Diasporic Connections: Learning with CDA / Benjamin Seroussi

A Seder-like table covered by Hebrew books dealing with Zionism stretches across two rooms;[1] A CDA labeled crate packed with video art DVDs travels around the world;[2]
Big bags used as small vegetable gardens welcome visitors to the art center in Holon; A large room hosts a messy fabrication laboratory and what first seems to be some sort of a garage band. These are some of the bodily recollections of my visits to Holon in the past ten years. These are glimpses into a broad span of activities marked by a continuous and common energy.

 

ENERGY = YES! QUALITY = NO!

 Today, I run what can be described as a politically engaged art-led space in São Paulo. The Casa do Povo (literally the “People’s House,” expression that must sound familiar to any Israeli who grew up in a Kibbutz or a Moshav) was created as an antifascist cultural center back in the 1940s by Brazilian Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

In the past year, when describing what we do, I have often used (and abused) Thomas Hirschorn’s motto for his Kochi Biennale “critical workshop” (2019): “ENERGY = YES! QUALITY = NO!”. What interests me in this equation is partially withholding judgments based on taste in favor of looking deeper into notions like movement, vitality, changeability, the ability to connect to important matters (personal or other) or adapt to urgent issues. Suspending some legitimate concerns about this slogan, I think it catches the fact that, neither at Casa do Povo nor at the CDA, do we separate artistic practices from life in general and local communities in particular. As my Casa do Povo fellow curator, Marilia Loureiro, informally puts it: “actions come before words,” that is, we rarely know what we are going to do until we do it. Forms follow experience. Energy shapes results. Formulations only take shape during the process.

By the way, I never know how to call your center: the Israeli Center for Digital Art? the Digital Art Lab? The CDA? Neither am I convinced that any of these names make it clear or describe what the institution effectively does. But I always understood the energy and logic behind its test-and-trial method of seeking practical ways of actually unfolding its original mission in its daily work. From its first headquarters, run by Galit Eilat, to its current building, the CDA is, as former director Eyal Danon puts it, “an art center that attempts to liberate the culture and language from the economic logic that has taken over it, and endeavors to achieve this by forging genuine alliances with different individuals and institutions—not necessarily from the sphere of art.”[3]

 

This is Not Art!

A Bolivian fashion design cooperative, a free of charge psychoanalysis clinic, an antifascist boxing club, a library, a garden, a Yiddish choir, and a Korean feminist group are just a sample of the 18 groups hosted at Casa do Povo and the many activities we develop here. We are often asked whether what we do can still be considered art. I understand that concern, especially when seen from the artists’ perspective, since I am aware that many institutions neglect to put artists at the center of their activities, thus making them even more precarious. At the same time, we work with artists who ask for these connections, who unpack and open up notions of art and culture. They (and we) think art should not be split from other spheres of life, and therefore, art centers should be porous to other activities.

Paraphrasing the Surrealist use of Lautreamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror, regarding the beauty of “the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” I strongly believe in the potential of the unexpected frictions between Renata Lucas’ site-specific work Upper Floor (2018) and a boxing class; between Carlos Fajardo’s sculpture Untitled (2018) and a seminar about digital security surrounding it; between Yael Bartana’s welcoming neon Assim elas comemoram a vitória (2017) at the entrance hall and daily passers-by looking at it from the sidewalk and taking selfies.

Museums and cultural centers are often stuck solving problems that stem from their structure and the vocabulary they use: how to reach the target public; how art professionals should filter what is in or out of the art space; how educational programs can reach out to new audiences; how bookstores and design shops can turn cultural contents into byproducts; and the list goes on. Each problem has a solution. But what if things were more blurred? What if problems were just seen as opportunities?

We are interested in a different kind of art spaces than the ones raising the problems listed above. For years now, Andrea Phillips has been advocating another genealogy to what we do, linking it to the 1960s-1980s community art centers in the UK.[4] According to Phillips, although these community art centers were publicly funded, they were often based on volunteer labor force; they allowed space for experimentation and involvement, and they non-contradictorily provided a range of services such as “art classes, dark rooms, creches, theatre groups, cafes, discos, gigs, union meetings, CND and anti-apartheid organisation, scratch orchestras, sound systems, sometimes a potters’ wheel and a kiln.”[5] I believe that revisiting these experiences undermines art spaces and questions the notion of art itself, while opening up to other related practices.

