Artist (Residency) and the City

Livia Alexander, New York City  Nat Muller, Amsterdam  Harutyun Alpetyan, Yerevan  Francesca Fiore, New York/Bethel  Jakub Szczęsny, Warsaw  Lyno Vuth, Phnom Penh  Azu Nwagbogu, Lagos  Vibha Galhotra, Delhi  Kira Simon-Kennedy, New York City  Anat Litwin, New York/Berlin/Jerusalem/Saitama 

Every month we present a Global Roundtable in which contributors are asked to respond to a specific question as it relates to one or more of ArtsEverywhere’s lines of Inquiry.
List of writers
Hover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Kira Simon-KennedyIndependent art spaces and cafes that wouldn’t be out of place in Copenhagen or Tokyo popped up in Beijing’s dusty gray hutong alleyways.
Azu NwagboguAfrica has been historically expropriated; always seen as a territory from which to extract knowledge, culture, resources, music, art, language, and agency. With the power of hosting denied us, it’s not surprising that all of our artists are eager to exhibit and engage and share new ideas outside of Africa.
Livia Alexander…long before becoming the latest fad facilitated by the newest of tech-enabled revolutions, the sharing economy has been an integral part of artists’ organizing experiences. This ethos of sharing, collaboration, and exchange currently provides the glue that keeps artists in the borough, at least for now.
Francesca FioreWhere social sculpture imagines a utopian total work of art to which all people contribute, social drawing emerges from within a small-scale community (such as a town or neighborhood), and is constructed through intimate, relational connections between people. “Drawing” in this context becomes the act of connecting.
Nat MullerWhat perhaps makes Amsterdam’s case unique from other metropolises is that from 2000 on its municipality has had a visionary policy for artist studios and cultural incubator spaces (broedplaatsen) in place, which is supposed to safeguard affordable (read: subsidized) work and living spaces for artists and other culture workers.
Harutyun AlpetyanYou do not invite artists to discover some kind of local surrogate cultural and social context or to produce content totally irrelevant to local artistic practice. The only thing you can do for artists is to create new possibilities for their practice.
Vuth LynoThe students and the artists would negotiate with the residents in order to use their spaces and transform them into places where people could experience art: a coffee shop turning into a communal cinema, a street or a rooftop turning into a performance stage, or a hair salon entertaining its clients with video artworks.
Anat LitwinThese accumulated experiences have turned me into a passionate believer in the power of Artistic Hosting to set new social and cultural paradigms, and to appropriate the meaning of the “urban.”
Vibha GalhotraThe film is an amalgamation of environmental catastrophe and artistic aesthetic, the concoction itself defining the nature of my practice which draws attention to what is horrific through a beautiful medium.
Jakub SzczęsnyFinally, after two weeks in São João, I realized that the locals were very wise in using ideological (leftist) nomenclature, especially in their relations with a big federation of occupations (FLM), but at the same time, people in the building were simply longing for ownership, something which they could invest in and start thinking about in a long-term capacity, in a mindset that I would call “proto-capitalistic.”

This roundtable was inspired by a day-long symposium organized by Residency Unlimited entitled Embedded, Embedding: Artist Residencies, Urban Placemaking and Social Practice. To watch Jane Philbrick’s presentation at the event, please visit Residency Unlimited’s website.

Livia Alexander

Livia Alexander

Livia Alexander is a curator, writer, and Chair of the Department of Art and Design at Montclair State University. Her work is focused on examining the relationship between art infrastructure and artistic production, urbanity, cultural politics of food and art, and contemporary art from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. She has curated and produced numerous art and film programs, exhibitions and events, showcased at the MoMA New York, Tate Modern, Sharjah Art Foundation, Queens Museum, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Cinematheque Tangier, and many more. Alexander is co-producer of the research-based interactive documentary, Jerusalem, We Are Here (Canada/Palestine/Israel, 2016), directed by Dorit Naaman. Her award- winning scholarly writing has appeared in the Journal of Visual Anthropology, Framework, MERIP, and as book chapters and catalog essays. She regularly contributes to Hyeprallergic and Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia and founded the online publication ArteEast Quarterly. She is the editor of a year-long series commissioned by the online platform www.ArtsEverywhere.com with Residency Unlimited, centered on artist residencies at the nexus of urban placemaking and social practice.

Introduction

Art and artists today are identified as a key instrument in urban development and community planning. Detroit in the U.S, Margate in the UK or Dubai in the UAE are a few examples of cities that are actively seeking to bring in artists to enliven their communities and encourage economic activity, also known as creative placemaking. Artists are being invited to engage in the most unexpected corporate settings, recognized as critical, outside-the-box thinkers as business entrepreneurs are enlisting their services to propel innovation and growth. Government officials and departments are deploying artists to address pressing problems of public policy and governance.

These developing practices frequently take the form of artists working in newly formed residencies situated in communities, business places, government offices and a wide range of other settings.  They are models that mark a significant move away from the traditional notions of residencies, which are typically seen as spaces of retreat where artists can focus on developing their practice in isolation from community and everyday life. The growth of these socially engaged practices, alongside creative placemaking and the changing technologies of art production and dissemination are indicative of important cultural shifts in the perceived cultural capital of the arts.

While urban placemaking aspires to generate “vibrancy” in communities through artist residencies and other forms of socially engaged institutional projects one key question is who are these programs really benefiting? Funders, bureau-planners, and politicians are drawn to the potential of embedding the arts in their sectors as a means to create safer communities with better public education, and foster economic growth. But, is this just the cultural façade of gentrification? Are there ways for art programs to build the communities, and wealth for the people already living in them? How do we address the disparities in race and class through art and programming? What do more symbiotic models look like?

In this four-part series, we will seek to raise broader questions about the role of the arts and the idea of “embedded” artists residencies in the future of cities overall. We seek to explore the sometimes fraught and competing agendas of city planners, real-estate developers, politicians, communities, art institutions, and artists. All want a better city, but what that might mean and how does it play out can differ in practice. How does one then negotiate these conflicting priorities and vested interests in the prestige economy of creative cities, competing over human capital and economic resources leveraging the cultural capital of the arts? How are today’s challenges different from past generations, when wealthy philanthropists invested in the establishment of local museums, libraries and concert halls as part of urban elites competition over their respective (primarily large) cities’ cultural prestige?

Alternative models of artist residencies are a potent conduit to the development of innovative cultural strategies for the future of cities, while supporting and nurturing the arts and artists. But we must consider the associated risks of instrumentalizing the arts that can often accompany such initiatives, or, alternatively, the subsequent over commodification and homogenization of the arts. Can the role of artists and art be diminished by their participation in these new models?  Can we develop more new cooperative models that support artistic practice, protect the integrity of the artists, and allow business or community innovation?

Issue #1 Leading Question:

What role can urban planning and cultural policies play in navigating the slippery boundaries between nurturing artistic agency and social engagement, and advancing broader policy initiatives of urban economic growth? Does the artist residency model offer the appropriate conceptual setting for effective implementation?

Kira Simon-Kennedy

Kira Simon-Kennedy

Kira Simon-Kennedy is the co-founder and director of China Residencies, a nonprofit supporting creative exchange within China and the diaspora by sharing resources and creating a network of over 30 different residencies in mainland China and Hong Kong. Through the nonprofit's year-old fiscal sponsorship program, China Residencies supports creative collectives and community organizations like BUFU, a collaborative living archive centered around (pan)Black and (pan)Asian cultural and political relationships; Yellow Jackets, a queer/intersectional Yellow American collective collaborating towards radical futures that centralize marginalized bodies; and The W.O.W Project, a community space and artist residency shaping the future of New York's Chinatown. Kira is also an independent film and documentary producer, and one of the founders of res, a search engine to help connect creative people with opportunities worldwide.

Kira Simon Kennedy

Community-Based Artist Residencies in China

China’s megalopolises developed at tremendous speeds over the past decades: there are now more than 100 cities with more than one million residents throughout China. As the nominally communist country’s unequally-distributed wealth continues to soar, the number of cultural institutions and arts districts rose astronomically, with approximately 100 museums opening up each year (to a total of over 4,000 in 2014, up from just 25 museums in 1949).[1]

In order to make room for new housing and roads, entire neighborhoods and towns are torn down overnight. While some residents look forward to moving out of ancient, cramped structures that lack indoor plumbing (especially when adequately compensated or relocated), others resist in protest, refusing to give up the homes they’ve lived in for generations. At the end of the day, very few citizens in China truly have a say in where they live — the country’s hukou[2] system means each person is assigned a rural or urban residence permit and cannot work, live, or send their children to school in another part of the country. This rigid bureaucracy exists to slow rural exodus, but creates a floating population of millions of migrant workers who are forced to find work in the booming cities as opportunities in the countryside dwindle. These migrant workers exist in limbo, similarly to undocumented immigrants in US or Europe, with no labor or social protections, estranged from their families, and with extremely limited political power.

A hand-painted ‘chai 拆’ in downtown Shanghai in September 2015. Photo: KSK

While some Chinese contemporary artists did well for themselves internationally in past decades, other artists in China live in close quarters with migrant workers in communities — both spontaneous and planned — on the outskirts of the city, facing the constant threat of eviction and demolition. Provincial and municipal governments can seize land and tear down buildings with little or no notice save a hastily spray-painted 拆, the character chāi, shorthand for ‘demolish’, to make way for a new subway line. As the towns on the outer edges of Beijing get swallowed into the city’s ever expanding ring roads, migrants and artists alike never know how long they’ll be able to stay in any given makeshift town. Rents continue to rise, leading some artists to occupy the furthest edges of new developments, like the South Shore of Hawaii, but all are aware that these solutions are temporary at best.

The half-demolished lane houses in Shanghai. Photo: KSK
A red banner installation during the first Beijing Independent Art Spaces asking “Excuse me, is this place Hawai’i?” Photo: KSK

Meanwhile, Beijing’s city center became a magnet for the international creative class that loves a $5 latte, even in a traditionally tea-drinking culture. Independent art spaces and cafes that wouldn’t be out of place in Copenhagen or Tokyo popped up in Beijing’s dusty gray hutong alleyways. Beijing Design Week has the local government’s backing, who are eager to see an influx of affluent residents ready to join forces in ‘cleaning up’ the area. The government also supported the expansion of an international residency program in the Baitasi neighborhood, run by I: project space, which shows both local and visiting artists (“We care about artists, not their passports”) and is one of the main instigators of the Beijing Independent Art Spaces festival. Ironically, many of the artist-run spaces that took part in the festival were forced to brick off their storefronts this summer, as a different branch of the government decided it was time to “beautify” the alleyways…

Arrow Factory founders Pauline Yao, Rania Ho and Wang Wei standing in their space, mid-bricking, August 2017.

