Conference report

Re-tooling Residencies Conference
Agnieszka Sosnowska

Several pairs of shoes standing next to each other, neatly folded shirts and blouses and, stacked upon each other: notebooks, bags, ball pens, a phone, a vanity case and many other everyday objects. Everything arranged with pedantic precision, forming a spatial installation. How many things a travelling artist needs? US artist Michael Cavayero arranged on the floor of Laboratorium Gallery all the things he had brought with him for his three-month residency. He himself, completely naked, huddled up in the corner, reminding the audience that the condition of an artistic residency is closer to that of ‘being in travel’ than of ‘being at home’ and that every artist-in-residence has to make the personal effort of ‘appropriating’ the space in which they will spend the next couple of months, as well as raising a question about the host institution’s role in this process of ‘domesticating’ a place.

The performance was part of the opening of Working Title, an exhibition that not only opened Laboratorium Gallery for the public, but also launched six new studios for a-i-r laboratory artists-in-residence. At the same time, it was an inauguration of the Eastern European meeting of the Res Artis network and of the international conference Re-tooling Residencies, which in turn represented the first step towards the realisation of a European project under the same name, addressed at artistic communities and institutions interested in collaborating and setting up residential centres in Eastern Europe. To recapitulate, it was a bundle-up of four events that, each from a different perspective, addressed the subject of artistic residency. Re-tooling Residencies is thus not just a title of a conference, but in the first place the condition in which the Centre for Contemporary Art’s artists-in-residence laboratory programme found itself in November 2009, when close to 200 people – experts, curators, culture animators and artists from various parts of the world – met in Warsaw to reflect on current questions and issues related to artistic mobility. As organisers, we ourselves were also in the midst of an important transition – a significant increase in the scale of our operations resulting from the opening of a building with new spaces for artists – facing the need to verify the model that had functioned at the CCA in the past several years. On the other hand, we also wanted to share experiences with and offer support to the nine participants of the Re-tooling Residencies project who are only developing their own residential initiative or planning to start one.

The programme of the conference was thus built around the burning need to redefine our own work and to reflect on the present-day situation of residential institutions. Even more importantly, it was an attempt to create a space for sharing experiences and knowledge. The subjects of the proposed discussion panels were aimed at reflecting on the most topical issues faced by residential institutions. The first panel was devoted to the current motivations for investing in artistic mobility in a situation of a steady rise in the number of residential initiatives over the last 20 years, particularly in northern Europe and North America. Among the panellists were representatives of residency-supporting institutions, e.g. Odile Chenal (European Cultural Foundation), Dana Pekaríkova (International Visegrad Fund) or Monika Fabjańska (Polish Cultural Institute in New York). The second panel presented various models of artistic residencies, from year-long ones (Artists-in-Berlin Programme, Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD) to much shorter ‘production’ residencies (Nordic Council of Ministers), as well as attempting to characterise the kind of cooperation with the artist each of them entails. A continuation of the discussion of a model that would guarantee the optimal working conditions could be found on the second day of the conference in the part devoted to introducing new disciplines. During that panel, Nathalie Angles, founder of the New York-based organisation Residency Unlimited, pointed out to the danger of growing attached to a specific model of artistic residency, arguing that even having your own space can become a constraint. Residency Unlimited was presented as an attempt to respond to the need for building a new residency format based on unconventional solutions, both spatial and temporal. According to the institution’s founders, partnering with other organisations in the New York area and elsewhere is to facilitate experimenting with various forms of residential initiatives. Residency Unlimited operates as a decentralised entity, functioning between many different parties, cooperating with institutions and individuals, combining resources in order to develop initiatives that respond to the needs of the given artist or project. ‘One of our goals is to redefine the contemporary concept of residency, putting the artist and the artistic process in the centre of our mission. … I spent eight years at Location One. I was there from the very beginning and was employed to build and run a programme, so that’s what I did. But I wanted to go beyond that, to experiment with various study models. There are certain limitations typical for the format. A calendar is created – the artists come and go – routine starts to creep in. From my personal perspective I felt the need to experience something completely new. The idea of collaboration is crucial for me in this respect because cooperation requires the partners to make their own contribution and work under the project are is done actively and together. This isn’t easy but it’s a challenge, boosting the diversity of the possible residential initiatives. So what we do is broadening the definition of residency. Expanding the possibilities it offers and its meaning’, stressed Nathalie Angles.

Residency Unlimited was an extreme example here, provoking the question whether it is possible to abandon your space and yet continue the programme. The institution is also at the opposite pole from such residential centres as Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, with 20 years’ experience in running residencies and well-developed administrative and residential infrastructure, offering the possibility of simultaneous residencies by several dozen artists and/or representatives of other disciplines. It is also an institution that has played a key role in promoting and supporting the idea of artistic mobility in the eastern part of Europe, one of the effects of which was the founding in 2006 of artists-in-residence laboratory at the CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. Relations between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, South-Eastern Europe and the United States were the focus of the panel that opened the second day of the conference. The panellists discussed the basics of cooperation between organisations of different levels of institutionalisation. Also important was the need to verify the valorisation behind the Eastern Europe-Western Europe division as well as to rewrite the discourse in a manner that would eliminate the stereotypical use of these terms. Jean-Baptiste Joly, director of Akademie Schloss Solitude, noticed that in Europe the terminology did not adequately reflect the contemporary inequality in the distribution of funds, where instead of a division between the East and West we should rather speak of a split between the European Union and the Others.

Another issue raised during the conference was the interdisciplinarity of residency. How to fulfil the interdisciplinarity postulate without reducing it to just stressing the fact that programs are open to representatives of various disciplines – artists, curators, researchers – where in fact each of them pursues their own, separate project? In this context it was worth listening to the residents themselves. German artist Hagen Betzwieser pointed out that interdisciplinarity could be ‘organic’, based on collaboration within the framework of one joint project. Betzwieser is an example of an artist who has been on the road continuously since 2005, between one residency and another. He has recognised residency as a tool and uses it to make his works, which can gain a physical form only during a residency. ‘I am a consumer of residencies. I consume what the residential institutions offer me. Residency is the strategy currently supporting my work. So I am both independent and dependent, because the works that I make could not be created outside the framework provided by the system. This is the only way to secure funding for my projects, because we are talking about works created outside the art market and thus unattractive for it. Nothing buyable remains of my projects. In this sense, I am completely dependent on residencies’, said Betzwieser, evoking issues discussed in the closing panel, devoted to the status of residency in the context of the market.

One of the most important issues that kept recurring during the discussion was whether the programme of a residential institution is necessary as a fixed point representing that institution’s identity or whether it should be constantly dislocated and modified, transparent, flexible. each time adapting to new constellations. Creating a structure that would not eventually become limiting for the artist, highly sensitive to the changes taking place in art, constantly reflecting on its own model was recognised as one of the primary goals facing residential institutions. Jochan Poussette suggested in his speech three key questions to find the right model of residency: what is residency? who is the artist? what tools does residency use and how has its role changed in the contemporary perspective? Asking these questions over and over again can be a key to creating programmes able to flexibly react to artists’ changing needs.

Agnieszka Sosnowska – assistant curator, a-i-r laboratort CCA Ujazdowski Castle