This text is an attempt to describe and reflect on the methods and tools that we tried out with our trajectory as an office, by some referred to as a collective and by others as a group.
Since the events here mentioned happened just a couple of months ago to the date of publishing, and due to the extensive amount of perspectives, positions and experiences, this text can only be read as a an incomplete and partial account that seeks to bring about an image (or images) that can help us develop further our collaboration.
This text is written by six participants of the group, and structured as a concatenation of the methods we found most relevant to mention, each written by one of us, and further discussed among us six.
The beginning (Antecedents) tries to serve as an introduction, that mentions the conditions in which the group found each other, our departure point, and some antecedent tryouts of our employed methods, tools and strategies. The reader will find here as well, an account of the concept we used to structure our group/collective.
In the following section, we’ll mention and reflect on some of the main methods practiced throughout our positions in Kassel (in the context of documenta 15), in Prague (at the Fotograf Festival 12) and at Centrul de Proiecte in Timișoara, Romania.
The group found each other at the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts August '21 at the class of “becoming lumbung” imparted by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa. The group was initially formed by 22 people from a range of ages between early 20s to mid-40s, diverse degrees of scholarity: BA, MA, PhD, currently students, early career and mid-career professionals of design, art, curation and research in humanities. The group members are mainly based in Europe and Indonesia, and holding a range of citizenships from EU, Central America, Russia and Indonesia.
Lead by three members of ruangrupa (Ade Darmawan, Reza Afisina and Iswanto Hartono), the class began with an introduction of ruangrupa, the conditions of its formation, its practices, key concepts and methods. Afterwards, we had several sessions to introduce ourselves and our practices to each other. The class was also carried out by following the ways of collective practice (s) of ruangrupa: nongkrong, knowledge market, majelis, lumbung, etc. The main goal was for us to build relations with one another guided by the methods of ruangrupa and for us to make one or more collectives, which came as a well-received surprise. This spoke to our mutually expressed need for finding companionship or togetherness in our otherwise alienated practices.
It“s perhaps relevant to briefly mention our first collaborations in the context of the class as three projects: making the group”s database of resources, a collaborative board game, and deck of cards based on our practices. These were all methods or tools created with the aim of bringing the group closer, engaging in conversation, and opening vias of exchange.
As a course closure, and to provide us with an opportunity for building further our group, ruangrupa invited us for a residency at the Gudskul facilities in Jakarta, which unfortunately we couldn’t attend due to COVID related complications.
Shortly after, one of the group participants at the moment had a project offered to him at an event happening in Kassel parallel to documenta 15. This person, in time, invited the group to participate in such a project. While this proposition didn’t come through, it served as a strong interpellation for the group to engage in shaping a structure to practice and hold our collectivity.
This process consisted of extensive online meetings, polls, and writing applications for funding. It must be said, that among all the funding rejections we got one acceptance, from the Fondului Cultural Național (AFCN), the application been written by Ioana Țurcan in collaboration with Andreea Lacatus.
When ruangrupa found out about our failed attempt to go to Kassel, they offered us the opportunity of a 3 day presentation at the ruruHaus basement. Simultaneously, some participants of the group also reached out to several institutions to provide us with opportunities to present, from which Marketa Mansfieldová and Ioana Țurcan got us invitations to participate at the Fotograf Festival in Prague, CZ and Centrul de Proiecte in Timișoara, RO, respectively.
an office as a method
As mentioned above, the call to present as a group gave rise to the process of developing the concept of office as an overarching structure for our group.
The purpose of this structure was to function as a method for facilitating collaboration, a common field of interaction, to possibly hold potential disagreements, a framework for our presentations, and the possibility of being developed within a small time frame. In time, the structure had to observe the conditions of the group, such as distance (living faraway from one another), non-familiarity (knowing very little about one another or our practices) and difference (in knowledges and interests, but also political, aesthetical, social, etc). Among the many requirements the structure had to comply with was working with a concept familiar (in multifold ways) to the group across our diverse contexts, and have no hierarchical preordination. Additionally, it seemed relevant to ground the concept within the group. That is to say, giving value to what already resides within the group and our practices at least at the level of reference. Such reference came from the practice of Sophie Stadler, one of the participants of the group. With her presentation, she shared a project of an installation performance “The Office for Inner Emigration” (2019-2020), she created in collaboration with Alfredo Coloma, Julien Segarra, Valentin Pfenninger, Yul Koh.
