My (THE) problem with community art...and why William Burroughs EAT Superflex any day of the week!!!

Last night our new found friends from Chicago came to visit us in our little house on Farnsworth street in Detroit.
We talked a lot about art,
and again (as it often does here in the midwest) the discussion turned to the virtues (or not) of community art and audience participation. Kevin was talking about an artist colleague of his who did a project where she would install plastic containers at the toilets of friends and collect their left overs to produce manure, which she would then later return in a cup, ready to be used in the nearest flower pot.

We talked about how LONG she would be able to sustain this practice and if that was important or not for the project.
Or if it was maybe enough that the art worked on a more metaphorical, symbolic level.
Apparently this woman was also a great communicator and had managed to get support from powerful people (Patricia Arquette) in high places (Hollywood).
Surely this could be a very useful, green and worthy art project with many possible positive benefits for mankind and the planet as a whole?

And it is usually around this point in the discussions surrounding community art that I fall asleep spiritually and mentally .
And it's not ONLY because I am a mean spirited, jaded cynic, who can't value utilitarianism.
But because it is sOoOOoOoooOOooooo different and alien from my own experience of art and culture.
If I look at my own experience of culture I think about what was important to me, what changed me as a human, and what helped me to develop.

I value and respect Greenpeace, the Red Cross (and the Crescent) or Médecins Sans Frontières
just as much as the next guy. I just don't think it's art, and I don't think that they see it as art either. It would take some truly hardcore relational aesthetics guy or girl to claim that as an art piece.

There were very few utilitarian reasons for me to listen to Sex Pistols or Throbbing Gristle,
or read books by William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski or Jack Kerouac,
or laugh myself silly reading Robert Crumb....au contraire!
There was NOTHING healthy about it.
Which of course was partly the reason why I got into it in the first place.
Does anyone SERIOUSLY believe that people listen to Death Metal or experimental Jazz for any hidden health reasons?

But it DID help me to become a more complex person, it did challenge my beliefs and it did force me to open up to new ways of looking at the world.

And it DID fuck up my mental hard disk and after that I can't process information and ideas in the same way as I did before and I think that's all you can ask of art.

Here in the midwest (as I have written about before) a lot of the little support there is for art, is tied to educational projects.
I have no problem with this, I TOO teach, but I don't call it art!

In the 60's and 70's there were huge debates in Europe and USA.
Usually from a leftist perspective.
Wasn't it time for the artists to FINALLY get off the fence and make themselves useful for the workers and join the revolution?
Every artist and writer joined either the Communist party or the RAF, except Salvador Dali who just wanted to make preeeeeecious GOooOoOOOLD!

"Make yourself useful, go into Bijlmer and help some poor Suriname kids".
Was the mantra (until very recently) from Dutch politicians who felt that maybe they could finally get some economical and social returns from the artist parasites that they had subsidized for much too long.
I am already doing this by the way, but for other more "culturally perverted" (=sound) reasons.

Now the calls come from the cultural right
(or maybe the cultural nihilists would be a more correct description).
Go and entertain Henk and Ingrid in Apeldoorn
(the Suriname kids are of course out of fashion).

I don't mind being useful or utilitarian, but I rather call that teaching, lectures or workshops
to be able to keep my art free, dirty and perverted.

And if you haven't paid attention, most poor, uneducated people ALSO prefers their culture dirty and nasty.
See Baile Funk in Brazil and Gangster Rap in the States, aso...
And they find it condescending when we honkies come up with another well meaning
Do Good-er project in the Bijlmer, Rio or Detroit.

So let's keep REAL culture SICK n NASTY and leave the Do Good-erism to Greenpeace.
And if you absolutely can't restrain yourself and just HAVE TO DO SOME GOOD...
just call it a workshop and you're off the hook....

Peace Out!!!!

Jonas Ohlsson reporting form Detroit thanks to Expodium

Clarifications for Non Dutch/European people...and idiots!
Superflex=Danish art collective who builds water wells in Arica.
William Burroughs=American, anti drug and homo writer.
RAF= Rote Armee Fraktion (German leftist terrorist group from the 70's)
Suriname= Dutch ex. slave colony country, north of Brazil, now independant and free.
Henk & Ingrid=an imaginable ideal couple of "normal Dutch people" in Holland, used by right wing manipulator Gert Wilders in his propaganda against multiculturalism.
Apeldoorn=small town in Holland, representing "white trash country" in this text...
as opposed to...
Bijlmer="The Watts" of Holland, south east suburb ( ex. ? ghetto) of Amsterdam consisting of 100 000 people, 80% black, mostly from Suriname, Aruba, Curacao, Saba (all ex. slave colonies of Holland) and Nigeria and Ghana. Plus some honkies....
Médecins Sans Frontières=Doctors Without Borders.
Who for the last three decennias have fought a global, bloody turf war against NWW=
Nurse With Wound.


  1. Anonymous21.7.11

    Feed Me*

    First, congrats Jonas on yet another inspiring text.

    Second, “a community worker” doesn’t have the same credible ring in the art world as “an artist doing community work”.

