Longread about how we work

Netwerk Aalst advocates integral support for the artist. This essay is a reflection on the arts today and invites a rethink of the responsibilities held by cultural institutions. download the text here


Dear reader,

Network Aalst commissions Belgian and international artists to create new work. But what do we mean by ‘new’ in the context of an artistic practice? And how do we situate this work? Is it purely a matter of production and exposition? Research and reflection? Creating a discussion? Or even documentary and post-production?

Still today, art institutions tend to show a limited – even somewhat conservative – attitude in the way they handle commissions: the emphasis is often on the exhibition of ‘the result’. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself; exhibiting art and making it accessible to the public remains a core duty of all presenting institutions. But what responsibility should they hold when it becomes apparent that the artist is finding it increasingly difficult to find the funds and facilities to actually make this work? When the preconditions for artistic creation undergo a shift, the artist’s agency is stifled, or their needs change?

Artist

Since the arrival of the readymade – and the notion that any object can be a potential artwork – the aura of the ‘unique’ is no longer the preserve of the art object, having shifted to the iconic figure of the artist as a ‘unique’ producer and mediator of images and meanings.

As a result, contemporary art has become more and more a knowledge discipline: research, reflection, discourse and documentation now co-define the meanings of art objects. The artist’s approach to the material, the sculptural form and to classical iconography all remain relevant – albeit in certain practices more than others – though they are now part of broader conceptual artistic practices that generate, question and mediate imagery and meaning.

However, the coming of the readymade and the iconic status of the artist have also made art vulnerable to capitalistic exploitation. As the capitalistic production economy evolves into a post-Fordian service economy, the territory of the artist and that of the creative entrepreneur increasingly overlap. In the paradigm of the creative industry, the artist is innovative, autonomous and proactive – the perfect placeholder for the entrepreneur.

As late capitalism subsequently gains an interest not only in services but also images and experiences, which themselves gain influence over politics, so increases the threat of the artist’s instrumentalisation as a purveyor of (commercial and politically employable) images.

Image

This tendency can be strongly felt in the renewed political interest for heritage and the arts, which is reflected, among other things, in the recent (re-)politicisation of the administrative boards of art institutions.

Politicians and businesses now understand the potential of art and culture as tools for city marketing and international profiling (‘Flanders, State of the Arts’), as a means of history-writing and identity formation, and as a communications tool for use in urban development, with the artist’s studio serving as an engine to drive the creative economy and museums as touristic destinations and experience generators.

The problem with all this is that in politics the societal relevance of art is equated with forms of employability and visibility. And that this contemporary cultural policy then links this employability and visibility with scale: the larger, the more visible and the more apparently socially relevant.

The societal role of art, however, consists in revealing to the public the complexity of today’s world and in creating a discussion around this. The true effect of an artwork is only known once the discussion has begun. This necessitates an intensive and deliberate mediation process between artwork, artist and an (extremely heterogeneous) public. A process that is largely contrary to this desire for immediate employability and the dogma of quick results, and one which does not allow itself to be easily twisted into a regime where visibility is paramount.

The danger is that, under pressure to achieve immediate visibility, we reduce this mediation process to the production of an image, in the form of a scenography or performance. The only sign of the research that goes on in a museum is the sleekly designed library in the entrance hall. Participation is shown in an exhibition with portraits of local residents, while diversity is proven by the one non-Western voice in the theatrical programme. Although these examples could well be part of a valid mediation process, it must not be limited to this.

The relevance of art threatens to be lost completely when it is reduced to an image that stages or performs its societal role. Such simple performance or staging stands in the way of initiating a layered and sophisticated interaction between art and its viewing public(s) as it renders them superfluous from the outset.

We should not neglect to remain critical towards the art world itself here, which expresses its social engagement through biennials and exhibitions, then pats itself on the back while refusing to recognise that it also enables the merry-go-round it so eagerly criticises.

Ecosystem

In a climate of austerity, this desire for a certain functionality of art inevitably puts the government support for smaller, more experimental initiatives – be they project-based or ‘permanent’ – under pressure.

