Chinese culture, I believe we were able to provide a safe space through the interactive events in this exhibition that enabled the community to engage in conversations about abuse and rape without being censored. And, in our last conversation with the gallery director, we listened to the Chinese artists and I was reminded again of the importance of framing gender-based violence as an international human rights issue, rather than implying this issue more on the traditional disadvantaged countries.

In conceiving of this exhibition in China, I strongly believe that we were successful in increasing the process of collaboration and negotiation among the team members, gallery director, volunteer students and participants, and provided a counterbalance to traditional art practices that foster individual expression, self-aggrandizement, commodification, and solitude.

This exhibition marked an institutional celebration of exhibiting the work of Chinese and American feminist artists and the blossoming of social practice art in China. Let us hope that more galleries and museums support feminist art and Socially Engaged Art practices in the future.

Original version of Oelbaum’s “The Sky is Falling.” Photo Christine Giancola.

Original version of Oelbaum’s “The Sky is Falling.” Photo Christine Giancola. 

BRENDA OELBAUM

After recovering from the culture shock I think that every part of the Luxun Academy events were really wonderful.  Although my installation did not focus on social practice, it was very clear that many of the other pieces would be challenging to the Chinese community.  One thing that I did notice was, when pushed, the staff and the students are very proud people and for the most part they did not wilt under pressure of challenging topics, they answered directly and questioned our purposes boldly and with candor.

We were, after all, presenting them with some new ideas that are very far from their traditional vision of art and art education and how art might function as a tool (not just for the government) but also for personal ideologies and criticism.

All in all I think what was presented was well received, if not exactly as we had intended, at least as a vehicle for collaboration and friendship and mutual fascination.   We have a lot to learn from their methods and they from ours, this was just a beginning.

PRISCILLA OTANI: I agree that learnings were on both sides. Though we tried to be as prepared as possible, the unexpected occurrences or interactions enriched my experience. Brenda, the fact that your diet books were held back at customs because of their “suspicious nature” caused both the delegates and the gallery staff to work together to create a piece of art. Just the interactive nature of that activity (painting over and retitling Chinese books) could be, I suppose, a form of social practice art. And nicely captured on the video. I also thought it was wonderful that the students wanted to interact well beyond the performances. One young woman approached me and said that she wanted to keep Neda’s sticker to give to a friend who was in an abusive relationship. We talked a little bit about this. I was surprised at how much candor the woman had, how much she shared. It felt almost like an American conversation. In my own culture (Japanese), women would not be as forthcoming.

SHERRI CORNETT: The seeds of my questioning around social-engaged work, as director of the project, began early in the year-plus of planning and development for this project. I remember hours and hours of discussion with our leadership team. How could we design interactive programming that was diplomatically appropriate yet still true to our 40+ year activist roots in the Women’s Caucus for Art? Our hosts asked us to avoid topics around the one-child rule, China’s relationship to Tibet and Taiwan and China’s human rights record. How could we reconcile this with Western values of free speech and concerns of censorship. We knew that any art we wanted to bring to China had to be approved by the Cultural Bureau in a country that controls and often shuts-down the internet for content objectionable to the government and appeared to have little tolerance for dissent. We were going to one of the most conservative regions of China. It was rather humorous that the only works that eventually did not get through customs in China were Brenda’s 150 diet books, but, at the time, we did not have confidence in telling our artists what would and would not make it through.  How could we write a call for art that asked for activist art, social-engagement proposals and new media and write juror instructions that narrowed the definition of “appropriateness” in ways uncomfortable to most artists familiar with WCA’s past exhibitions. We couldn’t have any kind of conversation with Chinese artists in China if we, and our art, couldn’t even get to China.  These questions and restrictions created a climate in which we started to review our designs, adjust our expectations and revise our stances on “in your face” activism in order to keep the door open for an exchange with the Chinese. And these questions and adjustments continued through our intense breakfast discussion that morning before the presentations of our socially-engaged works at the academy.

MIDO LEE:

This project has been a tremendous learning opportunity. It being my first trip to China, it taught me so much. I learned that Northeastern China has its unique culture and society that, in a way, is more conservative than other parts of China. My Taiwanese background made it easier to relate to the struggle of communicating with a Mandarin-speaking audience.

