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Impressions and questions from the 1st European Assembly of Contemporary Art Centres.

  • May 04 2022
  • Angeliki Tzortzakaki
    (she/her) works as a writer, curator, editor, researcher and occasionally performer in Amsterdam and her birthplace Crete.

On April 12, a gathering was hosted online by d.c.a. (Association française de développement des centres d’art contemporain) in the framework of the 1st European Assembly of Art Centres. Titled This time we talk about gender, the assembly inaugurated on International Women’s day and will continue until the beginning of June with two clear objectives: “mapping the material conditions and ideological background of gender inequalities” through the first two meetings in March and April and eventually “gathering experimental tools for ungendering institutional practices” through the second round of gatherings in May and June. 

Under the moderation of curator and Betonsalon director Émilie Renard and the participation of Antonio Cataldo, the second appointment of This time we talk about gender invited Sepake Angiama, Vanessa Desclaux, Dora Garcia and Marthe Ramm Fortun to discuss the reproductive side of educational practices in the context of the curatorial as well as the constant negotiation of transparency and opacity that are at stake when performing art work.

It became progressively clear that the common goal was the desire to to outline what goes by the name of  ‘feminist pedagogies’: networks (of solidarity and care) actualised  through circular, shared and diffused  movements (of how narratives can be told in  less authoritarian ways) and practices, including a multiplicity of languages, architectures, audiences, but also of content and format. Through a subtle irony and significant  affirmative drive, the title of the conference pointed to  the urgency of  addressing the underlying complications that gendered institutional practices, even if not explicitly.  

Angiama and Desclaux took the lead to explore this side of pedagogical labour. From the outset, ambitious open-ended questions on language and temporality were unleashed: What do we mean by education exactly? How does terminology produce knowledge? What alternative  words can we employ to talk about it and from which context do we choose the right word? What happens when we add the word ‘feminist’ next to it? How can it then become embodied and transforming and at the same time diffuse hierarchy? One question prevailed above all others: How do we move from knowledge reproduction to knowledge production? 

The many questions added some vastness to the discussion so much that the speakers agreed that a common point of departure would be the abolition of any form or model of excellence or talent within (and without) the institutions. One could argue that this is a topic that was already discussed in pedagogy some 20 years ago, but isn't that the case with gender as well? The questions thus made evident the constant shift in the understanding of how curatorial practices might operate and how these benefit from pedagogical tools, methodologies and processes. 

To put that into context, Sepake Angiama brought to the table the  concrete example of an initiative that moves through the above question marks: the series gatherings she initially conceived during Documenta 14 Under the Mango Tree —Sites of Learning, addressed current educational shifts by inviting different artistic initiatives and schools from multiple geographies. Within this framework, “through notions of unlearning and indigenous knowledge, artist-led project spaces, libraries, and schools interested in unfolding discourses gather to discuss and build radical education practices that destabilise the European canon”. 

The example brought to the fore  a series of potential directions to look at: Infrastructures and their temporalities. The creation of spaces and programmes like the above, allows an interstitial space to exist, schools and museums that get rid of their rigid time schedules and rules, but instead work together to build sustainable relationships for every part of their ecosystem. That’s not simple enough, we need more reciprocal learning that is a constant process so we can slow down, shift perspectives, open up to create (more) contexts for meaning and meaningfulness. In this ongoing  process, we are also asked to spend (more) time with others differently: but where can we find the time, if  the average day is employed for labour duties? And what about having (more) fun?

A clear proposition was made  that new formats also require new temporalities. Not everything needs to fit the 9-to-5 working model to be able to be valued and quantified. The uncommonly productive times of the capitalist economy lower the barriers to access both labour and fun in temporal and choreographic terms. The speakers suggest early morning or late night activities in order to enable different formats, and allow other audiences, voices, and body relations to manifest. Still this can entail risks: creating blurriness between what’s work and what’s fun can potentially become highly (emotionally) exploitative. 

The example mentioned by Angiama was  the one of the all-night programme From Dusk till Dawn part of III Edition - Masquerade organised by If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution at the Van Abbe museum in Eindhoven in 2010. “Because the programme ran from sunset to sunrise, the perception and experience of the museum was also completely different: bright daylight turned to twilight and darkness, making an appeal to all the senses.” Still, if night programmes have opened up new possibilities of being in the museum, Museum nights have contributed to a further spectacularisation that does not necessarily bring audiences closer. Angiama and Desclaux make an appeal for  the night programmes, often combined with music, drinks and dance. There is certainly an alternative educational side to  these social practices (typically performed when the sun sets), even though night schools have not been uncommon for working (class) students either. Trying out pedagogical models in forms of retreats outside of art schools with a safe space to sleep and read and eat (and dance) can lead forth, liberate things and unleash connections. As long as temporary, shifting and porous structures can be maintained and sustained, then we can un-regulate the body.

Moving further the focus of the conversation around the institution's critical responsibility through the role and understanding of language speakers and listeners are confronted with the question: do the potential audiences need to learn only about artworks? How to break the distance between the two? Vanessa Desclaux spoke warm-heartedly of a diversified educational programme that  allows a museum to become a space wherein many different things can happen for and with the communities that use (and are taxed for) it are actively engaged in its definition. One layer of this is the wall and exhibition texts. The recently introduced tool of the  “Simple” or “Simplified language” usually composed by subject - verb - object is granting major access to a broader audience who don't necessarily grasp references familiar to an art theory graduate.. Who is it for though? And how do the two languages complement each other instead of bifurcating even further? At the same time, Desclaux questioned the authorship of the wall texts next to the artworks: who signs these texts? eponymous curators, visitors, children, adults, any of the above? And if we were to collect stories differently, what would be the methods and the voices who narrate them?

