Today, we are facing a European Union in which the past decades’ economic and social development is characterized by inequalities and difficulties. Apart from economic and military power (hard power), the Soft Power Palace festival stands for the need to strengthen trans-European cultural exchange, exploring formats and methods of togetherness – in the spaces between art, social practice, activism, and arts education. In doing so, Soft Power Palace addresses the way in which politics are conducted.
Soft Power Palace – Festival about Independent Art Spaces in Europe explores the relationship between civic cultural initiatives, artistic production, subcultural work, non-institutional, and nonprofit associations, flexible solutions, and common good. Beyond the idea of culture as a synonym only for European cultural heritage, its museums, academies, and institutions, Paula Kohlmann and Mareen Wrobel invited five cultural initiatives – Ardesia Projects from Milan, Fireplace from Barcelona, ZZ Studio from Lyon, AEther from Sofia, and GmbH from Stuttgart – to ask questions like »How relevant to society is the work of the independent art scene beyond big institutions?«, »Do art spaces and artistic initiatives have social and political power»? and »How do they influence their city, their region — or maybe even European thinking more broadly?« They also invited politicians and the public to take active part in the discussions and processes around Soft Power Palace, taking place at The Kunstgebäude in Stuttgart November 8 – 11, 2018.
Schlosspost talked to Paula Kohlmann and Mareen Wrobel about the art of togetherness, the European independent art scene, power structures within the cultural sector, and about what politicians could change in their future agenda when it comes to support cultural initiatives!
Schlosspost: The festival Soft Power Palace – Festival about Independent Art Spaces in Europe aims to highlight the relevance of self-organized, independent carriers of culture, in addition to their transnational connections. How do you approach this topic?
Paula Kohlmann: By building a bridge between self-organized institutional space and the public. We invited five initiatives from five different regions of Europe to work for ten days in the Kunstgebäude Stuttgart. They will work on formats and methods of togetherness – between art, social practice, activism, and arts education. After the ten-day »laboratory« we will present the outcome within a festival that opens the doors of the building to a wider audience. During the ten days, we put together a framing program with events related to Europe, civil society, conditions of working, learning, and living; and also invite local artists on our open stage. The initiatives we are inviting are not only nonprofit art galleries but also platforms for dialogue: With strategies like neighborhood dinners, art city walks, performances in public space, and so on. We want to emphasize this social power.
Schlosspost: Why is the empowerment of social togetherness in the art scene important to you?
PK: It seems that the art scene is divided into »intellectual« and so called »sociocultural« art, but the needs are the same: space to work, support to produce, spaces in which to connect. To shape a city or a region in a way to provide these needs, it’s important to act in concert: To believe in the importance of art for a society.
»The initiatives we are inviting are not only nonprofit art galleries but also platforms for dialogue: With strategies like neighborhood dinners, art city walks, performances in public space, and so on. We want to emphasize this social power.«
Schlosspost: Where did the idea of the festival Soft Power Palace come from, and how did this vision become reality?
PK: The need for civil spaces of exchange increases the more complex the world appears to us: it is a concentration on real encounters and disputes, which often try experimental formats and forms of joint action, life, and thought. They also work as a critical debate with the current political situation. In these shaky times in the idea of a European identity, we found it very appealing to invite protagonists of this art form into a building like the Kunstgebäude to visualize and test their approaches toward altering conditions of politics, work, and living. So, visiting the Soft Power Palace you will experience a temporary self-organized Pan-European structure built just inside of a rather old institutional structure – as if you crack a nutshell from the inside.
Schlosspost: Tell us more about this Kunstgebäude.
PK: The Kunstgebäude in Stuttgart, where Soft Power Palace will take place, is a central and palatial building, built in 1913 with the impulse to create a contemporary public art institution. Owned by the ministry, in the last 20 years the building experienced years of various functions ranging from Städtische Galerie, to Württembergischer Kunstverein to interim quarters for the State Parliament. Currently, six local institutions – Akademie Schloss Solitude, ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen), Schauspiel Stuttgart, Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart, Theater Rampe, and Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart – have drafted a utilization concept for 2017-2018. While the State of Baden-Württemberg is considering future developments for 2019 and beyond, the task force is filling the Kunstgebäude with a transdisciplinary program aligned to thematic principles.
Soft Power Palace is initiated by the Akademie Schloss Solitude, who is supporting international cultural exchange in Baden-Württemberg for the past 30 years. Within this context we found it interesting to look into the future of cultural exchange and focus on what’s happening outside of the big institutions. We are happy that the ministry sees the importance of this subjects – dialogue and exchange as tools for a common future – especially within the current state of Europe, and supports this project with funding.
Mareen and I are both working in between institutions and the independent art scene – that is where we’re positioning ourselves within this project: We’re trying to be facilitators between institutions, the independent scene, and the public.
»The need for civil spaces of exchange increases the more complex the world appears to us: it is a concentration on real encounters and disputes, which often try experimental formats and forms of joint action, life, and thought.«
Schlosspost: Can you tell us more about the title?
