Last Friday I was travelling from Ghent to Arnhem. I entered the train cabin as travellers were either looking at their phones or their laptops. My eye was caught by a man of colour in a green coat sleeping next to a big plastic bag. The train conductor entered and checked everyone’s ticket, except for the man. When he was finished checking, he walked back to the man to ask him for his ticket. The man replied, he doesn’t have a train ticket but he would like to buy one now. Instead of giving the ticket, the conductor asked him for his identity papers. He didn’t have them. The conductor tells him that the law in the Netherlands is such that he can only give him a train ticket when this person can show his or her legitimacy. The conductor has a rather friendly voice, a sort of easy going tone. He looks at the man and asks him where he wants to go. The man doesn’t answer. The conductor says: the next station is Oss, let’s say this is where you want to go. The man thanks him. The conductor says he will stay in the cabin to check if the man will go out. After ten minutes the train is slowing down; some people are standing up, but the man stays seated. The tension rises in the cabin. People turn their heads to look at the man to see what he will do. The conductor, too, has his eyes on him. Five seconds after the train stops the man slowly stands up and walks out.
During this episode I felt ashamed. Though I realized that had it been another conductor it could have been far worse. At least he arrived to Oss and is hopefully a bit nearer to his destination. He didn’t get a fine, nor was he handed over to the police. The conductor decided to – in a country where it is forbidden to not have identity papers – let the man go. But the situation highly disturbed me. We Dutch citizens with our approved train cards and digital train apps all passed the system. We follow the rules as is expected of us. We fit. This man for probably a variety of reasons can’t. And he was immediately recognized as a bug and treated as such. Because he was something that doesn’t ordinarily belong. And we, the fitting ones, were all observing the shameful scene that unfolded before our eyes without doing anything. We were witnesses of the system that did its job and we did nothing to change its path.
There is another anecdote I’d like to share.
Recently I was on a bus tour with We Are Here. We Are Here is a refugee protest group that lives in the Netherlands for more then six years. They are people who don’t have identity papers but for different reasons cannot go back to their country of origin. They are too afraid and traumatized, they do not have identity papers, or their country of origin refuses them. The Dutch government does not provide these people with a solution and wordlessly but loudly asks them to disappear. Six years ago We Are Here decided to no longer hide and make this problem visible by starting a tent camp and later squatting different places. Today the problem stays unsolved. In the meantime, approximately one third of the group have gotten their papers, but the majority are still moving from squat to squat.
Visual artist Elke Uitentuis recently organized in collaboration with We Are Here the We Are Here Bus Tour. A three time, four-hour tour that visited all the main squatted buildings that We Are Here lived in these last six years.
I was present on the last one, two weeks ago. The three guides Sinan, Ahmed and Eric – all current or former members of We Are Here – narrated their former homes by telling the history of the buildings, the reactions of the owners and neighbours once it was squatted and sometimes personal anecdotes of events that happened in their lives while they lived there.
At almost every location we disembarked, we were greeted by people asking what we were doing there or we were met by huge fences and security systems that have been placed around the buildings. One of We Are Here’s latest squats is the Rudolf Dieselbuurt in Amsterdam where a judge decided that they had to leave in June 2018. These were little houses of housing corporation Ymere that were on a list to be demolished in order to build new ones.
When we stepped out of the bus to visit their former home, immediately someone came toward our guides and started shouting. It was a young man of colour, very agitated, looking only at our guides, as if we – the visitors of which most were Dutch and white – didn’t exist. The man shouted that it was illegal to be there, that this was private property and that the police have stated that nobody can access the area, all while we stood gathered on the public street. A friend of mine asked the man why he was only shouting at our guides, weren’t we also present? Another person said we had the right to be there as we were standing in a public area. The man said he was paid by Ymere to protect the empty housing block. I looked behind him and noticed two other guys sitting on plastic chairs. Some of the houses around us were still inhabited. People came by with their groceries, on their bikes, some people sat in their garden. There were no fences. Just these three guys sitting in front of one housing block that was empty since the beginning of June. I have seldom witnessed a more absurd and violent scene like this before, as if I could not believe we were really chased from a public street by three security guys.
So why am I sharing these two anecdotes and what does it have to do with art?
Both scenes show that this free protected world we live in, is a lot less free than we might think. It is free for those who conform to it, who fit into it and who are welcome. But it is unfree for those who are not. We live with a government who prefer to let Ymere pay for 24-7 security to protect empty houses, then take the risk of having refugees returning to utilise empty spaces.
A lot of people live without ever encountering the systemic violence that lies beneath this seemingly reliable social infrastructure. A lot of us use our time to work hard, conform to the rules and establish a comfortable life. I feel it is our duty as artists to reveal the violence that is hidden behind our privileges. We have to recognize it, show it and propose alternatives. This is not a pleasant thing to do. And there is no way back. Once you’ve recognized the patterns that create inequality on a daily basis you cannot ‘unsee’ it. And it is not an easy thing to do either, because every day absorbs us through our daily duties. Making money, paying our (often far too expensive) rent, making work, establishing ourselves as artists, showing we exist, showing we are doing good, establishing networks, etcetera.
