Kindness & Criticality

Text for Column 4, published by Artspace Sydney (Ed. Reuben Keehan). A response to Spaces of Art, 2009 international conference held at the Art Gallery of NSW & Artspace, Sydney.

Anton Vidokle has pointed out recently that the notion long held by almost all artists, writers and creative practitioners that they were working towards a progressive social future, has come to an end ((This was in the context of Vidokle discussing future plans for e-flux, one of the initiatives raised by Nina Möntmann in her paper on alternative models. Email conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist, Anton Vidokle, and Julieta Aranda, July 2006, published as Ever. Ever. Ever. in ‘The Best Surprise Is No Surprise’, JRP|Ringier press, 2007.)). This shared project and projected future has been stymied and perverted, in part by the impact of neo-liberalism, the individualisation of identity, and the fragmentation and explosion of community from geography in the information age.

It’s interesting to consider the moving and generous presentation by Ly Daravuth at Spaces of Art in light of this observation. He detailed the activities of Reyum Institute of Contemporary Arts, of which he is Director and co-founder, and the context in which it operates in Cambodia. Having been educated in France, Daravuth returned to his country of birth and began Reyum in 1998 with the late Ingrid Muan, operating in a context he describes as ‘pre-institutional’. It seems they tried to fill every gap they could. They presented work by Cambodian contemporary artists, while also reaching out to the local community, researching and developing ethnographic exhibitions that were surveys of local histories, and the traditional techniques and tools of the Khmer people. Information that was in danger being lost to the post Khmer Rouge community due to a lack of documentation. They addressed this lack too, publishing ambitious catalogues to accompany these projects, and with few books available in Khmer, they began publishing children’s books in the language too. Amazingly they also established a free art school for children in this modest setting, offering a four-year course, which extended to commissions and cultural exchange projects. A notable performance project Daravuth detailed was a four-year collaboration with Japanese choreographers Eiko and Koma which culminated in the participating children touring the work throughout the USA. Reyum equates to a profound undertaking, and many of us were struck by its equally profound, serious and kind natured Director.

In their book ‘On Kindness’ Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor argue that kindness has been downgraded into a ‘minority motivation’ ((‘On Kindness’, Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor, 2009, Penguin.)), allowed for in mothers or via a god or gods, and otherwise suspect or a sign of weakness.

I can’t help thinking there’s something in there that relates closely to reimagining the institutions of art. In our contemporary age the agency a community has to enact kindness might be via the institution rather than via a god, more specifically those art institutions (pre- or post-) that embrace societal practices and projects that engage their communities. How though can one embrace criticality and kindness in equal measures? Can the future museum ever be seen in this light? ((It is interesting to consider Cedric Price’s practice and ideas in this context, his ‘Fun Palace’, the propositions of Generous Architecture, and the proposal for a pavilion in Perth, Western Australia, ‘A gallery for an unselfish man’.))

The embedding of a practice and program within the community, responding to a community, reflecting or critiquing a community from within it, these are all prevalent strategies in contemporary artistic practice. They were concepts touched upon regularly within the context of the conference in a form of shorthand ((Given the wide familiarity with such ideas, it was refreshing at Spaces of Art to move immediately into substantiative discussion without too much preamble. It certainly made for a much denser and more productive two-day conference than might otherwise have been the case.)). There were many of us attending whose day-to-day work is negotiating precisely these praxes, and Spaces of Art was punctuated with descriptions of projects and outcomes that similarly traverse these outcrops, and which continue to resurface since those two days in April.

The CityCat Project on the Brisbane River by US artist David Hullfish Bailey, curated and eloquently presented at Spaces of Art by David Pestorius, was a fascinating case in point. CityCat Project consisted of a public ‘performance’ intervention; a re-direction of a ferry route and a subsequent greeting of the vessel and passengers by a group from the local indigenous community from the shoreline, at a place and in a manner conceived by Brisbane based aboriginal activist Sam Watson. The significance of this project was further intensified when it was deemed of such importance to the local Aboriginal community as to become a Dreaming story, to be told and re-told, and potentially to be re-enacted, in the future.

Listening to David Cross present the expansive One Day Sculpture program, and speaking with him between sessions about it, was a little like meeting one’s twin in the street (or perhaps more accurately in the KFC in Hawera, South Taranaki). Conceived by Claire Doherty of Situations, and David representing the Litmus Research Initiative, the program consisted of twenty-four artists and collaborative teams, each commissioned (by twelve organisations) to present a project on a single day, and held over the course of twelve months across New Zealand. This displays precisely the brand of ill-advised ambition I am regularly guilty of, and it was such a pleasure to share the mania of that experience with a kindred spirit like David, while arguing the relative strengths of the many different artistic strategies that the project embraces. Presenting this multiplicity of approach, and assessing the different kinds of impact resulting from each, is key to the complexity and ongoing importance of One Day Sculpture.

The model employed by One Day Sculpture bears a close relationship to a structure of project or program that I raised in my presentation at Spaces of Art, and which I’ve termed the Emergent Project model. This involves setting up a framework that allows multiple institutions to come together to present a wide program of activities (such as exhibitions, performances, events, screening programs, workshops, residencies, publications and symposia in the examples I refer to below), and references the concept of emergence as coined by the philosopher George Henry Lewes. Emergence refers to the way complex systems can arise out of a multiplicity of simple interactions or relationships, whereby the whole forms more (or less!) than the sum of its parts. The underlying structure of an Emergent Project like One Day Sculpture, Rapt! or Making Space ((Two projects I mention as examples with which I was closely involved, Rapt! 20 Contemporary Artists from Japan (2006) and Making Space: artist run initiatives in Victoria (2007), each involved 20+ organisations.)) is further revealed when self-organising entities come together to present a complex shared event, embracing multiplicity, individuality and retaining their unique natures, while avoiding convergence in both artistic programming and ongoing infrastructures. In the context of the ideas raised in this paper, the Emergent Project allows institutions to work outside their normal programming in exploratory ways with their community or to situate their activities within communities they may not normally engage. This has the potential to simultaneously allow for critical distance from the institution’s regular approach to their operations, without the need to ‘outsource’ their content ((This of course directly references Isabell Lorey’s fascinating paper at the conference in which she argued that in the act of retaining independence from the institution the freelance curator was in fact subjugating themselves to the neo-liberalist agenda via an act of self-precarization.)), and to extend their programming at little or no recurrent cost.

At Satellite, our ambition is work with artists to develop and present societal projects and programs imbedded within communities (whether geographic communities or communities of ideas). With luck these activities contribute to the wider effort to reclaim community and art from ‘community artists’ (along with ‘Public Art’ from ‘Public Artists’), where it seems these notions languish within the academies, Government agencies, local councils and other stakeholders in Australia’s cultural infrastructure. No doubt this will be a long process, but we hope these projects may contribute to the discovery and pursuit of a ‘common social project of our times’ ((cf Obrist, Vidokle, Aranda, 2007.)). Spaces of Art certainly provided fertile ground for seeding many of these ideas.

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