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What is Escapism. Training Program?

ANNA:

 

— I am trying to remember how it all started… I think we decided to find a historical referential point from former countries Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union which we can both relate to. So we picked some names or groups such as Jiří Kovanda, Petr Štembera, Collective Actions and The Nest group (Gnezdo) and we observed how they struggled with regime they lived in. This desire to find some way out or to learn how to escape was driving our concept of exhibition. These days I feel so often like living in 70s, in the epoch of normalization. The extreme stances, surveillance, radical racist or discriminating statements and proclamations has become so common in politics and in the public space of Czech republic and it seems like people don’t care at all. They want to keep the spheres of private and public very clearly separated. Philosopher Václav Bělohradský described our situation and relationship to public space as a neonormalization. That was in 1998 and I still consider this notion important. Nothing has changed since then I think. So probably it is quite suitable to refer today to 70s and 80s. How has the practice changed since then or the status of the artist? Or their strategies of survival?

MARIA:

 

— I perfectly remember how it’s started: in 2016 I quit dream job of any girl who was not born in Moscow in a big art institution and moved to Prague. For the first time in my life I was doing nothing, only meeting artists. Doing nothing is an important concept here: I was entering the territory of the shady labour, I started to understand what does the word precarious actually feels on the body level. When I met you, I realized that the only thing which I know about Czechoslovak art scene is Czech action art and names which you mentioned before (stupid question: why is it actually Czech action art but not Czechoslovak action art?) and the only thing you know about Soviet art after 1945 is Moscow conceptual art. The problem is that this knowledge of Eastern European art scene was unique and in some way became a burden for us*. The knowledge of struggle of artist life during socialist time became obligatory and we forget to learn about our struggle of life during late capitalism.

ANNA:

 

— This is probably fault of my university education. I know just a little about the Czechoslovak or Soviet official art scene, the anticommunist agenda of my Art History department focused only on “true” and “authentic” art of underground and half-official art. Action art belongs to the sphere of private art events which were dedicated to the life under socialism but not politically engaged or critical about the art scene itself. But some of them were very radical artists such as Petr Štembera who often examined limits of his body, for instance, in 1975 he didn’t sleep for few days and then he went to sleep over night on the treetop (Sleeping on the tree) or self-tortured himself and didn’t drink. Or Jan Mlčoch hanged his legs and arms on the rope (Hanging Up – Big Sleep, 1974). I remember you sent me the photo of Mlčoch escaping from a window, I found out that it was a piece held in 1977 and called A Typical Escape. Mlčoch first invited his friends and then threw them out of the empty room of the lent apartment. After leaving his friends, he nailed up the door and, using the rope, left through the window. Another similar event was held by Jiří Kovanda who in 1978 had a meeting with few friends, they were talking and standing together, suddenly he ran over the square and disappeared in some street. The photograph of him running through the square became well-known. I like these events, they are so shy and awkward. Today the names of the artists are superfamous but in those days no one knew about them, they were escaping the recognition and institutions into the public space. More than 10 years ago artist Barbora Klímová reenacted some of their events, the tension between her gesture in 2006 and their men-dominated scene in 1970s is very strong.

MARIA:

 

— Ha, it’s funny that you mention the education system. I don’t have art history diploma (and somehow I still feel stigma in art community) and all knowledge about the unofficial art scene I gathered either through books or exhibitions. The institutionalization of knowledge about past events only started a few years ago. But this exhibition for me is an attempt to built alternative system of knowledge sharing, start to talk about our escape strategies now. The contemporary society (or, institutes of contemporary societies) wants our constant improvement: we need to be faster, smarter, stronger. The post-fordist concept of Life Long Learning which formed the system of corporate training in 90s is influencing artistic strategies as well. We (we as workers of art) are also in a constant need to grow as professionals. Cultural field is today for me associated with non-transparency of state financial support, competition for institutional resources, impossibility of long term planning, the absence of solidarity between participants in the field. These mentioned qualities belong to the capitalist society, where the main instrument of knowledge sharing is a training program. I feel like job in arts is slowly becoming the same as in the banking system, so I want to appropriate the format of a training program to run away.

