Open Place interviewed Elisabeth Belomlinsky
October 2, 2018
New York, US
Elisabeth Belomlinsky, was born in St Petersburg, Russia. At age 11 along with her family she moved to New York in Jackson Heights, Queens. Inspired by the diversity of her surroundings and mystic rites of various cultural beliefs, having embraced the emotionality of creation she has been crafting a personal and diverse form of devotional art.
“World is based on fairy tales”
I feel that the place where I came from, it is also me. I’m an immigrant, a daughter of Children’s book Illustrator and a writer and storyteller – that influences my art. I was grown on fairy tales, on history, and mythology from all over the world. When I was 11, our family moved to New York, where I have been living since then in Jackson Heights – the region with the most diverse culture in the world. I had an unconscious assimilation of all the cultures that were mixed in my head. At some point I realized that world is based on fairy tales. People strongly believe in those fairy tales, sometimes they kill each other because of them, but these are still just fairy tales. The narrative invented by people, which led our world to a terrible situation. In my art I am rethinking, replaying and rewriting these stories. I use images from different religions to show that this is a play on words, and the way we relate our personal stories – this is how our common history will be weaved. The things that we say, that we write and draw are extremely important. It seems to me the artists are the first people who realize this because they understand that they are writing history.
“If emotions will be respected by everyone, the world will become more sensible”
Creativity for me is an emotional and intellectual process. In America, there are the concepts of emotional intelligence, physical intelligence, and mental intelligence. But I think intelligence is intelligence. We have divided our utilitarian functions really into men and women. We now have a split personality in a human being, which was actually really hurtful to our society if you really think about it. So the fact that we could say this is emotional intelligence and this is intelligence intelligence is completely crazy. Like if you can do math but you don’t understand human feelings, you’re not intelligent, you are half a person.
The reason why we have that understanding is because the emotionality belongs to women. Women were suppressed. Everything that belongs to women was degraded and disrespected. And men felt that they could call themselves intelligent, while not understanding matters of the heart. But really if you didn’t disrespect this whole other side, you will never call a person who doesn’t understand the heart intelligent, because they don’t want to accept the reality of the other half.
I have never seen a human being in male or female form who was able to control, turn off and annihilate their emotionality. Every man who claims to do that, they suppress their emotions, and these emotions come out sideways and in crazy ways. No one has accomplished robot state. Robot is not a possibility. You can be emotional, you can be intelligent about them and you can be creative about them. You can worship them, respect them, and you can know that they are stronger than you.
All art is based on emotions. The men do not talk about this, keeping the story apart from the product. For example, Leonard Cohen, who writes very emotional songs – there’s definitely the certain story behind. My friend met him once on the street and asked: “Look, who is this song about?” and Cohen replied: “I do not remember.” But this is a lie! Of course, he remembered who he wrote this song about. And he has a right to keep this apart. I can also decide at some point that I will not explaining any more, whom my art is about. But initially, as a protest, I don’t do it, because it seems to me that women are linked with people who give them inspiration. We get attached to the people and create our art from this. But why should it be less respected than the denial of these relations? I think this is part of women’s oppression, contempt for women’s life and women’s story. We struggle for this respect.
Female art is hardly recognized by most of the men. Once I was asked to recommend a works of art for the gallery’s event. I sent very female art. The artist Sally McInyre paints women’s silhouettes on old bed sheets. She does not stretch them, but just hang them out. I saw it and was immediately conquered. I suggested her work to the gallery owner for his event , and he immediately replied to me: “Send me something else.” I had to insist that he look one more time. He did not look, but forward this to the organizer. And the organizer was a woman accepted those works immediately. That is why we need women who own the galleries, and women curators. I understand what this art is about, it is clear to me, and a man doesn’t even see it from the start. When the works were already hanging in the gallery, he was impressed too, he understood the idea. That’s why I’m saying that we struggle for this respect. We are fighting for us to be perceived. That is why I realized that we need to elevate our emotions, our voice, and our work by ourselves.
The emotionality that influences women’s life, women’s work and women’s art makes us less respected, because emotions are not respected by patriarchy, in the men’s world. Men suffer from this the same as women. If men lived in a world where their emotions are respected, it would be nice for them. It would be nice for everyone. I think less people would kill.
Human emotions are the main magic existing in the world. I saw women’s groups where they understand that emotion can rise to the desire to kill and return to the feeling of love. When I speak with women who are in anger or hysterics, she is shaking and has a red forehead, after you talk to her, let her speak out, in twenty minutes she is smiling, she is pacified, she is happy. only attention is needed and understanding of the situation. Men are very afraid of this, because they do not know how to turn their anger into love in twenty minutes, as they suppress their emotions. Boys are brought up like that. They are trained differently than girls, and the effect is harmful. We have a lot of aggression and cruelty as the result. I understand that not every man is aggressive, but all women are afraid of aggression. Physical aggression has no race, economic class, nationality, but it has a gender— and it is male. This is a fact of human history: yes, indeed not every man killed someone, but most of the people who killed someone were men. I am talking about physical aggression, because it seems to me that this is connected to the suppression of emotions, later on they pop up unpredictably. I think if emotions will be respected by everyone, the world will become more sensible.
"We create Goddess"
I have met radical feminists through Michelle Southerland, when she gathered women for collaboration. It was an intuitive process, like love at first sight. It’s like soul mates – you see a person and already realize: you understand each other, love each other, and need each other. If you say to a man when you just met: “I love you, I need you, I understand you,” the man says: “Oh, shit, oh-oh!” A woman looks at you with absolutely the same trust and says: “I love you too, I understand you too, I need you too” – and we hug each other! And so it was with Michelle. We exchanged a few words, she said that she was organizing protests, helping women, and going on a women’s march at the end of the week. I told her that I wanted to do something important in my life, that I was already forty years old and I want to help women organize protests, and I asked how I can help ? Michelle said that she always needed help, and invited me to come to the event. I attended few events where I met soul mates literally one after another.
There are a lot of female art groups, but there’s no place for me there either. The difference is that precisely this art group is a spiritual one. We have no plan in Radical Matriarchy, but we have an ideology that we grow together. The members of Radical Matriarchy are not just artists — they are women who believe in soul relationship, in emotional intelligence, in mysticism. Every other says that she is a spiritual healer, an energy worker. Michelle calls herself a sister Leona. I worked with icons for seven years and also thought that I was a nun. Recently, I suddenly understood what we are really doing: we are creating art to revive the goddess. We create the goddess. We call each other goddesses.
I was joking that after my project with icons I became an atheist, I stopped believing in God and started believing in Goddess. We don’t need God anymore, but Goddess should exist. Let me explain the main difference from god and goddess, as I see it now. The mythology of God is that: he created man in his own image. Goddess does not exist here, and we make and create the goddess now, in our image. This is called responsibility, creative responsibility. When you take responsibility for your creation, you take responsibility for yourself. We all understand that if the Goddess is to be love – we must be love, if we want her to heal – we must heal, if a goddess will create, we must create. And for me this is a very important distinction for our world: why there should be a goddess, and not a god. Because we need to create this deity and not think that it has created us. God does not have an author, and therefore he does what he wants.
Therefore, women in Radical Matriarchy take responsibility by creating the goddess in their image. Women in their history very often and intensely competed with each other, because they were dependent. We depended on men: it was important that they feed us, marry us, and feed our children. We competed and were jealous of each other. Women oppress each other. They degrade each other emotionally and intellectually. They tell to each other: you have ugly body, horrible hair, not trendy clothes. We often do this, we all do this, and I was doing the same at some point. And all of us were criticized. Radical Matriarchy is an experiment. The goal is to see what happens if women would invest the same extreme energy in supporting each other, accepting each other and understanding each other. What if we support each other with the same sincere emotion? I must say it really works. I come out of these meetings and I feel love in my heart. I love myself and I love all other women in the world.
