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Les Laboratoires d’Aubervillers, Trueque de semillas, dentro del taller Maladredie 14 de abril 2012 parte del proyecto La Semeuse, plateforme pour une biodiversité urbaine (La Semeuse plataforma para una diversidad urbana), realizado a partir de la idea de Marjetica Potrč.
Reflexivity and Residency Programmes

Over the last twenty years, the networks of residency programmes for artists and curators have increased rapidly, growing in numbers along with other (seemingly globalised) phenomena of contemporary art such as biennials, curatorial programmes within the curriculum of academies and universities, and the greater professionalisation of artists through in PhD programmes. These actors all share something in common: while they are establishing new normativity through formats or methods of working and researching as conditions and criteria for evaluation, they bluntly replicate national representation as a purely cultural one. In addition, looking at the ways the networks of residency programmes associate themselves through the Global North and the Global South, a similar simplifying discourse can be detected that understands the public space as an unified field, inhabited by individual subjectivities, that globalised ‘public’ that is supposed to interact with the globetrotting artists according to some universal rules. As Hito Steyerl and Boris Buden underline, on the one hand, residencies help to increase deterritorialisation and produce a model of the highly mobile cultural worker. On the other hand, they put forward relational, performative work (meetings, talks, networking), affective and symbolic labour, and not necessarily an art object economy. [1] Many initiatives no longer think of a residency as physical studio work, but as collective research and production that contributes to a constant undermining, re-questioning and self-examination of the art world. However, in publishing their efforts, they are also aware of the immediate co-optation by policy-makers, administrators, grant-givers and others. We could call these structures or initiatives reflexive, since they acknowledge their role as one of the agents of the art world and put forward key questions such as who does an artist- or curator-in-residence relate to? With whom does s/he exchange, speak and work, and why? To which public space does an artist-in-residence belong?

In the last few decades, artists, practitioners and curators have been travelling so intensely that hopping from one city to another in search of ever new productions, relations and ideas and accepting ever new invitations, has become almost ridiculous today. [2] There is little difference between a businessperson and an art professional when it comes to the dictatorship of travelling. Krõõt Juurak has proposed a term for this phenomenon. She calls artists ‘pets’ [3], domesticated creatures who move from one residency or project to another and follow the rules and conditions established by the late capitalist machinery and its representatives, namely the (usually larger) art institutions. To continue slightly further in the description of this phenomenon, as I said elsewhere “the public life of a curator (as well as that of an artist) can easily be described as being intensely ‘social’, in a myriad of ways. It involves a high degree of interactivity with all sorts of practitioners from very different fields. What is not as obvious, however, is how, paradoxically, the life of an arts practitioner can actually be profoundly solitary. For example, independent curators journey from one project to the next, or juggle several at once; they travel from one city to the next, switching from one culture, language, set of codes, social mores, and dynamics to another. The situation is hardly less complicated for institutional curators. Pushing the argument further, the pace at which curators are generally expected to produce exhibitions, and the material and immaterial paradigms by which their labour is evaluated (or ‘valued’), are embedded in a merciless logic of cognitive capitalist production. [4] Moreover, the virtue of the curator’s position as mediator between the institution(s), groups of artists, artworks, audience members, critics, wider socio-economic contexts and political stakes, only deepens this sense of solitariness.” [5]

These and similar individuals have been referred to as ‘flexible subjectivities’, since they are expected to perform whenever and wherever they lay their hats. They are a product of the rise of the creative class that, since the early 1950s and more intensively in the 1960s and early 1970s, has, in Suely Rolnik’s words, “overflowed the cultural vanguard, to take on a palpable presence among an entire generation. A movement of massive disidentification with the dominant model of society was unleashed among broad sectors of mostly middle-class youth throughout the world. The forces of desire, creation and action, intensely mobilised by the crisis, were invested into audacious existential experimentation, in a radical rupture from the establishment. Flexible subjectivity was adopted as a politics of desire by a wide range of people, who began to desert the current ways of life and trace alternative cartographies—a process supported and made possible by its broad collective extension.” [6]

