Unlearning the Role Game

Unlearning the Role Game: Artists, Amateurs, Historians and Neighbors in the Periphery of Barcelona

Roger Sansi


The “delocalization” of art exhibits in non-artistic public spaces has grown exponentially in the last decades. This movement of exhibits outside museum and gallery spaces follows on the proliferation of site-specific and social practice art projects. In the delocalized exhibit, it is not only a singular art project, but a whole curatorial project that becomes site-specific. But delocalized exhibits such as Documenta 14, as we see in this issue of FIELD, can generate contestation. From the point of view of the curatorial team, delocalization may appear as a form of liberating art from the institution. But from the point of view of the “site”, the local people at the place where the exhibition is moved, this liberation of art may appear as an imposition, a form of cultural colonization.

Here I will introduce one example of a “delocalized” art exhibit. My argument is that this delocalization has been successful, at least from the point of view of the site, of the location on which the exhibition was displaced. The delocalized exhibit came from Fundació Joan Miró . The actual institution, the original museum “site”, is a beautiful, pristine modernist building on top of the Montjuïc hill, overlooking Barcelona. It hosts the collection of Joan Miró, one of the leading figures of modern art. Inside Fundació Miró, since its origin, there is also a space for temporary exhibits by young artists, called ESPAI 13 (Space 13). During the 2013-2104 season the space was occupied by “Preventive archaeology”,[1] a cycle curated by Oriol Fontdevila. The curator invited a number of artists to work both inside and outside the space, engaging with the surroundings of the foundation and its historical heritage, essentially the hill of Montjuïc. The project was designed partially in response to the celebration of the 300 anniversary of the occupation of Barcelona by Spanish troops in 1714, a key date for Catalan nationalism since it represented the end of self-rule for Catalonia. The celebration of the 300 anniversary of 1714 was getting a lot of attention and funding by the Catalan regional government, in detriment to other cultural projects. Fontdevila’s idea was partially to bring attention to this imbalance, and to propose a more general reflection on the role of contemporary art in relation to historical heritage.

[Figure 1. Bellvitge 2006. CC BY-SA 3.0]

Fontdevila asked art collective LaFundició to be in charge of the cycle’s mediation program. LaFundició is a social practice art cooperative, with an art space in a basement at the neighborhood of Bellvitge (figure 1), geographically close to Fundacio Miró but very far from it in social and symbolic terms. Bellvitge was once a rural sector of the municipality of Hospitalet, in the periphery of Barcelona, to the other side of the Montjuïc hill. During the Franco regime in the sixties, Bellvitge became a big housing project for immigrants from other parts of Spain, who arrived to find work during Barcelona’s industrial boom. Bellvitge was also a modernist architectural project, like Fundacio Miró, following Le Corbusier’s ideas about urbanism. High-raise residential buildings surrounded by gardens and wide roads for car traffic. But the project’s quality was always questioned, even by the residents: the buildings were poorly built, the apartments were small, and there were no surrounding gardens. Very early on, a neighborhood association organized demanding improvements. Nowadays, Bellvitge is a quiet working class area, which after decades of political strife has achieved good quality public services: parks, schools, libraries… But in the imaginary of Barcelona, Bellvitge still is a marginal place: it is the big ‘ugly’ housing project one can see from the highway when leaving Barcelona. It is definitely not a tourist spot.

Thinking of the uneven relation between the Fundació Miró and their own art space in Bellvitge, LaFundició proposed to take the mediation program a bit further than the conventional organized visits from schools, etc. First, they argued that, 2014 was also the 50th anniversary of Bellvitge‘s housing projects. LaFundicio was already involved in the commemoration of Bellvitge’s anniversary, and thought that the two anniversaries could be brought together. In these terms, the neighborhood could be included in “Preventive Archeology”. They proposed to turn their art space in Bellvitge into an extension or a delegation of the Fundació Miró. They renamed it Space 14-15, after Space 13. The idea was to bring artists in the cycle to organize workshops in Bellvitge. Together with the Space 14-15 project, LaFundició sought to develop their own memory project about the history of Bellvitge. They defined it in these terms:

“We understand that to put in relation the agents, the work, and the knowledges and discourses coming from the contemporary art world with those present in the context of Bellvitge requires creating ’contact zones’ that is to say, times and spaces in which one can collectively address the common questions and the controversies between the two spheres.[2] We are not aiming with Space 14-15 to create a neutral dialogical space, nor of course to help a process of cultural colonization.”[3]

