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Neither Working nor Unworking. On Residencies as Sites of Production

Laura Windhager & Lisa Mazza »

Neither Working nor Unworking. On Residencies as Sites of Production [1]

If one thinks about contemporary art residencies and tries to conceptualise them, it soon becomes evident that there is an ambivalent vocabulary at hand to speak about them. There seems to be a friction in the way language is utilised when it comes to discuss residencies. There still exists a set of utopian and idealistic key words that might stem from the escapism and ideologies of the 19th century artist communities. These designations are still valid and used to speak about residencies, and mainly circulate around notions of solitude and freedom, and the establishment of transnational communities. Terms inherent to the globalisation discourse such as hyper-mobility, local versus national and international, territory and network are often iterated as well. But in addition to that, there is a language that stems from cultural politics and government policy that is pushing its keywords like open ended productivity, process oriented art practices, outcome and transnational dialogue way into the common parlance about residency structures. Questions of mobility, locality and production spring to mind when one thinks about residencies, but we felt an urgency to move forward and to find new tools instead of reiterating a critical theoretical discourse to tackle this phenomenon.

To get an understanding or approximation of what residencies are, it is helpful to develop an apprehension of their relationship towards the process of institutionalisation and the ambivalent and unstable relationship towards institutions. This approach seems to be especially relevant to conceptualise them, given the residencies’ precarious existence and their obscure relationship towards production and the visibility of production.

Using the word 'institution', following Pascal Gielen’s understanding as being a space where hegemonic discourses are being produced, reproduced, altered and discarded, to describe or talk about residencies becomes perhaps a little ambiguous. By now, residency programmes are definitely an integral part of the art world at large, they have become integral for artists, curators and theorists to have at least one in their curriculum vitae. Yet, they are not exhibition spaces per definition. Residencies are sites or spaces of production, they are process oriented, open ended, they require no final product – at least in most programmes.

But this openness and freedom for creativity and production is also limited and deceptive: whilst no actual artwork or finished text might be expected, it is common practice that the residents give public talks, have an open studio day or even finish with a solo or group exhibition.

Residencies may not be public spaces by definition, in the sense that museums are, nonetheless they have a certain degree of visibility: they have their open studio days or even an exposé of artistic practices in an exhibition format. Yet if one approaches them functionally, they are sites of production rather than exhibition spaces. So what is at stake if what is taking place in artist residencies is a collapse of art production and art presentation?

Residencies and their studio programmes offer studios where life and work collide. They are sites of production and sites for temporary inhabitation. They allow for the production of art, theory, ideas and concepts. But they also function as exhibition sites with a certain degree of public visibility. Most residency programmes are neither a private and secluded retreat, nor are they a constantly and publicly accessible exhibition site, but a hybrid. Even though these residencies are defined as sites of production and spaces for artistic freedom, they all have a certain institutionalised exhibition format nevertheless, be it as open studio days or a final curated exhibition. As radical as the residencies position themselves, the moment of exhibition always harbours a danger of relapsing into the ossifying moment of institutionalisation. The artists and theorists within the residency programme cannot choose between privacy and publicness, the opening of their studio is not their decision but mostly the institution’s. Despite the fact that the main focus of these presentations and institutional representations is not geared towards the exhibition of finished objects, the stress is rather on the open-endedness and processuality of artistic practices, residencies exemplify a certain post-studio problematic in so far as they embody the movement or shift from exhibiting the finished art object or commodity to exhibiting the actual artistic process. By exhibiting and making the process of artistic production publicly accessible, the attention and interest has shifted from the self-contained artwork to the process of production, so that the site of production becomes a kind of “shop window” of artistic labour, which functions as an exhibition programme.[2]

But by making a more or less invisible process the object of reception, this links residencies to the practices of immaterial labour and the post-Fordist working conditions with their flexible working hours, immaterial labour, the dissolution of routinisation, and the drill to excessive individualisation.

What residencies exemplify is the equation of art labour as art work. In the traditional studio the work that finally leaves the studio and enters a circuit of visibility, commerce and meandering of attached meanings still holds a dimension of temporality in such as it is declared to by the finished artist’s autonomous decisions. In residencies, however, the once private process of labour is now publicly exposed, the decision when and how an artwork is finished is undermined by the exposure and exhibition to the public whilst it is still in process. With this exposure of artistic labour, residencies do resemble factories or research centres, where the focus is on the process of production, in which the final produced commodity might just be assembled or developed elsewhere. Just as factories are a manifestation or a representation of ‘labour’, so are artist residencies when they open their studios to exhibit artistic labour and ‘work in progress’.