It is not a simple thing to invent a goddess. It does not mean merely to draw a creature with breasts. It is important to understand what a feminine divine is, what is her sexuality is and how it meets the concept of the divine. Women from Radical Matriarchy want to stop the sexualization of the female body. We must look at the woman as a person first off all.
Transgender is a future of humanity. But before it happens, we need make one of our genders equally respected. Because if I were asked whether I wish to become a man, I would say: “Yes, of course.” To live as a woman in this world, is uncomfortable for me. For all of my life, I wanted to be a man. From the age of ten I had a main dream – to become a man. Because I immediately saw: the boys do what they want, and the girls clean the apartment, the boys play, and the girls cook dinner. So, how could we merge the genders if one of the genders is degraded? We will not combine two genders, but simply remove one of them. To put them together on an equal footing, it is necessary to raise a woman to the level of a person in everyone’s perception.
Sexualization of the body is a complicated thing. We need to eliminate this ideology when a woman is recognized only as an object for sex. Recently we had the “Me Too” movement (in social media it became popular in October 2017 – OP), each woman who was raped wrote about it on Facebook. It was a wave of trauma. It was the first time when women start to tell their stories openly, in social media. Before that, we did not even realize how many women were sexually abused. We don’t work with female trauma, we were simply afraid to demonstrate our traumas to the people around us, that is a problem. Women need a space where they could express their traumatic stories, and only then we can realize how to move further. The movements such as “Me Too” are just like a flash, which is turned on for a second, and you see what is around you. Yes, you can start doing art, you can start to make changes, but what was before, what is the starting point? We did not even begin to deal with a female trauma, because the flashlight turned on only for a second.
"Love is just belief and work"
In the documentary “The cave of forgotten dreams” they tell about the cave with ancient paintings. They talk about Neanderthals and cavemen, and investigate why cavemen survived, but Neanderthals didn’t. Scientists have discovered that Neanderthals at some point began to copy what cavemen did. For example, cavemen started making tools and Neanderthals too. There was one thing that cavemen did, but Neanderthals didn’t do. Cavemen began to decorate their improvised weapons. On the tip of the arrow a man carefully made a border with tiny flowers. When I saw it, I realized why they did it, because they believed that with their own hands and effort they would strengthen this weapon. This is not a practical thing – this is the existence of God, this is how God was invented. Because if we would believe, that with our work, we can empower this arrow – it will kill more mammoths. And I, as an artist, and as a witch, believe in this — that there is no craft, but only magic. There is only human work and human faith. And the things, where you put your faith and your action will really work.
I think that love is also at the level of this border – it is just faith and work. Two people love each other only while they believe that they love each other. And while you believe, you would work on those relationships. And when you stop believing, you stop loving. Nature is chaos, and human love is the first structure of order that we imposed over nature. We decided that we can believe that such a spiritual feeling is part of human nature.
Open Place interviewed Natasha Danberg
April 18, 2015
In 2015 at the SUPRMARKET art fair was presented space Köttinspektionen from Uppsala. The organization was founded by art group haka, independent theater Teater C and ballet troupe Autopilot. Natasha Danberg is a member of haka. Natasha moved from Russia to Sweden in 2000. In here works she mixes memory, cultural traditions and a wide range of techniques, in attempt to reveal the absurd nature of the clash of dreams and reality. Natasha Danberg told about contemporary art in the conservative Uppsala, about cultural policy of Sweden, and narrow-minded fear of the galleries.
"To pay to the artists - the question of democracy"
Natasha Danbeg: Independent organizations in Sweden it is the basis of the democracy of the country. For example, hobby-clubs: chess, football, art that are not depending on house of culture or city authority – a few people gathered together and created their own club. The housing cooperatives are the other example of independent organization, with elected board and monthly meetings and protocols. The democratic system penetrates the society at all levels. My membership in haka was accepted by voting of the members that were already a part of the art group.
Open Place: By the way how did haka appear?
Natasha Danbeg: This is an organization from Uppsala. Haka is abbreviation of the names of four artists, who founded organization: Helena Laukkanen, Anna-Karin Brus, Katarina Sundkvist Zohari and Agneta Forslund. We’ve met at Uppsala. There was an empty school that was used as a studio place for about 40 artists. It was my first year in Sweden, and I had a studio at that school either. When that was decided to give this building back to the school, artists had to search the new places for the work. I with four others future participants of haka group were going to share the studio. When we moved I gave a birth and missed for two months. Meanwhile the partners organized the haka, and I joined the group after I was back.
Open Place: What united of the members of the group, if not the premises?
Natasha Danbeg: Uppsala is the Sweden analogue of Oxford – one of the intellectual centers of Europe, there is the big old University with many students. From other hand Uppsala it is the religious center and insanely conservative city. That is why art, especially contemporary art, is developed very poorly. Mostly the clumsy exhibitions are conducted and free young art is not shown. The first exhibition organized by haka had place in premises of abandoned store for the small money and got huge positive feedback. For a long time we didn’t have our own exhibition space –we’ve got it only this year. We have more possibilities but more things to do and I need to admit, that it is a completely different situation and different activity.
Open Place: Could you tell me more about Köttinspektionen?
Natasha Danbeg: The space belongs to commune. In 1920-1940 there was meat inspection, than the premise was empty. As far the building is considered as the cultural heritage the reconstruction is prohibited. No one from private investors is interested to use it. We with our friends from independent theatre and ballet troupe decided that we could care of this space if unite our forces. Together we created the organization Köttinspektionen (“Meet Inspection” in Sweden). Through this umbrella structure we apply to the municipality for the money for development of the project. They allocate us with money, that we actually pay them back as payment for the rent and utilities. So we ask a bit more money, enough to develop at least some artistic projects.
We pay honorarium to the artists who participate in the exhibitions, organized by haka. It is the question of democracy. The director of an art museum, the watchwoman, and the technical staff gets the salary. The artist who exhibited in that museum gets only a flower during the vernissage. We are trying to pay honorarium to the artist firstly, though we need save on everything. We don’t publish the flyers, the advertisement we do through social networks or personal contacts with the journalists. At the same time, our work is not paid. All members of haka have another job. I’m teaching and make computer graphics for TV news, and give the lectures.
Open Place: How does the responsibility is distributed in haka?
Natasha Danbeg: During the meeting we decide who and what responsible for, in each certain project. I mostly do marketing and write press releases. I find it easy to talk to journalists, because I worked as an art director in a number of publications. Fund-raising for the project we usually do together. We accept new project, only if all of the five member of collective approve the idea.
Usually, we meet together, every week when we work on project. We have a secretary who does protocol of the meeting. We keep the protocols of all meetings for 12 or 13 years we exist. Everything is structured very well, though we do it for ourselves only. We don’t have to report to anybody.
"The museums' pedagogy is popular In Sweden"
Open Place: Who is your audience?
Natasha Danbeg: It depends on project. When we would talk about exhibition Agneta Forslund, member of haka, whose painting we are planning to show soon, the lovers of painting will come, the classical artistic gathering. It will be “slender” and specific exhibition.
Now we are working on the exhibition of Finnish documentary filmmaker. She makes four installations connected with her film about how the refugees who were subjected to torture in the country of their origin, legalized in Finland. Similar problems related to this topic, we have in Sweden. Fans of painting, drawing and graphics possibly will not come to this exhibition. It will rather people who are interested in political and social issues. We collaborate with representatives of the Swedish Church on this project – its parishioners, will come to the opening too. I think there will be many artists as well as film mob. Plus we actively work with schools. I teach in the ninth grades, and probably, I’ll bring all of my students to this exhibition.
Open Place: Should cultural organization have political overtones?
Natasha Danbeg: Some yes, some no – we show qualified art. It can be solely aesthetic or with certain political goals. It also very much depends on the members of the group. For example I work in journalism for a long time, and I can’t get rid the politics. I did a big political project about military propaganda on the example of the Swedish and the Russian militaries, who served in Afghanistan. The other members of our group support and understand me though they don’t engage in political art.
