An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist Marina Abramovic
How can one relate as an artist to a community in a sustainable way? How to avoid institutionalisation without losing the power to organise? How to not become cynical while working in a public environment and seeing that many people just don’t care? How to start thinking about artistic education as a critical point of entry to the social fabric of the city?
A. Paper tour
I will first take you on a tour through the practices of four Rotterdam-based initiatives. This paper excursion is the result of an afternoon of walking, talking and reflecting upon a challenging question: how can art schools teach their students to have an impact upon communities? The second part of this text focuses on this question.
Although the four initiatives each have a different focus, they have this simple fact in common: they started doing. This is important especially nowadays, when public environments – libraries, community centres or public spaces – are disappearing from city life, being replaced by online spaces and social media. How does this affect local communities? And which long-term effects can be brought about by artist-run social spaces? Is community-building a goal, or a vehicle for something bigger?
Join us on our tour!
1. Critical community: Upominki
‘After finishing art school I expected to work as I had been educated: as an autonomous artist,’ says Weronika Zielinska. ‘But when I became a mother, the real struggle began.’ She started Upominki – meaning ‘gifts’ in Polish – in 2012 as a non-profit artist-run space. ‘My biggest question was: how to combine family life with remaining part of a critical artistic community?’
A small connection
Weronika had to re-train herself: ‘There is only a small connection between the art school and the outside world. I needed skills I hadn’t been taught. How to improvise? How to organise? Where to find space? How to become self-sustaining? How to make money through projects?’ Upominki became her tool to address these questions.
Weronika has been successfully running Upominki for five years now. She recently moved Upominki to her new family home in Rotterdam-West. Using a white marker, she writes on the window: When basic needs are met, it’s easier to be creative. ‘Are you able to be generous? Can you build relationships? In the end it’s all about giving and receiving,’ Weronika states. It’s as if she wants to say: it’s hard to meet obligations towards a community, when you yourself are in survival mode.
2. Local community: Leeszaal Rotterdam West
Leeszaal Rotterdam West started as a low-key organisation, not long after the neighbourhood library closed: ‘We didn’t write a plan,’ says Maurice Specht. ‘We just started by tapping into the local fabric.’ Free space was provided by a housing corporation. ‘We’re completely run by volunteers.’ So how do you maintain a library?
‘Do as little administration as possible. People just take books – some bring them back, others don’t.’ Of course, some money is involved: ‘The DOEN Foundation gave us €50,000. After the first year we hadn’t even spent half of the money. So we contacted them and asked if they preferred us to waste the rest of it on something expensive, or save it for later.’ The DOEN Foundation agreed to the latter. ‘Now we still have about €15,000 left.’ Maurice smiles: ‘You have to assemble your life in such a way that you can live like this.’
This is an important issue for Maurice: ‘We have to change the money system. We didn’t accept funding from the local government. We don’t want to maintain their pace. We don’t want to force the people we work with. We want to stay independent.’ This independence makes Leeszaal Rotterdam West stand out. ‘People like us because of our presence in the neighbourhood.’ But: ‘Especially artists are coming like aliens and then leaving again. My question to them is: how can you work on a long-term basis?’
3. Ambitious community: Freehouse / Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie
‘Using small-scale interventions, we plugged an ambitious artistic network into a local framework and language.’ Ramon Mosterd explains how Freehouse functions as a tool: founder Jeanne van Heeswijk brought her international network as an artist to the local market square in the Afrikaanderwijk neighbourhood in the south of Rotterdam. Funding helped allow these experimental interventions to grow into more viable ways of making money. ‘Along the way, we used institutionalisation in order to become a growing force.’
Oh no, not another group of students...
‘At first it functioned as an art project, rooted in Jeanne’s practice: a portrait of communities.’ But gradually it has become more than that. Operating from the Gemaal op Zuid building, a former surface-water pumping station, Freehouse set up Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie, which facilitates new forms of shared space for meeting and interacting: sometimes it functions as a professional neighbourhood kitchen, a church or a library; on other occasions it could be a (web) shop, a shared office, a gallery or a meeting space.
‘But when people come and go, how can you establish a clear identity?’ Ramon laughs a bit: ‘Sometimes we whisper: oh no, not another group of students...’ He continues: ‘You need to organise in order to be taken seriously by the local government. How to find time and money to set up an organisation that can carry this responsibility?’ The main thing is to stick with the process. ‘Keep a goal in mind, but work based on intuition.’