In response to the generalisation issued from such a formatted flexibility in relation to mobility, I would like to mention another thought on what one can call ‘situated artistic research’ in relation to Donna Haraway’s concept ‘situated knowledges’. As with any activity, artistic research is done in an environment that has its own particular geographic constraints, institutions, languages, cultural references, cosmogonies and relationships to time, its own ways of doing things and entering into relationships. Artistic research can only be done in a meaningful way with consideration for the conventions of that place and in reaction to them. Without it, the research would be disconnected from its context. This question seems to be at the root of an increasing number of exhibitions, performances and other events held during biennales, art fairs, festivals and ‘global’ scenes where different forms of multiculturalism are proclaimed. On another scale, the same need to situate a practice drives the creation of local projects that have been called ‘contextual’, ‘community’ or ‘participative’ activity. If they are however different—the situated artistic research and the participatory art projects—they both strive, not toward innovation and efficiency, but to alliances in the neighbourhood where they emerge.

Today’s classical residency programmes offer the creative subject a dislocation, time and space to research and produce, very often formatted by an n-month time span, a studio, a flat, a network and an audience of the hosting institution, and some kind of fee. What is however always requested, Dieter Lesage writes, is the artist’s presence and, indirectly, her/his mobility and flexibility, in following with one of the merciless demands of neoliberal capitalism: to move where the money is.

Lesage notes the increasing demand of residencies for the artists’ actual physical presence and, consequently, how this contributes to imposing limits to the artists’ mobility. In his opinion, residencies should “think how they can offer artists effective shelter from the demands of capitalism.” [7] Jan Ritsema remembers poetically how it all started in Western Europe and, more specifically, in relation to the performing arts.

“I remember it well, the shock
It happened in the early nineties
People said they were in residency
I was so jealous
I felt so small compared to them
Since, how did they always manage that
I had never applied for a travel grant
Until I found out that it was all a scam
Air. ArtistInResidence
I was shocked to discover that they weren’t paid anything
Just a few facilities
Which the endower boasted about
But wasn’t more than the use of staff and space which was superfluous anyway
The worst of it was that you were meant to be happy with this dead chicken
In any case, you were one of the chosen few
They had chosen you for the beautiful role of dead chicken
Could it be a bit cheaper
You shouldn’t set up something like that in the business world
They call it exploitation there...” [8]

Ritsema ends his manifesto-poem with the proposal that what needs to be subsidised in art is not the declaration of ideas, but ideas themselves with little pre-existing conceptual apparatus. This brings us back to the idea of the situated artistic research, where projects developed in a residency, or elsewhere, create their own norms, methods and reception.

With all this in mind, a reflexive residency programme can certainly be an appropriate term to describe some of the initiatives that will follow below. In recent decades, anthropology and other social sciences in general have been arguing for reflexivity or for the embodied participant’s observation in what is called the reflexive turn. Acknowledging one’s own subjectivity, the politics of location and the part one plays in the field work have become arguments, inspired by feminist, constructionist and other movements that advocate for situated perspectives in knowledge production. The reflexive turn has given way to a systematic and rigorous revealing of the researchers’ methodology and their own subjective viewpoints as the instruments of data generation, but it also caused further misinterpretation of this turn’s potentiality by blurring the researchers’ accounts by misunderstanding reflexivity for self-awareness, self-consciousness or even autobiographical narratives. Reflexive analysis is said to reveal forgotten choices, expose hidden alternatives and epistemological limits, as well as to empower voices which have been subjugated by objective discourse. What reflexivity does, what it exposes, what it reveals and who it empowers depends upon who does it and how they go about it. [9]

The Performing Art Forum (PAF) in St. Erme, the initiative of the theatre director and performer Jan Ritsema, is based on self-motivation, self-discipline, critical thought and sharing of ideas. Its brief states that “PAF is a user-created, user-innovative informal [...] platform for everyone who wants to expand possibilities and interests in his/her own working practice.” [10]

