Ika Sienkiewicz-Nowacka and Dominika Blachnicka-Ciacek
During their residency at The Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in 2011, Bianca Elzenbaumer and Fabio Franz of the Brave New Alps created a project involving the construction of a sub-residency unit. In one of the castle’s rooms they designed a temporary wooden “room within a room”. They organised an open call for the space in which they worked and lived with six other artists for several weeks. With this project they established what they called a “support economy” for young artists in precarious conditions, simultaneously subverting the existing division of roles between host and guest, which had up until then existed within our residency programme. The Brave New Alps project, to which we owe the title of our essay, greatly influenced how we perceive and practice hospitality within the residency program at the CCA. The gesture made by Brave New Alps can also be read as redefining the role of artists in residence, and of the hosting team. How much is gained, in such a relation, and how much is given? Who fills these roles and can they be interchangeable in a given situation?
The residency program in CCA, established in Poland in 2003, was one of the first of its kind in this part of Europe. We have learned most about residencies through practice. From the outset, our activities focused on building and nurturing relations between the hosted artists and their host curators. The experience of co-working with artists arriving to Warsaw shaped our understanding of “curating residencies” as a way of working that differed significantly from the curator’s role during the creation of an exhibition. This understanding was shaped in response to the hospitality practised by our all-women team. In our work we intuitively used skills which we use in roles in our daily life, as partners, friends, hosts and mothers. Our domains are care, empathy, sensitivity to the needs of others, and a focus on supporting the process of building relationships. Some of the first residency projects ended in frustration. At times, artists had to come to terms with the fact that they would not have an exhibition in the castle. Sometimes it was about our total exhaustion, when we would feel all too responsible for their contentment. In such a way, “curating residencies” has become a method of working which extends beyond professional relations between artists and institutions. This effort is not inscribed within the scope of working hours, as these relations arise from care and mutual curiosity, openness, friendship and spending time together.
Maja Cirić in her essay for Obieg (2019), a monthly magazine of CCA, writes about ‘radical hospitality’, emphasising that residencies cannot become a form of suppressing institutional critique, of ignoring differences, or of appropriating Otherness in order to neutralise it. She shows how residency programs may reproduce existing power relations and West-centric worldviews. Indeed, when creating our residency programme, New York, London, Berlin or Vienna were far higher than Warsaw on the list of dream places for residences. In turn, more often we hosted residents from the West, as the institutions they belonged to gladly financed their residencies in Warsaw. It was only after receiving permanent funding from the City of Warsaw, that we were able to invite guests who came from less privileged places in terms of funding possibilities. This allowed us to think multi-directionally and to resist the West vs. the Rest as the main stream of exchange.
The Re-directing: East programme emerged from our determination to create a different kind of exchange. New routes and configurations appeared on our residential map of guests, which allowed us to get to know one another and for us to deepen and complicate our positionality in and with the ‘East’. Residencies realised within this framework gave us invaluable time and space to establish contacts with artists, curators and professionals from Eastern Partnership countries, the Visegrad countries and the Middle East. This helped us to first realise, and over time, reduce deficits in these relationships. The changing political context, the increasingly xenophobic atmosphere in Poland and beyond, gave this form of cooperation another, initially unplanned, dimension. For instance, hosting artists from Palestine, Iran or Syria during a crisis period of hospitality, stood in opposition to a growing closure and aversion to strangers. The openness accompanying the residencies, the desire to deepen understanding, became an antidote to simplified portrayals and one-sided media representations. The intensifying moral panic with regards to refugees, migrants, and more generalised “others” also deepened our need to create a space that would allow unhindered creation, open dialogue and mental shelter for artists and creators.
The Everyday Forms of Resistance project which we are working on, is another iteration of our approach to ‘curating residences’. Here, the openness towards transcending and re-writing the roles of the guests and the hosts is inscribed in the very design of the project. The idea for this arose from Ika’s personal relationship with Sally Abu Bakr, director of the Ramallah Cultural Office. Abu Bakr wanted to set up a residency program in Palestine, and Ika offered her help in implementing the venture. The very shape of the project allowed us to adopt various roles and to develop different relationships throughout its duration. Palestinian artists were our guests, living in the Castle, but also visiting private homes. Subsequently Polish and European artists and curators were hosted in Ramallah by partner institutions, and by artists /residents who had already lived in Palestine for several months. The project has morphed through the relationships forged between project participants.