Implementing the genealogical shift and valorization of grass-root practices within art institutions is neither easy nor peaceful, nor does it imply that we should overlook the importance of the art professional’s expertise (curators, directors, art managers). But at least, some kind of serious negotiations can take place between art professionals and those using the art space. These negotiations can tackle fundamental issues such as the uses of art, art institutions, and the very definition of art. Bernadette Lynch has been talking about “conflict zones” to describe how museums should connect to their surrounding community by engaging in what she calls “radical trust,” a state where museums have to get involved in effective conversations with whom they want to bring in.[6]

 

Who Runs the Show?

 

In Brazil or Israel, talking about decolonizing cultural institutions is a catchy, if tricky, way to describe what is going on in art spaces such as Casa do Povo or CDA, especially when looking at the social and ethnic background of those in charge of running these places. Nevertheless, I would like to consider small critical management acts and policies that allow significant structural shifts within our structures.

The program at Casa do Povo stems from two sources. Part of it reminds the way art spaces usually function: the team that has been hired, directly or not, by the board of trustees is responsible for fulfilling the institution’s mission by editing a magazine, organizing public programs and residencies, commissioning artworks and other art-oriented practices. Another part of our program functions in a similar way to a squat: groups use the space within ad hoc agreements – a dance group will use the place to rehearse a new piece; a neighborhood association may hold their meetings there several times a week; activist groups can store material and prepare for action. The interesting thing about working this way is that the professional team no longer has to approve specific activities but simply guarantee that each group’s agreements are fulfilled. Within this framework of agreements, groups can do whatever they want.  Their radical autonomy is not questioned: they have keys to the building, we share a Google calendar, time (rather than space) is divided between all, and eventually, based on the evolving needs of each group, all agreements can be changed collectively at any time.

This dual structure allows us to distribute power within Casa do Povo by decentralizing decisions without losing total control. It enables us to do much more and to talk about many more issues than our small professional team would have ever been able to do or even consider on its own. The governance of the institution has been redesigned to incorporate these frictions into its structure formally. The challenge is to find the minimum degree of institutionalization that can keep it fluid.

 

Final Considerations

 In 2016, we organized a one-week workshop in São Paulo, bringing together around ten very different cultural initiatives, CDA among them. We all shared a series of concerns regarding our final objectives, an acute understanding that art is a tool for social transformation and political imagination, and a feeling that we are odd birds among art institutions. Thanks to the diasporic connections made visible by the encounter, we thought we could create some kind of common toolbox. However, as Valentina Desideri suggests in her critical report about the workshop,[7] rather than tools, we should regard our acts as scores, on which each of us could play freely and improvise. Even though our interpretations of these scores might be very different, I do believe that we dance to the same music.

With love from Brasil,

Benjamin Seroussi

 

PS/ There are many more influences and references beyond the scope of this letter. Besides, the structural demand for authorship hides the collective dimension of everything we do. I hope the reader’s curiosity goes beyond my words since they only give a flavor of what we do.

[1] Where To? Part A, curated by Eyal Danon, Ran Kasmy Ilan, Udi Edelman 2011.

[2] The Mobile Archive, various curators, 2007-2014.

[3] “Israeli Center for Digital Art”, Eyal Danon in Decolonizing Art Institutions, Issue 35, Ronald Kolb, Dorothee Richter (org.), 2017.

[4] “Reclaiming Participation: Art Centers and the Reinvention of Social Condensation”, Andrea Phillips in Laboratory for Flexible Structures, Ana Druwe, Benjamin Seroussi, Marilia Loureiro (org.), Casa do Povo, Rumos, 2017, São Paulo.

[5] “The Community Arts Centre: ‘devaluing’ art and architecture (the case of the Albany Empire, London)” Andre Phillips in Valuing Architecture: Heritage and the Economics of Culture, Valiz, University of Queensland, 2020.

[6] Museum as Conflict Zone, Bernadette Lynch, V&A Child in the World Conference, Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green, 2013, London. See also “Legacies of prejudice: racism, co-production and radical trust in the museum”, Lynch and Alberti in Museum Management and Curatorship, 2010.

[7] “Partituras para estruturas flexíveis”, Valentina Desideri, in Nossa Voz, Issue 1018, Benjamin Seroussi, Isabella Rjeille, Marilia Loureiro (org.), 2017-2018, Casa do Povo, São Paulo