The Question of Funding attempts to redefine the terms and processes of funding by establishing a network of discourse. Emerging from cultural practitioners, members of different institutions that came together to question the infrastructure within which they were operating, the collective reflects on cultural and social conventions as a result of their practices, expertise, and experience of refusing that funding system.
In the following interview Yazan Khalili, Amany Khalifa, and Rayya Badran reflect with us on the importance of affirmative critique to create a different structure through which the delicate balances within communities can be safeguarded without being dependent on a donor economy. The underlying premise is that in order to avoid the crisis within these small economies, the communities need to be involved in finding a way to support each other.
Yazan Khalili, Amany Khalifa, and Rayya Badran tell us about the development of what started as a public program at a leading Palestinian arts organization and turned into a complementary economy raising questions of responsibility and sustainability to the wider ecosystem (also) though a children’s book.
The Question of Funding is a lumbung member of documenta fifteen.
Giulia Busetti: It’s great to have the chance to talk to you today. It was not easy to find information about your activity; actually, it wasn’t easy to find any information about you at all. The name you’ve chosen is extremely catchy though, we can all relate. Could you tell us what motivated you to start the project?
Yazan Khalili: Well, The Question of Funding is kind of an accumulation, bringing together different cultural and community workers, artists, and activists that have been engaged within the cultural and social field in Palestine, mainly in institutions. All of us met when we were still part of cultural institutions: I was part of Sakakini; Amany was part of Grassroots Al-Quds.
We were sporadically meeting to talk about the problems that our institutions were facing, mainly regarding the economic and financial crisis, something always looming and erupting every now and then.
We were reflecting on how to come together as individuals, as members of different institutions and as a potential collective to rethink the structures through which cultural and social practices take place within Palestine, but also in the rest of the world.
So, we did these meetings, which we called The Question of Funding. Our main drive was how to move from the public program—which is what the project initially was—into a kind of affirmative critique of the economic structures with which we're working. We had a couple of public meetings with different cultural and economic groups from what I would call cultural farmers: farmers who work in the field, but who also have a kind of cultural concern about what kind of food we are eating.
This happened nearly at the end of 2019, and then at the beginning of 2020, the big surprise: Corona came in a time where we were really pushing forward with these meetings, but suddenly anything that was happening on a public level had to stop. So, we formed a smaller group to continue working, but still inviting others to join by looking at the lists of people who had joined the previous sessions. Since it was the beginning of the pandemic, we were also trying to understand what Zoom was, what's this new space through which collectivity has to thrive and be formed as well.
When I left Sakakini to come to the Netherlands for my PhD, the new director was hesitant about continuing the project. We were all part of the institutions as employees, but we decided our participation in the collective to not be related to our institutions, so we became independent as The Question of Funding.
Amany Khalifa: It was a political decision to be in the collective and not bring our identities and the hats that we were wearing in the different institutions. When we initiated these public meetings, where Sakakini invited cultural practitioners to speak about the funding context in Palestine, we found ourselves in the position of needing to repeat all the time that ours was not a funded project, but an initiative that we as individuals came up with. We still had to convince the audience that we were not using them for the sake of a proposal that had been given to us. That was an essential moment to gain their trust as well.
YK: This is crucial because it tells you how much cultural practice in Palestine is embedded within the donor economy. Even the critique of the donor economy is funded by the donor economy itself! To try to speak about it outside of that economy and to initiate something that doesn't begin with a proposal and then gets funded but comes out from the guts was kind of a challenge.
It was also a challenge when we got the invitation from documenta. We have to be careful about how we frame it. How do we work with it? How does the money flow within the collective? Does it flow? There have been many discussions to try to understand how the economy of documenta would interfere on something like The Question of Funding.
Because The Question of Funding is a kind of a dilemma or paradox, I guess; it’s a contradiction: are we refusing funding as a structure or are we refusing funding per se? What about the global structure that interferes with economic structures in the community? Our suggestion is to actually engage with funding instead of working against it and rethink how the community can be involved.
GB: That is definitely an issue that in collectives always comes up, even if not on this scale. Assuming the fact that the reason for refusing funding is to be as independent as possible, how were you sustaining yourselves in order to have that privilege?
AK: It’s a privilege to even have the chance to think about creating an alternative to the hegemonic system in Palestine. In the beginning, we all had jobs in institutions, therefore we could engage voluntarily in time and space outside of our working hours.
And this actually brings up the issue of the relation between the organization and yourself, because although some bring their expertise and their history to the collective, they refuse to represent themselves within a certain structure, institution, or organization. In that sense, we are privileged by the fact that we could afford to invest in this project.
