Freedom and Frenzy

There are bleak realities behind the façade of some performing and visual artist’s successful international careers: the manic, frenzied life, the insecurity and fear of hyper-mobility and residency- or studio-hopping. What are some of the strategies to have more sustainability in artists’ working conditions? Band-aid solutions might be short-sighted. It is time for a radical re-imagining of the system.

Preparing for this talk, I realized that in order to discuss issues surrounding existing support, funding and production models related to internationalization in our field (and I will focus specifically on contemporary performance and dance), I would like to briefly outline the complexity and precarity of how some artists work today. Here are a few examples:

  • Maria Hassabi and Trajal Harrell, are both artists who up until recently were considered NYC based artists, both working within contemporary dance practice. In the past few years, both have chosen to leave NYC and to relocate to Europe. A decision that was not taken lightly, for in Maria’s case, NYC has been her home and community for over 20 years. Right now both Maria and Trajal are essentially art nomads, calling Belgium, France, Greece and US their temporary bases. Both of these artists are objectively successful in their field, with major commissioning and presentations all over the world. Neither of them have any structural funding from any of the countries I just listed, nor any institutional association. They are not attached or supported by any theatre or production house for extended period of time, and their production model is spread over multiple continents with a patchwork (a very successful one indeed) of co-productions, commissioning, residencies, and private and public funding. If described to an outsider their professional lives and tempo are truly manic, illustrating a life of a free-lance artist lifestyle.
  • Then there are Clement Layes and Jasna Vinovrski, a French and Croatian artists living in Berlin for the past years. Both have successful independent practices rooted in performance, new circus and contemporary dance. They work independently and together under the moniker of Public in Private. Up until this year when Clement received a two-year structural funding in Berlin, neither had any long-term funding support, and relied on the same patchwork of transnational funding, co-productions, and residency support as Maria and Trajal. In the past years, in conjunction with their artistic work, Clement and Jasna have focused on a Berlin-centric paradox in which a city full of artists working in dance and performance never meet each other in the city they live in, and more often cross paths in some festival, or residency abroad. And so a few years ago a new Berlin collective began, calling themselves How Do We Work, with a goal to re-imagine their working conditions, shared responsibility, and cultural policy. How Do We Work could be the Berlin sister of State of the Arts in Brussels.
  • And lastly there are Rabih Mroue and Brett Bailey. Rabih is from Beirut but living in Berlin for the past years, Brett is South African and the only one out of the examples I gave who still calls his country of birth his home. Both are accomplished artists, and artists who rely exclusively on co-productions and commissions to support their artistic work. Each project brings a new set of institutional collaborators and in a sense determines where they will live and create for the duration of the project’s creation cycle. In Rabih’s case, he is a completely “solo”, creating, producing, administrating, promoting, and touring his work with no outside help or support.


So are there issues in any of the above examples, or is everything going according to plan? And if so, whose plan is it? Artists’? Policy makers’? Programmers and curators?

While writing this text I realized that it is impossible, for me, to discuss very pragmatic issues such as structural funding, transnational vs. local producing and creation models, mobility funding – without delving into existing discourse of institutional critique, market driven economics, and accepted precarity. For issues surrounding hypermobility or precarity within our field are not insular.

Most national funding is decreasing and becoming more and more restrictive and “needy” in its policy aims, while the mobility/transnational infrastructure that was put in place by the EU to allow for more flexible working conditions for artists, has also ceased to be responsive to the needs of the artists.

I believe there exists a tension and contradiction between national funding priorities and transnational/mobility funding. Another way to say this is that most national funding is decreasing and becoming more and more restrictive and “needy” in its policy aims, while the mobility/transnational infrastructure that was put in place by the EU to allow for more flexible working conditions for artists, has also ceased to be responsive to the needs of the artists. I also question whether indeed the impetus for EU mobility funding had artists’ well being as a priority or if the “new Europe” of 90’s simply found the artistic community as a willing vehicle through which to push its new agenda about the unification of Europe? And as a result of all the mobility funding strands (starting with Culture 2000) the notion of a national artist (Belgian artist, Dutch artist, French artist) has become more and more irrelevant. It seems that now there are international artists and local artists. Marten Spangberg metaphor rings close to truth, when he says that “networks are for dance and performance what natural reserve is for animals, a restrictive babysitter that places the poor animal in a restricted area. Here you go, play here but not too loud.”