There’s an air of uncertainty that weighs on Beijingers, whether they be rich or poor, locals and transplants alike. A new art and community space, Yi Pai Hutong, aims to be a public library and spot for reflection on the changes in the neighborhood. Its founders, Qu and Zaizai, regrounded themselves after the closure of their original space, Homeshop, in 2012. Collaborative documentary projects like the Migrant Workers Film Collective bridge class and culture, where Wang Dezhi, a migrant worker from Inner Mongolia and Song Yi, an arts administrator at IFP, another hutong space in Beijing, work together to create films and organize screenings to unite the migrant and artist communities across class and privilege in their shared housing struggles.

For some of China’s rural communities, artist residencies have sometimes been able to bring in new perspectives and enrich the local community through long-term partnerships. The founders of Lijiang Studio, Jay Brown & Zhou Qiao, built a symbiotic relationship with the He family who run a farm in the Naxi region of Yunnan. For over a decade, visiting artists and farmers created collaborative community-based murals, festivals, and interventions that allowed residents to voice concerns about local politics, and continue musical and religious traditions that younger Naxi generations may have temporarily lost interest in. In other “back to the land” projects, it’s harder to gauge the true involvement of local residents, especially when the initiative is backed by municipal political bosses, and in some instances, the city-dwellers were unceremoniously chased out of town.

Jay Brown and Grandma He with resident composers and musicians Miranda Hill and Naima Fine in the courtyard at Lijiang Studio. Photo: KSK

In Shenzhen, where major cultural institutions like the V&A are partnering with city government to build world-class museums on reclaimed land, residency projects are a way to create bridges between the institutional framework and the actual audiences who may have never been to a museum before. Half of all the residencies in China are under five years old, and it’s a bit too soon to tell how brand new programs, like a partnership between a local real estate developer, SoFunLand and Jardin Rouge, a residency in Marakesh run by French-Moroccan foundation Montresso, supporting muralists and street artists, will shake out over the next decade. Another barely year-old project rooted in the migrant neighborhood of Baishizhou seems off to a fantastic start. Named Handshake 302, after the fact that it’s possible to shake hands with your neighbor across the street without leaving your apartment, hosts creative practitioners and urbanists in a 50 square meter apartment. The founders “believe that art belongs to everyone who contributes to our city” and chronicle urban mutations in their online video series Shenzhen Book of Changes.

Like elsewhere in the world, the projects that best succeed in strengthening existing communities by bringing in joy, health, wealth, and newfound perspectives are those that truly originate and are co-created with people from that community. We can hope that government and corporate projects learn from the long-running, community-based spaces and provide them with the full support and capacity to pave the way for truly cross-cultural collaborative initiatives on larger scales.


[1] https://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21591710-china-building-thousands-new-museums-how-will-it-fill-them-mad-about-museums

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hukou_system & http://thediplomat.com/2017/07/chinas-hukou-system/

Azu Nwagbogu

Azu Nwagbogu

Azu Nwagbogu is the Director of the African Artists’ Foundation (AAF), a non-profit organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria that he founded in 2007. Nwagbogu is also the Director of LagosPhoto, an annual international festival of art and photography that he founded in 2010. Additionally, Nwagbogu is the Director and Editor-in-Chief of Art Base Africa, an online journal that focuses on contemporary art from Africa and Diaspora. He is a collector and advises other private collectors. Nwagbogu has curated numerous exhibitions internationally, including Dey Your Lane! Lagos Variations at BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts (Brussels, Belgium) in 2016, co-curated with Ruth Simbao Tomorrows/Today at the Cape Town Art Fair (Cape Town, South Africa) in 2016, and Tear My Bra at Rencontres d’Arles (Arles, France), 2016. He is Curator-at-Large for photography at the Zeitz MOCAA Museum in Cape Town. Nwagbogu has contributed texts to several publications, including the Martin Roemers: Metropolis, Berlin, Germany, Hatje Cantz, 2015, Hääbré, The Last Generation by Joana Choumali and Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design, Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, 2015. Nwagbogu is a Juror for Contemporary African Photography Award CAP (Berlin, Germany), and has served as a juror for the World press Photo, Prisma photography award (2015) and Greenpeace Photo Award (2016) and several other art and photography related prizes. Nwagbogu lives and works in Lagos, Nigeria.

Azu Nwagbogu

The African Artists’ Foundation

Since it was established in 2007 in Lagos, Nigeria, the African Artists’ Foundation (AAF) has sought to encourage the highest standards of art in Africa. Its significant role in art and academic communities via year-round art exhibitions, festivals, competitions, workshops and—most significantly—artist residencies, has allowed the foundation to significantly contribute to cross cultural collaboration and nurturing for artists interested in Africa. Artists who participate in our artists’ residencies are able to plug into our ongoing program of exhibitions and workshops at our space in Lagos. Gentrification catalyzed our eviction from our previous popular location in Ikoyi on the so-called Lagos Island to a quiet and more generous space on Victoria Island. Our new space has managed to imbibe the energies of the previous location whilst offering a more fecund space for reflection.

Courtyard, African Artists’ Foundation (AAF), Lagos, Nigeria.

One of the significant opportunities that our residency offers is what we at AAF call a Culture Safe Zone. There is, in a majority of African nations, an assault on the rights of LGBTQ communities and individuals due a brand of religious fervor propagated by virtually every religious group to condemn and ostracize these young Africans. This often alien and learnt aggressive persecution of the rights of individuals has made our artist space and residency even more relevant. Our programs and activities stand out in creating a safe zone for all creative minded individuals to explore their ideas and feel like they have a home to ferment these ideas, regardless of their background, age, tribe, gender, sexuality.

Sven Marquardt and Marcel Dettmann’s Black Box exhibition. Photo: Benson Ibeabuchi for AAF.

In our new headquarters, the foundation has continued its residency programs for Nigerian and international artists. The artists are lodged in the Residency quarters at the foundation and are provided with a daily stipend, materials, and a studio. Research through studio visits, tours around the state, and interaction with the community is encouraged to further broaden the residing artist’s knowledge of the diverse communities we serve in Lagos and how this knowledge is transferred into the work that interests the artist. Artist talks, round table discussions, and workshops are held with art practitioners, artists, art students and enthusiasts. These activities foster the exchange of ideas between artists and the audience. Uche Uzorka, Obinna Makata, Jeremiah Quarshie, Lorenzo Vitturi, Raquel van Haver are among those who have completed residencies at the Foundation.

Obinna Makata, Untitled IV.

At AAF, when we think of residencies, we confine them to the most essential aspect of our African culture of hospitality. This feeds into the idea of curating a space to host our ideas. Colonial and postcolonial legacies often conjure to confine Africa’s role as a contributor to the generation of ideas and hosting of others to contribute to this process. Africa has been historically expropriated; always seen as a territory from which to extract knowledge, culture, resources, music, art, language, and agency. With the power of hosting denied us, it’s not surprising that all of our artists are eager to exhibit and engage and share new ideas outside of Africa. There are very few contemporary art museums on the continent and spaces like the AAF, RAW Material Company in Dakar, and the NIROX Foundation in Johannesburg aim to bridge this gap by creating safe spaces for artists to mediate, exchange, and nurture their ideas.

Open Ceiling Gallery, African Artists’ Foundation (AAF), Lagos, Nigeria.

Finally, the notion of philanthropy and its role in fostering interaction between communities is an essential part of any artist residency. There are artist residency programs in Lagos connected to commercial galleries where artists produce work under controlled scenarios for their galleries. These have a direct correlation with the markets and serve a specific function. A much wider and influential residency program is sustained by philanthropic gestures where important, emerging voices are supported to give agency to their creative expression for the wider society’s benefit.

Lorenzo Vitturi, The Balogun Particle.

Any art residency model can be compared to that of a market, and a good model for comparison would be the Balogun Market in Lagos. Situated along the Marina, Lagos’s downtown business district, the market, with its humble beginnings of roadside stalls and fabric warehouse shacks has, over the years, reshaped the original land use plan to suit its purpose. Maneuvering weakly observed zoning laws, this mammy market has spread its reach all over the long-stretched streets, occupying over 60% of the slender residential buildings, boutique hotels, and finance establishments built in the widely popularized industrial style that was the pride of this previous post-colonial capital state.

Lorenzo Vitturi, The Balogun Particle IV.

In the text about his residency project “The Balogun Particle,” Lorenzo Vitturi cited that “…urbanisation is being hampered by the presence of a street market: the Balogun market, the second biggest of its sort in West Africa. Here, I found what appeared to me to be an exceptional case of ‘reverse’ gentrification.” It is this alien term “reverse gentrification” that should be applied to residency models across the continent. Where previous residency models aim to benefit the elite few and organizing galleries, a model that is aimed at generating social capital—and community development—should be adopted across megacities and their sprawling outskirts.

Gentrification, a process which can be rightfully argued to be the bane of contemporary urbanism, can be remodeled against suiting elitist propaganda. By creating an ad hoc network of culturally safe houses—idea laboratories—to engage local artisans, artists, and craftsmen through seminars—workshops focused at their immediate environment, culture, norms, and traditions—a collective can be established to pass down accumulated knowledge to future generations. This goes back to the age-old tradition of storytelling and “informal residencies” in Africa.

Livia Alexander

Livia Alexander

Livia Alexander is a curator, writer, and Chair of the Department of Art and Design at Montclair State University. Her work is focused on examining the relationship between art infrastructure and artistic production, urbanity, cultural politics of food and art, and contemporary art from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. She has curated and produced numerous art and film programs, exhibitions and events, showcased at the MoMA New York, Tate Modern, Sharjah Art Foundation, Queens Museum, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Cinematheque Tangier, and many more. Alexander is co-producer of the research-based interactive documentary, Jerusalem, We Are Here (Canada/Palestine/Israel, 2016), directed by Dorit Naaman. Her award- winning scholarly writing has appeared in the Journal of Visual Anthropology, Framework, MERIP, and as book chapters and catalog essays. She regularly contributes to Hyeprallergic and Harpers Bazaar Art Arabia and founded the online publication ArteEast Quarterly. She is the editor of a year-long series commissioned by the online platform www.ArtsEverywhere.com with Residency Unlimited, centered on artist residencies at the nexus of urban placemaking and social practice.

Livia Alexander

The Sharing Economy that Keeps Brooklyn Artists Going

The borough of Brooklyn that I call home has been a hipster magnet and one of the most explosive real estate markets in the city over the past decade. A 2016 Conde Nast Traveler article celebrates Brooklyn as no longer the home of just young artists, but that of avant-garde galleries and outdoor sculpture gardens. As cultural practitioners, we value and aspire for art to thrive in and be an integral part of our communities, to enrich our lives, stimulate our imagination, and provide a conduit for reflection and thought. So, must it be that when art thrives it be accompanied by soaring housing prices, gentrification, and uprooting of longtime residents or low-income communities?