PK: When we stumbled across the poetic term »soft power,« it seemed to describe what we were working on. The term, coined by the US. Political scientist Joseph S. Nye, describes a particular form of power exercised by states and political actors over other states and societies; not based on military resources (»hard power«) but on the mediation of own norms and values. So soft power is a diplomatic power, or let’s say: a gentle exercise of power, with which someone convinces someone else to one’s own perspective using example, seduction, persuasion, and mythology. Naming the Kunstgebäude a palace of soft power is one the one hand a ironic hint on the political dynamics around this building, but it also includes an empowering moment.
Schlosspost: After all, is Soft Power Palace about art or cultural politics?
MW: We find ourselves in constant dialogue about where we stand and I’d say there is no art without politics and vice versa. The current situation in Europe and the world almost leaves no choice but to be political and contrary to Slavoj Zizek’s declaration that only when we completely lost hope we will be able to rethink our foundations and structures, I do believe there are strategies to change and influence our politics and society to this point with art and cultural methods.
Schlosspost: There is a vital and growing scene and increasing international focus and interest in »off-space« culture. How do you perceive the current situation of off spaces in Europe in general, but also in relation to the hierarchy and power structures of the cultural sector – from the museums and institutions, academies, galleries to the off spaces and artist-run spaces?
MW: First, I am not certain that there is an increased interest in the independent art scene but rather easier access to media platforms to make artists and spaces more visible and offer the opportunity to connect more efficiently. Second, our knowledge about the independent art scene within Europe is very selective by what we know from people we’ve been visiting here and there, friends, fellow artists or people we follow online. If you’re interested in structures in a city or country, you’d rather find it by visiting an artist-run space than a huge museum – small nonprofit spaces have the connection to civil society. That’s also why businesses and art institutions are getting more and more interested in collaborations with the independent scene. We are trying to make these power dynamics visible and more equally profitable for not only the institutions but the independent scene and the public as well. Is it possible to start an ongoing exchange between those three?
»Another important quality of being a nonprofit space is not being dependent on visitor numbers: By that a program of a space can be critical, provocative, experimental, or also just very poetic and silent without the pressure of a popular success.«
Schlosspost: What is it that contributes to defining a self-organized art practice as »off-space,« »alternative,« and/or »independent«?
MW: Instead of speaking about an »off-scene,« we are using the term »independent initiatives« because it focuses on the active mode of these groups rather than positioning them into the »off« which we feel is an unjustified excluding concept. We are trying to find similarities, not differences, in their artistic practices.
These five invited initiatives stand out for being noninstitutionalized, nonnationalized or privatized. They are playing by their own rules. Each initiative or space finds their individual strategy to cooperate with bigger partners who are often less free in experimenting with new strategies. The important thing in these alliances is that these political or financial corporations don’t influence the content of the artistic projects. Another important quality of being a nonprofit space is not being dependent on visitor numbers: By that a program of a space can be critical, provocative, experimental, or also just very poetic and silent without the pressure of a popular success.
Schlosspost: Tell us a bit more about this »independent« formats of labor, their tools for action, and the formats of the festival itself: the open stage, the laboratory, the cooking sessions. and/or experimental ways of doing things with examples taken from the five initiatives …
PK: The invited initiatives are finding ways to include a wider audience and without intellectual barriers by bringing part of their program, their formats, their methods to the Kunstgebäude. To be concrete: ZZ Studio from Lyon is doing workshops on »sharing skills,« where they want to invite craftsmen and artists on an exchange, a copy sharing of work, skills, techniques, and concerns. Aether art space from Sofia focuses on »Becoming the other« by e.g. doing walks through the city with citizens of Stuttgart – inspired by the so-called »psychogeography« of the Situationists International from the sixties. Ardesia Projects from Milan are inviting professionals from different background to interact with their photography exhibition Form as a Common Ground, which will emerge within the first week of the laboratory through an international open call. Fireplace from Barcelona is planning cooking sessions with the audience and GmbH from Nordbahnhof in Stuttgart is opening its archive and invites other initiatives to speak about »structures of self-organization« and document the outcome on film.
»It’s not about ›independent‹ against ›institutional‹ but about a common shaping of the future of how we want to work and live together.«
Schlosspost: Where are the borders between institutional and independent? Do shifts take place if you bring initiatives from the suburbs of Lyon, from a communal building in Barcelona, from small venues in Sofia and Milano, and an industrial zone in Stuttgart to the Kunstgebäude?
PK: This is exactly where it gets interesting; when the borders become blurry. Let’s think about new forms and formats of organs of our civil-togetherness. It’s not about »independent« against »institutional« but about a common shaping of the future of how we want to work and live together.
Schlosspost: Who is included and excluded in this processes? How you apply an open-door policy, encouraging neighbors, especially older and younger people, or people with different political views about trans-European exchange to visit the festival?