This open, fluid form offered an additional opportunity to change perspectives. It was also a way to transcend the asymmetry of the relationship between the host and the guest, or rather, to reverse it. Another important step in this direction, and towards dialectical work, was to invite artists to joint and individual discussions, to collaboratively work on the exhibition. The forthcoming exhibition Everyday Forms of Resistance (moved to 2021 due to coronavirus pandemic) is the expression of the desire to give viewers the opportunity to experience Palestine and Palestinian art in a light that celebrates Palestinians’ subjectivity and agency, despite daily encounters with oppression and control. It is also an attempt to practice equality and dialogue as a form of working.
In this context, the work of Sandi Hilal is symbolic for us. Her Al Madhafah/The Living Room project will be presented during the exhibition at CCA. The Living Room is a place in which one may arrive as a guest at the site of the exhibition, in another instance, in a refugee camp in Boden, and yet again in a Palestinian refugee camp in Fawwar, near Hebron. Hilal creates her living room and invites guests, treating her actions and room as a tool of integration in a new community. “Can the power of the host be treated as a means to achieve visibility and agency?”, she asks in the introduction to her experiment. Through her living room, Hilal extends a hand to the inhabitants of Boden and other cities and sites, not as a ‘guest’ but as a host. The tool of the living room reverses the role inscribed upon migrants and refugees by hosts in countries where they seek shelter. As European hosts, and now as guests, we are made aware of the asymmetry of this relationship.
Importantly, Hilal gives up her leading role as an artist and decision-maker, expanding the project space to the narratives of less privileged people: to Ayat, a young Palestinian refugee from a very traditional family in Fawwar, or to Shafik who works as a doorman at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. With this gesture, Hilal initiates transformation and releases forces that would likely not have otherwise appeared. Ayat matures as a feminist and social activist fighting for women’s rights. She establishes a confectionery company thriving in the camp, and passes on the role of the host of the living room to others from refugee camps in Palestine.
The experience of “curating residencies” has become for us a means of enabling multidimensional and often global cooperation. Using the privilege of taking time, these residencies provide a space (a promise) for emergence and the nurturing of deeper relationships between us the hosts and our guests. Projects that were born during such residency meetings are care-driven; they do not rely on grants, but on friendship and the curiosity to know differently. From these relations, common issues and themes, as well as differences, emerge. The relationships allow us to undermine the boundaries between the host and the guest and between central and peripheral positions.
This process of hosting is as important to us as the final result. It is about being together, getting to know each other in a way that is not restricted by the specific perimeters or goals of the project. For this to be possible, we try to suspend our expectations regarding the final project. If our perception of “radical hospitality” is to have value, then we must resist this end-goal logic and prioritise interpersonal exchange through relationships. The strategy contains some risk, which sometimes leads to failure. Indeed the term “happy failure” has become part of our residency vocabulary.
Our strategy of “curating residencies” is deliberately fluid, open to change and to “take-over” initiatives by our guests. In this way, we inscribe daily attempts of re-writing, re-making and revising roles between guest and host, in the very process of shaping these relations anew.
Ika Sienkiewicz-Nowacka is a culture manager and curator, founder of the U–jazdowski residency programme. Her research interests centre on the significance of residencies within the fields of artistic and institutional practice. She views curatorial practice as a tool to build creative situations and long-term relations. She is a curator of Everyday Forms of Resistance Project based on international residency exchanges, assemblies and exhibition. Dominika Blachnicka-Ciacek is a visual sociologist based at SWPS University in Warsaw. Her research and audio – visual practice focus on the intersections of memory, space and place in European and Middle Eastern forced migration contexts. She collaborates with Ika Sienkiewicz-Nowacka on the Everyday Forms of Resistance residency project and the upcoming 2021 exhibition. Dominika tweets @dombook
Photo credit: Elias Arvidsson