From playing cards over tech discussions to walks with talks the artists, designers, researchers and engineers working and thinking within the frame of the project »(no)action(no)space«, Haseeb Ahmed, Demian Bern, Laura Bernhardt, Christoph Knoth, Hannah Perner-Wilson, Michl Schmidt and Tessa Zettel, proposed and offered many kinds of actions during their time in Studio 16 at Akademie Schloss Solitude. Before, they gathered in different places over the past year to discuss and try to develop a space of experimentation investigating the question of space and action. But how to avoid a hierarchical structure? The answer might be relaxation and trust.
Clara Herrmann: »(no)action(no)space«: what is this project about and when did it start? How did you come together as a group?
»(no)action(no)space« began as an invitation to share an opportunity to develop a digital publication in conjunction with an exhibition project at Akademie Schloss Solitude. The exhibition was linked to a residency at Cité International des Arts in Paris that Laura had received the year before. »(no)action(no)space« started off with a handful of artists that Laura had either met in Paris or knew from Stuttgart. »(no)action(no)space« was not meant to create a group, rather it seeks to be a network of individuals that is dynamic in nature, hence can grow and shrink. We have not been ›chosen‹ nor ›selected‹ by a jury or a proposal that was approved. This is uncommon in an institutional context where organisational structures often require a vertical accountability (top-down architecture) or a horizontal assessment (bottom-up intertwining). In our case, an artist opened the slot that was reserved for her own practice to a broader set of people without positioning herself as an overarching editor.
By composing a constellation of coincidental events and opportunities, she offered us immersion in a yet-to-be-defined project, everyone at their own pace, desire, and degree of engagement, with the possibility to exit at any point, as did a couple of people in the process. Without a mandatory predetermined deliverable, but only loose conditions of operation, it was then possible for us to freely propose not only situated ›works‹ but also exploratory researches such as half-baked formats, experimental institutional critique or even failed collective experiences. Our intention is not to merge into one identity. The concept of Multitude may describe our approach, being a network structure, a web of relationships, a field of singularities which is neither homogeneous nor identical to itself. As individual experimental practitioners we were somehow already interconnected informally because we share common affinities to places, people and topics that guide our practices. These common affinities became our common ground, and as such do define some sort of boundary. Separating our things, from other things.
»The concept of Multitude may describe our approach, being a network structure, a web of relationships, a field of singularities which is neither homogeneous nor identical to itself.«
»(no)action(no)space« is more a research platform, a lab or workshop, hence it focuses on exchange, experimentation, learning from each other. We gathered in different places over the past year for a few symposia to discuss and try to develop a space (physical and digital) of experimentation investigating the question of space and action. A considerable amount of effort and energy was spent resisting the inclination to organize in a hierarchical structure. This resistance was a bit like a relaxation though. Made possible through trust – a trust that there was involvement, a common willingness to experiment. This act of ›relaxing‹ together into a new space of possibility laid the ground for exploring collaboration that does not comply with (even our own) expectations of what a collaborative project should be. It was an opportunity for something to happen and for trying to make that something different to how we imagine it. It was equally interesting to see how we came together and what works were produced through the collaboration.
CH: You carried out a series of different events at Solitude from playing cards over tech discussions to walks with talks: Can you explain some examples and what you were trying to achieve?
We proposed and offered many kinds of actions during our time in Studio 16. This is because we wanted to see what worked, what elicited a response (either from us or outside), what could build or shift the parameters of the space, what could dissolve into or catalyze other actions. Some of these were parts of pre-existing projects or concerns, and repeated to shape a weekly routing, like Making Time/Making Trouble: The Lively Arts reading group, ohne Geräte-plastische Übungen, or playing cards and walk and talk. Others were one-off planned events, e.g. hands-on conference building structure from materials of value in conjunction with intercessors: people, artefacts and machines transporting us to otherwise separated dimensions.
