Last weekend I attended the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency seminar, 'A Common Assembly'. The event was described as 'a one day seminar within DAAR’s reconstruction of the Palestinian Parliament' that would 'consider the new nature of political action and association, against the background of current collective protest in the Middle East and around the world.' The term Common Assembly was defined as 'a radical form of political participation, revolutionary protest and collective action - from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, St Paul’s Cathedral - and Nottingham’s Market Square. These forums have changed the meaning of the words common, assembly and occupation.' I was excited to see how DAAR would put these ideas into action at Nottingham Contemporary.
The invited speakers shared interesting experiences, reflections and analysis of the situation in Palestine and recent uprisings in the Middle East, and I learnt a lot from listening to them. It would be impossible to sum up all that was said, but some of the ideas that were of particular interest to me were the notion of a 'no mans land' or edge between places as a potential place of transformation, and the way that DAAR used the term 'ruins' to refer to a place (like the Palestinian refugee camps) that's in permanent suspension between construction and demolition. Rasha Salti described the protests in Egypt and Syria as a 'physical political movement'. She talked about people in Syria, confined by the authorities, dancing together in the street, and how visible and vulnerable the body is in these situations. In the final session, Rene Gabri talked about the Occupy movement in New York, and offered another reading of the idea of 'deficit' and 'debt' that goes beyond monetary systems, suggesting that recent protests have been driven by people demanding what is owed to them in terms of democracy and participation.
Although the seminar was rich with ideas, I was surprised – given the way it had been described – to experience a series of lectures, in a space with problematic acoustics, with experts giving their opinions and dialogue mostly limited to the exchanges between the invited speakers. The notion of a 'radical form of political participation' was being discussed in a very conventional, academic format. There was little attempt (until the final session) to reactivate the space created by the installation and to actually embody these ideas by inviting and facilitating participation from the 50-60 people who had come along to the event. DAAR's installation interrupts the gallery space and is deliberately uninhabitable, so perhaps this irony was intentional. But it was also frustrating. Given DAAR's imaginative and critical responses to the the situation in Palestine, and that their project and this talk were being presented in the context of a public art gallery, I had hoped for a more open and accessible form of dialogue. There was a wealth of information being shared, but no clear way for the audience to actively engage with this information or do something with it afterwards. For a day that promised to be empowering as well as informative, I left feeling disappointed.
Pre-empting the fact that day-long seminars often leave questions hanging, Isobel Whitelegg, curator of Public Programmes at Nottingham Contemporary, invited me to host a follow-up event the next day. Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri stayed on for the day to meet with locally based artists and activists to reflect on some of the issues raised by the seminar. Ayreen and Rene are involved in (amongst other things) a self-organised space in New York called the 16 Beaver Group, that aims to 'create and maintain an ongoing platform for the presentation, production, and discussion of a variety of artistic/ cultural/ economic/ political projects.'
On Sunday, a mixture of people came along to the recently opened Primary Studios in Lenton, to share ideas and experiences from their involvement in artist run projects, education, and activism. Although it was another long day of talking and listening, the small group and informal setting allowed for everyone to speak, and made space for disagreement, challenges and common ground to emerge. The discussion was rich and covered a lot of territory. We talked about the way that different spaces open up the possibilities for interaction and of activating our time with others politically and creatively. We discussed the differences between institutions, self-organised spaces, and public spaces and what each of these sites opens up or closes down. We talked about our roles within groups or institutions and our roles as individuals – and how to share the various resources we have access to. Questions were raised about access and how this is often limited in ways that go beyond physical space, such as the language used to frame an event, the perception of who certain institutions are 'for', or the lack of provision of cheap food and child-friendly spaces. Something that came up several times was the question of time, and how difficult but necessary it is to open up time for conversation, listening, reflection and action.
During the seminar, I raised the question of why DAAR's work, and this conversation, were being framed within an art gallery – what does this add or take away in terms of the agency and power of such political work? It was interesting to hear Rene and Ayreen describe their own relationship with the label 'artist' and how the 16 Beaver Group works – as an independent space that avoids labels. They were clear on the danger of claiming all of the work that happens there as 'artwork'. This raised big questions about participation and authorship, returning us to the notion of the commons. It may be inappropriate to frame something as art when it's social activism, especially if it emerges from a collective process, because claiming it as art can remove the agency of many of the people involved. We talked about why and how artists work within the realm of social activism, the problem with labels, and how art could at times be considered a strategy. Where art and activism cross over, can we open up political spaces that go beyond conventional forms?
The decision by Nottingham Contemporary to host such political work brings up some important contradictions, but the function of the Public Programme is for opening up space for debate, reflection and learning around the exhibitions. And for me, the art galley is another public space – not a commons – but a space that can be used and potentially re-appropriated. Having just moved into Primary Studios, which is a very new arts space, it was fantastic to have the opportunity to invite in a diverse group and pose these questions about access, participation and political engagement – which are relevant to my own practice as well as the possible directions the studios might take. Primary is situated on what someone described as one of the city's 'fault lines': a school that is no longer a school, between a disintegrating community and rapidly empting student accommodation. Many of these questions will become pertinent as we try to develop a public programme around the studios.
Many thanks to Isobel Whitelegg for initiating the event, and to Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri and all those who came and took part in the conversation for their thoughtful and thought provoking contributions.
Rebecca Beinart is an independent artist based in Nottingham. The opinions expressed in this article are her own and she does not represent Primary.
For an example of a project that attempted this, see 'C Words' at Arnolfini by PLATFORM. http://platformlondon.org/portfolio/#item