Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Guided by Anger and Hope

Christian Ernsten talks with Charles Esche

Charles Esche is a leading intellectual in the contemporary scene of curators and museum people. His provoking work as the director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, as well as a curator of the Istanbul Biennale, addresses social concerns with a similar immediacy. His collaborations with artists focuses on enhancing some form of progressive change. Although the type of change he wishes to promote was not always obvious to me, I feel Esche is a guiding figure with an ideological agenda, a pioneer in artistic innovation. My interest in talking to him grew after reading his series of comments on Facebook and Skype, inserting his ideas in the current day ‘eculture’. We began the conversation, which took place in the Van Abbemuseum, addressing a quote from his skype account, ‘Thinking about anger and hope as the driving forces of change’.

Charles Esche: [laughs] Maybe it’s best to start with its source. The quote is from Tony Benn, a British politician, who for me was very fundamental. It’s actually taken from a video clip, and in extension says, ‘The world is changed, through anger at injustice and hope for something better’. It is through bringing together those paradoxical emotions that drive the wheel of possible progressive change. Anger drives the wheel of regressive change, and hope drives the wheel of utopian speculation – neither of which achieves anything on their own. Both are needed in order to start the motor of possibility working in the world. For me, it’s important to be angry at certain things. I think my anger extends from the micro-level– with the cynicism of many Dutch cultural people, for example – to the macro-level – towards the transparent injustices of the world that are produced by the globalisation we are meant to celebrate. The fact that we basically exported the 19th Century system of working class exploitation to other countries and we don’t connect our comfortable conditions here with that exploitation does make me angry. In the 19th Century people had to fight together against injustice and many rights were achieved, but now – due to globalization – we have to do it all over again on a global scale. Our current economic system seems to me mostly a backward step to the 19th century and I wish we could simply say: ‘Hey look! We‘ve done this before, and seen what it results in, so we know it doesn’t work!’ Lets’s just stop and think what we want.

Indeed Esche portrays himself as a man in the field of arts with a strong sense of mission. How is his work influenced by anger and hope?

Esche: I think on one level, it profoundly influences the choice of artists and subjects I am interested in. The artists I work with are often engaged with the paradoxes of the contemporary world. They have stories to tell that relate the way the media presents this globalized condition we experience on an everyday level. They attempt to take some aspects of the constant array of information that bombards us and which is incredibly difficult to filter, and they magnify it, slow it or capture it so we can reflect on it for a moment longer. I think we are overwhelmed by information at some quite deep level, our psychology isn’t prepared for it. Particularly my generation – but also the younger generation – still struggles to understand how to filter things out and art is one of the filtration systems that could be very important. In that sense, I have hope that we can learn new ways of seeing through art.

My personal anger and hope can be seen in exhibition projects like Forms of Resistance or Becoming Dutch, but it also focuses in the way that, for instance, the condition of post-1989 Western Europe is not addressed in terms of history and how we want to develop – it evokes a sense of complacency about our rights. You get this idea that our condition is about survival, simply carrying on, and maintaining the system around us. The hope is that we’ll get through to our pension, and the next generation will take over and solve the intractable problems. But we see that climate change and historical economic change– which I’m sure that my son who is 5 will be dealing with – are happening now, and, if we really live in a democracy, then we should be able to act to mitigate that. That failure has to lead you to question the system, I think.

But it’s not supposed to make you depressed. Anger should make you want to do something and that is where the hope arises. On a small level – the micro-political level – certain artistic projects do raise consciousness, and do change a state of complacency to a state of readiness and action. I think it’s a psychological change. I find it hard to be in agreement with people who think everything is ok in the world. I’m quite shocked when I come across people like that. I think the Netherlands has a higher percentage of people who think everything is fine, basically because things around look newer and cleaner than in most other places. But that’s quite a superficial analysis

Is this ‘big’ political story perhaps somewhat naïve? Are we really capable of distinguishing our desires and the emotions that drive us? What about fear as a force of change?

Esche: I think fear is almost always negative. I tend to talk in terms of progressive change and regressive change. Change brought about through fear or war is generally negative. Fortunately, if that happens, you still have anger and hope to try and look for future possibilities.

We are at war, declared by the West to the ‘rest’ in 2001, a war that was declared as being endless. We are at war now. Yet presently, how conscious are we of being at war? As a culture we are also said to be at war, in the so-called clash of civilisations, and I think the gaping hole where the demand for progressive change should be is very apparent. To me progressive change brings back notions of enlightenment, Marxist thinking to do with justice, with equality, with collectivity and global solidarity. I also refer to an idea of liberty, not personal liberty, but social liberty. These remain progressive values although they need to be reinterpreted, and translated according to economic and political conditions today. Nevertheless, I think these values have something to offer everybody.