We live in a world where there is no time and it’s probably one of the most powerful tools to disarm us. Without time, there is no space to observe, question, critique or oppose and there is no place in our minds to generate alternatives. Not only does this lack of time fundamentally depoliticize us, it makes us dysfunctional artists, because we no longer form an exception, but only produce what is already present and confirm the status quo.
Being an artist in my view means trying to resist to a lot of existing structures and values and protect those that are under pressure. Being an artist is never taking things for granted and claiming space for the vulnerable, the public, the inefficient, the marginalized, the poetry and the painful.
Hereby I’d like to share nine proposals for the artist of today. (And let’s forget about ‘young’, we’re all struggling and need each other across ages and generations.)
- Stop pleasing
We live in an era of pleasing. We want to be good pupils at school, we want to be successful citizens. We strive for a place in the centre and try to avoid the periphery. We want to please our teachers at art school. We want to be good artists. We want to fulfil the assignments. We do not want to fail. And we want to be liked.
But wanting to be likeable and doing things ‘correctly’ seldom makes you a good artist. Pleasing existing power hegemonies (outside and within the art world) doesn’t help you to articulate alternatives. ‘Penser, c’est dire non’, said Philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier better known as Alain, ‘Thinking is saying no’.
Have the courage to be unlikeable and difficult. Question the world and logics around you. Never accept easy answers.
Our former minister of education, culture and science Jet Bussemaker said: ‘Art, culture and society need each other. Not only because art offers us inspiration and contributes to our identity. Also because artists often use their work concretely to make the world better, more beautiful and more liveable.’
I would like to rephrase Bussemaker as following: Art, culture and society need each other because art looks critically at the world, reveals its ugly faces, provokes, hurts and uses artistic imagination to propose alternatives. Art fundamentally questions the status quo and departs from a fundamental belief that democracy needs alternatives in order to survive.
- Oppose competition, strive for solidarity
In contemporary societies being successful seems to be the ultimate goal. If you fail, it’s your fault. Hurrah for individualism. Neoliberal society tells you ‘this society has everything to offer if only you’re willing to grab it.’ Our economies are rooted in this logic of the competition.
As a child I hated sports. I always had stomach pain before gymnastics class began and I was very nervous. I hated games that were about winning and losing. I detested having to do exercises while others could watch how I did it. But most of the children around me seemed to be very good at it. They were sporty, flexible, courageous. They liked the idea of the game. They had been educated from a very early age that competition is a healthy trigger for running faster, jumping higher and going beyond our perceived competency. Their parents would shout next to the swimming pool or on the ski run, or at the hockey field that they could do it, they just had to believe in themselves. It creates children that understand that in order to surprise yourself you need healthy competition. To show yourself and your environment that you are capable of much more than you thought. And it is exactly this logic that repeats itself endlessly after primary school, secondary school and in society at large. The one who works the most efficiently and is willing to work the most hours will get the bonuses, will climb the ladder and reach the top.
In the art world this is unfortunately often no different. You’re encouraged to think about your own career and opportunities first and not to think for a larger community. You’re expected to critique society at large but you’re not supposed to question the hierarchies and systemic forms of precarity that are produced inside the art field and its institutions.
So, oppose competition. Start alliances, collectives, networks of solidarity. You’re stronger with others than alone. Read into the ‘richtlijn kunstenaarshonorarium’ of Platform BK, check the fair practice code, dare to ask for transparency when it comes to modes of production and payment. And demand a fair pay. Realize that every time you accept to be underpaid another person who asks for more will hear there are others that do it for less.
- Use the space of art to make things happen that otherwise would not be possible
Although I do not believe art is autonomous – as it depends on institutions and funds with their own agenda’s and it is constantly in relation to human beings that are part of this society – it does operate within exceptions. The weakness of art – ‘whatever, it is only art’ – is also its strength. I have developed projects including putting Europe on Trial for the violation of human rights in light of the current refugee policies, and a performance in an official theatre with undocumented people who are not allowed to work. These projects were possible because ‘it was just theatre’. The legal framework has a tendency to make exceptions for art. And different from politics, we do not have to reach consensus. Within art we do not have to ask for permission. We can just do it and act. And of course it is frustrating that it often stays captured within the artistic realm, but that doesn’t mean it will not continue to haunt reality. Art can be a pre-enactment: an exercise for the future that is still unknown to us but that the project might help to unfold.
