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Report Back: ArtLeaks Talk and Workshop in Aarhus in the Framework of “Making Social Realities with Books” (Oct-Nov 2013)

November 27, 2013

Between October 28 and November 1, ArtLeaks co-founder Corina L. Apostol gave a talk and organized a workshop in the framework of the series “Making Social Realities with Books” hosted by the non-profit exhibition space rum 46 and the Jutland Art Academy in Aarhus, Denmark. The series, co-organized with Brett Alton Bloom  explores the idea of how libraries, archives, publishing, and distribution are used to create distinct social realities, whether it is in small communities, or entire movements within art practices and related activities.

Before the workshop, we met informally with Brett Bloom, Barbara Katzin and Grete Aagaard form rum46, and the  workshop attendees and cooked together a delicious vegetable soup and made bread. It was a great way to build an initial trust with the students and to start getting into their concerns, doubts, hopes for their futures and their artistic goals and challenges they face in achieving them. The students in the workshop were in different stages of their artistic education, some were just beginning to create their first more ambitions projects while some were already exhibiting in group shows. Not all of them hailed from Denmark, as an exchange program allowed students from other Nordic and Baltic countries to attend. The workshop as it was announced was free for anyone who could attend and was interested, and not restricted only to students at the Academy.

The talk on the evening of the 28th served as an introduction to ArtLeaks’ mission and an overview of its activities over the past years, with a particular focus on strategies of online publishing and distribution, using forms of political narration to bring to light conflicts between different actors, institutions and ideologies, and ways of moving from leaking to creating more positive and sustainable models of art institutions and work ethics in the art world.  The talk also underlined several useful resources which ArtLeaks offers to the community for free use, such as the Reading List, a section which we update regularly with text that we believe are critical to our discourse, and the No Fee Statement through which we encourage cultural workers to use in order to make visible corporate and publicly funded institutions’ inequitable compensation of their workforce. Outcomes of our previous working assemblies and workshops in Berlin, Moscow and Belgrade last year were presented as well as our last series of workshops and conference in Bucharest, on artistic production, organization and struggle. Our recent ArtLeaks Gazette. was also introduced to the public and copies were distributed to whomever was interested. The discussions after the talk raised issues such as: how do we deal with verifying the claims of those who submit their stories to us and work with groups or individuals using an anonymous identity, what happens after leaking and what are some of the positive changes that ArtLeaks has brought about over the last couple of years, nepotism and corruption in the art communities in Denmark and what role could ArtLeaks play in making a difference.

The ArtLeaks workshop days focused on the historical relationship between art organized labor and social movements in the age of capitalist globalization. We looked at these through the lens of culture, politics, economics and history while examining concrete examples of local struggles, alternative models and international networks. From the beginning participants were encouraged to see the workshop as an opportunity to imagine and develop their own alternative models, list of demands, manifestos, ways of collectivizing artistic labor, new institutional and educational models.

The first meeting was focused on the figure of the art worker in art history, based both on choices to self-identity as a socially engaged artists, and on the way one’s own labor is bound to the production and dissemination of culture. How does the “art worker” constantly reoccurs as a form of artistic subjectivity bound with the historical arc of the political Left? Particularly we looked at a number of 19th and 20th century avant-garde movements, Realism, The Wanderers/Itinerants, Dada, Constructivism, Muralism and Surrealism and their affinities with social movements and the organized Left. The second part of the meeting was focused on recent cases such as the Artist Union in the United States, the Art Workers’ Coalition, associated with the legacy of the New Left movement, and whose legacy continues into the present, inspiring the work of contemporary activists and art workers seeking forms of social and political transformation.  We also discussed examples of institutional critique, looking at the critical interventions of artists like Hans Haacke, Fred Wilson, Liberate Tate, the Yes Men, Arts & Labor and Occupy Museums. Workshop participants were prompted to reflect on the precarious and in-between classes position of the art worker on the background of great historical changes since the 19th century and in international perspective. How does this understanding of the art worker enrich our possibility for critical reflection so that we can positively affect society itself?

Another meeting was dedicated to theory and scholarship, looking at how artists’ subjectivity and socio-political problems have been articulated, at the interaction between hegemonic discourses (of the institution, corporation and the state) and those employed by art workers struggling for agency in myriad ways and through various ideas about what this entails. The text we looked at were drawn from: Gustave Courbet/ The Realist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles / The Communist Manifesto, Walter Benjamin / The Author as Producer, Andrew Hemingway/ Artists on the Left, Documents from the Art Workers’ Coalition Hearings, Political Art Documentation and Distribution: A 1980s Activist Art and Networking Collective, Precarias a la deriva/ Adrift through the circuits of feminized precarious work, Guerrilla Girls/ The Guerilla Girls’ Guide to Behaving Badly (Which You Have to Do Most of the Time in the World as We Know It), Dara Greenwald/ Does Corporate Culture STILL Suck?, Hans Abbing/ Notes on the Exploitation of Artists, Mostafa Heddaya/ When Artspeak Masks Oppression, Haben un Brauchen Manifesto and others. Participants were assigned texts based on their particular interests and encouraged to read them in groups and return to the workshop and report on the readings and offer the group points of discussions which they felt were most relevant and precient. At the end of the meeting we made a big brainstorming sheet together where we tried to organize concepts, events and people and the historical and ideological relationships between them.

