Winter 2012 | ArteZine

Residency as Refuge: freeDimensional – An Experiment In Organizational Social Practice


freeDimensional works with the global arts community to identify and redistribute resources, and support meaningful relationships between art spaces and activists. freeDimensional delivers services that connect arts residencies and human rights organizations to demonstrate and share a specific method, both as an example of discrete utility and a model of dissemination that may guide other approaches to bridge social justice and the arts. During its first five years freeDimensional came to the aid of over 200 artists doing courageous work benefitting their communities at the expense of their livelihoods, safety and free expression.

“Artists, as a highly educated workforce, are generally considered the least visible group of migrants and those who are neither unwelcome nor seen as a problem by the host society. They are quantitatively few, though often important as gatekeepers for other migrants, and usually engage in gradual transitions; from intermittent stays at various intervals to permanent settlement.” (Cristina Farinha, ‘Performing Europe: Conditions for Artists in the Scope of Mobility’ 2006.)

Big responsibility, eh? I join Cristina in attempting to contextualize artist mobility – for which residency is the primary vehicle – on the broader stage of human mobility. Before I go there, let me set out some objectives I hold for writing this piece. First, I will give an explanation of freeDimensional both in terms of programmatic content (the practice of Creative Safe Haven) and the institutional form (of horizontal network) that it has taken. Secondly, I’ll explain how Creative Safe Haven works and provide links to some Do-it-Yourself resources. I’ll talk about why the organization plans to expire after ten years, and lastly, I’ll recycle archival content and news items that tell the history of freeDimensional to date.

Overall, I hope that one impact of the piece is to claim ground for articulating, acknowledging and understanding organizational social practice… that there is a logistical approach for using surplus resources (e.g. residency bedrooms) in the service of an individual, community or issue for which there may also be an aesthetic evocation that seeks to do good.

freeDimensional, en brev:

freeDimensional advances social justice by hosting activists in art spaces and using cultural resources to strengthen their work. When the rule of law erodes (or has never formed) and the protective layers of civil society are stripped away due to contested elections, civil war, cross-border conflict, etc; when we know that journalists are fearful to give literal accounts of the impunity faced by their communities, then we also know that artists who bear witness to the societal condition will face danger.

freeDimensional has identified and fills a gap in civil society by recognizing and supporting the arts and artists as important agents of social change. While creative expression is a common component to all social movements, artists (when they find themselves in danger due to their ideas and modes of community engagement) often do not benefit from the protective services and resources that professional activists can access through their social networks and information channels. Artists don’t always see themselves as activists, and thus may not know how to access activist resources.

While historically freeDimensional has focused on supporting artists and culture workers doing the work of activists, we are also concerned with the role of the art space as a sanctuary of free thought in a time of unrest. Therefore we make a commitment to support emerging and under-resourced art spaces to take part in freeDimensional network activities, such as Atelier Moustapha Dime (Senegal)[1], Artkhana (Egypt), Casa Puan (Argentina), and cura bodrum (Turkey). We endorse the idea that art spaces are civic spaces and that the founders and administrators of these spaces are very often community organizers in their own right. These spaces have local knowledge and social capital via their community networks, and often have the capacity to provide immediate response for culture workers in distress. We seek to legitimize these safe haven sites within the human rights community and – more broadly – to increase the agency of art spaces for devising solutions to a range of conditions facing society.

freeDimensional is a 10-year initiative that supports art spaces and culture workers advancing social justice. There was – and remains – a fundamental belief by the founders that 10 years is enough time to introduce freeDimensional’s idea of Creative Safe Haven across the artist residency sector. Since the idea is not one of creating new residencies but of defining, setting an example and opening up accessibility to a model that can be used and adapted, and so that freeDimensional would not be in competition for funding with art spaces that could best serve as physical hosts, understanding sustainability as the organic reaction to a temporal experiment made the most sense… it just seemed most efficient. That said, we got to a point – a few years into the ten year cycle – at which there was a desire for clarity by network members, a point at which we needed to actually plan what obsolescence would look like. This was around the same time that we could clearly see that the Creative Safe Haven model of hosting activists in distress in artist residency apartments worked, but often requires finishing funds (even when accommodation was offered in-kind) for travel or incidental needs. So, while in the first five years we were immersed in the artist residency model in order to develop Creative Safe Haven, a period that saw the organization hosting a cartoonist from Cameroon, a ceramicist from Zimbabwe, a photographer from Uzbekistan, a journalist from the Gambia, a playwright from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a painter from the Druze community, a VJay from Afghanistan, an environmentalist from Mexico, street artists from Brazil and many more, we understood that in the next five years we would need to learn everything about rapid-response, emergency distress funds. These types of funds are de rigueur for activists and journalists, but quite underdeveloped for artists doing the work of activists in service to their communities rather than through vocational terms of reference. Quite simply, artists speaking truth to power outside of professional activism will experience the same levels of danger without having access to the same levels of protection and support. It was through this exploration of new modes of support based on obstacles we experienced in over 200 cases helping activists and oppressed artists, journalists, musicians, writers, theater directors, and community organizers from more than 30 countries that the Creative Resistance Fund became a new service.