Departing from the inspiration in Sophie Stadler“s project, we developed the concept of office as a constellation of initiatives or sub projects proposed by the group”s participants that we called departments. The idea behind the departments was to provide a soft proximity for our practices to meet each other while keeping fluidity, this achieved by merging departments, evolving them, changing, switching, assisting, dissolving, creating new ones, etc. an office as a method embraced the purpose of connecting the group with its lack of a common further purpose beyond learning and developing our relations, its lack of specific roles, delegated responsibilities, involvement and labor differentials. Not without a cost.
Although this method produced many rich encounters, and learning, it must be said that it also had many blind spots (mainly towards administrative and reproductive labor) that we failed to acknowledge in time. Consequently, some people were overworked, while others kept their contributions to a minimum. As part of the structure, it was relevant to consider the capacities and differential levels of commitment and involvement among the group, but we failed at keeping tabs with each other in terms of care, labor loads and safety.
Reasoning on a shared space and collective welcoming practices led us toward the need to start a conversation with an office guests.
During the three episodes of the project, a long white paper roll welcomed the reflections of our guests with simple questions aimed at understanding their perceptions of the figures of host and guest (translated into English, German, Czech, Romanian, Hungarian) that triggered a conversation helping us deepen an area of research close to our interests.
During these three episodes, complex reasoning started to be developed. It began in Germany, during documenta 15 in Kassel, continued in Prague at Fotograf Festival 12, ended in Timișoara at Centrul de Proiecte, and was summarized by us in several categories. These categories will help us to develop further reasoning and conversations between us.
Our research method was not only limited to written questions but also to actual interactions with guests who were welcomed as if in a real living room and involved in open discussions with the group. The initial difficulty of interacting with visitors in our shared living room subsided as time went on. The way we approached guests continued to evolve by the hour, and also depended on their willingness to have dialogues, or on what we experienced as closed-mindedness perhaps, or them being unaccustomed to being welcomed. Or maybe we were too intrusive in welcoming them, invading their personal spaces within a public space usually devoted to leisure time with friends, lovers, family members or solitude. After a few frustrating attempts, we finally realized that asking “how are you?” is a beautiful and very easy question, which no one ever pays much attention to, but which everyone answers willingly and brings about a feeling of being welcomed. As a result of engaging with the visitors, perplexities and new topics of discussion came up that were then added in the form of questions on the paper roll.
Dead Dove Do Not Eat: acting against method (by Sophie Stadler)
“Dead Dove Do Not Eat: Perpetual Stew” is a play in as many acts as you like, written and conceived of in context to documenta 15 in Kassel and performed another time at Fotograf Festival, Prague. It consists of conversations and group chat snippets of an office that I have, like an imaginative interlocutor, spun further, speculated with and shaped into this form: a play on the fringes of theater and performance, spotted with all kinds of references and imprints of ongoing debates and scandals, of discourses we could never contain and questions we could not hope to answer. It was a way to show what was going on but rework it from within without producing a conclusion or final outcome.
The joys and tensions in collective work, the hypocrisy of writing concepts that contain just the right amount of trendy lingo to get your attention, to prove that you are in the know, without really having had time to find your footing, issues of funding and coming together — all of these experiences convinced me that the best way to deal with this was through fiction. Hence the Drapes Department — for drama.
Initially, the play was supposed to be a tool. Imagine it as a “wedge”: a sliver of something that you put into a gap to widen it, or to unhinge something. A wedge is very small, yet it can make big things tilt. Fictionalizing had the additional advantage of protecting me and my colleagues from having to be ourselves in a situation of observation, to take a step back from the frantic demands of positioning and identifying ourselves and do something completely different: to put the self at risk through rotation.
