When spectators work, workers observe

a collective/polyphonic interview by Angela Serino

Visit Angela Serino’s blog ‘ON Residencies’

You might also be interested in the interview by Vincent van Velsen


“When spectators work, workers observe” is the title of the collaborative project developed by curators Alessandra Saviotti and Marianna Liosi with artists Cathleen Schuster and Marcel Dickhage during their six week residency at Kunsthuis SYB in Friesland. Stemming from their shared interest in questioning the conditions of art and labor today, the curators and artists developed a layered research process with a dense program of public activities, going from a candy workshop with children of Beetsterzwaag, to a guest program with reading sessions and conversations, and regular film-screenings.

In this attempt to analyze what it is that we mean when we talk of artistic production and its relation to the condition of being in a residency, the new ‘temporary’ collective looked back at the previous use of SYB house as a candy factory and used this information as a starting point of their investigation.

All this different material became visible as a series of traces presented at the ground floor of Kunsthuis SYB on December 20. Here the visitors could find: reading material accumulated over time, diagrams on the walls, a sound installation with voices of the children who re-animated the old kitchen at the heart of the house, and an excerpt of “In order to produce”, a film in progress playing between the reality of the candy workshops and the partly fictional memories recollected by an old woman.

In this interview, artists and curators speak of the inspirations and goals of such a project and explain their shared working method. They also finally suggest how while working in residency at SYB, some actions usually related to the spheres of the private and personal became public and visible – and in some cases, the other way around.

The interview is in 2 parts.

More information:

PART 1: SYB as a Space of Production for Marcel & Cathleen (the artists)
[key-words: candy-factory / fictional narrative / voice as a space of freedom / production / residency / collaboration]

1) There is a film still from your project “Gesten einer Arbeit” (2012) which suggests the idea that the body somehow keeps memory of the work through the repetition of everyday gestures we make. For SYB, together with the curators you have developed a series of candy workshops for children based on the previous use of the house as a candy factory. I wonder what you hoped to find in this reenactment. What did the voices, the actions of these young participants trigger in you and for the project?

Marcel: For the project at SYB, we were thinking of producing without producing – as artists in a residency, and so in a place that is probably demanding a certain output, whether cognitive, visual or materialistic. We wanted to reactivate the place as it once was with a small difference: during the workshops, the children should rule the business and their produced ‘goods’ should not be sold.

Cathleen: During these workshops we ourselves, as artists and curators, turned into spectators, and so a little shift of roles took part. We wanted to open the space for an audience that is not the most typical art audience. The children were very curious about the space of SYB, which most of them had never entered before, and maybe a few of them will remember the workshops at one point.

2) Your works are mostly film essays where you recreate episodes and events from the past with the help of actors and participants who enact a script. It seems to me that these altered elements – of timelines and (reworked) roles are among your preferred strategies to express your point of view on issues of economical crisis, history, and the role of the individual in the social processes. Could you tell me a bit more about how you came to choose the fictional voice and storytelling as your favored tools for creating a space of freedom as artists?

Marcel: It’s interesting that you mention ‘fictional voices’, as the material we use for our scripts, films and text-image works also goes back in part to documents and non-fictional authors, that we then rewrite or bring together with our own writing. The voices began to interest us as a sort of displacement that they can evoke together with an image, and that their continuity (in form of telling) can generate a discontinuity together with an image.

Cathleen: Working with voices and actors enabled us to fold historical material onto contemporary issues and vice versa, and to enact or reenact (historical) material through both real and fictional characters, objects, natures, situations, whilst integrating oral histories, personal archives, many voices, and so to say, local contexts in relation to a global or globalized environment. A voice is not necessarily harmless, it may dictate a certain narrative, specifically as Off-Voice in the storyline of a film. Questions such as Who has a voice, who not?, Whose voice is speaking, through whom?, are accompanying our working processes. We are interested in the contradictions of different voices, and in situations that call the viewer into action, with her or his own voice so to speak.

3) During your final presentation at SYB in December, the term ‘production’ came up often in the conversation, even more than words like work and labor, suggesting that there was a certain pressure to make visible your process of open investigation while being in the middle of it. How did you cope with it?