One of the activities organized was a walk from Fundació Miró to Space 14-15 (figure 2). The participants in this walk were accompanied and guided by local historians, who explained the transformations of the different neighborhoods we crossed. When we arrived at Bellvitge, there was an open discussion on the urbanistic problems of the neighborhood. The discussion was, I think, quite interesting: while some people criticized the poor quality of the buildings, some other people defended their architecture, arguing that the main problem of the neighborhood in its origins was the lack of services, rather than the buildings themselves. But then one of participants in the tour made a very critical intervention. He said something like “You artists think that you can do anything, historical tours and discussions on urbanism, but you are amateurs, you don’t really know what you are talking about”.[4] Only later did I get to know that this man was a famous geographer, actually, my senior colleague at the Universitat de Barcelona.

[Figure 2. LaFundició Inauguration Space 14-15. 21-09-2013 Credits: Oriol Fontdevila]

One may indeed level this criticism against the Space 14-15 project. According to this view, they are amateurs, they are not professionals, they are not experts. Artists are not really social scientists, anthropologists, historians, or geographers, although in contemporary art it has become common for artists to work as such (the artist as historian, the artist as ethnographer…). On the other hand art centers have become anything but museums: laboratories, assemblies, archives, schools, research centers, residencies; they expand and de-localize, make partnerships and exchanges. Hence not only the artist, but also the curator, pretends to be many things besides an expert that takes care of material works of art. This is the “expanded field” of art [5] in which art has become a multiplicity, a proliferation of coexisting practices, beyond art itself.[6]

This is of course already a well-known question. Since Hal Foster, other art critics have questioned this blurring of genres and defended the autonomy of the art critic, as the sole authority that can speak about art (7)] Not only art experts, but also some social scientists seem to feel threatened by the ‘expansion’ of art into their fields of expertise: if everybody does “ethnography” and “history” what will be expertise of ethnographers or historians? [8] .

One of the problems of these arguments, against and for the intercourse of art with the social sciences, is that they are often based on the image of a one to one exchange. Artists on one side, social scientists on the other, imagining what one can give to and take from the other: creativity on the one hand, methodology on the other, for example. This critique is premised precisely upon the impossibility of these exchanges: creativity can’t be given, since it’s a ‘gift‘ of the artist; methodology can’t be simply taken, one needs to have professional training. Critics describe this mutual love as flirtation, an ephemeral enchantment, a false projection, an amateur pastime.

But perhaps we should understand these exchanges, inter-penetrations, expansions, and impostures from their ground: the work, the forms of life, the ethics, the politics, on which these practices are based. If we accuse someone of being an amateur, we make a number of assumptions on what is valued as work. So we probably need to get back to these assumptions. But before that, I would like to describe the work of LaFundició a little bit more in depth.

LaFundició [9]

The origins of LaFundició can be traced back to another art cooperative, Taller de Pubilla Kasas,[10] active since the nineteen seventies in the same town of L’Hospitalet. The Taller (The Workshop) was a community arts collective that organized educational projects with kids rather than for them: the children participated in the making of artworks. One of the kids in the Taller was Mariló Fernández, who joined when she was ten years old. Francisco Rubio joined in much later, when he was eighteen. In the eighties with the advent of democratic governance in local councils, the Taller started to work in artistic educations projects at schools. Their leading idea was to generate processes of collective creation, rather than to teach art. As they grew up, Mariló and Francisco worked in these projects, although with a very precarious income. Then they decided to open their own cooperative in 2006, even if they did not know anything about how to manage one. They named it LaFundició, the foundry, which is a play of words, between the notion of a space of industrial work and a cultural foundation. Their first projects were focused again on art and education, but they did not seek funding from education institutions or social welfare programs; instead, they applied to art grants. Their aim was to practice an “archeology of the school” working with the kids on analyzing the institution.[11] Their goal was the autonomous construction of a space self-managed by students and, for that aim, they brought a shipping container to the school. The school director ended up kicking them out with the container, because he understood that they were challenging the school project.

