Artists on the Run. On Mobility, Work and cultural production in a re-united Europe
Held at the Symposium: The European Idea in Art and Art History, 25/26 September 2014, Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin organised by the Council of Europe, Collegium Hungaricum Berlin and the DHM
Please note: this is a written version of a lecture and not the final version for publication not including all references!
“My work is based on presence and production. So I`m present every day and I`m producing every day. I´m producing discussions, an interview. Encounters. Friendship” – says Thomas Hirschhorn about his work “Le Flamme Éternelle” shown this summer at the Palais de Tokyo.
He was living in the exhibition space for 52 days, invited 200 philosophers, writers, poets and intellectuals to talk about their ideas on two so called “agoras” consisting of 16,500 tires, as well as cardboard, styrofoam, and other cheap materials with slogans implementing a public space in the middle of a street-barricade. There was no time limit for the presentations and discussions and free entrance. The title of this work, “Eternal Flame” comes from the belief that the “Flame” of thought, reflection, concepts and ideas will never stop burning if we feed it so that it becomes “eternal”. We must feed the “Eternal Flame” with this fuel. The ‘Flamme Éternelle’ burned relatively and intentionally unstructured within the confines that allowed its existence. The communication of ideas, which was the fuel to the flame, was not only communicated in analog, in presence, but also through presence in the digital world via Facebook, Twitter, a blog and a website.
This exhibition format aimed to break up the barricade between an exhibition space and a public space and highlight the role of Ideas as products, generated and triggered by artists. In this installation, Hirschhorn is addressing a series of questions concerning the European Idea today, from participation through exclusivity, the role of unhindered communication, transparency and production, work and the neoliberal constraints of cultural production. The site, Palais de Tokyo stands for the concept of the experimental field of aesthetic experiments for exhibition spaces originating in the 1990s. The Hirschhorn-event is a memento of this “eternal flame” as well.
Concerning his intentions, Hirschorn stated that:
“The “Eternal Flame” will mark a breakthrough beyond the consensus and cultural consumption. Only art counts, only poetry, philosophy and literature can help. As an artist I invite philosophers, writers and poets because I think that confronting their ideas, their thoughts can help us confront the times in which we live. They can help us to face the reality in which we find ourselves and can help us to confront the world in which we live. (…) I do not ask them to reflect on a cultural performance, I do not ask them to provide a product or to speak with a cultural object. What I want is to create an art space for their thoughts, their ideas for reflection.
What is important is to be present, that I, the artist is present, and I create the conditions for dialogue one to one, a one on one confrontation. My problem as an artist is: to give it a shape.
It is the mission of an artist to give form to how he sees the world.” To give it shape is the key statement by Hirschorn – and so he does in a huge material-presence of tires, furniture and other installative elements. But this shape is formless, formless in the tradition of the Anti-Form-concept prominently stated by Robert Morris in the 1960s. So if this anti-form, massive material-presence is his vision of the free flow of ideas, the manifestation of the essence of something called the European Idea, which is based on ancient Greek communication platforms of free thought and free speech, we can ask the question: in what shape is the European Idea today – what is this formlessness which is a key indicator of this idea in the Hirschhorn-exhibition?
In what shape is the European Idea in today’s Art and Art History, not on the scale of institutions but from the view of artists? What are the effects and consequences of the political agenda that culture as “soft power” has to be considered more and more as a strategy dedicated to the development industry? Staging vast transnational exhibitions and biennales to prove that we do have a common, integrated, tolerant, anti-hierarchical and non-elitist cultural infrastructure of which other regions can only dream of? Is this not only cultural political propaganda whereby it is clear that the Emperor is naked? And his invisible dress is cultural production made in Europe? How does the European Idea today relate to its cultural imperialism and reflects on its colonial history? The core elements of the European Idea encourage thousands and thousands of asylum seekers from almost all over the world and make them risk their lives. Brave men and women who believe in the effects of the European idea of security, wealth and mobility are risking everything they have. But what does the European idea do with the European artists and art historians?
