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Endeavouring to live in the world together
How a contemporary and participatory art project like GRASSLANDS can revitalise the legacy of the artistic ideals of the 20th century avant-garde.

by Trine Rytter Andersen, art critic and artist

Since the 1990’s an increasing number of Danish artists have become involved with communities that work actively and inter-disciplinarily with identity, history and social structures. Playgrounds, community allotments, urban parks, fixing rooms, dinners, blind dates and democracy workshops have been established or arranged, among other things. Typical for all these projects is that that they intercede in daily life and try to strengthen communities while simultaneously attempting to mobilise and qualify citizens’ initiative, agency and self-determination. Another common trait is that they support the proposition that art, as edification and contextualisation, can motivate those it mobilises to engage in binding democratic processes that benefit both the community and the individual.

The development of the avant-garde in the 20th century.
The idea that art should play a role in society and contribute to citizen’s awareness and commitment is not new. Ever since the inception of the historical Avant-garde, around 1910, the question of how to free the individual from the oppressive structures of society has been to the fore Avant-garde artists employed different strategies from each other, but shared the same goal. They wanted to develop a coherent political, existential and social life practice. They also wanted to challenge convention and habit to awaken the individuals’ aesthetic and social understanding, so that he or she would be better equipped to protest and free themselves.

Paradoxically, this emancipatory aspect did not really resonate with the general public. They reacted, for the most part, with indignation and scorn to the avant-garde artists’ provocations and vocal manifestations, even though this was the group the artists were trying to enlighten. The ideas of the avant-garde were, therefore, primarily discussed in the shuttered spaces of the elite. Nevertheless, that the avant-garde movements have, down through the years, provided concepts, which have influenced our understanding of the individual, the development of society, and the use of power, is indisputable. Nor that the avant-garde has paved the way for those artists exploring the possibilities for actively influencing society, today.

Feminism and Relational Aesthetics
At the end of the 20th century, an unexpected resurgence in the desire to embark on socially engaged practices emerged on art scenes around the world. This happened in fields where feminism and equality played a central role, among others.

In 1998, French philosopher Nicolas Bourriaud published his book ’Relational Aesthetics’ describing and giving name to an art that engaged with the world around it. In it, Bourriaud set about re-actualising contemporary art, which in the 1990’s had been the subject of heavy-handed and often misjudged criticisms for being ”blindly political correct” and ”too conceptual”. The book had an enormous impact on the art world in Denmark, where it was received as a sort of contemporary theoretical manifesto, as it gave expression to an engagement with the world that was well under way and which has expanded in contemporary art ever since.

Establishing possible meetings
According to Bourriaud: “Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world”. He downplays the idea of the artwork as an individual and abstract focal point, in favour of experimentation with the work’s relationships in a given social field. He also argues that socially engaged art should involve the establishing of possible meetings. The meetings must occur voluntarily. They must be reciprocal, ideally as power free, transparent spaces of edification and platforms for reflection and engagement in whatever the involved parties agree is important.

Artists such as Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen and Lene Noer work in a contemporary orientated and societal-engaged context. They are involved in the world around them and devote considerable time to their research. Connecting the aesthetic with the social is self-evident for them. It is also perfectly natural for them to delve into complex structural and social situations and invite local citizens in to exploratory groups, as they have done in connection with GRASSLANDS. In this way, a reciprocal awareness and joint co-ownership is established that creates a sounding board for a nuanced and skilled art project that speaks to the intellect, emotions and senses.

Like Bourriaud, they see the aesthetic as the product of a creative process that arises from encounters, which draw equally on intellectual, physical and material capital. At the same time, the creative process contributes to the social and cultural edification of both the individual and the group, as well as to the wider debates in society, in general. A project such as GRASSLANDS thus supports both a consolidation of the local village community and citizens self-awareness , while at the same time forming a nuanced voice in the ongoing debate on the centre contra the periphery.

In Relational Aestetics, Nicolas Bourriaud tries to describe how contemporary art can relaunch the historical avant-garde’s ideas, liberated from dogmatism. He formulates the concept of “micro-revolutions “ in an effort to revitalise art with a supple revolutionary and utopian potential. He attempts to revive contemporary arts’ critical potential, guided by an ideal of everyone’s voice being heard. As might be expected, this perspective has become less idealistic and more down to earth, over time. He recognises and stresses the power of small movements, for their ability to develop and accumulate meaning like ripples spreading in water. Nicolas Bourriaud’s emphasis on these small micro-revolutions corresponds with contemporary art practices currently unfolding within the framework of a more gentle, humanist thinking.

A new paradigm
The ideal of “giving everyone a chance” to be heard, plays in my view an important role in the artistic sensitivity and responsiveness, that today can be seen in many of the feminist, socially engaged forms of practice in contemporary art. A characteristic attribute is that the involved artists listen to others than themselves, in direct contrast to the classic avant-garde and more masculine artist types.