To begin talking about gender equality we have to first talk about Chinese culture and language. Mandarin Chinese is a genderless language. There is no word for “he” or “she,” but there are words for “man” and “woman.” In daily conversation, we do not define gender. Most of the time, we do not even define the subject while we talk. Additionally, Chinese culture does not promote individualistic thinking. Because of the one-child policy, in place since 1979, present-day China has made some progress in becoming a more gender equal society. And although there are fewer gender stereotypes in China today, it is still far from being actually gender-equal.

In the beginning, students and artists in Shenyang were relatively conservative as we talked about gender inequality in general terms. Some of them believed that there is no gender inequality in China. However, as the exhibition went on, artists and students began to think about what is really meant by gender equality and why they have not considered it in the first place.

When they thought no one was listening, some of the audience would criticize American art as being ugly. They did not say it out loud in English. When interviewed they would say the exhibition was wonderful but American artists should make prettier art works. This gave me the sense that contemporary Chinese art is still highly process oriented and focused on aesthetics. I think it might come out from the traditions of calligraphy, Chinese traditional painting, and stamp making. Artists normally go through decades of training to earn the name of artist. When American women artists presented performance and conceptual work, most of the students were shocked. I believe that Half the Sky has changed the fundamental meaning of art for those students in Shenyang. With all the misunderstandings and the language barrier, it was a kind of miracle that we successfully brought Half the Sky to a Chinese audience.

Kang’s “It’s A Girl.” Photo Christine Giancola.

Kang’s “It’s A Girl.” Photo Christine Giancola.

KAY KANG: My installation “It’s A Girl” were received differently in China than when it was exhibited in various institution in US.  As most people know China and Korea share similar culture and customs.  For the last two decades Korea had unspoken two-children rule which should include least one boy.

Most Chinese students were indifferent toward my piece, especially males. But a few female students came and spoke to me about their situation and were envious of the Asian women who stood up and shouted as “It’s A Girl,” which their mothers could not do it in their country. One girl hugged me and told me that her family moved away from Beijing so they didn’t have to go through of pressure of giving her up. I felt her mother’s pain and admired her father’s courage not to leave his wife and daughter. 

CHRISTINE GIANCOLA: The openness in which Chinese students embraced the socially engaged events was refreshing and somewhat unexpected. I was more of an observer than a participant due to my background as a documentary photographer that encourages my objectivity not engagement when documenting people and events. I had the opportunity to closely study the expressions and body language of many of the Chinese and Americans interactions during the events.  Most of the Chinese were very engaged and eager to participate. I was especially drawn to an elderly woman during Elana’s “Myths and Facts about Rape” event. She stood near the front row of people and was visibly very moved. I saw her eyes scan over the English/Chinese translations several times. I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking and how rape might have impacted her life or the life of someone she knew.

It is hard to know the impact of an action or event in someone’s life. I know for me listening to the Chinese students Mido interviewed in the video was very encouraging and insightful.  I was very impressed with the courage that it must have taken for them to speak out so openly about their lives and to express so freely what they had taken from the experience and the changes they were experiencing.

Since Half the Sky, I think a lot about the power and possibility of social change through social practice art. I have asked myself what I learned from the Chinese that will alter how I view and interact with the world. I was especially intrigued by the Chinese people’s relationship with the art.  In observing them I noticed that in general, they moved closer and closer to the point of almost touching the art to point out a detail or share an observation with someone. This made me somewhat uncomfortable and created a bit of tension as I watched them expecting for an alarm to ring indicating that they have crossed over a line in the gallery.  When I view art now I find myself moving closer as though given permission.  I think too how ironic that in the West with all our freedoms, we restrict our ability to view art that closely yet in the East we are free to move as closely as we choose.

SHERRI CORNETT: Yes, Christine, after all of our worries and discussions and ultimately reconfirming, the morning before the presentation of our interactive events, as Priscilla said, that our role was to sow seeds of discontent, I was pleasantly surprised to see the museum crowded with art students, staff and others, to see how intently they listened to Jing’s translations and responded to her invitations to participate in each event and to ask questions. Each of the delegates and the working teams of which they were members had defined responsibilities during our time there and, when I was flying out of Shenyang, I found myself envious of you, Christine, and the others on our documentation team. Spending much of your time behind a camera, you were, of necessity, more removed from participation. But, on the other hand, you had a tool through which to intently look at our audiences’ faces. My focus was both more diffuse and on the mechanics of making sure the event leaders were getting the support they needed. The differences in body language and facial expressiveness appeared, in my board visual sweeps of the audience, more reserved. Especially when considering the many questions we had received from the women artists and teachers at the roundtable discussion the day prior.  That day, most of the discussion was focused on their questioning the need for activist work, especially around women’s rights, and our efforts to explain the history and purpose of art activism in the Women’s Caucus for Art.  I remember holding on to the fact that the president of the academy and the gallery director, both men, had invited us to the academy because they did believe that art should move viewers to question and act.

