The (first) Autonomous Fabric symposium, organised by the Willem de Kooning Academy on February 10, 2017 at several venues across the city, presented an excellent overview of the contemporary relevance of the term ‘autonomous’ as well as its problematic aspects. What exactly constitutes ‘autonomy’ in the context of artistic production, and what constitutes the material of this production? The event originated from the necessity to update the map of the existing field, as well as the alignment of the curriculum of the Willem de Kooning academy with this field, and how the academy approaches this alignment as an educational institution.
The initiatives that presented themselves within the various workshops ranged from the pico-scale to the semi-institutional, and from a white-cube approach to full-blown politically and socially oriented programmes and formats. The academy’s educational activities and curriculum are currently structured according to three professional profiles: autonomous, commercial (i.e. commissioned), and social. This framework reflects an overview of the history and conceptual space of western artistic thinking (art in terms of its relation to existing forms of production, specifically capitalist production, within a social context); indicating the continued relevance and centrality of autonomy as a concept within this configuration; but also as something from which to distinguish and separate oneself. The partitioning between the commercial dimension and its critical counterpart and commentator, the arts, can thus be recognised within this framework.
This model of the assignment of positions within the art world’s institutions and infrastructure is reflected through its broader institutional artistic presentation and production platforms, which generally see exhibitions as the end products of artists, usually in the form of objects (contributing to an individual body of work within the existing economy of artistic production), and only rarely in the form of practices of production.1
Yet it is within this field of initiatives which experiment with modes of production as forms of artistic expression, that most contemporary notions of cultural production actually occur and are expressed. This institutional under-representation of the notion of practice as an artistic object indicates a mismatch between diverging ideas of what artistic production is or can be. The focus of the artistic object is rarely upon recognition through institutional representation, but rather upon the quality and modality of the practice itself. Artistic production is understood here as a fundamental quality: how can it contribute to ideas of how we should organise our lives, and what are these lives to begin with? What is the artistic object here?
The history of the term ‘autonomy’ is fraught with issues that mirror the problem of art’s relationship to life itself, to the ideology of politics, and to the organisational powers of policy-making. On a level of terminology, ‘autonomy’ within the arts resonates with autonomist notions of practical autonomy: a retreat from the structures of power, accompanied by the establishment of independent organisations and ways of living. These ideas can be found in the writings of well-known Autonomist-Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, who promote the importance of self-organisation as the prime organisational quality, in opposition to the organisational models imposed by states or ideologies. This stance also entails a decisive distancing from existing institutes and structures, as well as from the immediate channels of agency and power that would have to be restructured or reimagined based upon the self-organised initiating principle – hence the continued importance and relevance of the idea of autonomy.
Another, more complex, definition can be found in the writings of the philosopher Jacques Rancière, who developed a concept of the function of autonomy within our current model of artistic production, as the interrelationship between on one hand those feeling unrecognised and looking for change, and on the other hand the powers that govern. The world is organised into spheres of common understanding, spheres which are policed, and one must be able to recognise the world and the power structures through which this world is governed and organised in order to affect or possibly counter these structures – to organise a redistribution of that which is ‘sensible’.2 According to Rancière, the idea of autonomy is always, and inherently, linked to its heterogeneous quality: the exchange and engagement with the surrounding field. This discrepancy therefore becomes a matter of politics. In this case the retreat is not in itself a goal or a prerequisite; it is rather a strategic positioning, geared to modes of perception and redistribution.
Whereas the first position is mainly informed by the assertion of a hegemony of capitalism over cultural production (requiring withdrawal), the second presumes a permanent space of negotiation to still exist, and to provide the remaining route for possible engagement.
It is between these two poles that the current debate takes place, and it is here that positions and tactical approaches are conceptualised and strategised, and shaped into practices. Between these two opposites, the structures and programmes of artistic initiatives are determined by a shifting configuration of organisational forms, between independence and compliance, between autonomy and heterogeneity. It is within this field, which has been the subject of ongoing development over the past decades, that the issue of institutionalisation has become of prime importance: how to realise the necessary organisation in relation to, or within, existing structures of power?
In this regard, it is noteworthy and important that a survey of this constellation and of the field of existing independent initiatives has been instigated by an institutional art school such as the Willem de Kooning academy.
Self-organisation as an institutional format
Rotterdam has a rich history of artists’ initiatives, originating in the period from the late 1970s to the 1980s, when a first generation of practitioners established themselves – a few of which have managed to continue until recently, or in some cases are still active. These initiatives originated from a need to better equip the individual practice of artists, but also, and more importantly, to organise as a group or as a quasi-institutional manifestation – a cooperative enterprise.