I realize that addressing this question is a complex matter, an issue that the city of New York, like many other major urban metropoles, has been grappling with over the last couple of decades. With central Manhattan emptied of its practicing artists in residence, it is now a sanitized ghost of its past edgy self. You might go see a pricey performance at Lincoln Center, or catch a blockbuster movie at a brand name Cineplex, but if you want something more “alternative”, hit the bridge. Is it the fate of Brooklyn to be emptied of its creative soul as its housing prices keep skyrocketing?

There is a pesky problem with the Conde Nast statement as it peddles a very specific perception, à la Richard Florida, about artists as agents propelling the engine of the “Creative Economy.” They are young, they are the early birds signalling gentrification like bird migrations are signs that fall is around the corner, and the art that they make fits with particular established notions of what constitutes art-making. Long-time residents devoted, for example, to creative art making in their communities, need not count. Not surprisingly, these artists are often from communities that are largely non-white and less affluent.

Artists self-organizing and sharing has long been a basic survival strategy for sustaining a creative practice in the city. Silicon Valley generated types of the sharing economy often come under criticism for the ubiquitous neo-liberal profiteering which primarily benefits their developers at the expense of their hard-working service providers. But long before becoming the latest fad facilitated by the newest of tech-enabled revolutions, the sharing economy has been an integral part of artists’ organizing experiences. This ethos of sharing, collaboration, and exchange currently provides the glue that keeps artists in the borough, at least for now.

Residency Unlimited is a case in point of this ethos. A small dynamic organization with an incredibly wide footprint is made possible through the organization’s extensive network of collaborations that allows the organization to be nimble. Instead of feeding the real estate beast, it focuses on customized services to its artists in residence through a strategy of resource sharing, from collaborating with other art organizations when an artist is in need of a studio space, to mounting exhibitions and other public programs, and more. Besides being a financially prudent strategy and a simple survival tactic, this web of collaborations and partnerships provides the added benefit of increased visibility and networking opportunities for participating artists, while fellow organizations have an opportunity to exhibit artwork otherwise unavailable to them.

Artist residencies suggest a temporary or permanent home, a demarcation of spaces, of boundaries inside and out, a site of hospitality, perhaps of radical hospitality. It is a hoped-for safe haven — for art practice, for social practice, for creative expression, for criticality, for thinking and reflecting. In its most idealized sought-after manifestation, it is a place of support, of nurturing, a space where new ideas can develop and blossom. The overlapping space between “residence” and “artist residency” is perhaps most decidedly collapsed when artists open their own home as a space for artistic practice, staging performances in their own living room, having visitors and audiences step into their kitchen, thus making the private public, and the public private. The Glasshouse space in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn is defined by duo artists Lital Dotan and Eyal Perry as a space of art/life/lab, seeing housing as an artistic practice under the motto that “Art should be experienced at a place that allows staying.” Turning their domestic space into literally a “glass house”, Dotan and Perry’s sharing practice puts forward a vision where daily life and daily practice become completely inseparable, one that aptly accentuates the current state of often living life as performance and performance as a way of life (our careful construction of our curated pubic selves on Facebook anyone?).

Relocating from their original home in the neighborhood of Williamsburg — the first bellwether of Brooklyn’s transition to an upscale enclave for professionals — to Crown Heights, the migratory trail of Glasshouse is that of countless artists, who like many other residents, want to continue to call Brooklyn home. The Sunview Luncheonette is another kind of sharing alliance and mutual aid between a collective of artists and an aging restauranteur who can no longer afford to maintain her down-to-basics diner in the neighborhood of Greenpoint. The group refers to the re-purposed space as a storefront on pause, a member-based social club where they hold semi-public dinners, talks, workshops, plays, reading groups, and musical interludes in a semi-private setting. Community here consists of people and their local businesses, it is not corporate sponsorship or other ubiquitous forms of for-profit models of “social responsibility.” It is social responsibility in its most direct and concrete form of mutual sharing and mutual care; the group cares for maintaining the restaurant space, while the owner provides them free reign in using the space. The ethos of sharing, collaboration, and social engagement are the greatest asset that artists and cultural practitioners working in communities throughout the borough gift us.

In many ways, the story of the neighborhood of Gowanus is a familiar tale which has played out in many other neighborhoods in New York City. A former industrial neighborhood, the area’s building stock consists of many relatively large spaces ideal for artistic production. Centered around the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal, it has historically been less desirable for residential use and thus less expensive. Now that the Canal has been designated a SuperFund Site, and is on the verge of a major clean-up, real estate values have begun to soar, and New York City has selected the neighborhood as one of several included in its PLACES rezoning initiative to create more affordable housing. Arts Gowanus, a local non-profit, has been a leader for the arts and culture working group of the stakeholder meetings organized by the city for the PLACES project, and has advocated strongly for the needs of artists within the planning process. As the area becomes a magnet for the “creative class”, it is essential that the very artists who helped attract investment to the area not be displaced. Many have very long roots in the neighborhood, including residents of the three public housing developments within the Gowanus boundaries. The organization seeks to ensure that the diverse voices of all Gowanus artists are represented and defended, and also hopes to create models for sustainability that can be replicated elsewhere.

Crucially, Arts Gowanus also seeks to partner with other stakeholders, including real estate developers, local businesses, neighborhood residents and art collectors. Rather than view these groups as threats, Arts Gowanus sees opportunities in joining together to drive community-centered economic development. The challenges are many, says Eve Moros Ortega, board president of Arts Gowanus: principally, the common issues of minimal staff, insufficient general operating funding to support infrastructure for launching new projects, severe competition for funding, and extreme pressure on the real estate market. The risks for Arts Gowanus, and other arts organizations in the city, are that the very results of their efforts may ironically lift the tide for all in the area, but in so doing accelerate rising costs of rents, goods, and services. Dumbo, another Brooklyn neighborhood, is a cautionary tale, where the arts are seen by some as “window dressing” on an extremely gentrified and now extremely expensive neighborhood. But according to Moros Ortega, “there is opportunity in this moment of being on the cusp of change, to learn from past mistakes and create new ways for artists to support each other as well as other stakeholders in the area.” I am hopeful that indeed Brooklyn can lead the way in maintaining and cultivating this ethos of community and sharing.

Francesca Fiore

Francesca Fiore

Francesca Fiore is an artistpoet from Pennsylvania and co-founder of SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing, a socially engaged project that seeks to re-establish networks of nourishment in the rural community of Bethel, Ohio. Her process-based and deeply investigative work uses research, performance, video, installation, and text to explore histories, intimacies, and representations of memory. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design and received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. She presented at Residency Unlimited's symposium Embedded, Embedding: Artist Residencies, Urban Placemaking and Social Practice in January.

Francesca Fiore

Social Drawing as a Model for Community-First Engagement

I would like to start by posing an alternative question to the one offered in this roundtable:

How can artistic agency and social engagement shape urban planning and cultural policies to advance broader policy initiatives for community-based development?

This newly-arranged question reflects my ethic of bottom-up engagement rather than top-down management. If artists are to truly engage communities and avoid perpetuating gentrification, their initiatives must begin at the community level. Urban planning and cultural policies are only effective inasmuch as they are dictated by the populations they serve. Similarly, artistic engagements at the community level must, at the very least, act in partnership with those involved and avoid hierarchal models for participation.

Artistic freedom is necessary for effective horizontal engagements. If the artist feels undue pressure to please outside funders, institutions, or policy-makers, their investment in community is compromised. In addition, the market-driven art world allows little room for true community commitment, pigeonholing artists into the role of gentrifier. In their hunt for both financial (and thus artistic) freedom and a sense of belonging, artists have become the perfect pretense for developers looking for cultural capital to bolster their profits.

Indeed, urban planning and cultural policies can aid in the further protection of vulnerable communities. However, it is far more authentic and empowering for communities to set those terms for themselves. Artists wishing to contribute to the holistic health of a community must first be prepared to ask questions and gain an understanding of people and place before providing services or influencing policy. Once these bonds of trust have been established, the artist has tremendous power to affect change due to the unique position the artist occupies as both a member of the community and a figure apart from it.

I propose social drawing as a model for community-first engagement of the kind articulated above. Social drawing is the theory and practice that drives my collaborative, socially engaged project with Hillary Wagner, SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing. SOIL SERIES aims to reestablish networks of nourishment in Bethel, Ohio, a rural Appalachian village struggling with high unemployment, rising poverty levels, and a staggering opioid epidemic. Together with a local organization, Empower Youth, we are developing a site for expanded access to nutritious food, cultural programming, and mentorship at the intersection of art and agriculture. Although our social drawing reflects rural realities, I believe the model can be expanded and applied to urban and suburban communities as well.

Social drawing modifies Joseph Beuys’s theory of social sculpture to operate at the community scale. Where social sculpture imagines a utopian total work of art to which all people contribute, social drawing emerges from within a small-scale community (such as a town or neighborhood), and is constructed through intimate, relational connections between people. “Drawing” in this context becomes the act of connecting. Lines spread out from a central core consisting of significant sites and community actors. Each new line intimately understands and builds upon existing community networks in order to identify and develop new pathways towards health, knowledge, resources, and support. As in Beuys’s social sculpture, contributors to the drawing need not identify as artists, nor is the path of the drawing dictated by artists. Rather, artists act as facilitators, asking new questions, imagining new possibilities, and creating the conditions needed for an intricate and expansive web.

Drawing by Hillary Wagner: our first attempt at visualizing the developing SOIL SERIES social drawing.

The work of initiating the SOIL SERIES drawing began even before we arrived in Bethel. Through Hillary’s parents, long-time residents of Bethel and employees of the local school district, we were able to connect with Scott and Lori Conley of Empower Youth (EY). In the three years since their inception, Empower Youth’s weekly food bags and mentorship programming for at-risk Bethel students has become so vital to the community that a local bank, Community Savings, recently gifted the organization a foreclosed 15-acre ranch to aid in their expansion. These initial connections within the community provided the first points in our nascent social drawing, allowing us access to existing relational networks and establishing the EY Ranch as the project’s nexus.

In partnering with Empower Youth, an initiative for social and economic change growing from within Bethel and reflecting its concerns, we were better able to establish trust and engage community members on their terms. Social drawing as a model does not require artists to be of the place in which they are working, only that they proceed with empathy and foreground the community’s needs. Although Hillary grew up in Bethel, her long period of absence and sudden return from New York with a master’s degree and two friends from the Northeast (myself and my husband), necessitated a heightened degree of intentionality in how we cultivated our community presence.

