SPILLS: Retrospective Reflections and Contaminated Afterthoughts Federica Bueti

What is a group show if not an ensemble in which each individual voice is equally as unique as it is immersed in the common materials of sound, speech, colour, and language? From this ensemble an improvised song emerges, in this case the tune is called Tripping Autonomy and it’s the 2018 Piet Zwart Institute MFA graduate exhibition, composed by Alexander Iezzi, Anastasia Shin, Anne Kolbe, Collette Rayner, George Nesbitt, Johanna Kotlaris, Katharina Cameron, Larisa David, Marta Hryniuk, Nick Thomas, Shraddha Borawake, Sophie Bates, Sophie Varin, Timur Akhmetov, and Victor Santamarina. The title can be read as an expression of bewilderment and surprise, while hinting at an unstable, twisted, bent, and blurry idea of autonomy that is always already compromised by the relations, influences, experiences, and histories that shape and transform artistic practice.

To make autonomy trip we must push it to its limits, to the point of breaking, and into that interstitial space where one falls between every name or category. Thus, I would like to approach the show Tripping Autonomy as a spill which breaks through autonomy’s surface in order to ooze out, to speak of art as a space of relation that continuously contaminates the very idea of individual freedom and agency. I want to speak of the forceful undercurrents which move and shake the surface of an artistic practice; of art as a series of leaks, passages, and crossings; I want to speak of the affective topography in which artistic processes take shape.

Maybe I wonder what role my work played in the show or how each of our works also reflect something of our process of working together over two years?? Maybe this is silly.1

Tripping Autonomy, then, poses the question of how to negotiate the relationship between individual artistic expression and audience expectations, between an artistic “self” and the larger landscape outside this self. The works respond with shared agencies and a refusal to reduce an artistic practice to a simple set of intentions, motifs, single identities, or gestures, among other strategies. Tripping Autonomy triggers a conversation on the possibilities and dangers of contamination, and the porousness of artistic practices, how artists inhabit their influences, and how they allow one to talk about relationships between things: materials, images, objects, signifiers, histories, and the space of intersubjectivity. To put it differently, the show seems to place autonomy at risk. It tests its boundaries and its permeability, allowing artistic practice to become a spill, a kind of intervention that cuts through neoliberal configurations of today’s individual artistic “careers.” Tripping Autonomy improvises a common song in real time, abandoning the loneliness of a solo artistic practice to compose a different mode of sociality.

And I feel like I would like to be like involved in that too as a practice—as a writing practice in which, as George [Lewis] says, one composes in real time with other people. And to improvise, where one composes in real time in common, is where one is discomposed in real time. One fades. So I think maybe the difference is between composing in real time in common—as an explicit social practice—and that illusorily solitary practice of remixing and reorganizing, which is, you know, a different modality of sociality that occurs remotely and in ways that are based on a certain kind, or a certain sense, of space-time separation.
—Fred Moten2

After all, any artist or writer knows that the development of a personal voice is simultaneously accompanied by the realisation that there is no me without you. We don’t own our voices but owe them to the many influences and untold histories for which our voices become a transmitting antenna. Art is not made in a void: relationships, experiences, objects, contexts, and people influence what and how we make or do things. If this is the case, then the autonomy of the artist might be found in the way each practice negotiates the distance between “you” and “me,” and how much leaking is allowed.

Unintentional spills are very much part of this exhibition, partly because of the absence of walls between the student’s solo presentations in the host space De Kroon, a former electrical engineering factory on the Maas River. From the sound spillages of the woman’s voice in Johanna Kotlaris’ audio pieces, Things I Thought I Said and Things I Know I Said, to the water literally spilling over the top of Anne Kolbe’s Coniferous Fountain (2018), to the alcohol dripping down and forming dark patches on the concrete floor in Victor Santamarina’s sculptures. Whether a desired effect or an accident, the metaphor of the spill started to resonate with the way the different artists were approaching their works; through literal or imagined encounters, in evoking intimate proximity, and by using personal experience to connect to the viewer.

The spills that follow in the captions I’ve written to accompany documentation of the artists’ works pays homage to the legacy of Italian art critic and feminist Carla Lonzi. As a montage of interviews and conversations recorded during informal meetings and studio-visits with a group of fourteen Italian artists working and living in Italy in the late ’60s, her book Autoritratto (self-portrait) is full of personal moments recorded as life spills out of its contained space into the work, and into the world. Autoritratto is an intervention into the canonical space of art history writing. Through this process Lonzi comes to formulate her idea of art as the possibility of a “humanly satisfying encounter”—an emancipatory framework for engaging one another and the world that eschews readymade categories. This text is driven by her belief in art and writing as spaces of unexpected encounters, and I have taken its thesis as an opportunity to be with the artists, their works, and their words, and to be witness to the difficult moment of figuring things out in the process of making the space that the work opens up for you.

In thinking about how I might relate to the idea of spills/spilling/spillage; I don’t know. Maybe it’s tenuous but then any writing about a fifteen-person show is going to require a degree of abstraction, and that at least was a conversation that some of us had together with you.

I was also thinking about the top of the cooker in my flat, which I share with Victor and George, and which gathered many spills in the course of the year, not to mention during the grad show. We would often not be at home at the same time but could make a good guess at who had been around based on what’s been spilled in the kitchen. Victor makes a mushy tomato thing for breakfast, and large glasses of tea are George’s signature.3

Victor Santamarina

Victor Santamarina, “Recent Sculptures,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Victor Santamarina, “Recent Sculptures,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Victor Santamarina, “Recent Sculptures,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

The way to make liquids move well is not by trying to fight them, but by playing the music they like. They will leak between your fingers or through a join if it hasn’t been properly sealed, or because of an unlevelled table. Right now, I am playing a Shinra album, and I am sure the silicone is going to love it.4

Victor Santamarina has made a series of five sculptures composed of plaster, resin, and silicon whose parts are tied together with luggage security straps. They are open, or better, they have openings from which various cocktails spill: Composición con bolsas’ let out gin and tonic; Flores leaks gin and vermouth; Erika loses water; Timur spills vodka all over; and Traje mezcla. The sculptures leave large black stains on the floor. They are like breathing and exuding bodies. They are like bodies in disintegration, ruins from which life in its liquid form leaks out and seeps, affecting its surroundings, making something from nothing.

