An Afterthought on the Relation Between Curating, Time, and the Commons, through We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning
Speaking of time, we have to speak of space, and vice versa. Noteworthy is a resonance between the exhibition Making Room, which forms part of the Space of Anticipation project, and the project exhibition  We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning (WTM) that concludes the program as inquiry at Casco, called “Composing the Commons.” In mutual reverberation, there’s a common desire that drove the two exhibitions: an exhibition as an active space for social composition and collective transformation, rather than a display / container for contemplative spectatorship. It stipulated both exhibitions to perform the transversal spatial articulation beyond the distinction between art, architecture, and program, with interwoven programmatic elements that happened during and beyond the exhibition period.
Some might problematize the binary distinction of those two modalities of exhibition space and could easily say that spectatorship as we know might well bring forth a social alchemy. With/against it, however, we are still ridden with a short, still evolving history of institutional critique, especially in terms of what a seemingly neutral white cube serves and how the viewership in such a space is limited from a “labor point of view.” We also have been witnessing how a space of contemporary art has been changing from merely being a space of display to a complex of multiple kinds of activities.  The underlying motivation for this phenomenon calls for our attention—the rise of the service industry and accelerating neo-liberalization that also brought forth the privatization of the art space and the diminishment of the art center as community center.  Against this backdrop, we look closely at this common desire to articulate a space of assemblage within the parameters of the exhibition, as distinct from the capitalist-driven. My hypothesis is that the distinction has to be made in the aspect of temporality, although it’s exactly there wherein the problem lies. What do I mean?
The following passage in the exhibition outline of Making Room should be relevant in this light:
‘Making room’ in this sense becomes a gesture that welcomes other practices and knowledge as generative forms of transformation – a way of ‘giving space’ and ‘dedicating time’ to both alliances and conflicts, be that with partners, fellow colleagues, audience members.
This passage of curatorial intention triggers several questions, in particular, the phrase “dedicating time.” How is it so that an exhibition becomes a way of dedicating time? Isn’t it typical of an exhibition to at best freeze time or frame time for those who come to see the exhibition, while taking away time from those who make it along with all the frenzies in organizing and materializing the concept? Then who dedicates time? Is it about the viewership? Whose time is it talking about?
As the title may well echo, one of the central concerns of the WTM exhibition was the matter of time. Adding the issue of temporality to the idea of an instrumentalization of artworks and other things as tools was a modest yet crucial distinction we wanted to make to the buzzing discourse around “useful art”—especially its assumed transcendental objectivity and the narrow definition of practicality—while having wanted to harvest and share what we have been (un)learning from the investigation into the commons and the practicing of it. The exhibition was meant to be made—and continues to be made—from what we call “tooling” in the context of commoning practice: an active form of composing tools for, about, and of the commons by reworking, recreating, and reenacting artworks alongside research projects and other encounters. And we elaborated this process of tooling in the following way, involving the time element:
This experimentation includes making time—especially “reproductive” time for things like study and conversation—which we consider a fundamental condition for commoning. As such, the exhibition runs for an extended period of five months and includes rooms that accommodate open processes of such time-making hinging on the embrace of different life rhythms in common.
Reproduction as discussed in (Marxist) feminist discourse encompasses cleaning, cooking, eating, pro-creating, taking care, and all the maintenance work that supports the production process without (equivalent) remuneration and recognition while indispensible to the patriarchal capitalist accumulation process. Through the course of Site for Unlearning (Art Organization), a long-term collective project for unlearning art institutional habits by our entire team at Casco and artist Annette Krauss since spring 2014, we have expanded on the concept of reproduction. Through the process of identifying the well-built-in habit of productivity and anxiety as our common habits to unlearn, which often manifest by a stress-loaded expression like “I am so busy… ,” we found out, reproductiveness in art institutional framework can be found in all those that tend to suffer, stay invisible, and undervalued by productivity pressure, such as ongoing email chains, dealing with problems, taking care of colleagues’ birthdays, fixing installations, attending to negative emotions … but above all, what we called “deep understanding” over what we do and what we related to. In fact, the more research has come to take center stage in the artistic process, the more a lack of deep understanding has been felt. Then, one could ask, is this just a symptom of the knowledge economy in the time of A. I.’s deep learning—being anxious of not knowing enough—or something else? It has to be carefully “understood” that “deep understanding” is not for knowledge accumulation, rather having to do with undoing knowledge as one acquired it, without abandoning it—hence it is a reproductive process at large.