These projects caught the attention of art curators that started to commission them collaborative art projects with schools and history museums. Still, they managed to remain relatively autonomous from the institutions they collaborated with. In 2013 they opened the space at Bellvitge. Mariló knew the neighborhood well, she had been teaching painting to older women there for a long time. Partially so as to have a venue for these lessons, they decided to rent a basement in one of the most stigmatized buildings in the neighborhood, which was managed by the Welfare department (Benestar Social) and mostly inhabited by gitanos (Roma people). Their long-term objective was not just to find a room for painting lessons, but to open an autonomous cultural space for the neighborhood. It was shortly after opening the space that they were asked to participate in “Arqueología Colectiva”. As I mentioned before, curator Oriol Fontdevila asked LaFundició to lead the cycle’s mediation program. Although that wasn’t planned in the original budget, Fontdevilla decided to allocate the budget for one artist to them: exhibition cycles at Space 13 normally featured five artists in one show. This time it would be four artists exhibiting plus LaFundició leading the mediation project. Fontdevilla’s original idea was to organize the cycle’s educational activities. In particular, he wanted LaFundició to connect the other artists in the cycle with historians. But instead LaFundició proposed a process of collective creation, that not only involved historians but counted with a diversity of additional local agents. In order to achieve this, they suggested displacing the project: from Space 13, in Fundació Miró, to Space 14/15 in their premises in Bellvitge. This proposal was met with some initial resistance by the institution, according to LaFundició. The idea of delocalizing an exhibit was quite unprecedented, From the institutional point of view, LaFundició seems to have occupied an ambiguous position between educational service and art practice. But the proposal was finally accepted, The Head of Programs and Projects of Fundació Miró engaged actively with its development. Afterwards, Fundació Miró has promoted other delocalized projects, which I won’t be able to describe here. But this seems to indicate that the experiment worked.

Like other social practice art collectives, LaFundició has an ambivalent position that they try to work to their advantage; they are placed in-between the roles of artists, educators, and researchers. For the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Bellvitge, La Fundicó planned to organize a number of performative historical recreations that would take the form of ‘role-playing games‘. Each round of the game would address a particular historical event of the neighborhood. The first one, Embajadores de Bellvitge, re-created an event dating back to the neighborhood’s origins, when the construction company awarded forty neighbors with the prize of visiting different parts of Spain as “ambassadors” or promoters of Bellvitge [12]. To re-create this event the first round consisted of a guided visit to Poble Espanyol, in Montjuïc, an artificial village built for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, made of architectural recreations with different examples of vernacular architecture from all around Spain. They decided to link this project to Space 14-15 when they realized that Poble Espanyol, felt into the general theme of Preventive Archeology: engaging with the discourses of history, in particular around the mountain of Montjuïc where both Poble Espanyol and Fundacio Miró are placed. At the opening of Space 14-15, LaFundició and Fontdevila presented an exhibit/intervention with documentation about the “Ambassadors” event. The objective then was to promote cross -readings and parallelisms, between what was being exhibited at Space 13 and what was happening in Bellvitge, between the art institution and the neighborhood.

The next round, Boicot a las Obras (figure 3), was based upon a demonstration that took place in 1976, one year after the death of General Franco, against the building of thirty-three new housing high-rises. The neighbors had complained that the area was already overcrowded and they lacked basic services like schools and medical centers. Protesters boycotted the construction and, in the end, they managed to stop it. The recreation also made reference to Alan Kaprow’s happening Sweet Wall (1970)[13], in which the American artist used jam to build a wall in Berlin.

[Figure 3. Bellvitge Rol en vivo: Boycott a las obras 8-4-2014. Credits: Ana Triguero]

The third round, Perros Callejeros, referenced the filming of a scene from Perros Callejeros (Street dogs) (1977) a movie of cops and thieves. During that period of economic crisis and unemployment, the neighborhood acquired a bad reputation, associated with criminality and youth gangs. The last round of the game, Bellvitge 2065, was an essay on projective history, a speculation on the situation of the neighborhood at its one-hundred anniversary. The performance imagined a future in which Bellvitge had become an object of historical heritage and a tourist attraction. I participated in the script writing meetings for this round, together with members of LaFundició and a comic-book script writer. I remember vividly that I proposed an optimistic future, contrary to the dominant trope of apocalyptic science- fiction in the mass media. My argument was that the dominant image of the future is just a projection of the present, while the actual future will probably contradict our expectations. If our vision of the future is bleak, the future may turn out to be quite bright. But my interlocutors defeated my optimism; they had strong social scientific arguments about the foreseeable futures of late capitalism.

