In today’s neoliberal ‘creative industries’ landscape, there is a need to redefine the concept of autonomy. The term has multiple meanings and potentially creates confusion. Let us distinguish between the use of the term ‘autonomy’ in the contemporary arts context, as opposed to its even more specific use in (radical left) politics, social movements and theory. In this essay I propose to look at contemporary network culture as a form of living autonomy, and to see how this can be applied in the context of Rotterdam.
In the arts, autonomy traditionally referred to the independent position of artists with regard to both patronage and the world of museums and galleries. Today, autonomy means to be independent of the market (and in many countries also from the state). The term also implies a liberation of the professional class that supervises and guides the life and works of artists, such as the educator, curator, critic and public cultural policymaker. The emancipation of the arts is thus the story of the struggle of artists to liberate the creative process from outside forces in order to start a journey deep into the work itself. Autonomy stands for radical self-reflection upon aesthetics, understanding and then deconstructing the rules, and generating social impact. The element of reflection has resulted in a multitude of academic disciplines and fields of research that study new forms of autonomy as a practice. One of the confusing bits here is the explicit rejection by ‘autonomous practices’ of the traditional ‘l’art pour l’art’ attitude. Often, autonomous art has been – and remains – deeply engaged in society and socio-political movements. To break ties with the authorities often results in a move towards society (even though it can also be expressed as the freedom to withdraw and precisely not to engage). What counts here is autonomy as enabler: it facilitates and embodies actual existing freedom, in whichever direction.
Autonomy as self-rule or self-determination also has a strong political tradition that needs to be discussed here, beyond individual neoliberal characteristics such as self-awareness, or self-motivated skills for acting independently and executing a plan, beyond the interference of (state) institutions or other authorities such as family or tribe members, or any similar social factors. Autonomy in the arts often refers to the rebel mentality of the 1960s-80s movements. Some of the many terminological roots include autonomy of workers in Italian factories; autonomy from (humorously enough) Communist trade unions and parties; and autonomy from Christian-democratic and social-democratic (labour) influences. In this context, autonomous movements were those that refused to negotiate and compromise with both capital and the state, and rather than building up systems of representation, focused instead on cooperatives and collectives that practiced forms of sabotage and resistance, combined with a strong belief in autonomous infrastructures such as squats, bars, bookshops, cinemas, theatres, bike repair shops and printing facilities. With the demise of traditional social movements, we can also see a shift away from sustainable autonomous forms of organisation (which unfold in time), towards a temporary expression that materialises for a brief amount of time, in space (including occupations of city squares such as the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, university occupations, etc.).
Self-organisation today is radically different from the days before social media. Facebook is now the default tool, also for designers, activists, artists and academics. How is the informal creative sector organising itself these days, and how could this be done in a better way? In the recent past, this was mainly done through email, paper (flyers) and telephone. Which tools work best? Let’s investigate this and widely publicise the results. Would this be a LinkedIn group or a Facebook group? Or should we rather communicate through WhatsApp or Telegram? There are two elements that need to be balanced here: the network needs to be (relatively) open, while simultaneously ‘getting its act together’ enough to make its voice heard and get things done. The overall aim should be to generate a sustainable time axis between the players. Is there enough time to organise the grassroots in the age of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook Live? Social relations are now or never. How can the real-time politics of social media be broken down in order to create slow spaces, spaces to ‘heal’ and hang out? How can we move beyond the identity question and create new cultures of solidarity and exchange? How can artist-run spaces remain economically viable? What do we expect from a shared office these days anyway, if not that it can be turned into a political cell, a subversive gathering where we can ‘radicalise whiteness’ (among other agendas)?
The aim of Autonomous Fabrics could be to foster strong ties within the localities, starting from educational structures in the arts and their links with cultural spaces and related specific individuals that are vital to the scene. This goal is in direct conflict with the ‘weak ties’ model of the dominant social media platforms. The promotion of strong ties is the core idea of the ‘organised networks’ concept (which I have been developing over the past decade with my friend, the Sydney-based media theorist Ned Rossiter). Why should artists and designers network? Not just to get to know each other, or to keep updated about events nearby and far away, but also to organise the field. One could call it cultural self-defence. For many this might sound too negative, but these days even informal structures need to be defended. Culture only unfolds in time, within a space. It’s not there instantaneously. The next question is then whether the act of organising should also result in a proper organisation. Here opinions start to differ. It’s not cool to start an NGO or a trade union, let alone a policy think tank. However, there are problems too with the ‘tyranny’ of networks and the lack of direction which informal structures often experience. The ‘organised network’ proposal is an attempt to overcome the problems on both sides. On one hand there is the real existing usage of social media, on the other hand the desire to get things done, to come together, to make decisions and to collaborate in order to realise what needs to be done.
The aim of the Autonomous Fabric should be to resist gentrification, to protect low rents of office spaces, and to exchange information on how to establish a ‘commons’ of the arts for sharing infrastructures and exchanging knowledge. Traditionally the aim of such networks was to lobby the city council and change (local) cultural policy. This might still be important, but we’re all very aware that there are multiple players and forces at work here. The housing situation is at the very centre of these concerns. It is up to us, as a collective entity, to occupy, build up and defend these spaces. To quote Sebastian Olma: ‘An aesthetic of performative defiance is not something that can simply be demanded of artists. If we want them to contribute to the evolution of our collective sensorium so the future will remain within reach of our aesthetic imagination, we must collectively persevere in our efforts to create a social space where this will be possible.’1 The current patchwork of small and medium-size non-profits, startups and freelancers can be destroyed almost overnight. This the main reason why the informal networks, as mapped by the Autonomous Fabric, should organise themselves. Mapping can only be a first step in a process of raising self-awareness – or, if you prefer, autonomy.
Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 1991.
Marie-Josée Corsten, Christianne Niesten, Huib Fens, Pascal Gielen (red.), Autonomie als waarde, dilemma’s in kunst en onderwijs, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2013.
Sebastian Olma, Autonomy and Weltbezug, Towards an Aesthetic of Perfomative Defiance, Avans, Breda, 2016.