Santamarina is interested in the processes of moulding and casting, “In techniques that reproduce objects by the making of a new one, the mould.” The artist writes in his dissertation: “The mould becomes a source of forms and ideas. To develop those ideas, I remove from the process the only part that establishes an old hierarchy: the object reproduced, the model.”

By removing the centrality of the object, Santamarina focuses on the process of material transformation that occurs in the encounter between materials. At the same time, the sculpture becomes what the artist has called an “extension of the world with which the audience can also have a dialogue, rather than a vessel that holds a story inside.” Santamarina’s sculptures are not simply objects, they experiment and reflect on the intelligence of matter and its affective potential; that is, the way matter transforms and is transformed by what it touches.

Kate [Briggs] once asked me what a reading of a sculpture that was solely focused on its medium would be like. I replied: “I don’t think that a sculpture might be read. We would never say ‘how do you read an electro song?’” I think it would be better to talk about how to experience, approach, or interact with a sculpture. […] It could occur on different levels. On one hand, a lack of narrative points to plastic and aesthetic dimensions: surface, shape, volume, space… The attention on the piece is as a thing in the world where these different aspects encounter and mix, and you are in front of that. These aspects (among others) can reflect reality and give space to the audience to develop their own interpretations, perhaps by evoking or remembering past images, objects, and memories; or by bringing previous experiences back to the present encounter. These aspects also go further to interact with the audience, not only through interpretation, but also by reaction, generating feelings in a physical and bodily way. “How does this sculpture make you feel? Just as music does.”5

George Nesbitt

George Nesbitt, “Placeholder,” 2018. Sculpture. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
George Nesbitt, “Popcharts,” 2018. Prints (detail). Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
George Nesbitt, “Placeholder,” 2018. Sculpture; “Dumbbell,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

We choose our heroes on a gut instinct, but within every icon are the mechanisms of influence and the tools for inspiration.6

During his time on the PZI MFA, George Nesbitt researched the story of the famous all-girl UK pop band “Sugababes.” He downloaded and transcribed hours and hours of video interviews with different members of the band. As he writes in his thesis:

My Sugababes transcript came about because I just wanted to chart their history for myself, to see it all laid out the various line-up, through their changes, youthful awkward confidence, the encroaching professionalism of subsequent new band members, and the enduring moments of solidarity. I downloaded all the YouTube interviews available from the afternoon chat shows “Weekend-TV,” Backstage Interviews, Popworld, and Richard and Judy.7

In Popcharts, excerpts of this transcript are printed on regular A4 paper and hang on a shelf. In one transcript, Keisha, a member of the band, says: “I’m always tripping before I go on stage anyway, like falling flat on the ground, you know?” I wonder if the idea for the title might have come from this statement. After all, it is true, what artist hasn’t gone tripping before an opening or before taking the mic to speak?

The work Placeholder, an Ikea bookcase filled with canteen trays, creates the stage and connects the transcript to the video Dumbbell, which shows interior details of a shopping mall, while the voice-over of the artist tells of the story of Richard Simonton. Simonton was a US businessman who became well-known for franchising Muzak, a music corporation that provided background music for shopping malls and public spaces, and was the founder of the American Theatre Organ Society, and an early pioneer and supporter of body piercing. What the artist admires in Simonton, as he explained in conversation, is his multifaceted personality and varied career path. Simonton and the Sugababes become two examples of the artist as an unashamed opportunist and joyful trickster, who, with their ups and downs, are capable of intelligently navigating the murky waters of the business: “When I think of the Sugababes I think of determination, negotiation, and compromise. I think about making things work with what you’ve got, but, like, actually work.”8

Larisa David

Larisa David, “See Something Suspicious,” 2018. Textiles, video, and stage. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Larisa David, “Negative,” 2018. Audio installation. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Larisa David, “See Something Suspicious,” 2018. Performance view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

How does it feel to physically inhabit and move through a world of paranoia and suspicion that defines you as a threatening “other”—the migrant, the refugee, the Muslim? How is the person identified as “the other” controlled and constrained in their ability to move? The sculpture Negative shows three small square boxes of cement which have holes inside, and carry the imprinted traces of a hand. The audience can try to fit their hands into the impression. Do you fit in? I mean, metaphorically speaking. Larisa David reflects on how much space we can fit ourselves into in a system which continuously discriminates against what it does not recognize. And if you don’t fit, how are you made to fit? By force, violence, and coercion.

In her video work See Something Suspicious, David rehearsea series of instructions on suspicious postures and body movements: “Walk slowly, don’t swing your arms too much. Don’t look down.” In this scenario, each movement can immediately become a reason for detention, and if you happened to be of the “wrong” skin colour, of being shot. The potential threat to the viewer that is being posed reveals the state of exhaustion inflicted on the person subject to the instructions; she who is being discriminated against by the system, constantly reminded of her difference, and forced into the consciousness of inhabiting the world as “other.” See the full video here.

