“We are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice.”
“The notion of rehearsal - being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory - there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.”
“Study, a mode of thinking with others separate from the thinking that the institution requires of you, prepares us to be embedded in what Harney calls “the with and for” and allows you to spend less time antagonized and antagonizing.”
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons1
1 Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2003.
The web, any web, is built up of strings and threads: relations. It is the threads that make up the nodes, that keep the web afloat, that make sure the tension is right so the web can serve as the spider’s instrument. She stretches one of her long, hairy feet, gently plucks the thread closest to her, and senses how the vibration traverses one thread, branches off into others, diverges into more. The spider stays alert, attunes her seismic sensibility to the signals travelling back to her, gathers information about the length, weight, degree of entanglement, thickness, and flexibility of her threads. The threads are her context, but also her sticky archive. Their adhesive surface holds traces of the genetic material of everything it ever touched. Vibratory signals always travel through this amalgamation of information; the intensities and rhythms of the present are perceived through the sediments of the past.1
Just like the spider’s threads, her words have a history too. They come with their own baggage, contexts of use, and etymological specificities. They were spoken by many different tongues, in many different contexts, with different accents, connoting and conjuring different concepts, situations, and affects. Some can be traced back to other writers and thinkers, probably all of them are composed somewhere along the lines of intersubjective knowledges, emerged in conversations, through activities; none of them are isolated.
Most of these words were collected in the web’s site of attachment, in the web’s ecosystem that has its own, often toxic climate. This ecosystem is not a homogenous place, it encompasses areas where highly competitive so-called ‘natural’ selection prevails, zones of sympoiesis2, and many modes in between. What is pervasive in this ecosystem often called the ‘Contemporary Art World’ is the unequal distribution of nutrients and widespread parasitism of art institutions that are constantly in search of fresh sources of energy they can suck on to stay relevant and alive.3 There seems to be a big disjunction, if not to say hypocrisy, in how many art institutions represent themselves as critical, decolonial4, feminist sites of learning, while treating their workers badly, and as soon as something is at stake for them proclaim political neutrality. Museum spaces remain inaccessible, even critical works with relevant messages are often not legible for people outside the art-discourse and only reach an audience that already agrees. Modern and contemporary art is a signifier of class status in luxury commercials, art fairs are get-togethers for celebrities, and artworks have become the perfect assets for financial speculation. James Rushing Daniel calls art “a tool of capital accumulation and social domination”, a “pretty but hollow form [...] of resistance”.5
In this context, can art be a tool for political change? Can it, at least to some extent, resist its commodification? Rushing Daniel sees more hope in activist strategies of unionising, striking, protesting, and alternative education.6 But where are the boundaries between these approaches and some forms of contemporary politically engaged artistic practices? How flexible is the concept of art, and how much sense does it make to stretch it? Finally, can we rethink art infrastructures towards collectivity and solidarity? We don’t need another critique of capitalism and the art world's complicity. We need strategies for resistance, recipes for weaving otherwise webs. The spider’s looping and knotting is an attempt at gathering, intermingling and trying-to-understand otherwise ways of doing (art). Some threads will need to be adjusted with time, some new connections made, others severed, it’s a process of experimentation after all.
As much as being an organiser, the spider is a creature of words, a weaver of text(iles). She constructs her worlds through words, through punctuation, through rhythm. In this open-ended, ever-growing web, she describes, rather than defines, specific and situated meanings and uses of the words that are meaningful to her, and their intersection with other threads of thought and action. The threads, the words, make sense through each other, make up the texture of the narrative, situate the spider. Describing what these words mean to her, what they can mean to us, is a work in progress, a way of figuring out ways of dealing with being an artist, whatever that means, of navigating the current neoliberal infrastructures in search for transformative possibilities. As we are all entangled in Capitalism, the way it makes us relate to the world and to each other, and because I don't believe in ideological purity, contradictions and ambiguities are part of this process. It is a journey of learning, a search for possibilities of being in this world.
1 “Spider/webs.” Arachnophilia, https://arachnophilia.net/scanning-the-web/. Accessed 16 May 2022.
2 The term ‘sympoiesis’ was coined in the field of biology by Mary Beth and Linda Dempster to describe “collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries. Information and control are distributed among components. The systems are evolutionary and have the potential for surprising change.”
Beth, Mary, and Linda Dempster. “A Self-Organizing Systems Perspective on Planning for Sustainability.”1998.
3 Florian Cramer. Personal Communication.
4 Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol 1, No. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40. Accessed via https://clas.osu.edu/sites/clas.osu.edu/files/Tuck%20and%20Yang%202012%20Decolonization %20is%20not%20a%20metaphor.pdf on 24 May 2022.
5,6 Daniel, James Rushing. “Art and Capital Have Become Nearly Indistinguishable.” Jacobin, 15 Nov. 2021, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/11/art-market-financialization-commodify-currency-museums-assets-capital. Accessed May 16 2022.
