Why is Everybody Being So Nice

Pablo Helguera (2017) commissioned by De Appel Curatorial Programme 2016-17 


.Why is Everybody Being So Nice.

[De Appel Art Center - Amsterdam, 2017]

Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? is curated by Mira Asriningtyas, Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti, Mateo Chacon-Pino, Kati Ilves, Shona Mei Findlay, Fadwa Naamna

Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? is a four-day long programme of panel discussions, workshops, screenings and performances that will investigate different case studies about the ethical and behavioural codes of conduct in the art world – where, in the words of Martha Rosler, “Niceness” “speaks to a demand, in neoliberal terms, for the wholesale invention, performance, and perpetual grooming of a transactional self”. 

Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? aims to provoke reflection and a critical investigation into the grey areas between ethics and etiquette that are expected of cultural producers, or anyone working within the sector of knowledge-based, post-industrial economies. Cultural producers are subject to a 24/7 workday – constantly shifting between underpaid professional labour and social self-promotion at V.I.P. previews, and are required to adhere to an unspoken set of moral rules and behavioural standards. In an act of instrumentalisation of “political correctness”, the product of the cultural worker is expected to tick all the boxes that satisfy the politics of representation, comply with appropriate gender and racial quotas of an exhibition, and to readily accept an unpaid job under the premise of being exposed to new realms of opportunity in the reputation economy of the art world. 

Three case studies of recent occurrences in the contemporary art world will serve as a speculative device, in order to provide horizons to think through and navigate the broader issues of precarious labour within the knowledge economy. The case studies draw on research trips to Athens, Bucharest, Cluj and Budapest that the De Appel Curatorial Programme embarked on at the end of 2016. These encounters revealed the tension between customary practices and anomalies of behavioural protocols imposed by biennales and recurring international exhibitions of differing kinds and scale. The immersion within these unfamiliar and stimulating conditions for a short and intense period of travel provoked inevitable self-reflection and negotiation of our own ethical positions within the politics of the contemporary art world. These shared experiences catalysed our impulse to take the opportunity of the final project as a means to extend, deepen and open up our discussions to a wider group of art professionals. The daily programmes of Why Is Everybody Being So Nice? aim to consider possible modes of resistance and counter strategies within the precarity of ethical and behavioural codes in the art world. What kind of personal agencies, alliances and temporary agreements can we set forth to reclaim our autonomy amongst the heavyweight powers of the art world? 

The programme will end in a collective sleepover, The Night of Exhaustion and Exuberance, that will also host Open Avond(s): a series of events initiated by E.I.Panza. Within this collaboration, the practice of collective sleeping will be investigated as a gesture of resistance and appropriation of space and time. 

*The title of the programme is inspired by Martha Rosler’s recent essay Why Are People Being So Nice?, published in e-flux journal #77 – November 2016

Contributors: Apparatus 22 (RO), Johannes Büttner (DE), Benedikte Bjerre (DK), Charlotte Van Buylaere (BE), Binna Choi (KR/NL), Laurie Cluitmans (NL), Larisa David (RO), Hendrik Folkerts (NL), Erin Gleeson (US), Yolande van der Heide (NL), Pablo Helguera (MEX), Gergő Horváth (RO), Xenia Kalpaktsoglou (GR), Brian Kuan Wood (US), Martina Mächler (CH), Vera Mey (NZ), Nat Muller (NL), Ambra Pittoni and Paul-Flavien Enriquez-Sarano (IT/FR), Haco de Ridder (NL), Anastasia Shin (UK), Tijana Stepanovic (HU), Jan Verwoert (DE), Young Girl Reading Group, Dorota Gawęda (PO) & Eglė Kulbokaitė (LT), Laura Wiedijk (NL).

Each day will begin with an introduction by De Appel Curatorial Programme. The panels are centred around an open question, which the panellists have been invited to respond to through any format they choose.

