The Ballad of Institutional Dependency

The seminar Humans of the Institution in Amsterdam was a rare space of reflection for freelance curators working across the globe.

Audience members, Humans of the Institution, Veem Haus for Performance in Amsterdam, November 2017. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

Upon entering, the Veem Haus for Performance in Amsterdam is a somewhat cold and modern building with a centrally located reminder of a pre-modern life in the form of a large, broad-beamed, wooden staircase. Climbing the staircase, I was naively imagining the Netherlands as a symbolic centre of the “theatre of the world”, like it had been when the first modern atlas was created in 1570. On the very top floor just underneath the roof, the three-day seminar Humans of the Institution, held in late November, occupied a large theatre stage.

Here, some 20 speakers from countries ranging from Norway to New Zealand, USA to China, as well as over a hundred visitors, had discussions about the working conditions of the freelance curator on a global scale. The term “freelance curator” was chosen carefully. As opposed to the more established “independent curator”, “freelance curator”, the organisers argued, can make visible structural challenges that are otherwise concealed by the connotations of being “independent”. This is not to say that the term wasn’t contested by the participants of the seminar: not everyone seemed to feel comfortable with this shift, and many continued to prefer the term “independent”.

Modular thinking: Spatial design by Swedish design and architecture firm Uglycute. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

The stage itself, concealed by a little make-shift bookshop, held a scenography by the Stockholm-based, artist-run design firm Uglycute and included a silver-foiled floor grid and three seemingly randomly placed silver-foiled podiums decorated with living foliage and tiny fountains. There were scattered clusters of wooden chairs occupying most of the floor space, not oriented in any particular direction. Finally, three synchronised projection screens covered three of the walls, making the images visible from whichever chair one chose to occupy.

These spatial qualities played interestingly into the thematic issues of the seminar, mirroring them in unexpected ways as the conversations unfolded. The effect was a sense of variation and movement, as we regularly had to shift our chairs around to see the speakers, who never addressed the audience from the same podium twice in a row. The feeling was strangely ambiguous, as if we were situated in some blend of a large institution and a loft space turned into a performance venue. Sometimes, the loud tapping of the rain against the roof overwhelmed the sound of talking voices and created a sense of being huddled together in common destiny.

The audience moved their chairs as needed, shifting around as speakers rotated between podiums. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

Who are you, human of the institution?

Under the themes “Whose Global, Whose Local?” (Saturday) and “Precarious Practices” (Sunday), the seminar set up a direct connection between the precariousness of the curator and globalisation. The intention was to address the double bind of mobility, flexibility and “freedom” on the one hand, and the lack of fair pay and sufficient time to develop work on the other. This was underlined in the run-up to the seminar when a survey by the Norwegian Association of Curators was launched, showing that institutions increasingly choose short-term employment and freelance labour. As Vivian Ziherl, co-curator of the seminar, clearly stated, this condition of labour is not only a consequence of the curator’s overwhelming desire to work odd hours in order to get their project realised – it is also for many the only way to adapt to a field where funding is limited and a culture for unpaid labour prevails.

Keynote speaker Dr Ahmed Veriava suggested a need to go beyond a work-centered political and practical imagination to understand the way value is produced under conditions of contemporary capitalism. Photo: Ina Hagen.

In addition to the 21 invited speakers, the seminar consisted of an evening programme and a full-day workshop. The first two days were also interspersed with question rounds, thoughtful summaries, and comments from “balcony callers” specifically invited to ask questions along the way. From the get-go, I got a sense that they were all fighting something (institutions, funding bodies, exploitative governments etc.). Researcher, writer and activist Dr Ahmed Veriava tied oppression explicitly to capitalism and labour, as he vividly narrated the political reality of his hometown Johannesburg. From the European side of things, the struggle was described in more abstract terms: The very likely impossible, but desperate, quest to “decolonise” institutions was framed as a personal endeavour for many freelance curators. As “humans of the institutions”, they are faced with the mammoth task of personally making sure to remain ethical, interesting and on budget. This particular struggle coloured much of the conversation during the two days. Generally, and across contexts, participants were looking for ways to deal with this pressure.

Balcony caller Ahilapalapa Rands comments using a soft, plushy-covered microphone that was thrown between audience members during the discussion rounds. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

Documenta in Athens

The perennial exhibition format is, after all, the context within which the figure of the curator has been most fiercely publicly debated, as curatorial teams drop in and out of host cities within a matter of months while still proclaiming to both “decolonise” and stay close to the “local”. Despina Zefkili, art critic and member of the Temporary Academy of Arts in Athens, had been invited to present a position paper on the impact of Documenta 14 on Athens’ cultural scene. She outlined a lack of connection and commitment to the local situation from the curatorial team. The very serious question that arose from her talk was this: if the freelance curator depends on exhibitions of this magnitude to survive (and build their careers), how deeply are they implicated in cultural colonisation of host cities like Athens, and is there any way this can be avoided?