When we returned home and I had the opportunity to see some of the thousands of photographs you took, Christine, and the video footage from Elana and Neda and Mido’s interviews, I had such a profound sense of relief and gratification and warmth towards all involved on all sides of this project and its events. .I saw intent discussion, revelations, smiles, laughter. Building community and connections were certainly paramount in our efforts. And, as with all socially-engaged projects, the work of our documentation team brought our efforts together into a meaningful and re-viewable way.

Gallery Director Wang Yi Gang with Chinese artists and U.S. delegate artists. Photo Christine Giancola.

Gallery Director Wang Yi Gang with Chinese artists and U.S. delegate artists. Photo Christine Giancola.


About the contributors: The International Caucus of the Women’s Caucus for Art and its membership of women artists and academics, develops collaborative projects with other global organizations and entities around activist themes, uses WCA’s NGO status to bring attention to UN priorities and honors activist artists. WCA’s International Caucus has created exhibitions at the United Nations, in South Korea and in China. wcainternaitonalcaucus.weebly.com

Women’s Caucus for Art was founded in 1972 in connection with the College Art Association (CAA), WCA is a national member organization unique in its multi-disciplinary, multicultural membership of artists, art historians, students, educators, and museum professionals. The mission of the Women’s Caucus for Art is to expand opportunities and recognition for women in the arts. WCA is committed to education about the contributions of women, opportunities for the exhibition of women’s work, publication of women’s writing about art, inclusion of women in the history of art, professional equity for all, and respect for all individuals without discrimination and support for legislation relevant to our goals. nationalwca.org

The mission of the Women’s Caucus for Art is to create community through art, education, and social activism. They are committed to:
• recognizing the contributions of women in the arts
• providing women with leadership opportunities and professional development
• expanding networking and exhibition opportunities for women
• supporting local, national, and global art activism & advocating for equity in the arts for all


Gridthiya “Jeab” Gaweewong and Susannah Tantemsapya

Conversation via Facebook Messenger

 
Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 11.07.08 AM

ST: How does art in Thailand reflect the social and political changes in its current landscape?

GG: bbc.com/news/world-asia-31581219 & prachatai.org/journal/2015/03/58149 – That’s the current state of art in Thailand. Freedom of expression is in danger.

ST: How is art changing in Thailand right now?

GG: asiancorrespondent.com/127504/voicing-concerns-thai-artists-take-on-the-coup-and-the-junta 

ST: What is the reaction of artists towards this current state, especially since the military government has been in place? Does it feel different than a few years ago?

GG: I wish I could answer all your questions freely, Susannah. Our freedom of expression is in danger, and monitored by the government. Under the martial law, it’s difficult to express opinions freely. Many artists who deal with critical, social political issues were under heavy surveillance by the authority…

ST: Do you feel Thai artists have an impact on their own society?

GG: asiancorrespondent.com/130276/thailands-junta-targets-acclaimed-theatre-production

ST: Do you feel that Thai artists have an impact overseas?

GG: On the other hand, many Thai artists had solo shows in the US and beyond, such as Korakrit Arunanonchai at MoMA PS1 last year and Araya’s (Rasdjarmrearnsook) solo at SculptureCenter, New York. Rirkrit (Tiravanija) just curated a show which included many Thai artists at the Yerba Buena in San Francisco, and many young Thai independent filmmakers received awards from international film festivals, and so on…

ST: What is the overall climate right now for artists?

GG: In the country, the situation had been reserved. Many artists did work underground, and had to work in their studio, but they can’t show their works to public. However, some alternative spaces still can show critical works, as you see in the articles. I guess those articles might help the audiences understand better about our context and situation, although it’s been complicated, and I don’t even know how to start.


