"Happy House" by Alena Boika

When we dream of changing the world it is commonly sup­posed to be idealism. The label “romantic idealism” usually im­plies the utmost disapproval. Particularly refined minds shape their idealistic views into teachings and programmes, provoking revolutions. But when a revolution fails to occur, the concepts, stubbornly focusing on the search for the way to change and improve the lives of the majority, are given the title of a utopia.
My utopia was a result of my reflections about the term In Transition, which I perceive as denoting not only the state of moving physically, but also changing mentally, moving from one stage to another, in a state of metamorphosis.
This occurred to me when I learned that my house was on sale. Not a big deal - like most of us, moving back and forth, facing the crises and fighting the circumstances, you learn to bear with this the way you bear with bad weather and just in­vent a new solution. Steel-heartedly keeping yourself from bog­ging down in soggy skepticism and stinging everyone around with the unnecessary sarcasm.
So I came up with my Happy House project and found an old villa with a large garden—a place that would be roomy enough to shelter all of us: our editors’ office, me, the artists (our friends) and everyone else whom we would like to invite. And just then there happened to be a contest there: the winner was promised two whole years of happiness and assistance in starting the winner’s own “residence programme”. Nowadays, when everybody is continuously moving elsewhere—being guid­ed rather by the opportunities, than by the goals—there is no need to explain what this means, yet I would have not waste such a term just a few years ago. So came the happiness, and among other finalists I flew to Warsaw to defend it, since only six out of the ten were to be selected there.
Aboard the plane, I suddenly discovered that all my hopes were futile, and in fact nobody is going to support our proposals. Instead, the finalists are invited to acquire the unique experience while visiting the two selected Residence Programmes. My reaction was quite emotional: “How come? What about our own projects? You must give us at least letters of recommendation or something, because if our plans do not work, then your project, Dear Big Residences, will be consid­ered a failure, and the EU can rightfully enquire - what did you spend our money on?” Hearing which the person I was talking to got genuinely surprised and replied sympathetically:”Well, you’re so excited about all that. Do you really think someone will remember your projects in just a couple of years?”
And that was the very moment when I felt desperate. Well, really—who cares about some romantic projectors’ romantic projects? Why produce new little utopias, when there already exits an endless range of various programs to successfully raise and successfully spend money holding conferences in a big way. Well, sharing experiences is a useful thing, no doubt. It is a good way to be permanently in transition.
...The poor contest finalists looked pathetically lost and out of place, hanging around at that international big event held to share the Big Residences’ big experience. Later they were called one by one and asked the same question: “What do you expect from this program?” The first question of the survey—a commonly familiar term too, isn’t it? But by that time we al­ready had no expectations, we had understood everything. My Happy House was rated one of the best projects. I still keep thinking it over, maybe I should go visit those residences and then use my scholarship to start creating the dream that took me so much pain and effort? Why, I don’t know whether my scholarship will be enough—it could be—if we added it to the money spent on those beautiful white lilies and a gourmand’s joys á la Pantagruel—those conference hosts’ hospitality sings at the price of a small programme, or perhaps even two.
...Meanwhile, I keep feeling totally in transition. And the thoughts keep wandering about and passing by. My embar­rassed co-finalists keep complaining to each other—through whispered conversations in nooks and crannies— of their unhappy fortune and meekly travelling to the places they are sent to see. I’d rather they study their former Big Brother’s experience: struggle is happiness, strong when united… Well, stay tuned. Stay with us. To be continued

This text was originally published in Umelec Magazine, 2/2010.

Below you can read the response from Anna Ptak, member of the project team.

There are several things in the editorial which Alena Boika has published in Umeleč Magazine I would like to respond to. I believe that her project proposal submitted to “Re-tooling Residencies” project had at its background the idea of conscious dwelling, also in political terms, and the idea of bringing back to the country of residence the knowledge that stems from the temporary stay at the guest house to have been created in Prague, had a lot to do with it. I was very sorry to hear – what I did not know – that the personal situation of loosing a place to live was a background of the expectations connected with the project. Nevertheless I must say that I was surprised with the suggestion that the Re-tooling Residencies project was offering help in starting new residency programs, and that the form of support based on study visits at other residency institutions wasn’t known to participants. I believe this is not a malicious rethoric but a wish that financial support could happen. I am surprised because these were the basics of the project, expressed publicly and directly in the open call for proposals and the people taking part in the open call were supposed to be interested in the travel grant scheme based on these conditions. I also do not agree that the exchange / travel grant programme (something what in the editorial is concealed under the cryptic suggestion of two whole years of happiness and assistance in starting the winner’s own residence programme) was created as a fig leaf for a big event. The subsidy from European Commission helped us to invite those who are normally not quite able to travel to such networking events, and start an exchange programme which moves the discussion from the conference hall into reality of organizing under the framework set up by conference topics.