Anastasia Shin

Anastasia Shin, “Tasty Morsels,” 2018. Video (background); “In-Basket,” 2018. Video (foreground). Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Anastasia Shin, “Cucumber Coercion,” 2018 (installation detail). Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Anastasia Shin, “In-Basket,” 2018. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

In the multimedia installation Assume Every Rustle in the Grass is a Tiger, Anastasia Shin reflects on the phenomenon of apophenia, that of seeing connections everywhere even when there clearly are none. The term was introduced into English by the Swiss psychologist Peter Brugger, who described it as a weakness of human cognition: the “pervasive tendency […] to see order in random configurations,” an “unmotivated seeing of connections,” the experience of “delusion as revelation.” In an article published in Slate Magazine, which inspired Shin’s installation, writer Katy Waldman argues that apophenia connects creativity, delusion, and conspiracy theories—all of which imply a fictitious construction of relationships, and links between desperate facts, meanings, events, or feelings. Waldman concludes that apophenia, “cuts both ways—it’s a profoundly human habit of mind that can underlie adaptive behaviours and reward flights of fancy, or induce all kinds of paranoia and silliness.”9

Shin’s installation toys with the viewer’s desire to look for, and seek connections and meanings in the work, while also reflecting on the way an artistic practice not only creates these illogical connections but also disorganizes, in interesting ways, the field of perception. In her installation, Shin plays with the word “stick,” as in sticky and chopsticks (making subtle references to her cultural identity), but also to subjectivity as a sticky thing…

“Sticky as in difficult, sticky as in hard to remove, sticky as in stuck. Sticky as in … that social and historical material which we’ve carried along as a responsibility and also a burden.” 10

The work is comprised of three parts. For Semantic Load, the artist has stuck pieces of rice noodles, previously boiled in black ink on a sheet of turmeric-dyed paper. The little black pieces look like the broken letters of an illegible poem. In the video Tasty Morsels, the camera moves through the shelves of a supermarket, the studio, and through the artist’s bookshelves in search of sticky sticks such as those used as signposts in books, and sticky stains like traces on walls, various “morsels,” and the sticky skin of a little shrimp lifted up by chopsticks. In-Basket focuses on the content of a basket in a similar way, following it through the supermarket while it is being filled with consumer goods.

For Cucumber Coercion, replicas of cucumbers made of green and pink glazed ceramic are arranged on the floor, looking cute, but also a little creepy. A print of carved handrails and digitally smudged cucumber images hangs nearby. These are paired with the audio-piece Actualised Shelf, in which the uncanny tone of a computerized voice recites what could be a twenty-first century Dada poem.

Commodities are the protagonists of Shin’s work: cucumbers, supermarket food, chopsticks as the artist seems to be trying to make sense of how commodity culture works to create fixed relationships (that then turn into clichès), identities, and meanings. If apophenia works to create relationships, then perhaps an artistic practice can become a place where these relationships can be actively unmade.

In both works, Shin uses the chopstick and the cucumber as vessels to reflect on the possibilities and dangers of interrupted meanings, when things are “out of place,” when technologies start behaving funny, and when cucumbers start to grow a pink colour rather than the polished green we usually encounter at the supermarket. “Format not recognised,” says the voice over. What happens in those few moments when things stop working as they always did, when connections are unmade?

Marta Hryniuk

Marta Hryniuk with Erica Roux, “Balkon van Europa,” HD video; Marta Hryniuk, “De Spiegel,” 2018. HD video. Installation view. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Marta Hryniuk with Erica Roux, “Balkon van Europa,” HD video; Marta Hryniuk, “De Spiegel,” 2018. HD video. Installation view. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.

Let me take you on a detour, taking off and ending at the same point, yet not remaining the same anymore—just like the camera looping in the space in a single-shot video titled De Spiegel (2018), 05’10’’.11

The shot depicts a group of people in De Spiegel, a local bar in Charlois; a working class neighbourhood in Rotterdam. The camera encircles the space, slowly studying the interior whilst a ballad is being sung. People are gathered in clusters at the bar, and behind the counter we find our singerthe bartender Alicja, a polish woman. The bartender knows the song by heart, it’s called “Nie żałuję”and was originally performed by Edyta Geppert, with lyrics by Agnieszka Osiecka, in 1992.

The camera observes the faces, follows the bartender as she serves drinks, moves on to the souvenirs on the walls and to turns back to Alicja’s dramatic performance, to the pathos of her singing, but also the audience’s convivial indifference to the moment. Alicja’s ritualistic performance of her culture, her memories, and her sense of belonging go on unnoticed.

We lock eyes, and I hold her gaze until she breaks it, then continue the journey through the space; capturing the singer from behind the backs of other guests. The bar counter is L-shaped, and so is my trajectory. Steadily backtracking, I reach the point of departure. The song comes to an end and then the scene slowly fades out… Alicja is the woman running the bar. She is Polish. We became friendly ever since I first started drinking there. It must be a good twenty-five years since she hasbeen living in this place—her son was born here and last year graduated from Aerospace Engineering at the Technische Universiteit Delft. Alicja must have migrated from Poland around the time I was born, shortly after the transformation. Apart from running the bar, she works in door-to-door sales, and has another small business, I don’t know what exactly. But what she takes great pleasure in, is singing.12

Through the story of Alicja and her passion for singing, Marta Hryniuk’s De Spiegel is an exploration of the sense of belonging and nostalgia which accompanies the condition of uprootedness. What is “home” when we are far away from home? What is this feeling of nostalgia that keeps one attached to the past? Can singing heal this sense of loss, this nostalgia?

The second video, Balkon van Europa, made in collaboration with Erika Roux, is shot in a snack bar located at the edges of Maasvlaakte II, a newly constructed area of Rotterdam harbour. A series of static shots show the interior of the shop, the costumers, maritime souvenirs, and clocks while outside, at sea, big ships drift in and out. This image of transition and passage resonates with the nostalgic singing of Aljcia. These images are what scholar Svetlana Boym calls “diasporic intimacy,” used to describe the kind of intimacy that “can be approached only through indirection and intimation, through stories and secrets, spoken in a foreign language that reveals the inadequacies of translation. Diasporic intimacy does not promise an unmediated emotional fusion but only a precarious affection,” one free from the ghosts of belonging.