With the advent of the Creative Resistance Fund, we were able to go one step further by providing small distress grants that enable the culture worker to evacuate a dangerous situation or to cover living costs while weighing long-term options for safety. The Creative Resistance Fund has been one way that freeDimensional has shifted from an ‘intermediary’ or matchmaking role to one of ‘incentivizing’ whereby the fund can support art spaces that wish to use and modify the Creative Safe Haven approach.  We see this as a way for the work of freeDimensional to continue after the 10-year initiative and remain open to the potential for the Creative Resistance Fund growing into its own organizational form. For more information, see www.creativeresistancefund.org, which serves as an archival notepad for the development phase of the Fund.

A Deeper Look at Creative Safe Haven:

Each year, hundreds of culture workers are violently assaulted for pursuing their ideas of social change: as activist community leaders they lose their jobs, face arbitrary imprisonment and torture, and may ultimately die for speaking truth to power. The levels of threat and marginalization these individuals face cause them to live under extraordinary duress. Sometimes these individuals need to physically move away from their communities in order to escape danger. Threats and marginalization can take the form of physical attacks, censorship, criminal charges, harassment, imprisonment, loss of employment, and threats (to self, family, neighbors or co-workers).

The practice (and principle) of Creative Safe Haven is comprised of (i) a process that bridges the arts and human rights sector, and (ii) a direct service that art spaces can offer to frontline activists in the form of accommodation. The process and our efforts to disseminate lessons learned has three intended audiences: (a) the arts community and administrators who can adapt and reuse the model; (b) the human rights community to highlight the resources available in other corners of civil society; and (c) individual activists and culture workers who can go straight to art spaces and/or engage supporting organizations in a negotiation for safe haven.

Assessing the level of threat faced by an activist or culture worker is the first step toward providing them with safe haven. Whereas the art space typically takes the lead, the process is shared by multiple stakeholders in a community, e.g. psychosocial, legal, medical, livelihood, material, education, language and community engagement. Leveraging surplus resources to provide holistic safe haven in the community where the art space is – in effect – weaving a web of relationships and resources tailored to each individual situation. The art space may start the process but others pick up the “balls” to keep the juggling process moving toward a longer-term solution for the individual in distress. In turn, these culture workers provide a unique opportunity for art spaces to strengthen and engage their own communities on current and, often, transnational issues.

A unique aspect of hosting a culture worker in distress in an art space is that it brings the world closer to its location. Hosting such a culture worker presents a tremendous opportunity to share his/her story with other artists, activists, public intellectuals, students, and the surrounding community. Relationships like these bring to light the intersection of human rights and the arts, and the urgent need to work across various boundaries to ensure free thought and expression.

On the flipside, a culture worker who has been through a recent trauma or experienced severe threats requires an approach whereby they have the freedom to simply relax and recuperate from emotional duress (and often there are physical ailments that accompany extreme stress), or – if they so choose – engage the new community and audiences that the art space can avail them of as a stage, soapbox and cathartic space in which to talk about the issues and their artistic or community organizing actions in response, which brought them into harms way.

Here’s a breakdown of the steps required for providing Creative Safe Haven:

1.) Identification of an activist or culture worker in distress by an organization or individual.

2.) Individual describes his/her current situation, reasons for persecution, current needs and basic information; art space or intermediary confirms stated need with outside sources and validates the hosting request.
If intermediary organization is helping, representative will access list [2] of available host sites / art spaces and shortlist built based on location; language; point of departure / arrival; visa in hand; length of hosting period; if family members are based in location of the art space; proximity of danger / reach of issue; media equipment; infrastructure and facilities available.

3.) Matching and placement of a culture worker in the art space that is the best possible ‘fit’.

4.) Post placement planning for when the activist/culture worker must leave the art space.

5.) Evaluation by the art space to make the next hosting experience better.

