Mapping the Landscape of Cultural Policy

9 June 2016

Dana Yahalomi/Public Movement in conversation with Florian Malzacher and Kathrin Tiedemann

Already the name of your group – Public Movement – points at your interest at the role of public and political gestures, rituals, procedures. How would you describe what is in the center of your work?

Public Movement is a research and action body. We use specific terminology, often generic names – like Public Movement – that give us the freedom to act in various ways and be different entities. There are three ways you can read it. The first is when Public Movement members perform themselves. We are a trained group that has been working together for a decade now. For example, in our durational performance exhibition National Collection at Tel Aviv Museum of Art – which was activated and performed by the members – we created different rituals and choreographies that related to the museum and its historical role in the production of national identity and its current political agency.
At other times we rather create a situation, an arena for the audience to become a public and perform public movements, like in the action we created for the University in Heidelberg some years ago. In this incident, the audience engaged in a spontaneous performance of resistance that was triggered by the score of the action but the public became the performers of the event. Or with ‘Positions’, which was performed in New York as part of Performa 2011 and at the Van Abbemuseum: a choreography for a demonstration where the public has to choose sides on various political issues. Members of the audience are called to perform their own opinions by choosing sides along a yes/no line.
The third kind of activity is about observing different phenomena used in social and political lives: public movements organized in the streets, in squares, and in civic life. Maybe the best example would be ‘First of May Riots’ in 2010, in which we joined the riots in Kreuzberg. We did not change anything. We didn’t add more public movements to what was already happening in the streets of Berlin. We only added headphones: the audience could choose between five audio channels that would create different experiences or give commentaries on the situation. You had an experience and participated physically in a political event but this was framed and shifted by another layer of conceptual thinking.

Was there a particular political experience, a founding impulse that led you to the creation of Public Movement ten years ago?

I think there are two ways to answer that. When Omer Krieger and I founded Public Movement in 2006 there was no single reason or impulse but rather an accumulation of experiences. I’m not sure if it’s because we both were part of political and social movements when we were younger or because both of us studied history and philosophy or because of an unexplained interest in conflicts and the performances of politics. But this common background created a strong drive.
One formative moment was what happened when we did our first action. We were not yet a real group, just Omer and me, who wanted to create an action called ‘Accident’. It was a simultaneous, synchronized accident between two cars and two pedestrians. In order to do it we asked around ten colleagues and friends to join in and help. But when we were out in the street our friends objected to nature of the action and we couldn’t finish it as planned. There was a huge argument about the action looking too real. That the people wouldn’t know that it was art. There was a debate if it was ethically okay to create something which could not be immediately framed and understood as art. Because we couldn’t follow through with the action we understood that we needed to create our own cell of bodies and thinkers to continue to investigate exactly this question: how to blur more and more the differences between art and politics.

This means that most of your work is very site- and context specific.

We develop our method every time anew in response to the specific context and content of the work. We don’t really have “shelf products” that we can perform again and again. Over the course of ten years we have created perhaps five actions that can be repeated in other places. Most actions are made for one place and one specific discourse.

You sometimes use the term “service” to describe your work. Most artists would not like to consider their work a service for others. Can you describe this concept?

The idea of service comes into play due to how we work. The usual process is that we are invited by an institution – a museum, a biennale, a festival – to conduct local research and to come up with a specific proposal for this place. In this sense we come and offer a service, because through the research we try to understand what is acute in the moment in that very city, that particular situation or context. Where is the political unrest? What trauma exists? What are the taboos? What needs to be named or shaped? It is a process of thinking together and of giving a service.

In Germany but also in other countries at the moment there is quite a vivid discussion around the question of whether art should or could be useful. What are the responsibilities of artists in a fragile society, in heated political situations – and where is the danger of getting instrumentalized by politics?

I am interested in art that understands itself as a useful tool to generate discussions, generate awareness, and de-stabilize preconceived ideas. But we never identify clearly with a political course. So the service that we give is not a service to motivate and we are not motivated by a specific political course that we would channel all our actions towards. In that sense, there is a difference between activist art, meaning being in service of a concrete political course and of using art as a tool to engage with political questions. We do not take an activist position.

Do you see Public Movement in a tradition of artists like Mierle Laderman Ukeles who created the concept of “Maintenance Art” in the 1970s, a conceptual, feminist art devoted to questions of common goods, care and service. Or the Artist Placement Group that also worked in NRW on the idea of situating artists concretely in political structures or economic businesses?

Yes, the actual involvement of artists as social workers within economic reality and as part of the offices that affect our public life is a huge achievement of the Artist Placement Group and is definitely an inspiration for us. Another thing that connects us to APG is the fact that though they are deeply engaged with politics, they don’t publicly take a political side. Similarly we see ourselves in the tradition of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ performances and manifestos – particularly with regard to physical touch, for example, when she shook hands with all the employees of the New York sanitation department over the course of several years.

’Make Art Policy!’ also works on blurring the lines between art and politics. It is perhaps the one action of yours that most obviously resembles a proper political event. But it is created by you. How would you position this project in the context of your work?

The aim is to create an event driven by a local desire. In this way it is useful, one could say it is aiming to give a service. It is based on a method I developed a year ago in Helsinki in conversation with the team there that was concerned about the fogginess of cultural agendas before the Finnish national elections. ‘Make Art Policy!’ is a performative, discursive event which creates short term relationships with politicians and hopes to help both politicians and citizens to gain a better understanding of the specific art agendas that are put forth. It is an assembly that invites people to set aside preconfigured political preferences and instead to listen closely to the proposals being made, to create a map of cultural policy in NRW, and to understand what the different parties are really suggesting.

For you it was clear from the very beginning that this event would have to include also the right wing AfD – a decision that was viewed very skeptically by some of the politicians involved. And even if we share the general idea that theatre should be – using Chantal Mouffe’s political concept as a metaphor – an agonistic arena where different political positions should be acted out, there was also quite a bit of discussion about this amongst ourselves. Why do you believe it is important to include the AfD in this evening?

The AfD is clearly part of the political landscape of today’s Germany. This is not surprising because of the rise of right wing parties all over Europe. The essence of ‘Make Art Policy’ is to create a sketch of the entire political spectrum in terms of art policy. It makes no sense not to show this part of the map. But also I believe it is essential that we as citizens understand what this party really stands for. Not discussing these positions will leave us in a much worse situation. We have to understand what motivates the right wing, what they are looking for and how they can affect our life. This has to be a part of the evening – but it is not an evening about the AfD. It is an evening for all political parties that are in the game and have the chance to be elected.