On Facebook I read Esche quoting Boris Groys asking the question, ‘What would be the conditions for a new form of the avant-garde to emerge?’ His answer was, ‘I think for an avant-garde to begin, we need a collective sense of direction.’ Esche then asks, ‘How then can we express our common sense of direction? What formats? What forms of ethics and aesthetics? What ‘mass’ movements?’ From this I asked him, ‘Can you explain why it is important that we have a new avant-garde? And what according to you this collective sense of direction entails?’

Esche: They remain questions for me, that’s why I didn’t answer them [laughs]. I’m not sure that avant-garde is the right mode, the right language, and I’m not sure if I would use it myself. An important point is that the old avant-garde had a horizon which we have lost in the process of seeing real communism fail. Let’s imagine the avant-garde as a leading group followed by a mass that follows behind. According to Groys, the only way anyone knows that the avant garde is in the lead is because there is an imagined destination. If you take the destination away, which is what symbolically happened in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, then suddenly avant-garde becomes disorientated, eventually become just a minority amongst others. I think that’s a good explanation for why populist politicians have been so successful, or why the attack against the elites (which is continued by Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ronald Plasterk now) has been picked up by so many conservatives as well. The criticism of the so-called elite has a profound effect on our social mechanisms and how society might be inspired in a progressive direction because it replaces the call to intellectual inspiration with a battle between celebrities.

Do you think we need those avant-gardist platforms and horizons?

Esche: We need to wonder what makes us ask the more profound question about our social life and values. I think we cannot live anymore according to the ideas of the avant-garde’s grand narratives of an inevitable direction for the world – as laid out in Hegelian historical progression, which is at the heart of Marxism and the communist idea of revolution. I think from avant-gardists, we have become – or need to become – gardists. I think that means that you are working in and amongst the everyday mass of events and people, a kind of a blind mass that’s always moving, always changing, but not really with the sense of what the next step might be.

As an artist, I think you can make micro-suggestions or micro-projects, which affect your immediate environment and neighbours. You can have a kind of micro-avant-garde or micro-politics that focuses on the specifics of an issue, a group, an institution. That could be kind of avant-garde policy, except there isn’t an overarching ideology that connects it all together. You can only say, ‘I’m going to do or say what I believe is important here.’ You’re trying to give direction to a very particular local phenomenon.

Perhaps it’s that I’m of an age and upbringing that finds it difficult to think outside an ideological framework. A framework is very simple, it’s very comforting; I miss Marxism, I mourn for it. Yet, I also know it cannot be brought back in the form that it was.

Wired magazine announced in June this year ‘The New Socialism’ and posed that online social media, which originated from an open source standard – for example Wikipedia, Flickr and Twitter – is the vanguard of a cultural movement. From it a global collectivist society was to come. I asked Esche for a response.

Esche: Traditionally, in order for technology to function, you need to know what to do with it. Technology is just technique, and technique is the ‘how’, its not the ‘why’. I think from the Iranian revolution to our Facebook posts, social media is simply a mechanism to spread something that already exists. The Iranian’s attempt to overthrow a despotic clerical regime would hopefully be followed by thinking about what to replace it with. I find it difficult to believe that technology itself answers the ‘why’ question. What do you do once your connected? But connecting is itself a part of the way there, for sure

But then there’s the example of the Detroit artist-architect couple Design 99, who built their energy neutral Powerhouse, and before they could finish, it was picked up by media channels like CNN and The New York Times. The impact of the building, as a symbol or story for dealing with the crisis, has potentially become much bigger than it’s practical local usage. As far as I know, Design 99 didn’t aim for that.

Esche: But that’s a classic operation of an ideology, rather than a produce of technology. Ideology means you try to impose your view of reality onto a reality that’s already there. Ideology is a way or lens through which you see the phenomena in the world, and this is then how you interpret what happens. I see this building as ideological and that’s why it is so important and successful, I read it as a statement of a group of artists to want their city to be more than it is, or more than it is perceived. The difference is that ideology is traditionally related to big scales. I would argue that Design 99 work on a micro-ideological level thinking through the consequences of their life in Detroit and, in doing so they impose a certain idea on the reality around.

How does this effect their local environment? What kind of change is Design 99 enhancing?