WTM was conceived out of this critical questioning and the related ongoing (un)exercises of unlearning the habit of being entrenched by productivity or experientially our sense of busy-ness. For a conclusive exhibition of a three-year long program (Composing the Commons), the idea of creating a condition for reproductive time came to the fore. Instead of mere documentation or assembly of what has been done, let us create a matrix for deep understanding of what we have been producing and presenting. Let us show how reproductive time shaped the exhibition WTM.
The “matrix” was still closer to an organ than a body itself (in Deleuze and Guattari’s term), yet meant to be a generative organ as its original meaning as a womb connotes. So it consisted of a few functionalities that work in tandem with each other.
First of all, the exhibition was articulated by four distinctive types of rooms-cum-spatial facilities, plus our usual open office that also host meetings, discussions, and other events. The articulation was through particular works “curatorially” selected from the works and practices we have developed or encountered in recent years and amplified by the spatial design by the Berlin-based Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik (Jesko Fezer and Andreas Müller with Peter Behrbohm). While the curatorial decision for selection was based on the intensity of relations, it’s interesting to note that the architects also chose a relation as a method: to be in dialogue with graphic designer David Bennewith and Bram van den Berg who developed with us the project identity and all the visual communication rooms.  The shape of the spatial articulation of each room (with the furniture) also corresponded with the visual identity.
Adding to this set-up is a “conversation card” in place of an exhibition guide with captions and work descriptions. If tools for commoning are not pre-existing, they have to be made through collective situations and effort. When those situations are not always able to be face-to-face, or by physical contacts, they could be mediated through spurring experiential stories and subjective writings  generated personally and/or collectively, a sort of literature. That was the idea. While some basic literature was then written by us the team at Casco as our own exercises of study, deep understanding, and tooling, we also wanted to provide the possibilities for anyone who visited also to join this tooling process. In every room, there was a stack of empty cards and literary tools such as nails and a hammer to install the cards anywhere one wanted.
The third element—in no order of importance at all—is an extensive study “program,” whose program is, however, not meant to be so programmatic. It is woven by three strands. One is a relatively traditional approach, a series of four forums, zooming into four major-minor sites for commoning—economy, governance, art organization, and aesthetics—organized by the team. The second is the formation of a study group that self-organizes their own questions into the commons and for their own tooling for the commons, by taking the exhibition as a primary case. The final element is that of community-driven events and reading groups. Through this, we wanted to assemble all those self-organized groups and communities around into one space/time to relate to each other. It also implicates ourselves, too.
These three aspects together made the exhibition into something “special”. It was special in the sense that the exhibition as a space for social composition always remained temporary. When the rooms were not inhabited, it was close to emptiness, if not a semi-ruin. When inhabited, especially by more than two groups, the heightened spirit from collective studies ran through room to room, while it might have been rather alienating for those who came with an idea of an exhibition that is seeing artworks in the space. By co-habitation, the space was also ever non-static, evolving with more and more traces by the “Conversation Cards” left by the inhabitants, although their literature was often closer to a comment if not a haiku. The Study Group themselves found a methodology of their study around the commons and the institution in walking through and inhabiting one room after another.