But then, if what takes place in residencies is an uncovering and exposure of the artistic process as artistic labour, does this not bring residencies in close proximity to the contemporary conditions of the immaterial workers? There certainly is a relation between the process and the volatile production of work within residencies and a transformation of working conditions, a shift towards the immaterialisation of work. Philipp Ursprung, in his analysis of Olafur Eliasson’s studio complex and working conditions, thinks about the relation between immaterial labour and large scale studio practices: “In other words, what about the visibility, or rather the invisibility not of labour, but of the worker? The globalised economy has different types at its disposal to present consumption, but simultaneously it repressed any representation of labour.” [3]

So if the global economy is suppressing the representation of labour, as Philipp Ursprung has argued, can residency programmes and their exhibition of processuality and fragmented production be seen as an emancipatory potential in so far as they make the process of production and labour visible? Because the actual product or outcome of a residency does not have to be a physical object but can be invisible or immaterial, the expectation span mirrors that of the product orientated consumer world and that of the knowledge worker, who produces and sells ideas. If residencies are a reaction to shifting conditions of labour and production, are they also analogously a response to current working conditions? One of the shifts from Fordist to Post-Fordist’s working conditions was the transition of the logic of the commodity to the social domain. What was external to the economy in Fordism (communication, lifestyle, subjectivity) has now been internalised under what is now called “cognitive capitalism”. The collapse of social, private and professional life surely takes place within residency programmes. The resident as a possible impersonalisation of the post-Fordist cognitarian worker: not only do they both produce ideas and not objects, they are also not bound to a physical space but rather ‘work inside their head’; their working space is mobile, flexible, opportunistic (following some of Virno’s characteristics of immaterial labour). While the knowledge labourer receives his or her wage, the artist lives on a bursary – they both are usually irregular, project or residency based payments and only contribute to this precarious living. What this flexibility, both mental and financially, implies is also the collapse of life and work, of work and leisure. In a sense, leisure becomes work and work becomes leisure – or at least there is no sharp line that distinguishes them.

But residency programmes very often claim to allow for unproductivity, for a retreat from every day obligations. The total factor unproductivity attempts to measure the overall unproductivity of the inputs used by a residency. [4] If large-scale artistic production, put together on the assembly line in art factories and ‘think tank’ studio complexes, caters to global art market demands, artistic production and research in residencies seem to demarcate its antagonism. There is a certain “freedom of not having to follow the set of rules dictated by [the] art world system” [5], because residencies define themselves more as a social space, a space of being-in-common, that is not only geared towards a clear outcome at the end, but offers the possibility to experiment and go wrong, [6] to produce ideas and concepts rather than a physical object. There is also a certain amount of caution involved not to find oneself at a point of conclusion or complete transparency. Artistic production in residency programmes is more about keeping a project, a beginning rather than an end.

But then, this self-definition of ‘being out of the market economy’ insinuates a shift between a normal operating space and a different space, a less defined one, a space that does not close itself to production parameters. Production is always there, whether it's production of physically making an object or the immaterial production of ideas.

So providing the space for thinking, wondering and slothfulness is probably the residencies’ potential radicality. Residencies are not necessarily a complete withdrawal from the world, they are rather all politically driven in a way. Because even if a residency program is called a retreat, why is it called a retreat? It is a reaction to the fact that there is constant request for productivity. In this sense, residencies are a retreat from precarity. They are a retreat from the pressure to produce work. They offer a pigeonhole of laziness, an alcove to think whilst doing and producing nothing, physically. They allow for a removal from the creative process of being, of removing oneself from an environment you are familiar with, to open up to possibilities and expand your point of view whilst having the rare time for total contemplation.

Liam Gillick picks up on this concurrence of the notions of labour and leisure in his essay The Good of Work: “Modes of leisure have been adopted by artists as a way to openly counter notions of labor as sites of dignity and innovation […] The withdrawal of labor and the establishment of structures in which intentions and results are uneven are markers that go beyond the promise of post-labor, which was just the projection of a neurotic non-state”. [7] […] The notion of leisure, which can be substituted with unproductivity, slothfulness or more positively connoted as laissez-faire or playfulness, becomes a way of living, a way of working, the avant-garde dream of the co-existence of life, art and work. For Gillick, art workers adopt post-Fordist working models, which can deliberately be mimed or denied – there is a parallel to artist practice in residencies and within them, a moment of resistance (or at least critique), as the processuality and open-endedness mimes the strategies of the cognitariat.

Especially in residencies and their form of public perception and visibility, the display of fragmented production and immaterial processuality has caused a shift from the traditional “consciousness of reception”, in art institutions like museums, to a more fleeting “consciousness of production” – There is an oscillation between observation versus living, a form of leisure that is labour and is leisure again. Residencies allow for continual shifts between moments of engagement and disengagement, an alternation that uncovers the “why of production as opposed to the what.” [8] The mimicry of the roaming artistic practices in residency programmes can be read as a sharp critique of the post-Fordist, immaterial working conditions, the exploitation and concurrence of art, work and life, while it simultaneously poses a counter model to the pressure of immaterial labour: by reclaiming laziness or unproductivity as a mode of production, it also poses a moment of resistance by subverting the expected productive outcome. There is a political statement in not-doing-anything, the potential for undermining the constant expectancy of immaterial workers and cognitarian labourers by miming the process of productivity, while what is actually being produced is immaterial as in unproductivity.