The play remains on the surface of interaction, it creates a space between people, who are suddenly engaged in the same endeavor: never ending rehearsal of being together, speaking sentences out loud that they have no (or little) prior knowledge of, trusting in the next page, the next slide. I didn’t want to write who was supposed to be coming together, so I chose an array of (more or less) everyday objects to be the main characters. They can be picked up by anyone, even more than one, and the person reads/ sings/ acts out the script according to that.
Or not. Because people also refuse, change things, derail the whole act and then I scramble to take notes and record what has happened in the now. Every iteration creates its own edition.
Thinking in scenes has the advantage that you can use them as a laboratory: a somewhat fixed set in which you can exaggerate, repeat, escalate and sometimes find something true that can only be encountered through fiction. If you´re lucky.
There is something really difficult and absurd in trying to show collective work, or simply collectivity because how would you do that? In our group, I felt that after two weeks of the initial getting to know one another, what I was most certain of was the incredible amount of “invisible furniture” littering the space and we were all busy bumping into it. The process of figuring out how to be together needs the two things we lack the most: space and time.
Giving someone a stage is a way to provide that, (Gudskul did that for us) and when people speak together and move together, they create their own field, that I perceive as loaded, or electric or as potentiality. Time is not just a unit measured: objects emanate time. There is also a quality to it and performing can produce this sensation of stretching the now: being exactly where you ought to be, right in that moment.
This is the core of my — possibly absurd — faith in art: that I believe it does not have to be a means to any end at all, but that it is for the production of doors, to make felt the intervals and openings within a process. The play is a way to never harden into a fixed identity, into a brand or a method.
I am “making a scene” or I am “creating the right moment” by entering or by doing nothing. The double meaning of the word act: we are not doing it because we are actors (in a network), but because we are people.
The main direction on experimenting with the space of the Garden Department or its own making process was rooted in some of its members' practices and interests, even if it diluted on the way. It also took different shapes and formats that were related mostly to the site it engaged with, from an urban-looking shelves exhibiting seeds (Kassel), via an immersive and standalone installation (Prague) to a simple bird sanctuary visit (Timișoara).
In all its forms and ways of interaction, the garden was a tool to attempt to address site-specific questions on greenwashing, land-labor and ecosystems linked with migration and economic powers in a more detached and ironic way. We managed to harvest some answers from the visitors and to engage with communities offering them our mix of seeds.
“Swift (relentless structure)” installation (by Linda Weiss)
During the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York and Chicago in October 2011, I created numerous video recordings and photographs during an artistic research trip. The starting point of the project is the encounters in 2007 and 2011 with an African-American “ex-Wall Street Geek Pro” with whom I had a virtual dialogue and with whom I share a deep friendship. I was deeply moved by the Occupy Wall Street protests, the encounter with my African American friend, and the Black Lives Matter protests. That’s why I began to relate their relationship to each other.
Photographs, video material and sound recordings of various encounters led to the essayistic video project “swift (relentless structure)”, which was shown in the settings of the installation at documenta 15 in Kassel and at the Jeleni Gallery in Prague. For me, the relationship of one’s own involvement and the reflection of processes that occur during the formation of a working group play an important role, as does the work with an analog camera and the Corona conditioned circumstance that the world was in front of the television. I explored this artistically starting from the analog recordings from 2007 (I was a fellow at ISCP NY at the time).
