Experimental Communities

by Carlos Basualdo In collaboration with Reinaldo Laddaga

It is perhaps ironic that a discussion of what could possibly be defined as a new culture of the arts should begin with a contemporary incarnation of that old modernist saw, the toilet. Yet, the toilet in question is very different from the one that Marcel Duchamp presented almost a century ago at The Society of Independent Artists. In 2003, the Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc, in collaboration with the La Vega neighborhood association, and the Israeli architect Liyat Esakov, proposed the installation of two dry toilets –literally, toilets that do not requiere water to function– in Caracas and its outlying areas. Potrc initiated her work a a research project involving several “barrios” or shanties of Caracas without a specific goal in mind, mainly interested in developing the tools that would allow her –and her eventual audience- to understand the life-conditions in those extreme urban conditions. As Potrc wrote in communication with the authors: “I was personaly drawn by the fact that the barrios are not planned, they are self-upgrading structures…” “Liyat and me realized that the infrastructure provided by the city has failed the barrios; electricity is generally stolen and water is provided to the barrios only twice per week.” After an initial stage of research that lasted three months, during which many discussions with members of the local community took place, Potrc and Esakov decided to focus on a project that would address the sewage contamination and the scarcity of water that plagues the inhabitants of the “informal city” –as shanties are technically called. Again in her own words: “I decided to focus (and test my ideas about) on infrastructure, self-upgrading and small-scale approach. Barrios are self-upgrading structures themselves , and the dry toilet is supposed to be a device that can be built by residents themselves.” The construction of a prototype of a toilet that could be built and used in the neighborhood followed. The first “dry toilet” was intended to be tested for a six-month period –after which it may be adopted by the area’s residential complex. The process also included the design of forms of display of the documentation of the process, in order to exhibit the prototype and the social exchange that led to its creation. This project in fact represents the climax of a long period of Potrc’s work devoted to the search for solutions to a number of concrete cases of extreme need.

Potrc’s work is a perfect example of the growing importance in the field of contemporary art of a number of artists whose projects involve participants outside the traditional realm of the visual arts. These artists eschew making self-sufficient stable objects that are removed from the particular physical or social context in which they appear. They do not produce specific events or performances confined to a particular place or time, but rather, they propose open-ended projects aimed at fostering an experimental community: a temporary but durable association, composed of artists and non-artists who come together to create a specific project and who coalesce as a coherent, if impermanent, entity through their mutual endeavor. This involves the construction and occupation of physical spaces, the exploration of the social relationships that emerge as an effect of the group’s association and the creation of narratives and images. The latter are designed to circulate within the collective that originated them and within the open collectivity of potential spectators of the art world. These projects demand the mobilization of complex artistic strategies that combine techniques traditionally related to the arts with technology and the mass media.

Potrc, for example, uses drawing to explore a range of urban problems that attract her attention and to investigate a variety of possible solutions, both realistic and utopian. Reminiscent of Yona Friedman's sketches from the 1970s, her drawings seems to perform a pedagogic role, informing the art audience of the developments of the artist’s activities when these take place outside the traditional exhibition spaces. Combining words and images, her drawings bridge the apparent gap between her urban investigations and a more established definition of artistic practice. Potrc usually complements these drawings with a related web site and the display of various experimental prototypes and utilitarian objects. These “power tools,” as she calls them, are both paradigms for--and embodiments of--a wide range of already existing “solutions” to specific social problems. The “solutions” are not instrumental in the productivist sense. They do not belong, for instance, to the progressive tendency of “formalizing” the disorganized or “informal” aspects of a particular impoverished neighborhood by integrating it into the macro-economic urban system. Instead, Potrc adopts partial and economically sustainable “self-help” solutions, which contradict the instrumental and bureaucratic logic that subordinates individual subjectivity to supposedly objective criteria of efficiency. Potrc’s “solutions,” then, are only solutions insofar as they restore the autonomy of those who adopt them.

Like Potrc, a number of artists have generated strategies that take up certain moments from the neo-avant-garde tradition and develop them in innovative ways. The relationship between these newer practices and the work of an artist like Joseph Beuys or the activities of a group like Situationism can be compared to the one that exists between contemporary movements for global justice and the political revolts of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The latter rallied around the figures of national or social liberation in the context of industrial capitalism and privileged a model of revolutionary transformation. The former opposes the dominant neo-liberal consensus by proposing forms of administering common resources whose objective—to quote historian Immanuel Wallerstein– “is performance and survival rather than profit.” In a similar way, the artists under consideration here maintain a commitment to non-hierarchical collaborative production, while rejecting the tendency to see art as a manifestation of authentic experience or pure matter, which persisted in these antecedents and explains their propensity to ritualism.