- Poetry is a weapon too
I realize this talk is written from a political perspective. And it’s probably clear that I believe that art can make political difference, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t take the poetic quality of art very seriously. Living in the doctrine of quantification everything must be measurable. In every subsidy application we have to prove the outcome of our project in advance and are asked to articulate how the art work is going to improve the world. Society seems to have lost the belief that art is valuable in and of itself. However, it is not only art, also science, healthcare, education and a many other domains are suffering under the amount of bureaucracy and quantification. Values such as making contact, taking time, doing in depth research are being oppressed through the current distrust of everything that is funded with public money.
Abstraction has the capacity to escape the domination of quantification. It can produce a deep impact even though we are not able to fully grasp it. Poetry is inefficient and doesn’t strive for a clear goal but has been able to survive countless generations and help us give words to the human condition. Experimental musicians, abstract painters, contemporary dancers, poets… do not be discouraged by the insistence for art to have a clear outcome. Trust the value in abstraction. We need experimentation in a time where risks have become so unpopular.
- The idea of national identities is on the rise, let art be a tool that strives for plurality and multiplicity
Throughout Europe we see how national sentiment is growing: Sweden, France, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, Poland… Let art show how identities are fluid and always consist of multiple influences that stay in motion. Let art be a place in which we co-create between a diverseness of cultural, generational and sexual identities. Work with people who do not look like you. Discover what you have in common but do not hide the differences. Art can become a tool that can bridge different communities and become a weapon against segregation.
- Talk about the projects that you would like to realize as if they exist already
As artists our work deals with fiction and imagination. Let’s not only use these qualities in our work but in the entire way we position ourselves in the world. We may think that reality is real and art projects are not. But reality is an outcome of a permanent negotiation between ideas (that are not real yet) and actions. And democracy is nothing more than a constant dialogue between the here and now and the possible. So what is still fiction today might be reality tomorrow. We seem to forget that a lot of the things that we see as normal today – the right for women to vote, access to education for everyone, affordable public healthcare, pensions, social welfare etcetera – were once unthinkable. So never let yourself be discouraged by people saying your ideas are ‘unrealistic’ and use every time you present a new project as an exercise. Talk about possible works as if they already exist. Use fiction and bluffing as a tool to produce new realities.
- Don’t take rejection personally, it is part of the game
Selection is a large part of life. Job interviews are there to take certain people and not others. Auditions exist to find the right person. Institutions invite specific artists. We all choose certain exhibitions to see and not others. Or a certain partner and not another. This is not to say we shouldn’t always reflect upon the way we select and who we leave out, but even if we select more consciously and more progressively, we still select.
In the art world selection is everywhere: every subsidy application, every coffee meeting, every conference… The first time I got a rejection for my first independent art project I felt refused not only for this project but in my entire being. In my eyes the rejection of the fund told me I would never be able to create an interesting and relevant project in my life.
Never grant a fund or an institution such power. Don’t forget the people that make those decisions are influenced by a lot of factors not visible to us. Consider the agenda of the organisation… Perhaps they were tired while reading the text… Maybe the person judging the application has a certain allergy that the project relates to… Maybe there were too many applications and a lot of good ones had to be rejected… Maybe there is a certain art trend that your project doesn’t touch upon… etcetera etcetera.
Don’t stop believing in the project. Insist. Do not give up. It can take some time but at a certain point it will resonate somewhere and find it’s place. Look creatively. Sometimes the big fish aren’t the most interesting. Look broadly at which place could provide the most interesting conditions for the project.
- Do not let yourself be impressed by power (and do not think you’re powerless yourself)
We tend to look up to people. Often people in power. Gatekeepers. People that are successful, that ‘made it’. By the time you get closer to these people you’ll see that often a lot of coincidence made them reach the position they have. We tend to project on these people that they know how the world works. But once you see them operating in the field you realize they are humans like everyone else and probably half of the time don’t know exactly what they are doing either. Power is a performance. It’s an agreement. Someone is in power as long as we grant him or her this power. Try to see through it. Don’t let yourself be impressed too much. Perform your own power. It’s something you can exercise. Never think you’re powerless, you’re always capable of much more then what you think.
- Forge alliances with people outside the art world
We all suffer from the art bubble. The struggle for art to gain its independence didn’t only create positive consequences. Galleries, museums, theatres, they often seem to be too separate from the rest of society. Art should not only be for the ones who can afford it, or who had the right to education, or like to nourish themselves, art should be for everyone. Art is not to entertain but a way to reflect and give meaning to the world as does science, journalism, religion, education and politics. So forge alliances with people from other domains. Co-create with social workers, trade unions, garbage collectors, biologists, activists, politicians, media and healthcare. Find people that share the same interests, questions or urgencies and collaborate. Use each others knowledge. Reach out not only to audiences in art spaces but to people in universities, cultural centres, conferences and in public squares. Only through exchange and co-authorship can we place art back in the heart of society.
Dear artists of the world, question each other and the systems we operate within, critically, form networks of solidarity to counter precarity, make work you believe in and unite.