The Building in East Berlin, 2006.


unitednationsplaza was a twelve-month project involving more than a hundred artists, writers, and philosophers in a program of public seminars, lectures, screenings, performances, and various projects. Located behind a supermarket in east Berlin throughout 2006-2007, the project traveled to Mexico City in 2008 and then was reconfigured as Night School in New York’s New Museum for Contemporary Art in 2008-2009.

A comprehensive archive of the project exists online here.

unitednationsplaza was developed by Anton Vidokle in collaboration with Boris GroysJalal TouficLiam GillickMartha RoslerNatascha Sadr HaghighianNikolaus HirschTirdad Zolghadr and Walid Raad.

the building was organized by Julieta Aranda, Magdalena Magiera and Anton Vidokle.

With contributions by:
Adam CarrAdrienne GoehlerAngel NevarezAnselm FrankeArtemioAshley HuntAvery GordonAykan SafoğluBibiana BeglauCarey YoungChristian JankowskiChristian NagelChus MartínezDaniel BirnbaumDaniel BozhkovDiedrich DiedrichsenEduardo AbaroaElena FilipovicFia BackströmFlorian GöttkeFlorian SchneiderFrancois BucherGabriele HornHadley + MaxwellHans Ulrich ObristHaris PellapaisiotisHila PelegHu FangInes SchaberInke ArnsJan VerwoertJennifer AllenJoerg HeiserJoseph CohenJulieta ArandaKarl HolmqvistLa StampaMaria LindMediengruppe BitnikMete HatayMikhail IampolskiMolly NesbitNanna HeidenreichNatasa PetresinneuroTransmitterNina MöntmannOksana BulgakowaOkwui EnwezorPaul ChanPavlina ParaskevaidouPhilip ScheffnerRana Zincir CelalRaqs Media CollectiveRegine BashaRirkrit TiravanijaSepake AngiamaStefanie WennerSteven WrightTom HolertVasif KortunXu TanYoshua Okón and Zhang Wei


“Life Study”

Seven of the ten most expensive degrees in the United States are in arts subjects. Black Mountain has given way to manufactories of debt — but art school is, at last, being reimagined I.  From Weimar to North Carolina Many of the 20th century’s best-known teachers of art have maintained that art cannot be taught. A significant achievement of…

Seven of the ten most expensive degrees in the United States are in arts subjects. Black Mountain has given way to manufactories of debt — but art school is, at last, being reimagined

I. From Weimar to North Carolina
Many of the 20th century’s best-known teachers of art have maintained that art cannot be taught. A significant achievement of art education in the modern era has been its persistence in the face of this belief, put forward by everyone from Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to longtime CalArts professor John Baldessari. For places that teach an allegedly unteachable subject, art schools have expanded and professionalized dramatically over the last 100 years — transformed from fusty redoubts of academic training to central nodes in a global art system. Yet in the last decade, the story of art school has become a tale of spiraling debt and standardization, and an emergent reaction of self-organized alternatives.

It has been a while since art schools have been the incubators of radical art movements. Things were very different back in 1919, the year that Malevich founded the UNOVIS group (an abbreviation of the Russian for “Champions of the New Art”) at the Vitebsk People’s Art School, in modern-day Belarus. Only months later, Gropius opened the doors of the Bauhaus in Weimar — marking a definitive break from the academic model of the preceding century, which inculcated technical skills through observation, life classes, and imitation of the masters. This was the moment when the credo of talent was usurped by the valorization of “creativity,” however nebulously defined. Imitation was replaced by invention. Painting, sculpture, or the graphic arts were no longer conceived of as métiers, to be mastered the way you might master entomology or locksmithing; each was instead a medium to be probed, interrogated, and remade. The Bauhaus wasn’t just a school but a proposal for remaking the world: “Art and technology — a new unity,” as László Moholy-Nagy’s slogan put it. And it wasn’t just one school, but several: after opening in Weimar, it moved to Dessau and then on to Berlin, where it was forcibly closed by the Nazis in 1933.

Although Moholy-Nagy briefly resuscitated the Bauhaus in Chicago, this beacon of rootless cosmopolitanism found its true successor not in an American metropolis but in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Black Mountain College opened its doors the same year the Bauhaus closed, but disdained the very idea of a school or academy. One year’s prospectus describes Black Mountain as “heretical,” in that its first principle held “that the student, rather than the curriculum, is the proper center of a general education.” When co-founder John Andrew Rice was asked whether Black Mountain was to be an art school, he is said to have replied: “God, no! Schools are the most awful places in the world!”