And that brings me to mobility, or hypermobility. We see more art that is fit for international mobility (easy to tour to other countries, with low transport costs and content fit to be presented in diverse cultural contexts). We see a lot of mobility, but what about the quality of mobility? Why do artists travel to another city, with yet another empty studio to work in, and how much does the artistic work consider what is outside that anonymous studio? Do artists today care where they work or not? Or do the current co-production models and networks of festivals, productions houses, residencies simply make it very hard for that care to materialize? There is eternal residency hopping forcing artists to travel to be able to reflect and produce, and business models resulting in the need to produce too much and too often. As Pascal Gielen puts it, “nowadays artists are either international or they are nobodies. Curators are connected or they are nobodies. These may sound like the ground rules of the contemporary art world, but they are also the symptoms of global late capitalism, which has, over the past few decades, effortlessly invaded the artistic realm through cultural and creative industrialization.” Some artists do create self-regulating strategies to ensure that mobility can be more than just another destination. Hans Bryssinck recently told to Joris Janssens that he insists on a minimum of three months for any residency or development period abroad to allow for meaningful relationships to occur.

In our current economic flow, as Boris Groys recently argued, it doesn’t really matter if one is in the program or not, what matters is to have a project, in particular to have a project that can attach to enough surfaces and connect to enough other projects. In fact, it doesn’t matter what the project is, as long as it promotes a specific identity. What many artists today are forced to be busy with is not primarily to make pieces or to articulate concepts but to produce identities that are at the same time specific enough to make a difference yet conventional enough to maintain a rather romantic image of what the artist should be occupied with. Some have stopped making pieces at all, and jump from residency to residency, from lab to lab, project to project. What sadly matters today is not pieces or premieres but activity and mobility. Sloterdijk calls it, ‘the shift from art as production power to art as exhibition power’. It’s all less and less about creating and more about exhibiting.

And of course the current mobility frenzy is a symptom of our market driven and highly precarious society we are all inhabitants of. As Bojana Kunst proposes, “precarization describes the neo-liberal act of governance that governs through social insecurity, flexibility, and continuous fear arising from the loss of stability. In the past decades there has been a normalization of precarization which means it now not only concerns the margins of society, but rather, it appears everywhere, and its main symptom is our general insecurity.”

Some artists have stopped making pieces at all, and jump from residency to residency, from lab to lab, project to project.

Jan Ritsema believes that an artist is the perfect hero embodying the precarization of our times. “Being an artist today is becoming less a profession than a lifestyle. The artist is master over her own time and space. The artist defines where and when she will produce art. Or better to say the artist manages her activities permanently and all the time. The artist has a low income, prefers to be mobile and values good quality of life above high or stable income. And this is our future, everybody permanently on holiday but managing the work 24/7 all by themselves, with an eternal illusion of power and choice.”

As for our art institutions the case is somewhat similar. Referencing Bojana Kunst again, in her proposition that “many contemporary art institutions understand themselves as temporal and spatial containers through which various structures of domination could be challenged. Yet there is a problem with this perspective, because it does not consider that the art institutions are not exempt from governmental precarization. And to protect their own vulnerability art institutions have to continuously reach out, develop themselves as social places, as the unique places of precarious experience.”

It then could be said that the antidote to precarization of artists and institutions is structural funding. Yey many artists are starting to ask, whether multi-year structural funding with its promise of financial security and long-term planning is truly the answer to all problems. For on one hand structural funding offers a safe-haven from project-based model, it also obliges an artist to foresee and pre-plan, in great detail their artistic projects and outcomes spanning years ahead. Which makes less and less sense today when global and local events re-shape our existence at a fierce pace. And then there is the question of how success of such projects is evaluated. Most national and regional funding bodies judge a structurally funded artist through a success matrix based on pure market driven quantification such as how many shows were presented, in and out of the country providing funding, how much audience reached, and other quantifiers that immobilize rather than stimulate.

And so the other (existing) choice is to continue with project-based model. And yet I realized that I have used the word project so playfully, without realizing its effects on my professional, and personal life. Kunst in her essay “On Projects” proposes that “a project always denominates a temporal attitude or temporal mode, where the completion is already implied in the projected future. A significant amount of what artists and cultural workers do today seems to be caught up in this unaddressed and never approached ‘projective time’. Over the course of this ‘projective time’ artists are expected to successfully negotiate both realized and unrealized projects in addition to projecting new imaginaries upon the future. The word – project – also implies completion. So in the end what always arises is a completion of already projected possibilities. However the new start is not about differences but about another promise for the future. Another indebted engagement to that which has yet to come.”

And yet I realized that I have used the word ‘project’ so playfully, without realizing its effects on my professional and personal life.

