To say that the public does not exist is a provocative proposition. As artists, critics and curators we base our practices on the supposition that what we produce will be received by a more or less clearly defined public. And in times when increasing numbers of public institutions are put up for sale, the expression “the public does not exist” sounds like a recasting of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous “There is no such thing as society”. However, Phillips’s goal is not a rejection of the shared spaces of society. On the contrary, she finds it to be of crucial importance that we find new commonalities. According to Phillips, we need to get rid of the whole concept of ‘the public’ in order to achieve this. This includes alternative ideas of ‘partial publics’ and ‘counterpublics’, which only reinforce the basis of the original term.
– The idea of the public is a political phantom which never really existed; therefore we have to work on solidarity within institutions on a more pragmatic level, says Phillips to Kunstkritikk in this interview, which was conducted in Oslo on May 20th before of a lecture given by Phillips at KORO, Norway’s official public art institution.
Andrea Phillips is professor of Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London, and has worked on questions of art and the public sphere in a number of publications and research projects. She also co-curated the public programme at the Istanbul biennial in 2013, where protests from artists and activists – precisely the constituency of the biennial’s supposed public – led to the cancelling of several events.
What is the problem with the idea of the public?
My proposition is that the public is a concept of the past. There has been a lot of discussion about these issues in contemporary theory and increasingly in the arts sphere. People have been poring over Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere from 1962, where he describes the public sphere as a bourgeois concept. Many people have since criticised his thesis because it is exclusive, but even the critics think that we have to maintain something called ‘the public sphere’. I suggest that in order to build new communities and fulfil the promises that the art world posits within the concept of public art, we actually have to drop the idea of the public completely. The concept of the public is formed through a European post-Enlightenment liberalism, which is itself a precursor of the neoliberal privatisation that we are completely enveloped by in the US and the UK – and that you are currently facing in Scandinavia. We should think of art institutions as spaces that have the potential to be properly communal. I think that changing the structure of the institutions is the main political issue here.
One of the difficulties is that we speak of ‘the public’ in the singular and ‘publics’ in the plural. The idea or postulate of the singular public is ingrained both in the art world and in the traditional left. But when we speak of plural publics it is as if the notion is individualised and disperses into user groups and stakeholders. How do we get beyond this?
This is exactly why we need to stop using the term public! To a certain extent the issue of public and publics has been developed with the idea of ‘the commons’, which is a post-medieval concept of equal and free access to land use among the peasantry. But we have to understand the commons as very pragmatic mechanisms based on fair trade and fair use. It’s actually quite a good model in terms of rethinking how to use art institutions. I’m slightly more nervous about the utopian aspect of the commons which pervaded the Occupy movement, with the idea of this place where everyone would be free and get on with one another. I want to see it applied.
So how do you apply these things? I’ve read that you’ve been working on a manifesto for art institutions.
Yes, I proposed a manifesto for a project called “How to work together” run by three art institutions in London called Studio Voltaire, Chisenhale and The Showroom. They all applied for funding from something called Catalyst, which is a fund set up by the Arts Council, encouraging and expecting previously publicly funded institutions to develop private sponsorship models. If you receive money from Catalyst for a three-year period the amount decreases over time, and you are supposed to increase private sponsorships correspondingly. In other words, it is funding that comes with very specific politics attached.
This is precisely what our current government bases its cultural politics on – financial diversification. We have a new funding system where private donations are supplemented by public funding corresponding to 25 % of the donated amount.
The three institutions I talk about are small; they receive enough funding to pay their staff, but not enough to run the programmes. It’s a classic Catch-22 situation in which small institutions often find themselves. So they received the funding and commissioned a number of artists, and then invited people like me to think through the project. It was very interesting because these institutions were working together in order to get the money – which is fine; it was a strategic move on their part. But when the art was commissioned from artists like Céline Condorelli and Ahmet Ögüt – who all belong to the left and are all thinking through alternative economies and working collaboratively with users – some contradictions arose.
What happened with the manifesto?
Well, what I did was to interview all of the directors of the institutions about how they work. But I was particularly interested in how they worked within their institutions: what the staff instructions were like, what the financial structures were like, how they enter into partnerships, etc. When I proposed to write a manifesto they all pulled out, because they thought their boards of trustees would be unhappy. I then asked if they would sign a declaration to never employ unpaid interns instead. And they couldn’t do this either. It turned out that it would be impossible for me to write a manifesto.
So there is a contradiction between the content and the form of these art institutions.
The structure of the art world divides us, it doesn’t bring us together, despite the fact that there is a lot of rhetorical commitment to commonness and to forms of communism in the content of the art. So we will continue to produce this contradiction whereby we fill the gallery spaces with benevolent art that promises forms of collaboration, engagement and cooperation. We must move to the next stage of institutional critique. We can’t allow ourselves to critique the institutions while allowing them to feed us. Which also means that we have to convince the government to think of cultural production in a different way. So there is a big job ahead.
You propose a pragmatic politics instead of supposing that these spaces are zones of resistance?
Yes, I do. For a long time I was on the side of ‘zones of resistance’. I was committed to the idea of art as a mechanism that can produce social change. I still think it can, but I don’t think it can do it until it addresses these structural issues. I’m more convinced now that we need to take our philosophies into a more pragmatic zone.
You say that the structural changes also include making demands of the government, but how does that work when you have mixed funding? What sorts of demands can institutions stipulate for the private financiers?
Recently I’ve been influenced by a thinker called Michel Feher who writes about non-governmental organizations. I’ve been wondering how we can apply NGO models in the art world. A particular idea that Feher has proposed has to do with ‘investee activism’. It is a way of thinking about the relationship between investors and the producers of the stuff that the investors invest in. I am an investee in the production of knowledge. We are both investees in the art world and the investors are not only the state but also the private financiers. How can the investees become activists in convincing the investors to work in one way and not the other? This is something that already exists within NGOs, and it has been very successful within the ecological movement. Ethical sponsorship models should be appropriated by the arts. The problem is that the small institutions and galleries are too desperate for money to make this move.
It seems like the big difference in funding is that public funding comes with the demand that institutions increase the numbers of visitors and reach out to new audiences. Whereas with private sponsorship there’s a demand for association and access.
Particularly in the UK, we’re now in a position were conditions are such that it is much easier for art spaces to host parties for rich people than to apply for public funding. And the people in power see no problem with this whatsoever. The government in the UK will use terms like ‘cultural diversity’ and employ this sort of language, which makes it seem like they’re committed to some form of public. And this is another reason why we shouldn’t use that term. We’re allowing ourselves to be captured by their language.
Speaking of being captured by language; redefining artists and cultural workers as entrepreneurs is a crucial aspect of governmental cultural politics in Norway. There is a lot of resistance to using this language in the art world. At the same time you have things like ‘social entrepreneurship’, which, when compared with outreach programmes in the arts, don’t look all that different. But there is definitely a linguistic divide.
The entrepreneurialisation of the arts is explicitly part of the neoliberal project. It turns the artist into a small businessman. Of course, until the Enlightenment that was precisely what the artist was – they sold on demand. The issue of the artist as entrepreneur is quite complex. Artists’ resistance to thinking of themselves as workers comes from the long tradition – partly the fault of art education – of artists being treated as especially gifted individuals who don’t belong to any class. Entrepreneuralism means being possessive of your individualism, but so does the inherent privilege of being an artist. Artists need to undergo some essential subjective changes in their understanding of themselves as artists, and recognise that they are part of a wider community. They need to reposition themselves as workers, effectively.