02 April, 2011

2 April - Olafur Eliasson and not knowing

LAUNCHPROJECTS - I have been spending much time and consideration over the past few months on how the arts impact culture - considering the factors of the art world that both frustrate and inspire me - that bring me to the brink of insanity and bring me back, again ignited. I recently heard of Olafur Eliasson's new art school in Berlin, The Institut für Raumexperimente. This school, and Eliasson's vision, encapsulates in so many ways the way the art world could function - by not having all the answers, living a life of inquiry and uncertainty. Doubt as a fundamental principal of learning and innovation.

Marcia Tucker, the founder of the New Museum, was fired from the Whitney for a Richard Tuttle exhibition she curated far before he gained international notoriety. The art, Tucker's unusual approach to its presentation, and a post-exhibition catalog proved to be too much for audiences to bear. When the exhibition opened, “people went berserk. People tried to pull the delicate wire pieces off the wall. They scrawled pencil comments of their own next to some of the works when the guards weren’t looking. They complained bitterly that it wasn’t art.”

Audiences were offended by the inquisitive nature of the exhibition and by the fact that Tucker did not present answers, only more questions. Tucker had organized this exhibition to see what might come of the project, to learn something new, to explore new frontiers in the arts. “‘I don’t know’ is the honest answer when you’re working investigatively, but it can get you in trouble. You’re supposed to know, and if you don’t you’re going to be seen as unprofessional rather than adventurous.” Eliasson addresses this directly in the form of an art school, "to acknowledge one’s insecurity rather than progressing according to rationalised and standardised modes of understanding. By accommodating uncertainty, I think we strengthen our ability to re-negotiate our surroundings. Let me therefore suggest a principle: the success of a model lies in its ability to re-evaluate itself. It thus emerges that no artistic formula is waiting at the end of our inquiries."

It is Tucker's spirit - and the mission of Eliasson's art school - that sustains my confidence in the art world. Eliasson's mission statement follows. Nothing is ever the same.

Nothing is ever the same

The Institut für Raumexperimente is in itself an experiment. To me, the experiment as a mode of inquiry is necessary if we are to insist on a constant, probing and generous interaction with reality. Or to put it differently: by engaging in experimentation, we can challenge the norms by which we live and thus produce reality. Due to its obsession with primarily formal questions, art education has, I believe, seriously failed to acknowledge the fact that creativity is a producer of reality. The hierarchical transmission of knowledge practised in many art schools is clearly unproductive: the inflexible categories of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, working in a sealed-off environment, and the fundamentally unequal relation between the two, have taken responsibility away from the students, distancing them from real work in real life. But to study and to produce knowledge shouldn’t imply a withdrawal from society. There have, of course, been exceptions. Within the history of spatial research, educational experimentation has occurred at, for instance, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, founded by Gyorgy Kepes and based on his engagement with the New Bauhaus School in Chicago; in the work of Joseph Albers and his teaching at Black Mountain College; in O.M. Ungers’ 1960s classes at the Technical University in Berlin; at the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques in Paris, founded by Pontus Hultén with Daniel Buren, Serge Fauchereau, and Sarkis; and in the work of other pioneers for whom life, individual engagement, and studies could not simply be separated. I aim to recast their radical notions of learning in contemporary society. The educational alternative I hope to offer should provide tools for the creation of artistic propositions that have consequences for the world. We must embrace re-evaluation, criticism and friction. As we leave behind the representational distance cultivated by traditional art academies, a necessary and immediate relation to the world is forged. Experimentation as a method not only informs my school, but also forms the core of my artworks and my Berlin-based studio. In my understanding, an artwork is fundamentally tied to its surroundings, to the present, to society, to cultural and geographic determinants. It activates this dense texture, thereby examining the world in which we live – and by doing so, it can ultimately change the world. It also seems relevant to examine the pragmatics involved in the organisation of my studio, its randomness and roundabout ways. This reveals a structure that continuously invents the model according to which it proceeds. The practice I have developed makes me believe in my works and studio as agents in the world. And just as my works and studio participate in a continual exchange with their environment, with the times in which they exist, so too does the school. The Institut für Raumexperimente is not a discrete space; it is inseparable from its surroundings, from Berlin, from society and life in general. One might therefore call the Institute a logical consequence of my artistic practice. At Institut für Raumexperimente, time and space are considered inseparable even at a methodological level. Space cannot be externalised; it isn’t representational and nor are the experiments with which we work. To work spatially does not necessarily entail the creation of representational distance, and we can precisely avoid this distance, essentially static and unproductive, by insisting that time is a constituent of space. Or as a friend has said: space is ‘a constantly mutating simultaneity of stories-so-far’. To institute means to begin, and the school – cultivating consciousness of time – is about beginnings in space. I hope to establish a school of questions rather than of answers; of uncertainty and doubt. It is my firm belief that we can cultivate a relationship with these unstable modes of being, letting questions spawn new questions. Currently, it seems productive to acknowledge one’s insecurity rather than progressing according to rationalised and standardised modes of understanding. By accommodating uncertainty, I think we strengthen our ability to re-negotiate our surroundings. Let me therefore suggest a principle: the success of a model lies in its ability to re-evaluate itself. It thus emerges that no artistic formula is waiting at the end of our inquiries. Just as time is inseparable from space, so too is form from content. Art isn’t a formal exercise. To me, duration, space, form, intention, and individual engagement constitute a complex whole whose performative qualities we should articulate and amplify. For this reason, our experimentation with experimentation as a format for producing art and knowledge will never focus solely on either form or content. I hope the participants at Institut für Raumexperimente will see the potential in our formation of multiple, simultaneous trajectories. To some, these trajectories will appear to be slow, to others fast, and it is precisely my aim to cultivate a high level of individual reflection. Ultimately the idea is to explore the notion of the school as a process. By doing so, we can hopefully circumvent the negative mechanisms of the current-day market economy: by commodifying our thought processes, this economy insists on a linear way of engaging with our surroundings, on linearity in our understanding of process and history. Marketability, consumption, and success are everything. The seductive virtue of a stable form lies in its conclusive nature, which in turn is a criterion for success. This I find counterproductive to the friction that may allow art to exert influence in society today. To me, nothing is ever the same. Only in this way, by virtue of the experiment, can we co-produce society, making the voice of art heard. And, if it would only realise this, art has an incredible potential to evaluate the values ingrained in society. It can consolidate a non-normative platform and evoke a sense of community based on the fact that we are all different from one another. To define community in this way is the real challenge today. The type of programme that we are trying to create at Institut für Raumexperimente is an unfolding macroscopic model of an aesthetic and social encounter. The life of the school will be dialogical, a multiplicity of voices. I hope the school participants – ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ alike – will enter the cacophony of voices that constitute its core. Giving and taking is equally distributed. Inspiration is for all. What we will produce in this encounter is reality. It will be a laboratory for experience, but probably nobody will see this experiment as being essentially a model until tomorrow. Institut für Raumexperimente is an entirely public school, realised in collaboration with the Universität der Künste in Berlin. It is not an avant-garde school model in the classical sense, seeking a blind rupture with all previous systems, nor is it a private career-oriented educational scheme. Rather, we are supporters of slow revolutions. If crucial changes happen at a microscopic level, an entire society or worldview may in time be changed. And if our school experimentation succeeds, we will be able to sustain a non-dogmatic self-criticality as part of our everyday lives.

- Olafur Eliasson

*Marcia Tucker quotes from her autobiography, "A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the New York Art World".

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