Though mostly instigated out of dissatisfaction with existing institutional formats, which were seen as being insufficiently equipped to articulate artistic needs, the prime motive of these initiatives was not to retreat from contact with the public, but rather to organise and engage on one’s own terms. These initiatives were at the vanguard of producing new artistic forms that are still fully in use and recognisable today, and that have proliferated widely and deeply into the texture and infrastructure of global artistic production.
For example, presentation models developed here were structured not so much around the idea of an individual artists’ profile, but rather around a theme or topic that needed to be addressed. Such a topic, or a directional and curatorial approach, was mostly the result of deliberations between the artists and the network at hand, with a focus on providing an opportunity to express contemporary artistic ideas and formats.
These presentations were often accompanied by side-events such as artist talks, symposiums and debates, where the presentation continued on a discursive basis. Publications, either as a mode of articulation or as a documentation of events taking place, constituted another important element in the development of modes of dissemination of artistic production.
There was also a major effort toward viewing artistic production as a form of exchange. Numerous artist-in-residence positions were established, facilitating a global exchange among artists. This artistic residency format in turn gave rise to a practice of research, in the sense that artists coming from abroad, in order to orient themselves in their new surroundings, had to develop knowledge of where they were working. This led to a practice of a research-based mode of production that addressed local, regional and international conditions.
Self-organisation generally provides the main impetus guiding these initiatives. This made it possible to circumvent the choices that normally would have been made by institutes, through their curatorial or institutionally thematic guidelines. This is how these initiatives differ from established institutes, which are more accountable to governmental and political production guidelines, so that these institutes remain more aligned with the existing economic order. The production of any manifestation realised under the supervision of the autonomous initiative is thus the further advancement of autonomy, which is maintained and operationalised in the form of agency.
Which object? Which representation?
These initiatives thus established a new mode of artistic production, ranging in scope from making connections with the ultra-local to a more generalised commentary of our social fabric. A recurring theme throughout these developments is a general critique of the notion of the cultural object as a commodity, valuated solely through the market, as the prevalent system of art valuation. The establishment of non-commercial platforms for the production and exchange of cultural objects provided a critical response to the commodity-form of the cultural object, and thus to the capitalist system of valuation. The issue of individuated authorship, symptomatic of the prevailing form of artistic production, was also widely questioned here. The initiative was seen as a cooperative platform for artistic production.
A do-it-yourself ethos, and the question of how to run such an initiative in the first place – with the resulting financial implications – were also important elements in establishing these initiatives as political agents. Ideas of how best to organise, to house and to cooperate immediately bring up questions of an ideological nature: what needs to be produced, and how? This is an approach that has particularly shaped programmes in which issues of labour and organisation became the focus of artistic inquiry. Current initiatives such as Casco in Utrecht or the Dutch Art Institute in Arnhem have especially focused on the conditions of production as artistic research. In Rotterdam, Leeszaal Rotterdam West can be seen as an initiative whose activities focus on the social question of how to organise labour. The general underlying question became an issue of which objects were produced, and who these objects represented as their producer. How does the artistic object function?
In and out of the institute
It is this model that has evolved into the quintessential framework of production for contemporary art. Sometimes the characteristics of this model are upscaled to new institutional formats, as is the case with Witte de With (Rotterdam), or they evolve from small-scale initiatives to a larger scale, as with De Appel (Amsterdam), Worm (Rotterdam) or V2 (Rotterdam). This model has also proliferated within the broader network of institutional frameworks such as biennales, educational environments such as Goldsmiths, University of London, or publication and residency platforms such as Afterall (London) or Bard (New York). This institutional scale is in constant dialogue with the smaller scale of independent initiatives and formats, in an ongoing exchange of people and artistic presentation formats.
There is a permanent debate regarding the institutional form: how to function, and how to avoid the pitfalls of institutionalisation? Any condition of dependence, whether financial, logistical or practical, inevitably leads to concessions in the degree of autonomy: every transaction comes with issues of accountability, whether programmatic or pragmatic, that exert an influence on the independence of programmes and initiatives. It is this struggle that acts as a constant mirror to initiatives operating on a more established scale. Within this issue of maintaining sufficient independence, the smaller and larger scales are interlocked and part of the same fabric.
It is this issue of institutionalisation which Binna Choi described, in the introduction to her workshop during the symposium, as the quintessential issue to be negotiated: how to become and remain aware of the effects of power and authority during the establishment of an organisational structure? Any organisation, through the very fact of its coming into being, generates conditions of power and authority, in which guidelines, identities and objectives are formulated that result in inclusion and exclusion. These mechanisms will inevitably occur, and must thus be recognised at every level, from the hyper-individual to the full-blown institutional. All institutional organisations must identify and deal with these mechanisms, in order to be as inclusive and non-authoritarian as possible, and also to monitor how these mechanisms are linked to the institute’s context – its work commission, as formulated through policy-making and political discourse.