We see here a new aesthetic paradigm, which more than ever before, takes its point of departure in feminine virtues such as sensibility and social engagement. For example, engaging with a group of people and collectively examining a topic and creating a work. It is a paradigm that implies that the artist renounces part of their autonomy and control of the work’ creation, process and form, in favour of a shared ownership. The strength of the shared ownership lies in the multiplicity and nuance, with all the hassle that this may involve, and with all the inconsistent and ambivalent relationships that can be revealed along the way.

Art paves the way for humour and community
GRASSLANDS is a living example of this “hassle” and how the encounters with four different villages resulted in four widely differing narratives. As each project unfolded, each village’s narrative about itself was vocally negotiated and contested by the active residents groups and the artists. GRASSLANDS is also the story of how the individual village community manifests a common identity with a distinct temperament, and with attendant conflict zones that must be ventilated and massaged by the artists and the residents, en route.

At the same time, I have been impressed by how the focus on the concept of the “Fursund region” has helped dispel former grudges and differences between the villages in the region. The residents are themselves very aware of this. Art has “given us something to laugh about, to meet around and to surprise us”. Today, where many of the villages’ traditional activities have moved elsewhere, the entire area congregates around cultural and social activities. There is no doubt that an area and a village community can benefit from an artistic intervention. Nor is there any doubt that a focus on cultivating an open, appreciative and inclusive local culture can make both the rural and the urban, attractive, active and vibrant.

Fighting for dignity and influence
In the interviews I conducted with them, the resident groups expressed unhappiness with the derogatory stereotypes, in particular those formulated by the capital’s media about people and their lives in Denmark’s rural periphery. They feel stigmatised. They do not want to be dictated to from on high. They want to be perceived and regarded as equal members of society. In line with this, they describe their reservations about a group of artists, arriving with their “abstract ideas” and their lack of ability, at times, to meet the more practically orientated local residents on a level playing field. Particularly in the second phase, where GRASLANDS moved on from the initiating white plinth in the middle of Selde, to the other nearby village communities, the artists faced resistance in the new host villages, simply because of “all the strange art over there in Selde”.

The residents of the four villages Junget, Selde, Thorum and Åsted also express that they became involved in the GRASSLANDS collaboration in order to gain influence and through this actively contribute to the project and thus their own success. They also attach great importance to understanding their collaboration with GRASSLANDS as part of an already ongoing positive development, which they themselves had been instrumental in, before the arrival of Lene Noer and Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen.

Moderating one’s artist-ego for the benefit of the whole
Project managers Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen and Lene Noer describe how they experienced the different village communities as places, each with their own “personality”. They also describe how they, during the process, had to learn to cooperate with these “personalities” each with their very distinct set of “characteristics”.

Lene Noer has throughout the entire project served as a sort of “midwife for everything”, taking care of the many meetings and debates, that were necessary in the rapprochement process. A little further on in the process, Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen would find her place as a practising artist, in the context of hosting the many workshops. A role, that in phase two, in accordance with Bourriaud, she had to moderate in the efforts to meet the residents’ needs and to understand their interests and wishes. This conflict of interest came to a head in Junget, leaving all on edge until the parties finally reconciled and agreed on a way forward.

The distinct abilities of the artists are appreciated.
What one unequivocally must admire the two project leaders for is their ability to meet the residents, enter a dialogue with them and to learn from this, along the way, while maintaining their vision and willingness to see the project through, despite opposition, misunderstandings and myths, as well as a multitude of practical and economic challenges along the way. The residents also specifically commended this passion and drive, pointing out that they would never have given so decisive a mandate to one of their own, and therefore would never have been able to get so far, if Lene Noer and Birgitte Ejdrup Kristensen had not appeared and taken on the role of midwives.

There is no singular truth about the results of GRASSLAND
I have personally been very absorbed in how the different residents groups have formulated the stories that have meant most to them. This kind of post-rationalisation and editing of our narratives is quite common. It is a distinguishing characteristic of us as human beings that we create meaning in life by establishing and editing our narratives about ourselves. The trick is to make room for these idiosyncrasies, ambivalences and contradictory insights. No one should have a singular “truth” about the results and successes in such a complex project as GRASSLANDS.

Empathic art and culture
The revolutionary movements of earlier times were demonstrative, authoritarian and violent. The new micro-revolutionary ripples on the water-mirror of art are the exact opposite: they are anti-authoritarian, compromise seeking, inclusive and empathic. In this light art becomes less spectacular, demonstrative and masculine, and more processual, inclusive, investigative, and feminine. Precisely on this basis, art has a micro-revolution potential when it contributes to a shift in consciousness for both the artists and those individuals that it wants to establish a sociable and exploratory dialogue with.