It’s autumn of 2017, and I decide to write a letter to my grandmother to share with her my current research and thinking, and ask for her thoughts. I was wondering whether she recognises certain collective emotions such as an excessive attachment to the past (call it nostalgia), or a desire to perpetually rewrite histories, traits which Eastern Europeans seem to share. I have been also thinking about an inclination to think one is charged with the past events and bears a trauma that has been inherited from the past generations; eventually thinking about sentiments of uprootedness and estrangement, approached, for instance, via (foreign) language.13

Johanna Kotlaris

Johanna Kotlaris, “A Heartwarming Bone Cracking,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Johanna Kotlaris, “A Heartwarming Bone Cracking,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Johanna Kotlaris, “A Heartwarming Bone Cracking,” 2018. Performance view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

Confronted with this vertigo, I understand why the deepest level of knowledge is sensorial, and the ancient term of wisdom, sapientia, from sapere, to taste, is bodily. 

 Physical proximity was essential to understand the quality of the waves, and so to understand my own qualities in relation to them. Even though I cannot always touch what I see, my body memory knows—or has an intuition of—the way things feel. My flesh can feel others’ textures through shared space, and inhabiting the space that would allow for this imagination to actualize itself has an energizing quality.14

Before I reach the work, their voices follow me into the room. They are many, high-pitched voices humming what sounds like a religious tune, solemn and hypnotic. When I visited the show, performers dressed in black move around a series of screens from which neatly folded pieces of cloth are hung. They sing an opera in which a woman has a series of encounters: a fugitive encounter with a man, with her ego. Sometimes her singing becomes a pure articulation of sounds. She seems to have lost the meaning of her words, and like the mythological figure Echo she becomes pure voice; a phonic irreducibility of pure relationality. This pure relationality of the voice.

Kotlaris’ audio-installation draws our attention to the voice as material, to the possibilities of vocalizing a multiplicity of different expression and ways of being; to the politics of listening, and the dialogical construction of the self, of what we call a voice.

In the first third of Catherine Clément and Julia Kristeva’s book The Feminine and the Sacred, the voice is emphasized as a healer’s tool.15 Clément claims that the shaman’s saliva contains the scent of the sacred and the shaman’s inarticulate crying out is an expression of the sacred, not in words but through the saliva itself. Interestingly, in German the word verraten has two meanings: revealing and betraying. In the act of being spoken, words can define and confine: I trace the outline of the thing, reveal the secret, and betray the sacred. Now I understand why voicing the meaning of artworks so often feels like betraying their sacredness. They are caught in confinement instead of spreading like the healer’s saliva.

I have been interested in these voices for some years now, and I know through personal experience that they often disagree, and sometimes don’t understand each other at all, but that this active vocalization with all its misunderstandings offers the potential for new alliances within myself and with others. This renegotiation of beliefs makes my reality more porous, more able to re-create or de-create itself.16

where the theoreticians will become senses in their practice
where the theoreticians will not be seeing, hearing
where the theoreticians will sear, the theoretician is a seer
where the theoreticians will be seen and heard in their practice
where the theoreticians will touch themselves
where the theoreticians will become sensual in their practice
where the reverse will always be in excess
where the sequence is for nono and maxine
where reading and recite this scene to John Gwin, my daddy
where they go plot paradise, blue bolivar, boll and marvel
where mask and boll and cut and fry and groove
where the senses will become theoreticians in their practice
—Fred Moten, “Where the Blues Began”17

Collette Rayner

Collette Rayner, “Are You With Me or Have I lost You?,” 2018. Video installation with four screens, steel, and plastic flaps. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Collette Rayner, “Are You With Me or Have I lost You?,” 2018. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.

When the distance is right, an objective handle appears and I am able to feel like I’ve really worked an encounter through and made sense of it on paper.

Artist and writer Erica Scourti speaks of breaches and leaks within the self and technology, citing the sharing of data from behind a password wall as a decision to allow oneself to be seen, witnessed, and made vulnerable. She adds that whilst non-human technologies do this to install control, humans share data as a way of relating to ourselves and others.

Where do I, as the writer, position myself in relationship to what interests me? How much factual information and personal experience do I need to deliver before the promise of being shown something interesting is fulfilled? Are you with me? Have we arrived together at the same level of engagement? Have I delivered on the promise that I have made to you?18

Are you with me or Have I lost you? is a multimedia installation by Collette Rayner composed of a large circular metal structure made of black foils of polyester paper suspended mid-air and encircling a central metal structure that hosts four videos. The videos show various scenes: from a séance, to someone running through a snow-covered field, to someone else wearing a funny ocular device. A video animation, placed outside the large structure, shows a shape-shifting face.

As the title suggests, Rayner’s work has to do with transmission, of how knowledges, histories, and experience get passed on, and how an artistic practice becomes a medium, an antenna, or a catalyst for other voices and stories. In her work for the exhibition, the artist considers the difficult task of becoming a medium, a radio-transmitter, by negotiating between her own desire to tell a personal story and the urge to address the larger landscape outside. In this, Rayner’s practice joins the artistic endeavours of artists such as Moyra Davey and Frances Stark, as well as writers Chris Kraus, Anne Carson, and Maggie Nelson in her attempt to find a form of writing, reading, and making art capable of striking a balance between the intimate and the theoretical; between personal experience and acquired knowledges:

I have only been able to successfully harness my “I,” by buffering my experiences with a time delay. Only then can I sit down to write, but not before I have formed the premise in my mouth and trialled it on my own terms in conversational recitation. In this mode, I try to find a mechanism to “observe oneself, detach from oneself and objectify oneself, whilst insisting in this of abstraction, on having a significant voice.” 19

Timur Akhmetov

Timur Akhmetov, “Grey Sky Made Me Orange,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Timur Akhmetov, “Grey Sky Made Me Orange,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Timur Akhmetov, “Grey Sky Made Me Orange,” 2018. Detail. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

I think these days art should ask the same questions and I ask the same questions as an artist; of what and how we might possibly help understand people and their intentions, instead of giving them shock therapy and prescribing theoretical medication, how we implement kindness and beauty and humility into our art rather than opposing the world with the mirror, hiding behind it.20

