Janina Fritz - 'Why Oracle Now – on grief, craft & foresight' - Laurel Project Space

‘Practicing empathy’ ­– in conversation with Laurel Project Space

Issue no4
aug - sep 2021
Onbeperkt toegankelijk & Eindexamens 2021

Six young womxn run Laurel Project Space: a queer, feminist and safe space that puts care at the forefront of its agenda. Their current exhibition Why Oracle Nowon grief, craft & foresight is on view until coming Sunday. Gitka te Poel meets the collective and asks them about their dreams and ambitions.

While looking for a job as a recent graduate, I regularly pitched the concept of a podcast to potential new employers. I thought of it as an attractive alternative way of telling a story differently. After a few interviews I was eventually faced with the question I knew was coming all along, but I didn’t know how to answer. “Why”, I was asked, “is everybody so hung up on podcasts? I really do not get the appeal.” I babbled something about podcasts being a multisensory medium and therefore able to provide a more intimate experience than books. The interviewer took in my answer, slowly and thoughtfully. I suddenly felt as if this person was a judge at a cooking contest and I was the dish being served. While she was grinding my words between her teeth, her colleague said: “Everyone listens to podcasts because they allow you to spend your time as usefully as possible. Household chores transform into a meaningful undertaking when you gain a broader historical understanding or explore literature classics.”

My conversation about care and curating with Laurel Project Space was inspired by a podcast that I, ironically, listened to while cleaning the kitchen. Laurel is a feminist collective of six young members who strive towards creating a safe space. I wonder what it means for them to make Laurel a ‘safe space’, and how they aim to achieve this in today’s art world? What are the ethical demands put on the participating artists? How do these values resonate with the way Laurel organizes itself? And how does accountability come into play when you work side by side, as equals? Or, as Persis Bekkering tells me whilst I’m scrubbing my dishes: “[…] I keep thinking and reading until the contradiction between individual autonomy and collective strength has disappeared. What's good for me should be good for others too.”[1]

Laurel Project Space

Anto López Espinosa in 'Our Seas Are What We Make of Them' - Laurel Project Space

Baratto Mouravas in 'Our Seas Are What We Make of Them' - Laurel Project Space

Three out of six members ­–­Juliet Aaltonen, Kleoniki Stanich and Pamela Mann, who form the team together with Elena Giolo & Moa Holgersson – ­ wave to me from their quiet living room backdrops. We meet online in the midst of the build-up of their new exhibition Why Oracle Nowon grief, craft & foresight. I expected the three to be all snuggled up together on a couch calling in from the project space, located since the beginning of this year in a beautiful and large building in Watergraafsmeer, Amsterdam-Oost. Despite the pandemic I still immediately envision the coziness of a collective. “Unfortunately,”, they explain to me, “we are dealing with an unstable internet connection over there.” They enthusiastically take me on a virtual audiotour and talk me through all the possibilities the building has had to offer. Thus far it seems unreliable Wi-Fi might be the only flaw of their workspace.

The building offers seventeen artists an individual studio and a spacious collective area upstairs. It’s constructed according to the well-known aesthetics of “Amsterdam School” and has a monumental façade. Both the studios and the set-up for the shows are spacious, making the building corona proof and fit for the 1.5-meter society. It allowed Laurel to continue to (physically) work together as a collective. Ever since the success of the first show in this building ­–in which they explored the former function of the building as a telephone exchange from their distinctive feminist and intersectional point of view­– requests have been pouring in. “We got overwhelmed by the number of applications we received from bona fide institutes and private initiatives.” It led to the conscious choice of undertaking small-scale collaborations instead with only one to six underexposed and lesser-known collectives and artists at a time: “These groups or individuals have limited means. We want to support initiatives by makers and other artists that can benefit both from our digital platform on Instagram and our on-site space in Watergraafsmeer. We can give something to them in a way that is not overwhelming for us and that won’t burn us out.”

Laurel makes decisions in close consultation and fosters unconventional choices. Fresh as they might be, the six artists are already capable of making bold and sharp choices. However, despite their sharp formulations and ability of articulating theory and practice the collective is still on a constant quest to placing and maintaining the practice of care at the core of every move they make. This relates to both the organizational structure as well as the decision to invite members of the public into the exhibition space. This requires everybody involved to be very flexible at all times, fluid almost. Or as Laurel puts it: “Practicing empathy and receiving empathy allows you to exceed the mere individual.”