Art historians should and could have been like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, as their core principle is re-considering sources, analysing their effects and praising accessibility to knowledge and transparency with a strong moral commitment. Formerly this was the competence of artists and art historians, who had the most responsible task of interpreting the autonomous language of images. Nothing is so risky and existential as interpreting images, which can be the triggers of war as well as peace. Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, philosopher and Sociologist spoke in the Hirschorn-installation about his current research on Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning, and their new methods of rebellion, with the portraits of the three placed prominently behind the podium with the speakers. They seemed in this installation as the guarding angels of free ideas and thoughts – also the core competence of artists and hopefully art historians. Accessibility, participation and social sensibility should be fundamental topics of a new European art history in order to gain real relevance à la Assange, Snowden & Co.
If we want to put it concretely, the European idea manifests itself nowadays in socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor – as activist and politician Owen Jones has recently put it in the context of the drama of British society today.
After the shock of the transition phase of post socialist capitalism to neoliberal forced capitalism hit both Western and non-Western artists, who are mostly in the category of capitalism for the poor, the acclimatization from a context of cultural production in a vacuum-field mostly disconnected from market economy and its principles to hard-core neoliberal capitalism went slowly and painfully, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. But this process effected artistic work and cultural production from its roots in the whole of Europe.
That artistic production was – and is in many cases still – not considered as work (as a consequence of the false interpreted heritage of 19th century romanticism in the role of artistic production), had to be understood to be turned into its opposite. Artistic work is work – and this is by no means self-evident. It is still obvious to pay a graphic designer but it is not obvious to pay an artist for his visual and theoretical work – or for just being present, producing “encounters, ideas, interviews” as Hirschorn stated. This is also due to the fact that funding structures often don`t allow organizers to pay for artistic work in form of fees. So within the complicated cultural support instruments aiming to strengthen European identity at this last and weakest territory of society, where this still seems possible, it is exactly these structures that hinder the inclusion of artists in the economic blood flow of society.
The valuable consideration would be to let artists be independent from politics and political acts and not wilfully instrumentalize cultural production as an ornament of political objective agreements – institutionally and regarding the system of funding. Allow them the freedom of free thought – one of the main achievements of a former European idea of the former West.
Inequality, disintegration and forced migration, the core points of failure of the European idea in Europe, hit the weakest of society – artists included. But at the same time artists and artistic work are useful instruments to decorate the European idea for the political spectrum communicating the feeling that if a common Europe failed on so many levels, there are still the artists we can point at to prove there IS something like European values.
As a consequence of the double-pressure of neoliberal capitalism and cultural policy agendas, the role of the artist has changed profoundly: Being professional, working hard, having a high mobility, permanent self-documentation and social relevance are the new parameters of an artist. But it is not supported to be indifferent towards political issues or biographical data, to be an outsider, disconnected, working on the periphery of the economical society. The work of artists is by no means purely the production of artworks and artistic concepts: they have to explain their work, give artist’s talks, lectures, performance lectures, interviews, have to sit on panels of cultural policy as an exotic species among politicians and cultural workers. There is hardly any scientific conference on issues of art and art history where an artist is not invited – mainly with little if any relevance. They have to answer calls, get funding, residencies, organize travel and production. They have to be active in communication online and in person, on different fields on the web and on social media. Networking, keeping in touch, sending latest news to special persons and organizing their archive and documentation. This is more than a 40-hour management job or almost as hard if you want to seem a professional and effective artist-worker. If you are successful enough and have a range of assistants, you still have to organize employees, the studio-space, transports etc. You are responsible for your employees, the outcome of your products determines the financial security of your staff. It is by no means easier to be a successful artist than a so called emerging one. In the 21st century “Artists Who Cannot Speak English Is Not an Artists” – as the work of Jakup Ferri suggests.
Since the early 1990s, artistic research has developed as a distinct field of study. Making art is taken to be a form of doing research and the works of art that result from that research are presented as a form of knowledge. Practical testing is frequently an essential part of this ‘journey of making’ process, enabling ideas and techniques to be resolved before making the finished work as part of the whole creative process. Art is not only relevant from the perspective of the aesthetic experience, it is argued, but also as knowledge claim. For artistic practice, this development undermines the modern dichotomy of autonomy and instrumentalism, thus breaking away from the alleged ‘otherness’ of art as a societal domain that has clear boundaries and can be separated from science. (cited after : cosmobilities network “art as mobile research”)
There has been a fundamental change between the period before the 1990s and the current conditions concerning the relation between the economy and the visions of artistic invention. Whereas the relation was also strong before the 1990s, it never influenced the ideas of an artistic work before its manifestation. Since the 90s, the logic of economic, cultural and funding policies have been influencing the genesis of the artistic work even before it gets a shape.