Our partnership with Empower Youth has also allowed us an enormous amount of artistic freedom. Where Empower Youth must remain practical in its goals due to the overwhelming urgency of the situation in Bethel, we are able to dream up new possibilities and explore imaginative solutions. It is imperative, however, that we truly participate in this partnership, and we work hard to ensure we are supporting the organization’s mission, not burdening it.

Just as social sculpture emerged from the political and social turmoil of the post-war era, social drawing responds to current sociopolitical divisions and widespread economic inequality. These crises have produced in artists and the broader public a hunger for connectivity and collective action. In an effort to address growing despair as a result of high unemployment and disappearing opportunity, we have developed arts programming that connects Bethel residents to the village’s rich historical and agricultural past. In addition, we continue to foster relationships with local farmers, historians, educators, and small-business owners in order to form new pathways towards mentorship for area youth. As our drawing expands, we look forward to also engaging local politicians, institutions of higher learning, and nearby cultural institutions so as to establish a network of support and opportunity around this rural community. The drawing, however, behaves like a root system and new lines unfold like tendrils from a centralized core. Social drawing as a model can be applied to urban or suburban communities as long as the artistic engagement is similarly inextricably rooted in a community core and expands outward through its existing networks. This ensures that all new marks reflect the community’s values and concerns and that lines pointing to policy originate with the people.

Nat Muller

Nat Muller

Nat Muller (Amsterdam) is an independent curator and critic. Her writing has been published in Bidoun, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Papers, MetropolisM, Hyperallergic, Canvas, X-tra, Springerin, Art Margins and Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. She has also written numerous catalogue and monographic essays predominantly on artists from the Middle East. She has taught at universities and academies in the Netherlands and the Middle East, and has curated video and film screenings for projects and festivals internationally, including for Rotterdam's International Film Festival, Norwegian Short Film Festival, International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, and Video D.U.M.B.O. Recent exhibition projects include Spectral Imprints for the Abraaj Group Art Prize in Dubai (2012), Adel Abidin’s solo exhibition I love to love..., Forum Box in Helsinki (2013); Customs Made: Quotidian Practices & Everyday Rituals, Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah (2014); This is the Time. This is the Record of the Time, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam & American University of Beirut Gallery (2014/15). In 2015 she was Associate Curator for the Delfina Foundation’s Politics of Food Program (London) and was appointed guest curator for the A.M.Qattan 2016 Young Artist of the Year Award for Palestinian artists that opened at Qalandiya International in Ramallah, Palestine in 2016 and The Mosaic Rooms in London in 2017. For the past few years Nat has been a nominator for the Prix Pictet Award, the V&A Jameel Art Prize, the Visible Award and the Paul Huf Photography award, amongst other jury and nomination committees. Nat serves on Amsterdam’s municipal advisory committee for artist studios and incubator spaces. www.natmuller.com

Nat Muller

 Amsterdam: Counting our Precarious Blessings?

Amsterdam municipality’s policy paper on art and culture for the period 2017-2020 is all positive vibes and upbeat phrases: Amsterdam is a world class arts and culture city, it’s international, diverse and fuses young talent with the history of old masters. In short: “Amsterdam breathes art and culture.”[1] While things are supposed to have picked up after the economic downturn, reality is far less rosy. The arts and culture sector in the Netherlands is still reeling from brutal budget cuts in 2011 that axed 40% of national and municipal spending. Theatre and performance companies were sent packing, small and mid-size exhibition venues had to close up shop, music schools, libraries, art education and academies all suffered. An already strained workforce became even more choked off. Ever since, galleries and artists have been moving from Amsterdam to cheaper places with more space and/or opportunities like Rotterdam, Brussels, or Berlin. This trend continues with Amsterdam real estate being hotter than hot; house prices in the first quarter were up 21% compared to the same period last year.[2] Finding affordable housing and studio space in Amsterdam has always been a challenge, but this battle for space has grown only more difficult. For example, the average wait for social housing in Amsterdam is between 10 and 17 years.

The phenomenon of artists being driven out of the city centre because of inflated real estate prices is of course not exclusive to Amsterdam. Larger cities like London, New York and Paris all suffer the same fate. An increasing “Barcelonisation” of the centre, with facilities catering primarily to tourists and not to residents, is another factor. Activist platforms like Faircity Amsterdam[3] are sounding the alarm that the city is rapidly becoming “smooth”: a homogenous, polished and controlled playground for the rich. What perhaps makes Amsterdam’s case unique from other metropolises is that from 2000 on its municipality has had a visionary policy for artist studios and cultural incubator spaces (broedplaatsen) in place, which is supposed to safeguard affordable (read: subsidized) work and living spaces for artists and other culture workers. In these uncertain times this should be a tower of strength, but it is unfortunately starting to show uncomfortable neoliberal cracks. A policy meant to protect artists from real estate inflation and aggressive gentrification now seems to place these very artists at the forefront of city branding and urban development, paradoxically marginalizing their presence in the city centre.


Map of incubator spaces in Amsterdam.

In this context “creativity” becomes an exhausted and depleted buzzword eagerly co-opted by neo-liberal populist regimes and corporate managerialism. Can’t afford your rent? Be creative! School fees for your kids too expensive? Be creative! Can’t pay your health insurance? Get creative! Not happy with your zero-hour contract for your intellectual labour? Well at least you can be creative! Where government pulls out, “creativity” comes in. And what better carriers of creativity than undervalued, underpaid and precarious artists? What better way to validate public spending on arts and culture than by instrumentalising artists to put their creativity to work — often at minimal or no cost — where government shirks its responsibilities.[4] This is realized, for example, in providing art workshops for kids, facilitating dialogue in disenfranchised neighbourhoods, or mediating in migrant communities — or in repurposing buildings and “pioneering” in underdeveloped parts of town, so that real estate prices can be driven up and a developer can come in and turn it into a hotel or condo. Piquant detail: Amsterdam municipality owns a lot of real estate. With prices so overheated it is a thankful cash cow for the municipality, with many of the divested properties either losing their cultural or public function, if they had one, or not being considered for such purposes in the first place.

The tension between Amsterdam’s municipal cultural policy, its policy for incubator spaces and artist studios, and its real estate endeavours becomes clear when we take a closer look at what has been happening these last few years to incubator spaces (broedplaatsen), developed with municipal funding. An interesting historical fact is that policy on broedplaatsen came out of discussions between squatters’ collectives[5] and the municipality of Amsterdam. Whereas the original idea was that artist/cultural collectives would initiate a broedplaats bottom-up, we now see that the majority of broedplaatsen are realised by professional developers like Urban Resort, Meurkens & Meurkens, and LOLA. They do great work and expertly know their way around complicated municipal regulations, but it is a far cry from squatting the former Amsterdam Dry Dock Company (ADM)[6] in 1997 and creating a 125-member community of artists and other cultural workers that has been providing a “cultural free haven” for two decades. In addition, broedplaatsen are increasingly being developed outside of the inner city, in industrial zones and as-of-yet unchartered — but soon to be developed — territory, or in what is called Metropool Regio Amsterdam (MRA), an administrative collaboration between the city of Amsterdam and neighbouring towns and cities, an aspiring conglomerate.

With artists pushed to operate outside of even the city fringes, one has to wonder how much it all benefits the artistic and cultural vibrancy and community that the municipality so praises in its cultural policy paper. If artistic production and in some cases venues are structurally relegated to the periphery of the urban area then eventually it will become peripheral to public perception. This is the unfortunate case for two landmark institutions of Amsterdam’s cultural landscape, the contemporary art institute De Appel and Steim (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music), which after losing their national funding and facing sky-high rents, had to move out of the city centre and to Broedplaats Lely in Nieuw West, a suburban borough of Amsterdam.

De Appel in Broedplaats Lely, the former Calvijn College. Image courtesy De Appel. Photo credit: Elise Gherlan.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that in the past broedplaatsen would strive for a life span of ten years or longer, and now this is increasingly reduced to between three and four years.[7] Obviously, this is much more interesting for both commercial proprietors and the municipality in terms of quickly capitalizing on artist-led gentrification. The casualties here are not only artists and other culture workers who are condemned to even more uncertainty and precarity,[8] but also an ambitious and exemplary municipal policy that in the long run forsakes the interest group it set out to protect.


[1] Cfr. in Dutch. https://www.amsterdam.nl/kunst-cultuur/kunstencultuurbeleid/kunstenplan/ [last accessed 22 August 2017]

[2] Michiel Couzy and Tom Damen. “Huizenprijzen in Amsterdam 21% gestegen.” Het Parool. 13 July 2017. https://www.parool.nl/amsterdam/huizenprijzen-amsterdam-in-een-jaar-21-procent-gestegen~a4505988/ [last accessed 22 August 2017]

[3] Cfr. in Dutch. http://faircity.amsterdam/topics/vrijplaatsen/

[4] A case in point is the temporary culture fund The Art of Impact (2015-2016) set up by Jet Bussemaker, Minister of Education, Culture and Science (OCW), specifically targeting cultural projects with “social impact.” It specifically stimulated collaborations between artists, cultural institutions, and businesses outside of the cultural sector. Cfr. http://theartofimpact.nl/ (in Dutch). Cultural policy in the Netherlands has for the past two decades viewed artists in economic terms as “cultural entrepreneurs” (culturele ondernemers) and has aggressively pushed this concept to funds subsidizing art and cultural projects.

[5] The Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, is known for its squatters’ movement and its political fight for affordable housing and against vacancy. Since the 1960s squatters have created a rich subculture of radical politics with many artists and other progressives in their midst. In the Netherlands squatters always had rights, but “deal making” between local authorities and squatters in combination with further regulation and institutionalisation meant the movement petered out by the 1990s. Add to this the fact that in 2010 squatting became a felony, and it becomes clear that claiming free space in Amsterdam, or elsewhere in the Netherlands, has become much harder.

[6] ADM has been home to cult festivals such as Droogdokfestival and the robotics spectacle Robodock. As of February 2018 those living and working there will have to move out, as a new proprietor for the now very attractive plot of real estate has been found. Cfr. https://adm.amsterdam/ [last accessed 22 August 2017]

[7] Cfr in Dutch. “Herzien Amsterdams Atelier- en Broedplaatsenbeleid 2015 – 2018” https://www.amsterdam.nl/bestuur-organisatie/organisaties/organisaties/bureau-broedplaatsen/beleid-doelen/ [last accessed 22 August 2017]

[8] Journalist Roel Griffioen’s research website http://frontlinie.org/ on the relationship between cultural policy and the politics of gentrification provides excellent context and analysis. Also see his edited volume De Frontlinie: Bestaansonzekerheid en gentrificatie in de Creatieve Stad (2017).