And then we get to the question we usually skim through within artistic policy talks – of North vs. South, of West vs. East. Solidarity means to move beyond the national. If the aim is a more balanced access to mobility and reinventing the transformation of our artistic policy, this change requires an attitude of solidarity and the basic acceptance that the funds will not always go to those who already have the capacity, but also to the places where investments and development are needed. This attitude is hindered by the fact that the mission of most national intermediary structures is still defined by the mission to promote their own national identity and market which today leads to a battlefield of cultural diplomacy, in a market under increasing economic pressure.

So is it possible to flip this issue on its head? The upcoming Documenta 14, which will open in Athens on April 7th, takes the subtitle of “Learning from Athens”. Although I find this motto rather problematic, I do think that perhaps we can indeed learn from Athens, from the “South-Med”, from the Global South. We always assume that Central and Northern Europe are in better condition and better equipped to create healthy and malleable conditions for artistic creation and discourse. But perhaps this is not entirely so. In the times of ever increasing austerity, perhaps it is the South that is in the driver seat. The South that has never relaxed. Never became content or comfortable. The South that never did have structural ‘anything’, and for sure no structural arts funding policy. The South where the concept of Basic Income (for artists) seems as plausible as World Peace, or me quitting smoking one day. Perhaps it is in the South and East of Europe and North of Africa where potent strategies and tools for other ways of making and supporting that making exist.


So now what? What are we to do?

Not just talk, but do. I am excited about research that Clement Layes is involved in, trying to dream up fantastical institutions. I believe that bandaid-like changes are too late. We need to truly excavate and re-envision how artists, institutions, governments, private foundations, intermediary organizations, curators, programmers, work today. In a moment of strong pressures to always produce something “new” as our “free” time consistently evaporates, we need to think about the possibility to produce the conditions for a plausible adventure, the conditions for a future that might be radically different from the present we know.

And I believe some of this radical re-imagining is happening right now. As Elke Van Campenhout writes, “talking to artists these last years, the remark that always comes back is that they want to ‘escape’ the institutional logic that renders them passive, that makes them wait in line to be ‘picked up’, be ‘chosen’, to go through all the predescribed steps to become a recognized artist. Not only do a lot of them no longer aspire to this notion of ‘the artist’, since they are involved in rewriting the rules for artistic authorship in complex ways of collaborative and/or communal practice that defy the programming system, but they also want to get rid of the frustrating passivity they find themselves in when confronted with the ways of the subsidies system. Especially since this system seems to be crumbling down a bit more every year”.

And I too believe that artists are now taking things in their own hands. Collectives like Manyone and SPIN are redefining how they want to work, what individual and collective work could mean, what shared responsibility offers. State of the Arts and How Do We Work are taking on policy work done by the artists themselves, no longer willing to rely on governmental and institutional arts workers. Dean Moss and PAF are experimenting with pooled resources, peer-to-peer funding and mentorship, harvesting community resources, and greatly inverting the relationship with institutions.

But I also believe that we need to not romanticize such initiatives as they do not emerge from a culture and artistic policy of sustainability and experimentation, but feel more as the last resort. Artists are forced to take on the role and responsibility of the policy makers. And although I do believe that radical changes sometimes need a more polemic and grass-roots approach, I think policy makers, institutions, and national arts councils need to step up, to really listen and learn from these artist initiatives, and begin to reinvent their own policies and models to stop a climate of precariousness and desperate doing and moving for the sake of survival.

And I believe we need to get away from thinking within the Aristotelian concepts of binaries. Thinking of alternative models cannot happen while thinking, only, in opposition to what exists. More elliptical, impure, patient but insistent thinking process is necessary.

About the author

Ash Bulayev has worked for 20 years as a curator, producer and artist at the cross-section of contemporary performance and time-based visual arts. From 2012 until 2015 he was the Curator of Contemporary Performance at EMPAC (New York), commissioning new works by artists such as Ant Hampton, Eve Sussman + Simon Lee, Temporary Distortion, Lars Jan, Kris Verdonck, Ellie Ga and many others, as well as presenting the work of Rabih Mroué, Xavier Le Roy, Lisbeth Gruwez, Ralph Lemon, Marie Brassard, Clément Layes, Wojtek Ziemilski, Julien Maire, and other contemporary visual and live art artists. From 2002 until 2011, he was a co-artistic director of, a collaborative platform for experiments in the fusion of performing arts and old/new media. In 2006-2007, he was the project initiator and research director for the EU Culture 2000-funded project i-MAP (Integration of Media and Performance) in collaboration with leading media arts organisations in the Netherlands, Germany, Greece and Bulgaria. From 1991 until 2002 he lived, worked and played in New York City, learning what it means to make, to make with others, and to play seriously.

He holds an MA in performance from DasArts, an internationally acclaimed graduate programme from the Amsterdam School of the Arts.

Je leest: Freedom and Frenzy