On a Threshold of a Community

A Lecture in Arthouse Disclosure, 30.5.2018, Otaniemi

Andrea Cyotzi Borja / Space Invaders II, Autotalo, Pori, 2014 / Photo: Lauri Hannus

Agnes Denes states that making art today is synonymous with assuming responsibility for our fellow humans. This responsibility is becoming more and more important in my practice as a curator, artist, and researcher. We are responsible for things we are making visible, of how we do that and of possible futures we create. Most of all we are responsible of how we recognize each other and the influence of the other, understanding that art does not happen in a vacuum, but in a context — in relation to others, in certain time and space we share with others. We do not work alone and the work in this field is work of sharing. In a world lacking sharing, recognition, and empathy we can through communities, and through art, create places, spaces and possibilities for solidarity and communication, places of belonging and inclusion. As a curator (and as a human being) my job is to bring people together, to create and explore communities and their possibilities.

Jean-Luc Nancy writes about a community as a place for nostalgia, a place of longing. Communities we now have are presented in a relation to the lost ones, and the lost community is portrayed as the harmonious community of love, understanding, immanent unity, intimacy, autonomy, and sharing.

When moving to a new building and the program taking a new form the ViCCa community is now on a threshold of the Arthouse community to become this place of nostalgia and longing. A place where you had your studios, dinners, made new friends and learned new things. A place of community and dreams.

I myself did my master’s degree in Pori, in a small and intimate community. Most of us moved there because of the program and not knowing anyone or anything we did not have much else in a new city than each other, studying and art and talking about art. This did create a strong sense of non-hierarchical belonging, of us and togetherness, that was sometimes maybe even too same minded and created a bubble, where the practice happening inside became almost impossible to mediate for those outside the bubble.

This is one reason why we, when we go to conferences, symposiums, and seminars, when we write papers, organize events, or do practically anything instead of I refer to we as the author. This we becomes especially confusing if it is a singular I that is speaking or writing, but it also expresses the influence of the bubble, the community, did have on our work. I alone create nothing, we do. Or actually, according to many (here especially thinking of Nancy and Judith Butler), one must also consider the fact that the I does not exist without the other and how we only appear as communal beings and when being-with, co-existing, and hence if it is always the we that speaks — we that is prior to me or you, and who always exists in a relation to the other. The speaking we, of course, rises new questions: who is the we speaking, who is included and if I can speak for others?

I believe that as an artist one is always on the border, not really completely inside or outside, but on a threshold of a community. Even when having the strongest sense of belonging there is always the undertone of maybe in the end not totally being included, not belonging. Of being something else. As Anna-Kaisa Rastenberg writes in this year’s Kuvan Kevät catalog art is always about radical politics, about promoting a revolution. This becomes especially evident in this time of graduations and leaving schools and universities, leaving old communities behind. Leaving school means finding own ways of practice, starting own revolutions and finding others to fight with; also holding on to those one has already found to be good companions. Graduating is often also the moment of realization of the loneliness that is embedded to the work of an artist, that is, even when working with communities and in communities, a profession of being the other and being outside. (Or maybe it is just the general sense of loneliness, of being thrown into the world and not being able to fully handle it.)

An artist (or a curator, a researcher or an art critic) is one who is always also in a position of being a bit outside the center. For to create the needed perspective and sensitivity, for to see clearly, one maybe needs to know the margins too. (As a community is always a community of absence and heterogeneity, as Maurice Blanchot and George Bataille might put it.) Silvija Jestrovic, a professor of theater studies who does research on language, performance resistance and semiotics of space, writes about the intimate outsider. This intimate outsider speaks the local language and understands local jokes, but is always a visitor rather than a citizen, and is therefore capable of deconstructing imaginaries constructed through the gaze of outsiders. This is, as I see it, parallel to the position of an artist, who constructs and deconstructs imaginaries and who often, to some level, has the gaze of an outsider.

