ESR 1 Blog June 2021: Gabor Erlich

What follows might be a bit ‘all over the place’, which, I believe is okay for at least two reasons. One of them being the format, namely that this is a blog, which, by its nature, differs from other types of writing/text by being a semi-public personal repository of, not only thoughts and comments, but more importantly, of the process of getting to ideas and insights. In this sense I am treating this platform as a space of ventilation and ‘thinking out loud’. And since the format allows me to do so, I’ll have to allow myself to write in a somewhat informal manner which gives the reader a sneak-peak into what is of formative significance for my thinking during my time as a FEINART researcher. These past weeks I have been feeling utterly disoriented for a number of reasons, of which I will mention only two in the second part of this entry, but first, I still owe you, reader, some additional thoughts on the topic I picked up last time.

I was reflecting on the issue of one’s class in the last entry, drawing on a quote from Didier Eribon’s Return to Reims; and this reflection led me to share my concern about a group exhibition by the collective PAD, and I’m hoping you had the chance to watch this guided-tour of the show.

The intentional provocation I ended the last entry with was: if art is a vehicle of emancipation, how does the exhibition contribute to the emancipation of those that serve as the exhibition’s subjects. In other words, can artistic practice contribute to this emancipation given that it remains within the gallery nexus? In raising this, I return to a question I personally have been wrestling with for a long while, for which it might be important to state again, that my background is not in academia, but in art.

I think there are two ways to get going with this question: One is to treat the exhibition as ‘just an exhibition’ and analyse the artworks that make up the installation; and the other way, is to take into consideration the anthropological research, as well as the collaborative part of the artistic process, which attempt to involve members of the local community at certain points.

This is, of course, a question not only relating to this show, it is, rather, a general and recurring concern that has been debated over and over again in curatorial texts, journal articles and book chapters: how to bridge the gap, or how to channel back socially engaged practices into the sphere of art – and why?

It turns out to be fortunate that I left this topic hanging a month ago, for there is an article in the latest e-flux Journal (119) by Nikolett Erőss , one of the most important actors of the Hungarian art scene, in which Erőss (whose work and ways of thinking has been an inspiration for many – and I’m definitely in that group) addresses the broad socio-political landscape of Hungary, whose outcomes make many people living in my home country feel suffocated. Indeed, the title of the third edition of the OFFBiennale Budapest ‘A Breath of Air’[1] refers not just directly to the great poem by Attila József, but also resonates with the public outcry against the systemic racist killings by the police in the US: the Black Lives Matter slogan: “I can’t breathe”. In her article, Erőss discusses the exhibition by PAD at considerable length, which makes me want to engage in a remote conversation with her on the crucial points we share. Disclaimer: this time we disagree.

One focus of the PAD Foundation for Environmental Justice is altering the tone of the visual representation of poverty. (…) PAD’s team, composed of cultural anthropologists and visual artists, carries out long-term collaborations with excluded communities deprived of public services. Their aim is to co-facilitate solutions to poverty in a manner devoid of any sense of shame. The process of seeking solutions is rendered visible; community members are its productive, creative agents.

First things first: I too believe that there is an urgent need for solutions to poverty. Not only in Hungary, but globally. It is clear that, although poverty has always existed throughout the history of civilisation, it has been exacerbated by capitalism and its process of valorisation. The nature of this global regime of accumulation and circulation is to divide the planet into a core and (semi)periphery, meaning that the core necessarily enjoys the benefits of the accumulation which is carried out through the exploitation of (those in) the peripheries. From this perspective, core and periphery are not only geographical but also social phenomena, interchangeable with the categories of bourgeoisie and subaltern. Fighting this regime is only possible from a systemic and international ground. We need solutions, we need to end poverty, we need to end the reign of capital. This battle, in my understanding, cannot be imagined without the active engagement of artists. The key question is thus: how can artists join the liberation, in which way can they contribute to this struggle?

I agree with Erőss that such quests require the deconstruction of the individualistic approach of authorship and are ought to establish ways in which community members can become productive creative agents of this fight. “Altering the tone of the visual representation of poverty” is important, but it cannot be the end goal of the engaged practitioner.

PAD aims to bring these processes into focus instead of simply portraying images of the people who carry them out. The latter can lead to romanticizing poverty, which, according to PAD, can mask the dysfunctionality of the system and the responsibility of those in power, or create a tendency to blame the individual for their systemically induced hardships.

PAD’s concern regarding the ‘humanitarian gaze’[2] is an important one, I happen to share their worry when it comes to the visual representation of poverty. What does, then, the exhibition do to change that? Which is to say: do they make a statement with their chosen mode(s) of representation? Or maybe they take a step back and start with the obligatory questions: who is ‘talking’ about what to whom? [3] In this case it is clearly a number of professionals (researchers and artists) who are talking about the everyday practices of ‘a community’: TACTICS, the – still unknown – members of that community have developed out of the sheer need of surviving the scandalous poverty into which the irrefutable rule of capital has pressed them. The exhibition speaks to the exhibition-goer public of contemporary Hungary, roughly: those involved in the sphere of arts, other intellectuals of liberal/left background, and collectors. Privileged, mostly white, educated people. Well, if this is the case, as it is, importantly, with the majority of such attempts (therefore this is a systemic issue and not just the critique of PAD or OFFBiennale Budapest), in what way can an exhibition do justice to its aim? How does it “co-facilitate solutions to poverty”? Suffice it to say, the exhibit in this light seems to work as a set of protheses with which our privileged minority can imagine?/experience?/understand? aspects of others’ lives. How does then this approach go beyond the consensual shortcomings of the ‘humanitarian gaze’? And even more importantly, how does the show affect the visitors to become co-facilitators and join the fight against poverty=against the capitalist system?

