On 8 January , 2015, Alice Creischer, Johannes Paul Raether and Andreas Siekmann circulated an email titled “Artist Organisation Discomfort - a prologue.” (The email is copied below in full.) The email was sent in advance of a conference called Artists Organisations International that took took place at the HAU from 09/01/2015 - 11/01/2015 and was organized by Florian Malzacher, Jonas Staal, Joanna Warsza. The letter presented an extremely precise critique of the event’s attempt towards “genre-fication.” This is a normalizing process that smooths out the rough edges and differences amongst artistic practices so that they can be more easily deployed within curatorial frameworks via processes of labeling “to freeze politically engaged artistic practices into a toolbox of critical types.”
The issues brought up in this letter resonate deeply with concerns shared by many who work within the broader artistic context, but are dissatisfied with the current, fashionable forms, of refusal within the field, from half-hearted attempts at resistance—boycotts, signature campaigns—to the celebration of artists who seem to valorize their own resistance, but do little to challenge the fundamental structural problems within the international art industrial complex.
A little over a year ago, in an attempt to negotiate the dynamic of the Sydney Biennial boycott, we (myself, Sean Dockray and Caleb Waldorf) organized a workshop called There is no now now at Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne, Australia. Caleb and I were visiting Melbourne and not part of the Biennial, but the issue dominated our discussions, both before our visit and while there. Our workshop brought together people (artists, writers, curators, theoreticians, publishers) impacted by the boycott and part of the extended arts community in Melbourne. We discussed our ongoing relationships with cultural institutions and how they impact and inform our practices in an ongoing manner, from the perspective of the day to day activities that comprise our work. In the following week we generated a reader to frame future conversations and build upon as the debates around these issues continue to shift.
This is a proposal to find a space to continue the dialogue generated by Creischer, Raether and Siekmann, and to continue developing the reader we created last year. We would like to connect conversations to both current issues here in Berlin as well as historical precedents. What would be a self-critical view of the relationship of cultural workers to their institutions? What does it mean if institutions, and their proxies, call for new “genres?” How can artists and others participate within existing institutional structures without compromising their own ethics and ideals? What forms of resistance are politically resonate and effective, both within existing artistic networks, as well as imagined ones? The idea of genre-fication is about legibility. But whom do we want to be legible to, or for?
To: Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann
From: Johannes Paul Raether
Subject: Artist Organisation Discomfort - a prologue
On Friday, a „Festival“ that labels itself as "Artist Organisation International" will come to HAU . We* have written a prologue to this „play“ that will unfold over the weekend.
Please share with interested people.
Artist Organisation Discomfort
We would like to congratulate you, the curators, for inventing a new label called "Artist Organisation International". It follows previous labels like "Art and Activism", "Art as Political Intervention", "Occupy Art" and so on, all of them deployed to freeze politically engaged artistic practices into a toolbox of critical types. If the “Artist Organization International” appears as a play staged according to a specific dramaturgy, we understand our congratulations as a prologue to the action unfolding here in the next days, whose aim is to generate a label by coopting artists and groups with their existing multiple, worldwide networks. This event is not the only cause for our discomfort. We’ve been ill at ease for quite some time, and that is something at least some of the artists invited here will share. We are uncomfortable with what we might call the genre-fication of Political Art as it has emerged over the last 20 years. This genre-fication is a regime of proscribed visibility, an order of keyword providers, arranged discourses, tight speaker’s slots, minimal organization times, precarious divisions of labor, character counts, layout regulations, and expensive tickets - so many unquestioned institutional executives, all temporally organized by the acquisition and distribution of funding, and sped up by a permanent fear of losing relevance or even a basic meaning.
Genre-fication includes. Inclusion naturalizes. What emerges is a metabolism of sorts, and gestures of boycott, medialized withdrawals, anti-art etc. only feed its appetite. Yet the metabolism disallows and blinds out any explicit critique of its own field.
We would like to summarize our discomfort in three aspects.
