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Eyal Weizman: Institutions and Initiative

It goes without saying that an art center such as the Walker is the sum of many parts: from the physical structure that holds a variety of discipline-specific content and acts as a beacon for publics from the Twin Cities and further afield; to its programming team and support staff who ride the hamster-wheel of […]

Walker Art Center plans & sections

It goes without saying that an art center such as the Walker is the sum of many parts: from the physical structure that holds a variety of discipline-specific content and acts as a beacon for publics from the Twin Cities and further afield; to its programming team and support staff who ride the hamster-wheel of cultural production, feeding an expectant audience near and far. There are also the artists who create artworks and choose this place to be the hallowed ground on which they stand and are consumed, whether permanently (through entry into the collection), or ever so temporally.  The Walker’s long  history exists not only as a reference to what has been achieved, but also stands as a tangible entity that the institution needs to answer to in the present in order to push forth a legacy steeped in time. Beyond this, there are of course other unseen realities, functions and qualities that make up the Walker – the sobering forces of economics whether monetary or otherwise, the cultural capital embedded in our collection and the caché this offers amongst a broader art world. There are of course power relations and political forces implicit in all these aspects of the institution.

Using these elements as fertile ground for discussion and collective thinking, the Interdisciplinary Work Group (IWG) has come together to assess the “pragmatic and more theoretical” concerns of engaging in and supporting interdisciplinary practices. This inquiry has been directed at both internal ways of working across programming teams as well as looking at how artists work today, which is in a manner that increasingly defies disciplinary divisions of performance, visual art, theatre, film/video. The group has been a somewhat self-sufficient initiative since fall 2011, inviting a selection of artists and thinkers to discuss interdisciplinary and collaborative practices and the spaces that support their growth and sustainability.

During one such session, which I initiated, the group met with architectural theorist Eyal Weizman to discuss his approach to similar questions that have arisen through his research-led practice. Below is a report from writer Susannah Schouweiler on our conversations. I have taken the liberty to highlight the points in the text that I feel have a particular pertinence to discussions the group has had to date, namely foregrounding the fact that this process can play a part in ‘institution building’. The work of the IWG need not just be about assessing the status quo, but can be about working with our colleagues to formulate a departure from existing models into as yet to be determined future ones.

As a point of reference, I also want to call out two institutions that share similar profiles of having once been ‘multidisciplinary art centers’: the Institute of Contemporary Art , London and The Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw (whose recent project Office of Possibilities covers similar terrain to the IWG). Emerging from questions of how multidisciplinary art centers continue to function in a climate where disciplinary boundaries are transgressed and blurred, the two institutions have evolved new structures that attempt to bridge the gap between disciplinary departments internally and promote new models for supporting interdisciplinary art practice. I also want to direct your attention to another project, Department 21, which took similar pains to re-imagine another great institutional context that has gone through major transition in recent decades – the art school.

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A small group of Walker staff – researchers, educators, programmers and curators — convened in the center’s basement Art Lab last October to talk with Israeli architect, human rights activist, polymath artist and intellectual Eyal Weizman. All of us members of the Walker’s IWG, we met for an informal conversation led by visual arts curatorial fellow Yesomi Umolu, who’d invited Weizman to speak briefly with us.

Umolu begins by asking us to consider Weizman’s varied practice – in ‘forensic architecture’, human rights advocacy, collectively produced, activist art installations in Palestine — with an eye toward “the pragmatics and challenges involved in fostering and sustaining institutional support structures for collaboration and interdisciplinary work.” She notes that “aside from his theoretical aptitude, Eyal has been quite successful at establishing productive arenas for exchange, carving out spaces for interdisciplinary work in both heavily bureaucratic settings (like the university)” as well as in settings more politically charged and restrictive, like his work in Palestine.

Umolu particularly points to his efforts in the creation of an open residency model for the collective behind Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (D.A.A.R.) based in Beit Sahour, Palestine. According to the mission statement provided online, the D.A.A.R. “combines discourse, spatial intervention, education, collective learning, public meetings and legal challenges… to act both propositionally and critically within an environment in which the political force field is dramatically distorted. [To that end, the collective] proposes the subversion, reuse, profanation and recycling of the existing infrastructure of a colonial occupation.”

