The Stuttgart-London based artist duo Studio Cerrato–Halls reflect on current societal conditions and the influence of economic values and asymmetric power relations on them. What role can art play for the change of these conditions and transform the way we encounter each other?
We are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution. As digital technology leaps forward ever faster, fundamental changes in the means of production and employment are disrupting the inherited social contracts. While this is not historically unique, the bonds that held society together during prior tumultuous times have been systematically undermined over the past forty years under neoliberal policies. Focusing on a stable economy as the main goal, with growth being the mode toward stability, societal goals have been left aside and power ceded to private ventures that increase the economy of the state.
The generation that we are part of is only offered multiple choices, each vying to win. Limited by an education that fosters capitalistic competition, we see the other as a rival instead of a collaborator. Yet with the rules underpinning both capitalism and society coming loose, we must question why we continue down this path. Contractarianism has given us obligations, yet we have not agreed to them as a generation and this makes us wonder; how do these contracts manifest societal values beyond economically measured values?
»The generation that we are part of is only offered multiple choices, each vying to win. Limited by an education that fosters capitalistic competition, we see the other as a rival instead of a collaborator.«
The fourth revolution’s production site is dispersed and fragmented, meaning that capitalism cannot offer a location for societies where the interflow of class, ethnicity, culture and diversity of ideas and opinions can occur. As the fallout of this revolution impacts our economic system, it becomes apparent that the contracts under which we live are not as cohesive as we imagined. With the means of production now being fundamentally challenged, we are seeking new answers for why we should maintain this social contract.
Our biggest failure has been to refrain ourselves within the constraints of outdated ideologies while aiming for the biggest technological and global changes. Society has abdicated its role in creating value structures by assuming that the market can underpin all values with numerical figures. Through the simplification of economic narratives with terms such as GDP and growth, we have substituted difficult questions over the values that form society for quantifiable answers. We require space to respond to the need for the conception of possible societies. By interrupting the everyday with a physical space, public artistic spaces became possible and plausible locations for creating collective visions and common understandings of what social values can be.
Art is a question for the everyday. A question about beauty, functionality, identity, and existence within a space. While art can often be called into question by its form of representations or accountability in »value,« it opens up a space in which different levels of perception can arise in juxtaposition to economical narratives. By creating a counternarrative to the spaces containing economic activities, art’s presence should be participatory and transformative, allowing spaces to change and remain flexible. These shall become spaces for experimentation dedicated to perceptual processes, rather than the ornamental public art derived from the economic boom of the 1980s.
Within this frame, counternarratives will aim to provide an experience that breaks the rhythm of the everyday. Providing an interruption to the individual’s routine for a collective purpose: manifesting society’s perceptual understanding through physical embodiment. The need for these uneconomic spaces is vital for the progress of society, and has been throughout history. We should reflect on the value of art in the way that Neil Degrasse Tyson reflects on the Higgs Boson particle.
»Other than its relation to physics, we have no idea. Yet.«
In this sense art is the polar opposite to economic rationalism. We cannot quantify how art will affect society, yet it is a vital part of society and its absence is detrimental. Without our ability to empathize, and connect with one another through emotional intelligence, society will stop functioning. Artistic spaces allow these thoughts and skills to be developed and felt communally. By encouraging collective learning through social emancipation the aim lies in developing collective decision-making to redress the imbalance of choice and individualism with social responsibility in a democratic manner.
»We cannot quantify how art will affect society, yet it is a vital part of society and its absence is detrimental. Without our ability to empathize, and connect with one another through emotional intelligence, society will stop functioning.«
These art-driven counternarratives will work as a contextual platform in the following ways:
First, they will connect us to others. In the very definition of society, a notion of togetherness is inevitably implied, yet our reliance on digital space to come together fails to match physical engagement. Within the pursuit for »new« social visions, and therefore values, the physical presence is key in creating trust and empathy. Confronting an alternative narrative in a communal, cross-generational, physical space will be an educational act for those engaged by breaching the isolation of current times.
Second, we have to navigate a space that is politicized by the given context. In this context we are exposed to the engagement of others in a specific subject, which requires us to understand our own reaction in the reflection of others. This gives a human face to the other, and challenges our biases through the emotionality of physical engagement.
By doing so, the collective nature of a community art space will engender conversation, debate, and a reaction to the artwork. These conversations would be reinforced by the precarity of the work. Being time and site specific, the flow of new ideas through a singular space by various artists will create a discursive environment that is fluid and allows the community to stay apace with the transitions of technology, economy, society, and politics. This will allow communities to be active imaginators of their context, while allowing the individuality of the community through its culture, heritage, and location to be maintained through the constant discussion of what and who they are with outside resident artists.
»By creating nexuses of conversations in communities that are public and open, we can avoid the stratification of wealth and ethnicity that is found in public private spaces such as cafes and shopping centers.«
The diversity of people will also be a tool to question who the »other« is. Is the other the audience or the artist, the existing community or the art itself? Questioning the position of each element will allow us to question our position as society and most importantly, what the definition of »other« infers?
This discussion is a vital provocational tool to fuel society’s self-awareness. Nobody can claim complete authority on matters, yet as the modern technocratic state has been increasingly hijacked by think tanks, acronyms, and economic theories, we have lost the power to debate and challenge politics with dialogue. Interventionist artistic spaces will begin to address this imbalance. By creating nexuses of conversations in communities that are public and open, we can avoid the stratification of wealth and ethnicity that is found in public private spaces such as cafes and shopping centers. Through these discussions, opinions cannot form as easily in isolation and through exposure to alternate opinions; commonalities can be explored and opinions tempered through empathetic experiences.
However, the artist must tread carefully as a moral entity who has the power to shape opinion. To maintain these spaces as horizontal platforms, the artist must not enforce their opinions through the work onto the audience. Instead, the artist should provoke the audience to question the artistic response, and in doing so spark a curiosity that will allow the individual to reflect on their role in an emancipatory society. Artistic disruptions are experiential tools for an emancipatory society, where the absolute knowledge in the experience is not given but the individual gains it within the collective. Therefore the collective is able to develop common visions and understanding beyond the immediate reality.
While this idea seems to cede a lot of power in shaping societal perceptions to artists, its radicalism is a reflection on the lack of space and autonomy for thought beyond the economy and for public investment in the community. Art in its pursuit for communicating through different expressions seems to us a major tool that can bring cognitive modes of understanding to the forefront in our society and translate this to other aspects of everyday life and living standards. It is the process by which we can think in parallel to realities imposed by the inherited historical scenarios. This shaping of society is vital for gaining agency in our own ability to create narratives for possible realities. As we reflected on the amorality of the economy, the context created by society will necessarily shape the economy.
While we have our own opinions on the course that society should take, this essay explores the lack of spaces in which people can debate what they want society to be. Resident artists will create interventions and disruptions in the everyday, public space, challenging what we perceive through art. These artistic spaces will generate a feeling that does not fall into reactionary habits. Rather, they will lead to a more reflective experience that transforms into a collective memory, aiming for an interpersonal experience between the individual, the collective, subject matter, and context of time and place itself by giving them both space and time to explore what they value individually and communally.
Society, being in constant evolution, retains power in the social imagination by collectively widening our perception of self and other, and our flexibility in ways of thinking. It is only then that we can begin to understand what is important, what is valuable, and to develop new narratives.