DAVID BLAMEY: My understanding of the term ‘self-organised’ within the art context is that it describes how groups, collectives, and other networks of individuals can operate independently from institutional and corporate structures. Self-organised initiatives appear to have strived to be non-hierarchical and conduct their decision-making processes along the lines of open participatory models. Some have developed counter-economic strategies as an alternative to traditional capitalist organisational principles that are perhaps, in the view of the self-organisers, exploitive or reliant on top-down power dynamics. Was it your intention to reassess this commonly held view? Have you observed an evolution of the term, or a shift that warrants a re-appraisal?
Anne Szefer Karlsen: Many of these principles still apply, but we don’t believe that looking at self-organisation as part of an opposing dichotomy is any longer possible. However, we started out with this opposition in mind. Our investigations have focussed on self-organisation beyond the limiting labels of ‘alternative’, ‘non-profit’ or ‘artist-run’, which have been the prevailing terms dominating discussions of both the subject and its history in recent times. Looking at self-organisation as merely a response doesn’t take into consideration that the choice to be ‘self-organised’ implies a certain dualistic dependency, between the self – an individual – and an organised community within society. We see this dependency as being governed by common interest more than formality and obligation. The field of self-organisation is therefore more complex than the conventional separatist approach entails. It has moved beyond a process of simply dissolving boundaries between institutional and non-institutional platforms to creating new possibilities.
Stine Hebert: It should also be stated that we have deliberately focussed on self-organisation within the art world rather than as a general phenomenon in society. Self-organisation has otherwise been discussed primarily in social-political commentaries, such as in: Self-Organisation/Counter-Economic Strategies (edited by Will Bradley, Mika Hannula, Cristina Ricupero and Superflex) from 2006, or in the reader on art and labour, Work Work Work from 2012 (edited by Jonatan Habib Engqvist, Annika Enqvist, Michele Masucci, Lisa Rosendahl and Cecilia Widenheim). Self-organisation is of topical interest at the moment and in 2012 alone we have seen the following publications come out: Institutions by Artists (edited by Jeff Khonsary and Kristina Lee Podesva) which documents a conference in Vancouver that aimed to evaluate the performance and promise of contemporary artist-run centres and initiatives; Institution for the Future (edited by Biljana Ciric and Sally Lai) presenting reflections by artists, curators and other cultural workers on what an institution for the future should and needs to look like; and Artist Run Spaces (edited by Gabriele Detterer and Maurizio Nannucci) focusing on artist-run spaces of the 1960s-1970s. One of our intentions has been to supplement these earlier discussions and so we have narrowed the focus and aimed at counterbalancing the existing works that historicise the subject of self-organisation by locating it within a limited geographical context, during a specific period of time.
Anne Szefer Karlsen: This anthology is also inspired by the recent surge of history writing in the non-institutional field. Increasing volumes of books and seminars have surfaced during the last couple of years showing an active engagement with the historicisation of the field by the very same people involved in it. An absence of competing accounts has allowed the practitioners involved to write themselves into history – ironically, often employing the same strategies as their institutional cousins. The resulting potential for self-mythologising projects that would otherwise be forgotten caught our attention and raised an important question in our minds: do the self-organised subjects of today situate themselves differently from the past and if so, how? Stepping back from the ‘outsider’ position seems to be an important determining factor and so we have also been interested in investigating the driving forces that make a non-institutional initiative transform itself into an institutional structure.
David Blamey: If you have detected that in some instances the purity of self-organised ideals being expounded in the late 1990s and early 00s have become corrupted, looking through the other end of the telescope, could it also be suggested that some art institutions have begun to adopt the methods of self-organisation, but perhaps without reforming their inner most intentions. If so, are there any particular examples that you could site that would bring this observation into focus?
