There was a time when we weren’t taking artist-in-residence programs seriously enough. But the political map of the world is changing; as funding for art shifts, we find ourselves in a moment where rethinking residencies is necessary. Museums, galleries and public spaces all underwent a significant reformulation of their concepts, histories, limitations and potentialities. Now is the time for critical engagement with residencies.
The idea of residencies has not always been about going “somewhere” but often getting the hell out of “here.” Long before politicians put on the list of their funding priorities fetishes such as mobility and social change, there was the now long forgotten idea of an “escape.” Residencies were tools to disengage from the world, and provided an illusion of distance from political pressures at home. Such escape provided a workplace, financial support and improved living conditions for artists for a while. This early idea of residencies was thus highly practical and some programs successfully maintain this approach and spatial organization.
In the last few decades, residencies have become a direct way of engaging with the world, initially just the art world and then increasingly the “real world.” Firstly, it can be argued that residencies help keep the Western world of art tied in an extremely tight knot. To take part in an artist-in-residence program in the West means entering the circulation system of the arts, which promotes particular forms of continuity. In The Artist as Ethnographer, Hal Foster argues that going elsewhere can even become an exoticizing quest of the other territory and result in superficial engagement with another culture or the naivety of the outsider’s knowledge in regards to local conflicts and political or social difficulties. This critique has some validity as we often see in various forms of art made for biennales or through residencies in general. Though we need to bear this in mind, we should also see our work “elsewhere” in regards to its possibility. As Irit Rogoff has noted, we have to engage with the world on the basis of “criticality” considering ourselves as a part of the subject of our critique.(1)
The recent development in residencies has been one that privileges production, where new works can be produced easily for exhibitions. Indeed, there is a renaissance of residencies providing solid technical conditions for the development of new projects with new (or vanishing) technologies. This is a symptom of the reconfiguration of arts funding structures that urges manufacture and an immediate use of the work, thus shortening the distance between conception, production and display. At the same time, artists serve as agents of cultural translatability, give visibility to abandoned areas of cities, and perhaps even smooth cultural repercussions of wars and conflicts. Residencies, therefore, also engage in the real world and operate as transitional tools, absorbing new phenomena by being grounded and adding into local vernaculars.
Way back in 1980s Martha Rosler stated that no monetary support for art is neutral. Looked at from such a perspective, residencies can be viewed critically as expressions of cultural dominance, reproductions of post-colonial order, and ways to conquer new markets. Indeed, the geo-political sources that finance culture have been changing and diversifying, and so has cultural policies. All of us involved in the arts world must be highly conscious about this and reformulate and reclaim a more nuanced rationale for residencies that encompasses a broader spectrum than their limited potential as politically nominated agents of ‘social change.’
Arts practitioners, politicians and donors alike are well aware of what the mobility of artists can potentially do. However, in the last few years, politicians have hijacked artistic discourses around social change for their own agendas, and tend to instrumentalize artists whose work engages with the political. The fear about artistic engagement is over: now there is a demand for it. Hence we find ourselves in a time when we need to think anew about what political engagement in the field could mean, for the concept of engagement – as we knew it – has been tamed and certain modes of practice can longer be reproduced. How can the artist become more aware of that without withdrawing from being actually active in transcultural practice? How can the expertise we possess and visual forms of knowledge production be shared in the best and the broadest sense?
I believe that residencies have naturally been heading towards research-based practices with collective cross-cultural and cross-media competence. Leaving “here” and going “elsewhere” reminds us that residencies have a very strong spatial component both in terms of geography and relationality. This spatiality is not only a distance that is to be made to get somewhere, but more importantly it is about closing the distance for a possible encounter.