Grey Sky Made Me Orange is a site-specific multimedia installation by Timur Akhmetov which occupied the old factory’s changing room. Immersed in a warm orange glow, being here feels like having entered the artist’s psyche: an affective space made of visual fragments, of uncanny feelings and shifting moods, of old memories and rubber sculptures. The smell of anise spirals up from murky waters in the two old industrial sinks, filling the space while we hear someone laughing, and the voice of a decapitated head uttering inconclusive statements like “I wash your grease off with hot boiling water.” I believe so. The video H.E.R.M.P.A. III (here everybody recommends me to perceive everything adequately) is a wild montage of images taken from the personal archive of the artist: frying eggs, what looks like the inside of the ocular cave, a mask, the artist combing his hair in front of the mirror, details of body parts, cucumber grinding against the glass of a window overlooking a parking lot, and a beautiful sea view. All these personal memories and images are edited together in a way that continuously disrupts and recreates the possibility of meaning:

 The process of creating a body of sculpture can be achieved by using dispersed or fragmental bodies of text. Poetically put, the body of sculpture is feeding on rotten or decomposed body of text.21

There is something weird and gloomy and joyful and defiant and resilient, and naïve, or even foolish about the atmosphere of the work. What promised to be an introspective nihilistic journey turns into something more of a psychedelic trip. I am taken by surprise by Akhmetov’s salacious humour, the personal manner in which the artist is able to tap into the collective space of existence, to speak about human negative emotions such as anxiety, feelings, and about art as a potential space of healing.

Grey Sky Made Me Orange stages an encounter with the audience, inviting it to inhabit the universe of the artists; “What hurts and what nurtures him.” By exploring affective space of relations which influence an artistic practice, Akhmetov’s works, as the artist states in his thesis, is a way of formulating what’s important for him as a human being, “call me an artist, a poet, a painter, a writer, that is up to you. Is it fine with you? Fine with me.”

Shraddha Borawake

Shraddha Borawake, “Vernacular Tableau Series #1: Voice,” 2018. Video. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Shraddha Borawake, “Little Creatures,” 2018. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Shraddha Borawake, “Vitrium Metasphere,” 2018. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

Guan Yin; she who listens to the sounds of those who are suffering, she who transforms this noise into music with tools of compassion, she who left ethereal realms, disembarked from the skies to dedicate life to sentient musings. She is a Goddess, but can also be considered a proxy for an artist in the way she transforms dark to light when needed, and shrouds the light to fuel quests in the embrace of darkness. The singular focus of her role is to heal. I wondered, as my eyes witnessed her presence through my mosquito net one morning, can the… artist be a Bodhisattva?22

Bodhisattva has been known to many people for thousands of years as the embodiment of compassion for all beings in the vast interdependent and mutually casual web of living creatures. Inspired by the virtues of Bodhisattva, artist Shraddha Borawake seems to understand her role of artist as one of facilitating, and nurturing these moments of encounter, and space of relations opened by an artistic practice, which, like Borawake, is conceived as an ensemble and focused on collaborative processes. She seeks to engage in conversations which then function as a base for her work. She has made food, and created public sculptures and situations to facilitate moments of transmission and spaces for healing.

“In October 2017, I had reached out to artist Louwrien Wijers, inspired upon discovering the Mental Sculpture in the book Art Meets Spirituality and Science in a Changing Economy.” It is a holistic approach to art and society, I sought her wisdom through a transformative process of live engagement, in the creation of what I called “A Living Sculpture,” as a mode of transmission, debate, and dialogue with my objects.23

Borawake collaborated with artist Louwrien Wijers to make the video Voice. In this video, we see the older woman talking about her work, and her relationship to science, and her admiration for Joseph Beuys. While under the supervision of the younger artist, she learns how to make panipuri, a common street snack made of tamarind chutney, chilli, chaat masala, potato, and onion or chickpeas commonly consumed in several regions of the Indian subcontinent. “Each one, teach one,” as an old African-American proverb says. Borawake’s practice is very much about those moments when we can learn from each other. Drawing on elements from Buddhist cultural and Indian folk traditions, on practices of hospitality and conviviality, and ecofeminist ideas in support of work for the environment Borawake’s work explores what happens when something is passed on to someone or something else, and when molecules start traveling from one substance to another like an infectious force.

What happens in those moment of touch and contagion, when things as we know them start disintegrating? Vernacular Tableau is a living sculpture made of an intricate system of vessels, and connections between various organic and inorganic materials; it is a landscape of ruins, the chaos of a world in transition, a body in decomposition:

It is said that this stone promotes clarity of mind through enhancing dreams and past life recollections. Next to it lies a death moth, a homage to a moment, a trope of recollection, and a lost and found body in the vista of materiality turned on its back of powdery delicacy. […] I am apologizing to the insect world, nature, and ecology for the natural destruction that I am implicated in—the history of human journeys of experience which fluctuates, influenced by the stock market; as the ebbs and flows of abundance and the lack thereof tug and pull the trials and tribulations of modern-day contemporary existence in the multiverse of global citizenship.24

Alexander Iezzi

Alexander Iezzi, “Moral Butterfly Extractor and Amygdal Hellion Torte,” 2018. Installation and video. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Alexander Iezzi, “Moral Butterfly Extractor,” 2018. Installation. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Alexander Iezzi, “Moral Butterfly Extractor,” 2018. Installation. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

In her book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing declares that “without collaboration, we all die.” Such an insistence contends that all life is inherently reliant on sociality. […] The metaphors presented by the butterfly serve as a similar perpendicular transit to this linear logic, showing that chance actions and non-progressive modes of being can begin to destabilize that logic that fastens us to normative modes of engag­ing with the world around us.25

In both the installation Moral Butterfly Extractor and the video Amygdal Hellion Torte, artist Alexander Iezzi explores the butterfly’s patterns and behaviours as a conceptual framework for thinking about his life and practice. What can we learn about survival from the life-cycle of the Large Blue? In the installation Moral Butterfly Extractor the artist has recreated what looks like his living room, consisting of a system of shelves and openings made of papier mâché, while arranged in the space are plants, bags, buckets, tanks with water, nets, drawings of butterflys, and a few figurines made of dried meat, which, like alter-egos of the artist, sit or lie down as if immersed in their thoughts. A bench invites the viewer to sit and watch Amygdal Hellion Torte a video in which a group of people describe for the camera what it would feel like to touch and experience like a butterfly. In this installation, Iezzi invites the viewer for a walk into his studio, where he is investigating the behavioural patterns of various butterfly species, in particu­lar the Large Blue (Phengaris arion), in search for a new mode of socialising, and of destabilising existing socialand cultural hierarchies.