Open Place: Why do you work with the schools?
Natasha Danbeg: It is very common situation here. The museums’ pedagogy is popular In Sweden. All museums, exhibition halls and galleries collaborate with schools. The person has no relation to art, often afraid to enter the exhibition hall. I had a dream to rid the school kids of this fear. We visited museums and gallerias a few times a year, I explained to children all features and details. Now I see the results: my first students, who became adults, come to the gallery, read the sign next to the pictures, feel free to communicate with the artists. Children today perfectly understand video and sound-art, because they are in a certain media environment. It is interesting to hear their thoughts. That is why we work with the schools.
Emphasizing the quality of art
Open Place: How do your exhibitions’ program is formed?
Natasha Danbeg: It depends on the source of money. The municipality is caring about quality. We talk about artist, whose exhibition we’d like to organize, show the positive reviews. Officials are not interested in ideology, only in quality, and they trust us.
Members of haka have common aesthetic and political views. During the selection of the works at some intuitive level everybody say «No» at once for some project.
We try to vary the types of projects. After the exhibition of video art it is great to show sculptures, some three-dimensional objects, and then – festival of performance art. But many things happen spontaneously.
Open Place: How does your organization influence the cultural policy of Sweden?
Natasha Danbeg: There are a lot of aspects of this cultural policy. We developed the political projects about vulnerability based on art made by women. There were a lot of reviews, visitors. Has it affected the attitude of society to these issues – I do not know. Our aim was only to show that the vulnerability exists.
If we would speak about cultural policy as the way of relationship of society to the artist, we actively work in this sphere. We insist that artist should get fee. Recently we’ve talked about this with officials of the municipality during the meeting. They were very surprised, when they heard about it. But dancers and actors get paid for repetitions and performances. Different areas of art have different working conditions. This is political question. We have discussed this problem with many of Swedish gallerists and cultural functionaries as well as we are going to discuss it with politicians. Our activities in haka is unpaid, but we still do it – it’s kind of dependence.
"It is boring for me to be only an artist"
Open Place: How often haka prepares new projects?
Natasha Danbeg: Differently, for example in 2009 we worked a year on a huge for our institution show, “Swedish family”. The project involved 25 artists. We presented it at the Moscow Biennale. Over the past year we have made six exhibitions. But the projects are different. For performance is nothing special to do: provide people with the keys to the premises, and they work. To prepare video installation, in cooperation with the Swedish church it needs more of your time. On average, we do three to six exhibitions a year.
Open Place: How do you find the time for own projects?
Natasha Danbeg: There is no time. Each individual has many aspects of a personality. I am mother, wife, teacher of drawing, graphic designer, author of articles on contemporary Russian art, curator and artist. It is boring for me to be only an artist. Earlier I used to paint. It was pleasant work. I had a gallerist, who sold my paintings. I had the ambitions to live from the sales. Then I started to work with video only. The idea that my art would be a source of financial well-being, disappeared. When I freed from this thought, it became unimportant if I do own projects or curate the project of others. The main thing, that it is interesting for me.
Now with great pleasure I curate the exhibition of documentary filmmaker – it is going to be a good job. It is interesting for me to review the videos for the project and to discuss them with author. This is highly creative process, and I learn something at the time. And when I work on my own art project, I use the experience gained from this my collaboration.
Open Place interviewed Geert Opsomer
July 25, 2018
Open Place met Gerd Opsomer during the Assembly at the Malta Festival in Poznan. Gerd Opsomer focuses his research on the issues of participation, collectivity and hybridity. Gerd Opsomer is working on the creation of a “transit zone” for young theater workers. He teaches at, and was co-founder of the new dramatic Arts department of the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema & Sound (RITCS.)
Open Place: Please, introduce yourself and tell a little bit about your background.
Geert Opsomer: My backgrounds: philosophy, theatre practice, performing, a bit of anthropology also. I worked some time at university, a long time actually, in the field of performing arts and philosophy and cultural studies. Also I tried to work there in practice, which was difficult in our university(K.U.Leuven). And then I had theatrical practice next to it, and in a certain moment I chose to work in theatre.
I worked in the Art centre in Ghent, Belgium (Nieuwpoorttheater). It was not so big, but very well-known Belgium artists coming from it, and always with social commitment in their work. I worked there for ten years. With the people working there we tried to make art with the social commitment – instead of art in arts. The words from Peter Sellars “the voice for the voiceless” became very important in our way of working. We tried also to look for another audience. We worked with communities in Ghent. Lots of young groups were developed from that.
As I didn’t feel very well at university, with a few people we also started the parallel school within the institute which was absolute old school of theatre. It was very difficult. It was group of several people and we didn’t fit to the system. The school, in the beginning, in the first three-four years, was very important for me, but then I went away. Now I am back in the school. I’m still doing the theatre. I’m starting again in the smaller initiatives in Brussels.
If you want to do the school, you have to come in the system and a bit attacking it being together and taking a risk. At the moment when we started, very important for me was the meeting with Peter Sellars in 1994. That year we had the parallel meeting at the first edition of a big art festival KunstenfestivaldesArts in Brussels with a lot of people and it was called “City of Cultures”. I admired what Peter Sellars have been doing in Los Angeles (Peter Sellars was artistic director of the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 and 1993), I wanted him to come to Brussels. I thought that maybe he would convince people to work that way, to work with communities. He came and gave a wonderful speech which came in all of newspapers and impressed many people. We had a talk for a whole night. I said I want to start a school and we were talking of how to educate people not only in the privileged classes. He said: “The most important thing for the teacher is to be open to what students have to teach you, only then you can teach”. Now many people think like that, but that was in 1994.
"You can express minor culture within the major one"
Open Place: Can you explain what do you mean under “reinvent collectiveness”? And what is “minor culture” instead of “excluded minorities”?
Geert Opsomer: It’s about practice and theory. For the whole of my life I was inspired by Pierre-Félix Guattari. Every time I was reading theory which really struck me, like Frantz Fanon, or this French psychoanalyst Jacques Marie Émile Lacan. These are known names, but for me they were very important because they were linked with practices. I became very enthusiast about these things, and always the name of Guattari came with the others. And I didn’t know who this guy is. When I studied philosophy I was a fan of Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher in the time of Michel Foucault. Especially Foucault and Deleuze were very important for me personally to understand things about society. And there again Foucault was a fan of Guattari and Deleuze wrote books with Guattari. I think 20% of the books of Deleuze are written with Guattari and Guattari wrote as many books as Deleuze. Deleuze was philosopher, a university professor, and Guattari was an activist. But because Guattari was an activist, people forgot him.
I was amazed at the idea of writing together. And then you read how a philosopher becomes an activist and an activist becomes a philosopher. It was really something which stuck me. The term “minor culture” is coming from them. Guattari worked at the experimental psychiatric clinic of La Borde in France. La Borde is a clinic with psychotic people, people who are dumped by society, psychotic patients refused to be in society. Lots of people in Western Europe and Latin America went to visit the clinic just to be in contact with Guattari. And I even found out that thinkers, that are very important nowadays, as Italian neo-marxists like Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben and Franco Berardi, all went there. They stayed there for a long time. Even when they were at risk in their own country in Italy, they went to La Borde to be with the patients. This was really a mad’s clinic with totally different rules and a kind of community, which in the same time was very experimental.
The idea of “minor culture” is that you can express minor culture within the major one. This is the struggle which you have to do, and in fact you change the culture. And so, you change a little bit an idea, such as: these people are excluded, and we have to help them to have at least the basics of life. No, we have to be very ambitious about that. We and they are together to create other languages within a language, other thinking, just like Kafka speaking another language changed German literature or the Roumenian Ionesco changed French language. And that’s what Guattari actually did in La Borde: he re-invented the system and the language of psychiatry voicing the excluded people. Once I was there, for instance, one of the patients wrote a new constitution for France. He was a law professor the certain time and then he went crazy. When he did so, Guattari invited lawyers, thinking about the country, and they listening to him. It’s a mixture of psychotic and socio-political delusions and real revolutionary thinking.