Esche: It has an effect on the micro level on which they’re working. If you look at the transformation that is going on in Hamtramck, and if you look also at the art world, there’s an extraordinary sense of exuberance in the city – which works right down at the roots of community. Design 99 operates in the midst of a dramatic decline – which they can do nothing about. They will not solve GM’s collapse, but that was never their intention. To them it is about finding a way to live in the existing condition of their communities, with its existing problems. You can sit and be fearful, or you can sit and dream about moving to New York; or you can build a ‘Powerhouse’, which is a combination of anger and hope. Anger because this house is empty, the neighbourhood is insecure, kids lives are wasted but by building it and occupying their own house, or by inviting their friends to taking the one next door, they create the conditions of hope - and they change actual life omn the ground at the same time. Without Design 99 that neighbourhood would be a lot less interesting.

As published in Volume 22; The Guide (2009)62-65.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Design 99's Neighborhood Project

Starting yesterday, Design 99 took up residence in the Gibbs Gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts developing The Neighborhood Project.


It's a work-in-progress workshop where until 20 March the Power House neighborhood will interact with the museum visitors.






Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Power House Close-Up

The Power House is off the grid. Since the summer a wind mill on its roof and two solar panels are keeping the battery filled up. After their show in the Detroit Art Institute Design 99's Mitch and Gina plan to continue with the transformation of the house.

1. The Power House, view from Moran Street - you can see the windmill on the roof

2. The veranda

3. The backyard

4. The backyard, view from the back alley

5. View from the veranda into the former living room, future gallery room

6. The former kitchen

7. The former kitchen from the opposite angle

8. View up from the Basement

9. Room next to the gallery space

10. Back room, behind the former kitchen

11. The attic

12. The electricity system connecting the wind mill and solar panels to the battery

13. Looking into the second room from above

14. Floor detail

The back alley behind the Power House

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Speaking for Detroit

It has been quiet on the Unreal Estate front lately. After a tumultuous first year we have been focusing the last months on gathering funds for an artist –in – residency and making a publication, ‘The Atlas of Love and Hate’. This will be published as part of Volume magazine on 23 December. The relative calmness of the editorial work gave us time to reflect on all the discussions we had, on what the effects of our endeavor has been until now and on the criticism and positive feedback that we got.

1. Back in Mitch & Gina's homey kitchen, December 2009

One year of Unreal Estate

After the launch of the agency, studios were taught on Detroit’s Unreal Estate at the Dutch Art Institute (DAI) and the Architectural Department of the University of Michigan. Artists Mitch Cope and Marjectica Portc as well as architects Mireille Roddier and Michael Stanton came to the DAI to give lectures on American cities and on Detroit especially.

A two-week collaborative art project in Hamtramck took place in April. 12 artists, writers, architects and photographers lived for two weeks in the neighborhood. A final presentation at the Museum for Contemporary Art in Detroit (MOCAD) showed the work and discussions after two weeks. Artist Diederick Kraaijeveld started his beneficiary ‘Icons of Hope’ project and the curators of the Unreal Estate project initiated the research, which lead to the artist – in – residency and coop plan.

Before the studios started, Andrew Herscher and Mireille Roddier published on unreal estate in Volume # 18 ‘ After Zero’. On the side, I was engaged with ‘From Crisis to Project’ the Archis RSVP event in Warren, which had the ‘Warren Special Report’ published with Volume #20 as a first result. And the Netherlands Architecture Institute organized a roundtable discussion on the same topic with a contribution by Warren’s County Commissioner Toni Moceri. The City of Warren is initiating a discussion about its Master plan in January 2010.

2. The meadow in the winter, December 2009

Media spectacle

During the start up period of the Unreal Estate project Toby Barlow’s op-ed piece ‘For Sale: $100 Houses’ was published in The New York Times – more or less in the period of the crisis of GM and Chrysler. As a result there was significant media attention given to Detroit, its alternative real estate practices and the autonomous forms of living being developed there. Detroit was declared the ‘new’ Berlin. For example, Design 99 – Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope – and their Power House project received an amazing amount of public attention, artists from all over the US showed interest in moving to Detroit, and lots of people emailed us for information. In response to the near bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, several Dutch broadcasting channels and newspapers as well as photographers visited the city to portray ‘new’ forms of urban pioneering in the context of the decline of the automotive industry.

