A Time Capsule for the
A Time Capsule for the
Berlin, May 2020—the third month of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. It’s not common usage to put a date on a text like this, but these are not common times. When I was invited to write about Ludlow 38, the world still seemed to be reasonably stable, even if we were all deeply aware of the climate crisis. Projects ended, they were evaluated, and new ones followed in which attempts were made to learn from our achievements and mistakes. These days, however, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing a profound disruption to the ecosystem of cultural production that has grown for decades around the world.
If writing about Ludlow 38 Glossary Ludlow 38: at the beginning of 2020 meant discussing a successful model of an ephemeral curatorial residency program, browsing through its archive now feels like examining a time capsule containing historical documents and memorabilia for those to come, the snapshot of a bygone culture. As New York is still struggling with the pandemic, this time capsule packs a punch, providing a glimpse of the intellectual pleasure and unique energy that arose in a small gallery on the Lower East Side. In the Ludlow online archive I came upon an impressive map constellating actors, voices, materials, and networks. It is a formidable list of participants, and I was impressed by the curatorial residents’ projects in particular—from the first exhibition devoted to concrete poetry, to the final party cleverly titled Too Faust Too Furious. Other programming highlights featured the rituals of the art world, the inclusion of the São Paulo-based initiative Programa de Ações Culturais Autônomas, reflections on infrastructures of pain, cruising culture in New York, and the activities of the Agency for Legal Imagination.
The various Ludlow 38 projects manifest a common programmatic thread: “a shared ethos of artistic work as an experimental engagement with public and civic life and thinking,” (as stated in the 2010 program notes for an evening with Jeremiah Day, Simone Forti, and Fred Dewey). The nine curatorial residents who worked at Ludlow challenged notions of exhibition practice with their unique and experimental projects, while establishing connections between artistic communities on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. In doing so, they refused to accept the logic of representation, any essentialist idea, and the establishment of categories of art history—often the fundamentals of international cooperation projects. Their curatorial practice brought ideas, objects, and people together; imagined new ways of presenting and mediating contemporary art; translated experiences of art and culture; and created poetic and political connections. The curators localized artistic practice, established alliances and solidarities, developed an audience, and created a sphere of public resonance. As an ephemeral institution, Ludlow was meant to end at a given time, its archive being its legacy. What will be left of these kinds of experiences in the newly dawning era?
Since the onset of the pandemic, artists, writers, and scholars worldwide have tried to continue their work in a digital mode while becoming increasingly aware of the profound changes happening. Venues, presentation formats, rituals, and practices that we took for granted and considered to be permanent, will disappear worldwide. Will that art house cinema in New York, that bookstore in Madrid, that gallery in Mexico City, that experimental club in Buenos Aires, still exist in the aftermath of the pandemic? What will come of all those places that we frequented on every trip for the reassurance that art and culture still make a difference despite the gentrification of cities? How will art biennials, film festivals, or conferences take place if the financial architecture of the art market, public institutions, and city marketing collapses? How will the role of curators change when budget scopes narrow and museums reduce their activities to the preservation of collections and inventories? What will artists and cultural workers subsist on when a massive recession takes away even the informal and precarious jobs which provide a livelihood for many? How should art institutions redefine their work vis-à-vis this profound disruption?
Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, French philosopher Bruno Latour suggested a reconsideration of “what is desirable and what has ceased to be so.” If, he argues, the pandemic has altered collective and individual behaviors from one day to the next, the climate breakdown will make it necessary for us to decide what should remain. Latour urges humans to evaluate “the chains we are ready to reconstruct and those that, in our behavior, we have decided to interrupt.”1 Cultural workers have a similar task at hand. What is essential in our programming, and what isn’t? What was worth our effort, what do we want to preserve in the new order? As director of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, one of Germany’s most renowned residency programs, I have the privilege of working under the auspices of publicly funded cultural policies. What role could artist-in-residency programs play in the times to come?
The COVID-19 crisis currently endangers the livelihoods of artists and cultural workers. In the US 62% of artists have already become fully unemployed. In Germany, the cultural sector employs more people than the automotive industry and roughly 1.7 million people currently depend on emergency income from the state. Worldwide, the impact is hardly measurable. Soon after the outbreak of the pandemic, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery, called for a “new New Deal” for the arts2, modeled after President Roosevelt’s series of programs to fight the impact of the Great Depression. Between 1933 and 1934, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) hired American artists to work on federal buildings through public contracts for sculptures and murals. In 1944 the art historian Erica Beckh summarized the objectives of this funding program as follows: “(1) to establish democratic methods of government art patronage, (2) to decentralize artistic activity throughout the entire nation, (3) to encourage the emergence of young, unknown talent, (4) to increase the general public appreciation of the arts, and (5) to promote a closer interrelation of the artists with their social environment.”3
The post-war European residency programs also emerged from the spirit of the New Deal. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, created a residency program in Bellagio, Italy, in 1959. In 1963, the Artists-in-Berlin Program was launched by the Ford Foundation to internationalize cultural life in then West-Berlin. The Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris was founded in 1965 in response to Paris’s waning importance as an art center in the context of the Second World War. But residency programs also proved their worth during other phases of change: After the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, numerous artist residencies emerged in buildings formerly used by the socialist regime, such as in Ujazdowski Castle in Poland. Whether in Beirut or in Johannesburg, in São Paulo, or in Gwangju, residency programs have proven their worth as instruments of reconstruction, helping to strengthen cultural infrastructure and opportunities for artists.
What role do residencies play in the contemporary art ecosystem and how can they transform art and society in the face of current social upheavals? Since their inception in the 1950s, residency programs have gradually become a central resource for knowledge transfer, networking, and international cooperation over the course of growing global interrelations. The worldwide network Res Artis includes over 700 residencies. The DutchCulture TransArtist project lists 1,400 residencies worldwide on its website. The Working Group on German International Residency Programs (Arbeitskreis deutscher internationaler Residenzprogramme) alone brings together representatives from approximately 20 institutions that operate in Germany and abroad, including the Goethe-Institut, the DAAD’s Artists-in-Berlin Program, and the long-standing Villa Massimo in Rome, as well as regional beacons like PACT Zollverein in Essen or Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. But artist residencies are also embedded within other structures: private companies, primary schools, and even scientific research centers such as CERN or NASA, and the German Foreign Office have established residency programs.
In the past two decades, residency programs have built up a sophisticated cultural infrastructure that enables non-formal education and mutual learning processes for the societies of origin as well as the host societies. At residencies—metropolises and small towns, in castles and country houses, and in old factories or new landmark buildings—artists, cultural workers, media makers, and scholars can pursue creative processes, work on artistic productions, and develop a sustainable dialogue with their peers and, importantly, increase their symbolic capital. Residency programs not only give artists and cultural workers leeway for creativity, they also connect international beneficiaries with local communities, create spaces for encounters with local society, and make contemporary art processes tangible.
The COVID-19 crisis has painfully demonstrated the intolerable nature of a society without closeness, and the dullness of discussions without face-to-face dialogue. Days which lack unexpected encounters become unproductive, and learning or inventing new things in the absence of common physical experiences is very difficult. At the peak of the lockdown, while sheltering in place, New York-based journalist Masha Gessen suggested that “isolation renders people impotent”4 since it undermines the “common sense,” which Hannah Arendt defined as a shared understanding of reality based on communal experiences. Collective effort is required to cope with the devastating effects of the harsh societal divisions; the pandemic illuminates unequal access to health services and education, and the failure of governments to cope with the pandemic and its aftermath. But it is also the very nature of the res publica, the public affairs as well as the public space, which is at risk when people are isolated.
In post-pandemic societies, reconstituting the social fabric and creating shared experiences will become a core task for artists and cultural organizations alike. One such endeavor occurred in Berlin during shelter in place, when curators Övül Ö. Durmusoglu and Joanna Warsza developed the project “Die Balkone” (The Balconies). They invited cultural workers living in the East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, many of whom were frequent professional travelers suddenly stranded in their own city by the pandemic, to artistically activate their windows and balconies. “With zero budget, no opening, and no crowds, the project proposes an intimate stroll (within current regulations) to search for signs of life, art, and points of kinship and connection.”5 They showed how isolation and individualization can be overcome by cooperative action. We need these new forms of urbanity and shared space more than ever.
When it comes to international exchange, residency programs have often legitimized their work through the trope of transcending boundaries. They tend to construe artists as being farsighted nomads, citizens of the world who settle down for a limited period before moving on to new shores. Sociologist Andrea Glauser has pointed out that “the image of the nomad, at home everywhere and nowhere at the same time, implies intensive mobility as an end in itself. ” This celebration of mobility overlooked the fact that the international border regime prevents access and limits rights to those carrying less privileged passports.
The image of artists as nomads contains two delusions. Firstly, globalization has only enabled the mobility of financial capital, not of humans. In this sense, residency programs were not the expression of a supposed worldwide mobility of talents and ideas, but a counter-movement—an alternative space or even the possibility of a counter-public insofar as they temporarily offset exclusion mechanisms for artists and scholars. Residency programs have often been the only way for cultural workers from the Global South to legally obtain permission to stay in an art center such as Paris, London, or Berlin. International grants also provide a form of recognition and enormous prestige for those many artists and cultural workers who feel isolated or even unwanted in their communities of origin. Secondly, not all artists want to be perpetually on the move. Residency programs do not reinforce rootlessness or nomadism, but offer the possibility of relating to a place and creating networks of belonging. The experience abroad impacts artists and cultural workers and changes their practice in ways that enrich their new home base as well as their community of origin. Meeting people who are unlike us, who do not share our worldviews and ways of being, generates the reflexivity and cultural literacy needed for aesthetic and intellectual openness.
The COVID-19 crisis will very likely hinder mobility and international exchange even further. In many cases, the pandemic is taken as a justification, if not an alibi, for authoritarian, nationalist regressions. The digitalization of teaching and working, fostered and accelerated by the pandemic, will eventually become a further obstacle for geographic mobility. In the event of a global recession, the disparities in access to knowledge, resources, and experience will only increase. Residency programs as catalysts of international encounters, as places where neighbors can exchange and share experiences with newcomers who bring knowledge from remote areas of the world, will become even more important. As the pandemic reinforces nationalist isolationist tendencies, civil societies may need to experience interconnectivity differently, and devise new ways to engage with the world across national borders. Residency programs thereby become venues where the local, the global, and the planetary get entangled.
And yet, the forced standstill during the pandemic has revealed something that cultural and knowledge workers have long suspected but did not want to admit: that the majority of travel is unnecessary and that the casual nature of jetting from here to there is highly problematic. Frequent flights over the Atlantic, or trips further afield, are part of accelerated economic processes, and the virus outbreak highlights the consequences of this excessive mobility. One of the main challenges that art institutions face during the climate breakdown is how to adapt to the eventual fossil fuel phase-out. Residency programs typically allow longer stays than biennial and conference visits; they are therefore particularly suitable “petri dishes for social transformation,”6 micro-sites where we can work innovatively and set a good example for reimagining institutional habits in order to reduce our carbon footprint. One inevitable task in the coming years is to take ecology seriously and interrogate the climate resilience of curatorial and institutional practices.7 This is a mandate for future curatorial residency programs to focus on the critical potential of curatorial work in order to transform institutions for a climate-resilient society.
Residency programs offered freedom for the development of creativity and an in-depth examination of artistic work. They established space for exploring ideas, failing, and taking detours. In a time of overproduction and overconsumption, they allowed artists to indulge in actions without outcome or purpose. They implemented a slower mode, a practice of deceleration that now takes on greater import. At the height of the pandemic outbreak in Italy in March 2020, Italian curator and activist Marco Baravalle called for the Venice Biennale to adopt the working mode of residency programs, writing: “…do we really need a machine attracting tens of thousands of people for the opening, and then having to work hard to create an audience for the remaining period of the event? (…) Could we not rather think of a curator’s exhibition where the curator invites the artists—even in smaller numbers—to intervene in and outside the main venues of the Giardini and the Arsenale, with projects having a longer duration, i.e. two years? The idea, far from wanting La Biennale turn into a huge residency project, rather intends to shift attention from ‘the showing’ to ‘the inhabiting’ allowing a new space-time dimension for projects that want to engage with the context and that until now too often result in paternalistic and unattended social counseling.”8
Residencies enable many different models of knowledge production and sharing. While inviting artists to inhabit a city, like the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program has done for almost six decades, has proven to be a highly successful way to engage with local issues and to expand the public conversation, residency programs for curators are particularly able to reflect the conditions of institutional action and to integrate new practices for presenting and mediating arts. Curatorial residencies thus offer a future-oriented strategy for institutions to learn. During his residency in Berlin, curator Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh taught me how contemporary institutions such as the blaxTARLINES art center in Kumasi, Ghana, become relevant for the local community and how this democratizes access to art by emphasizing collective curating, intergenerational conversations, accessibility programming, and by acknowledging the work of unknown artists. His insights challenged the assumptions of an institution organized around the promotion of outstanding individual artists.
Curatorial residents are particularly well equipped to study the geopolitical shortcomings and other blind spots of art institutions. The residency program U-jazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art, located in a former royal residence in Warsaw, developed a program called “Re-Directing East,” inviting curators from North Africa, the Middle East, and Arab countries to reflect on transnational collaborations concerning the common good, especially with regard to the once close relationship between countries of the so-called Eastern Bloc and the Arab and Maghreb region. The title drew attention towards regions that until then had rarely been present together in artist residency programs: Eastern European, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern countries.