Anastasia Baka: Was it challenging to stay active and create this collective outside of the institutions you worked for? How did you manage to separate yourself in a way from the agenda of the institution?
AK: I remember an interview Yazan gave when still in Sakakini, in which he explained that this was an issue that accompanied the restructuring of the organization, how this could be sustainable, and how much it should rely on the individuals. Coming from Grassroots Al-Quds to the collective The Question of Funding, I can’t say; I'm an Amany who’s separate from the Amany who has been an active part of Grassroots Al-Quds.
We shouldn’t forget then that this match between Grassroots Al-Quds and Sakakini wasn’t a coincidence, since in their practices as institutions they both rejected the traditional system of funding. At Grassroots Jerusalem, we have renounced EU funding as of 2015, because we didn't want to be following their agendas, resorting to different smaller projects for self-generating income. Even us coming together and asking these questions came as a result of our practices, expertise, and experience of refusing that funding system.
GB: So how come you left it to join The Question of Funding?
AK: I found The Question of Funding was a different space compared to Grassroots, which still had a certain freedom. I was looking for a space to move, think, and be even more free, without deadlines or reports to submit.
Rayya Badran: Talking about my personal experience in having to negotiate my individual membership as a new member of this collective, I should preface that I'm not Palestinian and I'm also based in Beirut. But from the point of view of someone who joined very recently, I must say that there are many similarities between funding models in cultural institutions in Palestine and in Lebanon. In particular, the question of economic sustainability has always loomed over all the cultural institutions in the region because most of them rely on foreign funding. That is the case because the public infrastructure is almost non-existent, and so we do not benefit from government support. For this reason, not only is it important for us how to survive, but also how to find alternative ways of operating in the fields of arts and culture.
It's not just about continuing to have the same conversations that we've had over the past fifteen years in a number of forums, symposia, and different kinds of cross-cultural and transnational conversations as a result of which no other solutions were being put on the table. It's utterly urgent to start sort of devising strategies rather than continuing to say that this isn't working.
What draws me to The Question of Funding is that it doesn’t focus only on cultural or artistic practices, but it extends to other types of disciplines and sectors. These institutions, these infrastructures, and their legal models, what kind of freedoms do they allow? And what about the people working within these institutions? What are the different hierarchies that exist within it? How are the funds distributed among the members, etc. Questions of responsibility, as well of sustainability, not just towards the members of the institution itself, but obviously towards the wider ecosystem. Therefore, you're also talking about the audience, how to reach out to them, etc.
I used to work at the Arab Image Foundation, which is an organization very much like KSCC and Grassroots. Although I haven't been part of an institution for a very long time, I'm still always engaging with these institutions. It's impossible to do any kind of cultural or artistic work outside of these paradigms.
YK: In the end, what The Question of Funding tries to argue is that funding here is not an issue of finance, as much as it's an issue of economy and culture, meaning that that type of economic structure of funding created certain cultural practices that, for instance, use the institution as medium and infrastructure to function and evolve. We are trying to work outside of institutions, because we see them as part of the whole economic structure of the donor economy, which is different from what funding is. We always say that bringing gifts to weddings and giving money to the newlyweds is a kind of funding, and that's how the community supports itself.
AB: How does documenta enter the path of The Question of Funding?
YK: Well, first of all, it is important to mention that the group has very few artists. At the beginning, we had to do informative sessions on what is documenta, although that is the biggest dream to be included in if you are an art practitioner. I, myself, I'm an artist, so the core member of The Question of Funding is an artist. But still, it’s a very promising opportunity to be able to participate even if coming from outside the art context. We perceive it as a chance to invite and host, like we are hosted both by documenta and other groups living in Kassel. This kind of playing with the format of what an exhibition can be, what an art practice can be, is very alive within our working ethos. And this is about being in lumbung. Lumbung as a concept and as a practice allowed, facilitated, and actually encouraged such an approach.
AK: It was fundamental for ruangrupa that we were not practicing art and culture within the mainstream framework, but being invited to be part of and to take part in this lumbung structure made it much easier for us to decide to join.
Everyone was shocked to learn that we were going to get funding and to take part in documenta, which contradicts everything for how this collective came to live. When money and funding is involved, the dynamics within the group change somehow. Abstract discussions left the place for concrete conversations.
AB: So, the way you position yourself in this context is not as an artist, but to mainly act as a forum for other artists while being a host in this exchange.