Writer, art historian and filmmaker Nana Oforiatta-Ayim discussing the need for building lasting institutions and how institutional habits must be broken in that same process. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

Speaker Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, art historian, filmmaker and initiator of the ANO Institute of Contemporary Arts in Accra, put forward another example of this dynamic: She had recently attended a curatorial symposium where, in an attempt to “de-colonise” an ethnographic museum, the organisers put forward what she called “a sacred, African object” (of unnamed origin) for the curators to respond to, without context. It was a gross example of what “de-colonising the institution” currently looks like.

The previous day, Charles Esche of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven had presented his attempts at the Van Abbemuseum to come to grips with The Netherlands’ colonial past by exhibiting, among other things, photos of people from previously colonised countries. The attempt at re-evaluating modernism by adding disenfranchised or otherwise “overlooked” positions is a strategy Esche recently also presented at in the project The Lost Museum at Munchmuseet on the Move – Kunsthall Oslo. The question is whether this, to use Esche’s language, is really an act of “de-modernising”? And is “de-colonising” a direct effect of “de-modernising”? Can a major Dutch museum “de-colonise” at all? I would have loved to see a third day build on these kinds of questions.

Plenum discussions aplenty. Here with curator Charles Esche of the Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

Can the freelancer really be free?

Humans of the Institution made visible a collective desire to circumvent the situations that structural precariousness produce, some of which get in the way of working ethically. Importantly, the attending crowd, most of which were high-profile professionals in the field, made that desire visible to each other. Expertly mediated by curators Anne Szefer Karlsen and Vivian Ziherl, Humans of the Institution was in this way talked about as “a first”.

Most participants seemed to agree that the figure of the freelance cultural worker is both a symptom of, and a possible agent within, the neoliberal market economy. Attempts were made to discuss the possibility for ethical work and fair working conditions within that agency. An option that was put forward by Rachel O’Reilly, curator of among others Asia Pacific Triennial, Brisbane and the 2017 Contour Biennale public program, was to refuse to work under unacceptable conditions, either by turning an unacceptable offer down, or by pulling out or boycotting.

Curator Rachel O’Reilly presents her joint position paper with Danny Butt on boycotting. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

When presenting the artist-led boycott of the 2015 Sidney Biennale, she emphasised that such acts should be carried out in a performative way and in public in order to be effective. O’Reilly framed this as the curators’ responsibility to recognise the “conditions on the ground”. However, several of the attending professionals responded that in the places or situations they work, one simply can’t afford to say no, because that would mean to have no work at all. O´Reilly also failed to include the efforts of the artists in that particular boycott, something “balcony caller” Lise Soskolne of W.A.G.E (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) took note of. She highlighted artist-organised work for ethical, sustainable and acceptable working conditions, and the coming expansion of W.A.G.E into what she called WAGENCY. This is to be an artist-organised boycott and strike support system for cultural workers that will provide financial, legal and symbolic support for those who find themselves in situations like the one O’Reilly described.

The seminar was divided into three days: two days of panels, and one for smaller working groups. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

Overall, the conversations did not often revolve around the work of artists, even if the organisers had included a variety of artists as speakers and art as on-stage “evening entertainment”. This was pointed out, both in plenum and in several private conversations, and one could question whether this group of cultural workers actually see artists as a useful resource in thinking about “the curatorial” at all. This seminar provided no answer to this pressing question.

Towards the end of the second day, as guards were lowered and codes of conduct became less restricting, it became clear that curators and art practitioners outside of Europe have a long history of denouncing the universalism of the colonial project. They consequently struggle with very different problems than their European colleagues. The bottom-up initiatives that the western curators called for in order to provide support for independent, critical and ethical curatorial work already by necessity exist in Athens, Colombia or Ghana – to name a few examples from the room. It was also pointed out that the mobility that participants commonly described as the gift of the freelancer requires a European passport. In other words; the current discourse about independent curating relies heavily on a western context. If this is a new realisation, it is a very important one that was made explicit by this seminar.

