The exhaustion of being nice 

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2018

Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? is the title of the four-day long program organized by De Appel Curatorial Programme held in their new location Broedplaats Lely. The event’s name is taken from an article written by Martha Rosler, originally published in e-flux journal, wherein she investigates the social pressure to be nice that speaks “to a demand, in neoliberal economies, for the wholesale invention, performance, and perpetual grooming of a transactional self.” The Curatorial Programme reflected on this by means of panel discussions, performances, workshops and screenings to simultaneously investigate the “grey areas between ethics and etiquette.”

This final project by curators Mira Asriningtyas, Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti, Mateo Chacon-Pino, Shona Mei Findlay, Kati Ilves, and Fadwa Naamna stems from a series of research trips to Athens, Bucharest, Cluj and Budapest at the end of 2016. The excursions provoked self reflection and negotiation of the curator’s own ethical position within the contemporary art world. It is common that cultural producers are withstanding a 24/7 workday, underpaid profession labour, constant pressure to deliver, and perform the best possible version of the self, while being contained by the straitjacket of moral rules and behavioral standard. By means of this four-day long program, the curators aimed to deepen and open up this discussion to a wider group of art professionals. The program came to a close with a collective sleepover, The Night of Exhaustion and Exuberance, investigating the potential of collective sleeping as a gesture of resistance and appropriation of time and space. What are the possible modes of resistance and counter strategies? How can we reclaim autonomy?

Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? Day 1: The Art Blacklist. Panel – The Art Blacklist, introduced by De Appel Curatorial Programme with Gergő Horváth, Charlotte Van Buylaere, Apparatus 22 (Dragos Olea), Binna Choi, Jan Verwoert, moderated by Nat Muller 

The program kicked off with a performance and panel discussion dealing with “blacklisting” in the art world. Who is included and who is excluded from the cultural system? And who has the power to decide this? What followed was a survival strategy of being “nice”. Seeking for modes of expression and critique in order to navigate and survive this unfamiliar jungle, the panel discussed the example of the Bucharest Biennale in 2014, where such a blacklist was leaked.

The second day of the program related to these notions of inclusion and exclusion, mobility and new situations. Institutions, artists and curators are part of a new working culture where they are free flowing entities traveling to new situations in order to challenge the status quo and promote exchange. How can we engage at a deeper level when all we do is hop from one project to another, without thinking about the repercussions? What are the ethical boundaries and how to mediate between the host nation and pop-up exhibition? How does the cosmopolitan curator deal with the politics of representation? Documenta 14, Learning from Athens, was discussed as a case study where the tension between the host country and short lived art event became apparent. The title of the Athens Biennale says it all: Waiting for the Barbarians.

The final two days of the program prelude a turning point from the themes of ethics and etiquette to forms and strategies of resistance and agency against the neoliberal doctrine of ‘niceness.’ Therefore, it is worth to dig in a little deeper into these discussions.

Founding editor of e-flux journal, Brian Kuan Wood, provided a reading and deep analysis of his text Is it love?, originally published in e-flux journal in 2014. In this article, he wonders whether love can replace capital, and soon concludes that love is captured by capital. But his reading quickly shifts to the drastically changing political landscape since the publication of the article and its consequences for the art world. The recent “chic post-internet” Alt-Right and its left wing Alt-Left seem to present themselves as a kind of avant-garde conservatism with a kitschy and ironic “wink-wink attitude,” and turn out to be hard to grasp terms. It all adds to the feeling that life became something too blurry.

Workshop – “Behaviour as Strike: The Practice of “Presencelessness” with Ambra Pittoni & Paul-Flavien Enriquez-Sarano

What will the future hold? Will there be a collapse into fascism? A “Big Society,” where the contract between the government and the people is completely dissolved? The UK and that dreadful B-word seem to point to that direction, where the empire is dissolving on the in- and outside. The terrain has shifted so much that it is a hard time making statements. You never know whether the Alt-Right might employ your statements as click bait! Kuan Wood even speculated on the coming of nazi artists, who’s art will look familiar and interesting. The Berlin Biennale already played with this in their ads asking “Why should fascists have all the fun?” Soon, as Kuan Wood concludes, this will look un-ironic.

