This text was published in Condition Report – Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa edited by Koyo Kouoh (Hatje Cantz/Raw Material Company, 2013). An anthology responding to the symposium Condition Report hosted by Raw Material Company, Dakar 18–21 January 2012.

ENGLISH ONLY

We cannot create a map of a terrain that doesn’t exist yet; at best we can make a weather prediction.

To create and develop real collaborations across geographies and institutional structures, we need to re-think how certain social norms and conventions have turned into rituals, rituals that we might think are impossible to deviate from.

If we try to describe collaboration visually and spatially, we could, in a metaphorical sense, see it as challenging borders. In an essay on how physical borders are being transformed by political authorities, sociologist Peter Nyers asks: ‘Who can move? Who can speak? Who can act politically?’, specifically writing about how the Smuggler’s Gulch on the border between Mexico and the US has been levelled out, making the number of smugglers close to none and the gulch non-existing.[1] The US government’s 2006 Secure Fence Act, has, in other words, resulted in drastic changes to the landscape. The combination of changing physical reality and the abrupt break in the narratives and history implied by the name of the place, evoke something deeply important, in terms of thinking about the future possibilities for new ways of collaboration. The image of something so physical and real can be used as a metaphor for what I am trying to get closer to in this tentative and short text dealing with collaboration within the art context.
It is of course an extreme example to use as a starting point, but so are the examples that we find in the art world. My favourites are those in which funding bodies predetermine artistic programmes through, say, nationality, or when large-scale institutions are unwilling to question their own working methods in what are, supposedly collaborative projects. I would argue that the political power balance between the two countries in question, the US and Mexico, mirrors the tensions, on a symbolic, financial and political level, that more often than not occur between highly established institutional models and other structures within the arts, as well as between the haves and have-nots.

Working from the premise that art creates discourse, rather than that art comes from discourse, we see that artistic expressions are created and exist in this world as complex potentialities. Neither borders, nor finances, will limit these expressions. However, within a certain understanding of the art system this is exactly what happens. And this is where we find the rituals that I am eager to undo.
The existing rituals I am thinking of are those that play out as a result of naturalised power structures in the conventional art system, the system that builds on stale frameworks established over time and through politics. They imply certain ideals of how art should be communicated, how audiences should interact with and relate to art, and, most importantly, how and when artistic expressions could and should happen. The result is what we could call institutional authority. This authority is not necessarily idealised by those who inhabit the institutions and resort to their reproductive norms: it might just be a result of laziness or un-inventiveness, or it might be the result of a process of self-sustainability, driven by an interest in furthering one’s career or to somehow create future possibilities for oneself within the same conservationist system. My call for change does not imply a move away from democratic systems in public life towards supranational or un-transparent structures; rather it is a call for deeper and more respectful collaborations across divides.

In the current climate of politicised cultural collaboration, it seems to be up to the artists and curators to develop new norms when the authorities themselves do not. Meaning that a single person, such as the artist or the independent curator, holds real powers in any collaboration within the art system, even without the authority that is given by institutions, politics or finances. These individuals can provoke situations through their own practices that unmake rituals and oppose powers, challenging processes that otherwise copy existing models. Here it is important to point out that this is not a convoluted call for the re-instatement of the nostalgic ‘artist genius myth’. Instead it is meant as an encouragement to those who already try to exercise their individual power by confronting rigid systems of thinking, production, acting and making public.
Looking at these individual practices within artistic and curatorial work, we see that they edge closer to each other, and sometimes even blend into each other. This might always have been an evolving stream of consciousness within the art world, but realities today seem too complex and hard-edged to resort to myths from the past. There are real challenges that still need to be discussed and new citizenships that are not distracted by history need to be invented.
Frequently accepted strategies to address the problematic models and to unmake the rituals are the setting up alternatives to what already exists.[2] In doing that, power structures are being challenged through a particular kind of institutional opposition. However, the method of opposition through collaboration that I would like to advocate here is not a pirate version of existing structures. The artists and curators I speak of do not act outside of the system, but are intrinsically implied in the structures they operate within, slowly changing them by constantly redirecting their focus from protection of interests to open curiosity.
What unites human communication and professional collaboration is that distance is both productive and unproductive at the same time. Difference in opinion, attitude, wishes, hopes, and dreams creates distance. But at the bottom of many a deep gulch of difference there is the possibility that we find a tortuous stream. Real collaborations are never straightforward, they never follow the same routes, and therefore they should not be made into rituals. They build on experience and invested interest.

To continue this argument, maybe we should do the mental exercise to think of a ‘de-institutionalisation’ of artistic and curatorial practice, and to continue to counter the previously mentioned ‘artist genius’. That way collaboration is encouraged and our minds are free to create new binding agents within and outside of the frameworks that I question, without having to call into doubt the professionalism of the activist individuals that I here speak of. The aim of this exercise is not to refute the art institution itself, but it is in fact an upside-down argument in favour of institutions, and the re-creation of institutions that are truly experimental in spirit that could be thought of as creating ‘continuations’, rather than enforcing stale and old-fashioned structures surrounded by the misconception that they constitute reliable institutional thinking. One way to create these new ‘institutions of continuations’ could be through invested dialogue and collaboration that reaches beyond the institution itself.

