THE PROBLEM REMAINS THE SAME WITHOUT REDISTRIBUTION BEYOND HOSPITALITY

POSTED 05.04.2023

Text: Jussi Koitela

Photo: Kira Björklund

This text was first published in the blog of Frame Contemporary Art Finland. It was written after three years of working relations and personal discussions connected to the Rehearsing Hospitalities programme. 

Reside/Sustain shares it with the permission of the author.

Frame Contemporary Art Finland is an advocate for Finnish contemporary art. Frame supports international initiatives, facilitates professional partnerships, and encourages critical development of the field.

Rehearsing Hospitalities is Frame Contemporary Art Finland’s public programme for 2019-2023.

Jussi Koitela is currently working as the Head of Programme at Frame Contemporary Art Finland, curating Rehearsing Hospitalities public programme. With Yvonne Billimore they are currently also curating Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2024. Recently, his curatorial work has intertwined art, embodied research methods, urban spatial contexts, collaboration, hospitality practices and materiality in various forms of exhibition and ways of producing knowledge.

Hospitality in State Culture Capitalism

The Rehearsing Hospitalities programme is tied to Frame Contemporary Art Finland’s key activities, such as building networks and creating direct connections between different actors in the art scene in Finland and internationally. As an organisation, Frame is constantly inviting and hosting individuals, other organisations, and artistic communities to participate and engage with its public programming and networking activities. 

All networking activities contain different daily practicalities and acts of hospitality. We book trips, organise social encounters, create schedules and host guests. These actions can be considered similar to those performed in different tourist industries which yield a profit for private companies. Governments aim to create jobs and generate tax incomes for the state budget by supporting such companies and tourist enterprises.

Within the contemporary art field and the cultural organisations supported by public funding, this state capitalism can, for example, be motivated by interest to help artists and organisations generate incomes and working opportunities outside Finland. These can later be “cashed in” for taxable income—generating revenue for the state. From this perspective, acts of hospitality within Frame’s activities can be seen as economic speculation that aims to “invest” in “winning” artists and curators and the various forms of their labour and creativity. It’s a process that produces working opportunities and taxable income in the name of cultural exchange and erudition.  

In this context, another form of value that hospitality produces is the image of a culturally progressive and developed geographical, cultural, and national context. The nation-state creates a “civilised” image of itself and its inhabitants by presenting current contemporary art and culture. This endows the state with symbolic capital that is wielded in geopolitical debates and international power plays. In the end, this form of capital can also be turned into economic wealth by luring in investments and highly educated professionals.       

Beyond Economic Frameworks of Hospitality

 

Within the Rehearsing Hospitalities programme, the aim has been to look beyond the economics and soft power driven framework of contemporary art and its structures. We have been asking, what other possibilities and alternatives are there for different forms and practices of curatorial hospitality? Can it be used as collective self-reflection and a critical approach instead of economic and symbolic profit-making? Moreover, is there a way to turn this discursive reflection into collaborative institutional and curatorial work that can generate unexpected forms of shared values and meaning between institutions, curators, and society?  

In the programme, we have raised many intersecting questions about the power structures of knowledge within contemporary art, different ways of accessing cultural and public space, and safety and security within the production and presentation of art. For example, the questions have been: What kind of power structures of knowledge and knowing are contemporary art and other artistic institutions dependent on? How might dominant and institutionalised knowledges and forms of access be challenged and informed by myriad perspectives? For whom is it actually safe to be in these spaces of presenting, producing, and experiencing art? How, and by whom, is this safety being defined?

After three years of programming, mostly during the COVID-pandemic, it’s meaningful to ask if there have been any answers, or partial solutions, found by “re-turning” to these questions? With last year’s work in mind, a critical question is: How is it possible to practice hospitality outside the logic of capital production, economic or symbolic, within curatorial and institutional work?

Is it possible for an institution to welcome and support individuals, communities, bodies, and their labour without asking if hospitality is “worth” “investment”? Or, more precisely, is this “worth” derived from the values that the institutions are setting for themselves? These questions have become more urgent in the Finnish political landscape, where cultural funding seems to slip more and more into market-driven and spectacle-aimed support strategies.  

“Inclusion” and Structures of Dominant Institutions 

In the programme, hospitality has been continuously connected to Finland as a geographical and national context. However, the last few decades have seen significant changes and shifts in the cultural sphere. The increase in the number of people who have migrated to Finland from abroad, second-generation immigrants, and the internationalisation of artistic and cultural education in Finland have transformed the art field — bringing further heterogeneity, via their backgrounds and experiences, to the public realm. Future migration will increase even more due to the accelerating climate catastrophe and global injustices. This makes the majority of the population (predominantly white, cis, heteronormative groups of people) and powerful institutions look at society and culture in new ways. They are forced to acknowledge the differences, specific situated experiences and histories that have been (and continue to be) marginalised, such as Sámi and Roma cultures and disabled people in Finland. 

Consequently, hospitality in the context of the art institution is ostensibly a practice that asks how to welcome and include marginalised experiences and artistic practices into institutional frameworks whose histories are defined by exclusion, competition, and safeguarding the “heritage”, “value”, and “quality” of contemporary art and culture. Art museums exert control over who can be an artist and what can be art. They aim to protect the value of the included and “unique” artworks. Funding and support organisations engage in the same tasks of exclusionary validation without the responsibility to preserve the value of actual concrete artworks; nevertheless, their mission is to reproduce “valuable” and “contemporary” artistic practices and labouring bodies.

