The practice of listening to what is not there yet

Marta Keil – performing arts curator, researcher and dramaturg based in Warsaw, Poland – reflects back on her participation at the Return of the Fantastic Institution.

What seems really urgent now is not another fancy and well-promoted program of ‘artivism’, but a safe space and time for thinking together.

What if none of the working conditions we knew were left? In his wonderful piece of writing that Francis McKee shared with us at the end of the third day of “The Return of the Fantastic Institution” symposium, the world does not seem a recognizable space: after massive floods, social revolts and climate wars, it requires new modes of communicating, gathering, working and negotiating the common. None of the structures, sets of rules or social codes that we have been used to remain useful at present. The map is not readable anymore — the scale as we know it does not apply here. Actually, almost nothing of what we knew is left. What has to be redefined from scratch are not only the tools of organizing, instituting and naming, but also the very ways of understanding the reality — and dealing with it. The local society, created out of floating waves of wanderers, is constantly in negotiation mode. One needs to co-operate with others in order to secure the food and housing, but also has to discuss and redefine the ways of using the given space. Apparently, there are no established structures left, one needs to set them up anew, according to changing circumstances, conditions or demands.

We are not dealing here with institutions, but rather with a constant, fragile process of instituting: of proposing and negotiating a certain arrangement. There is neither a state officer nor a city counselor that may grant you a mandate to enter the institution. Equally, there is no private sponsor to negotiate the political scope of the program with. No board to talk to. But there are diverse groups of newcomers, with needs of a shelter — and the space you work in might be the last possible option to offer them. What do you do then? Where does your way of thinking of the art as social, critical practice lead you? To whom is your work being addressed actually and why is it necessary at all?

The question of problematizing the existing frames and sketching them anew kept coming back during the third day of the symposium, which was organized around a topic: “How do we define the content of our institutions? Who’s in and who’s out?”.

In that radically changed context of “The Rainbow Wrasse” of McKee, all the rules are temporary and fragile: what seemed granted one day, is not there the following one. Therefore, you find yourself in a constant mode of negotiating and redefining your own position. You are dealing rather with the process of arranging instead of an arrangement, an effort of unceasing instituting instead of institutionalization. As if you were performing what Gerald Raunig construed as instituent practice[1]: what is at your disposal is the ability to propose and negotiate a certain structure or a set of rules, to define the goals of work or ways of using the tools that remain in your hands, to propose and discuss the frames — or radically change them. It is a moment when nothing has been established yet and no agency distributed; a crack between a moment of deciding and an institutionalized decision, the consequences of which can be executed; a power of still being able to act and a process of constituting the rules instead of obeying the already constituted ones.

The dystopian world sketched out by Francis McKee is definitely not optimistic, but what triggers so much is exactly this uncertain, dangerous moment when the previous ways of reading and understanding the reality are not working anymore and the new ones are yet to be imagined. A radical and quite risky framework shift which might allow us to see what seemed invisible or unrecognizable.

The question of problematizing the existing frames and sketching them anew kept coming back during the third day of the symposium, which was organized around a topic: “How do we define the content of our institutions? Who’s in and who’s out?”.

Rachida Aziz (Le Space) presenting at the Return of the Fantastic Institution.

All three case studies shared that day by Rachida Aziz (Le Space, Brussels), Anne Breure (Veem House for Performance, Amsterdam) and Aaron Wright (Fierce Festival, Birmingham) tackled different ways of reframing either an existing institution (in case of Veem and Fierce Festival) or the very notion of instituting, as is the case of Le Space.

The 100 Day House

The team of the Veem House for Performing Arts decided to introduce a new framework of the 100 Day House as an answer to the recent budget cuts in public arts funding in Amsterdam. As Anne Breure explained, she realized that many arts institutions, confronted with severe financial cuts, were putting all their efforts to program and perform as much as before — or even more, following the pressure of continuing no matter what and the fear of losing visibility and credibility. As if the lack of funds, under the illusion of cooperation and solidarity, put the arts field actors in an even more competitive mode. Thus together with the Veem board, Anne Breure decided to go into the opposite direction: to close down the house for 265 days a year and keep it open only for 100 full days — which is basically what the offered budget allows to, under decent and fair conditions. Instead of pretending that nothing has changed, a huge gap all of a sudden became visible, pointing to a range of ensuing problems.

How to avoid the risk that the decision-makers may try to use this format against other institutions as an example of a perfect solution to austerity?

The first edition of the 100 Day House took place between October and December 2017; the next is planned for fall/winter 2018. And since the introduction of a new working scheme of the house not only met with very good reactions from the artists contributing to the program and with a lot of interest and support from the audience, who eagerly participated in the proposed new format, but also caught a lot of media’s attention as an intriguing statement, the most urgent question now is how not to become a model. How to avoid the risk that the decision-makers may try to use this format against other institutions as an example of a perfect solution to austerity?

