Art as the Alien, February 2005, by Charlotte Brüel

Open letter to the Danish Minister of Culture, 26.4.04
Unionising?A workshop based on Danish / Brittish collaboration

"Surveiller", an exhibition by Una Walker.
by Becky Shaw

Art as the Alien

By Charlotte Brüel

Chairperson of EVAN, European Visual Artists Network,
and editor of Visual Art Politics, www.visualartpolitics

Visual art, like all other creative art, needs to be considered in the social perspective. In this context I will not distinguish between the engagement – or lack of engagement – of the state and civil society.
The segment of the public that follows visual art in fact shows no loyalty towards such art. Only a small minority among the visual-arts public assumes any economic responsibility for ensuring that the art that interests them can be created. Who are actually the ‘stakeholders’ in visual art?

For example, there are no purchasers or any other kind of funding for the kind of art that cannot be bought directly by the state or large companies as office decoration, or by private individuals to decorate their homes, along with all sorts of other aesthetic or venerational marking of people’s dwellings. (We are disregarding the fact that artists who base their creative work on the above-mentioned kind of artistic expression have no great turnover either!).

Exhibitions are viewed against payment that is more like the price of a bus or subway ticket than a fee for the production of art.
The exhibition visitors one meets are informing themselves, rather than engaging themselves.
They ‘surf’ or browse a little here and there. Very few actually buy a work – a ‘website’, to stick with the analogy.

Much of visual art is more expensive to produce than the artists, with the incomes they have, are able to fund on their own.
Hardly any other independent entrepreneurs – among whom we can class visual artists – can exist without a certain advertising budget; without advertising, or at least – for the small craftsmen – a network built up over years, through which new customers can be referred to them.

Today visual art exists in a strange vacuum, partly created by myths.
One such myth could be that all important contemporary art is funded by the National Arts Foundation and other foundations.
Another is that there are still patrons of the arts – yet another myth that has long since passed its sell-by date; but it would be very nice if it could pass from mythic status into a new, contemporary reality!
Another is that visual art is all commercial – so much so that the producer, the artist behind the works, is filthy rich.
A more objective and serious obstacle is perhaps that among members of the public there is a kind of odd helplessness: how do we go about it when the work is a scenographically built-up installation or a video work presented in a smallish cinema – and there is no ‘poor-box’ beside the artist’s name? Or if the work is a performance or a plan for a kind of political action?
And how do you assume a share of economic responsibility for ensuring that contemporary art can be created, when the everyday life of the household is so financially straitened by unemployment at one end of the spectrum and conformity to material norms – expensive cars, the latest TV technology, designer clothes and purchase-taxed comestibles – at the other?

Does a consumer culture or society have any room at all for visual art and its somewhat research-like activities?
How do you get over the suspicion that an art that can’t ‘makes its own way’ is an immature, spoilt, ‘alien’ entity?
For after all, you find visual creativity in advertisements and in film, in illustrations and children’s drawings. What are we actually to do with the artists’ strange insistence on their own justification?

In a way it is paradoxical: in a consumer society where people acquire an almost end-less flow of useless widgets and costly furnishings that they throw away the next season, why can’t they afford amidst all that restlessness to buy the chance to wonder, the challenge to their combinatory capacities, or whatever it is that visual art can give its public?
When it comes to art, uselessness is seen as a threat – the objects are alien and the creators of art are threatening in all their alienness.

In a society that is more and more divided up into categories and professions, it takes less and less for something or someone to be considered alien. Even small departures from your own – wage-earning? – lifestyle are experienced as disquieting, perhaps even threatening.
And when the alienness not only comes from a small peripheral corner of art, but suddenly comes from ‘ordinary’ people who are from a culture that was remote ‘just ten minutes ago’, then we might as well stand together and reject the idea of state support for these un-Danish, un-Swedish, un-Dutch, un-French, un-European, un-Christian, bother-some people who insist on a different view of life than the one we immediately understand, without wearing out our already stress-fraught capacity for empathy.

The rejection with which faces contemporary creative art and free research are met is quite in line with the contempt for foreigners to which Islamic immigrants and refugees in particular are subjected in the European societies.
It is profoundly irritating that so few people have realized in time that the state could send a signal to its citizens with a demand for openness towards the artists’ ‘alien’ enterprises, which means that the prospect of getting the population to make an effort to integrate the foreign or alien in their lives has almost dimmed into nothing.

Now the aliens – the artists as well as the immigrants – are being met with a demand that they should adapt to the lifestyle of the majority, a lifestyle that has gradually been imposed on them behind their backs as the only road to bliss, because of the peculiar, strong inertia that is at present built into the domination of the planet by the ‘growth economies’.

Our societies can really no longer afford to neglect the potential of art as mental potty-training – or empathy-training, to put it more respectably and accurately. There are few places where we can find better safety valves for living out the idiosyncrasies borne up by feelings of both hatred and love.
If the murderer of the film director Theo van Gogh had understood the communicative nature of art, he would never have had to become a murderer.
If he had been taught about the highly remedial value of symbolic language he would not have had to act so desolately, unimaginatively and grimly. Murder is the least articulated action that mankind can take, and therefore in its own way so horribly easy an option. That is why an adult, socially committed duty to develop the human imagination – in which empathy for example is allowed to develop – is an expression of a political responsibility that the policy-makers of Europe can no longer afford to ignore.