Yet this temporariness of the space, in contrast to a sense of permanence or infinitude postured by a white-cube exhibition, as we know, is also where it falls short, especially when we are still “busy.” The busy-ness, despite the extended period of the exhibition and a form of exhibition made for reproductive time, prevailed. Changes in the team, one member on maternity leave, the treacherous time to get to know a new temporary colleague for maternity cover, an illness of team member, external commissions and projects to come, all contributed to maintaining our ongoing “business” as usual. For example, our team itself had no more time for conversation cards, though conversations took place occasionally: so we did not succeed in multiplying tools after the opening of the exhibition. Some of the visitors might have turned their back on the exhibition out of avoidable alienation since our hosting capacity—the time to dedicate to it—had been diminishing because we had to attend to other matters. The hosting was essential for this exhibition in order to gain a first understanding of the intention of this exhibition.
How about the compositional possibility? On the last day of the exhibition, a festivity for all those who were involved in the WTM commoning process fulfilled a projective image we had in terms of gathering all those groups and other related individuals together to see a possibility of commoning (in whatever way possible), but they did not leave a concrete legacy, in terms of an action to take. Simply being together, could we call this the commons? If not, did the exhibition “fail”?
Rightfully so, the city council of Utrecht through the voice of their appointed expert committee members made a critical remark in their evaluation of Casco for the upcoming policy term (2017-2020): Casco is confused between being a presentation institution (a general term for contemporary art institution in the Netherlands) and being a platform for world-changing enthusiasts (meant to be pejorative by referring to having no actual power to change things but only to dream). And the quality of its exhibition fluctuates. What is meant to be a criticism by those who must have seen the WTM as a failure is, however, a compliment for us, which is not without saying that there’s nothing that could have been done better or differently.
A compliment in that it is the enthusiasts—and those becoming enthusiasts—who count for us. They count for us for the “prophetic” quality of their passion and the quality of their temporariness—however precarious or vulnerable it is. Almost purposefully concealing a collectivity under (the radar of) an institution, even not commoning to avoid the managerialism of the commons (narrowly defined as co-management) but being together in struggle, what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call the “undercommons,” and the undercommons is a prophetic organization. This is the power for change. When the prophecy also moves the institution from which it originated, its truth also gets proven. Casco is now being transformed, and we are in the self-challenging process of “re-organization” to accommodate the idea that grew further from the WTM. This would purposely conceal what we are undercommoning, but we could speak about the commons. More paradox might be needed in order to protect the undercommons: institutionalize ourselves further. In the same vein, the re-organization will also reflect what could have been better in the WTM exhibition: for example, we could have allocated more rooms for artworks of experiential intensity, that is, with no code to interpret and no text to read. This in turn could have given more room for poetry, as the language of prophecy.
After all, the exhibition was announced as such to make a prophecy, as in the exhibition guide:
We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning also implies the actual transformation of how Casco as an organization works. Inspired by Site of Unlearning (Art Organization) Casco’s ongoing engagement with Annette Krauss, the exhibition intends to shift the notion and function of the office, along with rethinking the exhibition space. Production and management tend to make up the brunt of any office’s activity, including Casco’s. Through the exhibition, Casco works toward the abolition of this type of office. Instead, we create a space that cuts across both office and exhibition where the activity of collective study, reproductive labor, and co-management are encouraged. While it addresses the public, audiences, and visitors, just as any exhibition or art institutional program does, the focus here is on the possibilities of these plural publics becoming “we.”
With a detour, this growing, evolving “we” would find a home, the structure in which temporariness is encouraged in many ways. In this, temporariness diverges away from the antagonistic positions within the realm of leftist social change these days, to accelerate or to slow down. The antithesis to busyness is not slowing down, nor immersing oneself in acceleration. Rather, it is to allow time, if possible all different times and rhythms sensed, to create an almost mythical, prophetic sense of polyphony. It’s a resonance of anticipation.
“Dedicating time,” I am curious how curators or all others involved in the show Spaces of Anticipation did so. For sure, there is no socio-spatial production without arrangement of time, in particular active engagement in non-permanence, anticipatory re-invention, and above all heartbeats.
Binna Choi, director of Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons (formerly Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory). 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.
1 I use this term inspired by Marion von Osten’s use of the term and her practice, an exhibition of trans-disciplinary assembly and a proposition of the counter-public.
