Working for the Commons

An interview with Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, on new ways for art institutions to work

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg, Binna Choi AND Yolande van der Heide in Interviews | 23 NOV 17

Vivian Sky Rehberg  Let’s start by talking about Casco’s mission. You’ve spent the past several months marking a transition that includes a renaming. ‘Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory’ is becoming ‘Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons’. Since ‘working for the commons’ has been one of Casco’s primary institutional concerns for some time, I’m curious to know what prompted the name change this year.

Binna Choi  Our team had been discussing going on strike at work, after concluding a three year programme ‘Composing the Commons,’  out of a desire for a ‘deeper understanding’ of our mission and our way of working. Interestingly our discussions coincided with Maria Eichhorn’s project at Chisenhale Gallery – ‘5 Weeks, 25 Days, 175 Hours’, the time the artists stipulated that the Chisenhale staff take off work for her show – but has a background in our ongoing collaboration with artist Annette Krauss, concerned with ‘unlearning institutional habits’ as part of the project Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation) (2014–ongoing). What we have been trying to unlearn was a sense of ‘busyness’, as a psychosomatic experience of time, working against ‘commoning’, involving anxiety, frustration, indifference and so on, by considering our experience as emblematic of the general cultural sphere. As we analyzed it, we saw busyness as structurally generated by the regime of productivity – the mantra of capitalist business and growth. As you might expect, then, our idea for striking was perhaps a performative one. A way of prompting ourselves to more radically consider how to continue our work. It received sharp objections from our board for sound reasons. They challenged us to further reflect on the history and limitation of strikes, for example.

Casco Team & Annette Krauss, ‘Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation)’, Cleaning Together, photograph, Unlearning Busyness, diagram, installation view, Casco, Utrecht, 2014. Courtesy: Casco, Utecht; photograph: Niels Moolenaar

This led us to deliberate on how to create a condition for deep understanding among and beyond ourselves. We were addressing questions such as how to have more focus in our activities, and strategies for focusing without taking too much risk – for example without losing future funds. The majority of our budget comes from public fundings allocated for periods of 2- 4 years. In parallel, we have been actively involved in the self-organizing process of commoning through the Arts Collaboratory (AC) network after 3 years of exchange and learning from one another. The network consists of 24 art organizations and one foundation, all of whom, except for us and DOEN foundation (which funds the network), are situated in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin and Central America – the so-called ‘Global South’. The process of self-organization is geared towards going deeper into our struggles with art in each local political and social contexts while developing their sustainability and taking further care of each one’s own local eco-systems as well as seeing Arts Collaboratory as a larger eco-system.

VSR  It seems that a lot of discussion around arts funding in the Netherlands touches on the issue of competition. Funding is generous in comparison to some other countries, but organizations and those who lead them have to be very aware and strategic with respect to what everyone else is doing. When working with the Arts Collaboratory, did you find that doing things in common, or reflecting on ‘commoning’ resources and programmes, was strategically beneficial, or did you also have to deal with competition?

BC  Somehow strategic does not feel related to the outcomes of a three-year collective work process, while we certainly managed to deal with something totally other than competition. Perhaps it’s because the process of realizing the current AC working structure, that included an additional 3 years funding (2016–18) by the DOEN foundation for all the existing members organizations with no application/evaluation/selection process after the 2013–2015 period, was an ethical-political struggle. We all were discussing and debating what moves us the members to gather together, what obstructs this ‘movement’, and what has to be done to focus on what moves us through our annual assembly and intermittent gatherings. In place of competition there was so much deliberation and effort to share and co-develop which also involved a great deal of emotional labour and vulnerability.