Stine Hebert: In the spring of 2010 we were able to observe close at hand the celebration of the tenth anniversary of Tate Modern in London through the event, No Soul for Sale – A Festival of Independents, as both of us were invited to participate by two of the ‘independents’ that took part. This turned out to be a highly unconventional celebration of a museum’s first decade of institutional service and on many levels a contradictory site in which to encounter so many non-institutions. Each of the 70 so-called independent initiatives that were invited to take part was assigned a demarcated space in the museum’s Turbine Hall. The overall experience functioned as a kind of chaotic bazaar. Unfortunately the museum didn’t offer any financial support to the contributors that participated in this celebration, and only minimal organisational assistance. The fact that most invited participants so readily accepted these terms demonstrated to us an important lesson about how the institutional art world sustains itself: the value of the institution’s embrace still offers enough prestige and power to compensate for the problematic conditions on offer. However, we have to concede that this dependency is mutual, as the institution in this case desired to be associated with the energy and free spirit only found outside of its own heavy museum bureaucracy.
David Blamey: But this idea about a mutual dependency of conflicting interests could be seen as being an essential precept to the wider mechanics of art’s production and consumption. Certainly in my lifetime there has always been a discernable link.
Anne Szefer Karlsen: Indeed. An example of a project that productively considers such a relationship would be the retrospective exhibition, Trauma 1-11: Stories About the Free University in Copenhagen and the Surrounding Society in the Last Ten Years at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde, Denmark (2011). Copenhagen Free University (CFU) was a project co-founded by Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen in their apartment in the Nørrebro district, which was also the artists’ home. Between 2001-07 CFU operated as a space for research and knowledge exchange. It hosted activities such as workshops, film screenings, lectures, small exhibitions and produced publications. Heise and Jakobsen developed the exhibition project Trauma 1-11 in collaboration with Emma Hedditch, Howard Slater and Anthony Davies and it was conceived as a poetic representation of how the experiences of their practice within CFU and in society affected each other. The exhibition was presented as a 60-minute sound walk through the museum’s spaces where the audience encountered propaganda material, props and remnants from the CFU as well as new works. The commentary leading the audience through the exhibition was transmitted through a recorded voiceover. It told the story of CFU’s establishment in Heise and Jakobsen’s home, recalled the reasons to cease activities, and explained how years later they were informed by the Danish government that it had become illegal by Danish law to use the term ‘university’ for anything but state authorised institutions. Presenting this kind of exhibition in a museum context raised some interesting questions about history writing and about what gets included, as well as excluded, from the archive. The exhibition provoked thoughts on the status of self-organisation on many levels and in particular, it emphasised one of our assumptions: that when an institution, or non-institution for that matter, decides not to cave into instrumental demands, that is the moment when the self-organised crystallises and becomes visible.
David Blamey: Two thoughts immediately come to mind from this example. Firstly, that this discursive method of working mirrors the rise of curatorial practices that have taken place over the same period. Secondly, that this CFU exhibition was mounted in the same year as your Tate example – presumably drawing from the same well of ideas, but with a strikingly different flavour.
Stine Hebert: Yes, these cases highlight very different approaches to collaborative work between non-institutional and institutional platforms. No Soul For Sale received harsh criticism for its barely-concealed exploitive undertones, while the Trauma 1-11 exhibition proved to be a more productive example of a museum hosting an independent project’s poetic exploration of its own history writing – with a result that was in fact empowering for both. Ultimately, the two exhibitions accentuate the gravity of mutual dependency that you make the argument for, in their own ways.
It’s also true that the last twenty or so years have seen a blossoming debate on the development of curatorial practice. Discussions have necessarily taken place as a consequence of the gradual – one could also say inevitable – institutionalisation of the curator, as well as an increased segregation of discussions on conventional institutional and non-institutional structures. This tendency has manifested itself widely and can be observed in discourses dealing with curatorial practice, artist-run spaces, kunsthalles, biennials, art education, museums and of course, the development of institutional critique in all its facets. Our discussions have been closely linked to the development of the field of curating, but we have approached the subject of self-organisation without taking the curatorial as a starting point per se. Instead, our aim has been to open our examinations up for all contexts where art is commissioned, produced and displayed. Another question then that we would like to raise is about what the relationship between the self and community is. In this case between the individual, the art system and crucially, society at large.