Two exhibitions this year — at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston — have reintroduced the utopian experiment of Black Mountain, where students studied as well as farmed in splendid isolation. The school’s legendary status is in spite (or more likely because) of its tiny size: over the course of its 23 years, fewer than 1,200 students enrolled. Convivial scenes are familiar from photographs, where we see a loose faculty — John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Clement Greenberg, and Buckminster Fuller among them — hanging out with students, who included Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and local kid Kenneth Noland. One photo sees former Bauhausler Josef Albers looking professorial and distinctly mitteleuropäisch, surrounded by students in the middle of a cabbage patch. In a departure from the Bauhaus’s rigid curriculum, Black Mountain students could leave whenever they felt ready. Community life and “cooperative intelligence” were the aims.
II. The MFA Complex
A decade after Black Mountain College’s closure in 1957, certain art schools began to accrue an unprecedented level of influence. In Europe the leading example was the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf: though founded in the 18th century, it became a crucible of progressive art teaching in the 60s, with Joseph Beuys among its faculty members and Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Blinky Palermo on the student roster. A decade later it was photography’s turn. Under the tutelage of Bernd and Hiller Becher, Düsseldorf’s mid-70s alumni include Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff, still grouped today into a “Düsseldorf school.”

Around the same time, at CalArts, a faculty that combined the conceptual (Baldessari, Michael Asher) with the feminist (Judy Chicago, the late Miriam Schapiro) gave birth to a generation of ambitious young things nicknamed the CalArts Mafa, who would go on to make up the Pictures Generation’s west coast chapter. When CalArts held its first classes in 1970, its faculty was united by the belief that every student is an artist. This is not the same assumption as Beuys’s famous credo “Everyone is an artist,” as Howard Singerman, the most perceptive historian of modern art schools, has argued. The CalArts approach was not a celebration of innate creativity. It was based rather on an understanding that being an artist means not only creating works of art, but also speaking and performing in certain ways, a principle that today underpins most graduate studio programs in the west. As Singerman has put it, “Speech is now a requirement for the MFA.”

Some of the outcomes of this shift were surveyed in the 2001 exhibition “Public Offerings,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Curated by Paul Schimmel, it surveyed the first works that artists — from Rirkrit Tiravanija to Sarah Lucas — presented after graduating from art school, with an emphasis on UCLA and the London college Goldsmiths, alma mater of the then-fashionable Young British Artists. The professionalized socializing of the MFA complex had, by this time, become the norm. In a catalogue essay, the art historian Lane Relyea remarks, “Hanging out, talking shop, and making connections with faculty and visiting artists have replaced the systems and codifications of pedagogy, of syllabi and seminars.” Wondering what might be to blame for the rise of relational aesthetics? Relyea directs our attention to the art school, where “hanging out has likewise become a paradigm for artworks.”

You can make a show about Black Mountain College; you can make two, actually. But the idea of a museum survey focusing on specific art schools today would feel quaint. Commercial galleries now hold more influence than most studio programs, and we are much clearer on what a “47 Canal artist” means, say, than a “Goldsmiths artist.” For better or worse, few art schools now retain a recognizable house style. The exception here may well be the Städelschule in Frankfurt, whose situation is unique. As the previous rector, Daniel Birnbaum, has noted, few art schools have both an exhibition space (Portikus) and experimental canteen (the Mensa). However, he might be closer to the point when he says that “the individual artist is more important than any educational program or doctrine.” The school’s current faculty is well respected and well connected: Douglas Gordon, Michael Krebber, Tobias Rehberger, Amy Sillman, and Wolfgang Tillmans among them. Correspondingly, in recent years, graduates — Yngve Holen, Jana Euler, Simon Denny — have made works about the pleasures and perils of social networks, often their own. Ultimately, Birnbaum wanted the Städel to be two things at once: a monastery, providing sanctuary from a predatory market, but also a bazaar, making deals with that same market. This tension is just one of dozens that the art school of the 21st century must navigate.
III. School Is a Factory
Another tension: debt. Bloated university administrations, inflated fees for top-ranking staff, vainglorious building projects — all have led to ballooning tuition fees and student financial liabilities. In the US, a two-year MFA program at a top-tier school can cost in excess of $100,000; indeed, it’s now entirely possible for a young artist to graduate with a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of debt. Total student debt in the US currently stands at around $1.2 trillion, which, to give some context, is even more than US credit-card debt. We are now realizing, perhaps too late, that the student-debt crisis could be nothing short of the next housing bubble.

In the last two years, these factors have seen major crises engulf two venerable American art schools, one on each coast: Cooper Union in New York, and USC Roski in Los Angeles. Cooper Union, an art and engineering school founded in 1859, offered free education to all of its students for more than 150 years by living carefully on the funds generated by its endowment. Until recently Cooper had the most selective undergraduate art program in America — the acceptance rate was under six percent in 2009, the same as Harvard — and ambitious students gladly tolerated less-than-gleaming facilities to be part of a unique educational institution. But in the 2000s, Cooper Union undertook a dubious $167 million building project, financed by unsustainable sales of college assets. When in 2013 it was announced that annual fees of $20,000 were to be introduced, the news sparked a two-month student occupation of the president’s office. It was for naught. Cooper’s founding principle became collateral damage in an ongoing educational fiasco. In September of this year, a brutal investigative report by the New York attorney general slated Cooper for “overcentralization,” “unreliable budget assumptions,” and worse.

