Review: On the practices and responsibilities of socially engaged art
On March 29th 2017, Framer Framed hosted a performance by Russian artist Gluklya, organized by TAAK. The event, named Report from Prison and introduced as an unusual roundtable discussion, saw Gluklya’s presentation of her new project – the Utopian Unemployment Union of Amsterdam – Language of Fragility.
To bring about this project, Gluklya (who is often considered one of the pioneers of Russian performance, as well as the co-founder of the collective The Factory of Found Clothes and an active member of Chto Delat?), has rented a studio in Lola Lik – a cultural hub located in the former Bijlmerbajes prison. Since August 2016, the prison has become the Centre for Asylum Seekers AZC Wenckebachweg (an arrangement that raises several questions; highlighting the palpable – and one might say insensitive – pragmatism that informed this resolution, and accentuating the politically-charged representation of refugees as prisoners). From her studio, Gluklya is engaged in collaborating with refugees from different parts of the world who are currently in the AZC Centre; organising performances, workshops, and other types of gatherings; ultimately working towards examining the role art can have in the migrants’ integration in their new, everyday life in this foreign country. The project will culminate in a performative demonstration through the streets of Amsterdam in October 2017 – coinciding with the centenary of the October Revolution –, named Carnival of the Oppressed Feelings and organized by TAAK.
Report from Prison would be one of Gluklya’s first attempts at making this project public: a first step towards connecting the Utopian Unemployment Union of Amsterdam – Language of Fragility to the regular art-and-culture audience. As the preparations for the event of March 29th developed and eventually folded into the evening of the performance, the atmosphere Gluklya aimed to create for the event crystallized. The evening sought to become a type of dialogue or presentation in which artists, curators, and refugees would participate; mostly dominated by discussions on language, bureaucratic mazes, and the rules and regulations the Bijlmerbajes residents – and those who want to work with them – must follow. As I will narrate further on, however, the event took a different turn – and ended up being an unexpected debate about thoughtful topics that would shed light on the participants’ working practices.
The forms and patterns that would later run through the entire performance became clear, as the room (the IJzaal, next to Framer Framed) was decorated with the artist’s emblematic objects: colourful clothes and robes hung from the windows, pillows were placed on the floor, and “resistance” chairs – chairs that resist being sat on – were strategically placed throughout the space. Together with this, whilst some of the event speakers and organisers became “protagonists”, others turned into “showgirls” for the evening; and our project coordinator Léon Kruijswijk acted as a sombre prison guard who hosted the event. Meanwhile the audience started entering the room whilst being greeted at the door by two of our colleagues; one of which was wrapped in a black sleeping bag with a long pink hand – a design apparently inspired by a child’s nightmare.
Once the audience had entered the slightly surreal space and chosen a place to sit, our host for the evening introduced the event – thus formally initiating the performance. In the introduction, a brief mention about the resistance chairs and the textiles that adorned them was made: as written in the artist’s script that our host read, to migrate from their countries, refugees can hide in the most secluded and camouflaged places imaginable – including under chairs, becoming invisible bellow the fabric that covers the object. Whilst Léon Kruijswijk explained the background of Gluklya’s project, two of our Framer Framed colleagues who had been greeting the audience at the door – one of them disguised as a nightmare – walked around the space interacting with people briefly; whilst the other colleagues – “showgirls” – strolled through the crowd whilst presenting some drawings. These drawings, Léon clarified, were made by Gluklya in Bijlmerbajes together with the prison’s current residents. In relation to this, the host explained that two of the AZC residents Gluklya had been working with from her studio eventually did not make it to the event, as the Government could track them down through Facebook, and they became worried about losing their uitkering (their allowance).
The audience was then presented with a sound recording that would play for the following few minutes, accompanied by a static video of a closed door. The sound was that of a male voice reciting part of the AZC Wenckebachweg protocol, narrating some of the rules the refugees who live at the Bijlmerbajes complex (and those who want to work with them) must follow. The recording was in Dutch, thus making it inaccessible for those of us who do not speak the language – we could only understand the severity and absurdity of the protocol through the audience’s facial expressions and gestures. What can be interpreted as an irrelevant choice of language for the sound-track – as a non-Dutch speaker, I am accustomed to conversations falling back into Dutch every now and then – perhaps points towards an important aspect of the artist’s project. Most people would understand the recording, but a minority wouldn’t; and whilst for me it was simply a moment of disconnection from the established communication between hosts and audience, a reflection followed: one can only begin to imagine what it is like to be given a list of rules to follow in a language you do not speak, after being accommodated in a former prison, in a country you barely know and have just arrived in as a refugee.