Visual art, this apparently small, inferior art, involves elements that justify its role as a catalyst ensuring that a new, constructive art-policy discussion of the kind of society we have to develop in the decades ahead can begin.

“Kunsten som fremmedhed” / “Art as the Alien” is translated from Danish by James Manley. Danish version brought in BKF-Journal, February 2005.

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Open letter to the Danish Minister of Culture

by Cai Ulrich von Platen, Chairman of BKF, Billedkunstnernes Forbund / The Association of Visual Artists in Denmark

Dear Brian Mikkelsen.

You have in connection with the presentation of the “guide lines” for your culture policy declaired in the papers, that we have too many artists, and that the support of the sate to the artists, shall not be used for the broad “underwood” of young people, who want to be artists, but for the élite.

Due to the interview in “Politiken” the 23rd of April you do not have the area of education in mind, because there you find, that space for talent care especially is needed.

It cannot either be the area of hobby and work of amateurs, which following the legislation is not at all under the wings of state culture support.

You must find, that the Danish State Foundation and the Art Council have given too much support to amateurs, trying to pretend being professional artists.

As all - and especially the artists in the professional working groups - know, this it is not at all the idea of the state support for artists, must it be a clear criticism of the professionalism of the “arm’s length” organs.

But you do not only criticise. You will, as seen in “Politiken”, personally take care that the support is distributed more selectively and based on quality criterions.

In such case you will have to directly intervene in the professional decisions of the committees, and by that you remove all the basis of the arms length principle.

What you point at as a solution, with the, after your opinion far too many artists, who only “survive” because of the state support, is a break of any professional judgment, that support for the middle level and younger experimenting artists are a necessary investment, to secure that an élite at all can be developed at this area. Your idea that in the future only one level of quality, the level of the élite, must be basis for the distribution of state funding, usher a slow death for Danish art and culture.

If you should bring your ideas about the elitarian into being, you have two possibilities:

Either you are to take care that the professionals, delivering the money, have the “right” understandig of levels, or you yourself must take the baton and become Denmark’s arbiter of taste number one.*

None of those too scenarios are very likely - luckily. So far legislation secure a reasonable autonomy for the arms length committees. We shall rather understand your cowboy style as a gesture signalizing ability of action and “no mercy”. But never the less, it is unbelievable, that you yourself choose exactly this lead as a follow up to your culture political proposal, which also was containing an invitation to dialogue with the young artists, who are going to live with your visions. The really worrying is your lack of respect for the professional competence of the judgment of the artists, concerning what is needed to maintain and develop the arts. There is not - and ought not to be, in the political system an expectation, that a minister can be professionally omniscient within his or her field of responsibility.

We have mentioned that the administrative co-ordination of The State Foundation and The Art Council and the close down of Center for Danish Visual Art (International exhibitions etc., CB), also is an expression of a centralization and disregard of our professional competence. Gradually an unpromissing pattern is emerging for the future collaboration.

All of us take interest in seeing a flourishing art - and life of culture. And probably we can agree, too, that the state is playing an important part in this case. But if you as minister see yourself, as the one who hard-nosed shall divide the artists position in elite and the scum, you will “shoot your own foot”. Reality is not like this.

Yours sincerely

Cai Ulrich v. Platen
Chairman of The Danish Visual Artists Association

(Translated by C.Brüel)

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A workshop based on Danish / Brittish collaboration

It is commonly accepted that artists and other cultural workers are lagging way behind other workers in confronting the terms and conditions in which their labour/knowledge/lives are defined by and converted into capital. Many still work within a largely uncharted and unregulated territory dominated by robber capitalism and winner-take-all economies - subject to the whim of gallery owners, star collectors, globe-trotting curators and marketing consultants. Others working in the subsidised zones of the state and its subsidiaries live the dream of artistic autonomy while the bureaucratic treadmill colonises body and brain, demanding a steady output of outputs, from skills acquired to individuals enlightened.

This situation can also be viewed another way: art workers embody an idealised future within late capitalist production - atomised, disorganised, going from contract to contract, they are emblematic of the new migrant, precarious and service-based workforce in the global economy. Are art-workers then inadvertently legitimising repressive work conditions - becoming the model by which the neoliberal economy defines labour - or could they instead spearhead a new delegitimised approach: going for the money but refusing work?

Can new forms of international co-operation and organisation be created that bring together the collective struggles of art-, knowledge-, service- and other precarious workers? Can we, through a critique of work, point to new practices where work and political action are integrated? Is it possible to go against the tide of the neoliberal economy and reintroduce, redefine terms such as solidarity, worker power and community within the context of cultural and service based industries? Does the cultural worker share interests with the call centre worker for example? Is a Knowledge Workers Union an option?