And this May, the 2016 intake of MFA students at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design dropped out en masse. Protesting the school administration’s changes to promised funding, curriculum and teaching assistantships, they published a passionate public statement, describing USC’s tactics as a “classic bait-and-switch.” An open letter of solidarity followed, signed by such prominent alumni as Elad Lassry and Amanda Ross-Ho, voicing dismay at the actions of the school’s dean, Erica Muhl. Soon after, another letter was posted by the graduating class of 2015, calling for Muhl’s resignation. All of this came after the resignation last December of Frances Stark, a tenured faculty member, who cited the administration’s “lack of transparency or ethical behavior.”

Surveys by the activist arts organization WAGE confirm that the average period of financial success for an artist is roughly four years, and that only ten percent of arts graduates make a living as a working artist in the first place. Nevertheless, every year in the US schools award another 100,000 students with arts-oriented degrees. (By comparison, in the year the Bauhaus closed some 350 Americans earned an MFA.) Seven of the ten most expensive schools in the US are art schools, moreover; these are graduates with unprecedented levels of debt. All of this shapes not only the kind of art that is made, but whether any art is made at all. “What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?” asks the New York collective BFAMFAPhD. Answer: in the age of six-figure student debt, art is more and more a form of loan repayment. Increasingly, it’s going to be the product of default.

In western Europe, the issue of student debt might not yet be so dire, but austerity-level funding cuts to arts budgets have wrought their own special havoc. This is the backdrop to the well-documented “educational turn” in contemporary art — a term describing artists’ and curators’ embrace of pedagogical formats and strategies, such as lecture series, workshops, and night schools. Consider the curious case of Manifesta 6 (2006), whose curators proposed an “exhibition as school” to be hosted in the divided capital of Cyprus, on both sides of the UN-enforced Green Line. Politicians got involved, and the exhibition was abruptly canceled, three months before it was due to open. Various lawsuits followed. Aside from providing a lesson in the limits of curatorial interventions into real-world politics, Manifesta 6’s lasting influence has been due to its considerable afterlife. Soon after the biennial was canceled, its co-organizer Anton Vidokle — with Martha Rosler, Liam Gillick and Walid Raad, among others — opened unitednationsplaza (2006–07) in a nondescript building in East Berlin. This one-year school comprised a series of public seminars and an informal residency program involving more than 100 artists. It would later find homes in Mexico City and New York, where it nestled on the top floor of the New Museum as Night School (2008–09). The biennial that never happened had been absorbed into the museum, but only after proving that it didn’t need an institution to survive.

In the wake of these projects, many museums and galleries began to adopt the guise of a school. Over the summer of 2012, London’s Hayward Gallery renamed itself the Wide Open School, an “experiment in public learning” staffed by a rolling group of more than 100 artist-tutors, from Susan Hiller to Thomas Hirschhorn. A year later, at MoMA PS1 in New York, a daily talks program organized by Triple Canopy was also José León Cerrillo. Last summer, tuning into the institution’s mid-60s roots, the Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibition “The Possible” reconceived the building as “a site for creative convergence,” its galleries recast as classrooms and libraries. This continues: this year, Okwui Enwezor’s 56th Venice Biennale hosted a three-day edition of the annual Creative Time Summit themed around “the curriculum,” with a section on “educational institution as form,” while the 14th Istanbul Biennial included a section titled Open School, housed in a former Greek primary school. These projects are always temporary situations, closer to summer schools than to full-blown institutions. And how much is learnt by participants? Who can say? Whatever their relative successes or failures, the bottom-line attraction of these programs is clear: they combine dwindling education and exhibition budgets into a single program, happily turning the school into a spectacle.
IV. New Schools
Over the last decade, however, another field of activity has begun to coalesce. Not quite captured by the educational turn, and yet not unconnected to it, dozens of self-organized art schools have emerged around the world, from Ramallah to Copenhagen and Mexico City. If one convention of postwar art schools has been an acceptance that all students are artists, then these independent initiatives in critical education take it for granted that every student (or, more usually, “participant”) is also an active citizen.