The conference on artistic residencies had as its subject a very basic question: what is a residency as an art institution nowadays? How come this institution proliferated so greatly in last 10 to 20 years, what does this expansion mean in the context of culture production, especially when we focus on the changing artistic geography – with former Eastern block loosing its binary political connotations. I find quite interesting to investigate certain tension here. Over 20 years “after the wall” the countries of Eastern Europe develop the policy of normalcy – named capitalist culture, there are (in most countries) democratic constitutions, there are – theoretically – no boundaries for those who want to travel abroad, and in artistic field it seems even freer: with the networks of more and less institutional connection between artists, curators and researchers there are many ways for artists and organizers from this part of Europe to be involved in international activities. But at the same time there are the practices that on the level of cultural policy try to replace the lack of public funding with the idea of culture that counts (which makes people responsible and recognized as artistic producers to prove efficient at the costs of unaccountable time of unpaid work, what you also mention – opportunities oriented programming, to start from basics). I would like to stress that the public subsidy for the arts was never established at the level as it used to function in “Western Europe” in our region after the transition, so the “neoliberal critique” is missing foundations on which the reforms might be made; also the weakness and shortage of art institutions founded on the public and democratic mandate is a severe issue – one could refer to Prague’s situation for example to see that. So this – in my opinion – is not a question of Big Institutions devouring the small ones. It is a question of a right balance within the given society between setting up high standards of artistic work with the means of public guarantee of freedom of expression (though many artists say that strong public institutions first of all raise the profile of local art scene) in public galleries, museums and other institutions and the constant monitoring of how are those standards met from the side of self-organized, issue oriented organizations. Refering to the idea of normalcy in democracy and open borders. The discrepancies between different political, economical and cultural situation of countries which are put under one label (post-communist) are big and growing, especially between those EU oriented and those which – for different reasons are not eligible. The utopias created in these countries must differ, also the conditions under which they operate. Taking for granted certain institutions and their mode of operation blurres obvious difficulties in actual cooperation and creates a false image that everything depends only on a good programmme.
We run a residency programme in one of the biggest art institutions in Eastern Europe. The idea of “residency” however is one of such terms which taken with it’s traditional background – as a state or regional fund for supporting the artists and the means to attract the creative workforce – doesn’t have such a sound impact here where we (and our “neighbouring” countries) operate, for the reasons which are only touched upon above. We decided not to shovel those issues under a carpet, especially that we ourselves are in the period of transition – from a modest residency to a quite a big one, with individual building and actually – without a pre-programmed budget. The transition period – for understanding what do we need it for, how the cooperation is possible though the conditions differ, and also what other usage the format of residency might have for others – was a premise of the project.
The conference might have probably served the networking opportunities first of all. However, what we could observe is the fact that the question was posed in a right way. We (the host institutions) try to deal with it on a practical level with participants of the exchange programme. To sum it up shortly. The host institutions were created in different circumstances than the ones in which the participants are operating. We cannot suggest that these are the models to be reproduced. The experience sharing is opening the resources we have as residency centers. The participants were defined as individuals, by virtue of they wish to use the format of the residency for the purposes of their work (be it an organisation or not). But that is it. No, we were not so arrogant to say in the project submitted to European Comission that with these means we will found new residency programmes. The question is – if the experience of participating in the program will empower the grant receivers to work on their plans further. And this is a task of the host institutions networking, space and time for individual work, feedback and support based on the needs of a local situation back there, in grant recipient locale, as defined in the process of getting to know each other better. We do not support financially projects back there, because this is not how our task, as residency institutions is defined. If – as the outcome of the project the cooperation ideas will pop up – this will be considered as a succes of those two institutions. But not of Re-tooling Residencies project, in which we tend to map the opportunities and difficulties in using the term “residency” in the process of creating them by participants (who also have totally different focuses during their travel grants: some just want to pursue their curatorial programming, some want to find the means of funding it – knowing that their local resources are not enough, some want to bring back the reconsidered idea of residency to their locale, some are giving it up). And this is the exchange – the host institutions are learning too.