Another example of a reflexive residency structure or programme is Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers [11], which is situated in one of the economically poorest but culturally richest suburbs of Paris. Since 2001 the institution has strongly identified itself with artistic research and pluridisciplinarity, and has conveyed the concept of the residency as one where the invited artists and researchers should use the physical structure and its facilities as a tool. The term ‘tool’ which we use to describe Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers seems to us the best way to point out the qualities that can be expected from a structure dedicated solely to the research that it facilitates. In addition to providing the necessary resources, a tool for artistic research should also give this research the opportunity to adapt to its environment, or to measure and experiment with the results of any modifications applied to that environment and which in turn can modify the research. It is a question of time, and the protocol to follow can only be developed by inventing and experimenting. On a practical level, this means that, as a real-life tool, Laboratoires’ organisation and structure, as well as the modalities of the residency (such as duration of stay and budget) adapt themselves to the hosted proposals. Also the team is required to express different competencies and potentials according to specific projects. This mode of facilitating a project allows artists to renew and question existing modalities of production, as well as their resulting terms of work and address. Research projects can thus address the audience both through the forms they produce and through invitations to take part in their process. [12]

In this brief and absolutely partial description of reflexive structures, the similar tendency to constitute a continuous discourse in relation to the residency inhabits AIR Antwerpen, which is situated just like Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers on the periphery of the city. When at the residency, artists are asked to leave traces and thus contribute to a growing archive of their presence, routines, fragments of research taking place in the particular space and time, objects, narrations or pieces of works they produced. Without any definite status, or even the other way around, by playing on the hybrid status between a document and an artwork, the traces are being compiled by the institution in order to reflect on the mediation of the presence and absence of the invited artists, their experiences of the place and the sensibility of time consumed in that place, for future residents and their public.

The need for reflexivity and refraining oneself from being instantaneously co-opted prevail among many contemporary artists and practitioners. This ethical attitude seems to appear simultaneously with a newly emerging academic position that dismisses an emerging discourse about any subjectivity or irrelevant activity—if a subject is not treated as being a subject-in-action, or human and non-human actors and their networks are not taken in consideration. Thus, as I tried to show in some cases, the context and the situatedness of an activity should be fully apprehended by the actors involved in the phenomenon of a residency (the hosts and the guests) in order to begin imagining a new hybrid public and political space, where the guest resident plays a crucial role.

[1Hito Steyerl and Boris Buden, The Artist as Res(iden)t, B-Chronicles, 2006. Available at http://www.b-kronieken.be/index.php?type=publication_dieter&txt_id=95&lng=eng.

[2For more on the dense relation between the contemporary society, practitioners and the project, see the following essays: Boris Groys, “Loneliness of the Project,” in New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory, 2002; Bojana Kunst, “The Project Horizon,” in Journal des Laboratoires, 2011. Available at http://www.leslaboratoires.org/en/article/project-horizon/suivre-capturer-le-temps-dans-la-performance-contemporaine.

[3Krõõt Juurak, Autodomestication. Available at http://autodomestication.wordpress.com.

[4In light of this specific fact, we can just observe how excellence in communication and multi-tasking have become major characteristics of contemporary curators. It even happens, and not that rarely, that they are requested in the list of skills in curatorial job descriptions.

[5Virginie Bobin, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Rasha Salti, “Editorial,” in Manifesta Journal, no. 16 (Of Regret and Other Back Pages), 2012, p. 5.

[6Suely Rolnik follows the concept of the ‘flexible personality’ as developed by Brian Holmes, in “Politics of Flexible Subjectivity. The Event-Work of Lygia Clark”. Available at http://www.pucsp.br/nucleodesubjetividade/Textos/SUELY/Flexiblesubjectivity.pdf.

[7Dieter Lesage, “Minimum Presence,” in B-Chronicles, 2006. Available at http://www.b-kronieken.be/index.php?type=publication_dieter&txt_id=110&lng=eng.

[8Jan Ritsema, “Portrait of a Dead Chicken as Artist. On the Risky Business of Financing Ideas,” in B-Chronicles, 2006. Available at http://www.b-kronieken.be/index.php?type=publication_dieter&txt_id=102&lng=eng.

[9Michael Lynch, “Against Reflexivity as an Academic Virtue and Source of Privileged Knowledge,” in Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 17(3), London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE, 2000, pp. 26-54. Available at http://zdenek.konopasek.net/archiv/nms/03_04/filez/Lynch_Against%20reflexivity%20as%20an%20academic%20virtue.pdf.

[12The artistic direction of Grégory Castéra, Alice Chauchat and myself worked intensely on these premises between 2010 and 2012.

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