    You're obviously right, none of us got into art, or music for that matter, in order to do good in society. Being creative is about having an unscripted dialogue with your soul.

    Like most things, the art world is dominated by supply and demand. We go through our lengthy art educations aspiring to do something great for ourselves, hoping that this spirit will transmit to the souls of others. If you manage to broadcast this transmission successfully, you will have done your good in society. But it’s not why you started.

    An example. Let’s not fool ourselves that the recent rehashing of Modernism by young artists is about dealing with the complicated heritage of Modernism. In most cases it’s about finding a place in a niche market. Art about other art that’s no too old tickles the nipples of the ones in the know, simply because it proves that they are still in the know. Only in rare cases is a true and unbridled love for Modernism’s formal aspects allowed to shine through the translucent patina of self-awareness. But then you’re most likely not one of the chosen few to hang in museums and participate at biennials. If 75% of what’s being shown at your local esteemed MCA deals with concepts of community and relational aesthetics, you bet your ass there will be tons of artist and curators who willingly or unwillingly let this influence seep into their conscious. If there is money (and some recognition) in community art projects there will surely be artists doing them. The artist with the most sensitive antennae will detect the sugar first. Of course not all artists are opportunists but almost all play to the flute of the establishment, whether we like it or not.

    As artists we are trained to be responsive to what happens around us, regardless if the outcome is following a movement or going against it. If we didn’t have community-based art projects, if we didn’t have museum events dedicated to re-interpreting dance moves by Yvonne Rainer, if we only had dirty, degenerate culture attacking us from all fronts, how subversive would that filth be? Would it not be the mainstream? We’d be them! How revolting!

    I say: embrace the Justin Biebers and applaud even more critical acclaim to the Ryan Ganders out there. They make everything else all the more exciting and they are the real reasons why we set sail on this uncertain journey in the first place. Without Superflex for lunch Burroughs would die from starvation.

    Let artists grow cress in urban wastelands, let them de- and re-construct the grid a million times over. It helps weeding out the true believers for your private niche. We are not fighting taste here; we’re fighting for a platform beyond the tiny one soon to be erected for Henk, Ingrid and their likes in Apeldoorn.

    Magnus Monfeldt

    * for reference, see Dutch horror flick The Human Centipede (2009) by Tom Six

  2. WOW, great! I have to thin kabout this one for a while before I get back at you...thanks J.

  3. Hello Magnus!

    I think this is a GREAT reply, so congrats back on a well written piece.

    It is very true that artist are trained to be receptive and that we are all forced (at least to some degree), to follow the trends of the political powers that be AND the aesthetic powers too...I too know how to milk the fonds to be able to do projects in the Bijlmer, until recently that was NOT impossible, since Bijlmer was a problem zone. And I totally understand my American artist colleagues here in Detroit using the very tiny budgets available to them (in educational projects) to do paintings on wooden board with children from the ghetto, which then will be put up to "close up" some of the MANY abandoned buildings here, which otherwise will be turned into crack houses or burned down (by kids looking for kicks). But in ALL this it is also important o keep you OWN practise as free as possible, and this seems to be difficult here, which I understand. Now that Holland wants to adopt this American (lack of a ) system, it is important to reflect a bit on the VERY strong desire from the politicians to influcence art. The old idea of "politicans should not judge art" is now suddenly outdated. So we have a paradigm shift in Holland.

    That said...any of my favorite artist are from USA, Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades, Jim Shaw, Paul McCarthy (well Los Angeles actually), so it IS possible to create greatness in USA, and we can learn a LOT from American energy, optimism and entrepeneurship!

    But when politicans can stear us in certain directions, certain art will be less popular, the more critical type I fear, and the do gooderism in art is in that sense quite dangerous at this very moment.
    Because it fits the glove of power so well...

    On another note...when I read my text I was afterwards thinking, is this not just a call to "let art touch YOU, and leave OTHERS alone"...maybe.

    On another note...I think my whole text is a defense of all the Ryan Ganders out there, Experimental Jazz and noise could be somewhat the same, made for an exclusive audience of lovers, I have NO problem with elitism and that you might actually have to GIVE energy to GET energy from art.

    I just feel the currents of "do gooderism" SOOOO strongly in the US at the moment, or maybe I should say Midwest, and that scares me. and that would kill Ryan Gander too in the long run.

  4. What I think ALSO irritates me with community art and do gooderism is the hidden power that is inherent in it.
    We want morroccoans to go to the Stedelijk and we want to do art projects in the Bijlmer, it is always FROM rich(er) and white TO poor and allochtoon!
    and this development I have seen worldwide from Sydney to Rio to Los Angeles, Detroit and Bijlmer, all places where I have spent massive amounts of time. It is NEVER...let's do a RAP workshop for these poor (but economically rich) souls in Wassenaar. So the the ideal culture is always white and Dutch, Brazilian or WASP and it goes in ONE direction.
    This inherent racism and class war-ism is of course just what the doctor ordered, with Wilders in power and Pim Fortuyn as the greatest Dutch person of all times, but even BEFORE that, it was the case, but then it was not spoken of, so in a sense you can say that Wilders is the more honest
    politician, in that he at least say what he wants, he doesn't believe that the hottentots have anything of value to give to the whites and BEFORE that we pretended that we believed in a multiculti society.