I came to be closely involved with this shift through a project called Open School East, a study program in London which I co-founded in 2013 with several friends. Housed in a former public library in East London, OSE was a response to several questions we had been discussing. How could you make an art school that was rooted in its neighborhood, where education was free regardless of background or income, and where learning happened collaboratively rather than on an individual basis? OSE’s structure is relatively straightforward: twelve to fifteen people (referred to as associates rather than students) are selected via an open call and receive free studio spaces and tuition for the course of one academic year; no qualifications are required, but the teaching is at an MA level. In the first year, there were almost 100 visiting tutors — artists, curators, and art historians, but also theorists, musicians, activists, and broadcasters. In lieu of fees, each associate volunteers one day per month of their time with individuals and groups from the local community. Where possible, classes and workshops are open to anyone.

For me, OSE represents an attempt to produce an art school that is flexible, self-directed, sociable, and free. These aims are shared by the many education platforms that have been founded over the past decade, many of which style themselves as schools, universities, and academies, even though they are often initiated by artists and curators. Surveying these self-organized schools, it becomes immediately clear that their economies and means vary wildly, from the grand to the domestic. Two important early artist-run schools were actually hosted in the founders’ homes: Tania Bruguera’s now-fabled Cátedra Arte de Conducta (2002–09) in Havana, and Jakob Jakobsen and Henriette Heise’s Copenhagen Free University (2001–07). While several are geographically remote, far more are clustered around prestigious art schools, where they are likely as not founded and attended by MFA grads. In Los Angeles, for example, there has been a special density of education projects, from Fritz Haeg’s Sundown Salons (2000–06) and Sundown Schoolhouse (2006–), in a geodesic dome in Glassell Park; and Piero Golia and Eric Wesley’s Mountain School of Arts (2005–) in Chinatown, “the oldest continuous artist-run school in California”; to The Public School (2007–), a “school with no curriculum.”

Vidokle has claimed that, if there is a crisis of education, it is one of distribution, with prestigious programs based in North America and Europe. Yet many of the more established and respected independent art schools are on what was once thought of as the periphery of the art world. Look to the Home Workspace Program in Beirut, or to International Academy of Art, Palestine in Ramallah, or to artist Wael Shawky’s MASS Alexandria, the last two of which were included in the most recent edition of Documenta. These new schools and education projects are often nomadic, changing their form and focus from place to place, as with Asiko (2010–), run by CCA Lagos, which has hopped from Lagos to Accra to Maputo; Pablo Helguera’s School of Panamerican Unrest (2006), a roadtrip from Alaska to the southern tip of Chile; or Ahmet Ögüt’s Silent University (2012–), a polyglot education platform run by asylum-seekers. Rather than monolithic and slow-moving, the school today is always in motion.

In 1957, during the final weeks of Black Mountain College, the poet Charles Olson attempted to predict the institution’s future. He typed “The College” at the center of a quickly sketched diagram. In each direction, as though propelled by a centrifugal force, arrows pointed to a range of possible new incarnations: a theater, a publishing house, a magazine, a networked academy. The experimental art school wouldn’t disappear, Olson suggested, so much as dissolve, migrating into new spheres. Sixty years later, some of this has come to pass, as the art school comes to be reimagined once again.

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“On Failure: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr in conversation at the opening of unitednationsplaza”

Part exhibition, part school, unitednationsplaza was launched with great fanfare last October in Berlin. The multi-pronged seminar and residency program was inspired in large part by the cancellation of the European biennial known as Manifesta, originally to be held n Cyprus and seemingly ridden with troubles from the very beginning. Under the rubric of…

Part exhibition, part school, unitednationsplaza was launched with great fanfare last October in Berlin. The multi-pronged seminar and residency program was inspired in large part by the cancellation of the European biennial known as Manifesta, originally to be held n Cyprus and seemingly ridden with troubles from the very beginning. Under the rubric of unitednationsplaza, approximately sixty artists, writers, theorists, and a wide range of audiences will meet for discussions, seminars, and encounters of all kinds over the course of one year. On the eve of its launch, co-organizers Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr sat down with Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of exhibitions at London’s Serpentine Gallery, to ponder, among other miscellaneous things, the birth of the idea behind unitednationsplaza, the pitfalls of a romanticized we-are-the-world internationalism, and the fate of unrealized projects at large. unitednationsplaza’s debut Berlin meeting was eventually held under the (provocative) banner “Histories of Productive Failures: From French Revolution to Manifesta VI.”

unitednationsplaza is organized by Anton Vidokle in collaboration with Liam Gillick, Boris Groys, Martha Rosler, Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Nikolaus Hirsch, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, and Tirdad Zolghadr. See for information, including schedules and reading materials.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I think it would interesting to begin with the Manifesta project, which sort of originated and then transformed itself into this school. In some ways a lot of people thought the cancellation of Manifesta meant a failure, but from this project, failure seems a very useful thing — it actually produces something else.