David Blamey: So you are accepting of the idea that the art world – or our mainstream European province of the global art world – operates as a kind of matrix of independent and institutional positions, but in re-examining the presumption that these are somehow rival or conflicting standpoints, have developed a more holistic picture. One of the things that interest me here is the hint of communalism that’s entering this discussion. When you talk about ‘community’ and ‘society’ in relation to the ‘self’, are you proposing that an analysis of the responses that you received from contributors points to the possibility of some kind of social transformation?
Stine Hebert: It is dangerous to claim that self-organisation holds transformative potential in itself – that could easily be mistaken for business management jargon and capitalism’s vicious capacity to profit by absorbing the alternative. As Jan Verwoert’s article expresses, the state of society today forces you to organise yourself – either on your own, or together with others. But this line of reasoning should not be mistaken for a situation based on total freedom. Rather, the urge to self-organise stems from the struggle to survive. It is a response to the political climate and all the implications of our changing economic situation. There is certainly an urgent need to take action and realise other economies outside of the capitalist production paradigm. A couple of propositions for this can be found among our contributors here: Céline Condorelli points at friendship as the core support structure for a better way of living; Barnaby Drabble speaks about the potential liberation of ‘de-organisation’ as the only way to change our over-managed lives; and WHW proposes to employ another temporality in our everyday life – waiting, not as a passive withdrawal, but rather as an insistence on allowing room for criticality to develop by testing out and gradually assessing new modalities for art production.
David Blamey: All of this raises a question in my mind about the continuing draw of institutional power, particularly since we are in a period where across all sections of society there is such a general lack of confidence in institutions, such as the banking system and the press. In the UK, our economic, social and political difficulties are seen as being linked to a general decline in institutional integrity.
Stine Hebert: In the seminal text from 2005, ‘There is no alternative: the future is self-organised, part 1’ (TINA), co-authored by Anthony Davies, Stephan Dillemuth and Jakob Jakobsen, the argument is put forward for the revolutionary potential of a future of self-organisation. The manifesto criticises existing institutional structures for operating by principles instigated by private corporations and for loosing sight of their public obligation. The authors thereby claim self-organisation as the only way to proceed from this point of departure. In the years passing from when this text was written, the financial crisis impacted as a global phenomenon and caused a total collapse of many large institutions. Following these dramatic changes in society, the trio has felt compelled to revise their text for this anthology and TINA2 speaks of self-organisation as a radical process that continuously challenges the fixed relationships our society is built upon – between the self, the individual and the institution.
Anne Szefer Karlsen: As curators and educators ourselves, working both independently and institutionally, we are actively involved in questioning the complicated relationships that underpin our work. The experience of moving between different platforms and operating with multiple voices has made the need to reassess conventionally fixed positions in the art world imperative at this time. The problem of how to position the self-organised within this paradoxical and changing environment has therefore informed the analysis within this book.
Stine Hebert: In asking writers, artists, art historians, curators, and critics as well as museum directors to present a singular take on self-organisation based on their own experiences, we have sought to analyse the topic using both empirical and theoretical tools. The diversity of this approach is intended to mirror the pluralism of the scene. We therefore begin with a group of contextual readings of the self-organised; this is followed by a series of case studies written by people who reflect upon their own activities over varying distances and times; and we conclude with more polemic statements that speculate about the future. Instead of getting bogged down by semantics this volume does not then attempt to map the territory and its historical development in the art world, but rather, it hopes to question and reorient an understanding of what it means to be ‘self-organised.’
This conversation was published as the foreword to the anthology ‚Self-Organised‘, edited by Stine Hebert & Anne Szefer Karlsen and published by Open Editions/Hordaland Art Centre, 2013.