Round-table discussion with Lucy Cotter

This invited roundtable discussion brought together artists and researchers working in Fri Konst at Valand Academy and HDK, representatives of major art institutions in the city of Gothenburg, and independent curator and writer Lucy Cotter, who was our dialogue partner for the whole ‘Taking Place’ event.

Photo: Kjell Caminha

Lucy recently published a book on the topic of Reclaiming Artistic Research, published with Hatje Cantz (see https://www.hatjecantz.de/reclaiming-artistic-research-7621-1.html). Valand invited her to Gothenburg to help us in addressing some questions that are of pressing importance to us:

How can we arrive at a definition of artistic research that is rooted in the processes and methods of artistic practices themselves?

  • How can we make connections between research in the academy and the wider public?
  • How can we initiate and sustain long term research collaborations with partners around the city?
  • And moreover, how can artistic research help us to produce new understandings of the world around us?

Lucy presented on her work for 40 minutes, and this was followed by a discussion with the following people:

  • Jason Bowman (Valand Academy, Gothenburg University)
  • Daniel Jewesbury (Valand Academy, Gothenburg University)
  • Josefina Posch (Valand Academy, Gothenburg University)
  • Onkar Kular (HDK, Gothenburg University)
  • Kerstin Bergendal (Valand Academy, Gothenburg University)
  • Maddie Leach (Valand Academy, Gothenburg University)
  • Johan Öberg (Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, Gothenburg University)
  • Britta Söderqvist (Director of Museums, City of Gothenburg)
Photo: Kjell Caminha

This is an edited transcript of the discussion with Lucy:

[…]

Maddie:What would be your criticisms in terms of the blind spots that artists have, where they assume they occupy some sort of special place. A lot of the time it’s kind of attempting to stabilize, some of that self-centring.

Lucy: One thing which I think is a really big problem, all of us are in an ongoing struggle in various ways with financial viability. And as a result of that, we have also learned to talk the talk, to get the available moneys to do what we want to do. The heavier those kind of structures become, the more sophisticated ways we’re talking the talk. But it’s got to the point, artists cannot get out of talking the talk anymore. It’s penetrated that deeply into our psyches, that we can’t actually get out of it. I watched an artist present a work in Växjö about a week ago. Amazing project, starting in an old church, which was now artist studios, and finding all of these analogue slides from the Swedish colonial presence in the Congo, and actually bringing material back to the Congo that has not been there, digitising it, making it available, creating all kinds of social and artistic structures to enable things to happen that have not been able to happen previously. And then as she went through all the complexities, and hundreds of things that happened as a result of this tiny funded project in fact, all she was asked to do was create a sculpture to put in the garden outside the church, right? That was the brief. She then said at the end, “So the outcome of this is the sculpture in the garden, an exhibition at the Konsthall, and a publication.”

I just sat there and thought, no, the outcome is all of those things that became possible and that happened through the process of this artistic project, which otherwise would not have happened, that have values for many people in many different places in different ways. And yet, even though it’s not a funding application, you’re sitting surrounded by artists, you’re still using the same phrase. And the outcome is … and we all know. But I think there’s a terrible danger, that we’re actually kind of bastardising our own practices because we’re speaking in ways that we don’t believe in ourselves. And we’re doing it to each other.

And I was thinking, “Well, a very simple question to ask would be, if there was a world war, if a world war broke out next week, which isn’t an impossibility, of course, on what grounds would we want art to continue to exist within those kind of massive change of circumstances?”

Photo: Kjell Caminha

I just think, yeah, we would drop the funding, we would drop the language of the funding structures. We would push up against the things that we feel are urgent, are valuable or whatever and we would operate and be situated and mobilize very differently than we are right now. I have this, it’s like an image … it’s like art is a pool of water, and the circumstances allow the water to flow and find its natural resting spots in places it needs to be, which may be completely contradictory to each other and may include places we’d never even think of. But how can we go far enough with this art business if we keep holding ourselves back with these stupidities that we know are stupidities and which block our capacity?

We’re blocking it ourselves all the time. We’re co-facilitating, also within artistic research, within the university, within funding structures in relation to the government when we talk about culture grants, in the museum and so on. We’re still kind of … we’re massively compromising all the time. But we’ve gotten so used to it.

