by Tirdad Zolghadr, artistic director SPK
Contemporary Art finds itself at the beginning of a complicated process of understanding a new worldwide game of urban renewal. A game that has upped the stakes in dramatic, game-changing, and often violent ways. How to redefine the possible rules of engagement here? How can the traction of Contemporary Art be used to better effect? In an attempt to pool as many resources as possible, REALTY is moving at three speeds, in three different venues: it is currently a public program at KW Institute for Contemporary Art Berlin, a Masters of Research and Science course at the Dutch Art Institute, and a research grant at the Sommerakademie Paul Klee. The following report describes the specific headway achieved thus far at the Sommerakademie, over the course of the last four months.
Aside from individual opportunities to use the infrastructure of the Bern University of the Arts HKB, the August 2017 program offered the Research Fellows three levels of engagement:
1) international experts helping us formulate a common point of departure
2) Bern residents explaining the particularities of urban renewal in a local context
3) group sessions devoted to brainstorming a collective way forward
1) The Bird’s Eye Perspective
How, we asked, could eight strangers, from radically different backgrounds, be parachuted into such a complex and intimate conversation as the Sommerakademie, and still find ways to move forward together? Over a period of three weeks, a string of international scholars and artists helped us understand our own possible points of departure; whether by means of public lectures or of closed internal workshops. The answers they offered were twofold.
On the one hand, we defined features of ongoing gentrification that are urgently needed if we are to imagine a future beyond free market maxims. Including features that are global in nature. To be sure, the differences are plenty, stark and obvious – but – for better or for worse – commonalities persist, and often overweigh. It was perhaps the heterogeneity among our Research Fellows that allowed us to address the dilemma of local agency vs. planetary patterns a little less awkwardly than is often the case. As a group, we addressed “What If” scenarios, historical thresholds, theoretical diagrams, counterstrategies, basic facts and figures. Tashy Endres, of Kotti & Co and the Berlin University of the Arts, was a considerable help in this regard.
On the other hand, we succeeded in defining Contemporary Art as a field that is not as amorphous as it thinks it is, and that can thereby offer a solid ground to work from as a group. Contemporary Art is an economy, a working ideology, a political temperament, a language, a history, a kind of knowledge production that is sometimes superficial, but never imprecise. For it is part of an international project to produce, and reproduce, the cosmopolitan middle class subject. And this cosmopolitan subject is, in turn, partaking in urban renewal with more bravado than any other segment of society. Suhail Malik of Goldsmiths University helped us navigate these questions, while philosopher Dieter Lesage pointed out ways in which something as outlandish as a summer academy in Bern could be of help. Lesage discussed Bern as a place for reading and revolution, mapping a trajectory from Walter Benjamin to Lenin to Hegel and back again. At the end of the day, looking back in an effort to look forward, Lesage’s hope was to become less “interstitial”, and more “consequential”. To envision even a summer residency as a space of sustainable agency, and not just artistic sightseeing. Surely enough, nothing is as future oriented as a school. Whether it’s a primary school, a BAUHAUS, or a research driven network of artist peers. Schools produce new horizons of expectation, just as they can consolidate old ones. They reproduce the labor. And the belief system that is necessary for it.
2) Local Anchoring
At many moments during the August time window 2017, we were introduced to ongoing debates in the city of Bern; thanks to, among other things, an informal meeting with architect and local politician Tilman Rösler, along with an impromptu visit to the Lorraine neighbourhood association fighting local gentrification, and an extensive guided tour of Bern with artist Annaïk Lou Pitteloud, offering a privileged view of housing struggles in the city. Including pointed confrontations in the Lorraine quarter, confrontations which bore odd parallels with settings in Los Angeles. (At one point, we realized the work of our two Californian Fellows actually served as a reference to Lorraine activists.) By way of another example, the Reithalle impressed us as a case of political savviness and mass mobilization. As it happens, even the very host venue for our internal seminars – the PROGR cultural centre – stands out as a case of Bernese artists acting as vectors for change. Finally, the Cultural Senator of Basel, Philippe Bischof, generously shared points of interregional comparison, from an acting politician’s perspective.
Renzo Martens and Adelita Husni-Bey were two artists who shared their complex working methodologies with us, alongside artist and activist Leonardo Vilchis, who described the work he’s been pursuing over the last 30 years in Boyle Heights Los Angeles. During the sobering conclusion to his contribution, Vilchis mentioned he’d never seen a situation arise where outside interventions, whether financial investments or aesthetic gestures, were helpful. As long as the momentum of finance capital is as unchecked as it is today, it seems impossible to imagine well-intended intrusions bearing sustainable, happy consequences. Where does that leave Contemporary Art? All of our practices, after all, come to a problem, a situation, a location, from a professionalized outside – such is the very nature of the field today.
Eventually, the Fellows focused on the irony that, even though Contemporary Art is louder, faster, bigger, stronger than other art forms today, it still cannot take care of its own. It is the precariousness of the field, they argued, that leaves us no choice but to do the bidding of gentrification. How, after all, can we find responses to problems of such violent complexity when we are broke and exhausted. The first item on the to-do list, it seems, is a support system for and among artists. All of which dovetailed well with artist Lise Soskolne’s contribution, a lecture at the Kunsthalle Bern, where she argued for an equitable distribution of profit margins in the art world. Soskolne sketched scenarios of working less, for more resources – “Less with More” – not “More with Less”. On this occasion, artist Enno Schmidt argued for a transversal strategy responding to similar necessities throughout society, such as a Universal Basic Income across the board.
In light of the above, the working proposal being developed by the Fellows sees conditions of production within Contemporary Art, and art’s complicity with gentrification, as deeply linked. But addressing this chicken-and-egg conundrum requires more time than currently accorded. Thus their strategy is to form a collective body – the newly named “BLOCC” – that will actually outlive the Sommerakademie as currently planned. The eight Fellows are attempting to lay foundations for a structure sustainable enough, financially and otherwise, to explore these issues in long-term, consequential fashion. Eventually, the aim is to develop and propose hands-on changes to art education in particular. Needless to say, the very possibility of a structure of this kind should by all accounts be considered a sensational success on behalf of our fledgling Sommerakademie ...
For the coming Summer of 2018, we wish to delve more into the Berne context in general, and the Lorraine neighbourhood in particular. Which is why we have agreed to replace the conventional string of international visitors with a combination of local speakers, and a single tutor, in the form of an artist- or researcher-in-residence. For another, we need to cultivate a local public with more investment than has hitherto been the case. So far, a large crowd has not been a pressing necessity. But the Fellows’ proposal, as described above, does merit a substantial audience. And it is the success of this refreshingly ambitious proposal that should be the clear priority for our institutional efforts in the near future.