Attending the SKOR conference in Amsterdam

Posted in CF Writing, News, Research, Sited work, Texts by chrisfremantle on November 1, 2010

Actors, Agents and Attendants: Speculations on the cultural organisations of civility

On The Structure

SKOR (the Dutch Foundation for Art and the Public Domain) set out to focus on the shift from a welfare state to a neo-liberal state, and the implications for care and civility (health and state responsibility).  There were regular references to mega-changes, not only political.  The construction of discourse through multiple channels was embodied in the scenography of the conference (designed by architects) constructed as a podium or soapbox for statements, bleachers for discussion and a table for panels.   The multiple channels extended out of the conference to commissioned works in the streets of Amsterdam and a film programme presented prior to the conference.  It was also manifest in the preparatory seminars bringing together first politics and policy and then practice and research into focus.

Felix Meretis, the venue, is an independent European centre for art, culture and science and a national and international meeting place in Amsterdam.

The form of [a] poem is like the form of a new public sphere, like the structure of a new idea. Paulo Virno

On The Purpose

Superficially focused on the issues of arts and health, the underlying issues raised by the conference included:

  • questioning “the role of art and its assumed ameliorative function,”
  • exploring “care as a political and philosophical concept,”
  • the ability for art to be critical when it is also implicated in gentrification and “consensualising the increasingly capitalised infrastructures of public care.”

“We can say that care forms the core of public art’s aesthetic assemblage: that public art has been invented to produce ameliorative caring, performances and objects within a landscape organised by a welfare state.  So what happens when that landscape is radically withdrawn?”

Day 1 Fulya Erdemci, Director of SKOR, introduced the day which was chaired by Andrea Phillips.

Mark Fisher, a UK writer and philosopher, started his presentation by channelling the experience of precarious work: swipe cards to get into buildings; submitting bank details and forgetting which organisation you have done it for; logon details for different computer systems; emails from institutional administrators; occupational therapists talking about stress; psychiatrists prescribing drugs: the obverse of flexibility is contortionism.  Living with the impact of the business ontology and epistemology (business models of being and thinking) that have been imposed on health, education and culture.  The therapy culture which reflects everything back onto the individual and the family.  He suggested that the flip side of ‘no such thing as society’ is ‘the big society’ based on ‘magical volunteerism.’  I asked about the requirement that all activity be valued as work (caring for instance needs to be transmuted into work for it to be valued by society).  He suggested that there are two responses: refusal to participate or total adoption where everything is defined as work and accounted for financially.  Underlying this is the need to extend the discussion of ‘externalities‘ from the environmental discourse into the wider social discourse.  In other words to find ways to deal with those costs or benefits not ‘transmitted’ through price.  One strand of environmental policy seeks to ensure that environmental impacts, not historically acknowledged in cost, enter into the financial systems through, for instance, carbon taxes.  Is it useful to financialise the value of care any more than it is useful to financialise the value of bees?  Where attributing financial value to the negative environmental impacts of human activity should enable the costs of remediation to be met, attributing financial value to positives such as elements of ecosystem services can produce absurdities.  A good example was the news the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed with an impact measured in billions of dollars, that bees were worth some hundreds of millions to the economy.

Steven de Waal, a politician and social entrepreneur who argued (as I understood him) for the potential of the Dutch co-operatist system, where a significant part of the welfare state is delivered through private not-for-profit institutions, to adapt and engage with the neo-liberalisation of care by reducing the bureaucratic stranglehold and increasing citizen participation in their own care.

Alfredo Jaar, the art star speaker, in a conventional artists’ presentation, showed us a series of projects located in the ‘real world.’  NB his construction of his practice is split across the art world, real world, education – his distinction between the art world and the real world being about the audience expertise.  He talked about the role of artists working in public space trying to create the cracks in spaces of consumption to draw out resistance.  Although a clearly charming and skilled man, these projects were nailed by Ian Hunter as ‘the spectacle of empathy’.

[apposite quote of the day: USE AN UNACCEPTABLE COLOUR, Gavin Wade]

Edi Rama, the Mayor of Tirana in discussion with Fulya Erdemci, Director of SKOR.  Rama is famous for being the man who painted Tirana.  In a short film Rama talked about colour as ‘dresses’ or colour as ‘organs.’  He compared relationship of the Mayor to the electorate with the relationship of the artist to the audience.  Rama talked about the role of beautification in changing a culture and re-engaging the population in civic society.  His colour strategy was one of desperation on discovering himself in a kafkaesque town hall with no budget at all (no one was paying taxes).  When asked by an EU official responsible for repairing a bridge (?) in Tirana, “What colour should I paint it?” Rama replied the orange of the Dutch football strip!  This immediately set off a public discussion.  Based only on the fact that it was actually generating a public discussion of civic space, Rama continued painting buildings and urban structures in vivid colours.  He reported that they undertook a referendum.  In the referendum they asked two questions: “Do you like it?” and “Should we continue?”  He reported that something like 55% said they liked it but 75% said they should continue.

Anton Vidokle, artist, curator and founder of e-flux talked about his understanding of art, referencing the French Revolution and the use of the King’s art collection for public benefit.  Talking about the emergence of Manet and Courbet forty years later, the first artists one would associate with a critical practice as might be understood in contemporary practice, he speculated on a connection with transmutation of the royal art collection into a public art collection.  He went on to describe various e-flux projects.  I’ve written about Vidokle, e-flux and in particular the Martha Rosler Library before, so I’ll move on.

