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by Binna Choi & Yolande van der Heide

Decolonizing Art Institutes from a Labor Point of View

A Dutch landlady corrects her Indonesian domestic worker’s flower-arranging and scolds her for coming back late from her errand. This colonial scene is recounted in a compilation of film clips ironically entitled Van de Kolonie Niets dan Goeds: Nederlands-Indie in Beeld, 1912-1942 (or in English Nothing but Goodness in the Colony: The Dutch Indies in Pictures, 1912-1942), and just some years ago has been made available to us by the ethnographic Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. Yet, doesn’t this colonial scene also ring true for contemporary art institutions, which in fact present post-colonial critical works? These same and often Western institutions determine the conditions in which colonial critical works are shown, how objects are shown, in which taste or style they are presented, and all in conversation with the structures of power that allow for the house, the gallery and so forth to exist in the first place.

To continue to follow the film: soon after the flower-arranging, a grocery-shopping scene follows. This act also stands in as a metaphor for an art institution, especially fulfilling the contentious funder-fundee relation, which predominantly influences the labor relation. The white Dutch landlady plays the role of the funder. A clip shows her measuring time and her irritation over the delayed errand. Later on in the film, a scene reveals the domestic worker in fact reproducing the very same modes of oppression on her co-worker by making him carry the groceries by himself in spite of their overbearing load, a prejudicial act seeped in classism. While the action in this short film—whether it’s fiction or a documentary is not so clear—goes on rather humorously accompanied by a variation of a popular lullaby in the Dutch Indies, it disturbingly reminds us that colonialism infects all of our minds after all. Hence, we wonder, isn’t there a way to discontinue this mode of colonial activity by cultivating new labor relations and culture, and concurrently engaging with the politics around identity and cultural heritage? The decolonizing practice has been focusing on the latter, but the latter hits the chord in our view, especially at a time when labor power is dispersed, where union efforts and ethics don’t meet, where artists from (former) colonies are becoming superstars with premium works in the art markets (a superficial mode of representation).

A different cinematic moment also astutely captures the riddled nature of colonialism. Ousmane Sembene’s Camp de Thiaroye (1988) is based on the lesser-known Thiaroye massacre, when French commanding officers turned their guns on their own soldiers, and an estimated 300 black African soldiers were killed on November 30, 1944. The soldiers were former prisoners of war, and freed from Nazi German camps and thereafter brought to a holding facility in Thiaroye, which lies on the outskirts of Dakar. In a call for justice, the soldiers initially sought equal pay with their white colleagues, but this was eventually dishonored and met with brutality as it was regarded as mutiny. In Sembene’s film rendition that lasts for two and half hours, we slowly follow the daily routine of soldiers in the camp along with a young Senegalese intellectual named Diatta. He speaks both French and English perfectly and serves as a sergeant, even though the French nation raided his village and killed much of his family years earlier. Diatta seems to embody all the dilemmas of African nations after colonial rule and offers us a complex perspective for examining how soldiers coped with the unjust treatment of the French power. They negotiated equal pay and went on to celebrate that seeming success of the negotiation, but ultimately got fooled by it.

What is significant for us here is that the film puts the issue of labor and wages at the center of its narrative in the relation between the colonizer and the colonized. Furthermore, it complicates this relation by revealing an internal inability to communicate and organize amongst the colonized. A mute soldier who is ironically named Pays, meaning “country” in French, was the only one who sensed something awry in the negotiation and the one who saw the French troops approaching the camp where the soldier lay resting after celebrating. No one tried to understand Pays’ desperate murmuring as he tried to inform his colleagues and organize an escape from their downfall. In the original story, the soldiers were in fact from all parts of the French West African empire—from Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Benin, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, and Togo—and with no African language in common, they communicated in Pidgin French but didn’t manage to find common ground and tackle the fundamental power relation at stake; thus, they were never quite able to commonly foresee their ultimate downfall. Here, we are confronted with an agonistic pairing between the necessity of demanding decent pay within the existing hegemonic structure and the necessity for counter-hegemonic structures and practices beyond capitalism.

These cinematic examples of our diverse colonial heritage rang especially true to us as we exchanged and discussed them in Costa Rica earlier this year when we were taking part in the annual Arts Collaboratory (AC) assembly, a network of trans-local arts organizations predominantly located in the so-called “Global South” and funded by the Dutch fund DOEN. This network of similarly minded arts initiatives, including us at Casco, focuses on collective governance, social change, and sustainability practices in their respective contexts with the aim of being effective in and beyond the field of art. We were received by San Jose-located TEOR/éTica for ten days where, alongside our regular program, we were shown around by our hosts, also to give more complex flesh to what is typically shown of Costa Rica as the land of coffee and Chiquita bananas. At the root of this agricultural stereotype, in fact, lies the exploitation of labor by people of color, dating back to the first arrival of Afro-Costa Ricans who were brought by the Spanish conquistadors as part of the slave trade in the 19th century.

With these particular histories of colonial heritage in mind, there are two practices in our organization that engaged with different modalities of labor relations in the context of art. One is the abovementioned Arts Collaboratory network, where the possibility of collectivizing labor and self-governance in a trans-local dimension is sought. Another deals with the common trap of invisibilizing reproductive labor. That is the “project” Site for Unlearning (Art Organization), which the Casco team has been developing with artist Annette Krauss, in our long-term engaging of the commons especially from a feminist perspective.