When I’m reading and studying that, I’m always seeing examples of minor culture for me. And I think it’s so important to develop it as an idea. These guys are dead. They were in fact the leaders of thinking. And what amazes me that people who worked there and don’t work there any more, they are still defending such ideas where they are in which context they are. I also amaze when I meet somebody who was inspired by this and has committed to social way, tries to do that kind of things in his way in his context, with group of people or with community.
“Heterogeneity is crucial for human being”
Open Place: You also proposed the notion of “city” instead of “nation”. How it would work?
Geert Opsomer: I think in Europe nowadays the nation state is a way to understand and to organize things and politicize the hierarchies in culture and economy. In 19th century it became very important. There were a lot of wars going on because of the nation idea, it has to be kind of purity in the nation. This is very weird idea of a nation as one. I think, it’s an old idea which cannot hold. This is a poem by William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”, there is the row which is said: the centre cannot hold. So the idea of putting things together and having a kind of harmony and purity in it, such as we have a certain nation, and these are its heroes, – it’s a fake in a way, because hybridity of nation, the complexity and the intercomplexity is so big. You have to clean things and it convey to external war against another nation. And that’s what we saw in 19th century, and that’s what we saw also when fascism arose in the past and we still see it rising in Europe and all over the world now.
You feel that liberalism in Europe becomes national liberalism or ethnic liberalism more and more. I think the city is a kind of antidote to that. Now about the 50% of the work population are living in the cities. People trust more and more in the municipalities, because the federal administrations really defending this idea of the nation, keep away the refugees. Municipalities become more important than the nation. Big cities are confronted with heterogeneity. Heterogeneity is also a basic concept of Guattari. In every text from him he’s talking about how heterogeneous we are. And how we can find ourselves and make ourselves. Heterogeneity is crucial for human beings. So, cities in the future will become stronger in political sense.
Hybridity is a part of identity. You are what you do. Identity is complex, and it’s not only defined by nation. It’s defined by all things which travel through us when we are doing things.
Making a social canvas
Open Place: You referred three strategies important for you: strategy of artistic autonomy, strategy of resistance, and the strategy of collective subjectivation. Can we focus on the last one in practice and theory?
Geert Opsomer: It’s broad! It’s very important, I think, when people are together to have a horizontal relations. The whole idea is the idea of helping each other. In TransfoCollect (http://www.transfocollect.com/) and also in K.A.K.( http://www.k-a-k.be/) the idea is that we have another way of institutionalizing.
Institutionalizing is not the fixed structure, which is there. It makes agreements like kind of social contracts but not on the level of the big society. It makes this on a smaller level in which you have your intents on ways of working with each other. You accept also the possibility that one taking a role of the other. Peter Kropotkin in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution put many examples in an attempt to show that the main factor in facilitating evolution is cooperation between individuals in free-associated societies and groups, where people become stronger when they work together in cooperation. If you look at TransfoCollect where I am working, or K.A.K. you cannot say who is a leader. All people together are TransfoCollect. This is forming an identity which is mixed social and on the level of horizontal things. It’s the kind of creating community when you goes through all these roles and identities and try to find the way to negotiate and to work with each other to cooperate. It’s like forming canvas together. And I know it’s a bit experimental, but there are tools for that. And people who are the most conscious of the tools, in a way, become informal leaders.
Open Place: How do your activity as a teacher connected with your artistic activity?
Geert Opsomer: When you create something for people it’s like you create object or you create a thing. For me it was very important too, but I never stopped there. Then I realised that you can be educator, learn from people and teach in another way, looking for the alternatives to meet people. Meetings are important. Learning from meetings is a form of education. Personally for me it’s the most important thing I found. This idea brought me to creation, people, social methods and some philosophical things.
I really believe in the idea of the ignorant master / le maître ignorant.
In teaching the teacher doesn’t take the master position: he lets the students create and take the master role for they are becoming masters and do not know it yet. They are ‘ignorant masters’. The teacher helps them to find their voice, their language, he ads his wisdom. And that’s the same for students and non-students, for teaching and creating. The finding of a voice is such a beautiful thing. The teacher is just like the creator a kind of Socrates helping the artistic work to become a piece of art. He co-creates rather than being a directing dictator. He is a wise co-worker creating artistic work and creative communities at the same time. In helping e.o. to find a voice people connect and form a creative community in which people are together for a moment: in a kind of populated solitude which is the new idea of “being-together-in-heterogeneity”.
Open Place interviewed Maria Vilkovisky and Ruth Jenrbekova
July 20, 2017
No one is able to visit krëlex zentr, no matter how hard would you try and whatever privileged group you belong to. In fact this organization exists only in imagination. This allows Ruth Jenrbekova and Maria Vilkovisky, who are engaged in the center, immersed themselves into the theory of contemporary art and simulate the ideal situations for the center development.
Open Place discussed with Maria Vilkovisky and Ruth Jenrbekova the painful search for identity and why it is so difficult in fact as well as where artists come from, and why it is better not to reject the myths.
The idea of krëlex zentr first appeared in 2011. At that time we’ve identified ourselves as artists, though something confused us. Usually when we speak about the artist we imagine a person who does not depend on external circumstances. No matter what happens around, this person has the inner sense of self that gives her a kind of autonomy. In any country and under any circumstances, artists create because they have something specifically artistic inside themselves. As Andrea Fraser famously wrote: “It is because the institution is inside of us, and we can’t get outside of ourselves”. For us, queer feminists, this idea looked too essentialist and suspicious. We started to think: where does this special sense of self comes from? Where do artists come from in the first place? Were they born like that, with something special inside? We were skeptical about this. In general, if we look at Kazakh art, the connection between the appearance of the institutions and the subsequent appearance of artists is absolutely obvious. This is a rather banal observation, and theoreticians have always written about it. For example, Michel Foucault says that subjectivity is not a gift from God, but a thing that is formed by institutions.
We realized that contemporary art in Kazakhstan is not organized at the institutional level. The national cultural centers—whether they are theaters, libraries, museums, galleries, academies, etc.—are functioning in the old quasi-Stalinist aesthetic paradigm. This assumes a consolidated identity, where each person is assigned to a particular nation, nationality or ethnicity. Culture here can only be national otherwise it is “false”. We decided that we need a cultural center based on different principles. When there is no context for art, it needs to be created by ourselves. We need to organize ourselves to think how to work collectively and make coalitions politically. It was important for us to think of an arts institution that would break established regimes and raise questions. We dare to problematize the criteria in art because it seems to us that aesthetic representations, now generally accepted among amateurs and professionals, embody quite a large element of colonialism.
We often declare that krëlex zentr is an imaginary institution and therefore does not exist. It is important to understand that nations also exist only in people’s imagination, as it was demonstrated by Benedict Anderson. In questioning the framework of a national representation of culture; it is important for us to think about communities as something not tied to a specific territory, passport, national identity, or genealogy originating far in the past into some mythological antiquity. Communities that would be more like our own–indefinite, with the feeling of non-belonging, exile, a kind of cosmic diaspora.
A huge number of people in the world feel similarly. A feminist position always contradicts the national ideology because that ideology is fundamentally patriarchal. The control over female bodies and the low status of women is used to maintain the illusion of external danger which demands a vigilant and efficient defender of the male sex. For queer feminists the criticism of identity is a matter of resistance to a culture of violence. We see our commonality with the global queer-feminist movement because of this shift towards decolonization, whether the country of origin be first, third or fourth world. Whoever we are, we say: let’s not take the role, identification and definition that are imposed on us from the positions of power. Let’s define ourselves the way that we want.
We decided that the krëlex zentr can represent beings like us – with a seared sense of belonging to any group or community. We use “creatures” instead of “humans” to question the old humanistic tradition where there was binary opposition: Human vs. Nonhuman. We assumed that it would be more and more of those who are difficult to define. Like us: half – this, half – that, it is not clear who. This failure in classification is exactly the focus of the krëlex zentr.