We’re also saving face. I mean, today was like, “Will I talk about the things that came out of meeting you all individually yesterday?” It’s probably too complex to try and it’s not very social and no images, whatever. But it doesn’t matter if I appear to be totally obscure, ridiculous, or contradict myself, or be boring. I will still just try and do it. Or the other alternative is to present the full powerpoint I prepared, which is polished, finished. We’d all sit down and we have nice chats. But I honestly think a lot of our potentials lie in our vulnerabilities as well.

Johan:Well, I think really the main thing about reclaiming artistic research… I’m not a part of this sort of contemporary art world at all. I’m a bit distant from it and I think more in maybe Bourdieu’s sociological terms about this. With regard to the history of some sort of artistic research here in Sweden, I thought that it was very much about change in the rules of the game in the art world. Because, I mean, for sure, the artist might be autonomous, more or less, but he’s also subject to a rather authoritarian structure. So could then the entrance of art into the university somehow counterbalance other power structures…

Lucy: You mean, the power structure of the field of art and how that’s being situated in relation to culture…

Johan: Yeah, and was that an interesting strategy to think about because, at the same time, what was very clear from the same Bourdieuvian perspective was that the art academy or the art school was the least autonomous part of the university, completely dominated from the outside by external evaluators, art critics, art galleries and so on. So that could this sort of researching thing be something also counterbalancing to that.

Photo: Kjell Caminha

But what we have seen, according to the same Bourdieuvian scheme is maybe a sort of petit-bourgeois, hyper-corrective behaviour that adjusts to the worst aspects of the university, toward the rules and not to this sort of crisis, which is also the reason why the university has accepted artistic research inside the circle, because it is in crisis. But we haven’t taken up that and worked with it, because when we see our colleagues in the Humanities faculty or wherever they are so satisfied. They are so happy with their everyday research and everyday teaching, they don’t see the crisis in that.

Lucy: I’m not sure about that.

Johan: I mean, there is enormous self-satisfaction also inside the institution and it’s not in crisis in the way that you maybe …

Lucy:Yeah, I mean, this is maybe Sweden, right now, but maybe not.

Johan:People are happy and their research their small things, in the-

Lucy:I don’t see that in the Netherlands, in Britain, and in the US. I don’t feel that.

Johan:But there is some strategic move inside the university towards those interesting people, interesting sort of crisis that we would have to make in order to free ourselves from this situation of being known as not productive, according to the university rules. We don’t publish, we have no external funding, so we’re worst in the class, and to free ourselves of that and then to connect to more interesting things inside the university, I think that’s really the bottom of it.

Lucy: But I think what you said earlier is an important question. We’re playing a game in the art world where we pretend that we all have the same, except for discussions around race and otheridentitarian politics. We play the game as if we all have the same kind of background.

There’s the art world and there’s the outside. And there’s very little discussion back to the vulnerabilities of how differently placed the people within the art world are. The journeys that have been taken to get there, and as soon as we make more space for that, conversations can become a lot more productive because we don’t have to be, ‘oh we’re the privileged class’…

The art world has an extremely high percentage of middle class people in it but those middle class people also are complexly situated and there are working class people in the art world. There are upper class people in the art world and there are people who have grown up in urban centresregionally who have shifted locations many times. There’s a whole range of experiences and we kind of whitewash ourselves because we’re kind of pretending to be of the same.

And this actually leads to a lot of insecurity in the art world as well. There’s a kind of a lot of kind of aspiring within the art world but it gives very weak position also within the university because the art world itself is not actually grounded in its own… there’s no room for it to discuss its internal sociological differences.

Photo: Kjell Caminha

This is very Bourdieuvian. Why a particular artist would take a particular relationship to art in relation to their particular background of social, cultural, economic capital, for example? And Bourdieu says the people that change fields are the people who are uncomfortably placed in those fields, and the ones for whom it’s not in their interest for the status quo to stay the same. They’re the ones who would move the fields forward.

So within the university, rather than art as this ivory tower thing outside of reality, we can also have a closer alignment, understand the complexities of the structural positions and how we actually align with the complexity and structural positions within academia, which is also not a super privileged, undifferentiated space.

Jason:On Bourdieu, he also argues that in order to get to the kind of places that you are suggesting, irrespectively, you still have to navigate sifting systems – systems designed to prevent you from getting in in the first place.

