To V. who, when asked what she does in life, answers: "Nothing"
ADEL KIM: DOING NOTHING AND BEING NOBODY: A FEW THOUGHTS ON IDLENESS, INVISIBILITY, RESIDENCIES, AND SUSTAINABILITY
It is summer in Helsinki and the bays are bathing in hot sunshine, inviting you to explore their beaches. I bring books, a laptop and a calendar full of things to-do and sit down under the pine trees. My thoughts will most likely not be here, but will rush on to the next part of the day when I am already behind schedule. Guided by common sense, a furtive thought crosses my mind: why do anything? No one cares, it is July and everyone is on holiday anyway. I hate thinking about it, but avoiding reality, this here-and-now moment, by accomplishing things and indulging into effective action has accompanied me throughout my career.
The right to idleness is a prerogative of childhood and summer holidays, when one can spend the whole day outside, only coming in for a lunch break. Leisure time did not need to be earned, and inaction along with laziness did not subsequently imply retribution.
Adults do not really allow themselves to be idle. Idleness has been reformatted into procrastination, its charm lost, it is now accompanied by guilt. It is as if one cannot simply do nothing – it will affect your CV, your chances of getting a grant or a job, and no one will know about you. This not only translates into a lack of professional demand, but also into the inability to afford housing, lunch, and other basic needs. However, at least art workers have the privilege to ponder this question.
This summer, as usual, artists are engaged in the production of objects and meanings; curators – in institutional criticism, biennial and quinquennial exhibition openings. In the background, the war rumbles. Although some actively help the victims and others share information and offer empathy, in other words, everyone does what they know best and how they see fit, the majority still tries to make it for these key events in the world of art. In the art world, everything seems to remain the same. Yes, for some, the war changed everything, but the way of life within the professional world remained largely unaltered, including the pace of art and event production.
For me, last spring all my undertakings, ideas and projects lost their meaning. And, as an actor in the field of art, so did I. Of course, I can do whatever I want, but I can end up in jail, or my actions can directly affect my friends and family. None of this, however, will make the war stop.
Having read way too many texts on existential psychology in my compulsive overconsumption of information, I try to think that meaning is found in what exists now, and in response to it. Imaginary states of "what if '' do not help, they are fictitious and no one can say with certainty if they could ever become real. What is valuable is the here and now; it allows you to change, accept, recognise, and give life to new things. Ask yourself what to do, right here and right now. And I feel the answer "nothing" should have the right to exist.
This may sound defeatist. But my point is not to give up and quit, but rather to make pausing legitimate: a pause after devaluation, a pause for mourning, depression, silence, and fatigue – whatever the reasons are.
Why bring books to the beach when you are already fed up with information, thoughts, and words; they are now helpless.
I feel uneasy every time I need to introduce myself, to fit into the framework of established roles and professions. Unfortunately, (or luckily?) I have nothing to affiliate myself with. I would position myself as an agent of care, but I do not have the energy to even take care of myself. It is as if I am not a curator anymore because nowadays I hardly ever curate. I am a researcher without methodology. I have spent most of my life organising institutional processes, but I never want to be a manager again. My work is about residencies, but I am not working in one. I love writing, but when I do, the production of texts is accompanied by pulling my hair out.
Why do I have to explain what I am? I do not want to.
In fact, the question "What do you do?" means "Who are you?", and it requires an interlocutor to share their self-identification. Knowing this, makes it possible to attach a certain set of characteristics to the person which makes interaction easier. But if you do nothing, then you are nobody. I like how in small talk, this turn leads to an uncomfortable pause. Anonymity and lack of background allow you to start over.
My intuition tells me to push this auto nihilism to the limit. I cannot and do not want to be someone, I see no point in this. Can one just be nobody? Erase their bio, delete their CV, reset their professional identity, quietly and modestly blend in with the world around them. A fantasy of invisibility, being nobody without vanity or self-admiration and worrying about one's own image, gives the promise of emancipation.
I am interested in life as it is. It is important for me to live, feel, and to think about things including art and the applicability of my thoughts and feelings related to it. Art and ideas as such are mediators, tools, ways that enable knowledge and feeling.