We are holding our decolonial agenda, in attempt to find a way to resolve a conflict that exists all over the world. It is a conflict between a universalizing capitalist empire “without identity,” (or default identity, which is always white masculine) and those who resist it from their local perspectives. As a rule they proceed from the position of rootedness, deep ethnical or local histories, and some ancient roots. This opposition is so rigid that we want to break it somehow. There must be a place for resistance without essentialism. It is possible to invent new supranational or extra-national frames. The national frames became too constraining for people. One step left or right and you are a stranger, an outcast and an enemy. It is important to try to imagine the world after nations, after capitalism. What does it mean to consider a whole planet rather than a certain territory on it as one’s homeland?
Social reality is held by myths: myth of the family, the myth of heteronormativity, the myth of nationality, the myth of masculinity and femininity, etc. One way or another, we cannot escape myth. Rather, myths have to be emancipatory and progressive. We must not reject the myth that a better world is possible. We see the task and competence of artists to redesign old mythologies making them less repressive and removing the violence on which they are based. We see the task of the artistic community to make dialogue and collaboration for the creation of the new myths sensitive to all sorts of hierarchies and inequalities.
Some distance and self-irony are important qualities of these new types of myths. The myths that engulf a person thoroughly are dangerous. When there is no distance, when there is complete identification with the myth (this is our fear in nationalist movements) a person can’t go beyond the frames of the myth. We think the other type of myth is possible. One that assumes the distance, critique and self-irony. One that does not consume a person, and which leaves space for unexplored and unknown things. A person can even believe in God this way. Usually we say: “There is no God. Well yes, but maybe they will appear tomorrow. ”
 Andrea Fraser, From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique. Artforum. New York: Sep 2005. Vol. 44, Iss. 1; pg. 278, 8 pgs
Open Place interviewed Renan Laruan
August 05, 2016
Renan Laruan, who represent the research team DiscLab, was born in Sultan Kudarat, a province at isle Mindanao. He identifies himself with this place because of its very particular history. “Mindanao use to be more dominated island before Spanish colonization. So there was sultanate, there was existing civilization, or even types of government before the colonization. And then during American imperialism period, they have State-sponsored project in which they wanted to repopulate Mindanao. So they brought inhabitants from Luzon Island, the Visayas Island to Mindanao which changed the demographic of the places. I’m part of this history because my parents are from Visayas, resettled in Mindanao”, – Laruan explains.
Firstly Renan identifies himself as a researcher. “On one hand it operates from certain insecurity. I really wanted to identify myself as theorist but you couldn’t easily identify yourself with that label in the Philippines or in Southeast Asia, just because of certain challenges, – Renan claims. – I studied psychology, but this is not the western psychology. The university where I studied promoted Filipino psychology and it was a product of postcolonial studies and critical to postcolonial studies. They wanted to bring a movement and a discipline that is not ethnocentric, but also in the same time critical to the all the legacies of knowledge they do have”.
Laruan describes himself as someone who studied psychology, someone who grew up in the south and now working in the capital Manila and of course internationally, and someone who doing research “always and continually”. With Renan we discussed concepts, which he enter into international context, in particular “discursive architecture” and “translation in transition”. Also we talked about relativity of names and meanings of terms and about work of cultural institutions in the Philippines.
Discursive architecture as a commonality of concepts
Open Place: Discursive architecture – this term we’ve heard from you. Please, could you describe the meaning of it?
Renan Laruan: It’s not a fully-formed theoretical and methodological project that I wanted to work on. I have this urgency to embody or to implement it, because it’s tied to the production and ontology of criticality. The notion of the artistic and intellectual as spaces where we could reclaim our positions, or where we could emancipate ourselves always go back to “being critical” or to that ability to be self-reflexive and to translate criticality into action and expressions of art. What hinders that kind of criticality is an existing discursive architecture or a discursive sphere we have at the moment. It’s calcified by systems and agents who are attached to this notion of criticality. For me, when I talk about discursive architecture, it also talks about criticality.
At this moment, I think we couldn’t really fully form the meaning of discursive architecture. It’s like a moment. It’s like a tendency to produce a situation that is not dependent on existing knowledge sites. What connects us to a discursive architecture, or what could form a discursive architecture, is our ability to open up. Our openness to actually transform these knowledge sites to knowledge scenes. Knowledges and sites are interdisciplinary: the space of the critical, the space of intellectual, and/or the space of artists. My problem with these spaces is that they are continuously eroding and fragmenting each other. It’s always important that you don’t just say that an artistic space is transdisciplinary. There is a struggle that one has to form the artistic site, for instance into a theme, a subject or a project. There is a process of disintegration and reconstituting in it. For me, it’s not necessarily about communities of people. It could be communities of concepts.
It’s connected to what I mentioned as curatorial exile. It doesn’t mean that you have to really operate locally. One could just be locally sensitive or you ground something into a context. It’s connected to how practitioners operate on knowledge sites. If you are socialized in a highly colonized or highly differentiated bodies of knowledge from a system of education, say Spanish, then it continues to become a more sophisticated system, for instance when another imperialism (i. e. American imperialism) creates another mode of capture.
In the Philippines we have a long history of university system and art education in Asia inherited from Spanish colonization. We have one of the oldest universities in the world. There’s this kind of production of good in education. When education continues into the American period, they declare it as something public. That is when the “good” coming from Spanish colonization became “public good”. When you operate in contemporary times as an artist, or a critic, or an intellectual, you have this kind of lineage of history that can’t easily come out of your system. The challenge, then, is for the practitioner to create his/her own discursive architecture, community of knowledges, new community of concepts. One needs to find new ways to rethink transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity.
During the Cold War the US government had all this knowledge system or knowledge production through Area Studies. It was a strategic method, where Area Studies was an inquiry for capture working transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary. I’m cautious with cross collaboration of disciplines. I find it more interesting to use a discursive architecture, where one can find moments and situations in which one can join a group or connect with other people to rebuild all of these disciplines.
How to translate contexts and experiences
Open Place: The other term that you use “translation in transition”. What meaning do you put on this?
Renan Laruan: It started with my project titled Lightning Studies: Centre for the Translation of Constraints, Conflicts, and Contaminations (CTCCCs) at Hangar in Barcelona. The initial motivation of the project was to think how we could actually initiate solidarity through translation. Creating solidarity across different contexts assumes equivalence of contexts. I disagree with that position. I believe there is always that kind of non-equivalence between contexts. A specific case is the notion of precarity. Precarity in Western Europe differs from precarity in South-East Asia. The same way within Europe there are differences in terms of precarity. How do we translate precarity ways that do not marginalize a certain context? That’s my first attachment to translation. And that’s why I use the text the relay translation on “Robinson Crusoe”, spatial-temporal, as a way in which we could talk about translation. How can we translate contexts? How can we translate experiences? “Robinson Crusoe” was translated from English to German, and then from German to Spanish and then Dutch. These four translations, when they were translated to bahasa and tagalog which is the language in the Philippines it actually brought out the differences between the notion of difficulty which is connected to precarity between continental Europe, insular England and archipelagic spaces.
The notion of precarity and difficulty in Bahasa Melayu and in Tagalog is that more connected to the notion of endurance of the will rather than to the notion of precarity in Europe that is something that you can overcome. The western text of “Robinson Crusoe” has this notion of technology, has this notion of innovation. It’s very individualistic. It knots this notion of individualism in which I can develop technology, I can develop something out of my precarity and survive being struck on an island. On another hand, the translation in Bahasa melayu and in Tagalog was not actually about developing this technology in order to overcome. There is also misreading of the will and the endurance in Bahasa Melayu and in tagalog as something that is because its religious. This was misreading of some intellectuals about this text. But it’s actually more about a radical waiting for transformation. This notion of will and self-preservation as something that you could do while you are stuck in island. We see the difference between the translations of difficulty into these two places or two experiences.
