Things We Do Together. The Post-Reader. Edited by Marianna Dobkowska and Krzysztof Łukmoski. Published by Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art and Mousse Publishing. Photo: Bartosz Górka
interivew

Creating Spaces for Imagination Things We Do Together: The Post-reader

Dobrosława Nowak: In over three hundred pages, the book THINGS WE DO TOGETHER: The Post-Reader published in December 2020 by Mousse Publishing and U-jazdowski, returns to and develops the themes of the exhibition that preceded it. The exhibition was entitled ‘Gotong Royong. Things We Do Together‘ and took place from 19 October 2017 to 28 January 2018 at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. In the book you call it an ‘exhibition-meeting’, while I would actually call it an enterprise due to its wide range of activities and extensive use of resources (in the book you list: ‘work stations, cinema, documentation of creative practices, series of photographs, video works, and a collection of objects that had lost the status of artwork, rather serving as evidence of the existence of practices developing at the junction of art and social activity’). Who is this book created for?

Marianna Dobkowska: The book was written for people interested in issues related to self-organization, collective work, and various practices at the intersection of social involvement, education, activism and art. It presents reports on the experience of practitioners from various places around the world, including Poland, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Ukraine and the USA. It includes essays, interviews and a lot of illustrative material. The starting point for the book was the aforementioned exhibition-meeting ‘Gotong Royong. Things We Do Together’ and its public program. It was indeed a fairly wide-ranging enterprise, based on a longer study and other projects that preceded it (such as Social Design for Social Living or a series of residences that I organized in Warsaw at Ujazdowski Castle) and the relationships we had established over the years.

The book is a way to capture and present in a discursive form the topics that we undertook during the exhibition and the accompanying public program. The book is also a way to meet again with a group of artists who are still developing the practices presented at the exhibition. They speak about them in their own words, but also with diagrams or pictures. The texts  presented in the book were written a while after the exhibition, so they show a more current reflection of these authors. In this sense, it is indeed the next chapter of our research.

The exhibition was a place of presentation and activation of the practices of the people invited to it. The exhibition space was a place for meetings, workshops, concerts, performative activities, exchange of knowledge and discussions, learning and unlearning — in various, often original and innovative formats. There were so many events that it would have been difficult for the viewer to participate in all of them, and each of them brought to it some value and the knowledge developed during the meetings (in the book I write: ‘Can knowledge come into existence as the sum of nonknowledge? What is needed for this seemingly impossible equation to work?’). The book is an opportunity to look at what happened during these events and capture certain topics. We invited people who took part in the exhibition or discursive program to co-create the book. They speak with their own voice in essays and conversations.

Marianna Dobkowska, photo Bartosz Górka

Marianna Dobkowska, photo Bartosz Górka

DN: I have the impression that THINGS WE DO TOGETHER: The Post-Reader can serve as a guide for people who would like to follow a similar path, who are interested in using a similar methodology in their practice.

MD: Yes, we tried to present, in a different way than was possible within the exhibition, these extremely interesting practices and working methods of individuals and groups who are absolute professionals in the field of collective and social work — between educational and artistic approaches — where the boundaries between these disciplines practically vanish. These were the Javanese collective Jatiwangi Art Factory (currently invited to co-create the next documenta edition in Kassel), Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina from Jakarta, Mexican artist Alfadir Luna, and Cláudio Bueno and Tainá Azeredo from Brazil, as well as many other wonderful people. The book complements the exhibition-meeting and is the next chapter in our long-term research project.

DN: Both the video announcing the exhibition (https://vimeo.com/238036111) and the video from the opening (https://vimeo.com/240133412) radiate joy and enthusiasm, but the program of events also touched upon difficult issues that became apparent in the discussion ‘Exoticization, the emancipation trap of the excluded‘ and the movie Once upon a time in November (which deals with the issue of evictions resulting from re-privatization). What was the general atmosphere and visitors’ reception of the exhibition and accompanying events?