The participants in the workshop will be looking into these questions and more in discussions, screenings, performances, excursions, debates, etc..

Unionising Workshop at Flaxman Lodge, June 7-13 2004

A week of research, screenings, discussion and production: On the AU in England (1971-1974), the UKK* in Denmark (2002-2004) and a proposed Knowledge Workers Union.

Organised by Jakob Jakobsen in collaboration with Emma Hedditch, Marina Vishmidt, Anthony Davies, Karoline H. Larsen, Kristina Ask and Flaxman Lodge at:

Flaxman Lodge, Flaxman Terrace, London WC1H 9AW.
Tel: 020 7692 1693

*) UKK is an organization for young visual artists and art curators / art historians in Denmark, founded May 2002, as a consequence of frustration due to lack of initiative from the existing organizations for visual artists, when the new (Nov. 2001) right winged government, rather soon after they took over did declair “kulturkamp” / “culture fight” - not fighting for the artists, but it seemed against us. The situation changed somewhat drastically after the former Social Democrats and Left Radicals (a center party!) had been governing through 9 years, at least with vague interest in the working conditions of the (visual) artists.
UKK is a product of generational opposition, and has in its statutes a clause telling, that “young” is understood as “15 years after finished education at the academies of art”. When you reach this age of your professional life you will loose normal membership, and only be able to be associated member, with no right to put proposals or to vote at to the annual general assembly of UKK.
But UKK also work proactively with political initiatives which middle-aged and older visual artists can profit from objectively.
The generation fight is more a simple question of raising issues, which the older artists did not seem to see the importance of having raised fast enough - may be for the simple reason, that only few artists generally are aware of the working conditions for artists following other professional strategies, than their own!

**) “Venstre” in direct translation: “left”, but the party is liberal and rightwinged, and “De konservative” :”The conservative”.

(Comments by C.Brüel)

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"Surveiller", an exhibition by Una Walker.
By Becky Shaw

For the 'Surveiller' exhibition Una Walker has created a database of exhibitions that have taken place in Belfast through the period 1968 -2001 principally sourced from publications. The database is a central element to the installation work and also functions as a preface to the Golden Thread Gallery's 'Collective Histories' series of Northern Irish Contemporary Visual Art.

Artist Una Walker spent 128 days, approximately 1,280 hours, producing an inventory of art exhibitions in Belfast from March 1968 to March 2001. The chronology, presented on gallery walls, and as a searchable database in an office, attempts to document the length, type, title,venue and media source of every artist’s show. Surveiller is‘justa list’, but like many things that are ‘just lists’ it creates and communicates power structures and opposes the experience of those ‘who were there at the time’ with larger and longer patterns.

The database presents fact: when, where, what and who. It does not distinguish the art listed according to quality, content or reputation, nor does it provide any visual information. We expect art to be emotive and subjective, so to subject art to this analysis seems stark and reductive. However the tension between objective and subjective, or observer and subject, is inherent in surveillance, and, like all good data collection, this inventory reveals much. The information presents art as a type of social activity, subject to the influence of politics and economics. For example, in 1974 there was notably fewer exhibitions. The list shows there were only five active galleries, others being decommissioned through bombing. In contrast, in 1994, the year of the cease-fire, galleries were busy. The increase in galleries and shows in the recent years is notable, reflecting the growing faith in culture as a tool for economic regeneration. Many new commercial galleries have opened, evidence of the greater spending power of the culturally literate.

Walker documents more than just the artists, she forms an inventory of all the players in the art process. Galleries, shows, and the sources of wider broadcast, publications, listings and reviews are linked together, key components in the social production of the artist and the artwork. In the example of 1974, it seems that while artists may have been making work, the very mechanisms of broadcast were out of action, the means of communicating a public identity stifled.

It might seem that Walker is performing a generous service for her fellow artists, placing them in official histories where they were previously invisible. However, the aim of Surveiller isn’t to valorise individuals but to reveal the mechanisms which make practices visible and effective. The list is as accurate as possible, but it relies on the very media sources it also represents, amplifying any effects of misinformation. It is noticeable that none of Walker’s information sources are from outside Ireland. It seems that scanning the UK or international art press during this period was pointless as so little about art in Ireland was published. The sheer mass of internal artistic circulation in Belfast during this period is overwhelming and the person who surveys this information can’t help but wonder what return any of them received from their work.

This card shows Walker as a secretary, filing late at night. The image is a re-presentation of one of Victor Burgin’s ‘Office at Night’ photographs. Contrary to Burgin’s intention to expose the exploitation of women workers, Walker’s administrative role is not servile. In Surveiller Walker is an amasser of information and a controller of data. Far from being atavistic, Surveiller gives Walker a position of power to represent her colleagues and reduce them to data. The time period presented here is a time of surveillance and controlled media representation. Surveiller reflects this oppression by turning inwards and broadcasting these mechanisms. The artist makes her work out of watching and recording artists, the gallery makes its exhibition out of recording exhibitions and the viewer watches themselves surveying the data.

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