Art as a laboratory for social change

This text is a transcript of the presentation by Hajnalka Somogyi held in Brussels on February 28 2018 at our second round table on culture in Europe. This afternoon focused on understanding the actual political and social context in Central and South-East Europe. Hajnalka Somogyi, director of the OFF-Biennale in Budapest, spoke about their experiments with self-organization and the voluntary collaboration of artists, curators, gallerists, collectors and citizens.

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The question for me, and for my colleagues was: as curators, artists, and art professionals, what do you do in this situation? What are the stakes of art, what can be its role? When the public infrastructure fails you, how to set up civil action?

An international contemporary art event, OFF-Biennale Budapest is the largest civil, independent arts initiative in Hungary. Organized on a grassroots basis by a micro-association, it is a DIY biennale based on self-organization and a collaboration of artists, curators, other cultural and civil organizations, galleries and students, among others. OFF-Biennale boycots the Hungarian public art infrastructure: it does not apply for state funding and steers clear from state-run art institutions.

OFF-Biennale aims to strengthen the local independent art scene. It strives to take part in the social discourse on public issues and to enhance the culture of democracy. Settling in private apartments, vacant shops, industrial buildings, alternative theaters and public places, it invites the public to explore the city.

In other words, OFF is not your usual biennale. Why doing another biennale in the middle of Europe? It is not state representation, not city promotion, not even a display of the hottest international stars, and you rightly assume that it is rather difficult to pull off.

Censorship can be called structural – be it in distributing public funds, granting exhibition possibilities, or voicing in the media. This brings back an era of “official” and “non-official” art, of “first” and “second publicity”.

To give an explanation, one must briefly summarize the context. In the years before the party called Fidesz won the parliamentary elections in 2010, there was a general belief that the Hungarian art scene was operating in a quite similar way to a West-European model. However, there had been a major difference between our art system and its Western counterparts, that was mostly overlooked: namely that, historically, in Hungary the state has always had an exclusively dominant role in the arts – and it has always trespassed its border of competence, as this border had been more or less outlined by Western European social processes. Even after 1989, most art professionals failed to recognize this continuous interference as violation of professional autonomy and thus, as a source of danger. This naivety or carelessness has been aggravated by the financial dominance of the state: 20 years after the political changes, there still hadn’t been a significant alternative to state financing in visual art.

So in 2010, when the newly elected government (of the party called FIDESZ) decided to annex the institutional system as part of a larger plan of centralization, which they started by discrediting and pushing out the intellectual elite, the scene was caught completely off-guard.

In a couple of years:

  • most institutions were given to the care of politically loyal but mostly unqualified leaders;
  • the majority of public spending on art and acquisitions has become nontransparent and is done by publicly unaccountable, non-professional bodies;
  • institutional autonomy has been diminished by centralization, by new restrictive laws and regulations;
  • the issue of culture has been relegated to the level of a ministerial department, the ministry being called Ministry of Human Resources.

As ideological directives have been articulated explicitly as have the results of resistance been made clear, by now most institutions and media outlets have internalized governmental expectations. Therefore, censorship can be called structural – be it in distributing public funds, granting exhibition possibilities, or voicing in the media. This brings back an era of “official” and “non-official” art, of “first” and “second publicity”.

While this new autocracy does not alleviate the wrong-doings of neoliberal capitalism, just the opposite, it also eliminates the democratic checks and balances and creates an economic environment without liberal competition that does not serve the common good either.

All this is of course part of, or perhaps just collateral damage of, the establishment of an “illiberal democracy”, indeed an autocratic, fascistic regime with an aggressive, fear-inducing rhetoric, which, nevertheless, mostly seems to only serve and cover up a most cynical opportunism. The only clearly discernible strategy of the government serves the cementing of its own power and thus the road to wealth for a closed circle:

  • through the distribution of public money among themselves and their supporters, effectively establishing a loyal and powerful oligarchy;
  • by intimidating and hindering civil and political opposition via new regulations that compromise civil rights;
  • and by deploying such corrupted authorities as the tax office, the police, the court of auditors, or the prosecution to discourage non-aligned action. The government often refers to NGO’s getting subsidies from abroad as “agents serving foreign interest”.

All this has just reinforced passivity and frustration in society. Or, even complete ignorance, thanks to the government’s near-full control over the media, that by now mostly functions as a national disinformation machine.

Nevertheless, as Hungary is a member of the European Union, OFF-Biennale routinely gets analyzed within an assumed context of a Western-type liberal democracy. What I’m trying to get at here is that this is not the frame we work in. While this new autocracy does not alleviate the wrong-doings of neoliberal capitalism, just the opposite, it also eliminates the democratic checks and balances and creates an economic environment without liberal competition that does not serve the common good either.

The question for me, and for my colleagues was: as curators, artists, and art professionals, what do you do in this situation? What are the stakes of art, what can be its role? When the public infrastructure fails you, how to set up civil action?

We felt that even though critique and political demonstration were important, they were not enough. Having a government that ignores criticism and demand, even coming from groups socially much stronger than the art communities, you won’t get too far with such activities. Rather you have to use the thoughts articulated in criticism and turn them into action. So we decided

  • to present art that is neither decoration nor does it align with official ideologies and state-propaganda
  • to claim competence in our own issues, to assume responsibility;
  • to develop and practice models of collaboration that present democratic values that the current system is lacking
  • and last but not least, to establish a structure that, in the long-run will provide income to the contributors of the project.

