Reflecting on “Working with Constituents” at mima

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Between the 8th and 10th of September 2016 Gemma, Ron and I took part in a 3 day symposium titled “Working with Constituents” hosted at the Middlesbrough Institution of Modern Art(mima) at Middlesbrough, England. While all of my colleagues in The Umbrella network have taken part in programs by L’internationale on a number of occasions, it was my first time to have the pleasure of meeting the people of L’internationale.

This three day gathering was dedicated to the progression of L’internationale: Questioning how art can be used differently, focusing on mediation and education, upon the urgency to re-think how institutions function and use art, how to undertake constituent thinking and how museums may identify themselves as one of many constituents.

In short, the conference was extremely inspiring and I have returned to Eindhoven with new knowledge and tools that will undoubtedly enrich the activities of The Umbrella. While I am motivated to write about my thoughts following the conference, at the moment I do not have the time to draft a coherent and well articulated reflection. Rather, borrowing from the notes I have made during the event I will share fragments of what I have observed and learned at the conference as well as what I have come to expect from L’Internationale from the perspective of a constituent operating in the city of Eindhoven.

Authority as inspiration

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During the opening talk “Instituencies” Anthony Gardner mentioned how authority could also be inspiration. Frankly it is easier for communities to perceive the established as authoritarian and restricting – something that must be opposed with constituent power, or simply something to complain about. While such sentiments are quite abundantly in society, it will be difficult for a constituent to instigate change with this attitude. Reflecting on our work in Eindhoven and how we engage with the municipality and institutions, we have been actively uncovering new opportunities in between established rules and procedures. Here, a negotiation process has always been crucial: while it was important for us to show we are able to establish a dialogue that respects the boundaries of authority, it was equally important for the establishment to demonstrate towards us a willingness to listen and consider the possibility of accepting deviation and uncertainty. While this way of working may be far from revolutionary, I consider it useful.

Vulnerability

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Bluntly put, constituents are extremely sensitive to current political landscape and opinion (propagated through media). In order to keep the playing field of societal discourse broad, it is essential that the discourse generated within the cultural institution (based on long term ideals using “thoughtful” language) is consistently disseminated throughout society (translated into short term actions using “useful” language). If cultural institutions neglect to continuously question, challenge and debate established/popular norms, preconceptions and assumptions in societal discourse, practitioners like myself will quickly lose effectiveness and integrity due to the concessions and compromises we will inevitably make for the sake of keeping our work practical. The narrower the playing field of societal discourse becomes, the less diverse, patient and adventurous we will be. If we are indeed in a war in which freedom of speech is being threatened as Jesús Carrillo Castillo put it, I see myself becoming a collaborator with good intentions operating within norms rather than becoming a visionary freedom fighter acting radically. Since I’d rather not defect any time soon, I implore everyone to play their part and help keep the field of operations wide and broad.

Graph Commons is useful

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I am extremely excited about Burak Arikan’s open tool for mapping and analyzing complex networks and relationships. A large part of my work involves developing and applying participatory processes that are useful for communities. The elegance of Burak’s tool is in how we can focus on using words and sentences during the process and let the program take care of the visualization. While artists are comfortable with visualization tools and drawing mind maps, it is easy to take for granted that many people are uncomfortable with drawing lines and circles, and in many real life situations we simply cannot afford the time to familiarize everyone with visual processes that bring out the artist within. When a community is trying to tackle a societal challenge with a limited amount of time, Graph Commons will be extremely effective in focusing on the key players and relationships, and uncovering potential dynamics in the network by analyzing the visual map.

On validation

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I recall the question of validation coming up during the final discussion of the conference. While it seems prudent for a confederation of museums dedicated to working with constituents to be critical about its final outcome, I think it is important to focus on the inherent strength of L’internationale. To be brutally honest, the development, process and execution of L’internationale and its programs have been done within the culture, expectations and language of European cultural institutions. Expecting to invent a format outside of this context weakens the cause. From what I have witnessed and experience at mima for these three days the discourse of L’internationale is quite precise, and I am looking forward to outcomes in the form of writing, publication and further discourse. These results must be able to effectively carry the cause of L’internationale further among other cultural institutions.

Regarding the relevance to constituents, the test of validation will inevitably come when the institution is faced with the choice of committing to the idea of being a constituent among many, and devoting to programs that embody the ideas described within the writings and discourse of L’internationale.