Lucy:One of the problems is artists don’t know the university, and when somebody enters-

Johan: So that’s why they go on this sort of petty-bourgeois hyper-corrective behaviour too often, I think.

Lucy:Yeah. Because there’s a kind of a… it’s very hard to be radical. I mean, one of the things Bourdieu says, if you look at art history, you actually… if you come from a cultural or social or class background where there is not a lot of affiliation with art, it’s very hard for you to break the rules of art. You’re trying so hard to be allowed to belong in the first place that you can’t break the rules.

The artist has not been in the university long enough, to actually have the capital to go for aconfident position in the university. But I think we need to catch up speed on that. We’ve been in the university already for about 15 years

Daniel:Longer.

Britta:But what role does the institution play in artistic research … Does artistic research need an institution? Like how do you … because on one hand, you talk about the artist and the individual and then you talk about the crisis within the museum and the crisis within the university… what role would you think could be a critical role for the institution within this?

Lucy: I think the artist needs to be everywhere. I think it’s very important to be in a whole range of institutions and independently working on the institutions and I think it’ll be the dynamic relationship across those things that actually make some kind of change happen.

Onkar: But you need a sense of privilege to move horizontally within institutions.

Lucy:Yes, you do.

Onkar:And you need to move up through it, in certain cases, and there are only certain individuals that could do that, never mind being invited to the conversation.

Lucy:Yeah, but if we look at, if we start again like with the more confident position within the university and we identify our allies who are extremely uncomfortable with the position themselves,within academia, but who may hold, for example, positions of power – a highly-placed professor within the department, unable to move forward with changes because the department itself has become so kind of petty bourgeois due to very safe decision-making as a result of cutbacks, for example, in the new staff being taken on.

Onkar: Also, that movement is access through language, so it’s an adoption of an academic language that allows you to move horizontally.

Lucy: But that’s again simplifying because, for example, science uses very… actually relies little on language to communicate some of its most important work… Anthropology similarly… I think there are several fields in which, if you really zoom in, they’re having the same struggle. How do I translate my anthropological project which has gone 20 directions into language? It’s perhaps slightly … I mean, because you were talking about the artist getting the language of funding and that’s another … I mean, it’s the same thing, isn’t it? Language is blocking. Within the museums you have to talk that language as well to get your projects.

Britta: So I guess what I’m more interested in is what can you do with your position moving horizontally, or how can you develop fields of collaborations that could be critical within this field,because we’re not getting rid of institutions, they’re there… how can we use that in a horizontal way and get new work collectively done. As you would say, good listening with people or speaking with people.

Kerstin:I would say that the kinds of institutions that you, for instance, run.

Britta:Oh, it’s not about me!

Kerstin: In the type of work that I work with, which is socially engaged in a certain spectrum, then the types of institutions that are based on asking questions in research have been extremely important, just by being open for invitation or dialogue and collaboration.

Lucy: But I would also say that it’s also about individuals, you mentioned in your research, Jason, this book written by somebody who talks about artists taking positions in museums. Somebody who’s done a study on this. There are individuals who know how to speak more than one language. Because I did an academic PhD, I can actually talk to academics about art in a way that they can hear something. And if an artist in artspeak says exactly the same thing, they cant hear it. Not possible.

And this is also Bourdieuvian, language and symbolic power. It’s not about saying something and thinking it could be heard. It’s about saying something in a way in which it can be heard. So I think it’s also about people who can play double-position. A second book that I’m writing which is just in final draft form is called Art Knowledge: Between the Known and the Unknown. I’m trying to use some of my multiple competencies to speak back to academics using some philosophical language that they can hear, but from a practice-based position of looking at the work from somebody making works and engaging with them in a different perspective.

So I’m asking myself, “Can I find a language, a voice, where I can actually somehow bring these different positions together?” I found myself when I was teaching at the academy and doing a PhD at the university, turning around and defending academia and trying to wake up the art students to the excitement of academic thought. While back in academia, trying to wake up the academics to the excitement of artistic thought. Because it’s two totally different projects, and the way in which I spoke, I mean, it’s two totally different voices.

I can massively defend academia as well and look at art’s stupid notions of how uncreative academic thinking is, as well as support it. So I think it’s about playing this double game again, and if somebody who’s in a museum structure can speak the speak, great.

