NOTES ON GATHERING: PHYSICAL ABSENCE
As “presence” slowly disappears, here is a brief throwback to some exhibitions from this year that are trying out post-pandemic public dynamics.
Artists, curators, educators, and thinkers in the arts - hereby called art workers by the editors - have been crossing borders (the ones that they can), hopping between cities, countries and temporalities. Mobility, together with chronic instability, has been a dominant aspect of contemporary art. While the majority of art spaces and institutions work one to two years ahead of schedule, art workers with and without contracts constantly move to the beat, as the notion of “presence” slowly disappears. In The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude, sociologist Pascal Gielen referred to this temporality, picturing a typical contemporary art worker as a Gastarbeiter, who is only around for a project or two and rarely dependent on local networks. (1)
But our encounter with COVID-19 has another departing point from this nomadic rule. As life goes on with certain restrictions, the notion of unpredictability and uncertainty replaces mobility and life in time-lapse. As we develop an immunity to the “new normal”, term coined by Benjamin Bratton and co-opted by the government’s to mask the need of overdue structural changes as a state of emergency, accepting the unpredictable, art workers started to explore ways to reach their audiences, continue artistic engagement, and respond to present conditions.
How do individuals and institutions make better use of their respective positions in the art world during this crisis?
As the virus suspended mobility, it created an opportunity to focus and connect with one’s immediate surroundings. Despite restrictions, art workers have managed to make something physical in their communities, exploring perspectives on public/private space, solidarity and critique that are intrinsically connected with the present time, with an aim to connect with people around them, in simple ways.
In his most recent essay “What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?”, Bruno Latour refers to the first lesson that COVID-19 taught us. Despite having been told the opposite (It is impossible to slow down because of the “global train of progress”!), it was proven possible to put our global economic system on hold. During this sudden pause in the globalised system of production, including the so-called globalised art scene, a great opportunity blossomed: all the cards are on the table. (2) And now we have to reevaluate our terms of production.
We, as art workers, have an opportunity to raise and withstand this suspense. We should not take the future of artistic practice as a given, but take an active role in creating its infrastructure —infrastructures of accessibility, diversity, and mobility. The three recent examples we encountered during COVID-19 confinement days that I’m going to discuss in this text — from the perspective of an art collective, a curator duo, and an institution — raise questions about modes of production and display and test what could be done today, despite certain restrictions. Observing the laws or conventions of art circuits, these contributors come up with suggestions exploring places of intimacy and "slowability" (3) in the hectic global flow of artistic events, and thus expand our understanding of artistic possibilities.
Relations last longer than exhibitions, and are more sustainable than artworks.
The following examples value complexity and the possibility of ideas over material production, rather than acting with an urgent force to create. Such an approach reminds us that it is important to be productive, not only in terms of material production, but in forming sustainable communication channels and connections as well.
Art collective ŠKART uses art as a healing tool to connect with people living on the margins of society and enable them to raise their voices through artistic expression. A curatorial project, Die Balkone, illustrates an exhibition format which aims to establish connections in a neighbourhood. As opposed to institutional constraints, Die Balkone offers a rather liberating way of displaying and encountering artworks; it is free and open to anyone and thus able to reach a broader audience. An established institution, Kunsthalle Zürich, suggests a potential way of dealing with its budget and programming when expected exhibition plans were flipped upside down. Through an experimental exhibition format, Kunsthalle Zürich presents a working example of how a “stable” institution can become flexible and responsive to the current moment by prioritizing the needs of its local artist community.
Focusing on transforming productivity and creativity into a form of solidarity, these initiatives not only create solidarity between practitioners, but also within their communities, reaching beyond art audiences. Such demystified approaches to art production, social engagement, and maybe most importantly the element of inclusivity, help one develop consciousness to facilitate a rather meaningful encounter with each other’s surroundings.
Defiant Pensioners (Prkosni Penzioneri), organised by ŠKART, in collaboration with pensioners residing in Zrenjanin, Serbia
Formed in 1990 during wartime in Belgrade, Serbia, ŠKART’s practice lies at the intersection of art, design and activism. The duo, Dragan Protić and Dorde Balmazović, decided to name themselves ŠKART, meaning “scrap”, or “left over” in Serbian. The name sums up much of what the group has done over the last three decades, using minimal resources to reach out to the vulnerable and marginalised on the edges of society.
No matter what form ŠKART’s oeuvre might take —poetry, graphic design, music, performances, or workshops, their methodology remains the same: building human relations through art. Since the early 2000s, ŠKART decided to embrace collectivity as an official stance; their projects became social gatherings, with embroidery groups, poetry performances, and workshops. They started to work closely with under-represented groups within society, including elderly people, single mothers, refugees, the unemployed, or children living in orphanages.
Approaching art-making as an everyday practice, ŠKART believes that art is an essential tool for a healthy and united society. It was again with this kind of motivation and urge to connect with the elderly who were suffering from social exclusion during COVID-19 confinement days at their care homes or flats. ŠKART found a way to continue their collaboration with the elderly, while using poetry as a tool to support their immediate social and spiritual needs. Participants of Defiant Pensioners, a poetry writing workshop initiated by the group in 2014, in Zrenjanin, Belgarde, continued to write poems from their care homes or under strict lockdown in their flats and sent them via telephone to ŠKART. Later these poems were illustrated by the collective as video animations and were published at Kunsthalle Wien’s website under Thirsty for Words series. (4)
It is nice
if we have something
the little something
that we did
to be shared
(by Mira Vasić, defiant pensioner, in quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, March 2020)
ŠKART has been a supporter of individuals and groups they have collaborated with in social terms of inclusivity and publicity, while providing a source of inspiration for them to liberate themselves from the passive roles associated with them: simply sharing personal stories. Maybe it would not be wrong to call such an artistic practice a “shared moment”,glorifying collaborative production over individuals or objects. It is the conceptual process, the physical labor and collective efforts that make the work of art, which might have taken on other formats under different circumstances.