I wanted to transfer these questions in the continuation of Lightning Studies: CTCCCs in Manila. The project looks into the production of public good in infrastructures, specifically of public health and hygiene. I’m interested in the notion of translation in transition. In 1898, at the time where the Empire of Spain bequeathed the administration of the Philippines to American imperialism. Growing up, major ideologies were implemented in our education system: Spanish colonization wasn’t really known for having these infrastructures that are for the public for the entire communities, because they were more interested in notion of class. When American period happened, the notion of class diminished but it became a notion of race. So, how this system of governance from the Spanish period actually transited into American period? It was a continuation of surveillance through public system. Because at the time Filipinos already knew exactly what are the mechanisms of colonization and governmentalization. So translation of them this is a challenge for the Americans.
The notion translation in transition enables us to see how these strategies of governance can be very sophisticated and can be embedded into what we see as good for instance in health. Americans built sanatoriums, public hospitals. They invested into professionalization of nurses. During the American period they had this project of controlling epidemics tuberculosis and cholera for instance. They had this great believe in scientific truth. The scientific truth is that they invested in the ways of living of the Filipinos. They try to control the housing system. They issued laws and regulations on what should be a clean, tropical Filipinos house, a hygienic space that doesn’t accommodate epidemics. It’s not highly visible anymore, it becomes more molecular at that sense. So how would we translate this as a point of critique and also as a parallel sphere of how the things are translated similarly right now, but this translation at the same time is just in transition?
Open Place: We also thought about terms that we use, namely about different meanings that the same terms have in different contexts. So should we use universal terms with meanings that seemed shaped already? Or maybe it’s better to use not a “term” but the meaning, definition for these terms that will correspond in each context?
Renan Laruan: It’s the ideal situation that we find different ways to signify similar experience. But on another hand, I see the need to work in the same process of naming for a certain period of time. It doesn’t have to be a long-term process of naming or a long-term use of the name. For me, naming is a way in which we could enter into each other’s experiences. Sometimes we just rename past experiences with another term without resolving other issues and other problems with the previous term. There is also an advantage in doing that, because it allows certain movement. “Modernism”, for instance. After modernism there was postmodernism, on the social level people started using development. But development has its political roots in modernity – this is European thought of progress that’s embedded in modernity. The same way the whole project of developing countries, developing cities are attached to the notion of modernity. It had its different turn when people use development. And then recently we heard of the “anthropocene” as a term that could articulate certain issues at the moment.
What we can actually do with this naming process is that we allowed the discursive sphere of these new names to attach to the previous names. It’s a point of conjunction and at the same time of exposing the problem of the previous naming process, thus it’s a process of conjunction and disjunction. Ability to name is always coming from a privilege group or a privilege position. And while other positions are marginalize within this naming, there is that potential in which you use the frame of a certain power position and then hijack it in a way. So you always produce new meanings into these new names. In “precarity” for instance, when everyone was discussing precarity in the past few years, especially with economic crises in Europe and in the US, for me it allowed to return to a moment of Asia in 1997 when there was great Asian economic crises which no one wanted to talk about. We had different kind of arrangement with IMF. It’s not the same way with Europe or the US.
"Sometimes I feel that art is forced to be part of things, when maybe it’s not necessarily"
Open Place: You often use words “intimacy” and “smuggling”. How does it work in your cultural practice?
Renan Laruan: It would be concrete to give an example. We organised and curated a festival in an agrarian town four hours away from Manila. It was called the First Lucban Assembly. Titled PAMUMUHUNAN (Waiting for a capital), we borrowed the local term “pamumuhunan,” which means “investment” or “taking stock” in rural areas and in marginalised urban sites. The use of “investment” in local culture isn’t equivalent to “investment” in financial capital. For instance, I could describe my engagement with your interview as “pamumuhunan”. I’m investing into it — to your thoughts and interests, to possible connections between us. This form of investment doesn’t expect something in return. The local meaning of investment temporarily extinguishes the expectation of exchange or the notion of transaction. For Project Space Pilipinas, the organizing institution, and DiscLab | Research and Criticism as the curator, it’s interesting how this term “queers” our notions of the Capital.
When we did the project, we were aware of our irrelevance in/to the context. Lucban is a town with existing economies: economies of critique, economies of participation in culture, economies of representation. The Assembly took place during a religious festival that honours the patron saint of harvest, when people decorated their houses with agricultural products. So, how would you offer something beyond the religious economy? How would you create a parallel performance? What we thought that we could develop a level of intimacy: introducing the notion of looking away, but looking away in order to look into [the religious festival] again.
What we wanted to do is to allow them to look away from it momentarily, so that they can look into it again. For us it was clear that we wouldn’t intervene in any of the processes. Doing art has tendencies to interfere in the local system of development in these areas. It’s a complete town with local museum, local tourism and cultural office, as well as a small heritage department that takes care of old churches. Of course, tourism is one of those big earning economy or market in Philippines. So, we thought that we won’t do anything about it. We will not intervene in a way that would promote our brand of criticality to be honest about it. What we wanted to do is to remain our position that we are doing art and that perhaps we could introduce a space, just a space that can accommodate other things and other ideas already invested to religious festival.
One concrete example would be about installed video works in familiar places. We installed one work by Indonesian artist Mahardika Yudha in a barber shop. The title of the work is “Sunrise Jive”. It’s actually about factory workers who were doing exercise every morning outside this Indonesian factory. The factory workers seemed not happy at all, they just want to get over with it. We juxtaposed it with the barber shop because we wanted to criticize the way art has become nostalgic about time in local culture. I see this among Filipino practitioners: they go to the rural areas, because they think that it’s timeless and rural area is slow based. But it’s not true. When a barber cuts hair of a guy, it’s really fast either when you see this kind of urban area, and that is actually slower. Just because it’s away from the capital, people think that there is absence of capitalism in it. I find it very problematic.
We also show a light installation “pananampalataya” which is translated into “faith”. The light in the middle of installation was purposely broken, and it became “pananampa” and “taya”. “Pananampa” apparently is a term used by activists who finally decided to “go to the mountain” or “to enter to the forest”, which means officially joining the armed struggle. We have one of the longest insurgencies in the world, a long standing communist underground movement. You have a different level of participation in this underground movement. If you claim to be someone who will be doing “pananampa” it means that you decide to join it, you are going to the mountains, and you will immerse there almost forever. And “taya” means “to bet”. So this notion of “faith” was deconstructed into two words “finally going to the mountains” and “to bet”. There is a level of intimacy there coming from art without actually forcing the people to participate. When art always intervenes, it sometimes tense in the notion of democracy. When democracy is at gun point, for me that’s very problematic. Sometimes I feel that you force art to always be part of things, when maybe it’s not necessarily the case or it should not be the case.
"The criticality is at the point of fatigue and exhaustion"
Open Place: Why do you think that sometimes better not to say, than to be in trend? And also better not declare your position publicly to not being used by somebody, am I right?
Renan Laruan: It’s connected with what we understand about criticality. Sometimes the notion of criticality, we subscribe to or we embody, become violent. It’s like an epistemological violence. We always have this kind of faith into criticality, because we have a consensus that it’s something natural or given or coming from a lineage. People don’t talk that criticality is something that we can inherit, but actually in arts and in intellectual practice we feel that. We’re not directly confronted by this problematic notion of evolution of criticality, but it is actually there. One of the manifestations of this problem is that to always externalising, always performing this criticality, and always using this as a counter capital to any problem or any situation that we seem unable to engage with.