Inclusion works like a cocoon that wraps itself around contents and their promises. We see how academic cocoons – Migration Studies, Gender Studies, Queer Studies – wrap themselves around formerly activist contents. At the same time we see the way politically engaged art, woven into 'Art and Activism' cocoons, finds a niche in documenta, the biennials and issue-based exhibitions. The 'engaged' huddle at conferences in an imaginary polyphony that is really just inflationary: 10 minutes of speaking time and three-day speech marathons, each locked into its own genre and padded for standard polemics (Israel/Palestine, anticapitalist/antisemitic, utilitarian/idealistic...). A blueprint for the politically correct codes of conduct of the new exploitation regime: sentimentalised, wholly drained of sense, turned cynical – here now: NGO-ised.
Corporate NGO Complex
The age of neoliberalism has seen the massive proliferation of NGOs, which have grown in terms of both size and numbers. While their missions may often be more than necessary, they mirror a market logic in which human rights become negotiable units. The press release of the present event sounds like a trend analysis of new political art: “more structural engagement, more durability and long-term vision.” It is the same stuff of sustainability that BP, Bill Gates, or Monsanto love to use through their own NGOs. NGOs always had the problem of representation, of speaking and acting for others who themselves are excluded. It would make sense to discuss whether corporate/artistic NGOs are really that compatible with groups engaged in actual politics, and whether their work doesn’t create new separations instead of solidarity. We should ask: don’t the random invitation policies of congresses, exhibitions, biennials all just show one thing, namely global access to and cooptation of engagement: “making world” instead of “questioning” them?
The Autopilot of Abstraction
We have seen many a political agenda worn down, abstracted, and put on critical autopilot by discourses, cv’s, and institutional attractivity-barometers. We can see how this abstraction makes conflicts more digestible, and how it clogs the channels of genuinely political insight. There is one particularly scandalous example here in Berlin in our own field of action, namely the Humboldt Forum, which will open in 2018, funded with a total of 19 million Euro. The plan is to relocate the ethnological collections of the Museum Dahlem in the newly reconstructed city palace of the Prussian kings, thus creating an obvious placebo of multi-culturalism for German neofeudalism. Now the Humboldt Lab, a curatorial platform (rehearsal stage) has been set up at the Museum Dahlem, so that we all might learn in advance to tolerate the Humboldt Forum and its West German-East German gesture of triumph, its colonial business as usual with stolen objects of art, the cynical practice of shared heritage, its participation in national chauvinist penis measuring contests in the context of global museums. Certainly, we all are potential invitees at the Humboldt Forum or Humboldt Lab, where we will have the chance to sublimate this violent cultural hegemony with criticality. We would like to discuss with the ones among us who are already engaged in that place: do you really have the impression that you are subverting, unmasking and undermining that agenda? Or maybe it is subverting, unmasking and undermining you?
Of course, the Humboldt Forum is no local phenomenon, but an example for an international museum politics that understands itself as the corporate identity of competing nation states. We see more and more of our own criticality being fed into precisely that corporate identity. This is where our discomfort at the genre-fication of art and politics becomes most concrete. We are not calling for a boycott of the Humboldt Lab, nor of the many other opportunities that we are fed into. Instead, we desire conflicts which fail to resolve, escalate, and stay.
Instead of permanently producing new genres and opening up new regions, we should discuss the agency of artistic methods, self-organization and concrete resistance in our own field. This is why we suggest re-dedicating the final act of this play. Let’s use the final debate as a chance to speak about this discomfort at genre-fication and which concrete interests it represents.
*A few last words about this pronoun “we.” We are a loose group of artists and cultural workers who prefer the continual grammatical form of “organizing” to that of “organizations.” We organize without organizations, but in changing alliances that grow but also shrink organically. The enemies are usually similar. Sometimes the spotlight of symbol politics is on and sometimes it is off, meaning that we still sometimes believe in the culture of anonymity. But we - if there is such a thing - are certainly always against the corrosive cultural and spatial policies currently affecting Berlin, against the imposition of the Prussian Castle, and against political art when it turns into a genre, a plaything, and, finally, a idealist gesture of triumph against a horizon of defeat.
Further informationen to Humboldtforum: