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updated by elke van campenhout -- Tue 6 Sep 2011 - 15:06


this text was written for the a.pass publication on the Salon 'Curating as Environmentalism'. In this version the footnotes are missing. pdf on request: elkevancampenhout@gmail.com

book description:
Is there another way to think about curating in the performing arts? Are there examples in the contemporary performance scene that are exemplary for the specific ways in which the term is transformed from its visual arts context into a more collaborative and performative gesture? From this starting point, the one month salon on curating in the performing arts was developed. On the basis of the online text Curating as environmentalism people were invited to gloss the text, highlighting fragments, and adding other texts, images, links and thoughts. The added material then was the starting point for a physical meeting in the workspace nadine in Brussels on.....

This book is the eclectic amalgam of all this one month process: the online contributions, and some of the work developed during the ‘live’ meeting. Added to this is a new text, looking back at the process, and formulating new problems for thought.



some thoughts on the working process, the curatorial practice

and the challenges of a collaborative space.

Elke Van Campenhout

(inspired by the multifold discussions with Adva Zakai)

1. salons and gatherings

Since this Salon on Curating as Environmentalism was a response to an invitation by Sarma, we started out by trying to understand the confines of this uncommon habitat for reflection. Not in the sense that we didn’t share some obvious affinities or sympathies for these 19th Century gatherings, but we did experience a sly discomfort with the kind of knowledge that at these occasions was showcased. What started out of the ‘ruelles’ of the 17th Century - where an aristocratic woman would invite her guests around her bed to discuss the ‘petites histoires’ of politics, literature and socialite entertainment - slowly found its way down: from the boudoir to the ‘public’ salon. No longer limited to the intimacy of the bedroom, the salon took up the function of a meeting place for social debate on the new, the previously unthought of, and became a ‘major channel of communication amongst intellectuals’.

What became a point of interest for us was the fact that the Salons in this phase (and in its onset in the ‘ruelles’) were often organized by women, and - although the quality of the intellectual exchange is challenged by a lot of its contemporaries (like Marcel Proust) for its all too prevailing socialite qualities - they did function in a way as an emancipatory educational tool, and in some accounts are considered as the starting point of the suffragette and women’s movements. But the transposition of a historic format of emancipatory gathering to a contemporary context is not without pitfalls.

Today the thinking of the Salon as a point of encounter for knowledge exchange2 and emancipation is situated in a dramatically different context of the arts, politics and accessibility of knowledge. If we embrace the Salon format as a place for sharing ‘new’ knowledges and their reverberations within a society (as they were considered in their time), the question immediately presents itself as to what kind of knowledge and what kind of society we’re talking about. The Salons explicitly placed themselves in ‘the middle’ of the new discoveries of the sciences and literature and turned the ‘literary public sphere into the political public’ (Goodman). But since she was talking about this in a study on the French Revolution, the exact understanding of what was to be discussed in this ‘political public’ seems a lot more clear (although probably only in hindsight) than to delineate the political-intellectual arena today. Also, looking a the Salon as an outcome of a literary movement of renewal, how does that relate to the movements created within the contemporary (performance) arts: a background that most of the people that joined the Salon on Curating as Environmentalism shared.

To translate the 19th Century knowledge exchange practice into its tentative contemporary answer a few, if not all, of its characteristics had to be reappraised. Firstly on the level of the invitation, we wanted to get rid of the necessary bypass from the personal to the public that the Salons entailed. The invitations were usually extended by a ‘madame’, whose gatherings were famously named after her, to a limited group of ‘merit’ both on the level of social status as intellectual endeavour. In our Salon we tried to break up this sense of exclusion in rethinking the public, but although our invitation was ‘extended’ in a quite literal way - by posting it online and asking for an active participation - the community that identified with this invitation was very close to the group of usual suspects roaming the territories of the host space nadine, the working environment of the curating team of a.pass, or the circle of the initiators of Sarma.

Secondly, we wanted to question our ‘power’ of addressing certain themes, by opening up the working process to others. Concretely the Salon unfolded in three phases:

1. the preparatory 1 month work of ‘glossing’ the text ‘Curating as Environmentalism’ online, which was open to everyone.

2. the ‘live’ Salon with guests and shared practices, where the reactions and material added by people over this 1 month period would be put into practice

3. the preparation and realization of this publication

This whole process raised a lot of questions on the (im) possibility of relinquishing power without giving up on hosting a productive space for knowledge exchange. Since the input of the contributors was very diverse and personal, the live Salon also at moments stumbled from one perspective to another, mixing up different vocabularies and standpoints. The result was certainly one of engaged and energetic debate, but not everybody could see the forest for the multiple trees obscuring their view. Nor did everyone detect a singular clear interest guiding the whole of the procedures developed. If this book is anything , it is certainly an honest account of a way of working and inviting. It is the result of a proposition to engage in a particular form of discussion and exchange. And it definitely witnesses to both the strengths and weaknesses of this working process.

In short, the preparation and the work developed during the ‘live’ salon put questions before us that largely overstepped the (im)possibility of creating a shared environment for unforeseen knowledge exchange. The questions raised by this work touch upon all levels of our current practices as workers, artists, researchers, thinkers, political beings and human subjects/objects. Covering fields as close and as different as social gatherings, ecologies, politics, cooking, the power of invitation, the hidden sting of responsibility, etcetera..

In this text I will only address some of the questions that came about during this working period, and for most of them I obviously cannot provide you with a satisfactory answer. But let’s look at them as a set of problems, an apparatus of questions and objects that will orient some of our practices in the years to come.

So the initial problems that posed themselves were:

1) How do we rethink the relation between the ‘public’3 sphere of discussion and knowledge today? And how do we avoid thinking of the public sphere as containing only one ‘general public’, on the one hand, or only consisting of a very limited community of like-minded ‘environ-mentalists’ on the other?

2) How do we avoid rethinking the Salon to get sidetracked by the notion of the new which, having come undone under the weight of its neo-liberal overdraft, has stopped to make sense in our current (experimental) arts practices?

3) If we try to avoid the understanding of ‘sharing’ as a reconstitution of an agreement on the common4, how do we sustain the particularity of the practices unfolding in the shared space without tripping over into an environment wherein anything goes but nothing any longer has consequences.

4) How to break open the mold of the Salon in all its prissy closed-off self-contentment to a more processual and sustained practice? One that answers more closely to the artistic practices we have been working in and on for the last decade?

I will only partly answer to some of these questions in the upcoming text, and I will do so in dialogue with some fragments of texts, especially the text ‘Free’ by Irit Rogoff (http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/120), and the preparatory notes on ‘The Ecology of Practices’ by Isabelle Stengers (http://www.imbroglio.be/site/spip.php?article43)


2. from position to proposition: a sense of belonging

When you are about to act, do not rely on any general reason that would give you the right to act. Do take the time to open your imagination and consider this particular occasion. You are not responsible for what will follow, as you are not responsible for the limitations of your imagination. Your responsibility is to be played in the minor key, as a matter of pragmatic ethos, a demanding one nevertheless : what you are responsible of is to pay the best attention you can, to produce the best discrimination you can, about the particular situation. That is to decide in this particular case and not to obey the power of a more general reason.

Isabelle Stengers5

Whoever has been involved in artistic, collaborative practices in the last years has probably been confronted with this problem: in a lot of cases the

1) open-endedness of the projects proposed,

2) the conscious lack (or crafty masking) of any kind of power positions in dealing with the invitation to the participating artists and thinkers,

3) the (historical) loss of a shared ground, methodology or reference frame and

4) the absence of a clear limitation of or grasp on the subject at hand,

often produces frustrating non-debates or futile practices undermining the belief in the potential power these collaborative endeavors started off with. It would sound nostalgic or even full-on reactionary if I were to use this text to express an vague longing for former ideological times. (Which I anyway, taking into account my political background and upbringing, never experienced. The only times I witnessed a full-on politically driven intellectual debate were the rare occasions I took part in discussions and festivals in Zagreb, Belgrade or Ljubljana).

After so many years of trying to redefine the artistic working field - and especially collaborative work processes - as a potentially political one, I have become somewhat wary of the effects these initiatives create. Not only do they seem to lack the reverberating power to do more than polishing up the ever-changing language of cultural politics (where terminology recuperation is is used as loose change in the formulation of ever more regulative practices), but they neither seem to be able to generate the necessary critical self-awareness to fully imagine other environments to work, think and produce in than the ones proposed to us by the institutional frameworks that largely uphold, frame and center the artistic sector’s desires.

On the other hand, as I point out in the text ‘Curating as Environmentalism’, what has changed is the attitude of the artistic worker towards his/her own position within that field. And towards the redistribution6 of means that might undermine the powers of authorship, visibility and institutional renewal as they largely exist nowadays. An important feature in these ‘environmentalist’ practices is exactly the embrace of different topicalities of interest or method, each relating to particular (and precise) practices. As Isabelle Stengers points out in her notes on the ecology of practices (in which she addresses not so much artistic practices as any kind of research practice), this ecology forgoes any kind of sure outcome or common understanding of what it stands for or produces. In her distinction between playing the major key of ideological ‘common’ change, and the more humble minor key of the ecology of practices, Stengers proposes an alternative to the often quite bewildering interpretations of the power of the multitude.

I would thus claim that an important divergence between thinking in a major or in a minor key may well concern the relation between thinking and what we may call, in each case, ethics. The need and power to define a central stage is obviously determined by a political, that is also, by an ethical, project. Celebrating the creative power of the multitude as the very resource Capitalism exploits in its own self-transformation is not a neutral characterization, but one which is intended to participate in its own enaction.

In contrast with this creation of a common movement, shared by all in its desire to overthrow the current political stage, Stengers places the ecology of practices as a tool to rethink the - and thus: any - situation:

What I call ecology of practice is a tool for thinking what is happening, and a tool is never neutral. Also, a tool can be passed from hand to hand, but each time the gesture of taking it in hand will be a particular one : the tool is not a general mean, defined as adequate for a set of particular aims, potentially including the one of the person who is taking it, and it does not entail a judgement on the situation as justifying its use. Borrowing Whitehead’s word, I would speak of a decision, but a decision without a decision-maker. The decision is making the maker as it is producing the relevant relation between the situation and the tool.

The habit of the tool user may make it plausible to speak about recognition, not decision, as if those situations where this or that tool must be used had something in common, a sameness justifying the use of the same tool. (…) But when we deal with "tools for thinking", habit must be resisted. The stake here is "giving to the situation the power to make us think", knowing that this power is always a virtual one, that it has to be actualized. The relevant tools, tools for thinking, are then the ones that address and actualize this power of the situation, that make it a matter of particular concern, that is make us think and not recognize.

Making this distinction certainly saves artistic practices in their particularity from any kind of pragmatic political reduction. But at the same time these practices are not value-free: as we can read in the above-mentioned quote, they come with a responsibility. Every practice is born out of an attachment, a way of relating to things, a belief system that is or is no longer accepted within the ‘common sense’, but which needs to be acknowledged for it to be able to play its role within the ecology. In other words: every practice expresses a sense of belonging that will orient the attachment (to a certain way of doing or interpreting things) of this particular practitioner to the shared space, adding a particular understanding and perspective to the experience of the moment.7 A practice doesn’t have to express an ideological position in order to be able to produce change, but it has to entail a proposition: an invitation to handle the situation, to talk and negotiate, or, in Stengers words, a diplomacy that always takes into account its own risk-taking.

So instead of the proposed ‘mass intellectuality’ as the ‘antagonist force against the Capital’, which is sustained by the theory of the multitude, Stengers places a much more complicated and subtle coming together of different practices and their attachments, taking serious what they stand for and the changes that their coming together in the diplomatic process might produce.

Against the strong dialectics of positions and outcomes, she places the slow diplomacy of manoeuvring often incompatible methodologies until they magically transform the or/or into the and/and. Or: It is important to contrast empowerment, as the transformative power produced by what the witches call rituals, with unity in the name of a cause, that is mobilisation. (Isabelle Stengers)

3. between politeness and politics: challenging and fostering

Indeed diplomacy does not refer to goodwill, togetherness, a common language or an intersubjective understanding. It is not a matter of negotiation between free humans who must be ready to change as the situation changes, but of construction between humans as constrained by diverging attachments, that is as belonging. (Isabelle Stengers)

Turning back to the 19th Century Salons, there is are divergent interpretation of the relation between the ‘public’ life of the Salon, and the ‘serious’ politics developed by the rule-makers of the time. The Salon was seen, both by politicians and academics, as places where ‘oppositional politics were frowned upon’. In that sense they seemed to thrive more on complicated rules of social ‘politeness’ than on a ‘tradition of dissent’, as sustained by the academic (and political) debates. (And this is interesting because apparently at that time there was still an obvious link between political and academic discourse. It would probably take us too far to transpose this anachronistic analogy to our current political debating culture, but...)

In a sense this critique echoes in our contemporary version of the salon. In retrospect the lack of a ‘sense of belonging’ (in a more traditional, ideological sense than Stengers’, meaning rather the ‘lack of a common ground’) seemed to be one of the reasons why both the collaborative writing period and the live Salon produced a lot of willingness and participation, but a surprisingly small amount of clear positions and thoughts. In a first reflection I blamed this on the fragmentation of a political playground in the contemporary artistic scene: a lot of the confusion in position-taking seems (for the individual) to result from simultaneously belonging to very different sets of belief, work and life style sets, that are inherently contradictory. Cultural Studies have translated politics into fashion, skateboarding and Star Trek, advertising has cleverly replaced political slogans, and the political backgrounds of most of us are, if anything, confusing. With no firm ethical ground to stand on, any kind of transparent debate, which makes the participants visible to each other in their own stance - and thus in what they stand for - becomes close to impossible. The result of such coming-together-of-ideas can then only stay vague and open-ended, but somehow seems to miss its point of producing confrontation and change.

The proliferation of projects dealing with the creation of ‘common grounds’, introducing the social explicitly into the artistic scene, seem somehow to be born out of this frustration, out of this lack of a political horizon, out of a longing for the ‘major key’ as Stengers puts it: a shared belief system that would sustain our thinking and debates. (Even though this ‘shared belief’ in a lot of cases returns to quite unappetizing humanist convictions, or to a Kantian understanding of cosmopolitanism). But instead of re-creating a necessarily vague, and often quite unrealistic context for our practices to relate to, the ‘ecology of practices’ proposes a much more challenging invitation to each particular practitioner, asking him/her to take part through the attachments, throughout his sense of belonging, and taking responsibility for the consequences of these choices, in the sense of taking seriously where they will bring us. It is no coincidence that in the last quote Stengers mentions witchery as one of these zones of belonging, and places it on the same ‘level’ of knowledge as physics of economy. It is only in taking our knowledges seriously that a free-floating position can turn itself into a full-blown proposition, capable of changing the situation into an event, a moment of change, setting time back into motion.

This is why technology of belonging is not a technique of production but, as Brian Massumi put it, works both as challenging and fostering. Its two main matters of concern are the question of empowering, a matter of foster, and diplomacy, a matter of challenging. Inversely, challenging as associated with diplomacy, and fostering as associated with empowering, must make explicit the cosmopolitical stance, that is that "we are not alone in the world". (...) The problem for each practice is how to foster their own force, make present what causes practitioners to think and feel and act. But it is a problem which may produce also an experimental togetherness among practices, a dynamics of pragmatic learning of what works and how. This is the kind of active, fostering "milieu" that practices need in order to be able to answer challenges and experiment changes, that is to unfold their own force. This is a social technology any diplomatic practice demands and depends upon. (Isabelle Stengers)

For me this concise formulation of the coming together of the ‘ecology of practices’ through diplomacy and empowerment in a ‘fostering and challenging’ milieu seems like a challenging enough program to get started with. Both in and out of the institution.

4. knowledge and the new

Obviously it is not the romance of liberation that I have in mind here in relation to “free.” Knowledge cannot be “liberated,” it is endlessly embedded in long lines of transformations that link in inexplicable ways to produce new conjunctions. Nor do I have in mind the romance of “avant-garde” knowledge, with its oppositional modes of “innovation” as departure and breach. Nor am I particularly interested in what has been termed “interdisciplinarity,” which, with its intimations of movement and “sharing” between disciplines, de facto leaves intact those membranes of division and logics of separation and containment. Nor, finally, and I say this with some qualification, is my main aim here to undo the disciplinary and professional categories that have divided and isolated bodies of knowledge from one another in order to promote a heterogeneous field populated by “bodies” of knowledge akin to the marketing strategies that ensure choice and multiplicity and dignify the practices of epistemological segregation by producing endless new subcategories for inherited bodies of named and contained knowledge. (Irit Rogoff)8

It is often the biggest challenge for contemporary practices not to fall into the trap of the ‘new’: the buzzwords charging the energy field of the arts, the easily recuperable vectors of here-and-now attachments of a sector. These are the words that smoothly blend into governmental rule-giving systems, and from obscure ‘alternative’ practice sites turn into profile-enhancing tools of visibility and importance.9 On the other hand it is quite a challenge to take these sites of interest seriously, and not to reproduce the ‘attachments’ already made between the term (f.e. ‘environmentalism’) and the esthetics that are generated by them. In a lot of research projects, there is a preset amalgam of convictions that are hard to put into question, but that at the same time are difficult to put into motion.

On of these is the headstrong conviction that ‘power is wrong’. Any kind of experimental gathering is burdened by the idea that the kind of invitation that is extended, the way the space for sharing is opened up, and the possibility for participants to speak, is possibly challenging their sense of freedom or formatting the discourse that will result from the meeting. A lot of the time, this fear of creating too strong a situation combined with its opposite belief in the unending inventiveness of participants to turn an at first glance non-productive space into a buzzing beehive of ideas and practices, falls flat for lacking any clear rules of engagement.

In the Salon we tried to propose clear formats for this engagement, by offering an invitation that would give the participants the chance to not only come prepared to the gathering (by reading the initial text), but also to change the course of the gathering by adding information which would feed into the live encounter. We tried to propose clear table practices (by Adva Zakai and Nicolas Galeazzi, Tom Plischke and Kattrin Deufert and Elke Van Campenhout) and leave the freedom for interpretation and bending to the participants. Including the challenge to change and engage with the surroundings. In other words, though the three working tables were clearly the centers of work and attention, we wanted to let the activity potentially proliferate in other directions. We were convinced that, by taking away our own power for deciding on the exact content addressed at the Salon, and by making ourselves dependent on the input of unknown participants, we would break the power preconceptions attached to any thinking about curatorial practices and Salons in the contemporary arts sector. What worked in this set-up is that we created a benevolent, curious and engaging group of participants. What worked less well was that at that moments they probably didn’t fully understand what they were engaging in, since we left the central topic (curating as environmentalism10) behind to start working on the random outcomes of the collaborative writing practice. The risk with the set-up of these kind of ‘open practices’ is that they often rather copy the esthetics of the coming together, of the sharing, of the non-hierarchical discourse, than they come up with challenging propositions, that will truly make the situation at the end different from the one we started out with. On hte other hand, In avoiding the ‘fetishization of politics’: of opposition, rhetorics, and debate around often empty containers like ‘democracy’ or, why not ‘environmental issues’ (as was recently suggested by Pascal Gielen in his State of the Union at the theaterfestival 2011 (Brussels), of offering up endless opinions about all and nothing, the Salon was an attempt to stay clear of a naive and, in my opinion, rather useless, interpretaion of the politics of esthetics. The field is open, the stakes are high, but the Salon is not over yet. 11

1 All the footnotes in this text result from the ‘reformulation practice’, initiated by Tom Plischke and Kattrin Deufert at the ‘live’ Salon gathering at workspace nadine. Each participant got a notebook on which was written:

Welcome to the reformulation practice

Each notebook contains from anatomy/metabolism and a term from the text Curating as Environmentalism by Elke Van Campenhout. This terms will step by step be reformulated with your help into a concept for curating.

For each step of the reformulation procedure you will receive a notebook, a time frame and a task. (...) Please return your notebook after the indicated time, so it can be passed on to another contributor. If you want you can take another notebook and another task.

Your contribution will be used in the documentation of the curating as environ-mentalism project by Adva Zakai and Elke Van Campenhout.

These footnotes are thus reactions to certain couples of terms (like membrane-collaboration, circulatory system-intertwining, fibre-participation, vertebra-project, etc...) and a certain task of reformulation.

2 Exchange is inherent to art-making. It can be present in terms of ideas, interests, knowledges or practices. It is a ‘give and take ‘method which may happen spontaneously, intentionally, or not, or due to an imposed structure.

3 Public = Shareable. If I think about public I think about gathering. Intertwined difference. I don’t think about participation but about engagement + about the responsibility and enjoyment of being there. About not being subjected to what is proposed but to be active and make up something for yourself. In terms of artistic practice it is connected to creating other formats of encounter between artists and audience. It maybe has something to do with re-inventing the idea of art to demystify the ‘illuminated’ power figures.

To think. To be part of. To share. To enjoy.

41st Statement: ‘I want muscle’ (Diana Ross)

By participating, we create fibres which then, through interactions and multiplications, form the muscles of our individuation process. Individuation is only possible when the individual is ‘getting out’ of him/herself by participating in something out of her/her limits: the collective stuff made out of individual fibres.

5A cell as an organizing principle claims a clearly distinguished space of unity. A cell has the potential of secrecy, of making a clear distinction between its clandestine ongoings and what the rest of the organism believes, stand for, functions. A cell is the place where the overall goal of the organism is cruelly put into question. Where the shared belief and organization system is overruled by mutiny and mutation, by the individual creativity going haywire, destroying everything in its close vicinity. The cell has the potential of turning into an agressive actor, fucking up any kind of shared behavior and understanding. this is where imperfection comes in, as a mode of disrespecting the norm, as an anarchic statement, carrying the pharmaceutic promise of both change and destruction.


Swapping lives with a refugee.

Organizing a garage sale (Martha Rosler)

7Participation. A bubble a commitment a stand a position. Interaction but on whose terms and who or how are these determined? Is isolation the opposite? Does there always have to be an opposing position even in participation? By just being a body in space here+now I am participating just with my presence. I participate with a smile X the room. I engage. Now let’s talk about the quality of this participation. Ah shit there has to be engagement in participation. A part of you reflected, dissipated.

8Body orifices open up anywhere

Orifices maintain connections

Connections maintain redistribution

Organs interchange. They belong to the same flow.

Music sings in the foot

Stolen artworks get remembered better

We are thinking ‘why?’

9Project: I’d like to think of ‘time/work intervals’: certain collections of activities within a chosen time frame that packs them up tightly or loosely, with a clear or vague delineation of the activities concerned. Such a definition sounds arguably totally abstract and very open. But the way the term ‘project’ has invaded the whole cultural field and has become a filter for relating to risk (or perceived risk) taking, wherein even the improvisation of risk itself has to be planned out as a project, has frozen up this openness, to the point of a complete shut-down.

10The artery of our artistic engagement is our attention to the environments it creates.

Arteries pump oxygenated blood to the rest of our body.

It is the artist’s prerogative to be able to do the same.

The heart of the environment is in constant movement.

So it is not unlogical for the arteries to get entangled, temporarily blocked, or clogged up with doubts and indecisions.

11The show is over. Soup is served. ‘Content’ is merging with bread and spinach, chat, gossip. Merging into a new soup, a meta-level of discussing the environment we’re in. The conversation is carried on ‘why do we work the way we do? And for whom?’.