Another of the many layers of the diversified programme is the use of space and resources: many of these architectures are designed to deter people from joining, confirmed Angiama. The museal space asks for a well-behaved, soft-speaking, elegant audience, who sits only once every 5 hours while spending the rest of the time contemplating some painting. Both Desclaux and Angiama suggest the creation of more holistic experiences for these spaces, which in turn calls for  a re-evaluation of  structures and temporalities: more seating, more resting, more unregulated movement, less intimidating silence and contemplation, more of a deeper relationship to the body and less of a privileged eye.

After a few breaths off the screen, in the second round, Émilie Renard welcomed performance artists Marthe Ramm Fortun and Dora Garcia to dialogue and balance within the urgency for opacity and transparency in the art economies in which we navigate. The paradox that opacity brings to a sector that ends up suffering so much from it, is an intriguing turn to explore. “We cannot pretend to have fair exchanges unless this happens in all forms of society,” said Dora Garcia. Art workers strive for the obvious, which doesn’t seem obvious enough even with many years of experience (in fighting for a fair fee). The transparency regarding artist fees and budgets distribution has not existed for far too long while it has been negotiated far too much. Trust, intimacy and safety come along with any conversation on transparency and in this case, we cannot ignore the importance of gender in this struggle. 

“Women’s bodies become a battleground, yet again”, observed Ramm Fortun. The everyday life battle is hardly encountered by an institution who doesn't manifest interest in care. “We learn about institutions by learning how complaints are stopped,“ wrote Sara Ahmed in Nodding as a Non-Performative. Opacity, when a complaint hits an institution means en-danger, added Ramm Fortun. 

The lack of transparent and healthy work environments within institutions whose programmes and content calls for the importance of care became evident at this point of the conversation. Then, how can a healthy work environment be seen, created and advocated for on a daily basis? Marthe Ramm Fortun’s understanding of emotional labour extraction is a sort of “erotic” exchange that happens in a grey zone full of taboo and trauma. All seems blurry, but still, the urge to surrender to a toxic relationship leads forward. Chantal Mouffe is quoted through “the denial of oneself’s pleasure being the last political frontier”. The conversation shed  light on the grey zones of opacity and gender-based abuse: there is an urgency for art (infra)structures to develop mechanisms that neither allow nor justify abuse; to transform into situated shelters instead of isolated fortresses; to cease the exploitation of labour through the lens of affect and abusive friendship and networking.

On the other hand, there is always Glissant’s right to opacity: that in order to be able to live with each other there is a requirement for opacity - one that is desired and attainable. While this text is being written, most of the cultural workers have been negotiating this for themselves and on behalf of other fellow workers for way too long. The crisis in the cultural sector that was sharpened during the pandemic brought this to the surface and thanks to the unions, these conversations are being slowly normalised. But we are still not quite there yet. 

How to look at opacity differently, then? By claiming the right to determine the use of ‘productive’ time and the freedom to be useless, proposed Garcia. To avoid comparing art production with anything that can add or produce value: that’s one hypothesis. In this sense, opacity also called for informality: in a system that is not designed for us to be seen for what we actually are (art workers), but for what governments want us to be (entrepreneurs), opacity becomes a reaction  to self-entrepreneurism. Garcia's intervention brought back the much discussed and desired Universal Basic Income (sure we always get back to that in one way or another) - as proposed by the Institute of Radical Imagination. It is striking how evident this solution is among art workers, and how marginalised it is by institutional bodies. 

The overall lack of sustainability discussed above comes with the face of a false positivity that brings shame, (white) guilt and the “inability to carry the face”, concluded Fortun. This resonates with Martha Rosler’s text "Why are people being so nice?'', wherein “public relations happy talk, museums and galleries are publicly thrilled, excited, and delighted” while on the contrary, Ramm Fortun repeated and emphasised, “we can not go around openings eating soup anymore”: we need to take trauma and loss more seriously and instead, sit with discomfort following Sara Ahmed. But how to do that?

The question remained afloat mid-air, while the closing and merging of the two conversations brought the four speakers back into the room. Hard to pick and pin down what to keep from that day, when many urgencies met at once. Open spaces for reciprocal learning, in less hierarchical, more slow-paced formats can recompose the institutional practice of care and solidarity with new redistributed narratives, spaces and audiences. We still have a long way to go to bring patriarchy down, and this is a hard task as the issue it’s still very much perpetuated  by women themselves, the speakers concluded. 

All the questions posed at the beginning were brought up anew,  which probably made everyone feel like the entire conversation could start all over again; only, this time in the company of bell hooks. Looking around before speaking: who is in the (class)room this time?


Don't miss the upcoming panel on May 10. To more information HERE.


    Emilie Renard © Jagna Ciuchta, 2018
    Dora Garcia © Bruno Dubner
    Antonio Cataldo © Jan Khur Winant
    Marthe Ramm Fortun © Andrea Galiazzo.
    Sepake Angiama
    ​​Vanessa Desclaux © Yannick Labrousse



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