»We proposed and offered many kinds of actions during our time in Studio 16. This is because we wanted to see what worked, what elicited a response (either from us or outside), what could build or shift the parameters of the space, what could dissolve into or catalyze other actions.«
Some objects accompanied us with their permanent presence, such as a floor mat brought by Demian placed at the entrance of Studio 16 welcoming guests with the words »I haven’t felt this tension between artworks in another show before. It’s like being at a party and wondering how the other people got there. Why was he invited and she wasn’t?«, or Haseeb’s surrogate left hand explored the Studio 16, as well as an open-hardware mini-computer that served as our digital infrastructure and provided space to host the project’s process, and a team of microbes collaborating on a batch of sauerkraut. Then there were those that came up spontaneously as we tried to figure out how to create spaces in/for action, or which actions a specific place required, which were added to the calendar as we went. Working with the mini-computer led to a public tech discussion with a participant in France via Skype; baking pies and cakes in the space and seeing Sunday visitors pass by for walks in the woods prompted Tea and something window, where we offered tea and homemade somethings through the window.
Ohne Geräte – plastische Übungen/direktes Design / Exercises without equipment took place every Monday morning at 10 am in Studio 16. Ohne Geräte is Michl’s artistic modification of »Training ohne Geräte/Exercising without equipment«. A technique of exercising to help build muscles, balance and coordination. The term »…ohne Geräte / …without equipment« is somewhat misleading, as the equipment is not entirely absent, rather the professional training equipment is replaced by daily life objects one can find in every household, such as tables, chairs, shelves, books, doors… coupled with one’s own bodyweight that is used to counterbalance. It is a method of direct design that can be applied in different life situations. To start »without equipment« was not so much driven by an athletic success, rather by the interest to use well-known things in an unusual manner to change perspectives and explore the interaction between us and the objects that surround us. But also, to interact with your own body, the locomotor system, the circuit, the metabolism and the psyche. In addition, for a long time, the body was considered as the central and almost only topic of sculptural study. Thus, to experiment with »Ohne Geräte« is an artistic challenge to develop objects which can be equally treated as an exercising apparatus, a piece of furniture and a sculpture, depending on their usage and context. Ohne Geräte – plastische Übungen brought us from muscle training through power postures to designing and building new objects.
Another example was Making Time/Making Trouble: The Lively Arts reading group, a set of activities circling around fermentation, both microbial and political. In the opening week, Tessa launched a weekly sauerkraut workshop crashed together with a reading group on Donna Haraway’s new book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. This was an offshoot of an ongoing project of Tessa’s called Making Time. The idea was to introduce a community of microorganisms into the space to accompany us for the duration, who would continue working away on a batch of collectively-produced sauerkraut. At the end of the exhibition we sent the filled jars of sauerkraut off to a community of protesters at la ZAD in France, a contested place that corresponds with Haraway’s call for necessary troubling of waters and entangled alliances of resistance in troubled times. Later this action melded with a sci-fi film event proposed by someone else, becoming a night of cinematic potpourri and speculative fermentation.
Making Discussion, led by Hannah, comes from a desire to be able to use the hands to manipulate matter in order to engage in discussions. Not discussion about the form and function of what is being created, but philosophical, political discussions about abstract topics. In particular Hannah is interested in real-time discussion/conversation that normally takes place in spoken language, in shared physical space. To create an opportunity to experiment with this format, she designed a kind of work outfit for the maker discusser. A shoulder bag intended to be worn as a regular bag, with pouches for foraging, hunting and gathering materials throughout the day. Similarly, to how we pick up ideas, collect thoughts, take notes, this bag is a storage container for material ideas. When the maker discusser enters into a discussion, the bag can be transformed into a tool-apron, a work uniform, a discussion costume. The pouches containing the foraged materials are easily accessible and the rest of the apron contains a selection of tools that can be used for working these materials, manipulating them and producing discussion. For (no)action(no)space we had five of these uniforms to allow a group of people to hunt and gather material ideas and then come together to make discussion. In the (no)action(no)space Studio 16 at Akademie Schloss Solitude people brought in materials to contribute to the discussion and we also collected materials from outside the Schloss. The Making Discussion was led by a hands-on conference intercessors: people, artefacts and machines transporting us to otherwise separated dimensions, which provided content for the discussion, but also tried to lead it into a making trance. Listening to the talk, handling the materials, concentrating on both making and understanding created the experience. The objects in the end didn’t really get to talk, and it was not clear if or how they should have a voice. This discussion was more about shared experience.