Cathleen: The term production is occupying us in relation to both, a line of a manufacturing process like the candy production, and the production of an essayistic line for which readers or spectators are turned into producers. Our proposal for SYB entailed questioning the role of art institutions and especially residencies as factories. The workshops with the children were done for the moment, for this reason. To cope with a visible output was somehow not our initial aim. However, when it came to thinking about the final presentation we felt a kind of pressure to produce something.

Marcel: What became visible for the final presentation was all our work in progress, next to some of the material we discussed and collected together with Alessandra and Marianna. During the residency we were further researching in our ongoing field of interests such as cognitive labor. To address the value of a working method that stays invisible for a while, or that needs an uncertain amount of time to further the process is an important point for us.

4) Your project at SYB is also an example of curators-artists’ collaboration. How did you negotiate the labor of care (of yourself, of your relation, and of the house), and the other set of actions, which are usually associated with working on an art project (like i.e. having meetings, reading and discussing texts, writing press-text and collecting documentation)?

Marcel: I would say that this negotiation happened more naturally. If one of us felt like withdrawing it was easy to do so. And the same, when one of us felt the need to clean or if there was something to discuss about the project. However, we proposed every evening to watch one or two films together that were more or less related to our project and discussions.

Cathleen: The collaboration also started notably before we actually joined together in SYB. We were establishing the communication online, because most of us were living in different places. Generating a space to share thoughts, texts, files and questions about the project beforehand was a very important part of our collaboration.

PART 2: SYB as a Space of Production for Alessandra & Marianna (the curators)
[key-words: factory / usership / emancipation / exchange / residency / collaboration]

1) In the last years we have witnessed a growing interest by artists, curators and art professionals in general to discuss our conditions of work through discussions, projects and new works. What struck me was the peculiar perspective you chose in this project: the one of the spectator, rather than the one of the artist or the curator, as a worker. Can you tell me why it was necessary for you to put the spectator at the center of your project and why you chose to address the act of looking as working?

Alessandra: In my practice as independent curator and researcher interested in socially engaged art, the role of the spectator has always been an interesting point to take into account. How is it possible to sincerely involve the spectator, but not forcing him/her to take part in a project? How could the spectator change his/her role in a more active way and become active subject and not a sort of testing ground for the artist? How could an artist or a curator ‘use’ the spectator and vice versa in order to produce a new meaning/value? These are some of the questions I had in mind when we started investigating the role of the spectator as worker in the art context of SYB. I am not interested in considering the simple act of vision as an active action – I accept that it could be considered enough to activate something in your brain just looking at it – but I don’t feel it is enough. When I read “Is a Museum a Factory?” by Hito Steyerl, I was amazed by the idea of the museum as a space where the spectators are transformed into workers who are temporary confined, as workers were in the factory. At the same time, I am fascinated by the idea of ‘remunerated usership’ introduced by Stephen Wright. What happens when the spectator is transformed into a user able to generate a value (which is not financial retribution, perhaps, but in some different form such as an object for instance)? Should the user be remunerated for the value that he/she has generated? I think the surplus value (in any form it is) should be redistributed within the community that produced it and I agree with Wright when he says that applied to an art context creator and user tend to merge: usership spills over into production. Usership is creation socialized, and as such engenders a surplus. And who is generating the surplus? The worker!

Marianna: The exploration of the spectator’s role has been pivotal in my research for long time. Considering the viewer as a worker refers to the values that he/she produces both within the frame of an exhibition and in front of a single artwork – these values being human relations, points of views on the reality or contents –. Therefore in this project I was interested in focusing the spectator’s gaze and way of seeing as a crucial side of the art production. This belief echoes Jacques Rancière’s reflections on the spectator. He states: “Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting. (…) It begins when we understand that viewing is also an action that confirms or transforms this distribution of positions. (…) Being a spectator is not a passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. (…) Every spectator is already an actor in her story; every actor, every man of action is the spectator of the same story. That’s why I considered it important to start our first public event with the re-enactment of Allan Sekula’s “Gallery Voice Montage”*. In this audio-installation pièce the gaze, the observation, the individual interpretation and the exchange of thoughts through discourse are at the core of the artwork.
Of course, this doesn’t exclude that sometimes it’s also good to recall to “action”, as we did, for example, with the organization of the candy workshops directly involving the children of the village.
(* footnote: An audio-installation piece composed of two white canvases hung side by side turn out to conceal a pair of loudspeakers over which secretly recorded comments by visitors to the gallery are played back).

