MINIMUM PRESENCE

In dance, yes, sure, of course, but also in theatre, music and literature, and maybe above all in the visual arts, artists try to assure themselves a living for a certain time by applying for ‘residencies’. Indeed, a considerable number of all the existing artist grants present themselves as an invitation to live and work for a certain time in a certain place, in a certain institution. More and more, an artist’s CV reads as a recital of residencies. As a consequence, a considerable part of global artistic production today is determined by conditions that are related to the status of the artistic producer as an ‘artist-in-residence’. Therefore, one should ask the question in which way artistic production has become affected by the residence as quasi-hegemonic modality of artistic production. We need to recognize the residence for what it is: this is, as a means to control the lives of artists for the sake of its own institutional self-legitimization. If there is any clear example of biopolitics in the realm of the arts, then this is it.

More and more, the artist who doesn’t produce primarily for the market, the artist who wants to maintain a certain autonomy in his or her artistic production, is becoming dependent on ‘residencies’ as the primordial modality of subvention. For many artists, it’s much easier to get a grant abroad, than to get one at home. Thus we witness the paradox that a city such as Berlin, “arm aber sexy” as the mayor’s saying goes, attracts many artists, who want to live here, but are soon enough to experience that an artist can only make a living in Berlin through the application for residence grants abroad. Therefore a frequently asked question in conversations between Berlin-based artists seems to be: “wann bist du mal wieder in Berlin?” Berlin is the place where artists have their stuff and where they write their applications between two residencies.

Correspondingly, the artist’s autonomy gets more and more limited by the conditions that define the residence as modality of subvention. Of course, the primordial condition that defines residence grants is the obligation to move to that other place. In this sense, the artist-in-residence is in the first place a migrant: he or she had to become a migrant first in order to be able to become an artist-in-residence. If the residence has become the quasi-hegemonic modality of artistic production, as a consequence, the artistic producer is more and more submitted to the fate of migration in order to be able to produce. As a migrant, the artist may find himself or herself entangled in annoying bureaucratic procedures concerning the legal aspects of a residence, concerning domestic tax laws or tax agreements between countries, not to mention all the banalities of daily life that can be stressful enough: getting a phone number, getting internet, getting a bank account, etc. As an artist-in-residence, you’re almost sure that you will have to do all those things you hate over and over again. At the same time, the artist who prepares himself or herself for a residence abroad is temporarily leaving his or her official residence: somebody has to get the keys, because somebody else is going to move in in one’s flat for a certain time after one left, the mail should be forwarded, etc. And somehow the artist has to organize his of her move abroad so that he or she can still return once in a while. The artist has to keep a pied-à-terre, because, you know, there’s all this stuff, unfinished business, future projects, a love life, even. If one has to become an artist-in-residence in order to be able to produce, one will soon enough find out that a considerable part of the work that one does has nothing to do with the production of art. The artist has become the manager of his or her own movements.

The artist who gets a residence abroad, leaves his or her own country, but not entirely and not definitely. Every artist-in-residence in a certain place is also still somewhere else. There is a rest of the artist-in-residence that is not in residence. An artist-in-residence is always only a part-of-an-artist-in-residence. No residence can claim to have an artist entirely. The residence therefore can be defined as a place of a distracted artistic presence. One could as well say that a residence is a modality of artistic absence. It is precisely because the residence is a modality of artistic absence that the house rules of most artistic residencies determine, often in strong terms, a minimum presence that is expected from the artists-in-residence. As most fancy artistic residencies expect a minimum presence from their artists-in-residence that is far higher than the minimum presence at the official residence that the old-fashioned nation-states expect from their residents, from their citizens, it seems as if artistic residencies think in very ambiguous, if not to say extremely conservative terms, about mobility.

On the one hand, residencies demand a high level of mobility from the artists when it comes to leaving their country in order to reside there, but on the other hand once the artists have indeed arrived at their residence, residencies become extremely demanding about their physical presence, and thus considerably reduce the mobility that these same artists can afford themselves under the residential regime. A residence, therefore, can also be defined as a limitation of mobility. Despite the rhetoric of mobility that is so characteristic of residential programs, residencies in fact impose severe limitations on the mobility of artists. This is not because residencies are a sophisticated trick of secret services in order to control the movements of subversive artists in an inconspicuous way. No, it is because residencies, like all institutions, are constantly worried about their self-legitimization. And like many institutions, they tend to legitimize themselves in the wrong way. By imposing a minimum presence upon artists-in-residence, residencies think of themselves as if they were a kind of hotel. They don’t seem to think of themselves primarily as providers of production facilities. Or if they do think of themselves as the providers of production facilities, they seem to think of production facilities as infrastructure facilities. The resident gets a studio, whether she or he needs one or not. The work of art may well be arrived in the times of its digital reproducibility, nevertheless many residencies take great pride in studio’s with excellent light conditions for painters. There are even residencies who assure that there isn’t internet, because, of course, that would only distract the artist, in his or her search for quietness and inspiration. On the other hand, there are residencies who are almost nothing more than the facility to use a computer and internet. Then the artist-in-residence happens to have moved only from one workstation to another. Not only residencies often don’t understand the kind of facilities different kinds of artists need. Moreover, residencies often think of the facilities they offer artists in the wrong order. They believe it of primordial importance that they offer this studio, and of secondary importance that, well, OK, even artists have to live, so they also get some money, called a ‘grant’. Almost all residencies have this hierarchy: first comes the space, the studio, the room; and secondly, and only maybe, the money to live there. This hierarchy stands in sharp contrast, one may say, with the expectations of the artists themselves. Most artists who apply for residencies don’t give a shit about the studio, what they want is the money and then, basically, they would like to run. But in order to get the money, they have to assure a ‘minimum presence’ that is often quite some maximum, in a studio they don’t need, a studio which is sometimes, if they’re really unlucky, located in a city they hate. Sometimes, the studio isn’t even located in a city, but in a deadly boring village. And when worse comes to worse, you got a residence in Salzburg.

