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Playing well with others: the Group Affinity Project in Munich

An affinity group, as a mode of activism, concerns a diverse group of individuals that all share a common goal.

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

Slavs and Tatars harvesting wheat in Bavaria. Photo courtesy of Kunstverein Munich.

This summer the Kunstverein Munich and Casco in Utrecht invited five diverse groups to Munich to address the emergence of self-organization and collective practice. For two weeks in August, participants came together under the framework of a collaborative summer school, which concluded with an exhibition. Spanning the fields of art, design and architecture, the “faculty leaders” of the project included Chicago Boys, Cinenova, Grand Openings, Andreas Müller and Susanne Pietsch, and Slavs and Tatars. The project posits “affinity groups” — non-hierarchical clusters utilized by social movements that are usually based on consensus processes — as a possible new form of articulating the self-organizing mode of artistic and cultural practitioners. Bart van der Heide, director of Kunstverein Munich and co-curator of the project, explores some of the discussions and actions that unfolded during the two-week workshop, as well as the role and complications of using an exhibition in such a situation and its relationship to a notion of public.

Jason Waite: Self-organization has taken on an urgency within the sphere of cultural production, both as a strategy of defense and also as a means of working. In the formation of this project, how did you negotiate the activist lineage of affinity groups in relation to art production and collectives?

Bart van der Heide: An affinity group, as a mode of activism, concerns a diverse group of individuals that all share a common goal. “Public” is, in this respect, defined by a tight and organized system of support and not by an abstract quantity of visitor numbers. The reason why we invited these groups is to open up this diversity to self-organized practices, as well as to challenge these self-organized groups and their practice, and see if their existing modes of production can be opened up to a public. Selecting participants presented another challenge to the diversity within self-organization, because not all groups operate democratically. What unfolded was that certain groups, like Cinenova, were forced to self-organize because their institutional funding was cut, while other groups use self-organization to market themselves, or to create an identity politics.

Performance by Chicago Boys Photo credits: Mary Ikon

JW: It seems that there are two very different moments in this project: one where there is a sharing of knowledge and ideas including informal exchanges; then there is another which moves towards presentation, or a shift towards objects or ideas that are self-sustaining within a site with those actors being present. What stands out for you as representative of this transition into the exhibition?

BvdH: The exhibition was never a goal, nor was it a means to an end. The exhibition is just part of a general discussion that happened. It is a proposition for the groups to think of a broader public, so none of the works included are intended to be finished works. What makes this exhibition interesting for me is that it really shows different positions and how people posit themselves in an institutional frame. The exhibition also shares the points of negotiation that this project had. It is very important to take on board the negotiation between self-organization and the institutional context. There is also the point between the public and private, finding your private moment in the context of a communal workshop. There are all of these different points that this project didn’t intend to give an answer to, it is more to experience them and lay them bare — open them up and make them accessible in a way.

It’s very interesting to see how the participants responded to the exhibition, and how it became a problem at one point. I think the first week there was nothing discussed about the exhibition. In that period it was really the groups organizing themselves and finding their allies within Munich, and finding a common ground within the groups. So in the first week you really see that the groups closed themselves up and were more directed toward themselves — as is expected from affinity groups. As the exhibition approached, people had to open up again, because they saw someone making this incredibly large monumental piece in the center space, the most important place of the exhibition and they think, “Oh my God, something is happening there.” So the exhibition became a catalyst for these groups to talk to each other again and to actually negotiate. In addition, the exhibition spaces became a catalyst for negotiation as well, especially during the course of the academy. The Neoclassical exhibition spaces of Kunstverein Munich are clearly made for “looking” and not for “listening.” Its acoustics are absolutely terrible. Spoken words were immediately dissolved by the spaces and any raised voice blasted through the entire building. Within this context one needs to negotiate with each other in order to get some work done.

Overall, this exhibition shows a very interesting and vibrant diversity of positions and negotiations as well as ambitions. There were a number of groups that were incredibly ambitious and every group just had €1,000 ($1,350 USD) to produce their work. You can really see the diversity of how people utilized that money, and also how ambitious the groups were with such limited means.

JW: Could you provide an example?

Slavs and Tatars making wheat bundles Photo Credits: Mary Ikon

BvdH: Well, for instance, the work-group of Slavs and Tatars constructed an installation on the ceiling of the main exhibition hall composed of a pattern that they wanted to make out of wheat. They went out into the countryside of Bavaria and cut the wheat themselves, brought it into the gallery and made hundreds of very neat bundles, which they hung from the ceiling. Then they also had translucent green plastic sheets covering the florescent lights. It’s a lot of ambition, in terms of manpower, and of course if they wanted to use our technical staff to help, they really needed to pay them. To do all that work within €1,000 is impossible, so the group ended up really working together, day and night, to make these bundles and hang them from the ceiling. So this work-group became this “group of labor” in order to realize their ambitious idea.

The architects Andreas Müller & Susanne Pietsch aimed to build the ideal youth center. Their working group was equally ambitious but done in a more democratic way. They divided the money equally between the participants in their group and every person was free to make something with that money. So then you end up with this space with all of these different positions together. Everyone made their own work, and it was kept free and wasn’t controlled. Within the production there were some really ambitious ideas, and when you see that part of the show it is a collection of different contexts and backgrounds. It’s also this diversity that we are looking for. It is not our role to find a commonality between all these groups, rather it is much more interesting to create a space where the diversity can take place.

Exhibition view Photo Credits: Mary Ikon

The group of Grand Openings ended up responding to specific groups. For example, as a response to Andreas Müller & Susanne Pietsch, they portrayed themselves as the ideal youth group because Müller & Pietsch couldn’t find any youth to participate with. No young people were interested in committing themselves to these two weeks of work as they were all on vacation from school. So Grand Openings became this ideal “youth group” that animates the work and in a way gives a purpose to the production.

Similarly, Grand Openings organized an auction in which they raised money for Cinenova — a volunteer run distribution archive for feminist films and female filmmakers — and also used their exhibition money to buy Cinenova a hard drive. In return, Cinenova contributed to all the groups in a similar fashion by negotiating or offering to show a film from their collection along side the work of each group in the exhibition space, contributing a critique or marking a specific position toward that group. If there wasn’t this proposition of an exhibition, those acts of generosity would have never taken place. It would have taken so much more time to build that otherwise.

And in that sense the exhibition is just one proposition of many that this project had. The workshops themselves were the main goal of the project and the catalog. The exhibition and everything that follows allows these groups to work and also to keep a sense of being public at the same time.

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