Topic 1: The Art Blacklist
Protocols of inclusion and exclusion operate at many different levels in the art world and, more broadly, in the knowledge economy. The politics that regulate access to the cultural system, its centres of knowledge production and spaces of value and wealth distribution are mostly unwritten: they are active in the realm where reputation is a coveted currency and the social pressure to be “nice” becomes a strategy for survival. On this slippery slope, the specific occurrence of “blacklisting”, based upon institutional policies, governmental undertaking or merely personal gossip-based recommendations, is a case study worthy of discussion. Every time a blacklist is leaked, it opens up a hole in the fence that divides what can be said from what cannot, revealing the fine line between personal opinion and formalised abuse of power. Which strategies can be developed to fend for autonomy when working in a social realm in which the practice of censorship, self-censorship and the praise of outspokenness co-exist? In addition, which modes of self-expression and ethically-approved critique can be employed as navigational tools for cultural professionals working within new and unfamiliar context?

Case Study 1: The Bucharest Biennale Blacklist (2014)
The case study of the Bucharest Biennale (BB6) blacklist, leaked three years ago, will be a point of departure for the panel: the appointed curator, Nicolaus Schafhausen, received an email from the organisation with a list of artists, spaces, curators and academics that he was advised not to collaborate with for the biennale. What differences and similarities can we draw from a particularly circumscribed event in the art world like the BB6 case and other wider and recent government-related occurrences of blacklisting? Other examples to be touched upon could be the case of South Korean Cultural Minister’s arrest over a blacklist of nearly 10,000 cultural practitioners – who were disadvantaged of cultural subsidies for voicing criticism of impeached President Park Geun-Hye, or the instances of artists who were recently denied entry to the United Arab Emirates

Topic 2: The Parachuting Phenomenon
The mobility of artists, curators, and institutions based on specific projects and residencies is commonplace practice in the art world. As the ease of worldwide mobility increases, curatorial and artistic practice have become synonymous with itinerancy, such as travelling for research purposes and generating pop-up projects in unfamiliar territories. The arrival of the outsider in a new context can stimulate unexpected outcomes, challenging the status quo of pre-existing eco-systems of the local art scene and promoting positive exchange of new knowledge and practices. On the other hand, this process is often haunted by the spectre of surface level engagement, coupled with the oversight of the detritus and long-term repercussions the project may leave in its place. Setting up an art exhibition through an international brand-name, for instance, in unfamiliar but profitable contexts, can be seen as symptomatic of the protocols of global neoliberalism, where experience economy meets knowledge exchange and where globalised values have the power to dictate (local) artistic practice. But how do we define the boundaries and the spectrum between an ethically aware practice and a “parachuting” project? What kind of ethical codes and behavioural standards can we agree on to regulate the relationships between the “host” nation and the short lived “pop-up” exhibition, or between the artists-in-residence and the local communities they are asked to engage with?

Case Study 2: dokumenta14 (2017)
documenta 14, Learning from Athens (2017) is held between Kassel, Germany and Athens. documenta was welcomed by an affirmative stencil in the streets of Athens, stating “Dear documenta: I refuse to exoticize myself to increase your cultural capital”. A week before the opening of documenta 14, the Athens Biennial announced its public programme and exhibition, titled “Waiting for the Barbarians”. Along with various case studies, the example of documenta will be a point of departure for discussions around the politics of representation and issues that stem from the remnants that the ultra-mobile, jet set curator leaves behind. The panel will provoke dialogue into the ethics of navigating new territories and ways to counteract the side effects of this unavoidable symptom in the artworld 