Of course, throughout history, many people on the move have known a fate that was even worse than getting a residence in Salzburg. How pathetic may the stories of artists and their problems with residencies sound when compared to the stories of, for instance, Chinese peasants who, these days, move by millions every year in order to look for a job in monstrously growing megalopolises such as Chongqing. Or what about the stories of African youngsters who, by hundreds, if not by thousands, drown in the strait of Gibraltar, or off the coasts of the Canary Islands, of Lampedusa, or of Mayotte in their desperate attempt to reach the European mainland or to enter the European Union via the intricacies of the complex legislation concerning citizenship on its oversees territories? Or what about those same African youngsters who didn’t drown, who made it to Europe, but who got arrested in the streets of Hamburg and sent back to Africa, even if they were just fleeing just another civil war? If we take all these stories into consideration, one may be tempted to relativize the importance of a reflection on the artist as a resident in the first place.

Indeed, a ‘residence’ sounds like a very chic word for just another temporary job for an artist. For the sake of provocation, artists may be described as proletarians who refuse to face their class situation by using chic words in order to describe it. The artist’s tendency to glamorize his or her precarious condition should be seen as ideologically dangerous, because this glamorization tends to maintain the status quo of the capitalist form of globalization, in that it basically is a way to embrace one’s own oppression within capitalism. We’re oppressed, but hey, at least we’re hip! As long as the way in which artists think of their position within capitalism can be resumed by the phrase “wir sind keine Spiesser wie die Anderen!”, the artists are useless for multitudinarian resistance. Artists have to begin to think of their own condition under capitalism in other than self-congratulatory terms.

The hegemony of the artistic residence as modality of artistic subvention is in complete accordance with the generalization of labor’s temporary character and delocalization as its condition. It is typical of the artist’s glamorization of precariousness to think of residencies as something desirable, while in fact residencies may hint at developments they rather should criticize. Indeed, if we take into consideration that the arts very often have been a laboratory of social change, one may very well ask the question whether the residence isn’t meant to become the general form of intellectual and affective labor. People looking for a job as a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, etc., may very well be offered a residence, in the school, in the clinic, etcetera. For one moment, one may have thought that the general tendency would be to think that, thanks to the development of digital media and the internet, everybody would be able to work from his or her home. We were beginning to think that we were able to loosen all our ties to a place, a country, a nation. The residence however is hinting at a different possibility: with the residence, you are supposed to live at your work place. The most explicit instances of this development are the resident choreographer’s apartment which is literally located in the theater itself, or the visiting professor’s studio on campus. In the philosophy of these types of residencies, the multitudinarian idea that life itself, through its manifold forms of inherent productivity, is work, has become internalized but only to end up in an imperial desire for total control over this productive life. Therefore, we have to begin to see and understand the residence as a laboratory for the society of control, such as Deleuze described it in his reading of Foucault. An artist-in-residency program is always, without exception, a claim on the body of the artist, through the obligation of a minimum presence.

If residency programs are truly serious about their commitment to the work of artists — and there are no reasons not to believe that many people who are involved in such programs are indeed deeply committed to artistic work — then these residency programs will have to begin to think, not of levels of minimum presence they will demand of the artists they want to invite, but, quite to the contrary, of their position towards the artist’s desire of maximum absence. In today’s global capitalism, there is only one kind of desire worth being supported, and that is the desire for maximum absence. Residencies therefore should begin to think of themselves as refuges from capitalism. The primary task of residencies therefore is to think how they can offer artists effective shelter from the demands of capitalism. As far as residencies now force artists to leave their homes in order to go where the money is, they are in fact imposing upon artists the same laws of capitalism’s geography that force Chinese peasants to leave the countryside only to be swallowed by megalopolises such as Chongqing. As far as at least some residencies may have thought of themselves as instances of resistance, some residencies may want to rethink the way they can support the artist in his or her desire to be as maximally absent as possible from the world of global capitalism, his or her desire to be as alien as possible to global capitalism’s endeavors, and thus to inhabit it as an alien resident.







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