 

I remember, in the beginning you perceived escapism as something negative. You started to think about it differently when we were talking about Ernst Bloch together. According to him, radical social change can be driven by utopian ideas and images of fulfillment. Social justice could not be realized without seeing things fundamentally differently. Escapism, in this manner, offers one of the possible ways how to deal with the hyperrational state of the contemporary society. Can one learn how to escape? Could there be an expert in escaping? I still have a feeling that artist is the greatest escapist ever, some sort of the magician, who put himself or herself in the chains of grants, applications for artist residencies, motivation letters and artists statements. To be an artist means to be Harry Houdini and free himself or herself in public from these chains (do you remember the work from Hito Steyerl, My lovely Andrea, 2007?), achieve a freedom through repressing themselves, bringing to the attention the limitations set by the system of cultural institutions. In some way, Escapism. Training Program is also for me a chance to understand this so called ‘Educational Turn’ in curatorial process. Is it our turn? The decision to be an artist (or, in our way to be connected with art) is very often connected with the decision to run away from the demands of the society. The practices of artists are considered to be suspicious and labelled as escapism. I suggest you to appropriate the most efficient format of a late capitalist society for artistic needs, which suggest simultaneous process of gaining the knowledge and practicing of the skills. This way we can to try to blur the borders between exhibition and public program, artist and trainer, visitor and participant. I don’t know if it’s going to work, (is it obligatory for our ideas ‘to work’?) but the whole exhibition is actually a training program which consist of four exercises: Escape from Structure, Escape from Identity, Escape from Labour and Escape from Escape.

ANNA:

 

— Not only the educational aspect, also the space itself is important. The apartment that we built in the gallery can work as a safe-space which is always very important tool for political activists. Safe-space helps you to think, to relax, to avoid the constant confrontation, but it shouldn’t be the final stage. Escape is an active position, it’s about taking time before you do something. Status of escapism is about finding the temporary autonomous zone where one can have all the time that his or her questions and problems demand. We need to be skilled to take our time. We need to learn again how to relax, sleep, how to run from all the requirements that come with neoliberalism. Art has this time, such as religion, we are allowed to spend as much time as we need.

 

I like this quote from Deleuze and Guatarri’s A Thousand Plateaus which explains a lot about how I perceive art as a form of escapism: “But art is never an end in itself; it is only a tool for blazing life lines, in other words, all of those real becomings that are not produced only in art, and all of those active escapes that do not consist in fleeing into art, taking refuge in art, and all of those positive deterritorializations that never reterritorialize on art, but instead sweep it away with them toward the realms of the asignifying, asubjective, and faceless”.**

 

Adéla Součková is an example of an artist whose work can refer to it. She works in a very meditative and ritualistic way, she is researching contemporary mythologies, asking where they disappeared and what replaced them. Some people can see her drawings as a form of escapism, as an escape from the “normal” social activities, but Součková talks about her attitude as something comparable to washing the dishes. What you mentioned is very important, artists are often labelled as escapists, but who is the real escapist under the regime of neoliberalism? Artists who criticize it or people who submitted to it? It’s very ambivalent, because any criticism can easily be swallowed by the dominant political and economical system and made harmless.

MARIA:

 

— What actually characterizes the state of escape? It is life in diaspora, plural identity that is not stable, status of anonymity, establishing of the unofficial structures, search for the alternative ways of production/ life/ love/ collectivity. Escapism. Training Program is based on the idea that no one except the artists themselves could teach each other about how to be the best in escapism, and how different can be the system from which you are escaping, it is based on the idea of uselessness and decision not to be an adult enough in art system which can be learned and practiced. I want to believe that we can work with this field and still remain self-critical, ironical, funny, empowering, well-rested and relaxed. In past few years in post socialist territory there happened a lot of ‘unhappy’ events, as my friend called it. Politics of Fragility by Boris Klushnikov, Between Fatigue: to the New Forms of Life by Elena Ischenko and Antonina Trubitsyna, Weak Spot by Ivan Isaev, Power Nap by Sona Stepanyan, that’s only a few group shows reflecting on the topic of contemporary art condition and reflecting on labour. I want to thank all these people acting independently and thinking publicly. Independent curator Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez (she is working with our favourite network of museums, L’Internationale) in her recent article wrote about the notion of resilience and the idea of ‘slowing down’ for the institution. Mostly, she is putting the term resilience as an idea to describe the situation in Slovenia where “after more than twenty-five years of exchanging ’socialism with a human face’ for savage capitalism, this region still has very little private investment in the arts and only symbolic public funds. Immediately, the theme of the triennial grew into a metaphor for a younger generation of artists who were and still are barely surviving amidst a contemporary mess of artistic and cultural overproduction. This young generation is formed by resilient subjects that live and work under today’s conditions of crisis, where minor and major disasters continually follow one another”.*** I think it’s time to live to our own rhythm. As for the visitor, he or she is not a visitor anymore.

*’Soviet censorship led to a depth of knowledge about “unofficial” art, and through Garage’s work in initiatives like the Garage Archive Collection and Field Research, Garage has emerged as an authority on certain eras of art history in Russia’, from e-flux ad dedicated to Garage’s 10th Anniversary.

**G. Deleuze and F. Guatarri, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. New York: Continuum, 2004, p. 208

***Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, ‘To slow down institutions’ http://www.e-flux.com/journal/85/155520/for-slow-institutions/