The visual representation of poverty is reorganized by involving those living it in the creation of the images emerging from their existence. One stage of the project involved a public installation made from everyday objects that were no longer in use in residents’ households, but that somehow related to the infrastructural shortcomings that circumscribed their days. As people in the neighbourhood are always forced into the role of solving some problem with their living conditions, the PAD team augmented the advocacy process with a series of artistic acts that represent this DIY work as a community effort, rendering it visible to the community as well as the social majority, which would otherwise look away or askance.

Here we get to the part of the project that is most interesting for me, since I believe that a socially engaged artistic practice must leave the studio-gallery nexus behind to work with various communities in an embedded, horizontal and democratic manner. Given the structural narrow-mindedness, or as Oliver Marchart puts it, the ‘spontaneous ideology of the sphere of art’[4], it is often unavoidable that a radically democratic social practice finds itself under the constraints of financial planning that results in the work being channelled back into the art institution in one way or another, mostly in the form of photo/video documentation, so that the institution can foreground the aesthetic qualities of the work.

In the PAD show, the collaborative work doesn’t seem to be the main element which needs to be showcased – and distorted – through documentation. On the contrary, what we see is a ‘professional’ photograph depicting the end product in a way that instead of it being able to reveal the participatory nature of the assembling of the object, seems to underline the ‘artwork-ness’ of the piece in the form of a grandiose giclèe print, the quintessence of artistic authority that costs over a thousand euros, even in Budapest, further reassuring the primacy of the artwork, and of content over context (inverted by Jeremy Deller). So, it is clear I do not agree with Erőss when she says:

The collective artwork outlines a fresher and more sensitive image of stigmatized neighbourhoods along with a history of the objects that come from them.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, this print is just one small section of the exhibition; there is even less reference to any collaboration between the artists/researchers and the local community. Instead, one can watch video installations that abstract the dreary chores carried out mostly by women; and there is also a possibility to try the ‘interactive’ installation in which the educated and resourceful visitor can inhabit a space and experience what it entails to fetch a tub full of water from a public well and to bring it to a bathing-temperature. Without trying to be disrespectful, this whole ‘interactive installation’ reminds me of a poorly done educational CD-ROM used in classrooms around the mid-nineteens, for I think the PAD group – although with unquestionably good intentions – manages to deal with an actually burning social issue in a way that one has the feeling that they did not have enough time to think it through – as if the exhibition-goer needed a role-play game to fathom the social divide in its own country. It is enough to just imagine a jet-set art collector carrying a plastic bucket of water in a well-known contemporary art venue wearing Vuitton to understand that there might be some issues with some, if not all three letters of the ‘W’ ‘H’ ‘W’.

The clear line between the lack of public services and the extreme living conditions that such deprivation generates is rarely presented to the broad public. In large part this is for want of appropriate spaces for public communication and informed means of representation and self-representation.

I could not agree more with Erőss. But again, one cannot not feel that the manifestation of this very project falls short in both cases. This is a contemporary art exhibition in Budapest, thus it has to face no more than limited interest from the side of the wide/general public. Which is a tragedy of its own, I admit, but that does not change the fact that it’s the sad truth. Second: I am all for the appropriation of the spaces of contemporary art – fully. So, let’s abandon the notion of the gallery, yes, and create places for public communication! The only thing is that the very scene itself does not seem to be willing to carry out a revolution that would threaten the still existing framework of professional pride. As such, we have to deal with what we have, this is an exhibition in a gallery space and not a human rights campaign of an NGO, nor is it a horizontally organised form of radical/communist comradery.

Conclusion: until practitioners are willing to understand the sacrifice needed to carry out the transformative ground work within themselves and the institutional framework what is necessary to start engaging in subversive social practice art will not occur.My short answer to the latest fascist moves of Viktor Orbán is: LOVE IS LOVE, there are neither politicians nor kings or gods who could tell otherwise!

And finally: I stand in solidarity with the faculty members of Critical Management Studies at the University of Leicester who are facing a yet-another neoliberal austerity-driven ‘reorganising’ leading to academics losing their job or facing threat to their critical positions. Find out more about their struggle here:

[1] Erőss has been in the curatorial team of the biennial from its onset in 2014.

[2] See for example: Sonia Tascon: ‘The Humanitarian Gaze’, Human Rights Films and Glocalised Social Work (in: Social Work in a Glocalised World, Routlege, 2017)

[3] See also the Zagreb-based curatorial collective WHW, for example here:

[4] Oliver Marchart, Conflictual Aesthetics. Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere. Sternberg Press, 2019.

Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.