The subversive affirmation of state capitalism has started to affect artists’ production in an unprecedentedly direct way. Along this process, the politicization of artists’ production has become omnipresent. If you are a Lybian artist and you are NOT working on the export of the European Idea, questionably shortcut with democracy, you won`t achieve the international visibility your life depends on in some cases. If you are a Hungarian artist and you are NOT working on anti-Semitism, racism and so-called anti-democratic tendencies – the situation is similar. And on the reverse: if you DO, you can be almost sure to receive attention, funding and support. It is highly essential to support artists who are working on heavily endangered ideas for which the European Idea stands for. But it is equally important to keep supporting artists who are concerned with producing “ideas, concepts, aesthetics, encounters. Culture funding policies should not be used as instruments for transporting political agendas and artists not used as ambassadors for political-economic policies. The fantastic chance of the European Idea lies exactly in its openness, its ability to have very different ideas and opinions as well as very different and autonomous approaches to essential socio-political questions and a pluralistic, multidimensional view – but it loses its vast potential if it is solely reduced as a fig-leaf for communicating political objectives and decorating neoliberal socio-political agendas.
If an artist tries to resist these pressures it is even better – if you produce something fresh and original which can be integrated with neoliberal instruments in the mainstream discourse, the subversive affirmation of capitalism absorbs it immediately – and in the very moment it arrives in the deadly embrace of success, it becomes harmless and domesticated. Regarding artistic production, this absorption functions better than any state-politically driven restriction that artists were used to in former socialist Europe, to exterminate creative, original acts, thoughts and products in the long run.
Due to the media revolution since the Internet, it has never been so easy as it is today to curate shows transporting the “European idea.” If the European Idea has entered a new phase of mobility, so have the artists who are chosen (or self-chosen) to transport it. Which is their basic right, as the Charta of Fundamental Rights of the European Union says: “Every citizen of the Union has the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.” So ideally everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
Freedom of movement as grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is highly restricted for the majority of the global population and bound to national and international legal restrictions. Whereas the Universal Declaration of Human Rights entitles all human beings a right to leave their country, a right of entry into other states doesn’t exist per se. This problem does not only affect asylum seekers but artists as well, who are more and more forced to be mobile.
The mobility of artists and culture professionals has increasingly been acknowledged as a priority of the European cultural agenda in recent years, as expressed in several documents produced by the European Commission and the Council of Ministers of the EU. Artists residencies, Event participation grants, Scholarships for further / postgraduate training courses, “Go and see” or short-term exploration grants, Market development grants, Support for the participation of professionals in transnational networks, Project or production grants, Research grants, Touring incentives for groups, Travel grants (valid for different purposes) are just core examples of encouraging artists to get on the run.
How emerging economies are devoting greater attention to the value of culture and communication as they become bigger players on the international stage becomes a key question when culture and “soft power” intermingle. A race for soft power in the world has begun. A new report from the British Council investigates how and why ‘soft power’ is becoming more important in international relations – and why countries such as China, Korea and Brazil are making huge investments in it. The changing face of the media has created an explosion in international peer-to-peer contact – so Governments have less and less influence over their country’s international relations.
To summarize it, I have been talking about the discrepancy between the unique, vast potential of the idea of the European Idea on the one hand, and its manifestation and degradation as a tool and decoration for bad consciousness and imperial hegemony of European political and economic agendas on the other hand. I reflected on the changing role of artists in these processes between two diametric colliding structures: on the one hand, a practical tool for the EU’s official cultural policies, stating that post-accession mobility is the fulfilment of the idea of a borderless Europe, and on the other hand, the endangered freedom of artistic processes by neoliberal economic and political constraints, which are reducing the chance of multidimensionality of the core of the European Idea to a single dimension.
Unless these two structures collide, it is hard to see the glamorous cultural identity of the future that should unite the shattered ideas of a common Europe. So if artists and cultural workers want to keep the “Eternal Flame” burning, keeping and protecting the radical independence and multi-perspective of thoughts and ideas, they have to be on the run – from the one-dimensional European idea.
Otherwise, as the Swiss theatre director, Christoph Marthaler put it in his new play “The Last Days” regarding the future of the role of the European Elite: if we continue to go on like this, the European Idea will become a pure entertainment for Asian millionaires.