Gaudiopolis

And so the idea of this project was born, a grassroots, civil, international art project that was to gather independent energies, initiatives, projects still out there. We thought that by the political act of giving these a name, thus by subsuming them under the umbrella “OFF-Biennale”, we can make them visible, we can amplify them. And it’s not only communication but also fundraising and international networking that gets much easier for a large-scale umbrella project.

We want to show that it is possible to avoid the negative compromises state subsidies usually entail (like self-censorship) and still pull off a large-scale international project. It is important to establish such examples in a demoralized society in which accepting the new rules of the game seems the only option for most.

As I said, all this is done outside the state infrastructure for art. This has many reasons, one that I already referred to, the vulnerability that comes from the fact that there hasn’t been a significant alternative for art financing so one had to start looking for it. Another reason is that in most cases, public money is available under unacceptable terms and conditions or simply, without open calls and proper professional evaluation. We want to show that it is possible to avoid the negative compromises state subsidies usually entail (like self-censorship) and still pull off a large-scale international project. It is important to establish such examples in a demoralized society in which accepting the new rules of the game seems the only option for most.

The biennale works in a completely nomadic way. With the means and props we can gather, which is around 130-–150 thousand EUR per edition and a minimal, makeshift, temporarily available infrastructure, it has been an almost absurd endeavor. The money comes from mostly Western cultural foundations and other foreign funding bodies; 25-30% comes from Hungarian private sources; and there is very significant in-kind support from the most various companies and individuals. Plus an immense amount of volunteer and pro bono professional work. One of the largest problems we encounter when fundraising, besides of course the fact that there are no regular sources whatsoever that we could count on, is that international money that is available for us is almost exclusively falls into the category of project funding – so that there is a general, implicit expectation of underlying sound and stable infrastructures which, in Hungary but also in other countries, is more and more an illusion. We don’t have an office, a venue, equipment, or employees, and have to fundraise from zero each time.

The 1st edition of the biennale was presented in May 2015 with almost 200 programs in around 100 venues; with artists from 22 countries and 35 000 visits in 5 weeks. It did not have a thematic frame – through its size and diversity, it was a demonstration of civil courage, and perseverance. It worked as a defibrillator for a paralyzed art scene.

The second edition was presented in October 2017. It was smaller and more focused, occupying around 60 venues for its projects, still with around 150 participants from, again, twenty-two countries. Also, this time we put more energy into supporting new production, as institutional possibilities have been quite insufficient for most of the artists we stand for.

This time, we decided to have a thematic frame, hence the title: GAUDIOPOLIS 2017 – The City of Joy. As a result of all these changes, the program was much more coherent and also, straightforward in terms of the stance of its makers.

Gaudiopolis was the name of a Children’s Republic founded in the aftermath of WW2 in Budapest by one lutheran pastor. This orphanage provided shelter and home for hundreds of children who lost their parents to the war, regardless of their religion, social background or nationality. Children dwellers of the “City of Joy” formed their own government, elected their representatives and adopted laws to apply to everybody. This community set out to learn democracy anew and to educate children to become “independent, self-conscious, practically trained and theoretically qualified citizens striving for better self-understanding and self-criticism”.

It has been important for us to go beyond criticizing the situation and to have an effect. Not in a clear-cut activist sense, but rather, in experimenting with models of collaboration and in rethinking art’s competence in social issues.

The story of Gaudiopolis offered a frame to re-assess the implications of assuming civil responsibility, personal commitment, care, solidarity, education, community development and the sustainability of democracy, as well as to rethink, in this context, the potential role of children, playfulness, joy – and art. While clearly of much wider relevance, these themes are especially important for us in a very passive, traditionally top-down, xenophobic society.

Also, Gaudiopolis is important not just as a metaphor that provides occasion to make symbolic statements, but also, as it was a social experiment itself in a similarly ambiguous (although very different) historical moment of the country.

As I said, it has been important for us to go beyond criticizing the situation and to have an effect. Not in a clear-cut activist sense, but rather, in experimenting with models of collaboration and in rethinking art’s competence in social issues. One such pilot, that we think should develop into something regular and long-term, was a collaboration with a civil organization that for years has been working with kids in one of the most dilapidated quarters of the city. Our art educators joined this group and worked with the kids on issues inspired by the biennale and the story of Gaudiopolis – e.g. they started planning the construction of their own playground. The long-term idea would be to involve artists in this work or rather involve the kids in art production, to create experiences for them that might support their thinking and their becoming open-minded adults… and of course it’s a learning process for us, too.

The other long-term aim would be to further develop these collaboration-patterns the biennale is based on: to create complex art projects – e.g. research or process-based/collaborative, socially engaged work – in constellations of various actors coming from various fields of life, from the art scene and beyond. We are to focus on production of projects that could not be realized in Hungary otherwise. After two successful editions that served to shake up the scene, to establish alliances, to develop grassroots methods, and to enhance the visibility of our activities, now we should slow down and pay attention to detail: to the changes in the political context but also, to emotions, interests, knowledges, weaknesses, inner dynamics – to at least set straight our own micropolitics.

H.S.

Hajnalka Somogyi

Je leest: Art as a laboratory for social change