4. Attentive community: Conversas
‘People are too busy! There is no time anymore after finishing art school.’ Constança Saraiva co-founded Conversas – ‘conversations’ in Portuguese – in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2012 as an ‘open space for open people’. Conversas is a series of weekly informal meetings where three people share ideas, projects or stories with the gathered group. Later she moved to Rotterdam ‘because I fell in love with someone who lives here’ – and she brought Conversas along.
Being a good host
Conversas events are currently being organised in various cities around the world, and thus also in Rotterdam, in this case on February 15 at Upominki. ‘Conversas are a basic tool for organising a critical network after you graduate,’ Constança explains. ‘We organise through social media, but meet in real life. We invite people to speak out. It’s a positive model in which we secretly help each other, by being a good host, by listening, and by raising questions to get each other to talk.’ Her motivation: to provide alternative ways of learning from others. Conversas are open to everybody. ‘Our network is mostly made of creative people, but we believe that we can learn from anyone, even more so from people who think differently and come from other backgrounds,’ Constança says.
B. How to teach?
What do these four practices mean for art education? They are all related to artists – and all but one are rooted in the practices of these artists. Only Leeszaal Rotterdam West functions at somewhat more of a distance from this. A closer inspection raises questions such as: How to work with, or within, the system? How to teach the art of using the social fabric as artistic material? How to teach the art of bringing back artistic production to the communities involved? Based on these questions, I wish to advance four proposals for art education. The core of each of these proposals is the verb ‘to teach’.
Within all artistic practices, the same simple question arises: how to survive? Constança says: ‘There is no time anymore after finishing art school.’ ‘How does one find time?’ Ramon adds. Maurice has adapted his life in such a way as to create the necessary space and time. But still, as Weronika found out, ‘I needed skills I hadn’t been taught.’ These artists have all struggled and are looking for tools to develop and grow.
Thus, art schools will need to introduce a course called ‘Process’. Here, students will learn to address questions such as: How to start? How to prioritise? How to work based on intuition? How to persevere? How to finish? And how to work in a sustainable way?
An example of a course focusing on process is Marina Abramović’s teachings on performance art – a time-based and process-based practice. At the beginning of a workshop she takes her students to a place ‘either too cold or too hot, never comfortable’ and, while fasting ‘for three to five days, drinking only water and herbal teas, and refraining from speaking’, she does various exercises: lying on the ground for as long as possible, going to a forest where a student is blindfolded and then tries to find the way back home, or trying to remember the very moment between being awake and falling asleep. Through these durational exercises, she wishes to give students ‘the general feeling that the hardship was worth it.’1 Only after these exercises does she allow students to start working.
Money and institutionalisation are a second struggle. Weronika seeks a degree of self-sufficiency. Maurice didn’t accept funding from the local government, because of a desire to stay independent. On the other hand, Ramon says: ‘You need to organise in order to be taken seriously by the local government.’ And Constança hopes to reach more people than just friends and artists.
Thus, art schools will need to introduce a course called ‘Organisation’. Here, students will learn to address questions such as: How to find the necessary money? How to write proposals? How to build a team? How to collaborate with people who aren’t (already) friends? How to communicate about events? Using Facebook, for example, how to reach more people than just friends?
Today the individual is subject to pressures from different types of seemingly overpowering organisations: the state, big corporations, or the financial system. Self-organisation and collectivity are important tools as counter-forces, but they too are part of the same process, as the hipster movement or the history of the internet clearly demonstrate. Starting from a simple desire to share information, the internet grew into a system now controlled by a few big corporations and characterised by ‘filter bubbles’ and algorithms. The same basic story also applies to money and organisation.
During a debate, Anne Miltenburg, a brand developer, said something like: ‘When you’re supported by the money system, it’s too late already. You’re part of the system, and there’s not much you can do to change that anymore. The most interesting part is over.’ Or, to paraphrase the sociologist Joop Goudsblom: when we think together, we create institutions, which then grow and eventually replace our intuitions.2 Thus we should teach each other to cherish and hold on to this first phase of organising, in which we are intuitively searching for solutions without yet finding them. Because although this part seems hard, it is the most open and fruitful.