The walk and talk format, proposed by Laura, was driven by the interest to explore narrative structures, especially the form of the essay. It was an attempt to experience and observe the course and the form of a conversation and its interaction with the environment. To what extend does a turn or a direction influence the content and the rhythm of the narrative? Starting the walk and talk series with a conversation about the notion of ›Essay‹ with writer and artist Harry Walter, the conversation unfolded itself as an ›Essay‹. At the Schloss, Laura took the discussants on a walk in the woods, each time on a different path which was not planned beforehand. The environment and activity of walking, with at least one other person, required us to make decisions such as which path and in which direction to continue. Crossroads often caused hesitation and affected the conversation. It triggered bifurcation, or let the conversation slow down.
CH: What are your roles as artists/participants in this project? What did you experience, discover, what do you want to develop further – individually and/or together?
Placing ourselves in relation to one other has been our major challenge, but also a beautiful journey and an ongoing process of experience leading into a network/web of relationships. Our roles within the project were something that we had to negotiate together, in fact this was part of our collective work. The initial invitation from Laura came with a very open framework – from that point on we could organize ourselves however we liked. Such fluidity was not without tension, but this was ok since we are more concerned with dialogue than consensus. Actions or ideas could be proposed by one person and then borrowed or played with by another. Certainly, we have quite diverse expertise, backgrounds and interest – we are graphic designers, product designers, computer scientists, sculptors, visual artists, writers, engineers, craftspeople… – so this determined what we brought to the table, and how.
We were also interested in sharing skills within the group, so for example one of us spent some time learning from another the basics of programming code on a mini-computer (Olimex A20) which we used to host content and make it accessible to people not physically present in the space. Our first hopes were to use this machine as a server to store our website, our live documentation with pictures and videos and so on. The idea was to try to emancipate ourselves from the extensive TOS (terms of service) of internet companies usually used by institutions and artists as their repositories for content, either in the form of a CLOUD for files or CMS (content management system) for their texts and media. We even made a diagram that explains the autonomous architecture we established with respect to traditional »social media ecosystems«. (Picture). We might have underestimated the task of setting up a fast and reliable minicomputer in the network of an institution, to say the least, the experience of self-hosting our data was painful and complex. From micro political hurdles to deploy the machine (which IP, which security, what’s the network admin company name and cell phone??), we quickly ran into two very demotivating obstacles: firstly, embedded Linux machines are still optimized for an 1337 of nerds and dorks which does not help the necessary ultra-fast adoption of these tools (bash, ssh/mosh commands…) to non-experts; secondly, how to respond to legitimate statements like: when you hop in a bus, you don’t need to know how the engine works or also, why be self-hosted when Tumblr or WordPress can provide a faster and better quality of service? In some way, technological elitism and sophisticated commercial competition are still two major obstacles that kept us from swiftly and efficiently deploying our own artistico-technical infrastructure. However, with a 120 € budget, Free Software tools and Free Hardware device, and with the help of the institution’s access to its own private telecom network, we managed to experience a taste of what it feels like to live far from the over-dominant and normative infrastructure of commercial systems, that bring simplicity but also extremely invasive yet legal rules and procedures. We felt that with a little effort and learning, we could regain privacy and creative freedom.