Harutyun Alpetyan

Harutyun Alpetyan

Harutyun Alpetyan is an art curator and engineering consultant based in Armenia. He is the co-founder of AJZ artist-run-space and Nest artist-in-residence program, run as part of the ICA Yerevan. His work ranges from environmental research to contemporary choreography and often involves a conceptual symbiosis of arts and engineering. Harutyun has been engaged with writing and translation, curation and production of shows, festivals, seminars, and other cultural content. His activities at Contemporary Choreography Lab focus on facilitating efficient artistic production via research, training, and international exchange.

Harutyun Alpetyan

Nest: A Story of Placemaking

When you need a place, simply make one for someone else and share it. This is how the Yerevan-based artist-in-residence program called Nest came into being. A single woman three months away from delivering a baby was looking for ways to deal with forthcoming life changes while maintaining her artistic and daily life. The concept was to host artists who would agree to live and work together with a mother and child, either bringing in their own parental experience or going through an intense parental learning process. The program also accepted kids and partners to join the artists for the entire residency.

The challenge was to transform the residency program into a kind of community center for arts and cultural actors who would commit to supporting a combination of artistic and survival strategies. Yet, it was more about translating artistic strategies into survival strategies rather than combining them. The project, with all its temporal implications, was quite a success: the baby has grown up, the mother has kept on her artistic practice, and though run by different people and in different places, the residency continues to host artists. One could debate whether it is, in essence, the same residency or not, but we are not interested in its afterlife; we are interested in its conception and genesis.

This instance demonstrates how different individual stories and needs appearing in a certain constellation can become conditions that provoke a particular manner of placemaking. Such a place automatically becomes particular: on one hand due to the character of its origins, and on the other hand due to the existential and operational modalities it is producing. But you don’t necessarily have to sell that particularity nor those existential and operational modalities to artists, for they may emerge as a result of a coproduction. You do not invite artists to discover some kind of local surrogate cultural and social context or to produce content totally irrelevant to local artistic practice. The only thing you can do for artists is to create new possibilities for their practice.

Let us now imagine those who agree to attend an artist-in-residence program that offers them nothing but sleepless nights, the frustrating cry of a baby during the day, lower priority at a shared bathroom, small rooms, few facilities, no money (artists even shared the costs of the place), but also lots of fun, engagement with the local art community, and very specific insight into the local contemporary art context. There would probably be some special reason to accept such conditions and to apply for such a residency program — and that reason is hardly traceable to any exotic, colonial, or sentimental attitudes, especially from those engaged with post-soviet and post-socialist cultural contexts.

Sadly, that exotic aura of post-soviet, genocide-survivor, third-world developing country has been very typical of Armenia and other countries over the past fifteen years or so. Many international artists have been tempted to rush over to discover and explore first-hand what they perceive as the vestiges of what was hidden behind the iron curtain for many years, but in reality was no more than a direct continuation of the recent past. It has also been very attractive to many local actors to engage with international funding, which always successfully supports and instates its own policies, and invites artists to engage in the same discovery and exploration. The production that comes out of this kind of activity often takes the form of some quasi-research on human-rights issues, which already existed elsewhere to a very refined aesthetic, and which ultimately celebrates destruction under the premise of admiring “the beautiful ruins.”

So how do we consider the artist-in-residence program in general? Shall we think of it as a practice exercised by ancient Greek philosophers, renaissance artists, then those of the modern era who have continued and translated the tradition into contemporary models that perfectly fit the current market-driven economy? Shall we think of it as a framework for encouraging artists into a practice that allows for the development of a legitimate artistic identity of sorts? Shall we think of it simply as a search for a new and alternative experience and an opportunity for such an experience?

In any case, we shall think of it locally, in relation to the given artistic context, at least considering it as a part of local contemporary art practice that is extremely marginal in Armenia. Contemporary art in Armenia doesn’t literally have a place yet, so it infrequently takes place and disappears. It is still a marginal practice of producing, or importing and consuming, or exporting artistic content by the same limited community or network. It is something that as yet hardly expands into actual daily life-practices; something that is hardly capable of filling the gap between art and life.

Lyno Vuth

Lyno Vuth

VUTH Lyno (b. 1982, Phnom Penh) is an artist, curator and Co-founding Artistic Director of Sa Sa Art Projects, an artist-run space initiated by Stiev Selapak collective. His artistic and curatorial practice is primarily participatory in nature, exploring collective learning and experimentation, and sharing of multiple voices through exchanges. His interest intersects micro histories, histories of photography, notions of community, and production of social situations. Vuth holds a Master of Art History from the State University of New York, Binghamton, supported by Fulbright fellowship (2013-15). His recent curatorial projects include When the River Reverses (2017), Sa Sa Art Projects, Phnom Penh; Oscillation (2016), the Art Center of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok; and Traversing Expanses (2014), SA SA BASSAC, Phnom Penh. Vuth’s recent exhibitions include Unsettled Assignments (2017) in collaboration with Sidd Perez, SIFA, Singapore; Public Spirits (2016-17), CCA, Warsaw; South by Southeast (2015 & 2016), Osage Gallery, Hong Kong & Guangdong Times Museum, Guangzhou; and Family Snaps: Photography in Southeast Asia (2014), Chiang Mai City Arts & Culture Centre, Chiang Mai. He is a co-founder, with Roger Nelson, of Vetika Brovoat Selapak – Art History Forum, a platform for educational and scholarly events about Cambodian and other art histories, and a co-founding editorial member of the scholarly journal SOUTHEAST OF NOW: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia. His writing has been published in journals including Udaya: Journal of Khmer Studies and Trans Asia Photography Review, at which he is also an editorial board member.

Vuth Lyno

Facilitating Dialogue, Building Community

In 2009, the newly formed Stiev Selapak, an artists’ collective, learned of the White Building, a structure designed by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Ukrainian-born French engineer Vladimir Bodiansky. Built in 1963 as a social housing project for municipal staff, cultural workers, and low-to-middle income families who were seeking to own new homes in burgeoning Phnom Penh amidst the escalating modernization after independence from France, it was among the very first experiments of multi-story, modern apartment housing in Cambodia. The White Building was part of a larger project called Bassac River Front, a public and cultural district built on a reclaimed land along the Bassac River. It comprised several social housing structures, a National Theatre, several Exhibition Halls, and public parks. Bassac River Front represented a vision of post-independence Cambodia: a pro-public and pro-culture regime under the leadership of Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum or the People’s Socialist Community. It was a political vision translated into a living environment.

The White Building (or originally known as Municipal Apartments) was built in 1963 as one of the early modern public housing projects in Phnom Penh. It was home to more than 500 families before it was torn down in September 2017 for new development. Photo by Sok Chanrado, 2015.

It was this concept of experimental modern living and the vision of public culture that caught our interest. Despite its ideological agenda, what could we learn from this concept of the Bassac River Front? Could we revisit these experimentations and visions, but rework them to make sense and be productive within the present context and conditions of Cambodia? After the collapse of the killing regime of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, surviving artists were the first residents to move into the White Building, as they resumed work at the nearby National Theatre. The neighborhood continued to grow into a vibrant community of more than 500 households, including generations of artists, craftspeople, cultural workers, civil servants, street vendors, and migrants from the countryside. The Stiev Selapak collective decided that this was a community with which we wished to connect, and we started Sa Sa Art Projects in 2010 from an apartment in the White Building, as an experimental art space that was grounded in interaction with everyday, ordinary people and artists of the White Building community, while fostering dialogue with audiences and artists from the city and beyond.

Artist Neak Sophal (left) sharing her work during her artist’s talk at Sa Sa Art Projects to the audience, most of whom are students from the White Building, 2016.

We wanted to complement what other art spaces and galleries in Phnom Penh were already doing, and most of these were exhibition spaces. We wanted, instead, to explore, share, and learn about contemporary art by experimenting with different modes of art engagement other than exhibitions. These included art classes, workshops, residencies, events, and collaborations. Young students in our art classes, most of whom were from the neighborhood, were the active agents in bridging and expanding our connection with the older residents in the community. These students made artworks by interacting with their families and neighbors. They also worked with young community organizers to intervene in some of the spaces in the neighborhood using artistic skills they had learned, such as creating a mural painting on a wall behind the community school.

A street-side coffee shop at the White Building was turned into a community movie theatre, screening films for the White Building’s children and residents as part of Sa Sa Art Projects’ monthly village cinema program, 2016.

The connection and relationship between the students from the neighborhood, the White Building residents, and the artists has been integral to making events in the neighborhood possible. We came to understand that Sa Sa Art Projects should not be a distinct, separate art space within the neighborhood, but rather, part of a connected community, so our programming and events expanded from those held in our own space to also take place throughout the neighborhood. The students and the artists would negotiate with the residents in order to use their spaces and transform them into places where people could experience art: a coffee shop turning into a communal cinema, a street or a rooftop turning into a performance stage, or a hair salon entertaining its clients with video artworks. By using these private and communal spaces in the neighborhood, we wished to make the best use of existing White Building resources, and to highlight the potential of what the community can do by itself. This temporary adaptation of space for art experiences infused and enriched the fabric of the everyday life.

A classical Khmer dance performance on the rooftop of the White Building by two resident-artists, as part of Bonn Phum Nov Bo-Ding (Village Festival at the White Building), 2015, a multi-event and exhibition festival that took place throughout the neighbourhood over the course of two weeks. Photo by Damien Rayuela.

Sa Sa Art Projects’ main objective is to partly fill the gap in current art education in Cambodia. The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh remains the only state-run art school, although there are some other non-governmental art schools and programs. Many of these training courses focus on technical skills, and not so much on contemporary ideas. Sa Sa Art Projects explored various levels and formats of training, and last year launched a Contemporary Art Class series, which specifically targeted art students or recent graduates. Facilitated by Sa Sa Art Projects co-founder and artist Khvay Samnang alongside guest speakers, the participants discussed and learned about different aspects of art, history, philosophy and other disciplines to build critical knowledge in developing their individual, emerging practices, while creating a new body of work. We believe that to be a good artist, one needs to be an informed, critical individual who has a view of the world around them.

Open Studio by artist-in-residence Tran Minh Duc at Sa Sa Art Projects studio, 2016.

Over the past four years, Sa Sa Art Projects has also been running the Pisaot experimental art residency program, with participating artists coming from Cambodia and elsewhere in Asia. We encourage two-way learning. While artists-in-residence have the freedom to do their own independent research, they are also required to hold public events connecting and sharing with the community at the White Building, as well as the local art community in Phnom Penh. While running a residency program for visiting artists, we also support numerous Cambodian artists to undertake residencies abroad, especially in Asia. This kind of exchange and interaction offers a small art community like that in Phnom Penh to be able to learn about artists and artistic practices from other places in the region, and vice versa.