In Flanders and Brussels, however, it is precisely these often artist-focused and/or artist-run structures that have put the region on the international map. After all, these structures have been instrumental in the expansion of an internationally unique ecosystem in which artists (thanks to extensive project funding) have been able to work relatively autonomously, and in which smaller and middle-sized institutions have been able to establish flexible partnerships surrounding their practices and projects. An ecosystem of reciprocity, shared responsibility, collaboration and positive cohesion. In this way the idea of the absent, ‘large’ classical art institution is subsumed, its function instead realised by a cluster of different, smaller initiatives.

Now that the smaller players are losing their funding bit by bit or being forced to do the same work with fewer resources, with project funding at an all-time low, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain this ecosystem. A paradigm shift can be observed: how do the new ‘large’ institutions – the political ‘lighthouses’ that current cultural policy wants to bring to the forefront – fulfil their responsibility with respect to artists, artistic creation and mediation, a responsibility previously shared among many actors, including the artists themselves?

Meritocracy

In the previously mentioned model of the ‘artist-as-entrepreneur’, the ‘successful’ artist’s career is imagined as a meritocratic process of development. In this process, increasingly larger and more prominent institutions gradually recognise the artist’s practice – by which they also legitimise themselves as institutions – with the ultimate goal being the artist’s financial autonomy on the art market. In reality the artist’s career is much less linear and a lot more precarious and unpredictable.

First of all, the market only accommodates a very small fraction of the artists who are professionally active and even institutionally successful. The artist remains vulnerable on an art market that selects for saleability, with headline-worthy resale margins often realised once the artist is already out of the picture.

Secondly, this incremental career model does not align with the needs or artistic ambitions of the artist. The label ‘up-and-coming artist’ is very limiting. At certain times artists have a need for the seclusion of a residency, the radicality and experimental power of smaller art spaces, provided they haven’t already become exhausted by the constant self-promotion required to reach the next rung of the proverbial ladder.

It is the artists themselves who are slowly breaking this ladder into pieces. Flanders and Brussels have in recent years witnessed a number of fascinating organisational experiments. Artists and art professionals are joining forces to develop partnerships that allow them to continue to work on a small-scale – flexibly, experimentally and progressively – with a view to creating (more) sustainable careers in the arts. The notion of self-reliance is to be understood broadly; here we are talking about an emancipatory movement that, on the one hand, gives artists some autonomy with respect to the market and the government, and, on the other hand, strengthens their position in relation to institutions.

Ironically enough, these new organisational models are often examples of innovative (social) entrepreneurship, though they seek their strength in collectivity and a conscious departure from the economic model of scarcity through uniqueness.

Government support remains crucial, however. These types of organisations draw their strength from project subsidies and then, using national and international buy-out and co-production money, build up a sophisticated business policy in which mutualising and maximising is key. They are entrepreneurial in the sense that they achieve a lot with very few resources on the basis of which they often manage to raise a lot of extra funds. This requires a stable foundation, however.

Project funding thus guarantees the autonomy of the artist and this autonomy is instrumental for the proliferation of these new forms of self-organisation. Project subsidies allow artists to organise themselves independently and to network, but they are also important in allowing the institutions to have the flexibility required to respond to developments, e.g. to provide meaningful support to artistic productions that are in development. In other words, project funding is a crucial component of the cultural ecosystem: it emancipates our artists and mobilises our institutions.

To lump ‘large’ institutions with the responsibility of making up for the lost project resources is therefore a policy decision with major consequences, since it disturbs the balance of power in the field and, in particular, weakens the position of the artist. A large part of the entrepreneurial potential inherent in the prevailing dynamic in the arts threatens to be lost.

Responsive

In this context we at Netwerk Aalst are currently thinking about our social responsibility, our position in the arts, our relationship with respect to artists and our different audiences, and our role in Aalst.

We feel it is important not to limit this line of inquiry in time or to reduce it into a neatly formed declaration of intention. The call for institutional reform is currently being made everywhere, but is it also leading to effective change? Even the right-wing in Flanders has mounted this hobbyhorse following the Community issue and the debate over migration. As such, we want to be cautious about announcing major institutional reform. Rather, we see our reform as a kind of continuum, in which we establish commissions, programmes and collaborations that activate, test, question and – where necessary – adjust the course.

This same attitude is inherent in our collaboration with artists. Netwerk Aalst is a commissioning body: we give Belgian and international artists the chance to do or make something ‘new’. The term ‘new’ is relative here, given that we situate these commissions within an oeuvre and a practice. We think from the artist’s perspective, based on their practice and requirements, and do not solely think in terms of commissioned ‘works’ or ‘projects’. As a result we propose an engagement that is not limited to the format of the exhibition but which also provides a capacity and an infrastructure for research, production, debate, documentation and even post-production.