The other risk is of course the festivalization of programming, which, instead of creating a safe space for the whole year, offers an intense, almost like-festival frame, easier to communicate and promote than an ongoing, grass-rooted work and every day care.

Moreover, the success of the 100 Day House is most obviously deeply rooted in the local context and cannot be easily transferred to other locations or time frames. As Christiana Galanopoulou and Iliana Fokianaki pointed: in Greece, where the level of self-exploitation of art workers is even higher, a decision to stop working would not be an act of resistance at all — on the contrary, it would rather be perceived as just another flight, as a sign of giving up. In the context where all the working methods, resources and structures are shrinking, to disobey and to take a clear political statement requires the opposite: continuation of one’s work, (almost) no matter what. The situation is to a certain degree similar in Poland, the context in which I work, where due to the recent radically conservative and nationalist turn many spaces enabling critical thinking are disappearing. Thus currently the main political goal of a curator or programmer would be not to withdraw, but to put all possible efforts to provide a safe and sustainable framework that would allow the artists to continue their practices and encounters with their audience(s).

The public sphere

On the other hand, Aaron Wright proposed a shift in the Fierce Festival in Birmingham, focusing the content of this highly acclaimed and well-established festival on queer politics and pop culture, offering thus an even more progressive, risky program than his predecessors and opening up its audience(s) to ones that most likely have not even thought of visiting this festival before. To my mind, it was a very inspiring example of an attempt to answer the question who the institution/festival/venue actually belongs to: artists? decision-makers? board members? sponsors? curators/programmers? audience(s)? It seems that some of the troubles with defending the art as public good to a broader audience come from the lack of recognition who this public we work for actually is. Is it mostly the local or international artistic community or rather the so-called public sphere? Who is allowed to enter the “public sphere” and who is not? And who decides about it? What about those who are not legitimized to be welcomed there: who are not recognized, who are constantly being muted, ridiculed and marginalized?

If you really want to change the situation, it is your task to be humble, to listen instead of speaking, to deconstruct your privilege, to step down instead of expecting people to climb up to your level

For Rachida Aziz, the answer is simple: the institution belongs to its public, so the program is being created by and with the public. Le Space in Brussels, “a laboratory and try-out room for the cultural centre of tomorrow”, as they declare, is a space of radical care and solidarity, created by and for artists and activists, focused on crossovers, on the communities, individuals and identities that are either not recognized by the mainstream institutions or are considered the “bad” public: the problematic one or, to put it in Nina Power’s words[1], a moving one, a public that asks questions, that does not please anyone, that is never silenced, that is troublemaking and disturbing and does not cease to shake the ground we all (pretend to) be standing on.

Rachida underlines that it is too late to count on reforming the existing institutions from inside, the solution rather lies in a radical change of the very frame of institution, breaking down with the hegemonic model of white structures of power who pretend to speak in the name of people of color. “If you really want to change the situation, it is your task to be humble, to listen instead of speaking, to deconstruct your privilege, to step down instead of expecting people to climb up to your level” she says. There is no more time to focus on careful reshaping or restructuring the given organizations, which not only represent, but also reinforce the dominating system: what is really urgent is to create new, alternative ones without asking anyone for a permission to take the floor.

How far could one go in setting an institution into a fragile, unpredictable and open mode of instituting, ready to answer anytime on social and political urgencies?

In that sense Le Space would be a proposal for an institution of what Ana Vujanović phrases as a “bad” public good, which is “not (only) about a politically engaged art that criticizes actual society and intelligibly promotes particular, new, and better social orders. It also and essentially involves chaotic experiments, failures, irrational proposals, alien messes, queer masquerades, and heterotopic cabinets of wonders where there is no illegitimate question and no one is sure of the right answers. The answers here lie only in experiences of artistic situations that temporarily open new possible worlds.”[2]

Another question arising here would be how new forms of “radical solidarity” can be practiced among artists, art workers and thinkers operating in the performing arts field in the broader, international context. For instance, what actually the international solidarity may mean instead of signing another letter of support? Is it imaginable to give part of one’s curatorial vision up in order to react on the urgency in the neighboring regions and open some time and space of his or her own institution to the artists and culture workers who, due to the political situation in their local context cannot continue their work — also to those that might not necessarily seem hot rising stars at first glance? In other words, how far could one go in setting an institution into a fragile, unpredictable and open mode of instituting, ready to answer anytime on social and political urgencies?