About the contributors: Gridthiya Gaweewong founded arts organization Project 304 in 1996, and is currently an artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok. Her curatorial projects have addressed issues of social transformation confronting artists from Thailand and beyond since the Cold War. Gawewong has curated exhibitions and events including Politics of Fun (With Ong Keng Sen) at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2005), (With Apichatpong Weerasethakul) the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival (1997–2007), (with Rirkrit Tiravanija) Saigon Open City in Saigon, Vietnam (2006–2007), and Between Utopia and Dystopia, University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC), Mexico City, Mexico (2011). jimthompsonhouse.com

Susannah Tantemsapya is a creative producer, journalist and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She founded Creative Migration in 2005, a nonprofit organization that produces and collaborates on projects that bring together art, sustainability and public engagement. She has made several films including POST NEW BILLS: The Story of Green Patriot Posters, which is part of a traveling exhibition with the Design Museum Foundation from 2014-16. Currently, she is working on Projection, a large-scale, public art intervention in Los Angeles by Paris-based artist Vincent Lamouroux.

Susannah earned a degree in Photojournalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she started out as a music editor for ‘SUP MAGAZINE. She began working in film as a production assistant for director/theater artist Robert Wilson. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Whitewall Magazine, Canvas Magazine, art ltd. and The WILD Magazine. She is also a dual citizen of the United States of America and the Kingdom of Thailand. creativemigration.org


Nigel Poor, Helena Acosta and Violette Bule

Prisons and photography: A conversation between San Quentin and Venezuela

 
Nigel Poor, Helena Acosta and Violette Blue were introduced by email on the 22nd of January 2015, and asked to speak to their shared interests for this blog. What follows is excerpts from their emailed conversations.

Nigel Poor:

Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento
8th February 2015

My work explores various ways people make a mark and leave behind evidence of their existence. I am interested in the portrait and self-portrait and explore this vastly mined area through unconventional means. I have used fingerprints and hands, washed books, objects people have thrown out, human hair and dryer lint, flies and dead insects collected from the front of my car as indexical markers of human presences and experience. In 2011 this interest in the question of how to document life, and what is worthy of preservation, led me to San Quentin State Prison. My relationship with the prison began when I started teaching a history of photography class through the Prison University Project.

Looking at and talking about photography in a group setting is a social experience. The sharing of imagery is particularly poignant in the context of prison. In that context images become the catalyst that facilitates candid conversation on complex subjects. I encourage students to “read” images for clues that reveal the layered meanings in a photograph, and often discussed with the men how listening to a person unpack an image is like listening to autobiography, as each viewer brings his or her life experience to the understanding of an image. Though I ostensibly taught a history class, it became a story telling class as the men began to use the images as a starting point to talk about their lives before prison and their experiences inside. For the men, divining the meaning of images made clear that careful consideration and attention allows one to find significance in the things, people and places that many pass by. At the end of class one student, Rubin Ramirez, said he was now “able to see fascination everywhere.”

06_Student Mapped Image
08_Student Mapped Image

I am now working on two long-term collaborative projects inside.

1. SQ Archive Project: uses an archive of historic negatives taken at San Quentin between 1950-1989. I make prints from the negatives and bring them in and the guys physically map the images, dissecting what they see and using their discoveries to write about their experience of life inside

01_Archive Image

2. SQ Radio Project: I am working with a group of men producing radio stories about life inside. This is most exciting to me because we started together as novices not knowing anything about audio work and together we have learned how to do interviewing, recording, editing, producing, mixing etc. There is an archive of all the SQPR stories on KALW (91.7 FM), on the show Cross Currents here: http://kalw.org/term/san-quentin-prison-report 

I guess it is funny to think about photography still being a revolutionary act––but it is in the context of prison, where it is very much feared and mistrusted. At least in California all images going in and out of the prison are carefully screened for objectionable components. Men are not allowed to use cameras and photographers can only go in if accompanied by a pubic relations officer who must observe everything they photograph.

I am interested in using the photographic image as a conversation starter, as an object for the men to insert themselves into and explore. I don’t know how revolutionary that is but I can say for sure photography has allowed us to discuss things we would never have gotten to if it weren’t for the image. Whew, so much to say here. I had one student who was able to have a copy of Hiroshi Sugimoto and Richard Misrach photograph with him when he was placed in solitary confinement. He spent a lot of his time contemplating the two images and wrote a beautiful nine-page essay about solitude, time and gratitude. He told me after he got out of the hole that he had hated being there, but that he was also grateful for the experienced because spending so much time with those images brought him to a greater understanding of himself, and what photography is capable of doing and expressing.

