Dialogue between Kate Squires and Peter Winkels, July 2010 Berlin
Peter Winkels: Kate, you and I share the experience of working in the field of art education for cultural institutions of some renown: you for the Whitechapel Gallery and Camden Arts Centre and me for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Our role was to open these institutions for a larger audience, for communities that in general don’t go to art shows..On the podium in Ballhaus Nauynstrasse you talked about a conflict of values.
Kate Squires: The first project I worked on at the Whitechapel began with an exhibition by Franz West which included pornography. This was during Ramadan and the project (which had already been organised), was to work with a community organisation supporting South Asian girls and woman. Although we ended up using a nearby exhibition to work with instead, I think that often there are conflicting issues between the institutions mission statement and the reality of what we do within our role. To develop new audiences and local community dialogues can often clash with the structure and operation of the institution. Also, we work from values that tend to be liberal and middle-class values, these values are not always shared by the people that we work with. We are in a situation of power to choose who we work with and to raise issues and themes we think are important. Through these projects we can be accused of imposing values.
If we look at the role of the institution, I think that it must be concerned with ensuring that as a publicly funded organisation it should be open to everyone. Therefore, it has to think about the barriers that exist and try and address these barriers. If you think about the role of art in these terms you immediately politicize it.
Peter Winkels: Let me follow your argument that lowering the barriers that might keep certain groups of audience away from art institutions is a political obligation. As soon as you do this you have to work in a participatory mode. By this I mean the development of programmes and formats that include people actively in the programme structure of the institution and give them the opportunity of self-expression alongside the art you show. In the programme On Rage we designed a kind of aesthetic research looking for groups in the city that might have to say something on the issue and that might add voices to the philosophical discourse and artistic works in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The argument inside the institution which unfolded was not about what these people might have to say about the rage in our society, but where to present the artistic presentation of the aesthetic research. How far should it be away from the exhibition proper?
Kate Squires: The institutions are deciding who will be represented here and who will not be represented here. The fact that the research is made after the exhibition is put together means that people can respond but not be in a position of power to influence.
Peter Winkels: Yes, the legitimate share of public space is at stake here. But what I doubt is that the institution is aware of the fact that its decision on space is a political one. Moreover, it seems that there is a certain lack of knowledge in the white middle-class segment of our society – and that’s the class where the majority of decision makers in our cultural institutions come from –(hier muss breiter Typo-Strich hin) about how the other half lives. In Germany, this middle-class thinks that it is THE SOCIETY, and, therefore, being poor or being extremely rich is anti-social. Rich and poor, for them are mere abstract terms and they don’t have any contact with either group. So their only question is: why can’t they be like us?
Kate Squires: Yes, again coming back to a dominant set of values.
Peter Winkels: To achieve participation you have to build reliable partnerships with schools, community centres, individuals, and so forth. How did you do/manage this in the Whitechapel Gallery?
Kate Squires: You build these contacts and develop trust and real dialogue and then you leave the institution and these partners are suddenly knocking on the window from outside. The aim was to try and be fair and strategic in terms of who we worked with and how. So to put together a list of community centres and social agencies, youth centres, etc. that came from discussions with local representatives. We would work with those groups and evaluate how it went at the end of each year. Then there was a forum for community leaders, social agencies, youth programme leaders, care workers etc. It was a way to develop a long-term dialogue. The idea was to get an overview of the neighbourhood so that the approach was more holistic. There were different points of access, both short introductory sessions and long term partnership projects. There was always an aim of the group coming back and using the place as a resource and individuals going on to access other projects (i.e.: families projects, youth programmes, adult talks, etc.). So there would be a holistic approach. The work with schools and communities is important to link. Because although you have good relations with schools or individual teachers the classes changes every year, the kids move on and then that link is broken.
Peter Winkels: Our work still is pretty much concentrated on keeping up a connection to institutions and less with individuals. Thinking about it, this is a shortcoming. In some respect it is also due to the many different projects in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt: theatre, music, literature, exhibitions, and a variety of social and philosophical issues. With two programme formats we try to steer away from the short-breath production: We have a radio laboratory where people of all age groups learn how to produce a radio show. This show covers the programme of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, but the participants can make up their own features. We do now have a sort of fan club of people who attend more than once and also produce their own shows with our partner Klubradio unlimited who owns the studio. The other one is the choir, about 35 people from 18 to 75 years old from all different social and cultural backgrounds. They work together with musicians that are invited to the Haus or produce their own shows for the festivals or special occasions, like the reopening of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2007 or its 20th birthday in 2009.
Kate Squires: The institutions I have worked with tend to show solo or group artist shows rather than themed exhibitions. So there is not this big political question like you had with On Rage. In the education team we would use our knowledge (draw from long term partners), to think of issues in the exhibitions that might be pertinent to the local constituency that we work with. We would then invite those groups that we worked with closely already or that we are developing a relationship with, to come to an opening introduction and talk further then about opportunities for collaboration. The important issue was to develop the project together rather than with a top down approach, this means longer term collaborations. This is not easy (in terms of funding and logistics). Then there comes this conflict we talked about earlier in which the power of influence from the outcomes and thoughts and responses of the groups doesn’t influence the modes of production of the institution.
Peter Winkels: The thing of long-term commitments – whether it is with schools or social groups and associations – is always a thing about how open the institution itself is structured. If the mode of curating and producing is not a holistic and democratic one, then all the effort of building relations “to the world outside” is laid upon the education programme. And from my experience this can end as a fig leaf, like: “Look at the nice show the kids put up, and now, ladies and gentlemen, for something completely different.”