Casco Team & Annette Krauss, unlearning meeting, as part of Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation), archive photo, Casco, Utrecht 2015

Casco Team & Annette Krauss, Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation), installation view (unlearning exercises I), at We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning, 2016, at Casco, Utrecht. Photo: Niels Moolenaar

Site for Unlearning (Art Organization) began in 2014 along with our move to a new building and the inaugural exhibition New Habits. As part of this relocation, the shifting team at Casco, as prompted by artist Annette Krauss, have taken on the challenge of unlearning institutional habits embedded in the many facets of our work. The process of unlearning itself is directed towards embodied forms of knowledge and the (un)conscious operation and ways of thinking and doing, while integrating processes of de-instituting. Unlearning denotes, here, an active critical investigation of normative structures and practices in order to become aware and get rid of taken-for-granted “truths” of theory and practice.

The unlearning process had been proceeding with ongoing bi- or tri-weekly team meetings with Annette. In the beginning, we focused on identifying what we want to unlearn in common. The outcome was the “busyness” of art’s conditioned labor: the habitual, psycho-somatic state of busyness—whereby “accelerationism” and the denial of singular and differential rhythms are identified and necessitated by the neoliberal condition. Our continued conversation also nudged us into determining how to distinguish the busyness from commitment, especially through mis-hearing busyness as business, and our reflection on that coincidence. We worked with the distinction between business with an “i” and busyness with a “y.” While we understand business to be a word that names the operations of the economic framework in which we live, we saw busyness as the bodily-emotional condition produced by the constant need to perform within the rhythm of business. In short, we joke that we are unlearning the business of busyness.

This entire collective process of engagement within the team of those subjected to wage labor in an art institution could be considered as part of the unlearning. However, we also have developed about fourteen exercises over two years, some that we continue and are going to continue, others as one-time trials. One of the most structural exercises, which in fact became our new institutional habit, is a collective cleaning of our office every Monday. How did this come about? Out of frustration, two of our colleagues sent out an e-mail to the rest of the team addressing how busy everyone was and how no one except them kept cleaning our office. The e-mail was signed off with a poignant and ironic remark, “from your lovely housewives.” This instance became a subject at one of the subsequent unlearning meetings, and an idea was put forward that we treat it as a regular collective unlearning exercise—to all clean together at the same time every Monday. The list of exercises includes reconsidering our wage system with the notion of well-being and beyond the monetary, or making a time diary in order to articulate and give value to the time of reproductive labor.

Site for Unlearning (Art Organization) has been interfering with our organization and especially in terms of the internal relations, while we have been grappling with the notion of the commons in our program, asking what an art for the commons might look like and ultimately questioning, How can art and art institutions contribute to the commons? The question, along with the unlearning process, has led us to take on the challenge of applying the commons to the back side of the institute, to embody its ethical principles in all facets of our internal work matters while further investigating and engaging with the commons in our public programming as well. Eventually, we took on the commons as part of our name, adopting our new institutional name of Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons. The name change further binds us to continue to practice pre-figuratively. Oftentimes, an art institution is identified with and through the art it shows, because the latter is considered to be the primary focus of the former, and/or the latter represents the former. As common as it is, however, we have also witnessed that an art institution does not operate according to its art. For instance, showing art of capitalist critique does not mean that an art institution operates in non-capitalistic ways; showing art of anti-racism does not ensure that art organizations consist of practitioners from diverse backgrounds. This contradiction is near impossible to avoid, but it’s our conviction that we need to work on lessening it, if we want to prove the power of art more effectively and to prevent “art washing.” For this reason, we continue the “art” of unlearning, and art as commoning, however slow its process may be.

The Arts Collaboratory network extends this effort in a broader collective dimension in search of modes of solidarity practice. Since 2013, Arts Collaboratory has been undergoing an experimental process of transformation from an unnatural network brought together by funders to an interdependent and trans-local cooperative ecosystem operating in solidarity. Such experimentation is slowly garnered through mutual trust and shared resources and responsibilities in order to achieve a commonwealth and to become practically and actively engaged in “paradigms shifts” concerning the way the success of the member organizations was judged in the funder-fundee relation.

This relation matters especially given that most of the member organizations work under colonial heritage and its persistence. Most of the organizations get their funding resources from the West, and in particular from the Netherlands, which consciously and unconsciously embodies the legacy of the exploitative, judgmental, controlling mechanism rooted in the colonizer (as we saw in the films). And so the colonizer-colonized relation continues, keeping the organization’s production/presentation machinery running without having a space for a fundamental questioning or for “radically imagining” an alternative reality of relations through which to produce and present.

To transform thus is to collectively reimagine a future vision as articulated, for example, in AC’s co-written future plan, complete with a set of ethical principles for guidance in the process of self-governance. The future plan was in turn used to convince our primary funders to relinquish control, in practical terms, of the system of judgment and selection, progress and evaluation reports, allowing instead for AC to report to one another without dressing it up, and to also be transparent when it comes to struggles and failures, and all in the spirit of self-governance. The annual assembly, where rotating representatives from each organization come together to work and live with one another for ten days, is the backbone of this way of operating. Our joined major task in the coming years lies in the cultivating, managing, and sharing of these common material and immaterial resources and collective financial pot. In other words, Arts Collaboratory is about to further activate the process of commoning the network/ecosystem.

Binna Choi is Director at Casco.

Yolande van der Heide is Head of Publishing at Casco.

Binna Choi & Yolande van der Heide (Casco)
Casco is a public contemporary art institution in Utrecht, the Netherlands, dedicated to artistic research and experiments, practicing toward the commons. The artistic practices we focus on are cross-disciplinary, open to collaboration and process-driven. Our work traverses design, theory, and the wider social sphere. Since May 2017, Casco has been transitioning to study and practice the commons on the back side of the organization as well as in its public programs, as marked by its new in-the-making Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons.

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Issue 35

Decolonizing Art Institutions

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Dorothee Richter & Ronald Kolb

by Shwetal A. Patel

by Shwetal A. Patel and Shaheen Merali

by Dorothee Richter

by Michelle Wong

by Binna Choi & Yolande van der Heide

by Sophie J Williamson