Once the recording ended, the host introduced the method behind the Language of Fragility project with a second video. In this video, its protagonists – including, amongst others, Gluklya and her assistant and helper Sari Akminas (who would later be on stage), himself a refugee – disclosed the connections between certain words in their mother tongue and other Dutch words, by finding similarities not in their meaning but in their sound. Examples of this are: whilst “так” means “yes” in Ukranian, in Dutch “taak” means “task”; and whilst “kennis” means “knowledge” in Dutch, “كنز” (pronounced like “kanz”) means “treasure” in Arabic. The discovery and disclosure of these sound similarities is called Language of Fragility game; and it was, all in all, a wonderfully playful and thoughtful piece. At this point, I am quite sure more than one of us was ruminating about the times in which we had tried to learn a foreign language, and every now and then became surprisingly amused at how similar some words sounded – but how disparate their meaning was.
After this second video our host announced the second part of the event, which would be comprised by a series of short readings delivered by some of the evening’s protagonists: Mirjam Westen, critic and curator of the Museum Arnhem; Erik Hagoort, researcher, artist, and curator; Theo Tegelaers, curator at TAAK; Bernie Deekens, curator and coordinator at TAAK; Sari Akminas, journalist, as well as Gluklya’s assistant; and Marwa Abboud, resident of the AZC, and participant in the artist’s workshops. These readings were framed as a moment in which “we were going to rest from ourselves”, as each guest did not read their own text – another guest did it for them. This segment of the evening was essentially shaped as a presentation, as the protagonists sat on stage and read each other’s piece that had been prepared in advance.
The texts ranged very much in their content: whilst one protagonist had written a reflection on how she became involved in Gluklya’s project, as well as in other similar undertakings (Mirjam Westen, read by Marwa Abboud); another one wrote a brief rumination on the construction of the Bijlmerbajes complex and the protest or countermovement it incited (Theo Tegelaers, read by Erik Hagoort). A third piece, written by Bernie Deekens and read by Sari Akminas, reflected on the concepts of feminism, equal rights, and the divisions created by borders. Taking a different perspective, Marwa Abboud’s text – read by Bernie Deekens – was a brief presentation of herself and her experience of living in the AZC; and Erik Hagoort’s piece was a poetic take on what connecting with someone else means (in terms of physical proximity and emotional contact) – read by Mirjam Westen. The last text, read by Theo Tegelaers and written by Sari Akminas, consisted of a particularly interesting and knowledgeable piece on the problems of the Pan-Arabism concept.
Marwa Abboud was the first one to read the text that had been assigned to her, written by curator and critic Mirjam Westen. Although it was difficult for the guest to read a piece in English (since it is not her mother tongue) she managed to deliver the content, carefully but capably, with a little help from the host – who stood by her and whilst whispering some of the complex words. Once Marwa finished her text, a member of the audience stood up and challenged Gluklya for – in the audience member’s words – “putting vulnerability on display” (as she interpreted Marwa’s position as one of vulnerability). Despite several attempts to convince her to stay, the aforementioned event-goer eventually walked out – thus leaving behind a proverbial “elephant in the room” that would be addressed throughout the discussion at the end of the performance.
The rest of the readings happened without further ado’s; other than the understandably self-conscious awkwardness of hearing your own words being uttered by someone else – and the lingering awareness that what had happened after Marwa’s presentation had to (and would be) discussed. Towards the end of the performance, once the host concluded the readings segment, our “Showgirls” appeared on stage holding a white bed sheet with the slogan “all people are artists here” written across it. The presentation of this slogan had been previously performed at Lola Lik. Gluklya emerged with them to explain to those present that this quote was uttered by a social worker of the AZC as a response to a disagreement on the strategy the artist and her team had to follow in order to work with the refugees: when Gluklya approached the worker to tell her that giving out flyers might not be the best way to get the Bijlmerbajes residents involved in her activities, the social worker answered – perhaps out of sheer frustration, and tinted with more than a hint of sarcasm – that “all people are artists here”. Hence the immortalisation of the quote in Gluklya’s classic manner: the words connected with her project so fittingly that she decided to apply them on something as useful as a bed sheet, so the refugees can – in her own words – sleep on it.