2 Nikolaus Hirsch, “Plans are Nothing—Planning is Everything: Productive Misunderstandings of Time,” in Cultures of the Curatorial—Timing: On the Temporal Dimension of Exhibiting, eds. Beatrice von Bismarck, Rike Frank, Benjamin Meyer-Krahmer, Jörn Schafaff, Thomas Weski (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014), 69.
3 Read Andrea Phillips’ essay “Remaking the Arts Centre,” in Cluster Dialectionary, eds. Binna Choi, Maria Lind, Emily Pethick and Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014).
4 This is even the case when a quasi- or pre-relational medium like social media capitalize on it.
5 The first room, Room for Collective Imaginary, was created with Mexico-based artists collective Cooperativa Cráter Invertido whom we befriended through the Arts Collaboratory network and Mattin whose improvisational practice set the very tone of the program in its beginning. A big round table for a group meeting that served equally as a drawing table for building affective imaginaries together, as inspired by Cráter Invertido’s drawing practice, was a means to deal with their collective work-life process and to call for radical imagination. The second one named Office for Unlearning Business / Busyness is structured by two ongoing projects at Casco, the abovementioned Site for Unlearning: Art Organization, and another (Un)usual Business, a research collective into local community economies which we initiated together with the student activist group Kritische Studenten Utrecht. Resembling an office, made up of an excessively long table, a bench, flipchart, an A3 color printer, etc., the space also hosted tools by each project/group that in turn invite an ongoing tooling process. The following room was perhaps the most didactic room, which offered possibilities of mapping out some key definitions of the commons, key concerns, and commoning works across geographies with a selection of some art and film works and books and articles. Called quite literally the Commons Study Library, it was introduced by the following: “The basic definition and reality of the commons is what constitutes the land, mountains, rivers, water in general—what makes up our environment. Much of this has been privatized, territorialized, and exploited over the last centuries, with significant impact especially over the last sixty years. In this room, you can delve into the crisis of the commons and broaden your understanding. This understanding includes delving into our knowledge, language, relations, bodies, etc., as the commons, and how to fight to reclaim them from privatization and state appropriation!,” with works of or contributions by Sari Denisse, Adelita Husni-Bey, Fernando Garcia-Dory, Adrian Jimenez, Tadasu Takamine, Bregtje van der Haak, Aimée Zito Lema with LeRyan, members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation via Rigo 23. Then before passing to the final room, there was a small kitchen for use, and the installation work by Ruth Buchanan, our long-term collaborating artist, where in a compulsive mode the word body is repeatedly typed intercepted with different number of quantities. Plane for “UIQ” aka Dark Room was the final room, the whole of which was dedicated to UIQ (the unmaking-of), a sound work by Graeme Thomson and Silvia Maglioni, whereby various voices gathered by several workshops share their imagination of how a film could be unfolded based on Félix Guattari’s unmade science-fiction screenplay, A Love of UIQ (1980–1987).
6 An example of this kind of writing is what Seoul-based philosopher and art critic Hyosil Yang calls feminist writing, “The writing that is written about which one cannot live without is greater than that written about what one thinks is right. There tends to be power/violence performed in the writing that is written for all, written for a big cause, for objective truth, for urgency. The result is contrary as confessional writing can fall into the trap of narcissism. However, the writing that weaves the confessional narrative into an ideological and a structural context enables us to become historical subjects beyond self-pity. The writing that is abstract or written for all is a form of narcissistic writing that kills others. The writing that is fragile at the very beginning, which I call feminist writing, calls for us to imagine the commons by making contact with collective and social problems. Confession is a strategy using words to reflect how we can live with those I don’t know, who hurt me, who I would like to kill…” Excerpt from an interview with Hyosil Yang, “예술은 언제나 약자의 편에서 강렬하게 긴급한 것들을 말해왔다” [Art Always and Eagerly Spoke of the Urgency from the Margin], published in Article in August 2013, translation by Binna Choi.