When people say that we have to continuously being critical, I don’t know exactly what they mean by that. When it being used in conversations and in texts, it seems that there is only one form of criticality and it’s very homogeneous way of talking about criticality. That in a way at this point allows me to use the term “naivety” as something that wouldn’t perform criticality. When I say maybe it isn’t important to always show your position, because that position in itself is just an expensive energy. It goes back again to the notion of care in relation of criticality or self-preservation. Is this the right place and the right time to “overperform” your criticality? We have to think about the timing of criticality. The criticality is at the point of fatigue and exhaustion. Criticality seems the only capital that we have. What will happen if we have exhausted all performance of criticality?
I had an interesting conversation with Marti Peran. His work is about translation of fatigue into exhibition format. I ask him: “What do you think about the position of monologue?” The point is that people always say that we need things being in dialogue and assume that the opposite of dialog is monologue, but I don’t think so. He said, “At this point of neoliberal logic monologue is the new silence.” Marti Peran also told about the false dialogue that need of consensus, that maybe there is radical possibility with monologue. The tendency that I see right now is that the contexts and experiences are putting in the position of exchange, communication, but on the premise that they are actually equivalent. My position is that we don’t need more dialogues we need more spaces for the individuals who have their positions extinguished in their locality or in international context, a space where they can do a monologue, because often they aren’t heard in dialogue. They don’t have a voice in dialogue. It’s impossible to have an actual/real dialogue. For me, the art world and culture in general need monological circuits. There is already a conversation taking place within a monologue. Marti Peran said: “When you perform a monologue, you take the conversation out of value making”. For me that’s interesting, because again this is my problem with discourse right now. Discourse right now is a sophisticated capital in arts and even in technologies. Innovations right now are mobilized by discourse. Discourse in itself carries value, this is a very sophisticated form of capital, that’s easily distributed and circulated.
Open Place: But whether a dialogue is just about forming value? For me it’s rather about shaping of the language.
Renan Laruan: I’m finishing essay right now and the title of it before publishing “Infantilization of context”. And here I talk about dialogue and monologue but in relation to context. My argument is that international art world wants and forces contexts to speak to each-other. I was really confused, how in this hyperconnected environment, in art at least, a context could be in relative isolation? I feel that contexts are already speaking to each-other precisely because of the distribution of capital. The capitalism makes everyone interconnected already. In this situation the dialogue seems to be given from above position.
“DiscLab is a mix of individuals”
Open Place: You associate yourself with DiscLab, doesn’t you? How the collective had appeared?
Renan Laruan: It’s started in 2012. We organized ourselves after “Art Criticism and Visual Literacy” workshop. The first members of it weren’t the part of art world at all. There were relatively new graduates from the University coming from different practices: economics, literature, one studied philosophy, and one was graphic designer. These individuals weren’t a part of an existing system of art world that time. And most of us wanted to be identified with being art researchers and art writers. What we wanted to do at that time was to write criticism and to do a discussion. Because we feel that there is specific practice and audience that were alienated in the system of arts and visual culture in the Philippines. And the Internet was very important for us, because we wanted to call ourselves virtual organization. Those were the elements how we organized ourselves at first.
Open Place:What is the aim of collective?
Renan Laruan: The aim of the collective has really changed a lot and quickly in span of four years. And I wanted to share why there was this kind of aggressive change. There was also the some sort form of violence inflicted in initiatives, specially coming from the outside of the system. So we wanted to perform in a way that appears “strong”. And that’s why we committed ourselves from doing criticism and discussion and translating it into doing small scale research attached to long term activities. That’s the clear pass right now we are working on.
The second is that we wanted to appoint ourselves as institution, not as an alternative art organization. The problem that we see connects with marginalizing ourselves as an alternative. We always have to defend ourselves why we are doing this, even if we don’t get anything from them. So we wanted to do some sort of taking care of ourselves before performing. We wanted to put of some sort of shield. Initially it was just a shield to call ourselves as an institution or organization, because otherwise people would always think that we are a magazine, and museums would ask us into their new exhibitions and the dinner parties, as they wanted us to write about their exhibitions. And we were so mad about it, clearly, that the kind of writing that we do isn’t the same that you can see in magazines or blogs. We asserted that we’re a research organization.
Open Place:How do you share the responsibilities in organization?
Renan Laruan: We don’t really work in a way that’s typical for a collective, because of this violence that we experience. There is internal competition that we feel in the context. You would see members identifying themselves with DiscLab and other members who wouldn’t do this. That also sort of map out the kind of work what we do. There are individuals who would be keen to work on certain aspects. For instance, curatorial people can feel more comfortable being associated with it, but when it’s about criticism and writing critical reviews about certain texts, they would disengage with it, that kind of different levels of engagement and association. Artist run organizations in the Philippines were clearly formed out of specific ideologies. So, you have group of artist run who would promote conceptual art, you have artist-run spaces promoting new reform out of the left, you have really fundamentally left groups, but in the case of DiscLab it’s a mix of individuals.
"For me institutions are already sick"
Open Place: Should the cultural institution clearly articulate its political position?
Renan Laruan: As in most contexts, any organized political organizations would always take chance to connect an issue in culture into a larger political issue. I think right now cultural institutions, including self-organized infrastructures such as artist-run spaces, don’t really have a language in terms how they would express their political position. They seem to be very eager to put forward their position, but they aren’t really effective at all. No one really care about their position.
In the Philippines or countries with colonial legacies recuperated in ethnonationalist and fundamentalist notions of nation-state, we can see how the construction and operation of cultural institutions support this lineage. It’s endemic and embodied either in the performative production of public good of private institutions or in the bureaucracy of “mid-managerial” positions in art system. This comfortable biography of institutions and its cultural workers allows a form of self-censorship.
Open Place: What activity does your organization conduct?
Renan Laruan: Right now we’re doing “Waiting Sheds” Cooperative Study and Research Program. We use to do discursive activities, meaning discussions and writing. Then we realised that these activities were just really precarious, because no one really pays for the writing, no one really wanting to sponsor writing and discussion activity. So we decided to gather all the elements that we’ve been doing and organised it into one flagship program. It works as a continuing program and attached to very specific event happening right now in the Philippines – the change of education system. The Philippines is one of the remaining countries with only ten years of basic education. And government decide to change it to twelve years of basic education (K-12), but that doesn’t really respond to problems of education and resources we have. So we wanted to create a program for both emerging and mid-carrier cultural practitioners, artists and journalists, to work with us and actually propose a model that isn’t necessarily against K-12, but builds up on the strength of K-12 and calls out the problems of K-12. So we lunched the program in 2015, and it will run until 2018.
Open Place: What are the mechanisms that ensure your financial independence?
Renan Laruan: We will be funded by Arts Collaboratory for this project. But first run of the project was funded by our curatorial activities. We were invited as curators and artistic directors to the FIRST LUCBAN ASSEMBLY and the negotiation was that we could do the “Waiting Sheds” project within the assembly. Before we organised “Waiting Sheds” we were self-sufficient – people use their own money, if they wanted to do projects. We don’t really have a sophisticated financial structure.
Open Place: How does your organization affect cultural policy of state?
Renan Laruan: Our strategy is very simple. Museums and cultural institutions in the Philippines have very weak educational program or barely any educational program. We have research centres with collection, and because exhibition has more visibility they would rather prioritise the exhibition instead of doing something about their collection. We realise gap in their programming, so we created some sort of network in which we invite them as research partners. It’s usually one year of research of the institution but not producing for them. We can use their holdings, their archives without any fees and then a year after the partnership the institution can ask the fellows or members of the organisation to develop a program out of it, but it’s not necessary. As I mentioned earlier, we’re dealing with a system of institutions with pre-set ways of operation and behaving to those who are not a part of it. We will see if we can affect them in the future.
Open Place: What is the ideal institution for you?
Renan Laruan: Everyone gets paid there, everyone treated with certain dignity. There is proper valuation of work. I don’t know, maybe there is no ideal institution, because for me institutions are already sick. The institutions must be sick before they really become institutions. How are we deal with sick institutions? It’s like being born with disability or with chronic illness, but you’re demanded to leave alive. And what else can you do about it, is to prolong your life. Even with the notion of palliative care, you just minimised a pain.