Residencies defy classical models of artistic production. They sidestep the traditional role of art institutions, they merge moments of exhibition practices and formerly secluded artistic production. Their hybrid post-institutional status puts them in close proximity to being a parking lot for a career, a shelter in mid-career, a stepping stone for the long awaited discovery. Yet to reduce residencies to this mere art market affiliation denies them the utopian potential they harbour: residencies are a leeway not to produce anything, a time loop that is somehow suspended from the ever present pressure to be efficient, to produce. They might not be able to truly fulfil their promise of “solitude and freedom”, but they are also more than just networking platforms; they might just be a niche within the broadest sense of the art field that offers this hybrid status and allows to work without a certain external pressure. Nonetheless, they have to acknowledge key terms like cultural efficiency.

But by reclaiming and establishing laziness or “unworking” as a productive moment, they question and undermine the endless rant about art as commodity, they subvert any claims of the fetishization of art. Yet behind the utopian and almost naive model of unworking, another question is raised: in times of collapsed work-life balances, the immersive dilution of cognitive capitalism, can there even be moments of laziness? Is the decision to suspend the ever present pressure of efficiency during the time loop of a residency really in the artists’ hands or do the programmes take over the authority of deciding whether to incubate the career, commission works or just give it some more visibility like a production manager in neoliberal economy?

Do residencies not to a certain degree pervert the notion of slothfulness in so far as they then commodify the immaterial and processual art practices within them?

Residencies are the somewhat artistic counterpart to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: focus on the commodification, you will lose sight of the utopian potential that residencies harbour. Concentrate on the emancipatory potentiality and you will easily pass over the neoliberal agenda at bay.


[1] The present article is based on parts of the dissertation “How to live together? How to work together? On Residencies as Sites of Community and Production.” written collaboratively by the two authors at the Goldsmiths University London for the MA Contemporary Art Theory. The original text consisted of both a theoretical reflection on the above two questions and a glossary as well as a manifesto which was informed by the knowledge gained during the site visits and remotely held conversations with the residency programmes Gasworks (London), Delfina Foundation (London) Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen (Innsbruck), Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers (Paris) and the roaming Caribic Residency.
[2] Wagner, M., 2010. “Der kreative Akt als öffentliches Ereignis”. In: Diers, M., Wagner, M., Topos Atelier. Werkstatt und Wissensform. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, p. 57, Schneemann, P., 2010. “Das Atelier in der Fremde”. In: Diers, M., Wagner, M., Topos Atelier. Werkstatt und Wissensform. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, p. 180.
[3] Ursprung, P., 2010: “Arbeiten in der globalen Kunstwelt. Olafur Eliassons Werkstatt und Büro”. In: Diers, M., Wagner,M., Topos Atelier. Werkstatt und Wissensform. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, p. 147.
[4] Freely adapted from the Economist glossary entry on ‘productivity’, see a-to-z/p#node-21529473
[5] Kelly, S., 2012. Interview on Artist Residencies as Sites of Production and Community. Interviewed by Mazza, L. and Windhager, L. [Skype], London, 12 July 2012.
[6] Siclodi, A., 2012, Interview on Artist Residencies as Sites of Production and Community. Interviewed by Mazza, L. and Windhager, L. [Conversation], Innsbruck, 12 July 2012.
[7] See Gillick, L.: “The Good of Work”. In: Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle: Are You working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press 2011, p. 63.
[8] See Gillick, L., 2011. “The Good of Work”. In: Aranda, J., Kuan Wood, B., Vidokle, A., Are You working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press, p. 66.

Short bio

Laura Windhager (born 1984) is a theorist and art historian based in Vienna. She has previously worked at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary and as a research assistant for Contemporary and Modern Art art the University of Vienna. She was a 2012 grant holder for the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz Austria and is currently working on her PhD thesis at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Lisa Mazza (born 1980), currently based in Bolzano, is a cultural organizer and freelance curator holding an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths University London. From 2006–2007 she was assistant curator at Halle für Kunst in Lüneburg and scientific collaborator of the artist-in-residence program Schloß Bleckede. She has been assistant to the coordinator and head of the team in South Tyrol at Manifesta 7, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art in 2007-2008 and Biennial Coordinator at Manifesta Foundation in Amsterdam from 2009–2011.In 2010 she co-curated with Julia Moritz the project series "Kritische Komplizenschaft/Critical Complicity" at Kunsthalle Exnergasse in Vienna, Lungomare Bolzano-Bozen and Galerija Skuc in Ljubljana. From 2009–2012 she acted as Managing Editor of the Manifesta Journal- around curatorial practices releasing the issues MJ #7–15. In 2013 Mazza co-curated the month long project "Lungomare Gasthaus" at Lungomare Bolzan-Bozen. From 2014 she will be member of Lungomare's curatorial board.

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