Anton Vidokle: Ah yes. Manifesta. The initial idea came about because my two co-curators, Mai Abu ElDahab and Florian Waldvogel, and I felt that rather than join the kind of continuous chain of international global festivals and cocktail parties traveling from one capital to another, we would create a kind of a pause, move away from the market and create a situation that’s more geared toward research, discussion and production rather than display, or the presentation of a new generation of artists for the market. Ironically, our little “disruption,” doing a school rather than a biennial exhibition, was overshadowed by the effectiveness of the authorities in Cyprus and Nicosia. Their disruption was much stronger and they just cancelled the thing.

HUO: I wanted to turn to the idea of transnational context. In this current moment of a polyphony of centers, we’re far away from the idea of a sort of quest for the absolute center, that New York stole the avant gardes from Paris, and so on. And second question, why Berlin?

AV: Well my move to Berlin was really directly related to the fallout from Manifesta. I realized there are basically two ways you can go about realizing the project in some way — either as a biennial format where lots of people from all around the world come to a specific place; and then in terms of circulation of ideas and a conversation, it really works. Or, you can do it in a very central location that actually has a vast international cultural community. Unfortunately, New York or London are impossible because they’re such expensive places. Berlin is really a unique situation it was still possible to realize this project in an independent, self-funded way, without reliance on various funding sources, official agencies, government sources, and so on.

It’s important that Manifesta tried to move itself from central Europe to its periphery, and that that kind of movement was not possible, was much more complex [than imagined]. If one approaches large cultural festivals and tries to export them to a much more complex place, or maybe not such a much more complex place, you run into almost a wall. On the other hand, trying to move to Cyprus was almost like trying to export or distance the kind of problems that already exist in central European cities. To deal with the issue of separation between Islamic and Christian communities, and all those tensions, you don’t have to go to Cyprus, you can stay in Brussels, you can stay in Amsterdam. By moving it out to Cyprus, it was almost to try to pretend that this problem does not exist in the center of Europe. So I think that there is a whole range of issues that probably are too long and too complex to try and cover in this interview, but they’ll become even more important in the next five, ten years.

HUO: Tirdad, could you talk a bit about this whole idea is that a nation or citizen can actually becomes a borderline, and the polyphony of centers?

Tirdad Zolghadr: I think that this Cyprus fiasco raises a certain issue that I really appreciate, namely that this internationalism with a utopic slant — which was also noticeable in icons of this type of discourse such as the last Documenta — has overheated expectations to a point where people forget that this is, on the one hand, not a level playing field, and on the other hand, it’s a construct that is very much embedded within European art history, and is very difficult to translate. Basically, with this internationalism, fostered by these enormous expectations, we’re now getting a kind of backlash. People are frustrated, they don’t have any kind of resolution to the enormous demands that are placed upon art now, that are supposed to reflect polyphony, transcend boundaries and reframe them, easily subsume them into a discourse that everybody can partake in. People are drawing the wrong conclusions from situations like Cyprus and are saying, “Oh, well we should’ve known it all along. Art should stick to Berlin, New York, London.”

One lesson to be learned is the need to be very careful with the kind of discourse that assumes that polyphony is really possible at this stage. Another effect of these very high aspirations — this is the flip side of the utopianism — was the worry that contemporary art would just take over everywhere, that there would be Vanessa Beecroft and Douglas Gordon colonizing the world. And this too is a red herring, because as we saw in Cyprus, you don’t have to worry about the local. The local will pop up and redefine any flippant internationalism no matter how strong, sexy and glamorous it seems to be. At the moment we’re not in a situation where things just kind of slip and slide and then overtake a local art scene or a local infrastructure with that ease.

And so you’re caught in a double bind: on the one hand, art is taking super interesting forms in places like Sharjah and Tehran and wherever, taking forms that can participate in an international dialogue; on the other hand, you’re trying to remind people, “Don’t get too overexcited.” It’s not a level playing field, the situation of polyphony is still stilted and very partial. And that’s the kind of trick question that I find myself grappling with.

HUO: Now you’ve sort of defined the frame, the context and the history, let’s start talking about what’s going to happen in Berlin, what came out of the Manifesta/Cyprus experience. Whenever you’re in a city you have another field of reference — for example, when I went to Dubai for the first time, I suddenly had a completely different reference cadre. India is an hour and a half away. The Gulf states are all an hour flight away. I had the feeling that when Anton called me from Cyprus many times that had happened as well, because you’d never been to that extent to Beirut and never been so involved with Tehran. It opened a completely new set of proximities. Has that influenced what you’re doing in Berlin?

