In this article Paula Kohlmann and Mareen Wrobel, the organizers of the Soft Power Palace Festival, which took place in 2018, reflect on their experiences with the eleven-day program and the role that independent art spaces can play in finding new forms of power within the art system. What does independent mean, what forms of power do these initiatives have, and what role do they play in changing the artistic landscape of the 21st century? On the basis of various questions and photos of the event, the organizers question the importance and value of independent art spaces and how the festival has responded to this.
SOFT POWER PALACE – FESTIVAL ABOUT INDEPENDENT ART SPACES IN EUROPE
OCTOBER 29 — NOVEMBER 11, 2018
How important is the work of an independent art scene far from institutions for a society? What social and political power do art spaces and artistic initiatives have? How do they influence a city, a region, and perhaps even European thinking?
Under the name »Soft Power Palace – Festival about Independent Art Spaces in Europe,« the Akademie Schloss Solitude, along with the other partners of the art building network, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Theater Rampe, Merz Akademie, and ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) orchestrated a cultural exchange program in Stuttgart: Five artistic initiatives from five European cities worked for eleven days in a public process on perspectives for cross-European cultural exchange.
The festival’s goal was to accentuate the relevance of such self-organized, independent cultural institutions and to strengthen their transnational connections.
The work took place in open studios in the Kunstgebaüde, which invited the participants to engage in dialogue with the project participants. Each day ended with an event on the Open Stage, a space where planned programs but also spontaneous interactions and gigs from the local community took place. Anyone was invited to enter the open stage and take the mic. This ten day »laboratory of engagement« was followed by a three-day closing event: a festival with exhibitions, presentations, artist performances, a panel discussion, and an open discussion with citizens of Stuttgart. The festival’s goal was to accentuate the relevance of such self-organized, independent cultural institutions and to strengthen their transnational connections.
Where are we? What is this Soft Power Palace?
The Kunstgebäude building is a place located in the center of Stuttgart, which intends to make the city’s art accessible to the citizens. The building has done this in various functions, e.g. as the municipal gallery of the city of Stuttgart, but also when the premises were used by the Württembergischer Kunstverein until the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg needed a temporary location due to renovations.
Therefore, it was enlivened and used by art as well as politics.
During a so-called »interim phase« – which was planned by the Baden-Wuerttemberg Ministry of Science, Research and Art for two years starting in 2017, six art and cultural institutions used the Kunstgebäude for various projects. One of them was Soft Power Palace, initiated by the Akademie Schloss Solitude, and curated and coordinated by us. This is where our initiative comes in: we asked ourselves what are the motivations for organizing events in public spaces like this one, and who is supporting them with public funds? Who is the target group of possible events? And who benefits? Can something like profit or result be named here? Does it have to be? And if so, how can results be measured? What are the objective parameters for art and cultural events?
In contrast to »hard power,« whose means include money, laws, or the military, soft power uses art and culture, for example, to convey values and norms.
Visitor numbers? Number of newspaper articles? The diversity of nationalities of the participants? Instagram likes? A publication that appears afterwards? What interests are involved in such a place? Which criteria can be mentioned for this? Should the projects be forward-looking? Up-to-date? Or above all historically relevant? Sustainability or intervention? Blockbusters or criticism? Are both possible?
During our research and ideas for possible projects, we came across the term »soft power,« a poetic-sounding and seemingly contradictory term. The sociologist Joseph Nye used it in the late 1980s to describe the indirect influence that persuasion or diplomacy has on individuals, on a group or a society. In contrast to »hard power,« whose means include money, laws, or the military, soft power uses art and culture, for example, to convey values and norms. For example, political influence can be exerted on society by promoting certain music groups or by refraining from certain concerts.
The question is – as so often – who determines these values that are conveyed? To what extent do politicians, jury members, administrators, and curators represent their own interests and to what extent are cultural workers and artists part of this process of conveying values and norms? Are they aware of this?
Who influences whom?
When is art used (by whom)?
When is it appropriated?
And when does art appropriate something for itself?
These questions point to complex relationships between art, culture, politics, and society. The dynamics to be described here are related to power structures – power structures between large institutions on the one hand and the public sphere with its civil spaces on the other, i.e., among other things, with places of production and presentation in which social questions are raised.
We all know how sensitively these fields intertwine, how quickly an imbalance can arise through the shifting of power relations in these structures of a cultural space, which must always be rebalanced.
Artistic initiatives and so-called »independent« art spaces take on a special function here. They try out models of self-organization and thus test new methods of production, design, and exchange. They thus show how a process of thinking about new forms of social togetherness can be initiated with very limited resources. They are not tied to visitor numbers or an art market, and with their independent positions they have the possibility to look critically at processes within a society and to react to what is there at the moment; what is waiting to be worked on.
