We are the ones who we have been waiting for
Events of the final conference of RESHAPE project pointed out different gestures and tools necessary for changing the (art) world.
FOTO: Nada Žgank
What follows is by no account an objective attempt to reflect the events of the final conference of RESHAPE project. Albeit not a part of the project itself, I was invited to participate on the conference on three separate events as a speaker, and can therefore only offer an insight from (sort of) within. Then again – RESHAPE never pretended to be anything but that. An inside job of trying to change the (art) world.
If we tried to take one message from the conference, I would bet on a simple realization: there is no savior that is going to change the (art) world instead of us. We are the ones, who we have been waiting for.
Resignation as resistance
Conference that expanded through two cities (Zagreb and Ljubljana) and altogether lasted for a week in September 2021, ended, where it perhaps ought to start: with the most radical gesture in art world of all. Self-resignation of the artist. Beton Ltd. collective premiered their final piece of the German cycle, entitled Hoppla, Wir Leben. The Lost Gesture of Self-Resignation. With performative gestures gone, artists were reduced to 29 hours of guarding the cold, massive installation, or per-formation as they called it, with occasional guided tours of the members of the resigning collective.
The construction itself was radically engaged in creating content instead of the performers. Its only access point was close to the roof, symbolically inviting those high in power to take a walk of shame (on the claustrophobic and shaky glass ceiling). Which of course they never do - as the audience/people we can only wait in vain while we watch from below for those who are over us to resign. And yet – even if they were to make a jump (or resign) – they would find themselves in a closed metal box, a labyrinth having neither entry point, nor exit. Reading the piece in the context of post-factual brutal far-right populist political environment of hate, one quickly questions resignation as a desired gesture of dignity. What is a resignation of an individual when the closed system of power remains intact? Is a resignation of an individual member of the ruling class in this context not merely a self-sacrifice of the elite to preserve their collective position of power over the people? What kind of dignified response should we anyway search in those who break the dignity of the people with their politics of exploitation on the daily basis?
Beton Ltd. of course cleverly plays with the double meaning of the word resignation. Overwhelmed by the seeming inability of systemic change, these days many people are resigned into their everyday, escaping from the burden of urgency and pressure of revolutionary ideals into individualism, normativity and repatriarchialization of society - an illusion of community consisting of two people. It is therefore not surprising that in a world, where most people are resigned, no one resigns from their position of power.
Here, reference to Ernst Toller’s Hoppla Wir Leben play of course does not escape the visitor. This is a deeply political text about the consequences of a failed uprising, whose reception was at the time of its emergence mostly reduced to the fascination over technical aspects of scenography. Beton Ltd. however warns the visitors ahead, that what they are seeing is not a future scenography. They are affirming themselves as the resigning collective, building the theatrical tensions through personal interpretations of the members. If no one else will, then they will be the ones resigning from their positions in the art world.
And here the truly radical gesture comes in: if you want to change anything, you must be able to imagine the possible end of the existent, be that collective, comfort, security, predictability, artistic language, state, racism, patriarchy or capitalism. We have come to a point where repairing or improving the existent, holding it together with yet another attempt to consolidate it, only serves the capital, the state, and concentrated power to go on with its destructive policies. A fundamental change will require resigning from one’s position of privilege – in every single position that we hold. Power does not originate from one focal point, it concentrates in every relation. We therefore each have responsibility to recognize and destroy the privilege we hold over another. Times for not taking sides are simply gone, staying a neutral observant has become an oxymoron. Neutral in the times of populism, growing neo-fascism, capitalist extractivism and police repression means taking the side of the status quo that is marginalizing more and more people. In today’s world, the only choice seems to therefore be either resignation or rebellion (or in Toller’s version: to hang yourself or make a revolution). Beton’s piece suggests the first is necessary for the second to be even imagined.
Dictatorship of innovation
Imagining a different world, be that in art or otherwise, was at the center of the entire RESHAPE project. RESHAPE brought together artists, researchers and cultural professionals, who spent several years analyzing the existent concentration of power in the art world, and thought about how to collectively overcome these inequalities. A big portion of the conference was therefore dedicated to the workshop presentations of the created prototypes for better future.
As participants of the conference, we could for instance try out a game of cards, helping people work better in artistic collaboration by understanding and respecting each other’s differences. There was a presentation of tarot cards, challenging the existing models of governance and aiming towards fairer ones. One group created a platform for cultural centers and residencies to start a new revenue stream to support artist in less privileged environments. There was even a pop-up office of the Department for Civil Imagination. Bottom line – "Reshapers" took time and collective effort to move from not just analyzing the world, but to actually create new prototypes of the possible, necessary if we want to move beyond the existent.
For everyone who works in art, the question of innovation is a constant dictate of every grant application and cultural policy. It usually stands for uncritical hyper-production, and is an obsolete term masking capitalist driven (self) exploitation. RESHAPE had a goal to transform this world of exploitation– be that in terms of creating self-organized care, resistance through and with art, or decolonializing the discourse and practices in the art world. Doing that by using the notion of prototypes, usually embedded with forces of exploitation, created a productive contradiction and posed interesting insight to a fundamental question – can you take a tool straight out of neoliberal lingo and recuperate it into a force of good?
Some might suggest that presented prototypes seem small, even naïve attempts on tackling a big topic, such as changing the world. I would argue that the mere fact that the project offered a focused space to truly put in the spotlight the possibilities of a different art system, that would be based on non-hierarchical relations of mutual aid and respect, is anything but small or naïve. It suggests that in order to change anything we have to change everything. And it does not matter, where we start.
If the prototypes will be used in future collaborative art work, their use will not bring change in itself. You cannot simply declare a safe space, free of prejudice and hierarchical relation of power and expect it will deliver desired results by itself. This requires constant work, dedication, and – innovative tools to engage everyone in the art world – from decision makers, artists, cultural workers, to audiences into a collective attempt to work and live differently. RESHAPE prototypes offer a clever insight into how to start this conversation.
In this context we must not overlook one more tool that RESHAPE conference put into spotlight – community. Several events (round tables, guided walks, dinners with artists etc.) focused on simply creating a collective situation for a discussion. If we learned anything from COVID-19 era, it is worth pointing out the fragility and necessity of collective setting to create a different world that we once took for granted. So perhaps it is important to remember that sometimes prototypes for change are already there – the question is, whether or not we are willing to turn them into reality.