But before our discussion with Weizman begins in earnest, as with all meetings, members of the IWG begin by introducing themselves. Our introductions around the table stop for a moment with Susy Bielak, the Walker’s Associate Director of Public and Interpretive Programs. Weizman interjects with questions of his own for her – about Bielak’s role in the institution, her work at the Walker — upon hearing her title. He wonders aloud about the designation, “director of public and interpretive programs,” parsing the language of the title, noting how such a moniker in an arts center like ours betrays the changing cultural currents beneath the surface, the evolutions in institutional roles and intentions. Usually, he says, interpretation of art is left to the viewer. “What does it mean for an institution to invert the process of interpretation in this way? Does it amount to sampling the world?” Further, he wonders aloud, “all of these other roles we have in such arts centers, could they be inverted, too?”

He goes on, “There is a certain critical mass, beyond which institutions are no longer just a black box, a container for art to show, and for the public to see.” To remain relevant, Weizman reflects, “an institution has to be a step ahead, to anticipate and even to create the very conditions for the art it will later show.”

“It’s a question of scale, isn’t it?” he asks. “And that’s the wonder of what you have here: The ambition of creating quasi-think tanks within a center [the way the Walker has], across a variety of disciplines, and then dispatching those fine senses into the world, cultivating an institutional, interpretive practice that is mediated through artistic research… that’s very interesting.”

Take the Walker’s new website, he says. “It’s full of independently produced, outward-looking commentary. That’s such a change from the usual museum presence online, restricted to presenting the art and information particular to its own collection.”

He says, “To be relevant, your institution has created a free-standing information channel, providing news and commentary of its own [rather than relying on outside media to interpret the work].” Further, “it’s not about visiting that artist ‘over there’ anymore. Curators need to go ‘there’ before any art is even proposed, as part of the institution’s preliminary research. It’s the difference between institutional cultivation and discovery.”

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After the introductions are complete, Weizman explains a bit about the origins and practical structures undergirding the practice and residency program of Decolonizing Architecture. D.A.A.R. was co-founded by Weizman, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, who currently manages the collective’s day-to-day activities and programs. The site, southeast of Bethlehem, has between three and 15 residents at any given time; the  Delfina Foundation fully supports two of those residents, selected through an open, competitive process.

Weizman laughs, “D.A.A.R. started as a $300,000 grant in search of a mission.” He explains, “Alessandro [Petti] is a writer; I wrote a book; Sandi [Hilal] wrote a book. In the course of our own research, we realized that a lot of people were interested in coming to Palestine. Slowly, what emerged from our work there was an entirely different type of architectural practice.” He goes on to note that, while there are other architectural residencies people can apply for, D.A.A.R. combines those residential residencies with a type of studio residency, putting artists and architects in residence together. He says, “What is interesting about colonizing the architecture [in these contested areas of Palestine], beyond the work itself, is that doing so involves bringing together a collective studio, creating a commons among us.”

What unites their various practices, he says, is “a very Godard question (i.e. Do you make political film, or do you film politically?). For us, that question is: Do we engage with existing political architecture, or do we work politically, actively creating the conditions for our practice?”

“For us,” he says, “any collaboration [with existing political architecture] would effectively amount to a normalization of the situation [in Palestine]– we just wanted to get away from all that.” He goes on, “The end of the Intifada was fuzzy, it was dangerous — the whole idea of cultural agency in the midst of that brutal repression. But afterward, you could see an A-list of international scholars passing through Ramallah; it was like a permanent biennale.” He goes on to note that “the area’s not under siege anymore; it’s actually very cosmopolitan: it’s like Tel Aviv, but with a wall around it, where you can’t move around freely. The time was ripe for a ‘cultural Intifada.’”

By way of its residency program, the D.A.A.R. collective has produced work shown in biennales and museums around the world — the Venice Biennale, the Bozar in Brussels, NGBK in Berlin, the Istanbul Biennial, The Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, Home Works in Beirut, Architekturforum Tirol in Innsbruk, the Tate in London, the Oslo Triennial, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and many other places.