    This I have to say about USA...they are much further in awareness of the hidden? power structures betwen blacks and whites, maybe because they actually witnessed slavery, whereas in Holland it was an abstraction on some island far away (or Suriname). So the level of debate in Holland about the heritage of slavery is low low low low soooooooo low!

    On my work in Bijlmer...I think mentally and spiritually I am much more in tune with many of the angry rappers in Bijlmer than with Ryan Ganders for example, and THIS fact sets my practice in Bijlmer apart.
    Because I really WANT something from them, in exchange for what I have to give, which creates a healthy exchange economy.

    And THIS IS something I have seen here in Bijlmer and in the favelas of Rio, all these white artists with "the white mans guilt and burden" coming to "help out" in the ghetto...BUT(T) another great reason to work in the Bijlmer (hehehehe). If you don't WANT something from "them".
    Be it favela resicents or hip hoppers or what ever...don't DO IT!!!
    because it becomes a Missionary in Africa one way traffic that is inherently disrespectful (even though they ALL come with the best attentions...so did the Christian missionaries...so watch out!

  5. Anonymous21.7.11

    Don't get me wrong Ryan,

    I actually dig some of your work. But since you did so well, the scene opened up for a lot of little Gander's making smart art about art about art about art... ad infinitum. Ganders they want exchange too, they ask of us to remember Mondriaan and to revel in the flex of Merce Cunningham's gravity-defying stage leaps. Aah, it feels sooo good to reminisce in the Modernism that we never experienced in the first place. This clearly dilutes the whole concept of neo-conceptual art. And this is coming from a guy who has produced the odd conceptual piece himself. But I was also taught how to be self-critical.

    Now I'm gonna try to make a rock song without referring to (a) rock and see if it works. To have a dilemma is key.

  6. Anonymous21.7.11


    Maybe this actually explains your dilemma with relational community art? We have little outside of "real" community work to compare it to.

  7. Flora Lysen29.7.11

    dear Jonas,

    these are important observations on 'community art' in relation to the art world. I'm in Chicago now, where I saw one very obvious 'how not to':
    You can't just put up a giant quasi-art&language poster with GODOGOOD, create a facebookpage expect people to care about anything you're doing. YUK.

    Another interesting example I found is the work of Mark Bradford showing at MCA in Chicago right now. Did you see this? He is departing from a modernist legacy to make work that deals with political issues (exclusion, gentrification, etc. etc.). His work is 'informed' (and vice versa) by his work with high school kids and community centers. Of course, contemporary art museums absolutely love him for this...
    What I like about his work is that he doesn't pretend to have 'new' insight into every 'southside' he visits in the States.

    I wonder if it is not just (conservative) politics, but also new structures in the art world (especially temporary residencies) that are contributing to a sort of 'shallow', half-baked community art. Residencies become kind of 'non-places' (see: Marc Auge) that have to generate good-quality contemporary art (recognizable by the global art world) and also resonate a little bit of local 'flavor'. Just like airports.

    In the Netherlands, there has ALWAYS been a tendency to try to 'instrumentalize' art for political goals (from creative economy to social cohesion). I think that's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as there is enough support for other approaches that are harder to understand for non-art-insiders (which, clearly, there isn't at the moment). To do good quality or 'community work with some art involved' is actually a craft and it takes a lot of energy and experience to do it right. There aren't a lot of 'quality' measures in this arena, I guess, at least not nearly as much as in the Gander art world... or did I miss some fierce reviews of these type of works? What about Hirschhorn in the Bijlmer?

    some thoughts from Chicago, regards, Flora

  8. Hello Flora!
    As someone who watched the Hirschhorn project in Bijlmer up close,
    REALLY close, since I live 5 minutes biking away and he was there for three months. I think that it was a true success and it showed many people, also people in Bijlmer who has nothing to do with art, and who even were sometimes outright anti art. That this was something else...partly it had to do with the dedication, the fact that he stayed there DAILY for three months and had assistants go to Barbara Gladstone to install his work, not 100% sure that this is true, but that of course won a lot of people over, the dedication and staying power AND that he actually listened to people locally and invited them to speak and do workshops and what have you. So on a good (not ironic) politically correct scale he was 89 % correct, and this is my only critique against Thomas who I respect enormously. the LOOK is messy, but it is SOOOO planned, and this inherent lack of contradictions bothers me, or worries me. There is also soooooo little of Thomas in his installations, a lot of people LIKE that, so maybe it is just taste, I prefer the messy personal involvement of Tracy Emin or Erik van Lieshout. I basically just don't trust people/artists who spend soooo much energy and time, keeping their personal life outside of their art. It like your there with your cousine...so how are you?
    Lets talk about something else! of ocurse people like that can't be trusted, apart from that he is a PERFECT artist whom I admire enormously!!!!!