29 x 54.5 cm_BlackWwhite

Co-a-lism – against the stream, opposing the invisible borders

 Elena Marchevska

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

 

 

On Hyphens

 

Susie Quillinan

 

If hyphens had words, I think they might use Harun Farocki’s: “We can drop right into the middle of events.” 1

Despite appearances, a hyphen is a thing in motion. It splits and joins, opens and closes, builds and breaks. It can move us through time, make space for new meaning and invite us to see anew. When used to construct compound words, a hyphen becomes, I would argue, the linguistic equivalent of a public square. It sits in that empty-full hole: exposed and conspicuous, opening up a space right there at the crossroads of a pair of ideas. The hyphen allows us to construct notions from half built words and abbreviations that together outline something entirely new, waiting to be defined. It forms mutant spaces and suggests experimental travels. It creates if not a space in common, at the very least, a proposition to construct a common space.

Nobody or nothing exists in isolation: everything is an element of a structure. Every structure is in its turn an element of another structure. Everything that exists is a structure. To understand something, is to understand the structure of which it is a part and/or the elements forming the structure that that something is. 2 The word hyphen comes from the ancient Greek, meaning “in one”. Originally, it lay on the ground between two words or two parts of a word. A stepping stone to comprehension, a footbridge to new ideas. At some point it migrated north and settled, suspended in the space between. From this point of exposure, the hyphen seems to carry with it an almost inbuilt obsolescence. While it will likely continue to be used to unite broken words across line breaks in type, its use as a builder of word-ideas exists in layover territory, a pit-stop on the way to “common use”.

In a sense, the hyphen is the most architectural of all grammatical notations. In its insistent horizontality, the hyphen constructs not upwards as a skyscraper but outwards-across, like a bridge. It cleaves ideas to each other, commingles disparate thought forms, political concepts, people; forcing them to share space across a minor but insistent divide. The effect is additive, constructive, at times perhaps, combative. In these cases, the use of a hyphen emphasises that the thoughts, words or identities cleaved together by its bridge are in a state of total equilibrium. Both hold equal and specific weight. Neither is more dominant nor inclined to be absorbed into the other. The hyphen is an indicator of a perfect tension, its diminutiveness a sign not of architectonic dominance but of harmonious suspension. Hyphenation is thus invoked here, not to produce a new entity or identity out of old categories, but as a term that remains both old and new, as well as in-between, since it brings together two words or concepts, but without merging them into one. Rather, it accentuates the split, and sometimes jarringly, uncomfortably, and counter-intuitively brings together two different designations. The hyphen can conjoin, obviously, but can also bring into form dialectics or antagonisms.  Through this modest horizontal scratch on the page, we process ideas through language-in-time, absorbing new forms and odd couplings. We accumulate meanings around familiar ideas, inserting a hyphen to make them feel less strange (e-mail) until the hyphen is no longer needed. Eventually the eye no longer needs to pause to relate the past to the future, to recalibrate our expectations and process a new set of representations. And the speed with which we absorb these new thought forms into common usage seems to be increasing. In the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary hyphens were removed from 16,000 entries. The transit lounge of punctuation has served its purpose, given us the space and time to process where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.

So, from another angle, we might understand the hyphen as less architectonic and more aura. It captures a moment in time at the dawn of a new idea or a new set of relations. And then with each subsequent use the need for the hyphen fades a little, as familiarity replaces contention until the tiny mark disappears. A quiet suggestion that if the space of the hyphen can be thought, the messier space of existence in the tension, the state of in-between-ness is already being lived.

“The wound is an eye. Can we look into its eyes?” (Cecilia Vicuña)

To some eyes, the hyphen is a scar on the page, a problem to be solved, a hole to be closed. When a hyphen is removed from a compound, one of two things happen. Either, the hyphen proves to be a reminder that this coupling was never going to work. The words divorce and the hyphen, no longer needed, is replaced by clear space. Or, it is decided that neither hyphen nor space is needed and the hyphenated word is “closed”. The Chicago Manual of Style states that “With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online)”. Interesting to think of “closing” words (word-wounds). As if an idea, once made familiar, closes itself off to the world. Th-is ma-kes m-e wa-nt t-o hy-ph-en-ate ev-ery wo-rd. But the point is not always to integrate and disappear into common usage. Sometimes the very point is to be ‘in one’. To hold the space in between and use it to build, or breathe, or pay attention. By insisting on the visibility that comes with holding the articulation firmly in place, the hyphen can turn our gaze from the structures on the page to the constructs of society; of history itself.

In 1990 the “hyphen war” (so-called in the English language press) played out in the re-naming of the newly democratic nation of what had been known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In this moment of redefining the future of a nation and shaking off the
chains and traumas of the past, the job of ensuring equal visibility and stature to the citizens of this land, fell to the humble hyphen. The Czechoslovak Republic became the Republic of Czecho-Slovakia; became the “Czechoslovak Federative Republic,” (with a hyphen in the Slovak language but not in the Czech). While calling it a ‘war’ might have overstated the conflict, the fact remains that the hyphen was an agent of visibility, representation and equality. It told us where to look and to remember this act of looking every time the new nation-state was invoked. To build new worlds, sometimes we don’t need new words, just new ways of seeing them.

