ESR 8 Blog February 2021: Marteinn Jonsson

InHere[1] is the name given to a repurposed fish factory in Stöðvarfjörður, a small Icelandic village of a few hundred inhabitants. As in numerous other seaside villages in Iceland, the privatisation of fishing quota in the 1980s and 1990s compromised the livelihood of many, as local quota was gradually siphoned off somewhere else. The fish factory now accommodates a cultural project; a creative centre with artist workshops, studio and artist residency, bent on reinforcing the social fabric through art and creativity. While hailing from Iceland where I’ve been involved with cultural hubs, such as the one mentioned before, I will be focusing my PhD research on creative, socially engaged place-making in Germany, surveying the programmes and resources of independent art spaces through an ecological perspective. I will conduct field studies with particular focus on the role of the curator; the management of tangible and intangible resources, strategies of social engagement and sustainability of such projects.

I will be departing from the definition “cultural projects using artistic know-how to improve real life situations”[2] and studies such as this[3] recent article by Prof. Karen van den Berg, the supervisor of my project. There, she relays for instance how the decision of the German government to welcome a large number of refugees in recent years has led to an efflorescence of independent art spaces dedicated, not to the pursuit of art for art’s sake, but to the ‘production of social relations’; language cafés, kitchens, art workshops and community activities. This has both taken place within independent art spaces such as Neue Nachbarschaft Moabit in Berlin and Grandhotel Cosmopolis in Augsburg, but also in the foyers and on the grounds of established institutions such as Kamnagel in Hamburg, Schauspiel Dresden and the Kammerspiele in Munich.

I have an artistic background in music and I’ve collaborated extensively across different fields of art so my understanding of art is not tied to any specific discipline. In fact, as Marina Naprushkina, the instigating artist of Neue Nachbarschaft explained in a talk recently at Zeppelin University where I am based, her project is not necessarily considered an art project by her collaborators. This in fact, is one of the aspects of my research that I find truly exciting. I am fascinated by how the concepts that we use to structure the world tend to foreclose possibilities. Even a concept as promising and full of emancipatory potential such as ‘art’. Which should also warrant some suspicion towards two concepts central to my research proposal; ‘the curator’ and ‘ecology’.

Recent theoretical literature in curatorial studies has partially been attuned to how increased social and political engagement of contemporary art is reflected in a transformation of the curator’s role. The curator, as John Roberts has explained, “is no longer the discreet scholarly editor and mediator of artist’s work or sober judge of a historical period, but the active collaborator with the artist or artists on the production of an event, exhibition, or extra-gallery project.”[4] In some instances, a number of artists and curators are collectively involved, collaborating and interchanging roles in the process of artistic production, with artists assuming the tasks of a curator and curators partaking in artistic production. Indeed, direct social and political engagement of artists leads Oliver Marchart to reframe the role of the curator away from ​empirical individuals​ towards a ​curatorial function​, which he suggests “lies in the ​organization of the public sphere​”.[5] Perhaps, ‘curator’ is not the only word I am looking for…

Marchart’s strategic move away from the empirical individual is suggestive of the ecological perspective that I’d like to assume in my research. Such a perspective should direct our attention to the multi-layered and interconnected nature of reality and realize how important ​context​ is for the understanding of what we encounter in the world. Numerous contemporary thinkers have pursued such approaches, emphasizing the intertwined agency of human and non-human actors, the emergent character of social interaction, and the interplay between different micro-and-macro-levels of society; immediate environments, communities, institutions, ideologies, cultures etc, guiding our attention beyond individuals towards collectives, beyond the subjective towards the inter-subjective — and beyond works of art towards the processes of art.​

Ecology, however, is not a neutral concept as I’ve discussed with my colleagues at ZU, and artist Marwa Arsanios illustrates lucidly through her work on ecofeminist practices in Iraq Kurdistan.[6] Neither is context, as Claire Bishop emphasizes in her critique of relational art practices, asking: “If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”[7] This question, I believe, is of utmost importance.


[1] “Fish Factory: Creative Centre of Stöðvarfjörður.” Accessed February 22, 2021.

[2] Berg, Karen van den. 2019. “Socially Engaged Art and Fall of the Spectator since Joseph Beuys and the Situationists.” In The Art of Direct Action: Social Sculpture and Beyond, edited by Karen van den Berg, Cara M. Jordan, and Philipp Kleinmichel, 1–40. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

[3] Berg, Karen van den. 2019. “From Protest to the Production of Social Relations: Socially Engaged Art and Activism in Germany since 2015.” FIELD, no. 12.

[4] Roberts, John. “The Curator as a Producer: Aesthetic Reason, Nonaesthetic Reason, and Infinite Ideation.” Manifesta Journal, no. 10: 51–57. Here 52.

[5] Marchart, Oliver. 2011. “The Curatorial Function – Organizing the Ex/Position.” On Curating, no. 9: 43–46. Here 44-45.

[6] Arsanios, Marwa. 2019. “Who’s Afraid of Ideology? Ecofeminist Practices Between Internationalism and Globalism.” E-Flux Journal, no. 93: 1–10.

[7] Bishop, Claire. 2004. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October 110 (Fall): 51–79.

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