The same themes resonated in the panel discussion moderated by Jan Verwoert, when talking about the politics of dedication. Verwoert rightfully asked questions such as Why are we working/performing so hard? In who’s service are we performing? Until what extent are we complicit? What are we coopted by? and Where is the love? This search for love, which started in the reading group with Brian Kuan Wood, needs some grounding and stability in these times of blurriness. Maybe it is the proto-political, or the period before rationalization. Is love the solution? Apprehensive laughter fills the room.

Performance – Air Talking by Ambra Pittoni & Paul-Flavien Enriquez Sarano (with workshop participants) 

Verwoert goes on and states that everything revolves around delivering, especially in the art world. We have to deliver at all times, at all costs. Therefore, we perform as hell, causing exhaustion that ends up being the single thing that drives our perform-economy. There is always a sort of strange pull, someone or something that want something from you. And here lies the potential of care, despite the fact that the majority of the budget cuts were in the field of care, where art is also part of (curate, heal). The most important question which then follows: What is our agency to change that? The panelists are great examples of breaking out the messiness of neoliberalism by using re-imagined agency.

In precarious political times, the OFF-Biennale in Budapest was created out of pure necessity, as Tijana Stepanovic explains, and had to take self-responsibility and employ sustainability in order to survive. Vera May talked about making art to get things done and taking the undercommons as the space of activity. She re-conceptualized some neoliberal arms such as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ into the Buddhist ‘can’ and ‘cannot,’ leaving space open for possibilities. Yolande van der Heide from Casco, on the other hand, tried to overcome the ‘busyness’ by unlearning. Brian Kuan Wood ends the discussion with a speculative bedtime story before The Night of Exhaustion and Exuberance begins. An architect named Peter Green Peter Chang, finds himself where he already has been. And this re-entering from somewhere else, re-imagining agency/another field to act, taking re-ownership, seems to be the thread that runs through this event. It feels like we need to re-do something, like we need to get out of the blurriness that is our life, press the reset button, opt out and start over, but how? Is it radical imagination? Is it resistance? Or is it, perhaps, love?

Performance – Mavi Veloso for Open Avond(S)

For a program centered around the pressure to perform, the atmosphere of the event oozed a certain relaxedness. There was space for discussion, interaction, imagining and reflection on the themes without limitations. The curators succeeded in providing a platform to out all our frustrations as cultural producers, reflect on the areas we perform in and press that reset button collectively to consequently re-imagine and reflect on resistance and agency. Moreover, it was striking how the topics and questions raised also reflected back on De Appel’s own recent history and its practices. De Appel fought its own battles against budget cuts and the neoliberal pressure to perform. Their relocation to Broedplaats Lely and their new nomadic model of exhibition making is part of their strategy of survival. They occupy an otherwise empty space and create opportunities within that space into the experimental direction they aim for. With this event, they succeeded in doing that. The otherwise boring auditorium is turned into an arena where literally everything seemed to be possible. It became a podium for performances, ground for panel discussions, and platform for strikes, such as the one by Ambra Pittoni and Paul-Flavien Enriquez-Sarano who engaged the visitors in participating in their Air Talking in order to provoke consciousness of collective behavior. Even better, it is a space where a collective sleepover is possible to resists and appropriate space and time.

Performance – “Trans-actional Self” by Anastasia Shin

A participant observer describes the sleepover as “a third space: opting out of the traditional structures.” The Night of Exhaustion and Exuberance lasted from 23.00 until 8.00 in the morning, and consisted of a well curated program of screenings and performances connected to the earlier mentioned themes that flowed until the early morning. The sleepover was a resistance in itself. Occupying space and time, as a kind of “lock in,” resisting against - and simultaneously embracing - exhaustion, while being exposed to the exuberance of the performances. There was the eruption of a small dance party during one of the performances. Visitors came and went. There were performers starting their own micro-gatherings within the gathering. Of course, not all the participants were able to resist exhaustion and had to opt out of the night to find a sleeping place on one of the mattresses spread over the auditorium, because in the end, we’re only human.

banner photo is from 'The Night of Exhaustion and Exuberance', Performance – Arie de Fijter and Ksenia Perek for Open Avond(S).

Corine van Emmerik
is art historian

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2018