Chto delat?, the Russian artists’ collective.  Dimitry Vilensky challenged the core subject by arguing that care is maintenance of the status quo, and that care contradicts change.  “Where is violence in this discussion?”  He questioned the value of health, coming from one of the most unhealthy countries and reminded the audience of the misuse of ‘a healthy body is a healthy spirit’ by the fascists. Vilensky, in describing the ideological fight, drew out the relationship between the work of Chto delat? and the role of artists during the revolution, particularly highlighting Rodchenko’s design for a workers’ club reading room which Chto delat? have reused in exhibitions.  He noted the strategy of creating pedagogical spaces using furniture, murals and newspapers.  He asked “Where is the factory that we can seize?” and noted that there were no revolutionary masses outside the conference waving flags and supporting the important deliberations.  He commented on the importance of not only taking over the means of production, but also inventing new means of production (such as Vidokle’s e-flux).

Gavin Wade performed part of freee‘s spoken word choir event currently taking place at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, an artist-led space he has been involved in setting up.  Wade is known for amongst other works STRIKE and his involvement in the organisation Support Structure.  When challenged about something he had said about art not being useful, he referenced the Artist Placement Group and the complexity of working within non-art organisations without becoming completely subsumed by their agendas.  He also commented that although Eastside Projects is undoubtedly contributing to the gentrification of the area and generating increased wealth for the landlord, he said, “We are not the tailors of Utopia.”  They use a billboard (the only non-commercial one in Birmingham) attached to the building.  They produced a manual for Eastside Projects, making the operation of the organisation explicit.

Introducing Day 2 Fulya Erdemci reiterated the mega changes, e.g. welfare state to neo-liberalism, analogue to digital.  She also commented on commissioners becoming customers with their own aesthetic preferences (perhaps suggesting some recent experiences where SKOR’s aesthetic authority has been questioned).

Beatriz Colomina‘s presentation on x-ray architecture took us on a cultural historical tour of the relationship between the body and architecture by way of renaissance anatomical/architectural drawing, section and dissection, and the emergence of x-ray and the international style (not synchronous, but not unrelated).  Relating health to architecture she highlighted Le Corbusier‘s language and then demonstrated the relationship between sanatorium architecture and domestic spaces.  Referencing Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor Colomina talked discussed the reshaping of the city by illness, in particular TB.  She explored the evolution of CAT scans into architectural practice manifest in the increasing aesthetic use of sections.  One comment was that medicine is also the end of particular forms of architecture such as TB houses and leper colonies.

Hedy d’Ancona, politician, spoke about the influence of the built environment on wellbeing, the importance of the healing environment as a concept coming out of both healthcare and public housing.

Matthijs Bouw of One Architecture discussed the Jozef and Geertruiden Projects.  He said “We love markets because they encourage dynamism, teams, diversity and flexibility.  We hate markets because they promote atomisation, arbitrage and risk management.  Asked by hospital management to finalise the layout for a housing development on a site being vacated due to relocation of services, Bouw questioned the economic model and with the support of the hospital management developed a new approach.  On one site, Geertruidentuin, existing hospital buildings were regenerated as housing without the involvement of a developer.  On the other nearby site, St. Jozf, the ‘allied services’ (midwives, physiotherapists, etc.) dislocated by the hospital moving to a new site, but not themselves moved in the process, became stakeholders in a new healthcare facility utilising the remodelled existing building.  This important example involved questioning the ‘means of production’ (i.e. developer-led regeneration) through which more value (cash) was produced for the hospital and more value (dislocated services becoming stakeholders) was produced for the locality.  Bouw also raised an interesting point about the client/commissioner because the daily reality is that these are project managers, risk managers, quantity surveyors and legal representatives rather than individuals carrying the vision.

AA Bronson channelled St Paul’s letter to the Galacians setting out his own cv and then making clear he was addressing not only those present, but also those many different absent peoples.  He talked about art, death and healing.  Whilst in many ways adhering to the conventional artists’ talk, it challenged fundamental ideas about boundaries and limits.

The story took us from the early years of General Idea (“Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson of General Idea lived and worked together for 25 years. Partz and Zontal died in 1994.”), through the emergence of AIDS and its impact on their community,  their work and their lives.  Whilst AA Bronson did not describe in detail the process or experience of caring for his two friends and collaborators as they died, he did show us the works he made with them during that process, and he did allow us to understand how he has since woven together an art practice and a healing practice.  The weaving together of life and art is a constant process: Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal are diagnose with AIDS so pills enter their lives and so the pills entered the work becoming sculptures and installations, as large as sofas and as light as clouds.

Describing life after their deaths, AA Bronson developed his experience of healing built up with his friends and collaborators and how this began to form a fundamental part of his life.  He set out his healing practice as a thing in itself and in his art practice, creating therapy rooms in galleries, and seeing clients in them before and after gallery hours.  He described more recent collaborative work with younger artists (School for Young Shamans) and the group work (Invocations for Queer Spirits).   He talked about his role as a medium for individuals to speak to their own bodies.

Perhaps like Alastair McIntosh who, in Soil and Soul, addresses spirituality and environment without descending into new age waffle, so AA Bronson spoke about healing and art in a compelling and challenging way, straddling uncomfortable boundaries with a compelling presence and story.

Bik van der Pol‘s discussion of happiness started with a short anecdote about advice not to test your sense of humour on policemen in other countries, from which they developed an argument about cultural difference, but more importantly about happiness.  Touching on the World Values Survey and on Laughter Yoga, they talked about using nitrous oxide as part of urban public health programmes.

The programme ended with Willem Geerlings discussion of the challenges for health.  He is the Chair of the Board of the Medical Centre Haaglanden and pulled Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor from his pocket.

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