All these rounds were documented in short films. The films don’t only show the game but also its preparation and documentation, including interviews with witnesses of the actual historical events, and historians. The game was produced in collaboration with different individuals and collectives from a role game club in the neighborhood. It also included collaborations with The Center of Studies of L’ Hospitalet (Centre d’ Estudis de l’ Hospitalet), a local theater group, the neighborhood association, and singular individuals like myself. It was, in this sense, not simply a game, but an active research process, that, through apparently playful actions such as the historical recreation of a film noir or a science fiction movie, opened serious questions. According to members of LaFundició: “We propose and provoke things which are different from what ends up happening. But people in the neighborhood give value to the fact that things that weren’t happening, or questions that weren’t discussed before, are happening now”.[14]

The amateur

LaFundició lives in an interstitial space between art and other forms of practice, such as education, research, social services, political activism… Institutions don’t know exactly how to classify their work. Art institutions may not consider them artists, educational institutions may not consider them educators, institutionalized university professors don’t think of them as researchers, but as amateurs.

But what is exactly wrong with the amateur? The accusation of amateurism is not new to modern and contemporary art. In fact, modern and contemporary art embrace amateurism. Academically trained artists have a very specialized and sophisticated set of skills, founded upon a humanistic notion of culture, ands a technical expertise on the media they used. But many contemporary artists today “work with” film, video, sound or digital media, without necessarily being professional filmmakers or media experts; which is to say, without claiming to be in control of the media they are using. In this sense, we can say that many contemporary artists work with different media (the famous ‘mixed media’) without claiming to be in technical control of the media they use. In the same way, many artists work with people in participatory and site-specific projects, without claiming to have the specific skills- either as social scientists, or social workers, but just working from their own experience as social beings. This shift from academic expert to amateur is a result of the different forms of anti-art that have emerged from the early twentieth century based on systematic de-skilling,and un-learning the craft of the artist as John Roberts has argued, [15]. After Duchamp and Dadaism, the avant-garde did not propose new artistic techniques or skills. It proposed to shift the role of the artist from skilled producer with a particular technique to unskilled amateur who finds objects, images, techniques, and people.

Avant-garde artistic experimentation departed from the opposite principle to scientific experimentation in the lab: instead of building a closed environment under the control of the scientist or technician, experimentation in art started from opening up to the surrounding world and letting things happen, rejecting artists’ agency and embracing chance. The very term ‘experimental’ was first used in relation to music. Experimental music emerged with the use of new technologies of production, recording, and reproduction. But the use of these technologies was not a mechanism of technical progress nor control over sound. On the opposite, for John Cage it was a form of liberating sound from the musician’s intentions so that music could be undetermined, the result of chance. For Cage,

‘An experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen. Being unforeseen, this action is not concerned with its excuse. Like the land, like the air, it needs none. A performance of a composition which is indeterminate of its performance is necessarily unique.’ [16]

In this sense, the use of new technologies pairs with the use of non musical sounds of everyday life and with situations in which space and time play the role of co-authors of the music. The emblematic case would be Cage’s 4,33: a composition that departs from the silence of the instruments inviting the listener to hear surrounding ambient sound.

Avant-garde artists like Duchamp were not only reacting against academic art but they were also proposing an artistic counterpoint to industrial production. The latter was not a romantic return to artistic skill and craft On the contrary, it embraced deskilling and mechanization. The ready-made was an absolute inversion of alienation by industrial production: industrial workers made reproducible objects that they did not recognize as theirs. These, by default, turned the workers into parts of a chain of production. Duchamp encountered reproducible objects that he did not make. This strategy of finding objects and designating them as ‘art’ would later become his unique and non-reproducible work. This ‘rendez-vous’ that Duchamp called art is a radical questioning of the very mechanism of capitalist production.[17]

The post-duchampian conceptual artist is not an artisan working with different materials through his manual skill, but encounters and organizes materials produced by others. Conceptual artists often rely on delegation, surrogates, prosthetics. The production of many art works could not be conceived, nor in fact realized, without highly specialized fabrication workshops that, in some cases have become industrial in their size.[18] Contemporary artists may not even pretend to have the skills to produce their work, they only transmit their concept or project to workshops that employ professional fabricators. Conceptual artists’ effective control over the production process is relative as there is a high degree of openness and unpredictability in it. This has resulted in no few problems and complications in many art projects since the formulation of conceptual art in the sixties.[19] But perhaps these complications are part of the process in many cases; the very act of “delegation”[20] may be a purposeful strategy to distance concept from fabrication, precisely, to leave the room open for unpredictability.