The Finnish art-funding agency Frame, in cooperation with the CASCO Art Institute in the Netherlands and Ireland’s Biennial Eva International, recently announced grants for curatorial research for 2021-2023; they ask the applicants to rethink what internationality and mobility of curatorial research could mean in the future. This initiative not only actively aims to support future models, but in so doing points at the core of the assumption of many cultural policies that consider international mobility a value in itself.
With the aim of transforming German institutions, the German Federal Foundation for Culture has recently launched a new curatorial residency program. By providing support for African curators to develop exhibitions and public programs in Germany, it strives to encourage art organizations to focus on the artistic production and cultural debates in African countries. The initiative aims to include African artists, thinkers, and activists in public discourse about Germany’s colonial history and its effect on the twenty-first century, while addressing migration, climate justice, or global economic orders. By creating residencies for African curators in Berlin and German curators in Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Lagos, the Foundation offers incentives primarily to German institutions to work on the structural asymmetries caused by the institutional heritage of colonialism.
When conditions are right, residencies create an alternate temporality. Artists are given time to listen, to devote themselves to unfinished work, to share knowledge. Curators are given the chance to deeply engage with the specificities of a given place, to work in situ on research, to take time out from constant production, to test their strategies in a different context, to interact with new audiences, and to collaborate with artists and peers in unfamiliar settings.9 For artists, curators, and scholars alike, engaging in a residency abroad means to confront one’s own limitations, unlearn what does not stand to critique, and to start anew.
Ideally, residency program participants are interested in forming a temporary community that engages in dialogue centered on creative processes. Residency hosts must be prepared to take care of others while being aware of the vulnerability that comes with making art. This ability to build temporary communities and infrastructures of care is at the core of what residency programs are all about. It is an approach that will become beneficial in the post-pandemic era when cities will need to rely on resilience rather than on competitiveness. Many European capitals are embracing the idea of becoming cities of care instead of striving to be smart cities managed through data technology.
If anything from the pre-pandemic time is worth saving, it is an ethic of hospitality. In the eighteenth century, European and North and South American thinkers argued for the right to migrate, to arrive elsewhere, settle, and to build a new homeland. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 also focused on the obligation to receive people, especially those who are persecuted, and to give them a permanent new home. Biased as these claims were, they established the basis for laws that allowed migrants to cross frontiers. But the political will to live up to this provision is dwindling ever more. The stranger whom we should welcome as a guest has become someone who is banished, devalued, or excluded. As artistic and academic freedom has become more endangered, a number of residency programs have joined the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) or the Martin Roth Initiative of the Goethe-Institut and Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa), which connect artists-at-risk with institutions willing to offer shelter. These protected spaces for artists, cultural workers, media makers, and scholars will become indispensable in coming years.
In the world created by this crisis, artists will play a crucial role. They will be needed to name our grief and our fear, to find ways through the radical uncertainty, to forge communities, and to nourish hope that there will be new approaches to living together in which all can thrive. Artistic practice is located in specific cultural contexts, in material conditions, and in power relationships, and can therefore show how individual and collective action may enrich political imagination. In this context, residency programs should offer artists and cultural workers a respite, a shelter, and dynamic spaces for thought that open up to the unknown.
In parallel to community-based art-making, curators will need to reconnect with the original meaning of the term “curare”—to treat, to care for. Curatorial practice must develop forms of healing, not as a way of repairing or conserving precious objects, but rather as an attitude vis à vis the world. Many curators already embrace this by engaging with the vulnerable—from disadvantaged groups to lifeforms threatened by extinction. They devise methods to strengthen their own social fabric by working with objects and framing meanings in a soothing and compassionate way. This approach to curation demands humility, giving space to others and anticipating their needs while being able to relate to the world in a poetic and imaginative way. These methods of curating-as-caring will help us through the coming times.
- Bruno Latour, “What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?” Accessed on May 1, 2020.
- Hans-Ulrich Obrist, “New New Deal: Toward a New Era of Social Imagination,” artnet news, May 5, 2020.
- Cited by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, ibid.
- Masha Gessen, “The Political Consequences of Loneliness and Isolation,” The New Yorker, May 5, 2020.
- Die Balkone. Life, Art, Pandemic, and Proximity in Windows & Balconies
- Stefan Hiltershaus, unpublished
- Jenni Nurmenniemi, “Going Post-fossil in a Neoliberal Climate,” Taru Elfving, Irmeli Kokko, Pascal Gielen (eds.): Contemporary Artist Residencies. Reclaiming Time and Space
- Marco Baravalle, “On the Biennale’s Ruins—Inhabiting the Void, Covering the Distance”
- For an in-depth discussion of curatorial residencies, including Ludlow 38, see: “RE-tooling RESIDENCIES: A Closer Look at the Mobility of Art”