Looking at all this, and thinking of hospitality as an act of “inclusion” and a “representation” of different artistic practices, backgrounds, and experiences in the institutions’ collections, programmes, and communications, it’s obvious that the prevailing norms of hospitality can only produce assimilative inclusion that protects the dominant institutions themselves from losing power and popularity within changing demographics. Previously marginalised individuals and artworks are included in institutions, but marginalised communities stay marginalised, the poor stay poor, the powerful stay powerful, and the host – guest power dynamic remains unchanged. When change is mainly focused on representation of individual subjects and artworks instead of institutional structures, collectives, and communities, the system and tools of oppression prevail and, in the end, the oppressed become oppressors. 

During the Rehearsing Hospitalities programme, we have been testing and rehearsing the possibilities to share resources and curatorial power within an institutional practice by collaborating with initiatives, groups, and individuals with different resources and positions within the artistic field. Some are more marginalised; some are more privileged; some are more permanently funded institutions; some are organisations and initiatives constantly looking for new funding, and some are precarious artist groups and individuals without any funding. 

It has become quite apparent that building meaningful collective accountability and co-agency is hard. Institutions like Frame are bound to bureaucratic, managerial, legal, and economic frameworks that serve and reproduce structures that centralise wealth and power. There are multiple direct and more complicated examples of this, where the artistic and institutional environment is rooted in political, managerial, and funding structures. As a result, it’s difficult to collaborate between individuals, organisations, and initiatives that have varying levels of resources and are trapped in competition with one another.

Reinforcing quantitative ways of defining aims and measuring impact, along with high-speed production schedules, yearly reporting, and phases of financial sourcing create an organisational and artistic culture marked by a systematic scarcity of resources and constant competition. Additionally, legal accounting structures make collective accountability and sharing of power near impossible. Any form of collectivity or community building comes as a supplement to the reality that institutions, and specifically their permanent employees, are in control of the budget, visibility, and value that the institution produces. These structures fortify the establishment and define the framework in which the value of hospitality is understood and distributed. 

There are Alternatives 

With the normative approach towards “inclusion”, the problem always remains the same. The art field and society at large need different types of institutional and organisational structures and models. Only by fostering cultural ecologies that sufficiently support different forms of organising  with distinctive working models – which challenge normalised legal frameworks and economic reasoning – can we chip away at the systemic violence and logic that invents disposable practices and populations. There is a possibility to let communities and groups decide what kinds of validation, sharing and management structures serve them best and help them navigate their emotional, social, and economic values.

Gathering for Rehearsing Hospitalities, Autumn 2021. Image: Kira Björklund

But, this rarely happens, and the reason for that is pretty clear. After many conversations with people who control the flow of capital in the art scene, a default assumption has been revealed – that the art scene does not have groups, institutions, or organisations whose capacity can be trusted to manage or control a more significant amount of wealth, capital, or resources. Only a few institutions like The University of the Arts Helsinki or Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art are deemed by the state and private entities to “know” how to use significant amounts of funding and capital in “productive” ways, while the others are seen as either too small or operating under messy and chaotic collectivity. A patronising stance, this is comparable to the affluent classes deeming poor workers unfit to govern resources because they want to distribute them more equally and in decentralised ways. 

Change based on equity forces organisations, social classes, and individuals to redistribute or even lose their power, which is why it is resisted and rarely happens. Instead, in order to safeguard their power and position, structures set by the ruling classes tend to keep marginalised individuals, communities, and organisations stagnated. The marginalised can only be supported and “included” within capitalist economic and legal frameworks just enough to produce labour, cultural commodities, symbolic power for the state, and private revenue—but not too much to cause larger radical change. 

But there are alternatives, although the current political status quo doesn’t want to give this impression. The art scene in Finland bears multiple initiatives experimenting with institutional forms, aims, and different working models. To name just a few: Catalysti, Culture for All, Feminist Culture House, Globe Art Point, Hirvitalo, Kettuki, m-cult, Moratorium Office, Museum of Impossible Forms, Porin kulttuurisäätö, Pixelache, QUERQ, Station of Commons, #StopHatredNow, Suohpanterror and Third Space. The list could go on and only looks at a slice of currently active initiatives from the narrow field of contemporary art. However, many of these ambitious projects are incredibly underfunded and precarious, thus struggling to exist. Looking more widely at cultural initiatives, political organising, and NGOs widens the approaches to alternatives for governing and resource managing formats and brings in long histories of co-ops, alternative economies, and feminist organising.  

Towards Decentralisation, Redistribution, and Commoning

  

The most crucial question is “what needs to be done”? Surely, something can be achieved if I and others in positions like mine – in major institutions or cultural organisations – put in the work and make significant changes towards collective ways of working with power and resource management. There needs to be an enduring willingness to go through a painful change and challenge the economic and legal working cultures of ruling elites. This means that major art institutions and powerful funding bodies like Arts Promotion Centre, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, and the Kone Foundation need to look critically at themselves as producers and maintainers of economic and resource management frameworks that keep the capital and power within the hands of few.     

Plural society needs plural institutions with different forms of organising and managing power and wealth. Such a society needs to simultaneously decentralise major institutions like Frame, Kiasma, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, Kone Foundation, or other well-funded establishments, as well as strengthen existing and emerging initiatives based on working models that have evolved from plural backgrounds and social classes. Hospitality is only the first step in the long journey towards the painful and emancipating struggle of decentralisation, redistribution, and commoning. 

We need the artistic field and society at large to shift expectations of our planet, and one another—where the scaling down, de-developing and de-growing of institutions is more “natural” than constant “progress” and the reproduction of power and domination. We need an art scene that acknowledges cultural and artistic labour and values the communities and commons that are not credited by the ruling capitalist elite. We need an art scene that makes the flattening of social class more digestible for some and through the redistribution of resources provides emotional and material nourishment for all.