Topic 3: How To Politely Say No To Unpaid Cognitive Labour In The Knowledge Economy
We all agree that unpaid work sucks. Long before the moment in which “the factory turned into office, (and office turned into home)”, the reproduction of work has been accompanied by the perpetuation of rampant injustice and exploitation – and this is especially prevalent today, in the era of self-employment and immaterial labour in the cultural sector as in many others. Yet, the forms of exploitation (self-)imposed on workers under the pretence of the contemporary economy of presence, the sphere of the 24/7 workday, have altered the classification of labour that we are required to perform, and, accordingly, the form that (the act of/to) strike can take to function within it. In fact, the traditional history of the workers’ struggle of the last century cannot be of much help in the post-Fordist context, when the practice of strike as “not-work” ceased to be effective. What kind of resistance and strategic withdrawal is available in the post-industrial, knowledge-based economy, when the possibility of strike as absence is no longer an option? How can we avoid the trap of counteracting high performance with strategies that become modes of high performance themselves? What is at stake when we refuse to work, and what roles do the notions of pleasure, love and commitment play in our daily acceptance of working? In other words: why do we say yes to the job in the first place? Maybe the more appropriate question to ask ourselves is not how can we politely say no to unpaid labour, but more precisely: How can we politely say no, while secretly performing our radical and exuberant yes? In an attempt to resist the seductions of self-indulgence the day will be composed of workshops, as a propaedeutic and collective exercise in preparation for Exhaustion and Exuberance.

Topic 4: Exhaustion And Exuberance followed by The Night Of Exhaustion And Exuberance
“The contemporary economy of art relies more on presence than on traditional ideas of labour power tied to the production of objects”: it hinges on the incessant pressure to perform, where quantifiable measures of productivity have been replaced by presence as the basic logic of attention economy. We are required to be omnipresent, ever ready and in a constant state of “busyness” – permanent availability without any promise of compensation. Presence legitimises cultural institutions’ access to scarce funding, meeting KPIs, while cultural workers boost someone else’s profit under the over-professionalised pretense and false ideology of high performance. Following the propaedeutic exercises of How To Politely Say No To Unpaid Labour in the Knowledge Economy, the panel Exhaustion and Exuberance will meditate upon ways of working together to develop survival tactics in the contemporary economy of presence. The panel will try to find new terms and paradigms, shifting the conversation from the logic of work and strike into the field of love and care. The panel takes its title from Exhaustion and Exuberance, an essay by Jan Verwoert published in 2008 where he suggests the idea of care as a way to subvert the pressure of a high-performance society – to “shatter the illusion of limitless potency” of the individual by acknowledging the debt of inspiration that we owe to other artists, friends, lovers, and histories. Almost 10 years after the text was first published, the panel invites the witnesses and initiators of new experiences in the realm of exhaustion and exuberance to come to terms with the issues raised in 2008, proposing an occasion to think together through the still pertinent and burning issues it proposes: When do we commit to perform of our own free will? How can we tell the difference and embrace latency? If, living under the pressure to perform, we begin to see that a state of exhaustion is a horizon of collective experience, could we then understand this experience as the point of departure for the formation of a particular form of solidarity?

Case Study 4: OFF Biennale, Budapest (2015)
In 2015, the OFF-Biennale Budapest was announced as “a new platform to explore the ways in which art can contribute to the development of civil society”. The biennale was established by a group of professionals in the city and beyond, and founded on collaborations between locals and professional artists, curators, cultural NGOs, galleries, cooperatives and art venues. The grassroots initiative, free of state funding, mostly relied on pro-bono contributions, private endowments and international funds, and was therefore unencumbered by governmental or corporate constraints. In the context of the increasing impingement of Hungary’s right-wing government on the operation of cultural institutions, the OFF-Biennale experimented with a means to remain autonomous, to deflect the debilitating power and reliance on the state, remaining independent from corporate agendas. The first OFF-Biennale was a prime example of the urgency for new modes of resistance through art production. It aimed to implement a structural model that is based on the commonality of interest, trust, and solidarity. Today, a few months prior to the second edition of the biennale, the project resurfaces the question of what kinds of sustainable methods can we employ to shatter solidified routines, and evade authoritarian powers’ monopolistic take on culture. Is it possible to escape the feedback loop of the contemporary art world’s neoliberal reliance on the desirability of presence? At what cost are we willing to engage ourselves and our work to achieve autonomy?