My goal was to look back at the events during the Occupy Wall Street movement and put them in the context of the financial crisis and war. I also used sound recordings made during the March of Millions in Moscow (I was a scholarship holder at the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow at the time). I had presented this upcoming project in the course “becoming lumbung” at the Summer Academy in Salzburg. From the excerpts of the writings and biographies of Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Claude Passeron, Erwing Goffman, Alan Greenspan and Dominic Carter on socio-economic elites, the question arose during the working process: “What made you feel empowered?”, to the answer of which the audience and members of an office were invited to write down on index cards.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines cookbook (adjective) as “involving or using step-by-step procedures whose rationale is usually not explained”. Our project trajectories were at points like cooking without a recipe, intuitive, coming from the sensorial. The first leg of the project went under the name Perpetual Stew (Kassel) as we were to boil a heart-warming broth (vegan and gluten free as those are the needs of our group members): an everlasting base for our future endeavors, failures, and dialogues. This was also the stage of gathering ingredients, learning about each other’s preferences and allergies both in cooking and collective work. We started our own cookbook when cooking at Gudskul open-air karaoke-friendly DIY kitchen in the backyard of Fridericianum, the main white cube exhibition space of the most coveted cultural event in Europe.
The collective creation of a cookbook is an act of mutual exploration and recipes are like a score for an improvised concert. At Gudskul, the presentation of a dish to the audience (together with the members of the collective that had made it) preceded by its public cooking and the public waiting, was a friendly ritual. Cooking together, eating together, cleaning together (the last part done without much excitement) created an experience that could not be hurried, where an informal acquaintance at a meal became a way of anticipated intrusion into one’s personal space via searching and finding utensils, lining for food, enjoying smells and tastes. The familiarity becomes multisensorial.
Creating a recipe or cooking together, has a liberating potential. Cookbooks gather histories of their authors, have imprints of long and perplexed paths food ingredients take to reach their final destinations in stomachs, reflect on what is labeled as ‘national’ “naturalizing the myth that one’s sense of belonging and taste aligns with the nation-state”… No wonder that cookbooks “are emotive texts that play an active role in shaping norms about belonging, gender, class, race, and sexuality.”
Questions we are asking ourselves after the project is over… as a research method
Sometimes questions posed are as important as answers given. At the last leg of our journey in Timișoara we gathered a hybrid offline-online meeting to write (collectively and spontaneously) questions that are yet to be answered. An abstract is provided below. Surveys as this one could be a good research tool for figuring out how to move further by going a little backwards.
What is a dish that came out particularly well?
What processes or lack of them we witnessed / produced / assisted / ignored / let go?
When did you feel safe?
Do you have any new project ideas already?
Where would you travel together?
Did this project advance your practice and how?
Any allergies we need to know about?
Do we need wellbeing sessions and how could we implement them?
What impact did your participation have?
What was the first impression when you arrived at a place? (Kassel, Prague, Timișoara)
Do you like chaos?
By which means of transport did you travel to the places? How long did it take you?
At what point did you feel connected?
How was the first night you slept in… (choose a place or all of them)? And how was the first morning after?
At what point do you feel that an idea has become an object?
Is there in your opinion a text that is particularly connected to our practices at the moment?
Favourite karaoke song? (if you took part in it)
What is your way to deal with anger? If someone cannot accomplish a task, especially while under grant funding, who can take care of it?
If you could imagine the next step that we are going to do together, at our best, what would you like it to be?
Unwritten research text as a research text
In the possibility of leaving no trace behind, there is a kind of reverent sense of permissiveness, oddly enough, even a partaking in eternity — I myself decide what comes after me — nothing. Similarly, in archiving a cultural project, not preserving the memory of it gives oneself the feeling that anything is possible, that what is said is not the final truth and can be reinterpreted, that one can enjoy the current moment, extracted from the perishability of existence. In not keeping the archive, in not writing the text there is no condemnation, no disagreement, no doubt, and there is freedom.
We could have left after us an unwritten text, an uncreated office report of what we have done, without summing it up, without turning the page. However, the volume of what we had experienced, but have not yet fully processed in the three (four, including Salzburg) segments of our journey over the course of a year and a half in the hybrid spaces of zooms, shared dormitories and kitchens, exhibition venues and trams outweighed our desire to be free of writing, and eventually freed the text from us, out of us. To be fully honest, the commitment to the granting body to write a research article also served as a motivator.