For both works, the video and the installation, various collaborations and experiences have been mashed and reassembled, sometimes literally—materially—and other times more abstractly.26

Through his practice of cutting, mixing, and reorganising materials that come bothfrom different sourcesand from his experience, Iezzi’s work creates environments which reflect his interest in cohabitation as concept and practice of generating relationships of proximity which, like a chemical reaction or a social experiment, has the potential to transform things, and shift perspectives.

Sophie Bates

Sophie Bates, “Women Eating on Camera,” 2018. Video. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.
Sophie Bates, “Women Eating on Camera,” 2018. Accessories. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Sophie Bates, “Vanessa and Julian,” 2018; “Nicola and Lucy,” 2018. Videos. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.

There’s a deep pity and horror of female sexuality behind this, as if it’s this mushy botanical subordinate thing at total variance with the dynamic integrity, the ‘masculinity’ of analytical thought.27

Drawing on reality TV shows, Sophie Bates observes and questions femininity and its commodification in our neoliberal culture. Her works explores gender roles and the effects of technologies and social media on interpersonal relationships. In the two videos Vanessa and Julian and Nicola and Lucy the artist re-enacts an online conversation between a man and a woman flirting, talking about love, feelings, and hanging out with friends. But the excitement of flirtation is here flattened by the impersonal and detached tone of the artist reciting a script. There is no irony in her voice, no visible feeling, but a glimpse of anxiety. She must be what Bates has called a “Glassy Girl; a product of white-supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy. And it also has something to do with hook-up culture and binge drinking, something a little UK specific.”28 Here English actress Emma Watson who has made feminism into her personal brand comes to mind, but the phenomenon is not limited to the UK, as the culture of self-help which encourages women to define themselves on the basis of their success, sexual appeal, physical appearance, self-reliance, and right to happiness is frighteningly wide-spread.

The video and performance Women Eating on Camera invited women in the audience to take a seat on the photographic set and eat for the camera. Each woman is given a bag full of snacks which she then eats while sitting facing a camera connected to another TV, via which the audience can watch them eating. Some women laugh, others comment or look away from the camera, and sometimes they look indifferent or even bored. Nothing much happens, except for the crunchy sound of the crushing chips, and the women’s body movements and facial expressions.

Bates observes, analyses, and reflects on the complexity of being a woman who wants to be emancipated yet is still complicit in the perpetuation of “the order of things,” and contributes to the exploitation of each and every inch of her body and psyche: “From the studio to the bar, she’s got to exploit all that enters her body, demonstrating that she is a good worker, a motivated artist, and that nothing prevents her full immersion in the glorious world of work.” In this body of works, Bates urges us, as women, to face the toxicity of neoliberal white feminism, and the grotesque image of femininity which emerges: a reproductive machine in the service of protestant capitalism.

Nick Thomas

Nick Thomas, “On the Twos and Threes,” 2018. Sculpture, steel, bus seats, and casters. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Nick Thomas, “An Exit is and Entrance Too,” 2018. HD video; “On the Twos and Threes,” 2018. Sculpture, steel, bus seats, and casters. Installation view. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.

“Handheld traces a line through various experiences, relationships with institutions and personal reflections on the relative value of different types of work: the artwork, paid work, and work on oneself.”29

So writes Nick Thomas in his thesis, an introspective enquiry led by a character named “N,” who is torn between his desires to put himself into the work while keeping his self out of it, and the desire to stop working, but of not being able to stop because everything has become work. Thomas is interested in the relationship between forms and politics. Three different objects—office chair, the cruise ship, and the rotating disco-platform—are central to the three works that comprise Thomas’s graduation project, they reflect upon three different forms of work in a neoliberal economy; comfort, leisure, and self-care. In the video An Entrance is An Exit Too, the camera follows a group of friends on an empty cruise ship as they engage in a series of activities such as dancing, eating, sleeping, and smoking. The characters enter and exit the frame of the camera without too much happening, and scenes on the cruise alternate between interviews in which they recount their experience and memorable moments.

In “Shipping Out (On the Nearly Lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” an article published by Harper’s Magazine and written by the magic pen of David Foster Wallace, the American writer describes the experience of the cruise-ship as follows: “Not a service or a set of services but more like a feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stressless indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’”30 Wallace goes on to describe in great detail and with great humour the million ways in which a cruise ship is but “the Calvinist triumph of capital and industry over anything that can obstruct the path of capitalist profits.”31 If Wallace’s is the pointed critique of someone with a licentious humour then Thomas’ video approaches the subject more timidly.

Self-portrait as a Theatre Critic is a platform whose surface has been covered with the puzzle-like portrait of the artist with his eyes covered with cloth and tape. As the central part rotates it makes the face spin too, as if stuck in a loop. There seems to be no way out of the cycle of production and reproduction. In another work, Thomas looks at the office chair as one form in which the neoliberal diktat of “more comfort more productivity” can be seen materialized. Designers and engineers have been working to create a seat that could be comfortable for a worker to sit on for more than three hours a day, as better chairs mean better productivity. The artist has instead reinvented the chair by enlarging the seat to host another person. I wonder if it had anything to do with a refusal to work, as if by sitting together we might refuse the loneliness of work and experience the electrifying and frightening feeling of proximity, and then we might even stop working altogether.