»We realised how difficult it is to coordinate and actually spend a large amount of time physically together, a paradox of always being available on digital social platforms. It is as if we re-discovered what it means to sit around the same ›fire‹…«
At Solitude, sometimes what we did in the space converged, and sometimes not. There were some nice intertwining of languages and practices, nurtured by walk & talks, lunch cooking/meetings, performances, live talks via the network, documentation, and above all, just being as much as possible in the production space at Studio 16. We realised how difficult it is to coordinate and actually spend a large amount of time physically together, a paradox of always being available on digital social platforms. It is as if we re-discovered what it means to sit around the same ›fire‹, literally during Symposion 1 at Bodensee while putting wood logs into the chimney, and metaphorically throughout the whole process that had to be constantly re-activated, fueled by our energy, like an inner fire, a collective social fire, the one described in Agamben in his book Die Erzählung und das Feuer.
CH: What’s your philosophical and artistic mindset as a group working within the framework of »(no)action(no)space«? Are there any references, role models, ideas, or patterns you refer to?
We don’t have one singular mind-set. We are a set of different minds, brought together in order to see what happens, what might be possible when those minds meet within a particular frame, over multiple times and spaces. Each of us brings our own references, models, ideas and patterns; either they resonate or we have a productive disagreement. This applies to the everyday business of being together – for example, devising and preparing a meal of potatoes with black truffles for our opening night was an important collective process for us, as was making sure we all ate a good lunch every day. Some of us do have a special interest in collectives, cooperatives, shared working structures etc. So how the collaborative process unfolded was something we were quite attentive to. That said we never really found a working model or pattern from elsewhere that fitted, maybe this was a good thing because it meant we had to build from scratch based on the situation to hand.
»We are a set of different minds, brought together in order to see what happens, what might be possible when those minds meet within a particular frame, over multiple times and spaces. Each of us brings our own references, models, ideas and patterns; either they resonate or we have a productive disagreement.«
As an example, MIT Media Lab’s refers to its practice as »antidisciplinary«, which, can be taken to mean as opposed to interdisciplinary. Whereas interdisciplinary recognizes the existence of separate disciplines, »anti-« aims to erase their existence, questioning the existence of disciplines at a fundamental level. In (no)action(no)space we might be attempting to question »group dynamics« and »collective structures« at a similarly fundamental level. Just like we worked to »emancipate« ourselves from TOS (terms of service), (no)action(no)space looks for emancipation from the definition of static/hierarchical concepts of collaboration and collective effort.
Some attempts at collaborative experimental composition evoke the notion of Totalkunst or Gesamtkunstwerk. The challenge of practicing like this within an institution is that it can be perceived as a potential perturbation of institutional norms and rules. During the process at Akademie Schloss Solitude, a visitor observed that she was impressed we were able to do this collective experiment, asking us how we dealt with conflicts internally and with the institution. To a certain extent, experimental practices can be both harmful and curative, without aprioristic qualities. Questioning one’s own locus of production, circumstances of thinking, limitations and constraints, is at the root of any critical practice but is definitely complex inside an institutional framework. For instance, what if we are perceived as »harmful« (a disturbance) for the institution that hosts us? What if we don’t deliver what the organization that funds us expects as a deliverable? What if we are in conflict with the jury that might or might not accept our proposal or our presence in the next festival, call for projects, etc. …?
CH: What will happen now with »(no)action(no)space«?
The next stage of the project is building up our digital publication as a platform that will enable us to continue collaborating now that we are geographically dispersed (between Australia, Germany, France, Belgium…). This is something we kept coming back to during the symposia and the exhibition at Akademie Schloss Solitude: how to sustain the momentum and relationships after a concentrated period of intensity? How to use the technologies available to us – both digital and analogue – to facilitate productive ongoing exchange and dialogue? As we get to know each other and our ways of working better, we also generate a shared base of material and methodology to work with, so this is something we look forward to returning to in the future.