This means that in our support of artistic creation we seek an integral approach. Not only because autonomous artistic creation is under pressure and we feel responsible as an institution, but also because the way in which artistic production is realised and manifested has become deeply diversified over the past decade. This challenges us to in turn rethink and adjust the public mediation and support we offer.

How to manage this integral approach to mediation and support on an institutional level is the challenge we have chosen to engage with for our first two-year programme. We are launching a two-year episode centred on six artists – Pedro Barateiro, Ghislaine Leung, Daniela Ortiz, Imogen Stidworthy, Jozef Wouters and Andros Zins-Browne – with whom we will collaborate in search of a flexible institutional arrangement capable of responding to their needs and ambitions. To paraphrase the artist Myriam Van Imschoot: we would rather not start from a position of precarity (which, to be clear, is a reality, albeit a relative one) but from the need for a new ‘ethics of richness’. How can we forge new and concrete alliances between artists and institutions based on equality, generosity and reciprocity? And in this way arrive at a definite redistribution (of resources, participation and responsibility)?

We always set up creation trajectories with a very specific selection of artists. They are not randomly chosen, but are considered in relation to each other. Their artistic practices provide the questions and artistic motives that inform episodes that can span multiple years. These artists have diverse practices, represent various generations, are active in different disciplines, both in Belgium and abroad, but they all have something to say to each other.

We don’t claim these artists as our permanent ‘residents’, nor do we box ourselves in as the exclusive ‘representatives’ of their practices. They are present throughout a given episode but in many different roles; they might serve as a subject in a group exhibition, as a moderator in a public discussion or as the protagonist of a solo presentation, for example. Over the course of the first two-year programme we will think along with them with respect to their artistic practices and invite other artists, guests and, of course, audiences, to take part in this discussion.

Our episodic programme will grow out of and follow on from this discussion. It is an ongoing dialogue, which is not limited to the agenda of the episode but which instead continues to question, criticise and even divert the initial ideas. This allows us to work deliberately and in greater depth, and to build on our thought process throughout the programme. In this way, our working process remains engaged and focused but still open-ended, enabling us to offer guidance with respect to practices, processes and conversations.

It also makes it possible for us to engage audiences in discussion in different ways: we make no distinction in this regard between an artist with whom we are organising an exhibition, a new work for the City of Aalst or a workshop aimed at children. In the context of the episode, these are different forms of mediation cut from the same cloth; they all serve to provide context and to make complex artistic propositions accessible and readable in a playful manner.

The context of Aalst offers unexpected potential in this regard. Both from an historical and a contemporary perspective, Aalst is a relevant place to examine artistic production with a view to creating a (new kind of) cultural institution that supports it. The city centre is feeling the urban impact of its neighbours Brussels and Ghent more and more strongly (particularly with regard to migration and mobility), while Aalst itself continues to seek a relationship with its industrial past. Aalst also attests to the need for rituality and monumentality as modern catalysts of collectivity, which can be seen in both the rise of rural hop tourism and the city’s carnival. Politically speaking, Aalst has leaned to the right in recent years, with a strong, ongoing debate surrounding identity, despite the city’s historical role in the founding of Flemish socialism. Many significant societal challenges are manifest in Aalst, which gives us the chance – addressing local histories, stories and concerns – to mobilise the public and invite them to engage in dialogue with art and artists.

We understand our ‘locality’ not as a fixed concept, but as a local condition that is both specific and global. In thinking through this local condition, we as an institution are also responding to it, working on it, possibly co-producing it. The way in which we work together with the City of Aalst is fundamental to this: Netwerk has joined forces with the City of Aalst to establish an artistic expertise hub that invites artists to (critically) engage with the (political, economical and cultural) actions undertaken by the City in the public domain. For us, this represents the perfect opportunity to better understand the city domain in all its material and immaterial facets and to draw (unexpected) conclusions. In this way, we seek, through the interventions of artists and the integral support of their creative processes, to engage the public in a debate on what kind of place (Netwerk) Aalst is, or could be.

Els Silvrants-Barclay Pieternel Vermoortel

Aalst, August 2017