RB: Yes, but I wouldn't say artists as individuals, but rather as entities working collectively. We call them circles, and the whole project is built out of different groups. I mean, our structure is a collective, and thus in every aspect of the project you have people who are involved collegially in the decision-making, even to decide how to use the budget in a particular part of the project.
YK: And, of course, we also don't want to become an institution. Two factors should be borne in mind here. Firstly, we don't want to sit and keep criticizing power. The question is “how do you practice power once you have it?” Meaning that we wanted to create models, namely a certain experience of critique, like lumbung as a concept, but as a practice.
GB: So how do you practice your question about funding?
YK: We depend a lot on our bigger ecosystems that we connect to as individuals and as collectives, and bring them together, all of them. In this way, we're bringing not only our contemporary history of working together, but also our bigger history of collectivity that we belong to, within the group. We had to work with and within many circles and eventually challenge them to see what works and what doesn't. There is no fear of the future in the sense that we are not an institution worried about dying as a structure.
And this brings me to the second important factor to consider, which is how to work with a budget. In the specific case of documenta, it's around €180,000 for production (a huge budget for a collective). So, for instance, what we decided is that we, as a collective, don't get it. And this goes back to your first question of how we sustain ourselves. It's a challenge. It's a challenge to have to do this while doing other things at the same time and also working, applying to do a PhD like Amany has been doing for the last three months, me doing my PhD. But you know, what we all see here is an opportunity to put on the table a manual that is not based on an administrative sponge that at the end absorbs all the finances of a project.
That meant that we had €180,000 to be shared within the community, rather than being a channel for paying salaries, administration, etc. What we are trying to do is to push through these kinds of economic questions towards a model that answers it for the few. And I would say, if you allow me, it's not out of privilege, but out of necessity, and as Rayya said, this is our personal cause, right?
I mean, being a Palestinian within the current political context, you have no privilege, you live in this context, and you have to create this for your own dignity, life, liberation, whatever. So, it's a practice that is necessary for us to try because we want to free ourselves from this hegemonic system.
The trust amongst ourselves is the guiding value that ties us all together. We didn't know each other, but since the first meeting and hearing that we share the same experiences, it felt like that our trust would sustain us. And this is different from any mainstream institutions, where the salary will keep you running. Here, our desire is to create something different, to practice that alternative and not only talk about it. It doesn't matter if it's 1:00 am in the morning, we will come together, and we will do it.
GB: Since you mentioned trust, which embodies the ultimate clash between institutions and collectives, in which you can choose who you want to work with, I was wondering how the local community responds to your project. Are you already working with communities in Kassel and still doing what you were doing in Palestine?
RB: You could also view it as working with another institution. This is something that is actually quite different from the models from which The Question of Funding is trying to circumvent or bypass. These large funds are not going to be a sort of foundation on which we'll then start to work. It is merely an activation of what these encounters produced as ideas as working mechanisms, as systems, as circles.
YK: I don't want to take the trust here as a totally utopian metaphor. We've had problems and we keep on having them. Here, trust is something that extends beyond this and towards, I would say, a system of care. It's kind of scalable in between trust within a bigger community and trust between individuals, knowing that there is no fixed decision of how we are going to move forward afterwards. And when things fall, they fall because they have to fall. It’s simply that the plan wasn't well-made enough for it to continue. We have to stop and divert.
Every experience can be only compared to the previous one. For example, when I was the director of Sakakini and we had a big fund for which we had to write a proposal, we had to finish the project in a year and a half, and if something had to change, we had to go through a huge administrative process to explain the reasons in detail.
These structures of funding don't allow you to even be part of your context and belong to your moment. For us, it is different, we don't need to report to anyone, we do it among ourselves and we are the decision-makers. We spend on the project as much as we need; the project is not the size of the budget. So, if at documenta we only need to spend €100,000, we’ll tell the lumbung collectives we have €80,000 extra to use somewhere else. If we need more money, we have to really speak to the community about it. We can be transparent in the way it's working. We can say “look, we need to take another 10% here,” or “we have this extra that we put in this pot.” So, in a way, this kind of movement in the group, in the economy of the collective, allows it to be spontaneous and responsive to changes that happen along the way.
It's not the outcome that is leading the process, although some sort of external pressure is definitely helping us to, otherwise, you know, we would sit talking for years.
AB: And talking about framework, do you think that in the context of documenta you're going to face any other restrictions in your practice?
AK: To answer this, I want to go back to your question on the local community and how we are communicating with them. For us, there is no such a thing as the local community. At least not in the common understanding that there are beneficiaries which are the local communities. Nor are we speaking on behalf of a community leading the project at documenta or in Palestine. We are the local community. There is no external entity that is called the local community, and we are not part of it. The local community is embedded in the project with all its different circles at documenta as well as in Palestine, as well as in Beirut.