MD: Let’s not be deceived by the photos of smiling people who have fun working together, because real cooperation and self-organization is just hard work, although of course it would be great if it were always accompanied by a smile. I am an enthusiast, but also a realist. Collaboration can bring a lot of satisfaction. Practices that were activated during the exhibition-meetings gave us a lot of joy and pleasure, but maintaining the continuity of the collective’s life, the commitment of its members, and its energy is a continuous, joint effort and mediation. Collective work can also cause burnout, so it is important that the people involved are aware of this and surround each other with care and attention. In the book, we publish a diagram prepared by Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina, who analyzed the concept of gotong royong (In the book I explain that this term refers to a cooperative form of work popular in Indonesia. It can be described as ‘things we do together, learning from one another through shared activity’). They broke it down into prime factors, and it turned out to be a model that would be worth striving for, but is actually very difficult to fulfill. It seems to me that the long-term implementation of such projects (of various types: artistic, social or activist) based on cooperation is certainly associated with many potentially difficult experiences.

Concerning the atmosphere at the exhibition, we had no ambition to build any long-term collectives — they are never brought to life by force. Throughout its duration, we were accompanied by the temporary collective established especially for the exhibition: Intervalo-Escola — Time for a break (inspired to some extent by the practices of Tainá Azeredo from Brazil and other people who participated in this exhibition). This temporary collective was composed of a group of young people, mainly students. During the exhibition they did a kind of internship with invited artists. These artists, who were present in Warsaw during these three months, were in close touch with them and conducted special activities. It was a kind of laboratory situation in which a group of people agreed to work together for the exhibition, assuming the role of animators of activities that had aspects of collective work. They became a group of mediators between the exhibition and the public. They also proposed their own activities under the public program, based on an in-depth analysis of the presented practices. Together with Alicja Rogalska, they organized the Protest Song Karaoke and with Clara Ianni they performed the Open Monument action. Our publication includes a report on the activities of this collective, written by its participants Jakub Depczyński and Bogna Stefańska. Our curatorial concept was to organize such a public program around this exhibition under which, on the one hand, you could observe various issues in a discursive way, but where you could also take part in short activities that would give the participants the feeling of doing something together (by stirring their imagination, or having an unusual discussion in the form of a “kaleidoscope conversation”). We write a lot about it in our essays with Krzysztof Łukomski. What happened during the exhibition is also mentioned by Kuba Szreder in his essay.

The public program brought out various methods of joint activity. We are talking about activities at different levels of commitment and complexity. These were both pleasant workshops for kids and very sophisticated discussions as part of the discursive program. It was important for us to use the potential offered by the exhibition space and the entire organizational mechanism provided by the institution, as well as a range of resources that it offers, and to create space for stimulating the imagination of participants. Various kinds of participatory projects — social and artistic ones — have been realized for a long time, and there is even a term ‘nightmare of participation’ coined for the phenomenon. It seems to me that the ones presented at the exhibition — and also in the book — are well thought out and can be an example of how to perform such practices properly and consciously. The audience has been able to observe similar activities for many years, e.g. on videos in art galleries, however they have not necessarily had a chance to participate in them even for a moment.

DN: How was the exhibition received? Have the events around ‘Gotong Royong. Things We Do Together’ brought about changes, be it in the stories of individuals or more broadly in social or institutional structures, or perhaps in the approach to art?

MD: The months spent together made us realize that this exhibition-meeting was a process of starting countless new processes. Together with the audience, we practiced methods that gave us an insight into how/what things can be done together. However, whether we will do them (always) depends entirely on ourselves.

One of my favorite examples of action touching something in the organism of an institution was the moment when the guardian ladies who kept an eye on the exhibition, who at first only observed and later participated in the public program, invited me, the curator, for their own guided tour of the exhibition. They unexpectedly changed the direction of the relationship between the curator, the institution, and the support staff (that usually remain in the shadow of the events), taking the initiative and setting themselves up as hosts of the space. We repeated this action for the audience and it was quite a success. I am very glad that they came out of the shadows and for a moment were the focus of attention.