Daniel:I think it’s a really important point that you make about defending something while there is still something to defend and not waiting until the point where we just throw up our hands and say, “Well, there you go. It’s all finished.”

Josefina:Well, it’s a little bit off the topic but I’m thinking on a more practical level; we’re assuming there is somebody else who’s defining ‘research’ at the moment… Should we all then turn in a request for research money, these things we’ve been talking about? Do we have any say in how we should define it? So when my request comes in, there’s somebody there who has been in this conversation and says, “Yeah, this is where we’re taking it. Why not?”

Daniel: My intention with thinking about how to organize this whole series of events has been that one of the things that comes out of it is that we produce a set of knowledges in common that then we bring back, we speak back to the institution and say, well, we’re not really so dependent upon these definitions and criteria. We understand that research can be defined in this way. We understand that criteria for measuring what we’re doing can be defined in this way, but we’re also putting forward these practices and these processes and these ways of doing it.

And that by doing that collectively, that’s a way of speaking to the institution in a constructive way as well, and that’s again about capitalizing on something that does still seem to be possible. That it does seem to be possible to speak to the institution in that way if we organize it collectively and efficiently and effectively.

Lucy: I think it seems to be possible in Sweden because I’ve heard so many people over the last two days refer to Swedish research grants with which they were able to undertake massive projects. I mean, this is a luxury position that’s just like, it’s almost impossible to come across. So I would say act quickly…

Johan: 80 million kronor per year for 300 researchers who have defended their PhD... There are good examples. Jason, for example.

Britta:But I think that this is about being in the institution as well. I know there is institutional practice… But working for museums for 15, 20 years, it’s like I also have to acknowledge that I am a part of this institution. I am also the institution and you are also one of them. I can actually do something with that. I can’t do everything. But there is stuff that I can do, especially working horizontal and not only in the art world but also with social services and along with building administration and whatever we’re doing at the moment at the local resource level.

I think it’s also acknowledging your own position in that there is a possibility, so I agree with you. It’s changing the question of what do we want. What we want rather than what are we allowed to do?

Onkar:Yeah. Also recognizing that there are radical practices within the institution that don’t belong to art and design. And if you look at Sara Ahmed’s work on citation, I mean, that’s fantastic, but there’s also recognizing that that type of work is happening outside of us.

Johan:There is a citation which has falsely been ascribed to St. Paul, saying that the empire builds the roads along which true faith can travel. And I mean, that’s also the role of an institution like Valand, to try to open up the university to artists. To help finding partnerships, partners, according to what you say there. I mean, these people are also, they’re critical and strategic partners in the university and I suppose you can use the Valand research board for that. And also of course the faculty, to find the interesting people.

Jason:This is something in which you’re very well versed, actually, and you’ve been incredibly generous around this identification of where these free radicals are, around university departments. You’ve been very generous with me on that in several occasions, introducing me to other people across the university in ways that have been meaningful both for myself but also for the institution and the programme that I run.

But I’ve observed a sort of shift in a way that … Gothenburg University in my experience, compared to other universities I’ve worked in, is really unusual in the degree to which an art department is taken seriously. I’m not taken as some minor fetishisation or part of a department of illustration, I had a load of that in the past.

I think there is a really significant potential within Gothenburg University in particular. And the other thing is also really particular about this in relation to maybe what you’re pursuing, Britta, is that when you look at the rhetoric of GU, it is not one premised on the question of the university of excellence. It doesn’t actually rhetoricise itself in that manner. And it still at least suggests the possibility of the Humboldtian model of the university, problematic though that is in terms of nationalities and nationhoods

So I think the university here is actually a relatively unusual and luxurious and privileged kind of circumstance, in comparison to many other of the universities that have really fundamentally commercialized, as you’re identifying in the Netherlands or, indeed, within the UK where I’m from. I think it’s a question of actually understanding what luxury are we truly in. Who is to really be the beneficiary of it, beyond ourselves, actually? Because it’s something that I find really problematic here, I see a massive amount of luxury but it quite often is distributed only internally and its distribution system does not go, “Okay, who really is to benefit from our luxury and what platforms do we provide for them?”