Yulia Kostereva interviewed Johan Gustavsson
April 19, 2015
1646 is a project-space for contemporary art. A dedicated space for experimental art practices and ideas, 1646 is a platform for new productions and presentations with special emphasis on encouraging artists to realise new projects on location.
Yulia Kostereva: How did the idea of the project appeared?
Johan Gustavsson: In 2004, half a year before I graduated from the Royal Academy The Hague, the person who organised the artist run space called 1646 asked me to take it over. I invited three friends from the Academy to do it with me. At that time the building was used as anti-squat. So we could use it for free, we only paid for electricity and water at that time. But there were not heating and linkages in the house.
From the start we were interesting to make it more international and open up the scene to new influences. That period there were a lot of very local spaces in the Netherlands but nothing that looked international maybe not even national. So we start to invite people from abroad to come and show their works. The group running the space together are inherently an international group. Clara Pallí Monguilod is Spanish, Nico Feragnoli, Italian, Floris Kruidenberg is Dutch and myself Swedish.
Yulia Kostereva: How do you share the responsibilities in the organisation?
Johan Gustavsson: From the beginning we had almost no founding, we got small project funding, once in a while. We sold beer at the openings, in order to pay for electricity and water. In that way we didn’t have so many responsibilities and not so much work. But then little by little – we got more funding, it means we had to work more, and then we rebuilt our building together with the city. And then suddenly our monthly rent became too high, that meant we needed more money, and thus we had more work to do, more administration work and so on. So the tasks grew naturally. People who were good in building spent more time on building of the exhibitions, someone else was good in economy, or in doing photographs so all this things naturally grew into the role of the person within the organisation. We don’t have any hierarchy. Also all of us are artists and from time to time one of us spend month or two abroad so we have to be able take over each other’s roles.
Yulia Kostereva: How does your organisation communicate with audience?
Johan Gustavsson: Quite often organisations and institutions which operate with art and present art, aim to manage the way of how the audience experiences the exhibition, through title or description of exhibition for example: this exhibition is about this and that… It narrows down the possibility of the audience to perceive the exhibition, makes it easy to compare whether the exhibition is read the way it is written or not.
In 1646 we actually do the opposite way. We start from the artworks and we try to expand this starting point and see the different layers, and ways how can one actually look at this story. In the museums and in the galleries people spend more time reading the texts that explain the artworks, than actually experiencing the works. I think this is great example of how define things, or put things in “boxes” and people rely on that. But at the end, art is much more about the experience. It is not necessary to get a sense of everything, but it is much more important to be open and experience the work.
Yulia Kostereva: What events and program does your organisation realise?
Johan Gustavsson: We’ve chosen solo exhibitions. Because we interested in artists’ practice we going in conversation with those artists. We always commission new works, we give a modest budget to produce a new work, and for each show a new work is being produced. We don’t actually curate, we chose artist to work with. We often find group shows problematic. Such shows usually have a certain theme or curatorial idea and then use artworks to illustrate this theme or idea. Solo exhibitions provide a potential to get into the way of thinking of individual artist. There are three things we try to organize around the solo exhibition, which have deal with practice of the artist. Artist is invited to have an email correspondence with somebody who doesn’t know the artist. A month before the opening the chosen person (curator, writer, or bus driver) starts exchanging the emails with the artist. The person takes a position as an audience member trying to clarify the steps that the artist makes. The conversation is continued during the build-up period of the exhibition and often the last e-mail is sent the night before the opening. We print that correspondence out as a small folder. In this way one is able to track the options that was chose and refused and the steps that were taken.
Another element or tool that we use to get a better understanding of the artists we have invited is so-called «background evening”. We ask the artist to curate an evening. The form of the event is completely up to the artist. The idea is to give insight or present a context of artist’s practice. It takes many different forms, though, always informal. Also we organise “conversation piece” for each solo exhibition. For this we invite another artist, curator or for example a musician, to react on the exhibition. We try to find somebody whose practice is affiliated with art on the show or contrasted to it. All these events are open to public.
Yulia Kostereva: Is it important for cultural institution to articulate its political position?
Johan Gustavsson: I guess it very much depends on the place in the world where you are and the situation you are in. We don’t have direct political statement in 1646. Though, everything is political. We are democratic non-hierarchical organisation. And our political believes are naturally reflected through the artists we chose and the themes that they handle. But as a non-profit organisation funded with public money, we can’t have a truly outspoken political agenda.
Yulia Kostereva: What is the mechanism that ensures the financial independence for your organisation?
Johan Gustavsson: There are many opportunities to get funding in the Netherlands. Even though, the last few years, the funds for the culture were cut increasingly in the Netherlands, and it might get worse in upcoming years. Our organization was fortune, and we worked very hard to secure our funding. Now we have four years of support from city, and at the moment we have also two years secure funding from Mondrian foundation. That creates huge amount of freedom to work. If we need to fundraise for every project then it would be a lot of paperwork, and then we wouldn’t have time to focus on what really important, while even now we spend a lot of our time for administrative work. At the moment we are in a good position, at least for two more years and then we don’t know.
In the Netherlands we also have to try to find own funding or generate own money, so 1646 has started a “friends” program. You can donate money to 1646 and then you became friends. And we have contact with some of very good artists who give us editions of their work as the presents to our friends, and that how we can generate some of our own money.
Yulia Kostereva: What is ideal institution for you?
Johan Gustavsson:1646 is close to my ideal. There is not so many places around the world that have the same kind of freedom/experimentation in their programming. And, at the same time economic stability and a beautiful location – that combination is not very common. The artist institution from Anthony Huberman in New York is a very interesting place as well.
Yulia Kostereva: How does your organisation affect the cultural policy of the state?
Johan Gustavsson: I don’t think it affects very much. We have very little power in that sense. Due to the cuts of funding there were a lot of demonstrations in the Netherland. Small organisations and big institutions started the petitions to sign. It became obvious that art-world is very unorganised – everybody did something but it didn’t turn to big solidary protests. Artist-run spaces and art spaces don’t have this big triangle with one director on top. When nurses has to go on strike there is one huge organisation with one very well paid director that can mobilise people to be on demonstration or lobby with influential individuals – that doesn’t exist in art world. At the same time there are a few organizations in the Netherlands who are trying to influence politics and investigate the role that art plays or can play in society. There has to be a kind of central organisation in the Netherlands that is able to react in intelligent and in strong way, to serve as one consolidate voice of the exhibition spaces. On a local level the authorities normally open minded and all of the cultural players have good possibilities to communicate with the municipality or the institutions that provide the funding.
The Netherlands politically is quite calm, has a fairly good social system, and there is no war there. It seems that there is less of urgency for political art or engaged art. We have very good engaged art but it is often more formal than it would be in the place where people have more contact with difficult situations. So there is a very different functioning and different understanding of art.
Yulia Kostereva: Can you say a few words about the “Naked” project?
Johan Gustavsson: The “Naked” started four years ago (in 2011). The idea was to create a big event. We wanted to make an international exhibition. But we were unsure how to make international exhibition. All of us were upset by seeing the same show or works in Stockholm, New York, Tokyo and Kyiv, or, the same artists in all of the biennials. A few international artists that are able to travel become famous and successful. I know a lot of artists that are amazingly good who never became a part of the big shows. So we are interested in these kinds of “pearls” that are not famous but are very good. So I ask, for example you, who are those local pearls in Kyiv? – very interesting artists who are not a part of the big international art world, it’s rules and codes. So, we invited people from our international contacts and network, mainly artist-run spaces and independent curators to propose artists from their local context. We asked them to describe the social and political context they work in, and then to propose three artists. The “Naked” is a collection of artists and situations around the world that would be the base of curatorial choice for the biennial at the end. The biennial has hopefully happen one day but for us it was exciting to think about how to make a truly international exhibition. The “Naked” is promoting a glocal understanding of the art-world today, a global view from the different local perspectives.