Anne Kolbe

Anne Kolbe, “You have to have a sense of what your characters are doing when you’re not looking in order to sell the play,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Anne Kolbe, “You have to have a sense of what your characters are doing when you’re not looking in order to sell the play,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Anne Kolbe, “You have to have a sense of what your characters are doing when you’re not looking in order to sell the play,” 2018. Installation view. Photo by Lotte Stekelenburg.

The things bear, absorb, and hold onto our thoughts and reflections, only to later on let themselves be rediscovered. In this sense I believe that everything is partially mirror and partially opaque; fluid and solid, hard as stone, and malleable as cloth—and that everything, through perception, is always in the process of becoming twofold.32

Water spills out of the top of a fountain completely covered by prints of the conifer (Coniferous Fountain) which is, I am told, a popular tree species in the Netherlands. Its rounded base is a bench, which visitors can sit on. In a different side of the room, a counter becomes a hang-out place for visitors to the exhibition, “You have to have a sense of what your characters are doing when you’re not looking, in order to sell the play.”33

Kolbe is interested in design as a tool to explore the undercurrent of existence, the intangible space of emotions, feelings, and energies modulated by the architecture of a space. The artist explores the negative space of the object, that is, the realm of relationships: “What circulates and gets stuck in between them, what gets transmitted and blocked by their partially permeable and impenetrable walls.”34 However, instead of rigidly defining these relationships, her spatial interventions are influenced by imagined or real social circumstances. They attempt at tapping into the invisible relationships that shift bodies in space, define and limit movement, and modes of relations.

Katharina Cameron

Katarina Cameron, “Waster II,” 2018. Sculpture installation. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Katarina Cameron, “I Think of Them in Terms of Longing,” 2018. Video; “Waster 1,” 2018. Painted wood and fabric. Photo By Lotte Stekelenburg.

Or maybe, I’m thinking you peep through all your holes, your skin becoming a little loose, you shrinking behind, and what at other times would be you, becomes a mask. A disorienting thing.

I wonder if that applies to people as well, that in order to be read well sometimes one has to become an exaggeration of oneself? It’s disheartening in a way, alluring perhaps but also just a bit fucked-up. I imagine I’m this hyper version of myself, confined to an artificial environment, convincing but unable to connect in a meaningful way and thus ultimately useless. Like a super stimulus, a stimulus that elicits a response more strongly, more intensely, than the stimulus for which a certain response tendency evolved in the first place. Like a bird that prefers the exaggerated artificial version of its own egg. It’s not that I can’t see myself in the bird shoes, but what a devastating situation from the perspective of the unexaggerated egg.35

In her works for the graduate exhibition, artist Katarina Cameron twists perspectives. Turning away from the viewer’s gaze, she plays hide and seek with the audience, returning to the viewer’s search for meaning. The turn seems to be less of an act of defiance than an attempt to reflect on the way every inch of our desire, emotion, and feelings are continuously exploited and constrained in identities that can be easily read, and consumed.

Cameron’s work is composed of four pieces which converge in a hidden concern of the stairs, leading to an upper floor where a chicken made of pink glazed ceramic, Chicken (Patron Saint), becomes a divinity protecting the space. Cameron has wrapped part of a carrier column of the building with semi-transparent, coloured pieces of geometrically patterned cloth. Two little pieces of wood, which look like a faded version of byzantine icons, stick out of the upper end of the piece (Waster I). A flat screen shows an image of a shape-shifting object, which could be the detail of a digital forecast map (as in I Think of Them in Terms of Longing), and has been installed in the corridor connecting the two main rooms of the exhibition space. Upstairs, Cameron has transformed an entire room into what looks like a fantasy movie living room, (Waster II). In the middle of the space, a couch is placed on a diagonal and gives way to a wall made of semi-transparent plastic, a membrane through which we can see mysterious shadows and something glowing.

The space looks like the set of a science-fiction movie from the early ‘90s, or more like “Stranger Things,” a drama series involving extraordinary mysteries, secret governmental experiments, supernatural forces, and the opening of a portal to an alternate dimension called “the upside down.” Perhaps things are already upside down, or they are not upside down enough for the present exploitative social economies to break down. The artist seems to contest the need for making oneself transparent, ready to be read and consumed by the voyeuristic gaze of the audience.

She refuses to give in to being cannibalised, and reconverted into capital. Instead, she turns to the right to remain opaque, not fully knowable, and thus appropriate; in remaining opaque she creates distance, making room for unexpected encounters and new manners of living together.

Sophie Varin

Sophie Varin, “The Tastemakers: Pheasant,” 2018; “The Tastemakers: Salamander,” (right) 2018. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Sophie Varin, “Well Behaved Feast,” 2018. Photo by Tor Jonsson.
Sophie Varin, “Salsicceria di mezzanotte,” 2018; “Fire-bellied (the attractor),” 2018; ” Chien de convivialité,” 2018. Photo by Tor Jonsson.

Maybe they are standing in the hallway at some dinner party they can’t remember how they got invited to.36

They look like totems from a fairy tale. But they could just as well be monstrous creatures inhabiting a strange post-apocalyptic reality in which totemic figures are wrapped in a thick alien skin made of coloured resin, latex, and expanded foam and are tied together with segments of rope. They could be the grotesque inhabitants of an alien world, or ours, when soon enough all will be submerged in plastic and populated by strange creatures, trash, and ruins. What looks like something in-between an apotropaic mask and the beheaded head of a lamb protrude out of a black trash bag. Perhaps someone has been feasting here. The titles of Sophie Varin’s works—Well-behaved Feast, or The Tastemakers: donkey (silver light blue) pheasant (brown) salamander (green), or Salsicceria di mezzanotte—evoke ideas of celebrations around food, like a family dinner or barbecue with friends. Maybe, says the artist, it’s a wedding, a dinner party, or a poker night: maybe it’s a crime scene in a summer house; a crime that happened sometime over lunch. I wonder, is the party is over already? It would seem so. All that’s left is the scene of the crime and a group of uncanny characters, a funny bunch hanging around an old stove.