So how can we not see that as a revolutionary act?

Helena Acosta:

Curator, Venezuela
22nd February 2015

I am independent art curator. The lines of my work focuses on the study of photography and new media art in relation to contemporary social dynamics and processes. In my curatorial practice I pay equal attention to the social, emotional, aesthetic and technical aspects of the internet and other emerging media as socially engaged formats that can bring new readings of the contemporary world. In 2012 I start to develop the curatorial project From the Lleca to the Cohue: Photography in prisons of Venezuela, this project was exhibited at Tokyo Wonder Site in Japan.

Deciding to give a name to this photography project inside of the prisons in Venezuela, was a hard task. After a long discussion Violette and I decided to use the inmates slang to make a referential statement of the location where the project was developed. Therefore, terms like, “lleca,” the inverted syllables of the word street in Spanish and “cohue” whole, by the same token, are foundational concepts of prison speech. They define and delimit a specific location. In other words, they demarcate space boundaries. It was clear for us that these two words would serve as symbolic demarcation of the project, and that bringing photography from the “lleca” to the “cohue,” would be a revolutionary act. Historically, photography has been perceived as a threat in spaces where human rights are in a problematic state. In this regard, photography can be a powerful tool, not only for capturing a frame in time and space, but also, a way to reinterpret the context and the stories of those inside, allowing them to construct a symbolic identity, and restore dignity.
 The act of creating an image helps to develop a sense of internal freedom; these are the elements that constitute the symbolic axes of the project.

Tocuyito Penitentiary Center Photo: Violette Bule

Tocuyito Penitentiary Center Photo: Violette Bule

We believe in visual discourse, we look at it as an instrument for real social change. The participatory and pluralistic character of the project, stimulates observation and investigation of behaviors in those inmates facing the photographic fact. In this context, photography turns into a tool that operates bidirectionally: from the subject observed to the observant subject. A significant semiotic phenomenon occurs in the act of creating images, as a result of this work, the “other one” acquires its own voice and communicates through the photographic language. It is here, where the primary interest of the exhibition lies, in exposing the gaze of those who inhabit those spaces. Particularly, in this point, we find a multiplicity of perspectives. Some images are simple point shoots, it is right to say, of symbols that give meaning to the image . Others, stand out as charged with poetry, symbolism and intimacy; in those we observe a sensitive use of the composition. We encounter recurring references to concepts such as family and brotherhood; the tracking of the social dynamics that are present inside the prison, beyond violence and survival. Their records are an exercise of their humanity that surpasses the notion of the prisoner.

Tocuyito Penitentiary Center Photo: Workshop Student

Tocuyito Penitentiary Center Photo: Workshop Student

Tocuyito Penitentiary Center Photo: Workshop Student

Tocuyito Penitentiary Center Photo: Workshop Student

In conclusion, bringing photography to a controlled space, where all liberties are taken away, can be an essential tool for interns to exercise the right to look, not only visually, but spiritually. On the other hand, there is the experience of sharing perspectives, and the experience of constructing the image of themselves. It is a way of claiming autonomy, the right to pursue beauty in a hostile environment, which is, without a doubt, a Revolutionary Act.

Violette Bule:

Venezuelan Photographer
22nd February 2015

My approach on photography has a social character, one of its aspects is concerned about highlighting problematics from my immediate context through fiction, and the other calls for photographic education as a tool of social change. My work goes beyond the documentary record, using stages and humor as a means to channel scathing criticisms and reflections on socio-political situations. From 2010 to 2013 I have been independently teaching photography in the penitentiary centers of Venezuela using photography as social reinsertion tool. The corpus of this project is composed by works carried out in the following penitentiary centers: St. Juan Prison of Lagunillas, Merida State (Cárcel San Juan de Lagunillas, Estado Mérida) 2010, Tocuyito Penitentiary Center, Carabobo State (Centro Penitenciario Tocuyito, Estado Carabobo) 2011, Feminine Penitentiary Center INOF, Miranda State (Centro Penitenciario Femenino INOF, Estado Miranda) 2012–2013, St. Ana Penitentiary Center and Tachira State (Centro Penitenciario de Santa Ana, Estado Táchira) 2012.

Tren al sur. Yare II Penitentiary Center. Photo: Violette Bule

Tren al sur. Yare II Penitentiary Center. Photo: Violette Bule

Thinking of photography as a revolutionary tool is undoubtedly the main justification of my project. I’ve been always asked by inmates “Why did you decide to work with us?” And to that I respond, photography has changed my life completely, it has brought about an internal revolution, where my opinions transcend beyond time space constraints. In a way, photography has saved my life.