In order to do that, I think we have to reconsider what the logic of risk is. I think this is in a sense what you’re arguing for, this question of what do we want, it’s to repurpose the question of what risk is and what the social, political potentiality of risk might be, particularly when an art school decides to engage in that question.

Daniel:It would be a great question, wouldn’t it, on those forms where we’re used to describing research questions, research methodologies, research outcomes. What are you willing to put on the line for this project?

Jason:Yeah. So how uncertain are you prepared to be in the beginning?

Daniel:And at the end.

Jason:And that is a question that exists, not in relation to you personally, Britta, but in the institutions in which you have to operate, is how uncertain are you prepared to be? And I understand that there is huge media pressurization, and I think that it’s very important that an art school continually rhetoricises itself around this question. We are here to be uncertain, actually. That is what we are here to do, is to provoke uncertainty. That’s how we roll.

Britta: We also need allies. I think that’s why this idea of moving horizontally is interesting and productive.

Jason: Yeah, so you shrink the significance of the enemy.

Onkar: We had a talk at HDK by a practitioner called Rosario Hurtado. She’s a great practitioner but she also runs a school in Geneva. And she was saying that she’s had students that have felt their career is over after their degree show. And that’s the mindset. It’s also about how you change that.

Jason: I think this is a really interesting point for me, so my colleagues understand this as well, but I really do wonder whether we just need to fundamentally get rid of the degree show as a conceit in our education and to just go, “No fucking more of this degree show thing. No more of this emergent artist through the prism of the degree show. We don’t do it anymore.”

Kerstin:And use the money to have guests that come from all over the world.

Jason: Because it’s reached the point where it operates like some really fucked up prom!

Lucy: That’s exactly what I was going to say.

Jason:And the artwork is functioning as the prom dress.

Onkar: But the irony was when I was at the Royal College of Art in London, the end of year show used to cost £400,000 for the whole school. And I think about 50% of that used to go to security.

Jason: Yeah, to secure your prom dress, in their possible future legacy of how you’re going to circulate, because it was the Royal College!

Lucy:No, but similarly at the RCA for the graduation, the amount of money that the students on the brink of graduation are spending on their show has been increasing into the tens of thousands so that when they graduate, their debts are so high, not from the study fees but from the graduation show that they immediately cannot work as an artist because they’re under such pressure to pay the debts back for the show because they feel it’s a make or break moment, so they spend literally ten or 20,000 pounds on the show and then they hope they’re just gonna get picked up at that moment and success will come and the money will flow back. The reality is that most people spending insane amounts of money on equipment are going to be in a situation of crisis about being able to afford to be an artist.

Maddie: It seems that there’s some fundamental tension in the role of the degree show. When I arrived at Valand, we employed curators to do the show and lighting people and installation technicians and all this sort of stuff. And we’ve got a much more moderate version of it but still, if we were to say to our Third Year BA students currently, “we don’t have a degree show”, the sense of absolute injustice around it would be, I think, very strong.

Kerstin:Not if you say to them, this money might be wasted. You can have this and this money, you decide, then they wouldn’t think that.

Daniel: I think you’re right. I think there’d still be almost a revolution.

Maddie:I still see students persisting in this idea of being picked up. We’ve been talking and trying to do different projects and all sorts of things.

Jason:I think they’re just picking up operators in the same way here, actually, in a sense. I think they’re getting picked up by private foundations, I had a couple of students who finished their MFA, in the reverse situation actually from the one you’re describing, Lucy, through their degree show they received stipendia that are higher than my annual salary.

Lucy: But the picking up thing, I’ve had it in Amsterdam, like a graduate student whose final work was bought by a major collector, so that’s not gone, it’s real as well.

Jason: Yeah, it’s meritocracy, and the way the meritocracy is functioning in this particular context is not through the act of purchasing. It’s actually sustaining particular narratives of what the artist is. You can see the way that particular foundations are selecting very particular practices in order to maintain particular narratives around the possibilities for artistic practices, and therefore also producing its limitations, in the imagination of the student who’ll think, “If I just stay doing this abstract painting all the way through, other people will begin to shed as I move through, then yeah, that grant will ultimately be mine within an eight-year period.” I think it is that type of pathology that’s playing out for us, more than anticipating that the gallerist is going to arrive and shoving this stuff in the market, because here it’s slightly different. There are parallels but it’s a slightly different paradigmatic framework.