ESR 10 Blog November/December 2022: Anna Fech

Pic_Anna Fech 600

Until we invent telepathy ….


During the summer school “Re-Imagining Socially Engaged Art Building New Ecologies in a Planetary Crisis” I attended the workshop Instituting Otherwise led by Maria Hlavajova & Jeanne van Heeswijk. The main question for the workshop was: What (art and culture) institutions do we want and need, and how do we create them?


My motivation to participate in this workshop was my interest in the question of censorship from a de-colonial perspective. Major western institutions presume artists visit art academies that focus on western education models which are based on beyond-the-object discussions of the 1960s. Jack Burnham’s Systems Esthetics theory, for instance, described how the Western world evolved from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented society. He predicted that the work of art as a cultural object will disappear and will be substituted with what he calls the “system consciousness”.[1]


Working as a curator in Azerbaijan and with artists from Central Asian countries, I observed that in the post-Soviet sphere, art academies often refer to the tradition of Socialist Realism. Private and artistic initiatives try to compensate the urge to align with the global artistic discourse, however, their foundation are very ambitious self-exploitation models, due to lack of governmental funding. Whereas the countries of Caucasus and Central Asia are often discussed in terms of political censorship and a lack of artistic freedom, I would like to draw the attention to a phenomenon that I call the intellectual censorship practice: only artists who manage to put an enormous effort financially (to study abroad), or personally (autodidactic studies online, or visiting alternative art academies) become visible and accepted within western institutions.


During the 2-day workshop, the artist Jeanne van Heeswijk managed to work out and connect the different backgrounds and the different contributions of the individual participants in exercises. In the end, we were asked to write down a fictional story on our own about an alternative institution based on the terms we had worked out in the group within 20 minutes. The night before I kept thinking whether it is actually possible to come up with a new type of institution that could circumvent the problems I described above – considering there would be no limitations that apply in reality. However, the framework and the group work did not offer me the opportunity to formulate them – since the starting point of the exercise and approach is, so to speak, the ‘collective brain’. Socially engaged art works with these methods to come up with a non-hierarchical discussion platform and to create a participatory/collaborative atmosphere, but it is often overlooked that typical group dynamics develop. For me, as a highly sensitive person, these types of exercises are overwhelming and block my creativity rather than encourage it. I watch myself listening to others and trying to understand their ideas, so I switch to passive rather than active mode. This is not just a subjective observation but has been proven in studies. So-called cooperative learning and brainstorming do not work for various group dynamic reasons. To name a few here: social laziness (a few do the work, others sit back), social anxiety (people don’t share their ideas out of fear of being judged), and ignoring differences in learning speeds and communication skills (there is no room for slower information processing and people who are able to verbalize their ideas quicker have an advantage).[2] The exception here is the Internet, which has produced fascinating collective results, such as the encyclopedia Wikipedia. It must be emphasized that people participating in these kinds of commons, are sitting alone in front of the computer at the moment of their contribution.


The issue of different communication abilities in groups is not a negligible detail, as this is often also the aspect why artists who have gone through a non-Western education are excluded from the ‘international discourse’. The mechanisms of exclusion are discussed, for example, in Foucault’s essay The Order of Discourse. He describes, “(…) that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality. In a society like ours, the procedures of exclusion are well known. The most obvious and familiar is the prohibition. We know quite well that we do not have the right to say everything, that we cannot speak of just anything in any circumstances whatever, and that not everyone has the right to speak of anything whatever.”[3] He describes how the polarization resulted from the western philosophical tradition (Hesoid and Plato) and a differentiation between the “true” and the “false” discourse: “This will to truth, like the other systems of exclusion, rests on an institutional support: it is both reinforced and renewed by the whole strate of practices, such as pedagogy, of course, and the stems of books, publishing, libraries; learned societies in the past and laboratories now.”[4]


Due to the political past, educational institutions in the post-Soviet context practice precisely this other form of pedagogy, and therefore other discourse systems, which from a Western perspective is presented as false discourse.


My idea for this workshop would be a fictional art institution based on telepathy. This would solve some of the problems where both language and communication skills would no longer matter. It would only be about the idea, which would become immediately apparent to the other person in visual images – without first describing it in words, linguistic and cultural hurdles would no longer stand in the way, as well as group dynamic mechanisms such as passive and active behavior. A much larger amount of information could be communicated in a much shorter time. However, telepathy also means maximum transparency. What artists, like Hans Haacke, have worked out in lengthy research work on institutional criticism such as his work Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, would be immediately apparent. Artists could demand better conditions for themselves from the better insight into the otherwise invisible structures. On the other hand, the actors could find out more quickly from the unfiltered, honest insight into the other person whether they at all interested in cooperation or whether going separate ways from the start is the better option. However, until we invent telepathy, we have to cope with the exclusive character of discourse formations and its consequences unfortunately.



[1] Jack Burnham: Systems Esthetics. Published in ARTFORUM (09/1968), p. 30 -35.

[2] Susan Cain: Still. Die Bedeutung von Introvertierten in einer Lauten Welt (Munich: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, Kindle Edition, 2013), p. 141-143.

[3] Michel Foucault: The Order of Discourse. Inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, given 2 December 1970. In: Robert Young (Ed.): Untying the text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (London: Routledge, 1981), p. 52.

[4] Ibid., p. 55.

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