Being aware of this premise I decided to give this opportunity to people, whose deprivations, take place in all aspects of their lives. I wanted to give them the same opportunity I had once, and always accompanies me. That’s my main intention.

Beyond a potential tool for social rehabilitation and relief, the force that pushed me to conduct this project, was to see hostile spaces, such as prisons, turned into fraternal spaces. These were spaces of sharing and transformation, of exchange of one reality for another, playing with the notion of reality and fiction. There is nothing more gratifying than witnessing this transformation; people living in deep depression can be immersed, for a few hours, in a different social dynamic that brings them freedom in the form of images and creation.

Santa Ana Penitentiary Center. Photo: Violette Bule

St. Ana Penitentiary Center. Photo: Violette Bule

In just five days in prisons––that’s the time frame of each workshop––I teach them photography history, about the symbolism that exists within each image, and the use of certain symbols to direct an image towards a consume demand. Also, we learn about the different layers of interpretation in an image, composition techniques that end with practical exercises. Inmates take pictures with a final exhibition, inside the prison, as a goal. In this process, the social dynamics between the participants changes completely, they start to see each other as partners, the power struggle, turns into a debate about whose picture is the bests.

Giving a voice to “the other” is the result of these images, where prison is less real, and where freedom, as a symbolic concept, is the protagonist. In a few days of talking about image history, and image creation using disposable cameras, these participants are able to create complex image worthy of being exhibited and published. In a way, pushing forward the idea that freedom can be in the streets and/or elsewhere.

Within the Venezuelan penitentiary system there is a corrupt network that allows smuggling and sales of drugs, firearms, prostitution etc. Therefore, support for these type of initiatives it’s difficult to find, which is the reason why the project didn’t flourish within the context of the Venezuelan Revolution.

St. Juan Prison of Lagunillas Photo: workshop student

St. Juan Prison of Lagunillas Photo: workshop student

Nigel Poor: 

23rd February 2015

There is so much to respond to and I realize our conversation could verge off into many directions. It is curious to me how similar our thoughts and experiences are––though we are working in different countries and continents our experiences and observations about prison intertwine. You mention the difficulty of selecting a name for the project and of course that makes me think about language and representation. I continue to struggle with that and do my best to be cognizant of how I represent those inside. Over the years I have become better at this, moving further away from the initial clichés that people tend to adopt when they first start working in prisons. All this to say working with those who are in many ways invisible and sequestered away from society requires a careful understanding not only of the population one is working with but a clear understand of one’s own motives and responsibilities. I see that care played out in your choice for the title of the project as you both thought carefully about meaning, context and decided to use the language of those being represented.

From our collective experience I see that photography affords the men the possibility of a new, personal and autonomous language. The images can stand on their own. They can be directly interpreted by the viewer without the need of further description. A careful viewer of the images is given direct access into another’s world and what is thrilling is that the world isn’t what one expects. As you say in the photographs one can find “poetry, symbolism and intimacy” and “recurring references to concepts such as family and brotherhood.” That sort of visual sensitivity is not what mass media leads us to believe will be found inside those who are incarcerated.

Helena states “the right to pursue beauty in a hostile environment” is a revolutionary act and Violette says “the force that pushed me to conduct this project, was to see hostile spaces, such as prisons, turned into fraternal spaces.” Those statements could just as easily come out of my mouth. I am constantly amazed by the way the photographic image and conversation around its meaning bridges those who may at first blush appear to have nothing in common. The image facilitates discussion, compassion and the desire to understand––it is easy to see why institutions such a prisons fear this power.

Violette Bule:

24th February 2015

The history of the world is created through of an image, the same case when we talk about of our personal history and all our desires. We are able to construct and deconstruct the world and the whole life. Nigel you are giving a potential tool to your students inside. Susan Sontag said that “photograph is always embellish , select, idealize , dignifying.”

San Quentin Project: Supplied Nigel Poor.

San Quentin Project: Supplied Nigel Poor.

I am very happy knowing this beautiful history about the results of your work in prison, and very curious. Is amazing how through the photography Rubin can find fascination in that difficult context. I’ll like to know more about SQ Archive Project. I wish I have the opportunity to see all that material, is very important. I am very grateful to you for share this with us. Is beautiful.