This might also be the reason why the so-called communal art projects often (at least to some level) seem to fail — when everyone is forced to be involved, to be in the center, forced to work as a community, there is no space left for the position of an intimate outsider or for the gaze of the other? (And if no one is the other, then how does the I even exist, if the I only emerges in the communication with the other and if this is what formulates communities, then what happens to the community based on the idea of no one being the other?)

This communication between other is precisely what art can (and maybe even must?) do. Art can create places, moments and possibilities for communication and even communication that is not tied to language. It creates places for listening, seeing and being seen and heard, places of recognition and interaction. It brings people together. (Sometimes even if they do not want to be brought together — I’ve recently started to refer to art as a gift, that might not be a wanted gift, but a gift nevertheless.)

But are artists (and researchers and curators) seen and been heard? Our work is often invisible and our practice unknown to others. The situation is paradoxical — for to be an artist one must bring her work to public, but the work itself, the practice, often stays unseen, even when artistic work is always a target for public critique and judgement (if not for anything precise then there are always the taxpayers’ money, hard earned in proper jobs and the artist wasting them on some nonsense). And it is not only the public opinion, it is also the community itself. How much ever we try to deny and avoid it, there is always competition. We do appreciate our colleagues and their work, but we also all want the same grants, same exhibitions, same positions and same residencies. How to create and maintain solidarity in a situation like this and how to create a community of solidarity and sharing?

Though not all art share the same intentions and not all artists are the same. Previously mentioned Rastenberg’s text stating that being an artist also means that you are part of radical politics will probably not at all please everyone. Not everyone wants to be involved in politics and not everyone shares the idea of all art being political. Artist are to some level often considered to be a we, a somewhat homogeneous group with similar hopes and intentions, but not everyone is or wants to be included. The we always express plurality.

When you take a closer look that we turns out to be an illusion, pluralities, reforming all the time to different communities and collectives. There are different backgrounds, age groups, mediums, agendas, and ideologies; when you come from Aalto you are never the we Kuva people are (and to some, maybe not even an artist in the same degree). As a curator, you are never the we artists are. Working outside academy you are always excluded from the ivory tower. Working interdisciplinary you always need to find and form your own communities.

But even knowing all this there is always a possibility, as there always is the we too — we who are working in this exhausting and impossible field, who find this non-career valuable enough to endlessly work for it and who find the work of others relevant. And who do want to share, time, thoughts, ideas and the little resources we have. This sharing (and solidarity) is what makes art and creates possibilities for new communities that matter. As Nancy puts it: what is shared is the sharing itself — sharing is solidarity, working in a community and for the other, as the text or the writing (I guess art in general?) stems only from the singular relationship between singular beings — the most solidarity of writers writes only for the other. The I that makes art, speaks and writes always does it in a relation to the other, and knowing this, from the standpoint of we.

This sharing is what creates meaning. In opposition to the existing trend of collective doing and making, of community art and projects, the we is not an ever exhausting demand. It is not about joining every meal or going to every opening. It is not about speaking on the behalf of other artists, nor about taking part in everything happening. It is something that exists even when you work alone, when you sleep, eat, exercise. I is about realizing that this alone too is communal, emerging from the being-with and that this co-existing is the basis of our being. There is no meaning if the meaning is not shared — the meaning is itself the sharing of being. Everything passes between us, and the essence of being is only as co-essence and being-with. And to wrap this up I quote Nancy one more time: Therefore, it is not the case that the “with” is an addition to some prior Being; instead the “with” is at the heart of being.”

Thank you!

References:

Agnes Denes: The Human Argument (2008), Spring Publications

Jean-Luc Nancy:

Being Singular Plural (2000), Standford University press

the sense of the world (1997), university of Minnesota press

Anna-Kaisa Rastenberg: Radical Politics, Kuvan Kevät 2018

This is based on my practice and research which is all the time more and more leading, from death and uncanny, towards community, doing together, being together and living together. And this isn’t anything ready, more like intuitive collection of thinking in process, hopefully someday leading to something.

Artists, art critic, curator and feminist working for a better world and PhD about the uncanny, everyday and community in Aalto University