All of the different pieces are like a puzzle, and the community is there. Every piece of this puzzle is taking an active decision, and we are together with them. So, I don't know about restrictions, nor do I think about the funding as a restriction.
The moment of the decision to accept the invitation from documenta was a political moment. It wasn't restrictive to us. It was a moment to think political-economically, whether we wanted to accept the funding in order to help us, the practices and ideas that we were discussing for a year and a half before documenta came into the process. We look at it as one phase of the project in which we create the infrastructure to sustain ourselves post-documenta.
GB: Do you feel like sharing something you are working on for the project?
YK: I would love to show you something. Look at my chart with illustrations and drawings.
AK: I mean, the difference between our collective and most of the organizations in lumbung is that they are institutions, and we are a structure developing, I would say, another structure.
GB: But it's also what makes it extremely interesting, because you could be the structure of those. At the same time, it doesn't make it easier of course, on the contrary. Especially since it’s so difficult to even recognize a certain structure, let alone suggest an alternative one, which is something that you cannot aim for since it doesn’t exist yet. It may make it harder to visualize, but I guess there is no other way, right? It has to begin with a sketch!
AK: Yazan has the beginning of that sketch! (laughter)
YK: Yeah, it's a bit of a mess, but I have to explain. So, this is The Question of Funding. It's composed of all these different collectives that we are working with. Each one of these circles is kind of feeding The Question of Funding as a structure, and people move in and out between it. What we are doing is splitting between what is being produced in Palestine and what will be shown, exhibited, and practiced in Kassel during the hundred days, and what's between them. So, there's a process in between: how do you take this knowledge that has been produced here and bring it to Kassel? What we call “the harvesting” is the process in which experienced knowledge can be understood and presented or represented in another context. What we are doing in Palestine is what we call “an economic cycle.” The main part of it is that we are proposing to create a local token, both currency and crypto coin. We're producing a token that can be only used within four kinds of economies. One is the small cultural institution economy; the second is the small businesses economy; the third is the household economy; and the fourth is the freelance economy. This is not a cross-economic-layer token, but one that works within one layer of the economy that's the most vulnerable, the most subjected to fall apart when the crisis occurs. It's an economy that usually connects through other layers. For example, if I am a freelancer and want to do something at a cultural institution, the relation to the economy normally occurs through the funding (donor) economy, which is a higher level of economy. We want to create one layer with different hills, but still kind of horizontal. A sort of B2B economy, still an exchange, not in the sense of “I have tomatoes, you have fish, and we exchange,” though, but through the medium of a token able to store value across time and place. So, you can exchange your tomatoes with these tokens, and then I can exchange my tokens with fish later on. The underlying idea is that in order to avoid the crisis within these small economies, they need to find a way to support each other, because these economies are not dependent on long supply chains. Here, I'm talking about cultural institutions that are socially engaged, the small ones, whose budget doesn't exceed $100,000 a year (not like the big cultural institutions which require much funding and depend on philanthropy).
Then we have a small economy of people who run their businesses. Imagine a shop in the hood or a creative industry, like a small designing workshop or a small carpentry shop. With the household economy, I'm talking about people who produce things at home or people who use the house waste to create value. Plus the gig economy, or freelance economy, the freelancers who depend a lot on being hired for gigs and small jobs, and so on.mThe reason why we are connecting them within the cultural economy is that they have so many resources that they can share when needed and sustain themselves. So, the idea is not to become an alternative economy, it's not even to become a mainstream economy, but it's a complementary economy. Let's say it’s an economy that scales up and down, depending on the needs of the community. The goal is not to keep growing to the level that you can speculate on it, but to instead maintain a kind of a shrinking trend: it gets smaller when it's not used.mIn order to do it, there are governance systems of validations that take place in between the digital and the real. So, people actually use it in a digital (crypto) sense, but there’s also a governance that checks things are happening on the ground in reality.
The idea of it is not circular in the sense that everything ends up rounding, but that things could make different cycles. Economic cycles begin to connect together. Let's imagine I’m an individual and say “I'm doing a project. I need a space, but I don't have a budget.” In that case the cultural institution could mine a certain number of tokens. This mining happens on the basis that they give their space to the community, and the people who use this space in turn have to enter the system and validate the fact that this kind of social interaction took place. Finally, the governance of the token can visit the space and validate that this happened.