3. A to be started house project by the University of Michigan, December 2009

While Detroit was becoming a media spectacle, the artists and architects we worked with in Hamtramck tried to figure out in the short time frame of two weeks how to relate to and engage with this place. The media attention greatly complicated this very personal exploration. The artists felt pressure. Tensions rose during these two weeks between us, as curators, and the artists. Artist Jimini Hignett articulated her frustrations and dilemmas in an interesting way in her diary, which will be published in the ‘Love and Hate Atlas’. Here is a fragment:

'Do I want to be part of a setup where art-bytes seem to be more important than actual art? Where clearly the temporary façade is more important than any actual improvement – to be seen to be doing something more important than actually doing anything. This is a world I am usually at pains to avoid. No longer able to feel comfortable with a work ironic or cynical, or a sharp one-liner, I remain guiltily silent about my humorous word game – Destroit.' (Jimini Hignett, Volume 22 (Archis; Amsterdam 2009))

Additionally, artists Raymond Huizinga and Sasha Miljevic addressed their uneasiness working as artists in the city, and commented critically in public on the Detroit Unreal Estate project and its ambitions.

Questions were raised about a whole range of issues: our ideological agenda, our responsibilities as curators of the project, our organizational capacities and our group management skills. In hindsight, I can say we did underestimate the impact of bringing a group of individuals to a city as vast and strange as Detroit in the context of a project which was still in a research phase. Due to the fact that we’re social scientists by training and not artists our ways of engaging with the city differed as well. Moreover, living for a two week period in a neighborhood in despair was more overwhelming for most participants then we expected.

Later, I heard also comments from people outside of our group questioning our knowledge of the everyday life of the city as foreigners, or concerning our colleagues as in Ann Arbor – based academics.

4. The garden of the Power House, December 2009


At the end of the two-week period we, At the end of the two-week period, we were all exhausted, but there were some very interesting outcomes. Yet, there were also very interesting outcomes. Photographer Corine Vermeulen and curator Femke Lutgerink set up and executed a Walk-in Portrait Studio in Klinger Street inspired by the famous Walker Evens photograph of the License Photo Studio in New York; artist Lado Darakhevelidze did his ‘Future Postman’ performance and collected stories about Detroit’s future. Jimini created her work Speramus Meliora, for which she turned foraged plywood into a billboard with fret-worked words, which she then used to board up two charred houses. Finally, artist Monika Berenyi and graphic designer Cecilia Costa organized a poetry slam event with representatives of the famous generation of Detroit poets from the 60s and 70s. One of the highlights was definitely Melba Joyce Boyd's reading of her poem 'We want our city back', which inspired Joost Janmaat, me and architect Berenika Boberska to hang a self made chandelier above a recently cleaned out meadow on Moran Street. Mitch wrote a nice post on his blog on the ‘Euro invasion’.

5. The garden of the Power House, December 2009

Learning from Detroit
I remember a few conversations in Detroit with artists who participated in project. A photographer mentioned that while he knew that Detroit’s ruins had been photographed a zillion times, he could not resist shooting all the iconic pictures again. He felt after two weeks that he had barely enough time to understand photographically the effect of the spectacle of the ruined urban landscape let alone producing something ‘new’.

Another artist questioned her role as an outsider in Detroit, but also the effect of the Powerhouse project or Heidelberg project. She wondered how our engagement with the city was the result of the way you experienced the suffering of the place and its people. I also remember a discussion about Diederick Kraaijeveld’s art piece depicting an Afro-American woman and a discussion of his ‘see, buy, fly’ - making art method.

The agency of an individual artist or architect or more precisely the right to speak for the city, to reproduce, to use, to create the city is closely scrutinized when working in Detroit. Trying to understand this, as an outoftowner it seems that the knowledge of the city, the time you spend there, and where you lived, your working relation with the city, the way you engage socially, the racial group your part of, the things you do to make the city a better place, and the amount of money you make off that, are some of the guidelines for determining whether you have or have not the capacity to speak. Then obviously the question which guideline is most important depends from conversation partner to conversation partner.

6. Kerstin Niemann's house on Moran St, December 2009

The New Detroit?

Questions of ethics, and debates about appropriate ways of working in Detroit are old. Yet, everyone has to deal with their ongoing relevance. Cultivating awareness, is, at least, a good beginning.

The media spectacle and references to Berlin could to make the discussion more complex. The frivolous enthusiasm by newcomers for the potential of Detroit could add to the viability of the city, but at what costs?

Perhaps it can really be like curator Charles Esche suggested - that a group of ‘gardists’ might into existence. Individuals or groups that can set a strong course of action in their very local setting – investigating different ways of living and inspiring others to do the same. We can hope that new way of living is focused on improving Detroit for the sake of everyone who’s building a life here.

7. Tree of Heaven project garden, December 2009