Varin’s sculptural practice involves the creation of fictitious scenarios in which her sculptures interact with the audience by creating playful atmospheres that allow the audience to move through. But there is also the story of the making of the sculptures, which, as Sophie recounts in conversation, involves a lot of spilling, leaking, or exploding through:

The curing, or somehow freezing of these liquids into something solid includes a duration, and therefore a potential narration or course of action. Liquidity takes time somehow. Boars don’t sweat, the piece outside in the terrace is full of fake resin; water that doesn’t leak through the hole, the water of Fire-bellied (the attractor) could be boiling but stopped; the wet-looking silicon heels from Skittering Poacher don’t drip on the ground. In terms of the relation between making and presenting, showing the spill in its cured form is for me a way to claim my authority over those shapes. I’ve worked on them while liquid and I’ve spilled them onto or poured them into other things. Where I see the idea of the spills resonates the most in this body of works, that’s Salsicceria di mezzanotte. Liquid expanding foam is poured into big “bags” or containers made from latex. I wait for the foam to expand up to twenty-five times its liquid shape, and this is where I struggle to contain the shape and tied the whole with a rope: I push or hold some parts, in the very limited amount of time that I have, to give it the shape I want.

Working with containers and filling them up is something that I end up doing quite often. And then yes, containers fail to contain and I’ve had to deal with a lot of leaking or exploding and that’s why I’m interested in them. But it’s not only a matter of material or technical failure. And that’s where Ficcato comes in, the yellow “sausage” from Salsicceria di Mezzanotte. This one is different from the other three sausages because the foam completely exploded through the latex that was too thin. I tried resisting the leakage as much as the foam was resisting the latex I was pouring it into.

There is always a rule, a code, a way of behaving, then at a certain moment everything starts misbehaving, becoming dysfunctional. You know, I am thinking of how our social life, or conviviality also always means to having to find a way to deal with these moments.

The three curtains in Well-behaved Feast don’t spill or leak but they’re trying to speak about the same thing as Ficcato, this explosion. Or rather, the moment that precedes the explosion, when you already know that something is going to melt and leak all over the fine carpet.37

  1. Sophie Bates in an email exchange with the author, July 2018.
  2. Fred Moten, in an interview with Adam Fitzgerald, “An Interview with Fred Moten, Part 1: In Praise of Harold Bloom, Collaboration and Book Fetishes,” Literary Hub (August 5, 2015). See online. (Accessed September 26, 2018).
  3. Nick Thomas in an email conversation with the author, July 2018.
  4. Victor Santamarina,“Curing Time” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018). Shinra is a UK DJ.
  5. Ibid.
  6. George Nesbitt, “‘I don’t know what I do for a living actually’: A Study of Contemporary Writing Practices” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Katy Waldman, “It’s All Connected: What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia,” Slate Magazine (September 16, 2014). See online. (Accessed October 10, 2018).
  10. Hannah Black, “The Identity Artist and the Identity Critic,” Art Forum vol. 54, no. 10  (Summer 2016), as quoted by Anastasia Shin, in “Sticky Iterations Vol. 1” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  11. Marta Hryniuk, “Café de Spiegel. Writing in Loops” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Johanna Kotlaris “I—For Lack of a Better Word” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  15. Catherine Clément and Julia Kristeva, The Feminine and the Sacred (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
  16. Kotlaris, “I—For Lack of a Better Word.”
  17. Fred Moten, in Hughson’s Tavern (Providence, RI: Leon Works, 2008), 77.
  18. Collette Rayner, “Are You With Me?” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  19. Karolin Meunier et al., “Write it down! You’ll see yourself whole! Try it!: Self, stake, disclosure,” in Return to Inquiry (Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Academie, 2012), 10. Quoted in Collette Rayner, “Are You With Me?,” 2018.
  20. Timur Akhmetov,“Odd Wonders Or Path of The Fool” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  21. Ibid.
  22. Shraddha Borawake,“Garb-Age” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018), 24.
  23. Shraddha Borawake in “Garb-Age,” 36, referring to Louwrien Wijers, Art Meets Spirituality and Science in a Changing Economy: From Competition to Compassion (Wiley-Academy, 1996).
  24. Shraddha Borawake,“Garb-Age.”
  25. Alexander Iezzi, “what is a butterfly not” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018), quoting Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 31.
  26. Alexander Iezzi in an email exchange with the author, August 2018.
  27. Sophie Bates, “GLASSSY GIRL” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  28. Ibid.
  29. Nick Thomas,“HAND HELD” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  30. David Foster Wallace, “‘Shipping Out’ – On (the nearly lethal) comforts of a Luxury Cruise,” Harpers magazine (1996). See online. (Accessed September 26, 2018).
  31. Ibid.
  32. Anne Kolbe, “An Object Choreography” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Katharina Cameron, “A Perfectly Normal Activity” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  36. Sophie Varin, “The Best Intentions of J.P. Gutti Part I and II” (master’s thesis, PZIMFA, 2018).
  37. Sophie Varin in an email exchange with the author, July 2018.

Federica Bueti is an art critic and editor based in Berlin. She is the founder of …ment, journal for contemporary culture, art and politics, and head of publication at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin. In 2017, together with Nathalie Mba Bikoro and Elena Agudio, she initiated the series Speaking Feminisms (2017) and We Who Are Not the Same (2018), a research and exhibition project focusing on decolonial feminist practices. She is currently working on Ecologies of Darkness, an exhibition and public program at SAVVY Contemporary (upcoming). Her research focuses on feminist politics of writing and reading. She regularly writes on art and social theory for art magazines such as Mousse, Spike Art Quarterly, Ocula, frieze, BOMB magazine a.o., as well as critical anthologies and artist monographs. With Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, she co-edited the volume The Incantation of the Disquieting Muse: On Divinity, Supra-Realities or the Exorcisement of Witchery published by The GreenBox, (2017), and is currently editing a book on artist Ibrahim Mahama (forthcoming with Sternberg Press). She is completing her PhD in the Writing Program at the Royal College of Art, London.