The organisers kept the atmosphere friendly and conversations on-point. Co-organiser Anne Szefer Karlsen is seen leading us through the program. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

Towards a future of freelance curating

By coincidence, I was led to think about the question implied in the title Whose Global, Whose Local? on the evening prior to the seminar. On my way to dinner, I happened upon a lively gathering in the street of Amsterdam. Music and laughter could be heard from afar and for a minute I felt joyous. I was rather quickly surrounded by the merry crowd, only to realise that I had walked into the infamous Zwarte Piet parade.

For those who don’t know: Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” is a prominent Dutch Christmas character. Each year he is celebrated with a parade where children and adults dress up in black-face. My joy turned to shock, then to grief and anger. It was ironic perhaps that I would spend two consecutive days in the warm loft of the Veem Haus, trying to get at what de-colonising could mean.

Mitchell Esajas presenting the exhibition Black & Revolutionary: The Story of Hermina and Otto Huiswoud at Vereniging Ons Suriname. Photo: Ina Hagen.

By the time I was introduced to the historic background of Zwarte Piet, it was the third and last day of Humans of the Institution. I was visiting the community centre New Urban Collective (NUC) as part of the working group I had signed up for. Mitchell Esajas, chair of NUC, told us that they have organised large-scale demonstrations against the Zwarte Piet parade in Amsterdam for the last couple of years. Their message is clear: Zwarte Piet is racist and unacceptable. It is, however, vigorously protected by the public under arguments like cultural heritage, and rhetoric like “the Netherlands was occupied by the Nazis during the war; because of that there is no racism”. The fact that this coincided with the seminar makes it a particularly potent image of the dissociation between conversations inside and outside of the field of curating art exhibitions. As much as the curators claim to “bridge the gap” between art and the public, it seems like we were presented with curatorial practices that are far removed from the streets, and closer to academia, law and bureaucracy than the artists themselves often are.

Curator Imara Limon presents the exhibition Black & Revolutionary: The Story of Hermina and Otto Huiswoud at Vereniging Ons Suriname, based on The Black Archive of New Urban Collective. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

The idea of the working group seemed to provide a way to mend a similar disconnection between theory and practice. The text produced by each of the working groups – with titles such as “Boycott & Mobilisation” and “Fees and Conditions” – are to be co-published with L’Internationale Online and delivered to the Mondriaan Fund. This was an interesting and important element of Humans of the Institution, a way to make the thinking produced in the seminars available and relevant to the rest of the field. I am surely not the only one who feels that events such as this seem to pop up from a similar starting point each time, only to disappear without a trace. Even when they are recorded, hours upon hours of video seem to rest online, never to be looked at again. Humans of the Institution was streamed live on Facebook, but an impressive effort was made to the long-term development of the field. In order to secure institutional accountability, the organisers had entered into an agreement with the Mondriaan Fund, who has agreed, not only to store the materials, but also to make it part of their future programme development. In this regard, Humans of the Institution suggested a new and productive way of thinking about the outcome of seminars.

Salsa lessons were available during lunch breaks, as a preparation to the danceable lecture by Ericka Florez, with Hernán Barón, held on Sunday evening. With the help of local salsa teachers and other dancers, Florez and Barón invited the Humans of the Institution to dance while the lecturers through its soundtrack analyse the drug trafficking conflict and its most difficult decade (80’s) in Colombia. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.

Building new structures of support

What could be learned from this seminar? Well, the freelance curator is not in crisis; this kind of terminology is not helpful. On the other hand, she can no longer claim to be an outsider. Curators need to take responsibility for having been agents of capitalism and contributors to the production of neo-colonial structures. Also in part perhaps for beeing too dependent on global mobility. Someone in the seminar aptly quoted the famous post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak: “Globalisation takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control”. The freelance curators gathered over these three days seemed personally invested in a future of ethical commitment to not only the past, but the present as well. As such, there is hope.

My conclusion from this experience is that a collective commitment to better working conditions, slower pace, smaller scale, emphasis on ethical responsibility and the denouncement of any claims to universality seems like the way to move forward. In this respect there is much to learn from artist initiatives, as exemplified by the participants W.A.G.E, Indigenous New York and Club Solo. The difference might be that the work of curators, unlike artists, is based on a very tricky kind of dependency on the institution, a dependency that artists constantly work to circumvent. If one truly is to work from the bottom up, one needs to step outside of the economy of recognition that fuels the art system at large. This is a bold and risky move that can only be made if an international support system of some kind is in place. Perhaps Humans of the Institution was one step towards a future where this can become a reality.

Lunch and dinner was provided each day in the spacious ground floor of Veem House for Performance. Photo: Tarona Leonora / Humans of the Institution.