If 20th century art has sought to infiltrate life and everyone could become an artist, it seems like a reverse process is taking place now. "Ordinary life", including reproductive labour and its variations, be it cleaning, cooking and eating, growing plants or taking care of animals, caring for others, as well as ways of spending free time – travelling, walking, talking at the dinner table, and forming communities, all apply to the category of art, under certain conditions. The artistic precariat is weary and longs for a place in daily life.
Talking about life itself, I also think about residencies. Their appeal is based on the fact that one can do more than just work there; it is also possible to have clean, distilled days free of everyday duties.
I guess, my own affinity for residences partly stems from my love of "non-places", the state of anonymity associated with them, and being on the move. (Moreover, last but not least is my aspiration for temporary care in a safe, i.e. regulated mode, but more on that next time). I also need what I would call "non-time" – absence of any plans for a sufficiently long period that allows me to forget about limits. Time that is not regulated by anything other than food and sleep; in time that is hovering, absent – something begins to sprout. In idleness, involuntary thoughts begin to come to mind, non-production allows you to observe, and to see better.
Residences are normally defined as places that offer time and space for professional work. What if we endow them with characteristics of non-place, and perhaps even non-time? Could residencies create conditions for non-doing? (by all means, this is not a new concept – including examples by Olga Zhitlina and Emily Newman's Tokamak, Konsthalle Roveredo, Camp as One and many others). However, this is still a radical proposal: such a residency would not leave traces, texts or catalogues of exhibitions; would not receive publicity, and would not find a sponsor. It is generally an unlikely scenario. Most of the Russian residencies encourage artists to work with the local community (whatever that means), research, hold exhibitions, workshops, and lectures. Institutional aspirations focus on the results, not the process. Needless to say, an absence of an organised process seems impossible. Upon applying, artists tell what they are going to do and how they are going to present the results. Consequently, the residency time passes in a blur of haste and deadlines.
In a situation of crisis (like today), frustration and change of orientation require no-time and no-place for thinking, zooming out, defocusing, staring at a wall or the horizon for a long time – without any need for self-presentation.
These considerations apply to residencies in general. But what about those that focus on sustainability?
According to my observations, four strategies are applied when working with artists regarding environmental problems and climate crisis (here, I do not refer to the operational activities of an institution). These strategies are not mutually exclusive, but for the most part work on their own:
- artists are encouraged to create works on topics related to environment, climate crisis, etc. – resident as an illustrator, educator, populariser;
- artists are invited to work in collaboration with experts from different fields: science, technology, climate change, etc. to create alternative ways and tools to work with the information they receive (visualisation, prototyping, strategising, etc.) – resident as a mediator between different disciplines;
- artists are encouraged to lead a more sustainable lifestyle in the residency and/or travel using the most carbon-neutral options – resident as a responsible consumer;
- finally, the residency does not specifically plan any ecology-related activities, but suggests that the freedom of artistic expression alone contributes to the development of new knowledge, and that it is possible to develop "alternative options for a (sustainable) future" by benefiting from the intellectual and creative work of artists – resident as a producer of knowledge.
At the same time, in the field of environmental knowledge, there is a well-known set of actions to reduce human impact. These actions mainly cover the principles of consumption and waste management:
It seems that these actions are exclusively applicable on a household level (type three of the strategies described above). But what if they were extrapolated to artistic production? In the 5R hierarchy, why not choose the first option more often? Non-work is legitimised in discussions about the laborious nature of art, but why don't we talk about "refusal" or "reduction" with regards to sustainability, ecological crisis, and coexistence with non-humans?
Those who participate in artistic processes do not allow themselves to stop, even though it is exactly this pause, the slowing down, and refusal that could benefit the planet – a fact that many noticed during the pandemic, and joked about on many occasions. The proposal to slow down concerns both material and non-material production. Why not choose the quality mode instead of quantity mode? Why is the extraction of natural resources highlighted in artistic practice at the expense of extracted intellectual resources? Why should art's contribution to a sustainable future be worth the effort, sacrifice, and hours of excessive production? Why, as actors in the field of art, are we happy to multiply cognitive labour and exploit ourselves for an idea?
I suggest introducing non-doing as another strategy for ecologically oriented residencies. Here, it is not only about avoiding excessive production, but also about maintaining the personal, psychological stability of the residents. Since the duration of a residency is finite, there is space for careful, temporary non-production, rest and recovery, along with the opportunity to do nothing and to just be. Less projects about degrowth, and more degrowth of projects.