Yesomi Umolu raises a practical but thorny question: “Given the collaborative manner of creation of work in the D.A.A.R., how does the group handle issues of co-authorship and credit?” Weizman shrugs, saying, “Our captions (for work) are a mess. We never managed to figure out how to credit all those involved our works’ creation; there’s always a diary, a description of where the work comes from, how it came about. But what we do is alive, it’s changing all the time, and so the notion of credit… we just figuring it out as we go. The end goal is to have co-authorship, of course, but the minute particular names are involved it gets complicated, too confined.”

Michele Steinwald, a curator of performing arts at the Walker, changes the direction of the conversation, referring to the more philosophical notions presented in Weizman’s talk the night before: ideas about art as truth-seeking, about the sleuthing, investigative work involved in “forensic architecture” and its slippery, aesthetically creative conclusions. She asks him to apply those insights to a question that’s been troubling her, to do with the implicit transactions involved in publicly presenting performance — transactional expectations framing the relationship between audience and performer, but also that of the commissioning institution and artist. Steinwald said she was curious how Weizman might “rupture” those expectations, re-negotiate terms and expectations on both sides to change the way work is created, presented and, ultimately, publicly received.

She says: “In the world of dance, there’s a sense that our audiences simply don’t understand contemporary work. So, as a presenter I’ve been struggling to find ways to be more generous about explaining, about arming the audience before the artists perform. I’m trying to work backwards from the conditions framing the transactional nature of buying a ticket, seeing a show.”

Steinwald puts it another way: “How do I unearth the ‘truth’ of artistic practice and process behind performance, the logic of choreography for the uninitiated? How do I tell the story of that work in a transformational way?” She goes on to tie her questions to Weizman’s own work: “Yesterday, in your presentation about the investigation and narrative creation involved in ‘forensic architecture,’ you talked about the inherent plasticity, the inevitable give in the truth-seeking process.”

She’s interested in the plasticity inherent in the transactions, the commercial relationships implicit in public performance, Steinwald says: “I’d like to break down audience presumptions surrounding monetary value, the expectations that follow when you buy and ticket and sit and watch something in a theater for a certain period of time. I want time to stand still during performance, to play with the framing conditions in such a way that we can cultivate altogether different audience experiences of dance.”

Weizman responds bluntly: “I don’t know. But I’m fascinated by your articulation of this idea of a contract [between ticket-buyer and performer, commissioner and artist], and what might be involved in the breaking of the contract.” He muses, “I’ve written [in The Least of All Possible Evils] about the process of seeing as something that needs to be opened or ruptured.” As in the situation you mention, he says, “there’s a kind of transactional contract involved in seeing,” and it’s one, Weizman notes, that warrants deconstruction.

He says, “There is a fabulous political theorist Ariella Azoulay; she writes about something she calls ‘the civil contract’, taking the idea from Rousseau.” With regard to Steinwald’s concerns, he says, an interesting line of inquiry can emerge from that starting point: “What is the civil contract involved here, and how might you open up the formalization of these relationships [between audiences and performers] in a way that transcends the transactions of consumption?”

Simply put: “What is in the ‘contract’ of dance performance? How might you present dance in such a way that disrupts that original, implicit contract [rooted in models and expectations of consumption], and which opens up new modes of relationality?” This isn’t so much an avant garde disruption of viewing you seem to be talking about, he says to Steinwald, as it is a shift in understanding of the “conceptual, political, intellectual” underpinnings of the work itself and how it’s conceived.

Weizman steps back from the specifics of dance, to more general notions to do with specialty and the privilege of expert knowledge or disciplinary fluency. “We need to think of the emergence of ideas as being part of their time. I’m less concerned with doubt or deconstruction, or the imagined oppression of specialists or experts.” The fact is, he says, “you don’t have to be expert to participate in the conversation.”

As for ‘truth,’ he says, that’s plastic too: “I don’t have a problem with a certain amount of doubt.” After all, Weizman says, “bringing doubt is what artists do — that’s the role of aesthetics, isn’t it? We need to be projective, we need to propose new worlds.”

He argues for artists to embrace “militancy – aesthetic, artistic, creative power focused like a laser beam.” He says, “I grew up in [Israel] — a country that is colonizing, killing – and we have to do better, we have to take sides. We need to think beyond artistic critique to partisanship, and the work of proposing something new.”