San Quentin Archive Project: Supplied Nigel Poor.

San Quentin Archive Project: Supplied Nigel Poor.

Helena Acosta:

28th February 2015

Develop creative strategies in areas such as prisons, in the Venezuelan context is an extremely difficult task. There is no type of institution to support logistics or monetarily such activities, most definitely when you consider that talk about photography in prison necessarily leads to talk about human rights. From my perspective, it may seem a small contribution, but the action to teaching history and photographic practice creates a major change in participants. On the one hand, internally in the process are detached from the notion of victim and are excited to learn a technique that allows them to understand themselves and the environment, thus enabling the understanding of reality from another position, that far from the idea of victimization.

Tocuyito Penitentiary Center Photo: Workshop Student

Tocuyito Penitentiary Center Photo: Workshop Student

Moreover, enter the prison theme in art circles such as a museum and cultural center helps to dismantle the stereotypes that society has taught for decades in relation to the representation and idea of the prisoner, allows to understand for a more human perspective this reality. And approaching the understanding of the cracks in the prison system, which in the case of Venezuela is one of the most flawed and corrupt Latin America.

Could you give me impressions about this, how photography can be a process to change not just the way the interns seen themselves, but also society?

St. Ana Penitentiary Center. Photo: Violette Bule

St. Ana Penitentiary Center. Photo: Violette Bule

St. Ana Penitentiary Center. Photo: Workshop student.

St. Ana Penitentiary Center. Photo: Workshop student.

Nigel Poor:

1st March 2015

I get really caught up in this question of how much change can we actually accomplish and truth be told it gets me down. The issue is outrageously complex and I find myself constantly in a state of not knowing––or I should say I think I have come to some sort of understanding and it soon becomes apparent that I am in a nascent state of comprehension. I worry about expecting significant shifts within the system but I have to believe in making a difference in the lives of the people within reach. But is that enough? Here is what makes me very sad and if I ponder it too much I will start to question what I am doing. When I go in to prison to work with the guys it is amazing. I try to spend three days a week there, usually seven hours at a stretch. We work really hard, either with the archive project or on the radio storytelling project. The atmosphere is super creative, we are in the zone pushing ourselves, doing new things and getting work out into the world. And then I have a conversation with a guy about what is happening in his life outside of the time we spend together and I come to see I know so very little about the deprivation and harshness of their daily lives. I think sometime they intentionally “protect” me from knowing too much. At these times I feel childish and I wonder if my faith is misplaced and have I given too much weight to the work the men and I do together? I thought I was swimming in a pond but it turned in to a turbulent ocean––I thought I was offering a solid boat to ferry us together to an interesting place but really what I offered was an old leaking rowboat that is disintegrating as we try to move forward.

St. Ana Penitentiary Center. Photo: Workshop student

St. Ana Penitentiary Center. Photo: Workshop student

But most of the time I don’t feel that way. I try to do a lot of public speaking about the prison work. I also share it with my students at the University and when I see how people react and I when I pay attention to the conversations it engenders I do feel hope. The radio work we are doing is certainly getting out in to the world. And since by its nature radio is free and easily accessed I think we have the chance to connect with a lot of people.

Learning about what you are both doing makes me see that importance of further communication. We are each a pin on the map and if we start connecting threads wouldn’t that be something? I know we are already talking about collaborating on something together––how wonderful and crazy to think about men from a California prison responding to work done by men from a Venezuela prison!

Violette Bule:

5th March 2015

What amazes me every time I attend an art event on prison activism here in the United States is to realize the number of groups, foundations and NGO’s working together pushing forward for the rights of prisoners in the USA. These achievements are gigantic compared to what the prison reality is in Venezuela. And although it has taken a while to materialized them, at the end, what you have today is a solid foundation. I believe, that you have to assume some responsibility with your minorities if you want to advance as a society.

For instance, here in the U.S. you are working for better conditions for transgender people in the prison system, while in Venezuela the only struggles made on behalf of prisoners are lead by the families themselves, and consist of basically keeping them alive. This added to the usual difficulties you face when engaging other people on this type of activism––there is a lot of resentment and misinformation––it is depressive and frustrating to deal with bureaucracy and corruption in the prison system anywhere in the world.