One of the most well known ( ) examples of these practices was Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation at the most recent Documenta. The piece involved the construction of a series of precarious buildings, called Bataille Monument (2002), in the public spaces belonging to the Friedrich Wöhler-Complex, a number of residential buildings situated in the north of Kassel. The project included a sculpture of wood, cardboard, tape and plastic; a library of books related to Georges Bataille (a collaboration with Uwe Fleckner); an exhibition made in collaboration with Christophe Fiat featuring a topographic rendering of Bataille’s work –a large, trimendionsional map that portrayed his work as a territory waiting to be explored–,; various workshops developed with Manuel Joseph, Jean-Charles Masséra, and Marcus Steinweg; a television studio broadcasting daily on the Kassel public-access channel; a stand with food and drinks; a shuttle service to bring visitors from Documenta and to ferry neighborhood residents to the larger exhibition; and, finally, a website with images from live cameras distributed in the various “buildings” that constituted the fragmentary totality of the Monument. The Bataille Monument intended to house and present a number of simultaneous projects and activities in order to activate a particular community –the residents, mostly immigrants families of Turkish origin, of the Friedrich-Wöhler Complex– but also to secure a space of exchange that would allow that community to enter into new forms of dialogue with a larger context, including other communities in Kassel, the city administration, and the audience of Documenta. The process of constructing the piece itself constituted the invention of a both a model and apossible community––a community that, while composed from certain pre-existing elements, will have as its goal the effective incorporationof people, places, and ideas that were initially foreign to it.

At first, Potrc’s and Hirschhorn’s activities might seem familiar as forms of state sponsored community art or as projects of art education. However, both these strategies are essentially conservative insofar as they conceive of artistic production as a compensatory activity while, at the same time, they generally imply a static notion of communities –that are themselves actually dynamic. Projects like Hirschhorn’s, by contrast, take place in contexts where the very existence of the participants’ fixed identity cannot be assumed. Indeed, the premise of works like Bataille Monument is that all identities--even the most putatively stable ones--are inexorably volatile.

Such projects set out to increase the complexity of certain urban and social situations through the incorporation of heterogeneous elements from their surroundings. The work thereby adjusts itself to its milieu and creates a space in which the knowledge and actions that arise from its making can circulate and be recorded. These projects attempt to explore the potential for aesthetic pleasure that is derived from such a process of collective learning. In these projects, groups of artists and non artists engage in designing how to execute a certain endeavor while deciding on how to articulate its goals and the identity of the collectivity concerned. These are truly open processes, both in terms of allowing for the contingencies that occur while they are being undertaken and in the sense of being permeable to new members.

This type of community building through learning was central to Jeanne van Heeswijk’s Face Your World, a collaboration between the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Central Ohio Transit Authority, and the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Children of the Future program. The project allowed a group of children aged six to twelve to produce images of their urban surroundings by using computer software (installed inside a bus), which was developed by the artist in collaboration with the poet and philosopher Maaike Engelen and the Rotterdam software designers V2 Organisation, Institute for the Unstable Media. The collection of personalized images of imaginary public spaces that resulted were displayed on three “bus stops,” which were in fact slightly anthropomorphic public sculptures designed by another van Heeswijk collaborator, Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout and his Atelier van Lieshout. Face Your World was not intended to reconstruct the actual city but rather to imagine the very possibility of doing so. Above all, it created the potential for collective invention and community building.

Potrc’s, Hirschhorn’s, and Van Heeswijk’s projects start with an affirmation of the primacy of collaborative production processes over individual ones. Where a large number of individuals with access to different types of knowledge converge, a degree of complexity emerges that is out of reach for individual artists. This condition allows for the creation of a radical constructivism, a practical conception of the social by which a human group takes form through learning processes carried out by means of sustained conversation among its members. Such a process occurs in Cybermohalla, an ongoing project in New Delhi begun in 2001 by Sarai: The New Media Initiative of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Cybermohalla comprises a group of Indian artists, filmmakers, and computer experts who work in collaboration with Ankur, a non-governmental organization dedicated to experimental forms of educational. The project sets up meeting places for young people and assists them in carrying out collaborative activities that usually take the form of interviews and annotations in hypertextual diaries, later submitted for public discussion. Shuddhabreta Sengupta, a member of Sarai, writes: “Diaries have the potential to evolve newer languages that further displace dominant discourses because they are situated and personal, outside of the domain of the ‘expert,’ and the technocratic language, that ‘expertise’ entails.” The interviews, stories, photographs, software animation, and audio recordings that make up the diaries have been made public via books, postcards, CDs, stickers, monthly magazines, and a multimedia installation evocatively titled Before Coming Here Had You Ever Thought of a Place Like This.