The next meeting was focused on the city of Aarhus itself and its cultural communities. Participants were each responsible for choosing a particular institution, spot or community in the city that was particularly relevant to their own practice and to lead the group through the geography of Aarhus articulating specific economical, political and cultural factors that influence the distribution and production of dominant culture and possible challenges and alternatives to it. The city became thus a testing ground for ways in which hegemonic apparatuses and resistance are taking place constantly and we began to imagine how this workshop, and our own practices in general can take sides in these conflicts or make a positive impact. Particular sites which we focused on were: the site of Occupy Aarhus where in 2011 people joined in the street, played music together, shared knowledge and demonstrated against social abuse, consumerism and political leadership; the ARoS Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, and especially the exhibition “Pas de deux royal” which showcased the Danish “creative royal couple“ as artists of a very expensively produced retrospective and catalogue that amounted to a an uncritical repetition of modernism’s forms and aesthetics; the Aarhus Kunsthall, in which some of the participants had already exhibited and which showcased an exhibition closely related to the theme of our workshop,  “As We May Think (Or the Next World Library)” that imagined scenarios for organizing and acceding information for constructing knowledge rather than destruction and war; we also entered the monumental Scandinavian Center, which was imagined as a shopping and conference center but was actually almost empty of any retail and the enormous space was underused – we imagined what it would be like to take over this big shell and transform it into a useful building, a homeless shelter, subsidized artists studios, a daycare center for children; finally we also visited the Aarhus Center for Visual Art that functions as a meeting place and forum for artists, offering advice and workshops to better the production and possibilities of the city’s artists. At the end we created a map of the city based on the participants’ testimonies, notes, a sketch for an alternative walking guide to Aarhus’ cultural nodes that they could return to and remains open to new additions and interpretations.

From a focus on local issues and structures we next worked on a specific case of struggle, that of the conflicts surrounding this year’s Istanbul Biennale. The reason for choosing this case which ArtLeaks reported on was because the majority of the students in the workshop had visited the biennale on a school trip during the Gezi Park protest this summer, and they became interested to analyze how the biennale played out behind the scenes and what were the stakes involved beyond the limits of the exhibition. We approached this by first re-enacting the positions and protests articulated by activists, artists, the curators and sponsors of the biennale. The workshop participants were split up in these various positions and were asked to study the statements which ArtLeaks had made public on its site and summarize their main points, concerns and solutions. Each group was then invited to play out these respective positions by staying in character, either defending or challenging the biennale’s organizers decisions, the interventions of the activists, the artists’ participation and questioning the biennale’s role in the city’s own struggles, the opportunities that were missed, the artistic victories that made a difference. It was an intense exchange, through which we shared our own concerns, doubts and hopes about the role of art in society, the role of a biennale in the city and the consequences of our actions on our cohort, community and those who come after us.

The final exercise was one of the most demanding, namely participants were invited to write manifestos, either together or in groups, in which they could choose to focus on any of the issues discussed in our previous meetings and suggest their own vision of a different way of acting, of the artistic process and how they saw this change could be implemented in the future. The manifesto has traditionally been an agitational, radical tool for voicing one’s disagreement of the status quo and proclaim a different path or vision for art and for life. Workshop participants manifestos demands were, in no particular order: the end all commodity production, the end of the idea of a one and only genius artist, that artists should boycott the idea of individual successes and act in collectives, to occupy art academies and make them free and accessible for anyone who is interested, to stop producing decorative art or pretty pictures on the wall and explore other ways of being together through a more constructive art, to act against  aesthetics co-opted and sent back to us by sterile consumerism, amplifying social currents and undercurrents that help us transform our cities to the benefit of people, to gather one’s friends and unions and organize against slave labor in sweat shops in China and Thailand, and finally an ironic guide on how to enter the art scene when one is a young artists, revealing a lot of stereotypes, compromises and pretenses that people in the art world like to think they free of, when in fact they are helping reproduce the system which they are criticizing.

All participants manifestos were shared and then discussed with the whole group, including a debate on how their proclamations would be disseminated, how to spread these ideas and make them visible the dominant discourses, how to make allies and imagine sustainable ways through which to develop and make lasting these other practices, to make them more susceptible to collective, democratic decision making and acting. We also discussed the role of affect in these moments, and questioned how to make repeatable the joy, beauty and enthusiasm we feel in these moments of sharing and being together and how repeated social practices, assemblies, can act as improvised, yet powerful institutions we need to push further beyond staying too local and too temporary.

rum46 will help gather and publish this set of manifestos and they will become part of the library associated with the series “Making Social Realities with Books.”

I wish to thank the organizers from rum 46 and the Jutland Art Academy and to all the wonderful and bright group of young artists who took the challenge and committed themselves to our workshop during an intense week in Aarhus.

Corina L. Apostol

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All photo documentation by the author.

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