Co-a-lism – against the stream, opposing the invisible borders
Against the stream
It’s late July and the sun is high above Berlin. I observe a group of artists, sitting in rows of chairs, facing each other. They talk about their parents and simultaneously draw portraits of their conversation partner. The words shift melodically mid-air: mother; father; siblings; names of villages and towns… The shapes appear on paper, faces so familiar, yet distant. Past and present merge, stories overlap, boundaries blur, walls (both internal and external) disappear.
A time of precarious global politics, when society has little confidence in its institutions, demands that artists become more imaginative in the way that they organise themselves and how they show and discuss their work. As an exhibition, Co-a-lism plays precisely with this idea, both in terms of how artists organise their educational journeys and how their art is displayed. Co-a-lism is the product of a two-year co-living experiment. Ten artists from seven countries met during their educational journey with Transart Institute for Creative Research. They shared a space for longitudinal experimentation and thinking, for connecting over a prolonged period of time. They speak and work with each other across borders and divides of politics, geographies, and disciplines. What Co-a-lism brings to the fore therefore are friendship and solidarity as the core support structures for a better way of creating, thinking and caring about the art and the artist.
It’s early August and the sun is high above Berlin. I observe a group of artists, engaged in a vivacious dialogue. There is a level of attentive listening that I rarely find. Genuine curiosity and childlike openness. Co-existing is so easy, almost like the world changed its commercial logic and these artists are alone with their creative endeavour, in this vast, utopian, post-industrial space.
Co-a-lism as an exhibition is only possible because the artists are executing a self-organised approach. This provides the artists with two elements that are also inherently part of their practice: the opportunity to communicate a unique message about the shifting role of the artist in the current hostile world and a chance to engage in a public dialogue with their audience. My personal interest in the term ‘self-organised’ within the art context is that it describes how groups and informal collectives of artists can operate independently from institutional curatorial structures. Self-organised initiatives historically appear to strive to be non-hierarchical and to conduct their decision-making processes along the lines of open participatory models. The artists of Co-a-lism employ waiting and listening as part of their self-organization strategy. Only through active listening and waiting for the right answer to emerge can art open a space for criticality to develop. Through experimentation over two years, new modalities for art production developed between the artists and the true motif came to the forefront: a deeper, profound need to acknowledge, to be with, and to care for the self and the other.
In recent years, a model has emerged where many international museums and galleries host an exact reproduction of the same show, again and again. The outlines of the gallery viewer’s journey are the same, no matter if they are in Berlin, New York or Dubai. This articulates a capitalist politics deeply embedded in the cultural institutions: it demonstrates the ruthless inventiveness of global capitalism for transforming everything into a way of making money. From this perspective Co-a-lism has a political character based on the economic mode through which it is produced. As social and cultural theorists Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield note: ‘[c]ulture does not (cannot) transcend the material forces and relations of production. Culture is not simply a reflection of the economic and political system, but nor can it be independent of it’ (Dollimore and Sinfield 1994: viii). All art consciously or unconsciously carries political meaning. As the scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte observes, art can be used to ‘confirm a sense of community, to renew the emotional bond between its members’ (Fischer-Lichte 2009: 13).
It’s mid-August and Berlin is slowly waking up. I sit in a studio full of writing, scattered objects, drawings…the air is thick with possibility. It’s strangely satisfying. Dialogues still reverberate in my ears, images of bodies in movement, bodies exploring their limits.
Ten artists from seven countries, coalescing across boundaries come together in Co-a-lism. They range across media: oil, video, acrylic, photography, miniature painting, charcoal, printmaking, collage, dance, writing. Despite different media and geographies, for me there are three themes that inform the conversations between these artists and I hope that this is just a start of long-term discussion about being together over time and space.
Past/Present/Future – Memory and the transgenerational
The artists who work under this theme raise questions on the mediation of memory, and the way memory travels, how it is adapted, translated and appropriated through art. Forgetting is part of the current (social) media oversaturation that we are experiencing. So, it seems vital for artists to ask how the past is negotiated in the present and how it shapes our future.
Derek Owens engages with the idea of retrospectiveness to question how memory is constructed and reconstructed through art. A series of didactic art cards describing works by the artist “Derek Owens” point to works in a retrospective assembled after the death of the artist. However, the works themselves are unseen/unpresent—just like their creator. Owens prompts us to think about who is remembered and who is forgotten in our collective memory. There is something about being forgotten that drives artists to create. But then, it is so easy to never be forgotten in our current data-saturated age that we must reconsider our need to be remembered. What is seen, what remains hidden, from the past and into the future?
Malvina Sammarone builds an archive of memory and forgetting, collecting worthless material for almost ten years now, taking good care in arranging, documenting, indexing, and preserving it from any possible damage. However, this archive that relates only to the artist is both a burden and an inspiration. Through fragments and wholes, theories and biographies, disasters and absurdities, and drawing in the dark, Sammarone builds one thing by disturbing another. Past, present and future are collapsed in a cycle of re-construction. Chaos starts and ends everything.
Ira Hoffecker digs into memory to fight against forgetting. Her series History as Personal Memory scrutinizes German collective memory and investigates power structures and the overstepping of personal boundaries in the most intimate arenas. She combines ideas about homeland with her own personal memory, reviving and revisiting transgenerational memories in order to move forward. She uses her body to create layers of stories on canvas with tar, and to perform on video the narrative of family caught within an historical whirlwind. She asks questions, of herself and of us. Can memory ever be suppressed? Can we ever forget?