The question of the day is then: what is needed to undo existing rituals to create new models of collaboration, and in turn generate discussions and productions? To create the possibility of this type of collaboration is not the same as entering into or creating a fixed framework. To secure real collaboration within an ‘institution of continuation’ is in effect to consciously and continuously change the framework. It is, however, not implicit in this model that continuous changes need to be swift and abrupt: on the contrary, they can be slow and organic. Maybe the Smuggler’s Gulch would be filled in at some point in the future if nature were allowed to take its course. To forcefully fill it to create an overview and a rigid structure is in this model of thinking too swift and somehow crude, rude even. For collaborations to create lasting effect within institutions they need to be sustainable, and allowed to grow and develop naturally.

To effectively communicate complex arguments and thoughts across divides takes time, but at the same time the understanding, or even misunderstanding, can provoke manifold new possibilities to develop projects without pre-determined outcomes. To change our consciousness and abolish rituals we need to make time work for us, not against us. This means to apply flexibility as well as strict and conscious methods of exploration in the proposed collaborations within the existing and troubling system of art. It might actually be the only option we have to find new ways to discuss and produce art, and in turn make the discussions and productions public. Some might claim that people change and that frameworks stay the same. I’d like to claim the opposite: frameworks only stay the same if we do not attempt to change them.

[1] Peter Nyers, ’Moving Borders – The Politics of Dirt’, Radical Philosphy 174 (July/August 2012). A PDF of the text can be accessed here: http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/wp-content/themes/radical-philosophy_v2/download.php?file=../../files_mf/rp174_commentary1_neyers_movingborders.pdf.

[2] Hordaland Art Centre that I am currently the Director of is exactly such a structure. It was the result of a collaborative effort by two artist organisations and the first artist run art centre in Norway. Established in Bergen, Norway in 1976 as a response to a conservative and reactionary institutional landscape, it was one of several productive outcomes of a nation wide artist uprising starting in 1974. 14 other art centres were rapidly established in most counties of Norway in the following years. Before and after this historical moment we can find numerous examples of the same determined action elsewhere. Although different in organisational structure, they all come from the same realisation that if you want a change you have to take care of that yourself somehow.
---

Anne Szefer Karlsen, Porto Novo, Benin, July 2012.
Thanks to Gerrie van Noord for proofing.
The title of this paper has been lifted from my contribution to the Condition Report, while the text is written as a response to the same symposium, hosted by Raw Material Company, Dakar 18–21 January 2012.

This text was published in Condition Report – Symposium on Building Art Institutions in Africa edited by Koyo Kouoh (Hatje Cantz/Raw Material Company, 2013). An anthology responding to the symposium Condition Report hosted by Raw Material Company, Dakar 18–21 January 2012.

ENGLISH ONLY

We cannot create a map of a terrain that doesn’t exist yet; at best we can make a weather prediction.

To create and develop real collaborations across geographies and institutional structures, we need to re-think how certain social norms and conventions have turned into rituals, rituals that we might think are impossible to deviate from.

If we try to describe collaboration visually and spatially, we could, in a metaphorical sense, see it as challenging borders. In an essay on how physical borders are being transformed by political authorities, sociologist Peter Nyers asks: ‘Who can move? Who can speak? Who can act politically?’, specifically writing about how the Smuggler’s Gulch on the border between Mexico and the US has been levelled out, making the number of smugglers close to none and the gulch non-existing.[1] The US government’s 2006 Secure Fence Act, has, in other words, resulted in drastic changes to the landscape. The combination of changing physical reality and the abrupt break in the narratives and history implied by the name of the place, evoke something deeply important, in terms of thinking about the future possibilities for new ways of collaboration. The image of something so physical and real can be used as a metaphor for what I am trying to get closer to in this tentative and short text dealing with collaboration within the art context.
It is of course an extreme example to use as a starting point, but so are the examples that we find in the art world. My favourites are those in which funding bodies predetermine artistic programmes through, say, nationality, or when large-scale institutions are unwilling to question their own working methods in what are, supposedly collaborative projects. I would argue that the political power balance between the two countries in question, the US and Mexico, mirrors the tensions, on a symbolic, financial and political level, that more often than not occur between highly established institutional models and other structures within the arts, as well as between the haves and have-nots.

Working from the premise that art creates discourse, rather than that art comes from discourse, we see that artistic expressions are created and exist in this world as complex potentialities. Neither borders, nor finances, will limit these expressions. However, within a certain understanding of the art system this is exactly what happens. And this is where we find the rituals that I am eager to undo.
The existing rituals I am thinking of are those that play out as a result of naturalised power structures in the conventional art system, the system that builds on stale frameworks established over time and through politics. They imply certain ideals of how art should be communicated, how audiences should interact with and relate to art, and, most importantly, how and when artistic expressions could and should happen. The result is what we could call institutional authority. This authority is not necessarily idealised by those who inhabit the institutions and resort to their reproductive norms: it might just be a result of laziness or un-inventiveness, or it might be the result of a process of self-sustainability, driven by an interest in furthering one’s career or to somehow create future possibilities for oneself within the same conservationist system. My call for change does not imply a move away from democratic systems in public life towards supranational or un-transparent structures; rather it is a call for deeper and more respectful collaborations across divides.