Working on a daily basis in Warsaw, Poland, where the art field has been witnessing a radical populist, conservative turn, I am currently observing how many institutions (including the one I was responsible for), spaces and initiatives that in the past successfully embraced critical reflection and operated on the international level have been either destroyed or forced to change their scope completely. Some festivals that used to offer an interesting international program and to support independent artists in commissioning their new works, hosting their research and providing residencies are shifting into big scale productions of highly acclaimed names, easy to be used as promotional tool for a given city or region. If you are interested in critical way of thinking, better forget it or leave. The theatre venues that used to propose a critical, political program, lost their directors. And since the art workers are obviously more and more exhausted by operating under the pressure of constant state of emergency (in a constant mode of demonstrating, signing petitions, fighting against the censorship and looking for other resources to survive), there is almost no way to continue discussing the institutions we’d like to work in and conceive changes. As if, as Rachida claimed, it was much too late. But on the other hand I am absolutely convinced that it has never been better time to discuss, imagine and propose new, radical solutions, even if it means operating underground. And since severe budget cuts, neoliberal pressure of over-productivity and xenophobic tendencies are definitely not only the polish case, maybe it is also, paradoxically, a very good time to imagine new ways of working together in the international context that would practice the common and the new solidarity. What seems really urgent now is not another fancy and well-promoted program of artivism, but a safe space and time for thinking together.

We-centric

Which brings us back to the main question of the third day of the symposium: “How do we define the content of the institution?” And perhaps the first answer should be an explanation of who the “we” actually is. As one of the afternoon working groups proposed, switching the program thinking from the “me-centric”, individualistic position (“me/myself” as a curator, programmer, artistic director, etc.) into the “we-centric”, collective one (referring to the common ground of the institution, its context and its publics) might be one of the very first steps. Having in mind that institutions are always invented, designed and framed by people, driven by certain agenda, need and interest, it seems also helpful to realize that no program decisions are being made on a secluded, isolated island but are deeply rooted in a current, multilayered and complex social context. Thinking in the format of “we” would be then one of the practical solutions for introducing the “Fantastic Institution”, which we attempted to define that afternoon.

But since the process of framing the institution means always that some will be left outside of the proposed frames, we have also discussed that one of the main tasks of the institution would be to use its strength and privilege to empower the marginalized and to advocate for the inaudible ones. On a very practical level it would mean to question what seems obvious and problematizing what is taken for granted. To take care of an art institution requires also a self-reflected and critical analysis on its mode of working, its structures, frames and relations; it means to stay open for an external point of view.

After three vibrant and very intense days of working together, I found an invitation to shut up and practice common listening to a fictional story being read aloud by Francis McKee as a sort of relief which at the same time opened us to new modes of experiencing of being and working together. Maybe this is what the “Fantastic Institution” might also look like?

As Jozef Wouters proposed, one of the options might be to invite some artistic or activist groups to design a proposal of new institutional software: new structure and modes of operating, that would shake and challenge the working methods. The other solution, named by Daniel Blanga-Gubbay, might be to introduce young, unexperienced artists, thinkers and practitioners or outsiders to the art world into board or managerial meetings — as this is how we can discover new ways of thinking, instead of following the existing ones.

All of these proposals seem to focus on an institution as a process, as an organism that is in the constant mode of instituting, but never fully institutionalized. More like a common ground, belonging to the public(s) and therefore always negotiable instead of a fortress that needs to be taken over.

What was probably the most beautiful part of the third day afternoon, was the collective experience of listening. After three vibrant and very intense days of working together, I found an invitation to shut up and practice common listening to a fictional story being read aloud by Francis McKee as a sort of relief which at the same time opened us to new modes of experiencing of being and working together.

Maybe this is what the “Fantastic Institution” might also look like? Why don’t we start setting it up by offering time and space to think and listen together: with no rush, no festival, no other obligations. What I find crucial is a safe space and free time to think, to doubt, ask questions, get frustrated, get involved, get bored, resign and come back. A luxury of wasting time together. A retreat from being productive, always more attractive and sexier. A break with the system frames which gives you an illusion of cooperating and of common efforts only to realize at the end of the day that the common space is composed of competing individuals.

Of course, this is also a class struggle: who can afford to stop being productive for a moment, to disobey the flow and refuse the production drive? What about these socio-political situations and contexts in which a refusal to continue to work and exploit oneself is not a gesture of resistance, but a proof of giving up and following what the government or system actually wants you to do?

Therefore, the main question would be to create a temporary space of radical care, offering a retreat, a time-off, whatever you like: a space that would offer safe conditions to articulate diverse experiences, needs and thoughts, that would embrace diverse ways of common thinking and experiencing (and the practice of common listening seems a perfect example), to open frames which would enable imagining, testing and experiencing new possible (and impossible!) ways of working together, to think of what seems unthinkable. What I would find really crucial is to look for a way to challenge the frames of the whole discussion: not to act as if the institutions we know will be there forever, but as if none of them has been left standing.

M.K.

Marta Keil

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