fifth year: 2001/2002 series of lectures: lectures / conversations with lecturers / lecturers

course for curators of contemporary art: course participants / study excursions / program collaborators / exhibition / course participant's texts


Charles Esche
The possibility forum - institutional change and modest proposals

If we want to talk about global capitalism and art at all, we need to be precise. It is necessary to distinguish variations and aporia in global capitalism, just as we have to distinguish different levels within the capitalist system in general. Without such distinctions, even the suggestion of using art to probe its internal working becomes overwhelming. However, once we see that not all capitalism is global nor is it always the version we have presented to us as the current salvation of poor and rich states alike, we can start to find gaps and exceptions that permit other forms to emerge.

Defenders of global capitalism would claim that the 'creative destruction' inherent in the economic model is necessary for the material benefits it will eventually delivers. Thus, everything in the global version of capitalism that might seem negative or anti-emancipatory - from the slaughter in Bhopal to the deceit of Enron - is simply a necessary if unfortunate bump on the no alternative one-way street of growth. It is this appearance of inevitability that is so disabling to cultural critique, presenting the current version of capitalism as more akin to a force of nature than as a product of particular social and individual choices, or as a moment of human history amongst so many others. The powerless and sense of inertia this produces extends to current political parties with their competitive battles reduced largely to their relative economic managerial competence. In the field of visual art, it also seemed that much of the nineties was spent trying to make the system work for the individual artist rather than questioning the system itself.

Now I sense, with unashamed optimism, that this situation is changing. Small-scale, local engaged, independent initiatives and artists projects that have been happening since the mid-1990s have sought ways to question current conditions not through critique and metaphor but through tangible 'play' with the mechanisms of capitalist production and social exchange. In this short text it is difficult to name more than a few, but let me at least state examples as various as Dan Peterman's building in Chicago; Rick Lowe's Project Row Houses; Oda Projesi in Istanbul; Superflex and their local network of web TV Superchannels; Alecsander Battista Ilic and Ivana Keser's Community Art in Zagreb. All these projects are seen to propose real changes in social and economic relations, not in the theatrical spirit of 'relational aesthetics' but in locally differentiated environments with individual protagonists.

As a result, art itself becomes a questioning, open, permissive and imaginative space for social and economic experimentation. Of course, the artists, the public institutions and the self-made artists spaces that produce and promote this work are all necessarily located within the economic hegemony of capitalism. They are always already compromised but that compromised position is precisely their advantage. The projects can act as 'engaged autonomous' elements within capitalism, totally inside the system and yet, through their association with the tolerated cultural enclosure called 'art', able to act according to different rules. After all, to many 'hard headed' entrepreneurs, art projects are meant to lose money, to be profligate or to behave without economic rationality. Through these projects and through changes to institutional ambition, art can therefore be enabled to discuss the gaps between real existing global capitalism and desires for things other than consumption. Tests and experiments within the field of capitalist exchange can be fenced off from its more rapacious financial demands and such projects can become, in Superflex's terms, tools for other ways of thinking and relating to each other. This position of 'a foot in both camps' is probably only possible now, in a situation of totalising end-of-history capitalism, when there is no outside and no absolute autonomy from economic conditions. I intend these terms 'modest proposal' and 'engaged autonomy' also to be antidotes to the utopian tendency of art. Utopias are dangerous in many ways, not only if they are made real but even their proposal seems too often to lead to a kind of lazy disinvestments in the existing situation. For a utopian, hope is always elsewhere and much can therefore be excused in the present. The modesty of the proposal as well as saves it from too grandiose a claim either of universality of large-scale application. Art as a 'modest proposal' remains on the scale of the individual or small group both in terms of production and presentation. Possibility is made manifest and these modest proposals for collective action suggest ways to be different than we currently are. At least that, as I said, is the optimistic picture that I would like to see.