Rachel Epp Buller explores the radical potential for letter-writing as an act of care in past, present, and future contexts. From epistolary poems between historimaginary sisters to present-day correspondences across disciplines, geographies, and generations, to a series of Letters to the Future, Buller explores the meditative process of handwritten letters, and in a wide-ranging creative practice brings attention to the ways we care for each other with words. Through letters and related drawings, books, photographs, and embroidery, she considers how feminist maternal relations of care and attunement in the present, and a willingness to listen to voices from the past, might help us to drastically reorient our ways of relational being for the future.
Lost bodies / bodies in space
The artists working with this theme strive to stimulate the audience imagination, drawing the audience into imaginative journeys through the sensing / feeling body. This work pushes beyond pedestrian movement through our everyday lives and toward the poetics and haptic sense of our own experiences.
Louis Laberge-Côté focuses on the body in all of his roles, as dancer, choreographer, and teacher. Over the past two years, he has conceived, developed, and disseminated a philosophical framework that he calls The Porous Body, built with the goal of cultivating mental and physical malleability in dance. Laberge-Côté developed this framework as a structure of feeling that focuses on the practice of an approach to movement, as opposed to the practice of movement itself. He shares The Porous Body with collaborators in a spirit of generosity, with the goal of nurturing the ability to transform willpower into a state of malleability, responsiveness, openness, and vulnerability.
George Angelovski brings bodies to the fore in his experiments with photographic techniques and attempts to trim the excess that occurs in language surrounding violence, spirituality and relationships. He choreographs media and materials, images and text. Angelovski engages in an imagined visual dialogue, both with himself and with photographic history, producing work that is visceral and abstract. His photographs peel back the first layers of skin and bodily tissue and invite the viewer to deeper levels, seeking beyond the body to reach the residual of the mind.
JoMichelle Piper’s work explores the intimate connections between our internal human biology and the external world. Piper’s bodily, poetic contemplations on air, light, darkness, and silence begin from the imperative that (re)connection to our environment, both immediate environment and global ecology, is the most critical issue of our time. Her work starkly reminds us that time is not on our side: nature will find its way, but bodies can be lost.
Observing and Listening
The act of active listening is an essential part of the work in this section. Listening through creative visual arts requires that the artist masters what it means to be-with others and how to respond to specific locations, stories and histories. Therefore, the work in this section gives the audience an opportunity to experience an embodied and emotional visual expression. It is exceptionally rare to be listened to, or to listen to anyone, so it is a privilege to experience art work that actively listens to others.
Jay Sullivan’s Enough series involves careful self-observation, psychological techniques, and active listening. This investigatory work of the self is never done. One intent of this creative process is to help Sullivan be aware of what has contributed to his perfectionist drive (or one could say overdrive). Through photographs and videos that reflect this ongoing observation and learning, Sullivan engages in an active dialogue with his audience about what it means to consciously remain in the process and not to strive towards a finished product.
Julia Olson moves through life as an observer, using her artistic practice to interpret unfamiliar experiences and to create relationships wherever she lives or works – Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, Greece. Her work explores invisible realities, recasting the metaphorical veil between the known and unknown, to a connecting border, not a separating veil. A near-death experience that Olson had decades ago created wonderment about being –using portraiture as a mirror to the deeper nature of kinships in embodied awareness. Her recent artistic exploration brings out her natural inclination to paint and draw people through an observational methodology, noting the power of the gaze –for both the artist and the sitter. Olson paints to see the kinships of humanity and to appreciate the embodied spiritual awareness in others and herself.
Ayesha Durrani’s work makes visible difficult acts of observation and listening. In a series of miniature paintings inspired by her work with Pakistani acid attack survivors, Durrani looks at scarred faces and listens to painful stories, asking us to consider the relationship between pain and silence. Ayesha presents ‘portraits’ of pain that are ‘easy’ to view, in order to make the viewer feel comfortable with viewing pain and not try to avoid it. She uses old frames found in antique shops and flea markets to guide her use of colour palette and image depiction. The previous history of the frames and the marks left by the previous owner are matched in the miniature painting. Durrani observes, listens and incorporates the voices of past pain and loss in her work.
Instead of conclusion, or how to work despite divisions
Europe is polarized, old divisions between East and West are resurfacing, UK is floating away, coalitions are broken. So why and how can artists come together and negotiate, show work alongside each other, engage in a conversation? The venue of Co-a-lism, Flutgraben, is a both metaphorical and metonymical choice. The building was part of the Berlin wall in the separated city, an old repair workshop for the East Berlin public transport system. It now stands as a symbol of erasing borders, the triumph of co-living and art creation. Co-a-lism aims to actively engage with what still moves us forward in times like this. Art can still be a utopian proposition for a better future.
It’s early September and heavy rain hits Berlin. Everyone is gone…for now…to think, care, drink, make art, live… The only things left are shadows in the studios, leftovers of human presence. However, this is not an end; it’s a beginning of something new, something better.
Bio: Elena Marchevska is a practitioner, academic and researcher interested in new historical discontinuities that have emerged in post-capitalist and post-socialist transition. She is researching and writing extensively on the issues of belonging, the female body, the border and intergenerational trauma. Her artistic work explores borders and stories that emerge from living in transition. She is currently investigating the relationship between performance, migration and privilege in the contemporary European context.
Dollimore, Jonathan, and Alan Sinfield. 1994. Political Shakespeare: essays in cultural materialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika. 2009. The transformative power of performance: a new aesthetics. London: Routledge