AV: Yes, absolutely, for me the best thing about the experience was that it created an excuse for me to familiarize myself with artists and writers that work in the region, and to try to understand a lot more of the specifics of the kind of discourse that takes place, which is tremendously interesting, sophisticated and challenging. On the other hand, with this proximity you can be close to something and at the same time it becomes impenetrable. You happen to travel with a Swiss passport, one of the most powerful passports in the world. Even with an American passport one encounters more difficulties — for example, it becomes very tricky to go to Iran. But if you have a more complex passport, such as a Mexican or Lebanese one, or something like a laissez-passer — [as do] Palestinians, and a lot of Iraqi refugees — then your movement is completely constricted. On Cyprus it was even more complex: here’s a tiny little island, but can’t easily cross from one side to another, because ideologically, the crossing implies certain political connotations. This is precisely what brought the entire project down. This sense of internationalism was possible at a certain point during the high period of Modernism, because it was also fueled by a shared ideology, namely Marxism. The new internationalism that we would like to [see] happen shouldn’t only follow international finance, but needs a more substantial ideological structure. I don’t think this exists at the moment.

HUO: I’d like you now to talk about the content of the conference here — we should announce it in Bidoun, right?

TZ: Absolutely. The question was how to frame an opening conference for Anton’s institute. He wanted to imbed the institute in something larger than the Manifesta situation. In the course of various emails, he kept using the word “failure”, and I suggested that the actual conference be based on the question of productive failures. Then Anton came up with the perfect subtitle, “From the French Revolution to Manifesta VI: A History of Productive Failures.” As you put it yourself, it’s really trying to point out that this apparent dead-end could be transfigured into something even more complex and interesting. On another level, the question of failure is interesting because there is this rampant art world defeatism as soon as you try to speak about art and politics. There is this very pervasive sense of an impossibility of moving forward, of everything being subsumed, co-opted, instrumentalized and so forth. It’s a defeatism that, needless to say, is not exactly productive, not exactly leading us to new places besides ever more complex and creative forms of paranoia. So the idea of the failure conference was also to see if we were asking if we were always coming to the same formulaic…

HUO: You’re calling it “failure conference”?

TZ: The Failure Conference. [Laughs] This was the starting point, to try and come up with questions that would lead to a new perception of the classic failures in the art world and beyond — and some of the speakers will be talking about political failures, in the way that political symbols for these so-called failures have been completely drained of their content, and yet still manage to spark hope or political optimism. Another dimension, is to try and jumble up the strict division of labor. In the conference we are trying to find very small, unpretentious, unspectacular ways in which art could be discussed in a new way, and some of these are going to be quite surprising. So one surprise is the format of the dinner toast. We’ve invited someone who is presumably very experienced in very officious toasts, namely [the politician] Adrienne Goelher, to hold a toast at the dinner, and so there will be the classic situation where everybody is clinking their glasses and then people will expect a two, three, four minute, very boring, “I want to thank Anton for da, da da…,” and then she will launch into a thirty-five minute talk on art and politics in the frame of this failure problematic as we staked out.

HUO: This addresses the question of the format, but I’m interested in knowing a little bit about politics, and failure.

AV: Well, failure can become useful, but it requires some work. Let’s say, for example, that Manifesta 6 is cancelled and everybody continues from that point on as though nothing ever was planned or nothing ever happened, then it is only a failure. But then if some work is put towards it, if it satellites, if it translates into new energy for other projects, if the ideas developed in the process of working on this situation that failed continue, then there is a potential for it to become productive

TZ: Yes. It’s not one-dimensional, it’s a question of packaging. You could say that the definition of failure is not necessarily based on known criteria. On the contrary, it’s essential to understand failure as a positive category in most cultures. Look at what Christianity is based on — excruciating failure, and it’s fetishized as a failure. Perhaps Shiism is even more extreme as an example. Structuring certain events as a failure has a bonding effect, some kind of collective therapeutic effect which in itself has a productivity. And so the very notion of failure is really enjoyable to revisit. Hans, I was wondering if you, in the course of all your projects, have been tempted sometimes to categorize some things as clear failures? Or do you bracket that category and prefer to postpone the judgment?

HUO: In the first place, some of my research has been into unrealized projects, which obviously touches on failure. We’re working with Anton on the agency of the unrealized project as a subject for an e-flux project. There are projects too big to be realized, too small to be realized.

AV: The biggest unrealized project…

HUO: Yeah, Communism. [Laughs] The other day, Doris Lessing pointed out to me all the novels in non-democracies that have not been written because of self-censorship, that sort of unrealized dimension of work. My Chinese friends have always told me that failure is an unbelievably positive value. In China, failure and learning from failure, produces reality. And Cedric Price, the great urbanist, saw that. He said that western society has a problem with making failure into something positive.

TZ: One of the speakers at the conference who has a really great take on failure is Diedrich Diederichsen. He’s been fascinated by the whole evolution, the development of one subculture after another, each one declaring the preceding one as a failure.