The term possibility seems a vital one to use in relation to such thoughts. As a director of an art institution, it is the concept (and the challenge) of creating possibility for the artist, for the audience and perhaps also for the city and citizens where we are based that drives my ideas. Possibility is, in these terms, simply a condition of thinking differently or imagining things otherwise than they are. Within the totalising structure of global capitalism, such thinking, as well as project making, has to be done from within the existing structures, there being no outside from which to gain an overview. We have to use the material, the tools and the language at hand in ways that are both meaningful and resistant to instant comprehension. Therefore creating possibility is not a fixed point of view but a slippery and changeable condition made of spatial, temporal and relational elements. In other words, for possibility to emerge there needs to be a site, a moment and a group of people - material that is obligingly in the hands of public art institutions as much as any other gathering place.

I'd like to suggest that then that the space for the generation of such possibility is now more than ever in the hands of cultural institutions. The vacuum created by the increasing inflexibility or marginalisation familiar sites for such rethinking such as politics, religion or even the nation-state itself, leave the field open. To suggest that visual culture might be the site is, I know, faintly ridiculous. Yet the field of the visual does seem to have achieved an permissiveness to discourse, media, collective and individual activities greater than any other artistic genre and certainly greater than academic disciplines. Let us imagine (and therefore partly create) that the space for synthesis is visual art and its institutions as oases of generalism in a world of increasing separation and specialism. Even if this situation may be temporary and might simply be a way in which capitalism can fix its internal contradictions, it is not a reason to refuse to make use of it for investigative ends. The question then is how far can the field of art be a test site for economic and social alternatives? How far can we press the protective shield that has accrued around art in free market capitalism? Can we sneak possibility in through the back door if, like Ernst Bloch says: 'There is a very clear interest that has prevented the world from being changed into the possible.'

The creation of possibility has also little in the way of precedents in the current climate. There are no obvious formulas to follow, although the frequent talk these days of laboratories and factories gives us the beginnings of certain kinds of models from science and industry. I am however, rather uncertain about these terms as they seem to exclude a position for a visiting public - both labs and factories being be definition private productive sites. To use the institution at its best, we need to balance the need for private experimentation with public discussion, especially as the forums for a generalised intervention are becoming less and less in the face of privatisation of space. Art and its institutions need to move in an opposite direction if they are to play an effective social role. So, I prefer then (at least provisionally) the centre of possibility or the possibility forum as a term for this institutional proposal.

In order to find some co-ordinates with which to figure how to determine the activities within such a site, we need to think in terms of shifting vectors of possibility around these spatial, temporary and relational (or where, why and for whom?) co-ordinates. As a start, I always return to an old quotation by Vito Acconci that I have used on many previous occasions. Asked by Artforum in January 1980 to describe the developments of the coming decade he talked specifically about the art gallery: 'A gallery could (then) be thought of as a meeting place, a place where a community could be called to order, called to a particular purpose.'

This statement reveals tellingly that the 'community' is created in the 'gallery' rather than the gallery addressing existing fixed groups. Here, the art institution becomes the reason for community and describes the process of its coming-into-being as the responsibility of the gallery itself. What topics will be on the table when the call 'to order' is issued? What 'particular purpose' would bring people together? Its authoritarian ring is also mildly revolutionary, without the delivery of a concrete manifesto.

In opposition to such a statement, Derrida has recently been working on the concepts behind friendship and hospitality in relation to Klossowski's earlier ideas. In his conversational book Of Hospitality he says simply of the subject itself: 'Let us say Yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest or an unexpected visitor; whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.'

Such radical openness to the other challenges the role of gatekeeper and judge so much part of art institutional practice. What would it be to be a 'hospitable institution' or to have 'curators of hospitality' in the museum? It would certainly mean more than a good café. It may mean handing over decision making, simply allowing the use of the space for 'who or what turns up' It could even be liberating of the uptight notion of art world success - the institution judged on its attitude rather than its products.