Today in a Retirement Home
I chat up grannies, banter with greybeards
I read books, compose rhymes and then
All my books I have read,
Now I’ll be sour awhile
(Dušan Todić, defiant pensioner in quarantine, Gerontology Centre, Zrenjanin, April 2020)
Die Balkone: Life, Art, Pandemic and Proximity, organised by Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu and Joanna Warsza for the streets of Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin
April 12-13, 2020
The starting point for Durmuşoğlu and Warsza, two curators living in the neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, was the urge and need to motivate and connect with cultural workers living in the same neighbourhood during the first quarantine. The fact that institutions were closed and gatherings postponed indefinitely, was seen by the duo as an opportunity to take things in their own hands, to find a way to communicate with their community. They decided to test out possibilities of public art as a tool to overcome isolation, playing with the dichotomy of balconies as “public apertures of the private.” (5)
Approaching balconies both as a domestic space of freedom and a metaphor for openness and hope, the duo invited members of the artistic community living in the neighbourhood to activate and inhibit their windows and balconies. The project took place with participation of over 50 artists and cultural workers from different disciplines. There was no budget and no regular exhibition opening. The format was flexible; artworks in any format - installations, photographs, videos, and prints as well as performances - were presented to the passer-by. Die Balkone fostered a point of kinship and connection; as visitors take a stroll in the streets they bump into “signs of life” from the windows and balconies. Its most simple effect was to bring people together and overcome isolation. Durmuşoğlu and Warsza approached Die Balkone as an open-source format and encouraged practitioners to host sister editions elsewhere. Soon after, the project became a source of inspiration for other practitioners and has extended to Hamburg, Paris, Aubervilliers and nine other cities in Chile, through initiatives of Sam Durant, Tiago de Abreu Pinto, Elena Sorokina and Natasa Petresin-Bachelez.
As a self-organised project, Die Balkone demonstrates the ability to form a method of collaboration through art and to reach a broader audience, while creating a room to display art beyond a certain zone of conformism, namely institutions. Choosing to be outside and providing absolute freedom to artists, it further becomes a defence of artistic autonomy; one that discusses the role of artists in our society and an aspiration for new possibilities.
Summer of Suspense, curated by Daniel Baumann and Matthew Hanson at Kunsthalle Zürich
May 26 - September 13, 2020
Summer of Suspense was an experimental exhibition, a form of coming together realised in collaboration with local artists in Zürich. After being forced to cancel or postpone three shows in a row due to the pandemic, Kunsthalle director Daniel Baumann started thinking about what could be done. Baumann was aware that particularly young artists were in financial need - maybe more than ever - since their small jobs were also suspended. With their available budget the director decided to support the local art scene, providing artists with financial support, as well as opportunities to present their work in physical space, under the available conditions. (6)
Together with curator Matthew Hanson, he invited 42 local artists to take part in the exhibition. The deal was simple; each artist was given 1000 CHF and in turn, asked to bring one artwork to the show. Three days a week, two artists came to Kunsthalle to install, to perform, or to present a work. This was the solution for limited production availability on sight. The show slowly accumulated over seven weeks; a limited number of visitors was allowed to see it from day one and witness its growth over the course of time.
Unexpectedness became the modus operandi of the show. The order in which the artists appeared, who comes with whom and when, was determined at random. This allowed for matched couples to start a dialogue with each other. Artists were allowed to bring any artwork they preferred, or to do what they wanted, without any interference. From the perspective of the curators, it was an experiment and maybe a risky one. The question occupies the curator’s mind “What happens when 42 people bring an artwork to the space, when we can’t control it? Will it be like a gruesome mixed salad?” (7) Yet Baumann expresses this “beauty in lack of control” as bringing out a fresh perspective to their methodology. He explains this slow form of working closely with artists, spending hours every day, sitting and discussing with them as well as the viewer, as capable of bringing about an “incredible quality” to working conditions; something that is very unusual during mega chaotic openings. (8) Baumann also mentions that many local talents garnered attention in this process—something one might not have noticed before the crisis amidst the hamster wheel of internationally travelling art workers. (9)
"These strategies invest in human relations as their material, critically exploring the limits to the function of art institutions and pandemic conditions. They propose possibilities of survival and endurance in terms of building interconnections and collaborations, and therein lies their strength."
That this experimental format happened on an institutional level, provides a fresh perspective to the future of exhibition making and raises speculative questions: “What kind of place would we like art to be?” (10) Is it the one behind curtains, or a transparent one? Is it perfectionist, or open to manoeuvring? It raises a further question about the relationship between art spaces, practitioners and their audiences on a micro scale, emphasising the necessity of supporting local art communities, which might often be neglected in the pursuit of becoming a part of the “globalized” art scene.
These proposals, ideas and possibilities are refreshing examples of solidarity and care and are reflections of how collectivity can become an aesthetic gesture. They do not make grand claims; but test new ideas relating to our actual lived experiences. In time of confinement, they demonstrated that in today’s fragmented society, art has the power to bring people together. These practitioners manage to create an immediate effect on their surroundings, overcoming isolation and individualization. Their strategies invest in human relations as their material, critically exploring the limits to the function of art institutions and pandemic conditions. They propose possibilities of survival and endurance in terms of building interconnections and collaborations, and therein lies their strength.
Image: Defiant Pensioners, ŠKART