Responsibility is put on those who are most vulnerable to find the answers. To provide design solutions to problems presented by the faceless power of bureaucratic processes and institutional procedure. To feel. The artist is valuable in their dependency upon those systems; some might say that there is an inverse relationship between powerlessness and the ability to speak. When one is positioned as powerless and dependent, one can speak loudly but not be heard. But perhaps, if one turns to relationality – love and compassion and togetherness – one might find ways to be there for each other in non-extractive ways; in ways not wholly dominated by the market, productivity, the logic of the nation state.
So how do we co-exist in non-extractive ways? This question is especially pertinent in the context of art school, which demands that its artists exist in paradox: that they be simultaneously radical and challenging but also deeply subject to the rules of the market and especially that particular, curious subsection of it, the art market. Is the turn to inwardness, to intimacy, as radical as we hope it to be? Or is it part of the contingency plan, on which artists and art are recruited to metabolize radical sentiments and movements? In our current context, how do we refuse? The assertion of alternative knowledge – emotion and ritual and the body – as the centre ran like a red thread through a stark white day. In the secular Western context, art is where the radicalism goes both in theory and in practice. Colonialism always has a contingency plan, amorphous and moving and seemingly endless – artists are part of the plan, but they are trying to find ways out of it.
I am ill when I visit the graduation exhibitions and events. I have the flu and I feel like I am falling to pieces, dispersing. My anxiety levels are high. I say the wrong things, I make mistakes. It makes me think about how unlikely it all is, “the work”, be it art or the artistry of living together. The writer in me makes it a metaphor: I, an Othered body, floating through these white spaces, transient, made sick by the re-emergence and consolidation of conservative values and ethnonationalism and patriarchy and secularism. Art spaces indoctrinate you to think about relationships in terms of value, connections to be extractive.
The following observations were inspired mainly by the works I saw at the Main Department Design, and also by the publication I left with. Here, each artist creates counterpoints to the rationalist, hegemonic states of being, exploring belonging and institutional apparatus, otherness and difference. The focus upon personal relationships (Rowena Buur) and those marginalized (Tessa Meeus) is very tender. Karina Zavidova’s work on her status as a non-EU student questions what makes a person valuable; as she wryly notes, “A certain level of naivety about how your school operates definitely helps your studies”. A treadmill acts as a towel rack embossed with the line “Getting fit for Dutch citizenship”. None of the work invites pity, but rather searching questions on the power of vulnerability and institutional complicity. It is usually those who are forced – by the fact of who they are – to live reckoning with self-deception who inspire change and transformation through heartwork, not through objective truths. Those who notice the rituals of citizenship, of normality.
Turning to our bodies, to forms of knowledge that have previously been delegitimized by the anthropocentric, is the only way forward (Alex Walker). Walker considers how we (re)construct our relationships after the colonial encounter, as we endure it. His publications (re)centre emotion, exposing our interdependency and the non-linearity of time. Witches, astrology, tarot, love, ritual, the first-person voice – spells that could save us, but must be written and engaged with slowly (the trickster in us knows better than to give form to what can be stolen and sold). He cites Silvia Federici’s work on witches, who exist in our imagination as figures who resist interpretation even as they are deployed in the name of feminist class struggle.
Where does the future-making happen? In the gallery, or in the supermarket?
Bijlmermeer offers another kind of counterpoint. There is a palpable change in the air when we arrive. There is “life” here. I am much more comfortable surrounded by migrants and the children of migrants in the vast brutalist modernist estate. This is also where Gloria Wekker comes from, author of White Innocence. We enter the gallery space, a former supermarket. It has been a site of some interest, some conflict. I talk to artist Léo Ravy, who is hoping to transform the space into a town hall of sorts. I ask if the supermarket-gallery is an imposition. He suggests that artists are in similarly precarious positions, and that that is easy to forget. But most people do not make the claims that artists do; they do not hang creative works in fridges. (Galleries are fridges because they are white and cold and they preserve things that are meant to perish.)
To look at the future as unfixed is a privilege. Those who have been deemed irrelevant by virtue of race, gender, class, sexuality, health, recognize that the future is our past and that only the present contains radical potentiality – connection and change are slow and take time, relationships that must last decades with people and with places and with the land.
If our definitions of freedom have so far been tied to the un-freedoms of others, then what can we do now? How do we operate within and through the systems we have been given?
Who gets to say what about whom? How do we create knowledges that is not about each other but with each other? What does it mean to create a nurturing environment for artists? How does this connect with creating a nurturing environment for those marginalized in society? The elderly, the racialized, the refugee, the migrant, the sick ...
To make art is a boundaried way to do things: one need not reveal the self in conversation, be vulnerable where things could get awkward, but in intricate, funded projects of collaboration that are part of a market economy and therefore joyously legible. I think of all the people I see in cafés and bars leaning close and talking. Dutch culture is a lot like English culture, in that art is the place where people can express their emotion, and there is the night too ... When I get back to the guest house, a lecturer is at the kitchen table. Her PhD is on nightlife (I kid you not): its radical potentialities, its power and how those in power are steadily stealing the night from the young, the queer, the homeless, through legislation, gentrification.
In that sense, is art a space where people place the human in us so that – outside it – larger structures can take over in narrative making? Is that not why art is valuable, a sign to the bourgeoisie that there is life outside their sequestered enclaves? The value is in the gesture, in the performance, in performativity? Even the first-person voice is now viewed as an industrial complex. Is that not why outsiders remain outside until they are inside and then define who is outside, and then and then and then ...
But I do have hope. It is the kind of hope that tricks its way through, a fugitive feeling; it speaks in the first person and refuses to communicate clearly or edited down: a trickster who says, “We can change it all (if we change today)”. I know I am in the middle of a movement because everyone was talking about Maggie Nelson and Johanna Hevda and decolonizing and radical intimacies. I have to admit, it scares me that everywhere I looked were Audre Lorde and Eartha Kitt and Edouard Glissant. By everywhere I mean the fridge. Throw the names into the washing machine. Both are white goods. “White wash”: radicalism thrown into the washing machine of institutional state apparatus coming out clean, in universal sizes, uniform, vanilla and magnolia-scented.
By looking at our reality structurally, more people are contending with where our power begins and ends. Most are tired of performance. And there is a change in the air, a spark of rage that demands we dream bigger and do more, for each other and the world. Even as we stand in our complicities – our paperwork, health, racialization, gender, sexuality – we question, and I know that we are at the tipping point. I know it because the world ended some time ago.
We are learning to connect again. And it is the artist who can sit with these paradoxes and refigure relationality and interconnectedness, to each other and our world, who can heal us. Because that is what we need right now, not the spectacle of scale or theory or singular genius, but the quiet tenderness
Bibliography Federici, Silvia, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2017).
Wekker, Gloria, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016)
Sumaya Kassim is a writer and independant researcher. She was a co-curator for the ‘The Past Is Now: Birmingham and Empire’ exhibition at Birmingham Mueum and Art Gallery and chronicled the process in the essay ‘The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised’ (Media Diversified, 2017). She was a 2019 fellow at Tropen Museum, Leiden. She is currently writing her first novel. @SFKassim