As he was leaving art school, Leon Filter asked himself what kind of conditions he’d need to work as an artist without ending up in isolation. Joining forces with other artists facing the same situation, he developed different methods of researching, exchanging ideas on work and needs, and connecting without becoming one voice.
A residency director once told me: »An institution should be like a mother who’s not too good.« He repeated, »It should be good, but not too good!« I understood him as hinting at the limits of actual helpfulness of support, implying forms of self-sustainable organization instead of dependency. I remembered this comparison a year before graduating from art school while organizing myself and imagining what long-term artistic practice would require, as well as wondering how to produce the conditions necessary to maintain it.
Keep The Conversation Going is a framework that is activated by its collaborators and relies completely on their dynamic.
I invited another artist that I was collaborating with at that time to invite someone herself to a one-year »self-organizing« graduate structure. Instead of talking about »self-organized« structures, I am staying in the present with my description, because nothing substantial was set when we started and because we still come up with solutions as we process our needs. I started collaborating with Flora Woudstra and Valentina Curandi, whom I both knew from the Dutch Art Institute (DAI) with several conversations around our practices and their conditions. This subsequently led to several propositions to meet those conditions.
The conversation around this network of formats started a year ago and it became clear that this, like other fruitful communications, were a crucial part of our production and therefore needed to be maintained. The insistence on these impulses was backed up by Emily Pethick, Leire Vergara, and Marwa Arsanios, who were leading a study group with the refreshingly descriptive title Curating Positions: Practicing organization under present conditions. I would sum up this group’s agenda as focusing on connective methodologies that respond long-term to our present conditions. In our conversation, this kind of sustainability quickly became about questions of friendship, solidarity, and affinities.
The initial working title Keep the Conversation Going stuck and became a programmatic slogan. We were supported by our former educational institution and the conversation with its director Gabriëlle Schleijpen, through a monthlong residency at the Dream Art Institute in Arnhem. There, we developed formats out of our enjoyment of the most striking condition: collaboration. The observation of (mainly) ephemeral structures led us to propose and try out formats that don’t aim at artistic autonomy or isolation but rather practice affinities and ways to support them.
These are the three formats we set out to work with:
The Listening Group is a study group format operating mainly around the act of listening as a concentrated, critical form of hearing. The focus lies on the more receptive part of the conversation, since there is no point in talking if no one listens. This also works the other way around: once someone listens, someone else might speak. The conversation is less an exchange rather than a productive space that is collaboratively inhabited.
This Listening Group reacts to available forms of studying, which very often integrate reading as a crucial part of their research. A usual condition of these is reading in isolation. The shared part usually contains the exchange of the individual findings and questions. Rarely is this time together spent with the actual reading of the text, and, respectively, listening to it.
»The Listening Group is a study group format operating mainly around the act of listening as a concentrated, critical form of hearing. The focus lies on the more receptive part of the conversation, since there is no point in talking if no one listens.«
We came up with a procedure that includes listening – often while walking – to pre-recorded texts, which set a common ground to build conversation on. It was striking that this way of engaging with a text was different from our usual study forms, which often prioritize pointing out an argumentative structure and main arguments in the contexts of the particular discourse. Instead, it became more about creating a net of »plot-points,« subjective knots and rhizomatic references. After listening we would talk about individual connections, often anecdotal. Once collected, they still gave a good overview of the text. While listening and sitting would make people fall asleep, the bodily movement while walking would support the act of listening by amplifying concentration.
We noticed that the stimulating part of »walking while listening« – a phrase I owe to Eric Peter and Polly Wright, with whom I was in conversation about forms of walking and listening before committing to the framework of the Listening Group – was essentially the simultaneous activation of the body. We tried to always connect listening to physical participation and explored several exercises that address the body while listening. Among these were applying pressures on the body, connecting them to movement through massages, or engaging with certain objects. The most recent Listening Group session included colored and weighted cushions by Maike Hemmers, with which the listeners could interact to become more aware of the positioning and bodily presence while listening.
For each Listening Group session, a specific person was invited to record the text. We selected those whom we assumed could relate their practice to the text and overall topic, hence could imbue the conversation by voicing this text. Usually, we recorded the conversation we would have after the listening or transcribe from memory the most striking points to build an archive of our studies, which also include the initial recorded texts.
Over time these Listening Sessions developed into well-planned walks in which the dramaturgy between text and route became increasingly important. This direction led to a series of specifically designed walks for individual listeners. For them we chose texts aimed at common interests in relation to specific areas or routes.
The website for the Listening Group is: Listeninggroup.info (under construction)
The second format, SpellBoundPages, is a binding project with a publication effort, rooted in binding as an allegorical performative act.