Laurel is very keen on showing artists who in the dominantly patriarchal art world are underexposed, completely disregarded or even maligned

Kristina Õllek and Sara Millio in 'Our Seas Are What We Make of Them' - Laurel Project Space

 

Bernardo Zanotta in 'Why Oracle Now – on grief, craft & foresight' - Laurel Project Space

When trying to puncture the organizational structures of Laurel this modus operandi requires a certain line of flexible thinking on my part. This means getting rid of fixed ideas concerning running an organization, such as a clear division of roles and a hierarchical organizational structure. When I ask them if they intentionally organized their collective around gender and gender expression, they tell me that they “haven’t issued an explicit call in that direction”. This doesn’t equate to not carrying out a specific agenda. “Feminism, being queer, abuse of power – those are all topics that are very much on the table.” Why Oracle Now for example - the exhibition currently on view – reframes the voices of fellow contemporary artists as Oracles, exploiting the idea of foresight as female craft.

The first year of Laurel Project Space took place at a different location in Amsterdam-West. There they could experiment with sharing space as both a way of bringing in money and provide other artists with an opportunity to showcase their craft. “We realized that the front of the building could possibly function as a project space. It was a quite dark and not suitable as a studio, but very much so for larger and messier projects. We would host events here of up to four days, would serve drinks and use the money to fix the place. It was a very informal system which provided us with the opportunity to share both skills and tools with other artists.”

Now with the new location and funded by AFK and the municipality of Amsterdam, they have entered a new phase – “Laurel 2.0”, as they call it – but still want “to grow their own world”. One that focuses on notions of care: a shared understanding of being responsible for each other in a soft manner, creating space for fluidness and defined choices alike.

“In the very beginning we were meeting each Friday, discussing our dreams and goals. Recently we felt like we needed to compromise in order to participate in the artworld – the various degrees of collective trauma have affected us all – and we didn’t feel like we could thrive in our full capacity. Laurel Project Space is an opportunity to build something that is fits our core ideas and does justice to ourselves and others.”

Clémence Lollia Hilaire - 'Why Oracle Now – on grief, craft & foresight' - Laurel Project Space

Clémence Lollia Hilaire - 'Why Oracle Now – on grief, craft & foresight' - Laurel Project Space 

The idea of caring for each other and others is the driving force behind all of Laurel's decisions, regardless of what form the collective might take over time: “We imagine Laurel continuing either as it is now at a relatively stable location, or otherwise being nomadic and working with and reacting to locations and their histories. The team may grow or change and how we'll work with artists in the near future is also not set in stone. We have been talking about the possibility of artists residencies.” Transformation is welcome as long as the collective remains at the core anti-institutional: “The recent NRC article regarding power abuse and transgression in the Dutch art world has affected our community strongly. We feel the need to even more explicitly hold each other accountable.” Their hope is that this attitude will also inspire the endeavors of other art institutions.

Laurel thoroughly constructed their vision during the long and quiet winter of the second lockdown in The Netherlands when they suddenly realized the possible impact of the impending visitors on their goal to provide a safe space for themselves and the participating artists. A long and intensive conversation follows. “In a weird way corona made things easier” they tell me. “Maximum three visitors present at the same time means small controllable amounts. We have an email-address, we have a name; we have to handle every visit according to the current measures. But how do we go about suddenly having a hundred or two hundred visitors and still remain a space where people feel safe? This is a complex question, to which we can’t provide an answer right away. It’ll probably mean we’ll keep having this conversation, sitting down together to reevaluate after every event. Do we want to keep to operate the space the same way, even when everything fully re-opens again?”

They are very keen on showing artists who in the dominantly patriarchal art world are underexposed, completely disregarded or even maligned. The well-being of the artist is at least as important as the work that the artist brings with them. Financially, this means that Laurel pays their artists and provides them with a partial material fee. But making an artist feel comfortable entails so much more than fair pay. Is it possible to formulate a methodology that stretches beyond the individual needs and still benefits every participant in terms of care and safety? Laurel looks to other queer spaces for answers.

Janina Fritz - 'Why Oracle Now – on grief, craft & foresight' - Laurel Project Space

“How do you stay vigilant? How do you keep an eye on each other? How do you select artists for a potential collaboration? Have there been transgressions with certain people in the past that others did not yet know about? In any case, institutionalized art institutions do not shed any clear light on this difficult issue: “Our experience working within institutions thus far has not been great in terms of care and safety", they tell me. Now we are constantly trying to work on this.”

It strikes me as an exhausting and constant balancing trick. Trying to put notions of care at the forefront of your agenda requires you to genuinely listen to others even when you are not spoken to. It requires a type of assertiveness that is needed to proactively explore any assumptions. But perhaps, when having dealt with trauma, alertness is inherited. And when this careful and alert attitude is used to provide a safe space, it can be fruitful. “Not being exclusive and providing a safe environment? That is very, very difficult. The goal is not to exclude people, but the goal is feeling safe.’

For more information visit https://www.laurelprojectspace.com.

Why Oracle Nowon grief, craft & foresight is on view until May 16th. Book a timeslot here: https://on.sprintful.com/why-oracle-now.

[1] https://www.de-gids.nl/podcast, aflevering 43, Atomen, Persis Bekkering 

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