With the three-month-long exhibition we were not able to answer all the questions that bothered us, it was not our ambition. What we wanted to achieve was creating a space in which, with open minds and hearts, on our own bodies, we could get to know the methods and contexts of cooperation, drawing from the practices of the invited artists who were the guides of this collective process of informal education. In other words, we wanted to catalyze and then let the processes go on. So I can hope that the leaven introduced by us started the process of fermentation in the consciousness of the participants of our joint activities. 

DN: In the book you write: ‘we wanted to break the ingrained habits of organizing exhibitions, including over-production and waste of materials’. I think that this ecological approach is extremely up-to-date. Do you think it will be possible to maintain the pro-ecological trend of lowering consumption which we are all testing now, and, in the context of art, what do you think about organizing virtual exhibitions?

MD: When it comes to organizing virtual exhibitions, I have no practice, but last year I curated  a group online residency and the Re-directing East: Future Intimacies seminar (more about it here https://u-jazdowski.pl/program/publikacje/the-residents/the-residents -7), which showed that it is possible to re-learn the online space and navigate it consciously, with care for both our emotions and bodies. We miss being able to meet freely, visit museums and galleries, and have contact with each other and with art. Online is no substitute for this, but the pandemic has shown how big is its potential. There are also new threats here. It is interesting that during the pandemic I saw many things that I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise (spectacles, performances).

read also Robert Klanten

From Techno Clubs To Kid’s Book  – a conversation with Robert Klanten, gestalten

Dobromiła Błaszczyk May 25, 2019

I think that most of you will have had a gestalten’s book in your hand at some point. This publisher and creative agency is known mostly for their 600 books on art, architecture, design, photography and typography. Their story began with a focus on the aesthetic, particularly that of graphic design, and over the last two decades the scope of their content has widened. Today, using myriad observations of culture, people, art, and other intimate inspirational informants, they document and anticipate important movements. I had the pleasure of speaking with Robert Klanten – the Founder and CEO of gestalten.

When it comes to using existing resources, it’s a feminist economics, turning towards what is there and treating our surroundings with care. Both in the sphere of emotions and material resources. Art institutions produce a lot of different items, for example the elements of exhibition architecture. And it is easier to throw them away and make new ones than to rethink their functions so that they can be used for subsequent activities. But it seems to me a necessary effort in today’s reality to think about what, what for, and how we produce, whether we can re-use already existing materials, and what will happen to these objects after the exhibition ends. All the architectural elements of ‘Gotong Royong. Things We Do Together’ have been preserved and they are still used today in the institution for other purposes. I hope that similar practices will become a permanent part of the ethics concerning the production of artistic events, albeit to a small extent.

DN: Another part of your essay in the book that grabbed my attention is when you say that ‘the structure of the art world supports a patriarchal model of an economy — an established hierarchy of productive and reproductive work focusing on the presentation of effects while passing over the hidden aspects of work’. Can you say more about the mentioned ‘hidden aspects of work’?

MD: When we stop thinking about art in terms of items that can be put up for sale or more broadly, that can be seen, and when we look at structures supporting production and artistic practices that are not aimed at producing any objects at all, we will see that in our understanding of artistic practices there can be many blind spots. They are invisible to the recipient and hidden, for example, by market structures or institutional structures. Both the artists and all the people who constitute the environment in which art is created do a lot of invisible work, which is part of what the viewer sees or participates in. I am thinking of the work of the institution staff that is invisible on a daily basis, but also of the hidden care-work of curators and coordinators. And also about the hidden work of artists — research, building relationships. Within the art market, the work and the name of the person who made it count.

In galleries and museums, it is the easiest thing to do to present objects. But how to present the residency? How to involve viewers in artistic processes? Many practices on the border of art and education are very close to life, they come from many fields and getting acquainted with them, introducing these practices to recipients is a way to familiarize them with contemporary art in its wide, current dimension. That is why, during the exhibition and in the book, we wanted to reveal these processes a little.

You can buy this book here >>

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About The Author

Dobrosława
Nowak

Independent writer, curator, and visual artist based in Milan. Works as an art curator and a member of the residency selection committee at the In-ruins Residency. Graduated in arts (BFA) and psychology (MFA).

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