Artist residency 'Outlandia' in Glen Nevis, designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects. Courtesy of London Fieldworks. Dynamic Featured Image

The Residency; as Retreat, Relational and Relief

The cropping up of artist residencies in past two or so decades, seems almost be a global phenomenon. A cursory visit to any website that lists calls for applications reveals a fairly populated map of available venues. At first sight, an artist may feel spoilt for choice, picking their preferred location of dislocation. An elsewhere is held promisingly aloft for any takers. Notwithstanding the fact that the impression of painless mobility that such proliferation belies is a false one, it is also pertinent to note how the location of the residency is wrapped in the logic of its legitimacy.

 

Residencies are spaces of both within and without. They host an artist from an elsewhere while simultaneously providing that elsewhere for this temporary resident. These are spaces that furnish the contradictory imperatives of both specific context and deterritorialization. An embodied participant and a grounded site are both transformed into the extra-terrestrial through a simultaneous assessment of each other.

 

The Residency as Retreat

Perhaps in an attempt to construe a singular ‘elsewhere’ convincingly removed from the many divergent ‘heres’ occupied ordinarily by artists, a particular strain of residencies relies on the notion of retreat based on geographic remoteness from centers of cultural production. These facilities often boast of a fledgling, if any, connection with the outside world, parading this as a desirable virtue.

 

The residency as retreat often corresponds to the Kantian notion of the sublime according to which natural objects/phenomenon of sense provide overwhelming or transcendental aesthetic experiences. This may be achieved firstly, through relative proportion whereby the total intuitive conception of a measurement is exhausted: it is not that we don’t objectively know the scale of the mountain but that we are unable to perceive this scale using the human body as a vessel. This, he calls, the mathematical sublime. The other kind is the dynamic sublime, whereby the force of a natural phenomenon is similarly overwhelming such as in the case of earthquakes, tornadoes, floods or others. Kant proposes that sublimity lies not in the fact of the existence of these objects/phenomenon but in the subjective judgment of an individual, which inspires fear and then a pleasure in this fear to the extent that the annihilation of the perceiving subject is also imagined as an ultimate sublime aesthetic experience.

 

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The residency as retreat refers to the Kantian notion of the ‘sublime’.

 

By necessitating this subjective judgment, Kant also entertains the possibility that for some the inability to discern an experience as sublime will prevent it from being so. So what is it that inspires such judgment in some but not others? One factor may be the novelty of a first time gaze. The artist-in-residence is cast in the figure of the romantic tourist, the collector of sublimity even as it begins to overlap with an imperial sense of adventurism. They visit the residency for a premeditated short duration, in comparison to which the site of the residency seems static and unchanging. Thus, the touristic perception of a place romanticizes, eternalizes and monumentalizes it:  because the tourist has seen it so, it must always have been so and must always remain so. Here is a unique, authentic and picturesque present which the tourist inadvertently hastens to extend into timelessness. Moreover, it is easy to forget the extent to which even seemingly virginal natural worlds are inextricably tied to cultural worlds, each taking part in the production and revision of the other. The collector of sublimity is unburdened by the intemperate throes of history.

 

Another figure also influential on the idea of a residency as retreat is that of Henry David Thoreau. Perhaps one of the first writers in residence, Thoreau’s two year self-imposed stint at Walden Pond resulted in the similarly titled treatise. In ‘Walden; or Life in the Woods’, Thoreau laid grounds for environmentalism as we know today. His advocacy of a return to simple living stems from an attempt to carve out a self-reliant existence that struggles heroically only against natural as opposed to cultural power. Part hermit, part protestor, part prophet, it is pertinent to note that Thoreau’s independence is also belabored by the notion of productivity, if not for the sake of a capitalist economy then for one’s own sustenance. His resident artist/writer is not one at leisure but one embroiled in the struggle for survival which amounts ultimately, to the ‘marrow’ of life itself. Moreover, his experiment was undertaken with the intention of wanting to tell of it which engaged him throughout in intellectual labor. In fact, many of his latter ideas emerged from this time including those detailed in the book Civil Disobedience which was influenced by an encounter with tax authorities while residing in Walden. As if you could kill time without injuring eternity’, he famously proclaimed.

 

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Replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond.

 

The temporary resident in retreat today is similarly expected to take this solitary confinement seriously and to churn out, if not objects then thought and the earnest articulation of it. They are expected to be present, alert and observant, drawing into their own reflection the ready availability of a site that is perceived to be awaiting the arrival of the resident as if in refrigeration. The impulse to tell the tale to an audience located beyond this remoteness is what validates the existence of such a facility. At the same, an artist-in-residence at such a facility can recognize that despite physical inaccessibility, no version of the remote is truly complete. Particularly, today where the circulation of goods remains unbridled, it is not uncommon to come across some version of the many-fangled authenticity of the remote sitting right at home. This is found not only in the homogeneity of the multinational corporation which more or less offers a uniform product but also, in the neighborhood Korean restaurant, the indie rock band, or the Japanese anime enthusiast all located in Lahore, but sometimes indistinguishable from their influences.

 

The Residency as Relational

On the other hand, there is the model for the residency as relational. Usually located at the heart of cultural production and infrastructure, these facilities boast of being abuzz with activity and connection. The figure of the artist-in-residence is that of a highly mobile practitioner, traversing through space and time (for the perception of the latter does change in quality with that of the former). However, this mobility while charming in outlook is often hard won through trying negotiations with immigration, bureaucracies, funding authorities and notions of citizenship.