In the current climate of politicised cultural collaboration, it seems to be up to the artists and curators to develop new norms when the authorities themselves do not. Meaning that a single person, such as the artist or the independent curator, holds real powers in any collaboration within the art system, even without the authority that is given by institutions, politics or finances. These individuals can provoke situations through their own practices that unmake rituals and oppose powers, challenging processes that otherwise copy existing models. Here it is important to point out that this is not a convoluted call for the re-instatement of the nostalgic ‘artist genius myth’. Instead it is meant as an encouragement to those who already try to exercise their individual power by confronting rigid systems of thinking, production, acting and making public.
Looking at these individual practices within artistic and curatorial work, we see that they edge closer to each other, and sometimes even blend into each other. This might always have been an evolving stream of consciousness within the art world, but realities today seem too complex and hard-edged to resort to myths from the past. There are real challenges that still need to be discussed and new citizenships that are not distracted by history need to be invented.
Frequently accepted strategies to address the problematic models and to unmake the rituals are the setting up alternatives to what already exists.[2] In doing that, power structures are being challenged through a particular kind of institutional opposition. However, the method of opposition through collaboration that I would like to advocate here is not a pirate version of existing structures. The artists and curators I speak of do not act outside of the system, but are intrinsically implied in the structures they operate within, slowly changing them by constantly redirecting their focus from protection of interests to open curiosity.
What unites human communication and professional collaboration is that distance is both productive and unproductive at the same time. Difference in opinion, attitude, wishes, hopes, and dreams creates distance. But at the bottom of many a deep gulch of difference there is the possibility that we find a tortuous stream. Real collaborations are never straightforward, they never follow the same routes, and therefore they should not be made into rituals. They build on experience and invested interest.

To continue this argument, maybe we should do the mental exercise to think of a ‘de-institutionalisation’ of artistic and curatorial practice, and to continue to counter the previously mentioned ‘artist genius’. That way collaboration is encouraged and our minds are free to create new binding agents within and outside of the frameworks that I question, without having to call into doubt the professionalism of the activist individuals that I here speak of. The aim of this exercise is not to refute the art institution itself, but it is in fact an upside-down argument in favour of institutions, and the re-creation of institutions that are truly experimental in spirit that could be thought of as creating ‘continuations’, rather than enforcing stale and old-fashioned structures surrounded by the misconception that they constitute reliable institutional thinking. One way to create these new ‘institutions of continuations’ could be through invested dialogue and collaboration that reaches beyond the institution itself.

The question of the day is then: what is needed to undo existing rituals to create new models of collaboration, and in turn generate discussions and productions? To create the possibility of this type of collaboration is not the same as entering into or creating a fixed framework. To secure real collaboration within an ‘institution of continuation’ is in effect to consciously and continuously change the framework. It is, however, not implicit in this model that continuous changes need to be swift and abrupt: on the contrary, they can be slow and organic. Maybe the Smuggler’s Gulch would be filled in at some point in the future if nature were allowed to take its course. To forcefully fill it to create an overview and a rigid structure is in this model of thinking too swift and somehow crude, rude even. For collaborations to create lasting effect within institutions they need to be sustainable, and allowed to grow and develop naturally.

To effectively communicate complex arguments and thoughts across divides takes time, but at the same time the understanding, or even misunderstanding, can provoke manifold new possibilities to develop projects without pre-determined outcomes. To change our consciousness and abolish rituals we need to make time work for us, not against us. This means to apply flexibility as well as strict and conscious methods of exploration in the proposed collaborations within the existing and troubling system of art. It might actually be the only option we have to find new ways to discuss and produce art, and in turn make the discussions and productions public. Some might claim that people change and that frameworks stay the same. I’d like to claim the opposite: frameworks only stay the same if we do not attempt to change them.

[1] Peter Nyers, ’Moving Borders – The Politics of Dirt’, Radical Philosphy 174 (July/August 2012). A PDF of the text can be accessed here: http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/wp-content/themes/radical-philosophy_v2/download.php?file=../../files_mf/rp174_commentary1_neyers_movingborders.pdf.

[2] Hordaland Art Centre that I am currently the Director of is exactly such a structure. It was the result of a collaborative effort by two artist organisations and the first artist run art centre in Norway. Established in Bergen, Norway in 1976 as a response to a conservative and reactionary institutional landscape, it was one of several productive outcomes of a nation wide artist uprising starting in 1974. 14 other art centres were rapidly established in most counties of Norway in the following years. Before and after this historical moment we can find numerous examples of the same determined action elsewhere. Although different in organisational structure, they all come from the same realisation that if you want a change you have to take care of that yourself somehow.
---

Anne Szefer Karlsen, Porto Novo, Benin, July 2012.
Thanks to Gerrie van Noord for proofing.
The title of this paper has been lifted from my contribution to the Condition Report, while the text is written as a response to the same symposium, hosted by Raw Material Company, Dakar 18–21 January 2012.