Arts Collaboratory 2016 Assembly: Kyrgyzstan, workshops, June 2016. Courtesy: Casco, Utrecht

VSR  Since you brought up the politics, I’m going to push that a little bit further.  I’ve been struck, in the almost six years I’ve lived in the Netherlands, by how many institutions foreground a leftist agenda. This is in stark contrast with institutions in France, for example – which I am more familiar with since I lived there for much longer – and with the US, where I’m from. Variously-scaled Dutch institutions are constantly thinking about how they might stimulate social and political change or respond to social and political events or imperatives inside and outside of the Netherlands. Whereas democracy, de-colonization, and anti-fascism are all urgent topics which Dutch institutions are taking responsibility for in their programming, Casco stands out, for me, amongst them because it’s quite forthrightly anti-capitalist. What’s it like to promote the ideal of an anti-capitalist institution in a world that is ultra-capitalistic?

BC  I think it’s a good question. By the way I think our expression is not ‘anti-capitalistic’ but more ‘non-capitalistic’.

VSR  Right, I see it now on your website: ‘artistic research and experiments forming non-capitalistic cultures.’

BC  Art is indeed so rooted in capitalism and so we have to have a certain nuance to make our position clear and give some possibility or room for dialogue and negotiation.

Exhibition phase of ‘Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons’ at Casco, 2017. Pictured: Maja Bekan and Gunndís Ýr Finnbogadóttir, What if... (Panel Conversations), 2017, Faivovich & Goldberg, Número, 2015, and Ruth Buchanan, Can tame anything, tables, tables, doors, blinds, bodies, 2016. Courtesy: Casco, Utrecht; photograph: Niels Moolenaar

Yolande van der Heide  Going back to Arts Collaboratory, an ‘achievement’of the network is that it managed to convince the funders – previously also Hivos [a Dutch-based international development agency focusing on Africa, Asia and Latin America] as well as the DOEN foundation – to ‘allow’ it to self-govern guided by a set of commonly determined ethical principles. So practically, instead of writing inflated reports to funders, there are accountability mechanisms wherein organizations can be transparent and vulnerable with one another, sharing institutional weaknesses next to strengths, for example. What happens when organizations do this?  This kind of transparency or opacity (because this should not be at the expense of privacy) is an important part of commoning in that any malpractice or systemic injustices are also uncovered in the process of thinking through problematic issues, tooling them, and self-determination.

This approach might further also be seen as a de-capitalist way of operating in that it acknowledges the colonial heritage in which funding is rooted, for instance, in its perpetuating the north as the epitome of control. In fact, one of the reasons for Casco joining AC as a member after its facilitation role was to help trouble an account of systemic modes of oppression only in terms of geography.
The notion of a common wealth in AC is also a driving principle. Next to a common pot of funds (€25,000 from each organization is put aside out of the €75,000 each receives) common wealth is also understood in terms of informal economies, respective skillsets, knowledge, and other non-monetary resources.

VSR  And that creates a kind of interdependence, then.

YvdH  Yes.

BC  That’s actually another one of the important words for AC: interdependency.

Casco Team & Annette Krauss, Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation), Unlearning Exercises, installation view, ‘We Are the Time Machines: Time and Tools for Commoning’, Casco, Utrecht, 2016. Courtesy: Casco, Utrecht; photograph: Coco Duivenvoorde

VSR  Given that, I wonder, what are your expectations, then, from the wider contemporary art world, which is totally embedded in capitalism?  What are your expectations from your colleagues, from critics, from visitors?  Is there a way your operation can also impact interactions and entanglements with other actors in the contemporary art world – with the press, for example?

BC  It’s an open question for longer deliberation but I do think of this in terms of decomposition and recomposition, breaking the hard shell of institution boundaries and thinking of the eco-system.

VSR  Okay. Where does the aesthetic come in, then?