Young students of the White Building interviewing residents as part of a sound workshop with Sa Sa Art Projects’ artist-in- residence Arnont Nongyao, 2015. The sound tracks recorded from the interviews were then played immediately on the sound bicycle as they moved throughout the neighbourhood. All recorded sounds are placed on top of each other producing a collective crowd sound as an act of collective voice of protest or demand.

Due to poor maintenance, the White Building has turned into various shades of grey, with numerous cracks and water leaks, while plants have sprouted on the concrete façade. On the other hand, the residents have creatively altered and added to their apartments to accommodate more spaces, both for better and worse. Discussions about the likely demolition of the White Building by the city have been raised many times over the past several years. Its final fate was decided in October 2016, when the city and a private Japanese development firm announced an $80 million onsite development plan: a 21-story building consisting of housing for the current residents and new commercial spaces. However, the residents would have to wait up to four years for the new construction to be finished, during which time they would be relocated to the outskirts of the city. Due to a general lack of confidence in the proposed scheme, the residents instead opted to sell their apartments to the development company. On July 15th 2017, the very last of the 500 households moved out of the White Building after receiving their compensations, and the demolition started the following week.

The White Building and the Bassac River Front was a concrete example and legacy of the intersecting histories (social, cultural, and architectural) of modern Cambodia. It was a vision of connecting art and the public, translated into a physical space. The residents had adapted the neighborhood into a vibrant, creative, and self-sufficient micro-city, where generations of artists and mostly low-income residents and city migrants had lived and worked. The loss of the White Building is not only the loss of part of Cambodia’s architectural, social, and cultural history, but is also the loss of a unique, functional community that presented a remarkable example of an adaptable urban development and a creative locale.

Some of the biggest challenges in the Cambodian art community are faced by art graduates…

After operating from the White Building for seven years, Sa Sa Art Projects has had to move. In May 2017, we relocated into a new home in a quiet yet central neighborhood, about two kilometers from the White Building. We had to confront the challenges of revising our program for the new space, as well as engaging with new communities and audiences. Even though we have lost a large part of our previous community and audience with the dispersal of the White Building’s former residents, our goal remains the same: to facilitate dialogue and experimental platforms for the growing art community in Phnom Penh.

Some of the biggest challenges in the Cambodian art community are faced by art graduates: Where do they go next after finishing art school? Does the training they receive at school prepare them to be practicing artists? I think extra support beyond that currently offered at the art university and schools is very much needed. Training is required in critical thinking and learning, skills in writing about their artwork, methods for conceptual development, knowledge of art history, ability to participate in discussion and feedback, and other professional support. We see the new Sa Sa Art Projects space as an expanded bridging program for art students and graduates to experiment, exchange, and present their works, while having conversations with more established artists from Cambodia and the region.

The inauguration of Sa Sa Art Projects’ new space with an opening of exhibition “Kraanh Norneal” by Sa Sa Art Projects’ art graduates Eng Rithchandaneth, Mok Sombo, Sao Sreymao, Sok Chanrado and Tan Vatey, 2017.

The new Sa Sa Art Projects space is bigger than our former home, and it includes a large hall dedicated for exhibitions by early career Cambodian artists as well as by early to mid-career artists from the region. In this new space, we want to bring these two groups of artists into conversation, not only through our continuing Pisaot art residency program, but also through exhibitions. Our new home is a space for more experimentation, learning, thinking, connecting, and contemplating. This new chapter, in the new space and with expanded programming, is indeed exciting — but it is not easy. We are reminded that to achieve something meaningful, we need to face difficult decisions and engage in critical thinking, with time for reflection and reinvention to meet the changing needs and the context in which we work. This requires a continuity that builds on the knowledge and experience we have learned, rather than an annihilation, erasure, and building things anew, like what happened to the White Building.

Installation view of “When the River Reverses” exhibition curated by Vuth Lyno at the new space of Sa Sa Art Projects, 2017. The exhibition brings together four artists from Asia: Chu Hao Pei, Hsu Chia-Wei, Piyarat Piyapongwiwat and Than Sok.
Anat Litwin

Anat Litwin

Anat Litwin is an artist, curator and researcher, founding director of the HomeBase Project (2006-Current, NYC / Berlin / Jerusalem / Saitama). Anat graduated from the Bezalel Art Academy of Fine Art and Design, in the department of Fine Arts (2001) and holds an M.F.A from Hunter College, NYC, in the department of Fine Arts (2005). She is the recipient of the 2013 Andy Warhol Fellowship for Curatorial Research, with an International study titled “Roundtable Residency Research,” focusing on the topic of Future Urban Residency Models which function as a catalyst for social and urban change. Her artwork in the medium of paper cut outs and installation has been exhibited in galleries and alternative spaces in New York, Berlin, Tokyo, and Italy, while her social-based artistic hosting initiatives centered around the HomeBase Project have been featured in cultural platforms such as Volta art fair (Basel 2011/NY 2011), Res Artis (Tokyo, 2012), Microresidency Forum (2012/2014/2015) and recently at the Um El Fahem Museum conference on Art Residencies as a Catalyst for Social Change. HomeBase Project has received recognition in the New York Times, Metropolis, ArtForum, and NY Mag among other publications. Anat is currently a PhD candidate in the department of Urban and Regional Planning at the Technion Institute, where she aims to research the role of Artistic Hosting in appropriating the meaning of “urban.” www.homebaseproject.org [email protected]

Anat Litwin

Instrumentalization? On Urban Art Residencies and Urban Planning

Tokyo Sky view with Son, 2015. Photo: Shimrit Gigi

Urban planners have historically utilized art and culture as a revitalisation tool. They have often contributed, directly or indirectly, to the exploitation of the arts by serving capitalist interests and wielding the “creative city” script as a device to gentrify and brand the city. However, according to a recent publication on the topic of policy, The Politics of Urban Cultural Policy: Global Perspectives (Grodach and Silver, 2013), there seems to be a shift in the role of art and culture in the city. Recent planning practices reflect new agendas, suggesting the potential contributions of art and culture to other social, economic, and environmental aspects of community, thus pointing to alternative discourses and interests at play. In 2011 the American Planning Association initiated a series of briefing papers which expand on how planners can work with partners in the arts and culture sector and use “creative strategies” to achieve economic, social, environmental, and community goals, claiming that “arts and culture provide a medium to: preserve, celebrate, challenge, and invent community identity.”[1] At the 2013 Creative Summit, Art, Place and Dislocation in the 21st Century, writer Rachel Sonnit successfully expressed this flip in perspectives, stating that “culture is not only beneficial to cities; in a deeper sense, it’s what cities are for.”[2]

Roundtable Residency Project, East Jerusalem, Willy Brandt Center Jerusalem. Photo Credit: Salam A. Qasam & Suhaib Mostafa

Many contemporary art initiatives respond to wide processes of global urbanization and privatization by taking on the city as the core subject and substance for artistic creation, tending to claim an artistic right to the city, and thus manifesting a contemporary creative interpretation of the work of Henri Lefebvre (Lefebvre, 1996) and of David Harvey (Harvey, 2008). “Artistic Hosting,” a term I have coined as part of the Roundtable Residency Research[3] to refer to the various art residency models and related artistic practices, is, to my understanding, at the forefront of this movement. Tracking back to the beginning of the nineteenth century when the first art colonies were established as pioneer models—first in Europe then later flourishing in the United States—Artistic Hosting has nowadays taken a turn, moving from remote rural settings to the heart of urban communities, linking contemporary art and everyday urban living. It has become a cultural phenomenon recognized for its contribution to a city’s cultural life by institutions such as the European Union, which recently produced a policy paper on the subject.[4] While traditionally related to issues such as the mobility of artists, artistic freedom, and cross cultural exchange, more contemporary Artistic Hosting practices are tied to topics related to social innovation, urbanization, artistic research, and civil rights, with projects such as Tania Bruguera’s “Immigrant Movement International” and freeDimensional functioning as “creative safe havens.” [5]

Fitting In, Masha Zusman & Valery Bolotin, Photograph series created at HomeBase Saitama 2016 as part of the Saitama Triennale.

Over the last decade, artistic hosting has become the centre of my personal and professional life, as an artist, curator, and researcher. In 2006, I established the HomeBase Project, a nomadic artist-run art residency and research program devoted to a site-specific exploration of the notion of “home.” Operating at the axis of contemporary art, social innovation, and urban change, HB utilizes vacant buildings in areas undergoing change as temporary artistic homes and transforms them into lively cultural and communal platforms. So far HB has inhabited seven buildings in New York, Berlin, Jerusalem, and Saitama. It has hosted more than 130 artists-in-residence from different cultural backgrounds and mediums, while collaborating with local residents, community members, municipalities, and partner organisations. Along the way the project has generated various outcomes, from site-specific artwork which provides a contemporary interpretation of “home” (image above), to urban interventions and communal reappropriations which surface secluded local narratives that may have otherwise been lost to the processes of rapid urban change (as in Ignatz Bier – see below). It has served as a surrogate home for community-building, offering not only a space to converge, but a cultural context and program around which to connect (HB Salon, neighbour’s gatherings). These accumulated experiences have turned me into a passionate believer in the power of Artistic Hosting to set new social and cultural paradigms, and to appropriate the meaning of the “urban.”

Ignatz Bier Project 2011: HomeBase Berlin, Thulestrasse 54, Pankow, 2012. HB Gathering of artists and community members for a re-enactment of a historic photograph, and the resurrection of the historic brewery for one day. A homage to the legendary landlord and businessman, Ignatz Nacher, Former Director of Engelhardt Brewery. Photo: HB Project.
99 Bottles of Ignatz Bier, HB display at Volta Basel 2012. Photo Credit: HB Project

Urban planning and policy making are instrumental in this regard. Finding a balance between cultural capital, human capital, poetic capital, and monetary capital is essential to navigating the congested urban landscape and forming new spaces for educational, cultural, and social transactions. There is a need to adopt policies which serve as a hindrance to processes of hegemonization, slowing down the market’s “wash” of urban land. Urban Designers and Policy makers must work towards the preservation of complex urban narratives and diverse identities, insisting that the city functions as a creative seismograph, tracing changing social values and aesthetics through a reflective approach. Recognizing a greater role for art, and specifically recognizing the role, value and impact of artistic hosting in the city is a critical step towards implementing new approaches and strategies which integrate art and urban living.

The publication “Getting Creative with the ‘Creative City’? Towards New Perspectives on Creativity in Urban Policy” (Thomas Borén & Craig Young, 2012) points to the fact that urban policymakers worldwide tend to adopt limited conceptualizations of notions of “creativity.” The authors suggest that urban planners need to be reoriented more effectively towards a more in-depth understanding of how creativity is constructed, contested, and performed in specific urban contexts in an attempt to make policymaking more inclusive and creative.