If these quotes become the poles between which an institutional programme might circulate, it would mean that activities would be judged according to their effectiveness on the visiting public, either those that turn up or those that are specifically invited. It would mean that the internationalisation of art would have to take account of its meaning and relation to given local situations. Most importantly, it would mean inviting artists to work with that situation, with the institution having sufficient contacts and roots within the communities that made up the public to be able to create the meeting points and the much higher levels of commitment that would be demanded.

Before I seem to be proposing a new state of affairs, let me say that much of what I say 'would' happen, is already happening and is integrated into the thinking of artists and their particular practice. Its challenge is much more towards institutions themselves to adjust to the new demands of the artists, or to provide the means to realise ambitions that can sometimes remain only rhetorical.

In conclusion, and to try to give some more concrete idea of the institutional and exhibition structures that might stem from these terms, I like to mention briefly two recent projects with which I have been involved. The Gwangju Biennale that recently closed in southern Korea was intended to offer a different take on the large-scale festival model. The curators Song Wang Kyung, Hou Hanru and myself chose to create a core to the exhibition by inviting 26 independent artists groups and 'alternative' spaces from Europe and Asia. We handed over the traditional curatorial function to these groups, simply asking them to provide us with architectural drawings of their own or an ideal space that we would build cheaply in the enormous biennale hall. The result was a series of structures rubbing side by side that created a kind of Babylonian cityscape in which different registers of voice, aesthetic, content and method complemented or irritated each other. The chaos that attended the opening was in some ways illustrative of these differences as Istanbul artists led in groups of Korean schoolchildren or Singaporean curators worked with local seamstresses. The opportunity this biennale provided was also to create a new series of meetings between these groups I organised an extraordinary eight day workshop in the weeks before the opening in which eight of the groups sat down with their Korean colleagues to discuss their widely different experiences and understanding of art within a local context. A publication about this workshop will follow shortly, but I believe in these days we came as close as possible to Acconci's vision of calling a (global) community to order. The heat of the discussions about the effects of globalisation on different Asian and European communities provided some means to imagine what a different kind of cultural globalism might mean. In the disputes between Malaysian, Korean, Polish and Danish world views grew the beginnings of mutual respect that might also make the yes saying demanded by Derrida that much easier. To take it forward, we are now seeking to hold a second workshop in Yogyakarta in summer 2003, where the Indonesian group Cemeti Art Foundation will be the hosts.

The second project is the exhibition and related events organised by Superflex at Rooseum, Malmö in summer 2002. In choosing to make an exhibition of their projects, we had to decide how to visualise what are essentially a series of socially located tools for thinking and producing. The exhibition itself can testify to our success or failure but the most valuable part of the project was the way it emphasised Superflex's use of the field of art as a 'tool' to unpick situations outside. The 'tool' as a product of an 'engaged autonomy' that functions both as a real action and a metaphor becomes as applicable to the institution itself as to the individual products or artworks within which it is shown. By choosing to work intensively with Superflex, not only as visiting artists but also as discursive partners in the development of Rooseum, we are able to think beyond the time frame of the exhibition project and towards this whole question of the institution in parallel with a group of artists probing similar questions from a different perspective. Superflex therefore in some way inform everything that happens in Rooseum, as we try to constantly reimagine the institution not as a vessel to be filled but a tool to be used and made use of by our visiting publics.

What all this might have to do with a benign global capitalism is hopefully that by creating the conditions of possibility at moments and with certain people in the institution, we also permit the kind of imaginative response to the monolith of the free market that provides ways of thinking it otherwise. Groups such as Superflex and many in Gwangju are in some ways perfect paradigms of contemporary capitalism. Pragmatic, flexible, fluid and resourceful, they fit the profile of good entrepreneurs. Indeed, that is their point. By repurposing the tools of capitalism, we might find the lacunae, gaps and inconsistencies; the desires that cannot now speak their name, on which other collective ambitions may be built.