HUO: My last question really, is a question of sustainability and long distance running. Obviously, conferences come and go. And maybe then one moves on. Something I observe when I travel is a desire or necessity for something more sustainable. Exhibitions which may slowly evolve over five or ten years, which are also learning systems, or conferences, are two of the same thing. This unitednationsplaza is something that, as I understand it, should be a long-distance runner. Anton said that it should at least be a couple of years. What’s next, and how you take it from here?

AV: For me, the problem is that there’s a tremendous interest in discourse in the art world, but it’s always marginalized into this absurd situation sometimes. The perfect example is when recently I was invited to speak at a conference at the Moscow art fair. The conference actually took place in this completely marginal space — a building that was literally under a staircase. We were squished into the corner and asked to talk about things. Of course, the hierarchies were obvious: there is the real business of buying and selling and displaying art, and “knowledge production” is put under the staircase, out of view, out of range. This whole project is a desire to privilege the more ephemeral or ethereal part of cultural production. No exhibitions, no display. Obviously, it’s an experiment, and I don’t know whether there is a public for it, one that will continue returning to the lectures, seminars and symposiums that we will organize for a year. The possibility of this public being really engaged, wanting to deal with this complicated, theoretical, maybe somewhat pretentious topic, could be the most rewarding, or the most meaningful outcome. Then the idea is to try to articulate a model, that if it’s successful and productive, could be then implemented by other groups, other people, other institutions in their own context.

TZ: Aside from the theme and all that, I’m looking forward to simply having conversations with the same team of artists and practitioners over a year and a half. To have the time to do that is completely different and I hope that the plaza will go on for many years to come. That’s the perfect sentence to wrap up this up…

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“UNP and The Building”

Unitednationsplaza (UNP) was a temporary exhibition-as-school initiated by Anton Vidokle in 2006, following the cancellation of Manifesta 6 in Nicosia, Cyprus. Taking place over a one-year period in a nondescript building in East Berlin, UNP was structured as a series of public seminars and an informal residency programme, and involved collaborations…

Unitednationsplaza (UNP) was a temporary exhibition-as-school initiated by Anton Vidokle in 2006, following the cancellation of Manifesta 6 in Nicosia, Cyprus. Taking place over a one-year period in a nondescript building in East Berlin, UNP was structured as a series of public seminars and an informal residency programme, and involved collaborations with more than 100 artists, writers and theorists, as well as a wide range of audience members. In the tradition of Free Universities, its events were open to anyone who was interested in participating. The core programme was developed over a two-year research period for Manifesta 6, in collaboration with Liam Gillick, Boris Groys, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Nikolaus Hirsch, Walid Raad, Martha Rosler, Jalal Toufic and Tirdad Zolghadr.

Following UNP’s conclusion in 2007, Julieta Aranda, Magdalena Magiera and Vidokle reopened the venue that had housed UNP as ‘The Building’, which then hosted several overlapping projects including the e-flux video rental with its accompanying screening programme (e-flux is the online information network co-founded by Vidokle in 1999), a monthly lecture series by (frieze contributing editor) Jan Verwoert entitled ‘Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea!’, a public reading room comprising thousands of publications provided by art institutions from around the world, and bar nights in the basement. In contrast to UNP, The Building’s programming was somewhat chaotic – it functioned as an open space for artists, writers and curators living in or passing through Berlin to present time-based works and hold talks and discussions. For its closing event in August 2009, Aranda, Magiera and Vidokle turned The Building over to the public for a final, two-day series of presentations, screenings, shows, parties, lectures, performances and drawing classes. 

Maria Lind To what degree was UNP ‘educational’? 

Anton Vidokle UNP was structured around an informal educational model: it was not a school in the conventional sense of teaching a specific skill, requiring attendance, giving exams or assigning grades. Perhaps it was closer to an older model, like Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens, which involved a bunch of people meeting under a tree to listen to and discuss ideas. Similarly, groups of people would assemble at a rather ugly building in Berlin to listen to lectures, take part in discussions, attend performances. Like an art exhibition, anyone could come and engage as much or as little as they wanted to.

Dieter Roelstraete UNP worked best when it was single-mindedly dedicated to ‘educating’, however informally. Its success revealed the extent to which people are thirsting for the Athenian model you describe. Obviously everybody wants to be informed, but who would have thought so many people also want to be taught? 

ML I understand UNP, like all of your initiatives, Anton, to be an art project – although at first glance it might look like any other institution, whether public or private. Can you elaborate on where or when the ‘artistic’ occurs in a project like UNP? Does it even matter? 