While the fear of further instrumentalizing art residencies for city branding and marketing is a relevant threat, the artist-run residency model is actually not as vulnerable as it seems. It itself can be seen as an instrument towards a much larger creative goal: the creation of an urban life environment as a total work of art.[6]

Communal engagement at Open House HB III, Harlem, New York, 2008.

[1] http://culturesect.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Role-of-arts-and-culture-in-plannig-practice.pdf

[2] http://creativetimereports.org/2013/10/21/rebecca-solnit-with-nato-thompson/

[3] The Roundtable Residency Research (RRR) is a curatorial research conducted by Anat Litwin via a curatorial fellowship by the Andy Warhol Foundation (2013).

[4] http://ec.europa.eu/assets/eac/culture/policy/cultural-creative-industries/documents/artists-residencies_en.pdf

[5] More information on creative safe havens: http://malmo.se/Kommun–politik/Organisation/Forvaltningar/Kulturforvaltningen/Satsningar-och-projekt/Safe-Havens-2015-2017.html.

[6] In homage to Joseph Bueys.

Vibha Galhotra

Vibha Galhotra

Vibha Galhotra is a recipient of the prestigious Rockefeller Grant at their Bellagio Center, 2016. At present, she is an Asian Cultural Council fellow in the US, pursuing continual research on belief and reality to intervene on the subject of the Anthropocene. Galhotra's practice ranges across photography, film, video, found objects, performative objects, sculpture, installation, text, sound, drawing, and public interventions. Vibha shares that her art practice crosses the dimensions of art, ecology, economy, science, spirituality, and activism, with the aim of constantly trying to create a parallel between belief and reality, absence and presence, construction or [De]construction within the social, political and economic domain of our constructed structures. The constant negotiation of human with ecosystem and with the mystery within that ecosystem motivate her to continue her practice based on research and intuitive imagination to understand and question the alienation of the human in the atmosphere or the atmosphere in the human-dominated world. Through her massive but aesthetic work (both philosophically and structurally) she tries to redefine her own existence and ownership in this commerce-driven world.

Vibha Galhotra

Presence of Absence

Art is a social need, or rather, a luxury of sorts. Everyday life and the experiences that come along with it crystalize into a form of learning or knowledge that seeps through our chain of thought, influencing our collective actions. While every individual comes with his or her own baggage of presumptions and understanding, as one acquires new knowledge, each additional piece of information or experience adds a new dimension to life. In the process, as we reflect back, the external mirrors the internal and, simultaneously, the internal reflects on the external.

Art, to me, is a process of reflecting what happens between the two extremes of the internal and external and of utopia and dystopia at the social, economic, ecological, political, and personal levels. Art, therefore, is a means to echo the history of time, the real history of what actually goes on, rather than what we would like to see going on. The latter, however, is fuelled by external stimuli which form the environment around us, thereby influencing us. It is like John Cage’s piece 4’33”, which wasn’t silent, yet forced one to rethink and experience music through silence, while at the same time commenting both subtly and powerfully on the political and cultural tensions of the time. To me, the piece is still befitting of contemporary times.

John Cage said, “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”[1] As a reader, you might be muddled at my mention of sound here. However, sound has been a focal point of my everyday experiences in New York recently. Living in this cosmopolitan city’s midtown apartment, where I would like to ideate in silence, the constant construction taking place outside of my premises wakes me up every day at 7:30 a.m. sharp with the sound of an alarm being replaced by a drilling sound instead. Being the first sound that I hear every day, initially, it used to bother me, but slowly I have adapted to it. While this parable might sound like one of the many insignificant experiences each of us goes through on a daily basis, it highlights the process by which a thing that has relevance in its power to influence our state of mind, slowly becoming irrelevant due to mere habituation.

Noises, like the drilling sound I hear, echo through every corner of our times from news media to social media, from the personal to the political realm, economics, religion, climate change, gender discrimination, caste, color, race, war, etc. While the real world resonates with a cacophony of sounds, people get used to each one of these sounds, accepting “noise” as a part of life itself. People learn to talk about this “noise” without feeling any real concern about it. Habituation, thus, absents what is fully present. My practice attempts to reverse the latter, by highlighting the presence of the increasing absence of ecology, human concern and action, peace, and the plentitude of issues that affect each of us. As an artist, I aim to bring focus to this so-called “noise.”

Flow – Nickel coated Ghungroos, Fabric, 129″ x 192″ x 112″, 2015

Art appears as a voice for the times to understand and to propose change. Consequently, I use contemporary media to reflect and comment on the state of urban development in India and the world, trying to bring attention to realities that require change. My work aims to fill in the blanks of human behavior between belief and reality. Beliefs, which are generally based on fears, become customs in cultures over time and realities, which one ignores to continue to live illusively.

One such work of mine which delves into the tension between belief and reality is Manthan, a nearly 11-minute film, which highlights the reality of my time when people have turned their backs on the river Yamuna, which although considered sacred in belief, has in reality turned into a cesspool carrying residential and industrial effluents. The film gets its title from a mythological episode of Samudra Manthan (sea churning for finding life nectar). However, the work metaphorically depicts the situation of churning the Yamuna to take the detritus out of the dying river. The film is an amalgamation of environmental catastrophe and artistic aesthetic, the concoction itself defining the nature of my practice which draws attention to what is horrific through a beautiful medium.

Stills from the film Manthan. Single channel Film, duration 10m43s, 2105

In the race towards urban utopia (as we would like to believe), or rather dystopia (as it really is), the emphasis on the I rather than the collective is what is eating into every aspect of our planet, corrupting it in the process. The constant tussle between the different factions and stakeholders involved, and the subsequent blame game which heaves undue disfavor to the government isn’t going to lead to a solution or any change. The attitude of “What can I do?” calls for introspection. It is this feeling that I intend to evoke and question in my work. My practice, I believe, calls for an empathy towards the five elements— water, fire, earth, air and ether—which although traditionally believed to live as an organic whole, are now exploited and ignored in our aim to dream bigger and better for our individual and collective selves. These selves, however, are not independent of the whole, and nature is inherently a part of man and his small beliefs and grand dreams.

Process Documentation – Sediment and other Untitled…, 2010-13

The element of romanticization in my work is to suggest the meta-reality of the urban future through a reflection of the present urban dystopia. It is not an act of rebellion, but one of passive resistance. Being an artist in the age of reason—or rather the age of excuses with lack of ownership about the calamities happening around us and a further absence of answers to the questions that most of us do not even ask— my work aims to see the global rather than the local, to see tomorrow through today, and to focus on the collective through the individual. I wish for belonging rather than consumerism, for peace rather than politics, and to find sanity within the insanity of our human-centered race.

Sediment and other Untitled…, 2010-13, Sediment from the river Yamuna and Resin, Image courtesy Vibha Galhotra

[1]  http://dss-edit.com/prof-anon/sound/library/Cage_Silence.pdf

Jakub Szczęsny

Jakub Szczęsny

Jakub Szczęsny (1973) is the first Polish architect who's project, Keret House, was included in MoMA's permanent collection in New York. He works on the verge of architecture, art and design, using building and semi-industrial technologies as matter for artistic expression. His installations can be found in places with complex socio-historical context like Palestine (The Lace in The Garden of Nations), Israel (Tamaguchi Park in Bat Yam), USA ( UFO Chicken coop in Saint Louis Science Center) and Poland (Aureola in Wrocław). In parallel with art projects, he runs his own architecture office SZCZ in Warsaw (www.szcz.com.pl) and teaches in The School of Form in Poznań, apart from lecturing in such institutions as IAAC, Bezalel School of Architecture, FAU, and Warsaw Institute of Technology. His works can be found in private and public collections.

Jakub Szczęsny

res publica

I was born and raised in Poland, where I have worked as architect and an artist since graduating from the Warsaw Institute of Technology. Communism fell when I was 15, and I clearly remember the slow decay of the system accompanied by a decay of material culture. The gradual decomposition of anything public (public interest, public sector, public spaces) was accompanied by an economic crisis, a low level of civic culture, and a general mistrust of other people, who could either be informers for the infamous Security Service or simply opportunists who would profit from one’s openness.

Historically, the notion of public good, res publica, was always present in Polish tradition. Yet, by the end of the 1980’s it no longer existed.

Then, after the first free elections in 1989, a new society began to form. It was sharply oriented towards the individual or familial welfare. The new economic system took an aggressive form that clashed with the socialist mindset of those who couldn’t or didn’t want to adapt to an Eastern European version of capitalism. And then, thanks to inclusion in the EU, the “public good” started to matter again. People wanted clean streets, squares for pedestrians (not for parked cars), better roads, free kindergartens, and better healthcare than had been available during socialism. We were legitimate Europeans again!

Part of this new stage in the transition process was about restoring many of the social instincts that were paradoxically suppressed during socialism. First and foremost was the atmosphere of socializing, trusting, and identifying with the other, feeling a shared responsibility for things (like not loitering in a park).

How do we restore our public spaces? How do we discuss our past?

Poles started to go out more often, meet in parks, open and operate cafés, and “eat in the city,” trusting they wouldn’t be poisoned after paying a fortune in a nouveau-riche restaurant. With this came a need for outdoor public expression… and there were many things to express, since social friction was tremendous. This change came at a time when I was about to graduate, after years of “seeing the world” during my studies in Paris and Barcelona. It was a moment when many young architects were enthusiastically and uncritically embracing the new capitalism by wanting to design and build as much as possible, to gain a new financial status and attain an ideal of becoming the “real architects” they read about in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

I joined with a couple of friends, and together we decided to follow a different direction, one that was unknown in Poland.

We were critical, yet not openly leftist. The shadow of communism was still very much present and the new Social Democrats were actually old communist party apparatchiks turned privatization specialists. We wanted to put themes on the table that had been ignored by citizens and administration. How do we control the city? Who’s supposed to deliver services and infrastructure? How do we restore our public spaces? How do we discuss our past? And last, but not least, what society do we want to be?

Jacob’s Ladder, a ficticious service for changing the point of view provided to the inhabitants of “pockets of poverty” in Wrocław’s downtown. Photo: Alicja Kielan.

These questions were also of concern to a number of new NGOs, and we soon became allies by producing urban festivals and exhibitions, and by participating in discussions and building installations that were meant to attract the attention of the citizenry. The city didn’t properly maintain lighting surrounding dangerous zones near a football stadium and a park in downtown Warsaw, so we proposed an interactive light installation under a dark highway bridge that received financing from the very same city, because it was easier to “invest in culture” than to simply repair existing lamps. Warsawers coming mostly from the rest of the country ignored the importance of Jewish cultural heritage in what had been the second biggest Jewish city before the war, so we made a temporary pavilion of the Museum of Polish Jews and developed the concept of a reflective band encompassing the perimeter of the original Jewish district. Poles didn’t appreciate post-war modernist architecture and associated it with communist poverty, so developers were permitted to destroy the best examples of it in Warsaw. In response, we made a set of decoy projects, rehabilitating and bringing these buildings back to life in a series of publications called “Respect the Modern,” which resulted in the revitalization of the lower pavilion of Warszawa Powiśle train station, and saw it turned into a hip bar.