The APA style guide claims that “A properly placed hyphen helps the reader understand the intended meaning.” In this formulation, hyphens are a bulwark against ambiguity. They perform the operation of making visible and focusing attention for the purpose of frictionless reading and meaning-making. Without them, the reader fumbles, misunderstands, or fails to see. Visibility however, does not necessarily eradicate ambiguity. In fact, often the opposite is true. A hyphen asks us to see two or more forms as they are, articulated separately but attached to each other. It asks us to consider the singular in relation to a larger common space. Though that common space is particular, specific, and the attachment prescribed, the jolt of relating these forms to each other automatically opens the mind to new relations. If this can be hyphenated with that, what else can we join together? In a conversation with John Akomfrah, artist and writer Raimi Ghadamosi addresses the hyphen as an alternative to the idea of the hybrid, particularly in relation to identity.

…while the hyphen provides an alternative to the hybrid, it also points to the fact that you are what you attach yourself to. The hyphen in this case does become a form of attachment, rather than it being about ownership.  Perhaps then, the hyphen is infrastructure. Facilitating transition and wandering between spaces. Maybe the work of the hyphen is less about constructing new spaces between or across conceptual divides, but rather drawing the outline around a space we have already formed, within which we are already operating, and finding ways to connect them. This is a more performative, embodied hyphenation. It calls to mind Mierle Laderman Ukeles who traced such a space through the physical embodiment of the hyphen: the handshake. In her performance ‘Touch Sanitation’ (1979-80), Laderman Ukeles shook hands with 8,500 sanitation workers in New York City. Through this repeated act of hyphenating herself with others (maintenance workers whose work rendered them invisible) Ukeles traced a space of co-ness, common-ness. These are the spaces we trace when we open up our practices to others. When we look and think together. When we make the body porous, the text mobile, the site (un)common. Edouard Glissant attempts to convey the potential for opening up spaces of thinking through the humble hyphen when he unpacks in a note at the back of his book Poetics of Relation, the meaning of a hyphen in the French word for commonplace (lieu-commun).

Failing to attain this multiplicity, we attempt to reach it from the very environment of the language in which we express ourselves…we open the linguistic bastion and in tum multiply the language that we inhabit; we open stars into it: into a use-language that, by shortcutting, reassembles the language and scatters it. 5  So, what are artists if not hyphens? Constructing new ideas, re-examining old ones. Guiding them into view and inviting the audience to sit in that exposed common space
between concepts, where thinking happens; where feeling happens. Hyphenating in order to make legible certain ideas, words, identities. To make ourselves legible to ourselves. artist-curator, dancer-writer, artist-mother, non-binary. Co-a-lism. To make ourselves legible as a group, in the social realm, as a set of intersecting lives and ideas. Like train carriages gathering passengers. Room for the lone traveler as much as for the group. Space for the already-known and the yet-to-be-understood. A tiny horizon reaching out across a divide. Perhaps if we look closely, the hyphen itself is composed of a multitude of smaller hyphens. Adding, parsing, elucidating, equivocating, doubting, recalling, representing. Sharpening focus. Making space to breathe. The hyphen is time shared and time demanded. Time for thinking actively in the public square of ideas, living in the space in-between. Time to ask ‘do you see me?’ ‘do we understand yet?’ The hyphen as the social, the commons. The place of study, of improvising, of experimenting, of paying attention. It’s a tiny space to demand for ourselves. A small mark to concede. A linguistic footbridge, the grammatical notation that says ‘here we are, thinking together, in-between’. Co-a-lism.

1Harun Farocki, Parallel II, 2014. One-channel video installation, color, sound, 9 minutes.
2Ulises Carrión, “The New Art of Making Books” Kontexts no. 6-7, 1975
3Simon Sheikh “None of the Above: From Hybridity to Hyphenation” Manifesta Journal #17 (2017)
4John Akomfrah / Raimi Ghadamosi “Raimi Ghadamosi Talks with John Akomfrah” Manifesta Journal #17 (2017)
5Edouard Glissant “Poetics of Relation” Trans. Betsy Wing. (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997) p. 226

Susie Quillinan makes texts, curatorial and study programming, and library experiences. As an independent curator and researcher with a focus on study, leisure, experimental pedagogies and artist-made infrastructures she applies artistic and curatorial practices to the development of models that provoke spaces for thinking, discussing and being at leisure. Quillinan is currently co-director of TeCA (Teoría, Cuidad y Arte), an organisation with a focus on creating a critical and collaborative space with relation to art, architecture and urbanism in Latin America; co-director of HAWAPI – an independent residency, exhibition & publication project based in Perú; and lead researcher of Plan Autopoiesis, a research project that looks at study and library experiments in art practice. She was co-curator of the second Transart Triennale (NY & Berlin) and a thesis advisor for Master’s students at Transart Institute. She has worked with artists on large scale projects for various museums, galleries and institutions including the Biennale di Venezia; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Lima (MAC) & Cornell University and has developed curatorial programming, editorial projects and study programmes in various locales including Lima, New York, Berlin, Barcelona, Melbourne and Mexico City.