Problems of accountability arise precisely in the exchanges between different levels: policy-making imposes its own ideas of outcome and productivity upon the initiatives, for example upon an educational institute. Following this rationale, the issue of organisation is something that needs to be addressed and accounted for in all transitions occurring within the field, including policy-making and educational structures. In their co-authored article The Wrong of Contemporary Art: Aesthetics and Political Indeterminacy,3 Suhail Malik and Andrea Phillips describe the difficulty of this task, and how every new understanding – and therefore every articulation – between different positions risks becoming the new normative principle. Any new arrangement needs to be permanently open, fundamentally non-hierarchical and welcome to change. Malik and Phillips emphasise how Rancière’s emancipatory principle of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ lies precisely in the realisation that a true consensus, or a definitive arrangement between parties, can never be reached; permanent dialogue and exchange are thus required.
Practice as life / articulation
The importance of this autonomous field as a structural counterpart to the official field cannot be overstated. It is all of these issues bound together that demonstrate the central role of the autonomous field, and demonstrate it to be the most sustainable within art production as a whole. It is here that the closeness between art and experimental life is given shape through different practices. The autonomous initiatives Conversas and Upominki, for example, show that art is not about producing art objects, but is rather about developing an artistic practice, as a practice of dialogue, communication and hospitability – a practice of the possibilities of life as art.
Within initiatives such as these, the aforementioned three-way partitioning of professional practices into commercial (or commissioned), social, and autonomous – which provides the basic framework for the WdKA’s curriculum – is short-circuited: instead, the work commission is formulated through an exchange between the participants in the conversation, as a social practice on its own (autonomous – or perhaps it would be better to say: sovereign) terms. Here the value of the ‘autonomous’ would not be understood as the leading principle, but rather as the means for aligning production according to a more natural and reciprocal approach, thus bridging the distances and the alienation between producer, audience and object of transaction.
Both Conversas and Upominki thus wish to maintain as much as possible their independence, while minimising the perceived negative effects of any inevitable dependence. Yet they remain in dialogue with the field, and constitute a continuous presence and influence within this field. It is here that the alternation between the institutional and the autonomous fields provides its function of heterogeneous agency. This demonstrates how foundational values of artistic production continue to find their way through the filters of the institutional, where they otherwise risk becoming diluted, rephrased and misrepresented. In their article Peripheral Proposals,4 Mark Fisher and Nina Möntmann observed and analysed the potential of such small-scale institutions for the entire cultural ecosystem, but also warned of the risks of being rendered powerless by the absorbing powers of capitalism. It is here that the possible integration into an academic context becomes of paramount interest: how should one articulate the desired characteristics and modalities within an institutional context? As an inescapable manifestation of the institutional, this represents the engaged position of the institute within the debate. How can an art institute such as the WdKA articulate such qualities and needs on an institutional level?5
The value of mapping this field for the first time, and of having it recognised as the most persistent, basic and durable form of artistic production, can hardly be overstated. Recognition by an educational institute expands the dialogue by which the potential of this field can be channelled and increased to a more structural level, and its agency amplified.
The urgency for such a dialogue-based model was perfectly worded by Geert Lovink during the introduction to his Network workshop. Here he highlighted the urgency of formulating a restructuring of our world in a spirit of cooperation, in order to counter the all-encompassing ecological and political catastrophes of our times, resulting from the unchecked expansion and destruction of the liberal order. Such a task can only stand a glimmer of a chance in the context of a dialogue, never in a continuation of the system as it is.
1. Despite major efforts to develop modes of presentation that emphasise the notion of artistic practice as determining the outcome being exhibited, it is very difficult to capture a full understanding of the time investments or the day-to-day living aspects involved with these efforts. Institutional formats that wish to address this mode of production, usually struggle to represent these within their prevailing mode of operation.
2. Rancière’s notion of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ has become an important and popular philosophical framework for discussing the political dimension within artistic production in our age, and was first proposed in Rancière’s books Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Continuum, 2010, and Le partage du sensible: Esthétique et politique, La Fabrique Éditions, 2000.
3. In this article, Malik and Phillips chose to translate Rancière’s original French ‘partage du sensible’ as ‘partition of the sensible’ rather than the usual ‘distribution of the sensible’, in order to stress the dual meaning of the French term ‘partage’, indicating the communality as well as the division of the aesthetic. Aesthetics is thus a matter of an ongoing agreement to disagree, the recognition of the plural as well as the singular, of the autonomous as well as the heterogeneous.
4. Mark Fisher and Nina Möntmann, ‘Peripheral Proposals’, in: Binna Choi, Maria Lind, Emily Pethick, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez (eds.), Cluster: Dialectionary, Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2014.
5. Following up on the idea of reciprocity and dialogue, the educational institute should ask itself: Who is being educated? Who is being ‘produced’? What kind of artists are being produced? And how can the institute know the answers to these questions? It can only know by opening up to the field and engaging in dialogue with its students.