The idea of inviting precisely these independent art spaces into this palatial building means declaring this place a platform for exchange and discourse; for open questions.
All the initiatives we invited are artistic project spaces or collectives that operate at the interface between art, activism, production, social work, and art education. These 15 artists, producers, and curators, and we as organizers took over the rooms of this palace for 14 hours every day for 10 days, and transformed them into work, project, and laboratory spaces.
About the initiatives
Quim Packard and Angela Palacios from Fireplace in Barcelona have networked with local initiatives such as Stadtacker and Chloroplast, the Stadtlücken and the »Urban Sketching Group« and have held workshops on open spaces in Stuttgart. They came with their families, including small children, and thus conducted »Care Swap«: Exchange of mutual care and support.
Ardesia project from Milan are Benedetta Casagrande, Dimitri Dipolito, and Michele Amaglio. They have realized an interactive project with contemporary photographers and local experts: The curatorial project »Atlas of Forms« was born. Divided into two sections, »Fragments« and »Atlas,« the website collected, documented and re-elaborated their working process for Soft Power Palace: http://atlas.ardesiaprojects.com
Aether art space in Sofia, comprised of Voin de Voin and Marie Civicov, invited additional guests: Andrew Fremont-Smith and Despina Panagiotopoulou, who work on questions of European identity, the I and the Other, that is, »Becoming the other«: performative, theoretical, installative.
ZZ Studio from Lyon – Frederic Houvert and Simon Feydieu – have realized a joint exhibition with Stuttgart residents on the topic of »Sharing Skills,« i.e. the mutual teaching of certain methods.
GmbH, an association of various initiatives around the Nordbahnhof Areal in Stuttgart, represented here by Weiny Fitui and Marco Trotta, have held talk shows in their temporary television studio on questions of self-organization and how this is perceived in a society, including the currently very topical issue of the interim opera at Container City.
Every evening from 7pm onwards, we presented our open stage with an announced program, but we also allowed the possibility to get involved spontaneously. It was amazing how quickly word gets around in Stuttgart about open places, so the need for such places became clear: The last four evenings, bands performed, announcing themselves on very short notice. Spontaneous interactions took place.
During the day, interested people from Stuttgart came by intentionally or by chance, and visited the building with curiosity. The public thus also became part of the process that took place here.
An essential part of the daily internal work was exchanging ideas in intensive discussions about the conditions for artists and independent art spaces: about methods and strategies of artistic production, free spaces, studio rents, and cooperating with the economy or politics. In other words, we discussed independence and dependencies, and new possibilities of a common togetherness.
So what could be seen in the Soft Power Palace?
It was and still is a process. A movement. A social space. An opening. A niche, an in-between.
The special quality that results from this process was focused on becoming. It was an open and transparent state that resists any measurable, objective definition or attribution. Being in the process of being is a fragile structure, since it constantly changes its form. And raises questions.
This limbo of the in-between is strong, dynamic, hopeful, tender.
This way of being together creates resonating spaces for art. And art, in turn, creates spaces of social exchange.
The statical moment of the »palace«, i.e. the art building as a building, is transformed into a model of dynamics through the initiatives and their processual work in imaginative spaces.
This dynamic is unpredictable, playful, open, and unpredictable. An artistic intervention that can possibly be experienced as disturbance or irritation. It temporarily occupies this concrete place.
It is not easy to convey this. Likewise, such a process is difficult to plan.
It means accepting risks: As a sponsor, promoter, organizer, or artist. As a technician, as a construction helper, as affiliated gastronomy…
It is an admission of not knowing what will happen.
It was and is very special to bring this process into such museal and official spaces, in which quite often it is all about results.
Soft Power Palace instead was the attempt to focus on the unfinished, the experimental, the fragile and fluid process of producing art.
A project by: Akademie Schloss Solitude
In cooperation with the other partners of the Kunstgebäude Netzwerk.
Curation and project management: Paula Kohlmann & Mareen Wrobel
Supervision: Elke aus dem Moore
Graphic design: http://studiotillackknoell.com/
Special thanks to: Jean-Baptiste Joly
Main sponsor: Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts Baden-Württemberg
After the Festival in Stuttgart in 2018, we were invited into the Landesvertretung Baden-Württemberg, the »embassy« of Baden-Würrtemberg in Berlin, as well as to the Sofia Art week, organized by Aether Art Space, in 2019, to continue the project. Carrying on and extending the idea of »SOFT POWER PALACE – Festival about Independent Art Spaces in Europe« we changed our name to SOFT POWER PROJECTS.
SOFT POWER PROJECTS is initiated by Paula Kohlmann and Mareen Wrobel, and sees itself as a loose collective and a constantly growing network that works in various critical, open, and experimental formats to mediate between institutions and artistic initiatives and formulates questions about power structures in the art world.
Photos: Harald Voelkl