Political interference in arts is one of the several concepts that my research works around. In order to understand how such forms of institutional violence might look like, I informally interviewed an Israeli artist (his name will remain confidential for ethical reasons) whose work has been at the centre of a turbulent public debate in Israel about the autonomy of art in confrontation with the freedom of funding. Having collaborated with anti-Zionist groups for the creation of the artwork, the artist had faced threats about being refused future funding; he suffered a dismissal of the designated funding from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs for touring with the artwork; and has been required to remove from its marketing materials any signs of affiliation with the Israeli Ministry of Culture. Apart from the technical measures that were held against him, the artist testified on unanticipated events in his closest professional and artistic circles. His work was brought under scrutiny by the association he was a member of and from which he expected to receive backup, and in addition his artistic collaborators opted out of their mutual projects, which were in their final stages. Observing his colleagues’ self-censorship, and acknowledging this demand to do so, was a turning point in his professional path, he started searching for alternative support where he could deploy a higher level of autonomy and presentation in his work. In the light of anticipated tours in Europe and his established connections there, his contacts have encouraged him to emigrate. These days he runs an NGO that allows him and his colleagues to receive public funding for their art. He reports on high levels of artistic freedom and social security.
This month’s blog touches upon the concept of organisation and institutionalisation through my reading of ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Crisis’, a conversation between Lara Khaldi, Yazan Khalili, and Marwa Arsanios, part one (2020); and ‘Self-Institutionalising as Political Agency, by Izabel Galliera (2016). As the opening story suggests, I am particularly curious about self-organisation as a strategy for ensuring the continuity of art’s agency in pressing circumstances.
In their conversation, curator Lara Khaldi and artists Yazan Khalili and Marwa Arsanios describe the institutionalisation process that took place in the cultural sector in Palestine from the 90’s until today. I would like to open a parenthesis and express this in a colonial context. Palestine, recognised as the State of Palestine by the UN, exercises sovereignty, although it operates under the occupation and surveillance of the state of Israel. The three discussants speak about the creation of the third sector when neo-liberalism came into play in Palestine and the emergence of the need for international money for the support of art institutions. They call this process ‘NGOing’ and criticise its bringing about of the gradual separation of political work from the making of art. The ‘NGOing’ process that was on the one hand crucial to the receipt of international funding, was on the other hand, the very factor that divorced the art from political work, and thus rendered a disconnection between the art and the social sphere. The institutionalisation process of cultural initiatives in Palestine brought in money and stakeholders and thus generated growth; but at the same time, it imported a fundraising mentality that pushed art toward apolitical and individualistic preoccupations, that might have aligned art with the notion of global contemporaneity, but dismantled art’s political and social significance locally. Therefore, the discussants ask: what is then the role of the institution that must financially justify its existence though its role is to create a political resonance? Furthermore, how should an institution operate educationally within the philanthropic expectation of offering a tolerant alternative to violence, when its local community lives with struggle on a daily basis? (in the case of Palestine for more than seventy years).
Khadi, Khalili and Arsanios are about to end the conversation, but just before, Khalili expresses their belief in the efficacy of small-scale and independent groups pursuing artistic work, in comparison to the heavily administrated and high-cost politically limited operation of big institutions. This comment points out an interesting debate relating to questions of growth and the adoption of legal status, but perhaps also points out the disadvantages and limited freedom that it entails.
In her article, ‘Self-Institutionalising as Political Agency’ Galliera brings two examples of contemporary art practices opposed to conventional institutional affiliations in times of nationalistic and hostile regimes: Romania and Hungary. In both projects, artists deploy their social capital and informally use existing infrastructures for practising their art, which is aimed at generating alternative discourses, each one within its own context. Galliera articulates self-institutionalisation as the claiming of agency through the usage of cultural capital and other means available. In this practice, she refers as well to the ‘gentle conduct’ after obtaining ‘facilities’: “Practitioners adopted a legal status, in part because of a need to secure funding from regional and international sources, thereby making them reliant on some of the same political and economic structures they were formed to intervene in…” In my view, to what extent will art practitioners and activists be willing to pursue their work, utilising the secured framework they have adopted, when the limit of their actions is determined by the level of freedom they put at risk?
As art aspires to critically observe and comment on conventions and existing orders, resistance is then relational and in an ever-changing stance following the forces at play. The volatile nature of resistance challenges the lines of the rationale of state-funding and suggests then we should think about the premises on which state-funding and art activism might meet.
Thank you for your reading, I’d love to hear your thoughts and invite you to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Till next time!
Galliera I. (2016) ‘Self-Institutionalising as Political Agency’. ARTMargins journal, Massachusetts.
Khalidi L. et al (2020) ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Crisis’, a conversation between Lara Khaldi, Yazan Khalili, and Marwa Arsanios, part one. E-flux journal, issue 111.