We were clearly oriented towards public action. We were participating in social consultations, learning how to address specific target groups, learning how to research the widely understood context, and only occasionally building any “real” architecture. Warsaw, Wrocław, and smaller Polish cities were our experimental workshops. All our actions were coming from a belief that the effort of negotiating, designing, and producing para-architectural objects in public spaces really mattered. Our work contributed to a grand shift in Polish mentality and made public spaces look and work better. We believed then, and I still believe, that in these projects all of the parties—citizens, authorities, and activists, ourselves included—were profiting as much as enthusiastic young people involved in Russian constructivism did during the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP). We knew that sometimes our work was an alibi for laissez-faire administration. We knew that local politicians would build positive PR based on our efforts and people’s involvement, and we knew that sometimes business people would make better profits thanks to us, as the owners of the Warszawa Powiśle did with the great success of their bar “wrapped” in our cultural programming. However, this initiative also led to a set of revitalization projects of iconic modernist architecture in Warsaw, buildings that otherwise would have remained forgotten. In other words, we knew there would be a price to pay, but we also knew the lines that we couldn’t cross.

Brook House in Katowice, a provocation attracting attention to the issue of the forgotten Rawa river in Katowice. Photo: Dawid Chalimoniuk.

Our experiences in Poland led me to start working with other NGOs abroad. The span of projects got wider, but in most cases, dealing with public issues and public spaces was the focus.

This was the case of “Polish Spring,” an installation built as the starting point of the first public park in the Old Town of Birzeit, an academic city on the West Bank. The project was done as part of the ambitious process of the revitalization of dozens of old Palestinian towns and villages led by RIWAQ.

The idea of the installation was very simple: in order to make people of different religions (Greek Orthodox and Muslims) and of different ages and genders use the park, we decided to provide what the Palestinian people were lacking: open spaces and running water. Palestine is deprived of permanent running water, so people are not able to relax by a river, stream, or lake, except for occasional ponds appearing in winter outside of the cities. All water sources, including rain drainage systems and regular wells, are controlled by the Israeli military administration as a condition of the Oslo Accords, where the stubborn patriarchal behavior of Yasser Arafat made Palestinians lose control over “anything in the air and in the ground.” After numerous talks with locals, including inhabitants of the derelict Old Town, students, and young mothers—usually graduates of best European and American universities, who, for patriotic reasons, decided to come back to the West Bank, the motive of water emerged.

Nothing is as universal as something we are lacking, so the chance of attracting various types of users was higher. The installation is a five-meter-long limestone bench that flushes cold water along its side when people sit on it. This allows people to put their bare feet into the water and feel as if they are relaxing by one of the many streams I know from Poland. The title was influenced by a funny coincidence: most of my interlocutors, except for a few artists and old communists, hadn’t heard about the country I came from, except for an association with mineral water from Poland, Maine, that many of them had seen in restaurants where they worked as dishwashers in the US. The paradox was that both of my works in the West Bank (“Polish Spring” in Birzeit and “The Lace” in the Garden of Nations in Ramallah) were almost fully funded through annual cultural diplomacy programs managed by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a representative of the Polish government, who profited from the fact that I was also working for them in Israel, reducing travel costs.

The parallel project also touched on the Palestinian issue, but from the other side of the wall, and was also about water. According to Eyal Weizman’s book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, part of the Palestine’s misfortune is due to the fact that Israel is draining water from beneath Eastern Jerusalem and other parts of West Bank, and transporting it to arid zones in the south. In 2010, the Israeli authorities banned watering private gardens, most of which contained species native to northern Europe. Many Israelis were suddenly motivated to rethink the true climatic context of their country and to stop planting English lawns.

Inspired by Weizman’s book, Ofer Bilik and I decided to point out the necessity of using the sea as the main resource instead of draining water from beneath Palestinian feet. The whole situation was also fueled by the realization that Israel is actually one of two countries along the Mediterranean (the other is Algeria) that has a giant desalination plant, whose production output is mostly sold to Jordan. In order to make people understand that the future of their country lies in their hands and their approach to water administration (especially in reference to Israeli-Palestinian relations), we built an installation that connected different notions: fun with responsibility, and sea with the park (greenery). On the beach of Bat Yam, a young satellite city of Tel Aviv, we built a seesaw that pumps sea water from beneath the beach (partially desalinated and cleaned by the sand acting as a filter) to a transparent plexiglass water tower (that occasionally squirts when an excessive effort is put into pumping through the motion of the seesaw). The water is then transported with underground plastic pipes to cones placed at various points in the adjacent dunes. Here, the last stage of desalination takes place, thanks to UV rays. The desalinized water reaches the seeds of so-called “first line plants” imported from Australia. People must have fun on the seesaw, because if they don’t, the new garden on the dunes will die. For that reason we named it “Tamaguchi Park,” in reference to the handheld electronic pet from the ‘90s that could only “survive” if its owner paid attention to it, and maintained its health and wellbeing. To make this project possible we convinced the local Bureau of Culture to participate for one year before the opening. Kids from local primary and secondary schools had workshops teaching them about the desalination process and about how to use the installation. The piece is still working today, partly because it was included in the city’s infrastructural list, and partly because people simply use it and somehow don’t destroy it.
So who profited? The mayor and local administration? Yes (though he was later imprisoned for corruption). Local inhabitants, who have a funny seesaw and a symbolic representation of their eco-conciousness in the form of a small dune park. Kids, who learned about desalination and the need to economize water. Local entrepreneurs benefitted, because the installation, as one of the permanent effects of Bat-Yam International Biennale of Landscape Urbanism, changes the perception of this once solely working class city, making it an attractive and cheap place for young families from Tel Aviv to live.

“I’m working for people in the first place, if I thought in confrontational terms I’d become paranoid!”

Permanent installations in public spaces, even more than temporary ones or events of different sorts, play roles in bigger schemes where culture is a vehicle of large scale political and educational changes. Judging by our involvement from one point of view wouldn’t make sense, because by acting in the public domain, we become involved in a sophisticated structure of relations between various players, processes, and results. I was once confronted by a retired Republican ex-politician, who, after a family conversation, suddenly attacked me by saying: “How can you work for both parties? Palestinians and Israelis, you have no guts to decide which side you’re on!”

“I’m working for people in the first place, if I thought in confrontational terms I’d become paranoid!” I replied.

Here’s a final example related to the problem or notion of gentrification (which I don’t find overly negative, I must admit!). Thanks to an invitation from Todd Lester, the head of the Lanchonete initiative, I was invited to occupy the post of artist-in-residence by a community of 67 families semi-illegally occupying an ex-hotel in the heart of São Paulo’s old city center. The phenomenon of occupations in large Brazilian cities is related to the scarcity of jobs in the countryside and to the debts that landowners owe to municipalities, since real estate taxes were pumped up in late ‘80s. Many buildings, including skyscrapers, were abandoned and later overtaken by organized entities, mostly villages, who adapted their structures to the urban environment. After five years of occupation, the people received a semi-legal status making eviction less likely. The São João occupation is led by a female leader with the help of a group of dynamic younger people who decided to create some sort of a Culture Center accompanied by an artist-in-residence space.

As the first artist to visit, I ended up sleeping on a couch in the occupation office and submerging into the building’s highly organized everyday life. Soon I discovered that one of the key issues within the community is the lack of public recognition: these hard working people were perceived by neighbors or passers-by as inhabitants of a crack house or worse, and remained invisible to others. After a number of meetings with the board, local activists, and with Todd, we decided to work on the concept of strategic “auto-branding”: a way to promote the occupation in the city. I came out with an idea of what we’ve called a “flag workshop” in which participating families would develop the designs of their own “coats of arms.” This would mimic the historical processes that made noble classes of Europe possess their own set of symbolic images, and we would display it on the street as an ironic reference to the surrounding hotels showing flags of different nations. In this way, families would clearly express their pride and their values to the passers-by. The first workshop was about reconnecting with family history. Participants had to learn how to extract important histories from the elderly members of their families and how to turn them into graphic signs and colors.

Polish Refuge, a temporary installation on Casa do Povo’s roof addressing the issue of past and contemporary mass migrations to São Paulo. Photo: Eduard Fraipont.

Later, we organized a sewing and painting workshop, where flags were fabricated with the help of visitors. Soon after, the flags were displayed and new ideas emerged. I’ve continued to collaborate with the occupation and with Lanchonete for about four years, observing the change of status of this (slowly) DIY-renovated building and the way people identify with it and with their neighborhood. Today, the occupation is reluctant to participate in a process in which the municipality mediates between them and the owners in order to make the building change hands for a below-market-value price and a promise to mediate the tax debts. The municipality would also play a key role in guaranteeing a low interest loan from the national bank.

This prototypal process would legitimize the presence of the occupiers, but also would create a new ownership mechanism enabling the revitalization of the partially abandoned and derelict downtown, thanks to some sort of para-gentrification done by the working class.

Here again, the artist’s or architect’s role was to find a place in a complex situation, analyze the context, and come out with an idea. I was, of course, a “privileged tourist” in the harsh life of the so-called Brazilian “c-class,” but my experiences and objectivity enabled me to be an even more efficient “external eye” or expert who could be of help, because I have done a number of projects in various places.

Finally, after two weeks in São João, I realized that the locals were very wise in using ideological (leftist) nomenclature, especially in their relations with a big federation of occupations (FLM), but at the same time, people in the building were simply longing for ownership, something which they could invest in and start thinking about in a long-term capacity, in a mindset that I would call “proto-capitalistic.” When I shared this remark at the Flux Factory artist center in Queens, during a panel in which Todd Lester and I were presenting the set of projects done under the banner of Lanchonete, a young man rushed onto the stage and flushed cold water on me, screaming: “This is for everything you’ve said tonight!” After another hour of discussion during which, quite absurdly, I pretended that nothing had happened, a producer of the event, who was a graduate of an Ivy League university, said that she can fully understand the attacker’s act, since “many of the residents cannot agree with my statements.” So much for cultural standards, but the incident is also quite representative of another problem: recognizing the complexity of dealing with public spaces and social projects puts us in a fragile position in which we cannot, as the Republican interlocutor of mine or the young attacker from Flux Factory did, perceive the world in black and white terms.

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