AV One of the qualities that defines our contemporary notion of art is a certain claim to artistic sovereignty that historically became possible with the emergence of a public and of institutions of art, around the time of the French Revolution. An artist today can aspire to such sovereignty, which implies that, in addition to producing art, one also has to produce the conditions that enable such production and its channels of circulation. The production of these conditions can become so critical to the production of work that it assumes the shape of the work itself – such is the case with UNP.

ML This is one reason why I like to think about UNP – as well as e-flux – as partaking in a new fifth wave of institutional critique; one in which building new ‘institutions’, often separate from existing infrastructure, is the decisive factor. It’s about self-determination and involves strategic separatism. 

AV UNP is by no means a unique example of such an approach: I have been very much inspired by Martha Rosler’s seminal work ‘If You Lived Here…’ (1989), which took place at a Dia Art Foundation building in Soho in New York. Due to the lack of support Rosler received from Dia (who commissioned the project), she felt that the only way to do something was by positioning herself as a curator/organizer – as a kind of one-person institution rather than as an individual artist. Another good example of such a complex approach to art production is Akram Zaatari’s extraordinary work archiving Hashem el Madani’s photographs and co-founding the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, which as much as it is a bona fide institution, may simultaneously be a work of art. What passed largely unnoticed in Paul Chan’s 2007 production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans was his peculiar positioning of the artist in relation to the work: he did not write the play, direct or act in it. The set was essentially a city street. Chan’s artistic involvement consisted largely of spending months working as a volunteer teacher in a local college, building close relationships with community groups and grass-roots organizations, making sure that part of the money raised for the project would go to urgent local needs – in other words, creating conditions for the production and reception of the play. 

DR For me, UNP and The Building were ‘discursive’ projects first and foremost: places where talking about art often eclipsed its actual presentation – provided that one clings to the notion of separating both practices. Sometimes it’s okay to insist on this division, even though it’s often considered antiquated, for it can also mean that the talking and thinking prompted by art works can be more interesting and important than the art itself, and this was often the case at UNP.

ML I would argue that art was intrinsic to both UNP and The Building, but not in terms of presentation of discrete art objects: the paradigm of display was largely ignored in favour of art in many other shapes and forms. The proliferation of discursive projects does carry the risk of what Simon Sheikh has called ‘talk value’ – that it can turn into discussion for the sake of discussion, like any other formalism.

DR I am very wary of the all-too-self-conscious ‘excesses’ of discussion, where every utterance is too quickly and lazily fetishized into an art project, whether discrete or not; what I appreciated about much of the discourse at UNP was that it was so healthily aware of the dangers of calling any form of art-talk ‘performative’, and therefore ‘art’, while nonetheless remaining close to that grey zone of fruitful confusion. 

AV UNP was a collaboration with a large number of people. While I thought of it specifically as an art project, I cannot say for sure that it meant the same to other contributors, such as Groys for example, who don’t define themselves as artists. On the other hand, the talks were often quite different from regular university seminars or lectures: some of them were marathon-like in duration – meeting every night, including weekends, for several weeks; others were structured in unusual ways: for example one of the events Zolghadr organized placed the speakers in the kitchen, while the audience was supposed to listen in remotely, from the main room. Because the sound equipment was not working well, people got so angry that they barricaded the speakers in the kitchen and organized their own discussion that night. 

ML What was the significance of opening UNP in Berlin, as opposed to any other city? 

AV When Manifesta 6 was cancelled three months before the opening, numerous lawsuits ensued and any possibility of realizing our project under the auspices of the Manifesta Foundation, or another existing institution, dissolved into thin air. All of the funding institutions and sponsors, with the exception of the Ford Foundation, withdrew. For the project to be realized, it had to be done completely independently and at a location ouside of Cyprus. Fortunately, e-flux was able to provide modest yet sufficient funding. After half a century of isolation and division, Berlin was a particularly interesting city for our school-in-exile. Following the fall of the Wall, many artists from Germany and Europe settled in the Eastern part of the city. This huge migration of cultural producers took place much faster than the development of any official art institutions. The result has been an incredible proliferation of self-organized exhibition spaces, collective venues and small independent institutions that have dominated the cultural landscape of Berlin for nearly two decades. These experimental projects enjoyed the same – and sometimes an even greater – degree of cultural legitimacy than the official institutional culture of the city.

DR UNP was relatively strange to Berlin’s cultural landscape, which is probably the reason for its ultimate success. I was often surprised by the huge number of people who turned up – not just the sheer number, but also their readiness to participate actively. That said, more generally speaking, I have often felt there is a relative lack of discursive sophistication in Berlin which UNP partly responded to. 

ML I disagree. I think there is an amazing level of theoretical sophistication, higher than in most other cities that I know, but those people tend to stick to themselves. The issue is more the ‘internal’ tensions and struggles – a bit like the leftist groups in the 1960s and ’70s. Some of them, to my surprise, turned up at UNP, which was an achievement.

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