Suddenly, out of the resources within the community, you have an amount of tokens of value being produced out of nothing. You had no money because you gave it to the community. The community approves the fact that you are community-based, and therefore you can create changeable value out of this action.
You are indebted to the community all the time and you cannot spend this money to buy a TV, because you are crossing here another layer of economy. You can only spend this debt, or you can only pay this debt to other members in the same layer of the economy.
GB: Is that what were you referring to when mentioning the “affirmative critique”?
YK: Yes, exactly. Affirmative critique is not about saying that our economy is shit. What is it that we can do to gain a different structure through which the economy can continue without being dependent on a donor economy?
If we have money, what do we do with it? That's the central question, which is of course also the framework of documenta. For this reason, we are trying to find the essence of this structure and how we take it to documenta so that it is not an issue of representation. But then how can this be practiced within the context of an art exhibition in Kassel, as a place that we don't exactly belong to?
AK: And how do we, after all of this, maintain a certain knowledge through the structures of The Question of Funding? Now, I can finally answer your question, Giulia! We work through three elements. One is a website, the second is harvesting through children’s books, and the third is inviting a collective from Gaza and other political collectives from Kassel that don't have a space to campaign to have a space after documenta.mThe children’s books started from all those economic questions that brought us together, and we thought we don't want to answer only by boring reports. So, we reached out to artists, writers, and people who work with children. Economics is a subject mostly seen as threatening, since you need to be an expert to engage with those issues. So, we thought, why not children's books as an accessible way to share this knowledge? The book will be produced in Arabic and translated into German and English and will be sold during documenta fifteen.
RB: The website that we're conceiving should be up by the time documenta fifteen opens. Rather than a sort of repository of documentation, we want the website to be as interactive as possible. We would like internet users to be able to engage with the material, to ask questions, and to perhaps also get involved in the future. It's going to reflect the sort of growing nature of the collective itself, but also the questions that were sort of crucial to the conversation that The Question of Funding is attempting to sort out on issues related to institutions.
YK: Economy here is not only a way of representation, but also a way of practicing. Yeah, it's definitely a practice of economy.
This interview was conducted on February 3, 2022, via Zoom, and has been edited for length.
Yazan Khalili lives and works in and out of Palestine. He is an architect, visual artist, and cultural producer. Currently he is a PhD candidate at Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam, and a guest artist resident at Rijksakademie. His works have been exhibited in several major solo and collective exhibitions, including at KW, Berlin (2020); MoCA-Toronto (2020); New Photography, MoMA (2018). He is the co-chair of photography at the MFA program at Bard, NY, and co-founder of Radio Alhara.
Amany Khalifa is a researcher, community organizer, and former local mobilization director at Grassroots Al-Quds, a platform for Palestinian community-based mobilization and long-term strategizing in Occupied Jerusalem. Within this capacity, she has led local campaigns and supported local communities and partners. She provides political analysis and has a broad and experienced understanding of development and resistance to oppressive policies under the Israeli occupation. She has a BA in Social Work, a Master in NGOs Management, and a Master in Cultural Studies. email@example.com
Rayya Badran is an art writer, translator, and editor based in Beirut. Her writing has been featured in various publications such as ARTnews, Bidoun, Ibraaz, Art Papers, Norient, The Wire, and more. She has taught courses on contemporary art and sound studies at the American University of Beirut since 2014 and has a bi-monthly show on Radio al Hara. firstname.lastname@example.org
Giulia Busetti is an independent curator based between London and Zurich. After several experiences in art organizations, she is now focusing her collaborative research-based projects on the concept of cultural identity and its conflictual aesthetics, the role of the outsider and the necessity of dis-order, and on all those practices that activate the political potential of artistic practice. She holds a MA in Art in Science Kassel and Arts & Cultural Management at King’s College London.
[ Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center (KSCC) is a leading Palestinian arts and culture organization located in Ramallah. Accessed April 17, 2022, https://sakakini.org/?lang=en.
[ Grassroots Al-Quds is a non-profit organization that supports community mobilization by building networks between the different Palestinian communities in Jerusalem. Accessed April 17, 2022, https://www.grassrootsalquds.net.
[ Amany Khalifa is referring to the interview about Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center published in Field: “Cultivating Creative Spaces in Palestine: An Interview with Yazan Khalili”, accessed April 14, 2022 https://field-journal.com/issue-9/an-interview-with-yazan-khalili.
 The Arab Image Foundation is a non-profit organization in Beirut that aims to track down, collect, preserve, and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab diaspora. Accessed April 14, 2022, http://arabimagefoundation.com.