“The Question ‘Is This Still Art?’ has accompanied all avant-gardes”

Tanja Happel in conversation with Florian Malzacher

In: Dialogical Interventions. Art in the Social Realm. Ed. Martin Krenn. Berlin: De De Gruyter, 2019. 130-135.

Together with the artist Jonas Staal and curator Joanna Warsza you initiated Artist Organisations International, which hasbrought together over twenty representatives of organizations founded by artists whose work confronts today’s crises in politics,economy, education, immigration and ecology. What is the advantage of an organization in comparison to a project?

Historically, the concept of the “project” can be seen as a liberation from the idea of the artistic work as a finished entity, andfrom the conventional role of the artist – an opening for processes, collaborations etc. But now, since it has become a dominantartistic practice for quite some years, it has also shown its downsides: it is limited in time; it is fragile in many ways, notsustainable; it can become quite self-absorbed etc. Long-term planning and thinking are often impossible. In reaction to that, moreand more artists have become interested in creating their own institutions and organizations. And by this, I don’t mean their ownstudios or production companies: the founded organization itself is considered the artistic work. This can take on many forms,from political movements (like Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International in Queens or Yael Bartana’s purely fictitious Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland) to schools (like Chto Delat’s School of Engaged Art in St. Petersburg), quasi-universities (like Ahmet Öğüt’s Silent University) or even unions of sorts (like the Concerned Artists of the Philippines) and manymore. So the idea behind Artist Organizations International (AOI) was to bring together as many and as diverse artist initiatives as possible.

One of the artist organizations hosted, with a clear sociopolitical agenda, is Ahmet Öğüt’s Silent University (SU), anautonomous platform for exchanging knowledge provided by and for immigrants or asylum seekers, mainly academics who arenot able to teach in the countries where they now live. This is an interesting example of how to initiate an organization with the potential to outlive its creator, that can be carried on by other people. Isn’t there the risk, however, of the organization falling apart once the artist leaves?

The SU is indeed paradigmatic because Ahmet has always stressed that the SU never should be called a project. It is an institution. It is meant to last. And it allows for a different kind of dialogue with art institutions that might want to host a SU. This might be rather symbolic, since the SU is such a precarious and small institution, but still, it is no longer just an artist talking to a big museum: it is one institution talking to another. And this is the basis for the other important aspect of the artist organization concept you just mentioned: it has the potential to exist without the initiating artist.

A different, very interesting example would be the Viennese group Wochenklausur. Over the last 25 years, they have always managed to bring in new people. I think that’s quite amazing. But they also have a specific take on the question of sustainability: their own engagement always has a clear, limited time frame. They analyze the problem they are invited to tackle and then try to find a solution. They develop a plan, get people involved etc. – and then they hand over that plan, with all responsibility for it. Ithink their very first project, a mobile medical clinic for homeless people in Vienna, is still running!

Usually funding is temporary, and the organization needs to seek funding from time to time. This might pose quite some problems for politically engaged organizations. How does it work with the Silent University?

So far, most branches of the Silent University have been founded by art institutions. This construction is, of course, tricky:What are the motivations for an art institution to initiate such a move? What symbolic value is to be gained? And at least at the beginning, it is clearly a top-down thing before it (hopefully) emancipates itself. This is a contradiction, which Ahmet is very aware of.

On the other hand, the institution always has to argue why it is spending money that is allocated to the arts on a project that clearly has strong social aspects. That is part of what makes it so interesting: it is a social and an artistic project. One can clearly argue for both sides – and do so in different ways according to the context.

To stick to examples I am involved in: Impulse Theater Festival needed a partner that could guarantee longer support than I couldwith my limited contract as artistic director. So we collaborated with a theater, Ringlokschuppen Ruhr in Mülheim, which in themeantime has become the main partner of the SU Ruhr. This cooperation also changed their way of working as theater: they offerall kinds of translations in their shows now, and they have hired some apprentices from Syria etc. The Silent University is, on one hand, a concrete example of social- ly engaged art, but on the other hand, it is also a work of institutional critique, with an impact on the hosting institutions.

What is special about a project that is initiated by an artist compared, for instance, to one founded by a social worker? Why dowe need art activism and not just activism?

F.M.: Well, in some socially engaged art the dividing line to social work might indeed almost become invisible. Or the border to politics – for example in Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International. And it also works the other way around, when activism uses artistic strategies: an activist action might become an artistic action. In general, I am not so much concerned aboutthese distinctions. The question “Is this still art?” has accompanied all avant-gardes… so it is not exactly new.

By assigning a category or a genre to a work, one pro- poses how to look at it – this sometimes might be frustrating, but it also has great potential. What happens when you look at a social project through the lens of art? And vice versa? What do I understand differently? Generally, I believe, the encounter between art and politics has created many very interesting and productiveprocesses. Both sides have something to gain. But it also poses com- plex problems and questions that are important: activism, forinstance, does not want to stay in the symbolic realm, while art can never completely leave it. So in different contexts, artists find different solutions for relating to politics.