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Re-invent the residency

Sally De Kunst

In the privileged settings of Central, Western and Northern Europe, and moreover in privileged sectors like the fields of art and knowledge production, we have to involve ourselves in re-inventing art institutions. In an essay titled Inventing the (Art) Institution of the Commons, Gerald Raunig writes that “in times of persistent multiple crises, the moves of neoliberal institutional reformism cannot just continue as if it were business as usual”.[1] This does not mean spectacular actions, one-off provocations, or temporary occupations, leaving the old structures unchanged. Rather it means slowly but persistently transforming the institution from within. No more naïve anti-institutionalism, no more cynical theories, no more complaining: it is time to start getting our hands dirty! 

In January 2015, when I took over the direction of Arc, I invited seven artists from different backgrounds for a thematic week to re-imagine the institution with me. What is the role of an artist-in-residence project, funded by the Migros Culture Percentage, in a small village in the Swiss countryside, in a medieval building that was successively a hostel for pilgrims visiting the Cluniac abbey church next door, a courthouse, a farmhouse, and a writers’ residency? A building that even had its own ghost-in-residence, going by the name of Marguerite.

The artists I invited – some I knew, others I had never met – were the prototypical future interdisciplinary users of the artist residency, and became my accomplices in a research project on re-thinking the art institution from within. There was no pre-set agenda for Re-invent the residency besides tackling ideological questions about artistic research, time, space, economics, geopolitics and collaboration. We lived together, talked a lot, built things and broke them down again, walked, cooked, danced and all fell a little bit in love with each other. 

Throughout this process we unconsciously borrowed social design strategies that helped us shape a discourse regarding the artist residency, challenge artistic research, test new ways of collaborating and question the wider socio-political ecology. Re-inventing the residency – one could also say re-imagining, reframing, re-shaping, repurposing or re-instituting – consequently became an ongoing investigation that was put into practice at Arc and in its everyday routines, which would involve a growing community of many others over the following years.

At a certain moment during Re-invent the residency, Gosie Vervloessem, who focuses on domestic science experiments in her own artistic practice, introduced fermentation as a metaphor for artistic research. She argued that it is not a matter of consistent measuring, weighing and dosage; there is no such thing as a clear recipe. Moreover, fermentation depends on locality: the yeast will be contaminated by local culture. Gosie challenged us to see artistic research in another light, namely as a kind of super organism, a community of thousands of species that are interdependent. In that sense, Arc artist residency offered artists and other practitioners a space where they could shape a common discourse made up of multiple voices. From the meetings between individuals working on the fringes of their respective disciplines, skills and interests, moments of interaction and ‘fermentation’ could arise.

To foster this process, Arc created a welcoming, playful climate where “making is thinking”: where artistic practice and creative discourse could coalesce and flourish. In keeping with its original purpose – a hostel for pilgrims – the house provided artists with a protected space in which they were free to take time to develop fresh and still fragile ideas – a space for speculative thinking without the pressure of producing results. Artists and experts from different backgrounds were invited to claim the place over time, to critically reflect upon their practice, experiment and take their work forward through shared activities and encounters. 

The residency became a space for agency at the intersection between the arts and society and for transversal collaborations between artists and experts from other fields. Learning did not take place in a traditional, hierarchical way but rather peer-to-peer, branching off in unexpected directions, which is typical for communities of practice that naturally or purposely develop through means of sharing and exchanging knowledge. [2] The productive friction of these communities – through collaborations on individual artistic research, during thematic residencies, or even at dinners or parties – allowed for social linkages and commonality. In following the lead of the artists, new relationships and dialogues with other practitioners, visitors and neighbours of Arc were forged and continued beyond the time frame of particular research projects and outside the walls of the institution. 

In the same sense, Arc opened up its doors to strangers: not only to the occasional uninvited guests at dinner but foremost to artists and other practitioners who navigate in parallel circuits. They obtained access to the residency through open calls, a permeable process that allowed the institution to maintain a healthy porosity – not conforming to the demands of a market based on fame and success, but instead allowing itself to be led by curiosity regarding research questions and unconventional practices. 

Arc’s small scale and considerable autonomy allowed us to re-invent the institution critically, collaboratively and gradually. As Rachel Mader argues, shifts in hegemonic structures are a protracted process, and “future research would do well to acknowledge this approach and work on the level of molecular politics, tracing and evaluating its impact”.[3] In my opinion and with the rich experience of Arc in mind, there should always be room for small institutions that offer space and time for research and experimentation, that question old models and develop new ones. The value of this work might not be tangible immediately, but art history and institutional critique have shown that eventually the art field benefits greatly from this kind of molecular and critical work.   

[1] Raunig, G. (2014) ‘Occupy the Theater, Molecularize the Museum! Inventing the (Art) Institution of the Commons’, in Steirischer Herbst and Malzacher, F. (ed.) Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, Berlin: Sternberg Press, p.76.

[2] According to the cognitive anthropologist Etienne Wenger, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern, interest or profession, and learn how to improve their practice as they regularly interact. The knowledge exchanged in communities of practice is not necessarily explicit expertise but can also be seen as tacit knowledge: a valuable context-based experience that cannot easily be captured, codified or stored – in other words that is often archetypical in contemporary art practice. The characteristics of communities of practice – autonomy, practitioner-orientation, informality, crossing boundaries – are also the characteristics of artistic research. In his writings Wenger mainly addresses business, government, education, development projects, knowledge management and civic life; not art. Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

[3] Mader, R. (2014), ‘How to move in / an institution’, in (Issue 21), Zurich: ZHdK, p.40.

Re-invent the residency: Service
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