“The organization like FD is very important to exit [sic]. I was scared and I don’t know what I can do, where I have to go or to whom I should contact to get some emergency help. If I don’t meet with FD, I really don’t know what I can do.”
-Chaw Ei Thein

“The residency that I get in Bilbao give me the chance to enjoy for three months to make art. It was my first time in my life that I get this chance to be and to feel free, to make art without all my previous problems, to enjoy my freedom in another place. It was for me special and great experience… fD was the reason for this experience… I never forget this chance.” 
– Fahed Halabi

“At present I am in Estonia, Tartu city, everybody here are very friendly and helping me in everything. We even made a little TV show; mainly I am writing articles and working on new artistic performance’s ideas. It’s really great here to work with Estonian artists, I have learnt much from them and got many interesting experiences, also I am looking forward to enter the ICORN project.” 
–Zurab Rtveliashvili after receiving placement from fD at an artist residency in Estonia

If you fit into one of these categories and want to learn how to facilitate Creative Safe Haven, please use this Tactical Notebook we wrote together with New Tactics in Human Rights – Art Spaces Hosting Activism:

A note on organizational form… Why a network?
When we started freeDimensional, there were equal parts excitement with passion and naiveté with skepticism. What I knew of nonprofit organizations led me to believe that they acted very similar to corporations in as much as the default is growth and – in this era of social enterprise – scalability. Where then was the space for a network that would dissolve shortly after it was formed? Similarly we wondered if it was even possible to ‘plan’ a network. Networks that worked seemed to be somewhat organic, gaining momentum due to the importance or urgency of a particular issue. I recently had the opportunity – and blog space – to reflect on this learning curve for the Triangle Conference, NETWORKED: Dialogue & Exchange in the Global Art Ecology… here are my thoughts on a few related themes:

Dispatch #1: When networks register as NGOs

Dispatch #2: Membership, Ideology + Network Typologies

Dispatch #3: Meaning Slide?

Dispatch #4: Occasional Pitfalls

Dispatch #5: Rules of Thumb Omnibus

A Timeline 

Starting in 2006, freeDimensional began a practice of having our office within a network member art or community space, first in New York City at the Magnolia Tree Earth Center, then in Cairo at the Townhouse Gallery followed by Sao Paulo at Casa das Caldeiras. The office then moved back to NYC to the Flux Factory and most recently moved into the Residency Unlimited office. The regional hub strategy that took us to Egypt and Brazil has continued but in a new iteration, that of the regional distress fund. Currently, freeDimensional is supporting a distress fund held by Sangam House, a literary residency near Bangalore, India. Similarly, we helped to start the International Coalition for Arts, Human Rights & Social Justice (www.ArtsRightsJustice.net), which has a strong presence in Europe. Hubs in the North America, Middle East, South American, a fund in Asia and coalition work in Europe provide the freeDimensional network with regional coverage that helps us to understand how best to modify our approach of art spaces hosting activism.

In 2007, freeDimensional started holding an annual meeting in Canada. At the time, we thought it was cool to be able to meet; over time we came to understand that it is important – if not essential – for a horizontal network to have a regular meeting. At first, the network was small enough for us to all meet and focus on building up the idea of art spaces hosting activism. The next years were focused on Strengthening Partnerships (2008), Emerging Art Spaces (2009), Intersecting Networks (2010), and Building Regional Triage Teams (2011). At various points throughout these organizational developments, we found the time to support member art spaces taking stands on a variety of issues:

At the 2008 Dakar Biennial, freeDimensional supported partner center, Atelier Moustapha Dime on is campaign to raise awareness about the death toll of nautical migration.

At the 2009 World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil freeDimensional and Casa das Caldeiras shared our work on youth and urban violence.

At the 2009 Art Dubai, freeDimensional worked with partners to highlight three initiatives focused on economic and forced migration.

Some of these campaigns were recast as magazine pages in Bidoun and Contemporary Practices in order to reach larger audiences.

And, more recently, freeDimensional and Residency Unlimited put on a two-day event to explore the topic of Art Residencies & Conflict Areas.

On occasion we’ve attempted to freeze-frame the network and document the swirl of relations in various ways – geographically, thematically and organizationally.

And if you want to know more of freeDimensional’s history, check out our nifty brochure – http://freedimensional.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/fDbrochure.pdf 

Well, that’s it, that’s five years in a nutshell. Of course, there are always other ways to tell a story. For a little variety, here’s an interview I gave at the Institute of Network Cultures 2009 Winter Camp where freeDimensional was a featured network, and again on a similar topic – Connecting the Arts and Human Rights Worlds and the Role of Emerging Art Spaces – at a meeting on Wasan Island.

I’m also happy to chat in person. Just send me a note at todd@freeDimensional.org for more info.

[1] freeDimensional works with new art spaces around the world through its Emerging Art Space Support Initiative (EASSI), which seeks to increase the number of self-sustaining art spaces that can provide resources and residencies to vulnerable activists and culture workers. The 2009 Wasan Meeting was dedicated to strengthening a cohort of 15 such spaces situated around the world. See http://freedimensional.org/services/network-support/emerging-art-space-support-initiative-eassi/

[2] Currently freeDimensional holds this list and makes it available upon request; however we do not expect that all art spaces that use the Creative Safe Haven model will necessarily credit (or name) freeDimensional; therefore we encourage activists, culture workers, intermediary organizations, and concerned individuals to go directly to the art space when feasible.

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