»We are expanding the notion of binding pages to include building connections between practices, friendships, artistic positions and to make them visible to an audience.«
The allegory of binding concretely refers to the actual act of binding books and the material foundation, a book-binding machine. The binding machine entered our conversation from another collaboration The Pacifist Library Action #5: Dispersal by Valentina Curandi and Nathaniel Katz (curandikatz.net). We were intrigued by the machines calling for a performative procedure that we needed to enact in order to apply the glue and bind the pages together. This led to emphasizing the performative gesture of binding and using it as an allegory. We are expanding the notion of binding pages to include building connections between practices, friendships, artistic positions and to make them visible to an audience.
We bound our first publication On Disappearance at WALTER books in Arnhem, where we stayed for the residency and where we were in conversation with its owner Krista Jantowski and Corine van der Wal who runs the print house RisoWiso, designed and printed the cover of our publication. The publication binds together a set of contributions by fellow artists and writers on the topic of disappearance, taken as a phenomenological appearance of death, as well as rehabilitating the active verb of dying. We approached each contributor by initiating a conversation on disappearance and offered continuation throughout the production.
Supporting each other entailed being present for the other’s work and being able to listen to what the conversation partner needed in responding to a call for contribution. Different negotiations happened between us as editors of the publication and the contributors’ propositions, from already existing works to simply expressing desires toward their intervention on the topic and format. Conversation became a matter of building an infrastructure of contact and affinity with others. It relied on the possibility and ability to listen to others’ interpretations or interests on the topic, while dealing with personal expectations toward the practices of invited fellows. Presence therefore became a structure for ever-changing relations and the activity of being present to somebody’s practice through back-and-forth consultation, advice, editing work, feedback, and help in decision making. For the printing, we collaborated with Woodstone Kugelblitz in Rotterdam, who provided access to two mimeograph machines – manual printers with which we produced a limited edition of handprinted pages that we bound, creating a book with the audience during the launch.
This is the website of Spellboundpages: SpellBoundPages.info
Thinking Through, Thinking Along is the third format, and describes a commitment to others by accompanying the development and production of artistic works. This accompaniment functions first on a very pragmatic level: working together on whatever is needed at the time. That can be an application for funding, feedback on works or thoughts, or as a means of offering a structure that supports and thinks through all the different and individuated facets of artistic production. At the same time, it is less output-oriented but focuses more on the process. An activator, so to say, that stays open to doubt and possibilities.
It is certainly important to have ongoing conversations with people that over time can track, respond, and reflect on working out development. The concentration lies in connective aspects; weaving a net of relatable terms and forms, similar to the rhizomatic production in the Listening Group.
The imposed constant in this process is time, the time we allocate to the conversations, to accompany each other in thinking through our work. It’s a simultaneity of supporting each other’s individual work and breaking out of a solitary atmosphere. These ongoing conversations emphasize the connection between the person and the work, discussing reasons and conditions for the actions we take and thinking about alternatives, propositions and further development.
»We often discuss distinctions between collaboration and collective work. The collaboration takes the condition of consisting of singular positions seriously and does not aim to unify them into an entity that speaks with one voice.«
I understand all of these formats as existing along my artistic practice. Partly enabling me to leave something like the autonomy of my singular practice, toward these collaborations. It also calls into question how much I can talk as »I« or »we« when discussing these works (even this text is advised by my collaborators), which is why I tried to include everyone who in some way contributed to developing the propositions and projects. Although I certainly do understand these works as part of my own practice, it logically is not only my work. The sharing of ownership of the work effectively appears as responsibilities taken and affinities stated by the workers within the collaborative frame.
We often discuss distinctions between collaboration and collective work. The collaboration takes the condition of consisting of singular positions seriously and does not aim to unify them into an entity that speaks with one voice. The notion »island thinking« was introduced to last year’s Curating Positions study group by fellow participants Yen Noh and Eric Peter. It describes a shift of perspective represented by the independent mainland and the somehow dependent or at least not self-sufficient island. The figure of the archipelago created an alternative to the responsibility–dependence relation usually envisioned in metaphors that impose humanized (and family-related/social) characterization on institutions – like the comparison with the aforementioned mother. It encourages interdependency as a productive position, instead of an obstacle. We thought about the collaborative organization of several islands that combine into archipelago, therefore they can become less dependent on the mainland, but do not become autonomous. There is a shared infrastructure that connects the islands that has been explored and investigated, visualized by the routes of the ships that connect the islands. The making-of and understanding and constructing the infrastructure itself is a fundamental part of a common project in which we need to decide collectively about how and why we make certain knowledges, perspectives, ideas and practices circulating among us.
It seems possible from these different positions, we inhabit in the archipelago (and that we embody in our individual practices, for example) to look differently at the common characterization of the notion of »dependency« and to replace some negative attributes with notions of »connectivity.« As we become more responsible for the positions we take in relation to others, we do so by offering skills, resources, and experiences while being aware of needing to mediate our own presence in the interactions. Participating in this, we probably start shifting dependency into a conversation.
As I mentioned, this structure was meant to last a year. Now it becomes clear that we are working on building it for a much longer duration. We are already evaluating the options of what parts of these structures could be helpful for others as well, and could be repeated without becoming a platform.
In that sense, we aim to keep the conversation going.