Writing diary facilitates situating reflections and knowledges in context, giving space for embodied experiences, observations, emotions, and the theoretical speculations and threads that arise from them. It is akin to the practice of autotheory, that refuses the separation of body and mind, of ‘superior’, abstract knowledge and lived bodily experience.1 Writing diary helps to recognize everyday activities and embodied experiences as sites of learning, of study. It helps to show how theory is developed and embodied through practice, but it also reveals the disjunctions, the contradictions. Theory helps to understand, to survive, to grow, to dream, to come up with otherwise ways of doing things. But these otherwise ways need to be put into practice.
During the past month, I recorded instances of my life, activities I am engaged in, conversations or reflections I had in specific situations. Because autoarachnology is there: in organising workshops, in bumping into friends and having conversations, in being exhausted, in coming up with wild ideas, in being disillusioned, in getting together. And it is also these friends, these encounters that shape the web more than all the theory and literature I engage with. Inspired by Ben Spatz’s writing on embodied research, I wanted to give credit to the co-authors of my web and reality, acknowledging the non-textual sources my research and practice is drawing from.2 The list could be endless, and I am focusing on a selection of encounters here. Through tracing concrete instances, I was hoping to make the web tangible, anchor it in reality, and understand the activities that make up the strings as much as abstract concepts.
Writing diary is also an exercise in remembering: which elements, which situations and thoughts stick? What is worthy to be written down, and what are the criteria? What happens to a memory, a situation, with all its complexities, when it is poured on a piece of paper? How much do I want to share? A lot of information, especially when it comes to activism and political organising might be too sensitive to share. Some people prefer to stay anonymous. How vulnerable do I want to be? How overtly critical? What is interesting for the reader and what isn’t? In the end, a lot of the work I do, we do, is maintenance, is slow. Who wants to read about the emails and text messages I wrote, the time I spent researching the etymology of a word, the time I spent dealing with bureaucracy, the time I spent in meetings, some of them energising, others disillusioning, the time I spent doing the dishes, the time I spent doubting. Even though these activities are teachers too.
1 Zwartjes, Arianne. “Autotheory as Rebellion: On Research, Embodiment, and Imagination in Creative Nonfiction.” Michigan Quarterly Review, July 2019, https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/mqr/2019/07/autotheory-as-rebellion-on-research-embodiment-and-imagination-in-creative-nonfiction/. Accessed 16 May 2022.
2 Spatz, Ben. “Embodied Research, A Methodology.” Liminalities, vol. 13, no. 2, 2017. Accessed via www.liminalities.net/13-2/embodied.pdf on 26 May 2022.
Do nodes form at the intersection of threads? Or are they what keeps the threads together in the first place? Nodes are projects, activities, groups, concrete instances that mostly emerged from the context I am situated in right now: the Willem de Kooning art Academy. In their own way, they all deal with creating community in a non-oppositional fashion, meaning to smuggle1 ways of doing things into the academy that don’t completely align with what is desirable, or what is provided. At the core of most of these projects is the urgency to learn from, with, and through each other and to organise as students in a bottom-up way. We do not always need experts to show us the way, rather, we work with the knowledges that are already present within us, and build together in experimental ways, staying attentive and flexible to the consequences of our actions, learning through trial and error. Despite backlash, working this way generates a feeling of agency, of joy, of de-alienation from each other, our environment, and ourselves.
Often, art is in the first place representative, aiming to give attention to a certain topic or issue (which is of course also not to be dismissed), but ultimately remains superficial, doesn’t affect change to the systems in place. The nodes we are constructing create local, small-scale alternative infrastructures that are specific to their context, and explore what strategies this context requires, and what possibilities it affords.
Important is the aspect of sustainability, both in the often free labour we provide, but also in the infrastructures themselves. This is complicated enough in an environment that is based on short-term temporary projects and deadlines. The dilemma most groups working with and against universities/art academies face is whether or not to get recognized by the institution, which can mean financial and political support, as well as integration into the systems in place. This helps make initiatives sustainable, but on the other hand also easily makes them get appropriated, incorporated, and subjected to institutional agendas. Getting paid is always a trade in autonomy, but not everybody can afford to work for free.
The art academy is a very heterogeneous place, with different interest groups that have their own agendas and modes of doing things. Power resides in different places and is used to different ends. iLiana Fokianaki proposes to see cultural institutions as ‘formations of state power’ that mimic the violence of the state2, made apparent for instance in the precarity that employees face, policing, gatekeeping, and cultural hegemony. In this sense, through many frustrating experiences and accounts of others, working in this environment has taught me a lot about the workings of institutional power and its strategies. The lack of safety in the institutional environment is also the reason why some activities, people, and groups I work with are not documented here. The most important lesson I learned is the relevance of finding allies across the spectrum, to not gloss over conflict but to stick with it and acknowledge difference3, to foster collaboration and mutual support rather than competition.
1 Rogoff, Irit. “‘Smuggling’ – An Embodied Crticality (sic).” Xenopraxis, www.xenopraxis.net/readings/rogoff_smuggling.pdf. Accessed 22 May 2022.
2 Fokianaki, iLiana, guest. “The Role of Ideology in Institutions: iLiana Fokianaki and Laura Raicovich.” E-flux podcast, Spotify, Feb 2020, https://open.spotify.com/episode/01UMmXwN3HPpf0E4SCnY1N?si=68f14e8a5acb40a6. Accessed 22 May 2022.
3 Michelle Teran. Personal Communication.