Similarly, beginning in 1993 in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg, another hybrid project brought together a series of exhibitions, ongoing conversations, and celebrations in a mutually reinforcing circuit. That year, an alliance of neighborhood people, musicians from the local Pudel Club, and squatters started a protest to keep the city government from giving an important lot, which was a meeting place for the different populations of the area, to private developers. When some artists, including Christoph Schäffer, Cathy Skene, and later Margit Czenzi joined the effort, they formalized a complex multidisciplinary venture under the name “Park Fiction” –the name is derived of a rave that took place at the beginning of the ‘90s in Hamburg, while at the same time stressing the relevance of the imagination in the production of effective social change. Together they proposed an urban plan to the Hamburg city government, as well as a series of activities to be carried out jointly by the neighbors and the members of the group. These endeavors were aimed at giving an actual manifestation to the desires and knowledges which were specific to the St. Pauli neighborhood, while contributing to the formation of a community that depended on otherwise unlikely alliances. Some of the activities were topical, such as the workshops, tours, film screenings and lectures that the group called “infotainment.” Others were ongoing and took place every day in a specially modified shipping container that the group set up in the vacant lot; there, a series of items associated with the project, such as archives and communication media, were housed. A third initiative involved a touring exhibition, which appeared at the Vienna Kunstverein in 1999 and at Documenta 11, and will open at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville this May. There, documentation related to “Park Fiction” is shown in an installation designed by architect Günther Greis that evokes the constructivist language of the Soviet avant-garde. When the first phase of the park was finally built in September 2003, artist groups including Sarai and Argentina’s Ala Plastica visited Hamburg for “Unlikely Encounters in Urban Space,” a series of presentations that took place over several days and ended in a collective celebration.

The projects discussed above involve the construction of environments in which artists and non-artists come together to produce representations and communities. For these artists, the main question is to avoid the temptation to identify and merge with a community, understood as authentic and organically defined, which characterized many earlier community projects. And thus, to break away from the sacrificial figure of altruism. The artists in question are familiar with a certain tradition of modern and contemporary art, that they intend to extend and reactivate. This tradition includes figures such as Hélio Oiticica, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Robert Smithson--artists for whom artistic practice consisted less in executing an a priori plan in their work than to develop the capacity to respond directly to situations in the outside world beyond the subject’s control. While drawing on this outward focus, artists today are more reliant on institutional frameworks and support to promote and ensure the long-term success of their projects. Art institutions constitute a network of relatively connected environments, thereby offering experimental communities an opportunity to reach one another, as in the case of Hirschhorn’s project at Documenta. Nevertheless, artists today still demonstrate an ambivalent relationship to these institutions, which are implicitly limited in their social efficacy by their tendency to exhibit objects more or less in isolation for more or less solitary individuals for relatively brief periods of time.

In all these projects, as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has written, “internal criticism and debate, horizontal exchange and learning, and vertical collaborations and partnerships with more powerful persons and organizations together form a mutually sustaining cycle of processes.” The concern is to facilitate the creation of exchange networks between groups of people in order to produce new representational forms and community identities. In turn, these circuits come to intervene in traditional art spaces, thereby effecting a “globalization from below.” And for this reason these projects constitute various components of a certain universe in the making, one characterized by the vast movement and interaction between far-flung social networks. These art projects involve social movements aimed at both local empowerment and global connectivity through the re-appropriation of expert knowledge by specific communities. In the process, these organizations find themselves inexorably faced with a fundamental problem: modes of organization. How are very diverse local intentions brought together in more or less unified actions that acknowledge their diversity as well as their shared values? How are positions in a broad conversation distributed and enumerated? Suddenly, these problems have become central for artists working collaboratively with communities. Is it possible for the arts to intervene effectively in the shaping of contemporary society? Recent community based artistic projects are raising precisely these questions while at the same time attempting to answer them.