Community-based art projects challenge the traditional notion of, often individualistic and isolating, artistic practice and that’s what makes it so tempting for artists to try. Netherlands-based artist duo Esther Brakenhoff and Maarten Schuurman’s collective workflow invites participation from local artists around the world. Following their recent Tokyo project, we discuss how the idea came about and why Hong Kong served as an inspiration.
TEXT: Julia Tarasyuk
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists
B&S: Esther Brakenhoff and Maarten Schuurman; A: Ayumi Suzuki
During February and March 2020, just before Tokyo went into lockdown and a state of emergency was declared, two artists from the Netherlands, Esther Brakenhoff and Maarten Schuurman, arrived in the Japanese capital to embark on a challenging mission. Without knowing the language or cultural landscape, they set about establishing a project researching the limits and possibilities of community workflow with local artists, aimed at creating installations as a form of art and autonomous space with their own method and rules.
The project “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow” led by Brakenhoff and Schuurman proved to be one of the most unusual and thought-provoking initiatives shown in a gallery space in Japan for a long time. The not-for-sale project was split into two parts: a performative installation in the form of an open studio and an exhibition presenting the product of the collaborative work. They looked into expanding the definition of a white cube art space and the boundaries of collective art practices. Throughout this project, Brakenhoff and Schuurman, whose work researches the micro-politics of space in relation to artistic practice, offered a fascinating insight into ways community-based art projects can operate when artists don’t know each other or of each other, don’t speak the same language, and exist in parallel cultural universes.
In these times of social distancing, I virtually gathered with both artists, and CAVE-AYUMI Gallery founder and director Ayumi Suzuki, to speak about cross-cultural challenges within the art world and the future of collective projects.
Esther, Maarten, please tell me more about the project. How did it all start?
B&S: Shift Operation started with a conversation we had in 2016 about art practice in the Netherlands, different forms of making work, and the space required. During this conversation we talked about the city of Kowloon, a sort of free state that existed within Hong Kong during British rule. While more and more people came to live and work there, the walled city grew from the outside in. Every bit of space left was used for housing, business, and transport, turning Kowloon into a big labyrinth. We connected this image to the practice of making art. What if we create a “free state” within a limited space and invite a group of artists to come and work within it, creating an artist community with the workplaces necessary for their practice and presentation? Like Kowloon, growing from the outside in, the artists would need to collaborate, share space, and communicate about boundaries and passages. It is a research [inquiry] into the micro-politics of space and its influence on art making.
How does your project relate to the spirit of the art scene in the Netherlands?
B&S: Due to political changes in the last ten years, the well-built art infrastructure in the Netherlands has dealt with a lot of cutbacks in government funding. This had a big effect on spaces for art production and presentation. With less spaces available, many artists have difficulties finding a good place to work or exhibit. Artists therefore try to organize spaces themselves by collaborating to find and create venues, often in temporary, empty buildings. There is a necessity to work together, to self-organize.
A: CAVE-AYUMI Gallery has been actively introducing Dutch artists [in its programme]. I studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in the Netherlands. During the four years I spent there, I had a chance to explore the fascinating local art scene. Various forms of expression such as public art and performances are thriving there. Also, there are many artist-run spaces and artist initiatives. Artists are independent and play an important role in the society. I think that kind of attitude is very unique and will be important for the art scene of the future. In my art spaces, I would like to introduce not only finished artworks, but also social movements in art.
This is the second edition of the Shift Operation project. How did the first one go? Have you noticed any similarities or differences depending on the location?
B&S: The first edition, “Shift Operation: Membraned City,” was held at the Paleis van Mieris, an art initiative in Amsterdam that we are both a part of. Within this temporary housing (an empty, stripped building in the south of the city) we built a wall of wood and cardboard around a playing field of 120 metres square. We invited around 20 artists to work within this walled city for a month, asking them to claim space fitting their needs. Most of them built walls to demarcate their own space. One artist built a corridor which all the others had to go through. We also created communal spaces for meetings, lectures, and screenings.
In the current Tokyo edition, we were aiming for more interaction and communication. Instead of fixed walls, we wanted to create a dynamic environment that would stimulate collaboration. So, for “Shift Operation: Tokyo Workflow,” we built an installation with analogies to industrial workflow, complete with conveyor belts and movable workstations. This time the project took place at CAVE-AYUMI Gallery, a beautiful white cube space. Our installation invaded the gallery and turned it into a workspace for a temporary art community. We covered the white walls with cardboard to help this transformation. It made it easier for the invited artists to start working and not to be afraid to smudge the place.
Paleis van Mieris and CAVE are very different locations, but in both editions, we had to find a communication method with the people who run them. In the case of the Paleis van Mieris, this was an art initiative consisting of eight artists, including ourselves. At CAVE, this was Ayumi Suzuki. We have a responsibility towards the artists we invite, but also to the location and the people in charge, a sort of in between role.