I am deeply convinced that the benefits of working in this type of projects inside prisons, are deeply rewarding, not only on the personal level but too society as a whole. After watching your video, I was impressed by the enthusiasm of everyone involved. I admire how far you’ve come: I can see your commitment. I think the hardest part of this work takes place outside of prisons: demystifying the error, the stigma and decimation. How to convey in people the idea of an unjust world, without sounding irresponsible or naive? How to sensitize people who are “free” in the process of destigmatizing error and encouraging empathy? For me that’s the big challenge. I can’t work in Venezuelan prisons, but anything I can do to share the results of projects like ours, continues to motivate me. 

Feminine Penitentiary Center INOF. Photo: Violette Bule

Feminine Penitentiary Center INOF. Photo: Violette Bule

Feminine Penitentiary Center INOF. Photo: Violette Bule

Feminine Penitentiary Center INOF. Photo: Violette Bule 

Nigel Poor:

7th March 2015

I have to add something here. I agree that the hardest part “of this work takes place outside of prisons: demystifying the error, the stigma and decimation. How to convey in people the idea of an unjust world, without sounding irresponsible or naive?” I struggle with this and I often think to myself ok I have never been a victim of a violent crime, nor has anyone I love. Would I feel differently if that were the case? Am I naïve within the work I do? How do I also care about the victims and make sure they are not forgotten in all of this. And here it can get very messy. The San Jose Mercury News just this week published an article about the San Quentin Radio Project and the newspaper that is published at the prison. In the article Mark Klaas is quoted (the man who murdered his daughter, Polly Klaas, is on death row at San Quentin Prison). He very politely asks a tough question, which is essentially, how does making public the positive things these men do make it more rehabilitative? I do have thoughts on this but when I think about the on going pain and suffering of a parent who has lost a child to murder I am given pause. I don’t want to leave this conversation in a difficult place I only want to make sure we remember there are victims and the work we are dedicating ourselves to is complex in so many ways. I don’t have an answer but I want to keep working on it. I believe in the value of the work we are all doing in prison, I accept that it is complex and that my thoughts and reactions to it will be in a constant state of flux while I learn more and more about all sides of the issue.

Much appreciation to you both for the work you are doing––we have so much more to discuss!


About the contributors: Nigel Poor is a San Francisco-based artist, photographer and Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento. She is a founding director of the San Quentin Prison Report Radio Project, an ongoing collaboration with incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison that creates original audio pieces about prison life for broadcast on public radio.  Nigel Poor is a 2015 A Blade of Grass Fellow for Socially Engaged Art for her work at San Quentin Prison. nigelpoor.com

Helena Acosta is the founder of Producción Aleatoria. Her work as a researcher has developed in different countries such as Japan, US, Spain, Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela. The lines of her work focuses on the study of photography and new media art in relation to contemporary social dynamics and processes. In her curatorial practice she pay equal attention to the social, emotional, aesthetic and technical aspects of the internet and other emerging media as formats socially engaged that can bring new readings of contemporary world.

In 2012 she served as curator of the Biennial of Emerging Art : Kinetic legacy held in the spaces of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas. In 2013 participated as a curator in the first edition of The Wrong Digital New Digital Art Biennale, created by David Quilles in Brazil. Currently she is part of the curatorial team of French Project Super Art Modern Museum (SPAMM). Her work as a curator has earned two awards from emerging curators by the Generalitat of Catalonia in Spain and the Institute of Contemporary Art Tokyo Wonder Site in Japan. produccionaleatoria.com

Violette Bule studied at the Active School of Photography in Mexico and has a Diplomat on General Studies of Photography at National Center of Photography of Venezuela. Her work has been exhibited at severals art centers and museums such as the Centre of Contemporary Art Tokyo Wonder Site, Japan, Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas, Venezuela, the NEGPOS Gallery and University Paris 7 in France and Gallery EspacioMAD in Venezuela. She has also participated in several art fairs such as Iberoamerican Art Fair, Venezuela; PINTA Latin American Art Fair, Gallery Studio 8 in the UK, Artfair Hong Kong PSH Project, Hong Kong, among others.

Her approach to photography has a social character, one of its aspects is concern about highlighting problematics from their immediate context through fiction, another calls for photographic education as a tool of social change in pedagogical projects within prisons of their country. To Violette urban space is the main stage to generate action and show social problems through photography. Her work goes beyond the documentary record, using stages and humor as a means to channel scathing criticisms and reflections on socio-political situations. violettebule.com