MW: Through the idea of a festival for example. To engage cultural exchange by creating an inviting environment through transparency and by reintroducing an atmosphere that reminds us more of times of the salon than the white cube. The laboratory invites the artists to work on their formats of cultural exchange. Of course we are in dialogue with the artists from the initiatives about their workshops, internal or external events, still we don’t want to nail down their contribution to a product but install a platform for open processes rather than a curated exhibition. With the Open Stage, we ensure space to invite a lot of artist and institutions, local and international, to take part in Soft Power Palace. The Open Stage is the place where announced contributions coexist with spontaneous actions. So also for us as organizers it’s a good practice to keep the program fluid, even when it is on display, and deal with this uncertainty.
Schlosspost: Often civic and cultural initiatives operate away from the market logic, highlighting instead social commons and basic needs within society. Do we need to talk about the issue of self-precarization in this context, or is this going beyond our scope here?
PK: I had discussions about artist fees: »If you pay the artist, the work becomes a service.« This is a very interesting point. For me including an artist fee in a budget plan is an important point as it uncovers a kind of work that often is hidden or romanticized – it shifts the focus from the art object to the process of the work. How does the work itself change, if it is paid? And how does it alternate our perception of the relation of work, payment and production outcome, or donation and value?
MW: Coming from graphic design, I expect my labor to be valued in a certain way, so I do this with artists. After all we are living in a capitalistic society and we all need to pay the bills. Organizing a festival is as much work as participating as an artist, and although handling a bigger budget means more or constant negotiating with the sponsors, it only benefits everyone. In this case we actively support the initiatives by being the mediators between institutional and independent space. Moreover, we understand that running a space, organizing, handling budgets, applying for grants, and talking to sponsors cuts down the artist’s time to concentrate completely on the content of a program. This is where people like Paula and me come into play.
»With the Open Stage, we ensure space to invite a lot of artist and institutions, local and international, to take part in Soft Power Palace.«
Schlosspost: In many places there is generous public funding for independent art initiatives from various public and private sources. Yet independent art spaces deal with a lack of economical liabilities and binding commitments when it comes to funding, and rental agreements. There is no chance for strategic long-term planning. Worse, many cities and regions like Belgrade and Vienna are struggling with funding cuts. What can be done? Should the independent scene work closer together with the politicians and the private sector, or should they find alternative ways of funding? Do you know about alternative ways of cofinancing cultural art spaces and their production needs?
PK: These are indeed some of the questions that we want to discuss with the initiatives we invited: During Soft Power Palace we want to share strategies and experiences and collect them in a publication and presentations at the festival.
The conditions differ a lot within the various regions of Europe. In Stuttgart there is broad project funding by the city that can also lead into a long term »institutional funding.« But as you say: still the trend in Europe is toward cutting cultural funding. So how to ensure the support of the European art scene in general – apart from the current leading party in each country? For example would it be interesting to bring a city’s property management closer together with culture management/project funding.
MW: Yes! One concrete idea would be to install coordinators in politics: Mediators between politics and independent artists who can communicate or let’s even say translate between both. Bring them together.
Schlosspost: Can politicians and institutions learn something from self-organized cultural initiatives? What could it be?
MW: Institutions have, while being usually a well-functioning apparatus, a lot of bureaucracy to consider and comply which can be paralyzing to spontaneous and experimental projects. »All Palaces Are Temporary Palaces,« states Robert Montgomery in one of his artworks, which is a wonderful reflection on this topic. We live in times of rapid change. We need to adjust more quickly to new practices than established institutions are able to do at present. There has to be a certain temporality to institutional practices to be able to flatten hierarchies and a necessity to reconsider and question given structures as well as learning to be more flexible and open to new ways of organization in order to not get lost in power and bureaucracy struggles. Which by all means cannot result in a superficiality that focuses on quantity instead of quality! Furthermore, it’s very interesting to see that within the commercial world, people work interdisciplinarily through space sharing or coworking, whereas in the art and theater worlds, hierarchies can still be more important than sharing knowledge.
»The important thing is thinking outside of the box. We have to learn to take detours and risks, to let go of what we are used to.«
PK: Yes, exactly. I just read an interview with the sociologist and former president of the European Research Council Helga Nowotny, who is doing research on uncertainty (https://www.zeit.de/2018/32/helga-nowotny-ungewissheit-soziologie-forschung). She is saying that in our times, due to digitalization as one example, almost every day we experience that it turns out to be fragile, what we regarded as stable. But holding on to old structures is not the right thing to do. The important thing is thinking outside of the box. We have to learn to take detours and risks, to let go of what we are used to. We are having a difficult time because our public policies and our bureaucracy are heavily dependent on rules (that are piled upon old rules that are piled upon even older rules). As Mareen said, these self-organized initiatives are experts in being experimental and reacting on change. We all have to learn to question things that have worked well so far – but may now be outdated. We have to find a new balance between rules and openness.
The festival Soft Power Palace, taking place in Stuttgart November 8 – 11, invites the European community to a cultural exchange program: five artistic initiatives from five European cities will be working in a public process on perspectives about trans-European cultural exchange at Kunstgebäude Stuttgart. The festival aims to highlight the relevance of these self-organized, independent carriers of culture, in addition to their transnational connections.
The interview was conducted by Denise Helene Sumi