Finishing art school, Weronika discovered: ‘There is only a small connection between the art school and the outside world.’ Especially Maurice and Ramon are critical of art students: ‘Artists are coming like aliens and then leaving again. My question to them is: how can you work on a long-term basis?’ And: ‘Oh no, not another group of students...’ To explain these observations: when working within the framework of communities, how sustainable is the traditional concept of the artist?
Thus, art schools will need to introduce a course called ‘Transmission’. Here, students will learn to address questions such as: How to renounce the institutional status of art? How to communicate with people who don’t know art or artists? How to present yourself to people who are cynical towards art and artists? How to stay generous? How to become an accomplice to a person, an organisation or a community – and vice versa? How to use this social field for sincere artistic production?
In 1974 the artist and furniture designer Enzo Mari published a booklet titled Proposta per un’autoprogettazione, enabling the public to make ‘easy-to-assemble furniture using rough boards and nails. […] Anyone, apart from factories and traders, can use these designs to make them by themselves.’ Mari thus provided ‘an elementary technique to teach anyone to look at present production with a critical eye.’ 3 Because: ‘The world was not only made for the rich, who live in large apartments and villas, but most people live in two-room apartments.’ So: design does not become design by formally contributing to someone’s status. ‘Design is only design when it communicates knowledge,’4 Mari states.
Similarly, the artist Renzo Martens refers to the example of the Unilever series in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London: ‘Every year a new spectacular exhibition, where art gets to show how important it is for people. This includes very critical, politically motivated works by Ai Weiwei, or works by Tino Seghal about changing labour conditions. Great artworks, sponsored by Unilever. And therefore by plantation workers who earn nothing.’ To Martens this means the very bankruptcy of art: ‘An artwork should first and foremost be a reflection upon itself. When you have great artworks […] that don’t show any understanding of the fact that they’ve been paid for through heartbreakingly abject poverty, then these are just bad artworks.’5
After graduating from art school, ‘instead I became a mother,’ says Weronika. Constança moved to Rotterdam ‘because I fell in love with someone who lives here.’ Ramon calls for more intuition. And Maurice describes what makes his activities possible: the fact that they are embedded in his personal life, adapted in such a way that it allows him to live this way. All four are touching upon something important: the layer of everyday life, biography and personality. A decision to start doing begins here.
At first, I thought of using this space to propose a course on personality. But thinking further, the opposite approach became much more interesting: the art school as an institution should train its teachers to open up. Education itself will de-institutionalise and become part of city life and communities, as an engaging force supporting change within society. Because, as the artist and architect Apolonija Šušteršič wrote: ‘As citizens we lack power, but the influence we have, we can use to bring about change in our immediate surroundings, based on communication, respect and trust.’6 So: when we work to change art schools, what is the concept of this change?
According to Šušteršič, the concept of change that is needed in order to open up art and art schools towards communities focuses on two main issues: de-materialisation of the artwork, and multidisciplinarity. Art is not just objects, and art is more than a reflection upon art itself. Bonds between people, and the creation of platforms to support these bonds, thus become the core of artistic production and education. Referring to philosopher Jacques Rancière, Šušteršič adds: ‘The unequal relationship specific to common ways of knowledge transfer – a one-way transfer from teacher to student – is unsuitable here.’ The opposite is needed: an equal process of exchange, in which the knowledge of an educator or an artist, the experience of communities or the public, and the professional competence of students are understood as equivalent to each other. We no longer live in a world in which independent artists struggle in their studio, isolated from society. In the studio, we still have to deal with gallerists, curators, the museum or the public; similarly, in city life, we have to deal with politicians, policymakers, developers and citizens. There is no more neutral ground. To quote again Šušteršič: ‘What matters is whether art manages to relate to the urgent questions of contemporary society.’7
The good part is: the world as it once was no longer exists. You’ve already changed. Now act like it.
Marina Abramovic, Walk Through Walls: A Memoir. Penguin Random House UK, 2016. Page 222-224.
Sander Pleij, Joop Goudsblom. Vrij Nederland, Year 78 #01. Page 101.
Enzo Mari, Autopogettazione? Edizione Corraini, 2014. Page 1.
Mariska van den Berg, Stedelingen veranderen de stad. Trancity / Valiz: 2013. Page 137.
Idem. Page 142 - 144.