The performance that was Report from Prison ended with Gluklya’s thoughtful mention of three teachers who were in the audience, and who are currently giving Dutch lessons to some refugees for free. After this, the host invited everyone to openly discuss the event with the protagonists and the artist herself, who also joined the rest of the guests on stage. Mirjam Westen took over the host’s tasks and moderated the discussion expertly, whilst first briefly but attentively introducing the artist’s work – who famously declared in her Manifesto of Found Clothes (2002) that “the place of the artist is on the side of the weak”. Following the moderator’s introduction, in this discussion weakness, fragility, and resistance are to be understood as intertwined concepts that relate to each other – and that the artist explores through her work. Keeping this in mind, the floor opened for the due debate; and it took merely a few seconds for raised hands – wanting to make their comments and questions – to appear.
The discussion that followed immediately became a debate on whether (or not) the audience member’s decision to leave the room was correct, on how the uneasiness of the situation could have been prevented or confronted, and on what Marwa Abboud’s opinion of the happening was. Several commentators seemed to agree on the fact that one should not assign vulnerability to certain bodies in such a pre-supposed manner (was Marwa’s position being interpreted as vulnerable because she is a refugee, or because she was asked to read a text in a language she is not proficient in?). Others congratulated the reader for her strength and courage (we all know it is hard enough to speak in front of an audience, let alone in a language that is not your mother tongue); and insisted on knowing her opinion on the argument: how had she felt when this had happened, and did she know in advance that she had to read such a difficult text? Sari, who was sitting next to her, translated these questions into Arabic and her answers back into English; as Marwa made it clear that she was there out of her own choice – and the audience member was in her right to leave, if she wanted to. Marwa’s body language also stressed how uncomfortable the event had become: perhaps we focused too much on her for the sake of the discussion, and I am not sure she necessarily wanted that.
Other questions were raised around the topic of vulnerability; particularly questioning for whom these types of events were – and which are the goals of the artist when creating gatherings such as this one. As someone rightfully pointed out, in the cultural sector (particularly in the art world) there seems to be a thin line between working with marginalised people, and using them for the artist’s own ends. At this point one cannot turn a blind eye on the following facts: many of the audience members of Report from Prison were white, only a few of them were refugees (on stage, two) – and there was a numerous abundance of people present who identified as curators. If the previous reading section of the event (when protagonists read each other’s pieces) had wanted to purposefully emphasize the limits of forgetting oneself and momentarily becoming (or conversing with) someone else, it is necessary to point out that many of the people in that room were not that dissimilar: how hard would it be for one curator to read another curator’s text (in English)? It might have been more effective to ask Marwa and Sari to write their texts in Arabic, for instance; and to have the respective curators read it in that language. All in all, and given the circumstances, we can try as hard as possible to believe that what we were doing had some sort of impact outside of the art world; but considering the amount of people from the cultural sector that were in the audience, a substantial amount of frustration inevitably follows: who is art for, anyway?
Whilst pondering on these questions, Gluklya and Sari mentioned some of the daily struggles they encounter at Lola Lik to fulfil their plans (as Gluklya stressed, it would be easier to simply not become involved in these situations). Marwa emphasized that she attended Report from Prison – and read someone else’s text – out of her own choice; although she did not know in advance that the text was going to be so difficult (it landed in her hands a few hours before the start of the event). It eventually became clear, then, that the readers should have received these pieces beforehand, as they would have had more time to prepare. Additionally, towards the end of the discussion both the guests and several members of the audience debated if it would have been better to address questions of vulnerability and uncomfortableness right after they appeared, when the person walked out half-way through the event. After a few other brief remarks – one of which very rightfully warned about the dangers of “glorifying refugees as victims” in “white liberal spaces” (I am here quoting the audience member’s words directly) –, Mirjam Westen closed the debate; thus ending the (somewhat controversial) event.
Looking back on the evening that was Report from Prison I would not be honest if I did not point out how uncomfortable some moments were. Nevertheless, in taking distance from this first immediate feeling of awkwardness, other fruitful outcomes fall into place: as artists, curators, and cultural workers in general it is our duty to constantly question our own dynamics, ethics, and practices; as well as each other’s. This means that if we are in a space, participating in an event, and someone feels like walking out due to discomfort or disagreement, we must work to understand why this has happened. The artistic practices that are presented during these processes ought to echo these reflections through care and deliberation. Meanwhile, curators and cultural institutions should continue to consider and speculate on the age-old question that resonated throughout the Report from Prison event: who is art for, after all?
Review written by Iona Sharp Casas