BC  It was a ‘strategic’ choice to put the words ‘art’ and ‘institute’ in the new name, not in order to have more art objects as we know them, but to nail our position within the arts while we move outside of the fields of art. It’s for treating art foremost as a ‘technique’, a way, a tool, an approach and ongoing practice towards (un)learning, thinking and acting in an open way. With art, we don’t need to be a rocket scientist to be curious of how a rocket works, and you don’t only learn about how it’s built, you also learn about the society, politics and economy surrounding it, for instance. Art offers an endless, very malleable way of learning about and engaging with the world. I’m wondering to what extent an exhibition can function in that capacity for art to be really used.

YvdH  My work at Casco is primarily in publishing, so when we talk about reach I often think that publications are actually much more effective: books with spines can get it done if only because of their potential longevity and the social lives they can breed. But then I go full circle again and see how exhibitions can be sites for lived experimentation. We have somehow chosen the terrain of art as a primary site for practice and prefiguration, and for me I think it’s because it allows for a kind of openness and radical imagination for social justice.

Exhibition phase of ‘Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons’ at Casco, 2017, Pictured: Riet Wijnen, 
Disposition Table (Conversation Five), 2017, printed materials selected by the artist from Casco working documents. Courtesy: Casco, Utrecht; photograph: Niels Moolenaar

VSR  My impression of Casco’s exhibitions is that they are not at all conceived as static places for contemplation, particularly given the sounds of everything that’s going on in the building today.

BC  You can contemplate, too – this place used to be a monastery!

VSR  I don't know if you can contemplate, but you definitely have to think.

BC  We have articulated a tri-fold guiding principle for our ‘artistic’ activities that work for the commons with the name change. They are action, body, and kirakira. They are not fully new but we want them to be outspoken in putting an emphasis on the specific goals, objectives, methods and strategies for each project/work – that’s about ‘action’. But then at the same time we want to condition an unpredictable space for encounter and new understanding, which we call ‘kirakira’, borrowing the Japanese word meaning twinkle twinkle given to a large collection of amulet like objects made of found papers, ropes and fabrics by a late Japanese homeless woman we got to know (thanks to Jiyoung Shin) …  If these two are more or less familiar for art language, another we put forward is the aspect of ‘body’. Instead of leaving labour as an invisible element of ‘art working,’ we want to be articulate and make visible consciously which whom we are working, how it’s made possible and what substances and finance are to sustain them.  I think all of these come together in our definition of aesthetics and art.  In this light, our provisional approach to exhibitions is taking them as forms of assembly of labour - including labour of matter and other non-human lives, with their actions and of/for kirakira in a broad sense.

Poster as part of the forthcoming exhibitions ‘Army of Love’ with Dora García and Ingo Niermann and ‘Library of Unread Books’ by Heman Chong and Renée Staal. Design by David Bennewith and Bram van den Berg, 2017 

VSR  Can you talk a little bit about the ‘Army of Love’ and ‘The Library of Unread Books’, opening soon?

YvdH  These projects mark the end of our transition period. ‘The Library of Unread Books’ is a travelling library of donated and unread books by initiated Heman Chong and Renée Staal opening at Casco on 25 November 2017 and running until 25 February 2018. The library brings to light once-hidden-away titles to emphasize a possibility for shared knowledge in that the books become once again accessible to the public sphere and to anyone who can visit the library sites, thereby creating a commons. Alongside the library installation is the project-cum-supergroup ‘Army of Love’ initiated by writer Ingo Niermann and later joined and developed by artist Dora García and other ‘love soldiers’. This project provokes a discussion on love as a resource, and examines its conditions and exchange. Both projects deal with access, excess, and the politics of distribution on different levels. ‘The Library of Unread Books’ is concerned with the redistribution of excess knowledge or the organization of ones excess pages into a common resource pool. ‘Army of Love’ engages in a kind of predistribution, meaning that they want to stave off inequality at its outset. They do this by striving for a common language and practice of love.

Main image: Casco Team & Annette Krauss, Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation), Cleaning Together, 2014. Courtesy: Casco, Utrecht

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Binna Choi is Director at Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory since 2008.

Yolande van der Heide is Head of Publishing at Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory since 2009.