 

The kind of work expected of the artist-in-residence is again not exclusively the production of art objects or even thought. Rather, the realization of this work lies in the relationships an artist is able to strike through performative, affective and symbolic labor such as networking, exchange of emails, talks and presentations etc., often the sole outcome of which is to replicate itself creating more opportunities to do the same for the artist. This expansion of the network in which the artist-in-residence is but one cog, is what lends legitimacy to such a facility.

 

This work also mandates a sociability, an amiability, an openness to communication and cooperation, and an urgent but flexible creative output. These are qualities not unlike those found desirable in a corporate environment and are thus aligned with the values of a late capitalist culture: ‘think outside the box’ (implying a warning against the discarding of the box altogether). The artist-in-residence is allowed, even encouraged, to be eccentric but not disruptive.

 

And yet, for all its talk of cooperation and connection, the relational residency is ultimately also a rather solitary experience. This is not only because its competitive environment and its politics of attention demand a noticeable but tame individualism but also because the temporary nature of the stay prevents any budding collectivity. The fragmentary and fleeting experience of an artist on a trajectory from residency to residency means that the network does not transform itself into a common. Participation in this network is distracted and apolitical: one lies in awareness but not in overlap with another.

 

This type of affective labor is also dependent on the presence of the artist as resident rather than what they actually do. The residency subsumes the day and living quarters of the artist into a 24-hour workplace, almost as if they are under the watchful eyes of the factory supervisor, the prison guard or the caregiver. Allow the only universal of the Internet era i.e. cats to explain: in a ‘part joke, part irritation and part sticky metaphor’, Krõõt Juurak likens the position of the artist in residence to that of a domesticated pet. The project titledAutodomestication began with observations while living with a rented cat during an artist residency and extends the likeness of the resident with the pet not only in the value of its being but also in its training, its dynamics of ownership which are often inverted, its suppression of instincts and the performance of largely cultural tasks not ordinarily recognized as work.  

 

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Krõõt Juurak likens the artist in residency to a domesticated pet – Stills from ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’

 

Another image of resemblance is that of the popular figure of the alien superhero, a Doctor Who of sorts who seemingly has the ease of instantaneous travel but is imprinted with a troubled originary myth that provides an axis to his activities even as he tries to overcome it. This myth haunts many listings which are categorized by, or privilege a kind of citizenship. Thus, residencies aren’t altogether rid of representative politics, often conflating national and cultural categories and reproducing these, even as an upending of them is expressly professed. The likeness to Doctor Who does not end there. It is also found in the expectation from the artist-in-residence of flexing and acclimating their alien subjectivities every time according to the situation that they are dropped into. Adaptability and ease of translation in the artist’s output is imagined as virtue even as distinction of identity is upheld almost as seasoning for consumption. Hence is explained the regeneration and evolving outward physical appearance of the Doctor even as he is faced with minimal resources and a revolving cast of companions.

 

The Residency as Relief

Residencies announce mobility but produce only ordained travel from departure to destination in the stipulated direction, which in many cases seems to ape the flow of capital. Many programs also require a minimum mandatory presence of the artist in the facility. In this way, they can be imagined not as facilitators of mobility but as limiters of it. They announce facilitation and subsidy but these are often exchanged under the terms of their own peculiar idea of productivity and presence. They announce professional progression but amount to something like a temporary job, making the artist complicit in setting the conditions for their own exploitation. They announce an extra-terrestrial elsewhere but also deliver another territorialized here with its own limitations of context. So why do they continue to hold charm for artist practitioners today?

 

It is the contradictory and ambiguous nature of residencies, their structural precarity that allows artists a disidentification with their present circumstances, its oppressive representative demands and often, its inability to respond to their output. Particularly in case of practices which do not noiselessly fulfill the demands of a market, the residency is easier to appease. Even as an elsewhere is not fully realized, simple an exchange of the here serves to dissociate the artist from commitment and absent themselves, allowing critical distance to reflect, revise and even contradict. Residencies are ready escape mechanisms.

 

Moreover, the promises, and pitfalls of the residency are understood by the artists as such and negotiated sometimes by ingenious means. One often camouflaged part of the affective labor is that of performing irony, of the splicing of oneself into public personas thus setting the terms of the transaction, never wholly offering oneself without treachery. When the artist is adapting proposals and statements for the sake of another application, they are aware of being insincere. What seems even more remarkable but just as likely is that the adjudicator of these applications is aware of their insincerity and actually appreciates the thoughtful construction of the charade, thus both parties creating invisible allowances for the artist from within the folds of the institution.

 

But what is it precisely that these allowances are created for? The will of the artist in terms of their identity and practice firstly but more importantly, these allowances are for pause. If residencies attempt to supersede the leisure time of the artist with work, it is only natural for the artist to respond with leisure as work. Despite the performance and the presence, it is easy to trick one’s way through the requirements of a residency to do nothing at all, and yet to spend this time as explained, accounted for and even prestigious on CVs and websites. Such pause taken outside the scope of the residency carries with it the threat of oblivion and professional failure. The ability to do what one wills with one’s time is the greatest privilege that an institution could provide an artist. A residency allows the killing of time without injuring the eternity of the artist. It is the last refuge of the idler.

 

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Quddus Mirza’s work at KHOJ residency, 1998. The ability to do what one wills with one’s time is the greatest privilege that an institution could provide an artist.

 

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