2) With this project you also tried to question the nature of SYB as a residency, a space devoted to research and experimentation through collaboration. These open processes however often need to be visible, to leave a trace that could give an idea to an expert and the general public of what occurred. What did you decide to make visible of your research-process, and what stayed invisible?

Alessandra: we arrived at SYB with a clear structure in mind that needed to be filled with content. The exchange between Marianna and I both with the artists and the members of the committee took the form of a flow that lasted for almost a year! So we felt like this process was worth being visible in the space, but we were really curious about how we were going to experience it. If you think about the idea behind the whole project that questioned what kind of work it is to be an artist or a curator, we felt the urgency to really make visible what it means to be researching, reading, drawing diagrams, discussing with guests and so on.
I was also interested in the idea of writing a collective script: what does it mean for us to intervene in an art work? Is it just to give the framework or really to write it together? I think we didn’t solve this question, which was a crucial point in this project.
In terms of residency, SYB was a sort of a space in between, a refreshing moment, but with the need to show a result. In fact in order to develop the project we got some external grants that required a presentation. How can you avoid this pressure? Maybe it is not possible.. And what would’ve happened if we really failed in presenting something at the end?

Marianna: We decided to stress the visibility of the research itself: the inspiring readings and the artworks, the discursive exchange with the guests, the time employed in this process. To make all this evident we used physical and digital tools. Firstly, Alessandra and I used to work every day in the exhibition space, in front of the big windows on the main street of Beetsterzwaag and this slowly attracted local people’s attention.
We progressively arranged the space of SYB with “environmental notes”: texts, drawings, diagrams and papers on the walls in the project space at the ground-floor. These were extremely useful for us and for anyone interested in what we were doing.
We also used Syb’s blog in a very systematic way, uploading our research material in progress (texts and videos). What was occurring at SYB became also a visual essay published by our media partner Atpdiary, a bilingual (It/Eng) online blog focused on contemporary art. What stayed invisible, or more appropriately, stayed implicit were the spontaneous discussions and reactions that occurred between the four of us, which led to identifying the notion of “production” as the crucial, leading and controversial aspect of our residency.

3) How did you set the collaboration with the artists? Where did your work end and theirs begin?
Alessandra: Collaboration should be spontaneous. I mean that you should feel that collaborating with a person is right and it may be fruitful. This is what it pushed us to invite Cathleen and Marcel because they usually work in dialogue with other subjects like we do. I thought that their contribution would have helped us in developing another chapter of our research. And so it was. After we suggested that they analyze the text of Hito Steyerl, they proposed to reenact the original production of candies in the space, but this time having kids participating as a way to involve the local community without creating high expectations.
The result at the end of the residency was the realization of the script, a process-based installation comprising a short film that they used as a research tool, like we used the reading materials proposed by the guests. Looking back at the pictures I realize that it was really impossible to understand who did what. Everything was mixed and it was very organic at the same time.
So in a way we escaped the productive moment in terms of producing an exhibition. We rather created a structure with different layers. The rest was somewhat open and the result was not orchestrated, on the contrary!

Marianna: The collaboration started right at the beginning, as we applied as a group but the division of the tasks and the roles were also very clearly defined as well as the specific interests and expectations of each one of us. I don’t want to exaggerate, but actually the curatorial work intended in its complex articulation in a situation as such, never stops.


Are there things you would suggest us/SYB to unlearn in order to improve the conditions that are given to the resident artists?

Alessandra: What I liked more at SYB is the radicality of the experience. I’d like to stress once more on the idea that for me it was a refreshing experience, if you consider that we had 6 weeks to read and researching in a place where the rhythm of life was so slow, we were surrounded by nature and countryside and this for me was amazing. I would to suggest to stay like this.

Marianna: The isolation of SYB represents its peculiarity, but if not carefully used, it can be very easily its weakness.
I would suggest to SYB’s organizers to stress more this aspect, since this awareness can make the residency time really productive!

Cathleen: One suggestion could be to rethink the ‘final’ presentation as a sort of climax and consider it maybe more in terms of just ‘a’ presentation that could happen whenever during the residency, also as a possible point of departure in the beginning, or as an in-between status in the middle of the residency time.