We can extend these considerations a bit further to include participatory methods in art. If it is already difficult to agree on the assumption, that conceptualization is a particular skill of the conceptual artist, what can we infer from artists working with participation? Do they have participatory skills? In short: Are they trained in specific professional techniques to work with communities or in specific sites, as social scientists? In many cases the answer is negative. Participatory artists are professionally deskilled. In their relationship with communities they are open to chance, just like Dadaists and Surrealists were deskilled in their relationships with the objects they encountered. According to Kester the changes in artistic practice throughout the last century enact a “relentless disavowal of agency”[21] from allowing chance to guide the process of production of artworks, to working with social situations and in collaboration with people. In these terms, describing the artist as a skilled social worker who manages people would not only be limiting but also misleading. This is precisely because participative artistic projects often depart from the opposite position: rejecting the distinction between artist and public, specialized knowledge and everyday ways of making, work and life.

Chance and skill

At this point it could be interesting to address what anthropology has to say about skill and the division of work and life. In his discussion of skills and creativity, Ingold [22] proposes that we pay attention to the differences between the model of the practitioner and those of the student or the analyst. For Ingold, the work of the student and the analyst is based on the application of a model or a preconceived plan. By contrast, that of the practitioner is more focused on the process than the outcome; it borrows and appropriates from his surroundings, improvising in a lifelong process of embodied work with materials.[23]

Ingold describes the creativity of the practitioner in terms of ‘concrescence’, not in opposition but as a continuation of the world and its materials: that very moment of becoming by which the world, as it unfolds, continually surpasses itself.[24] The practitioner’s skill is this embodied understanding of the materials of the world and his or her atonement to them. In this sense, for Ingold, the process of production, or work, is not at all opposed to life, but part of it.[25] This vision of the practitioner-in-the-world is very clearly opposed to the modern model of production, in which culture and nature, object and subject are alienated from each other, and in which technology is designed to control the world not as a living environment but as a resource to be utilized. As we have seen, avant-garde art emerges as a critique of this model of production.

But still, we could say that most post-Duchampian art does not correspond to Ingold’s vision of creativity. Duchamp and the Dadaists were trained academics who explicitly rejected academic knowledge, not to return to the pre-industrial model of the craftsman, but to embrace ignorance and chance, which is not exactly the same thing. In this sense, the mode of creativity of most post-Duchampian art is closer to what Lévi-Strauss calls ‘bricolage’ than to Ingold’s notion of ‘concrescence’ ’Bricolage’, as Ingold himself explains, is the rearrangement of preexisting forms through a punctual event of encounter– a “revelation”. In opposition to this, Ingold’s notion of ‘concrescence‘ insists on the continuous process of unfolding of ‘life’, of forms, rather than punctual events.[26]

There is another point that needs consideration. Ingold’s practitioner doesn’t distinguish between work and life, subject and object. But this is not exactly the case in a lot of modern and contemporary art. Many authors after Duchamp questioned these separations not from a position of actually ignoring them, but by actively trying to overcome them through active engagement with chance. De-skilling implies the active rejection of skilled labor as separate from everyday life; it is an active form of politics.

Work and life

These politics of life and work are at the center of what Jacques Rancière has called the ‘aesthetic regime’, the general framework of the discourse and practice of modern and contemporary art since the eighteenth century. For Rancière,[27] aesthetics is a historical event, a particular form of the “distribution of the sensible”, a “regime” born in the Eighteenth Century with Kant and Schiller. This new “aesthetic regime” emerged in disagreement with the previous regime of art, what Rancière calls the ‘representational regime’. The ‘representational regime’ came to be in the Renaissance and was built upon the defense of the autonomy of the Fine Arts from other manual crafts. Before the Renaissance, the artist was a manual technician, a worker. But the classical artist after the Renaissance was no longer an artisan. But the classical artist was an intellectual and a humanist who applied erudite knowledge to his work. In the representational regime, beauty is an objective quality of nature and artists must learn to represent it correctly. For that purpose they were trained in Academies where they would not only be taught the skills of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, but also geometry, physics, and the humanities; the Arts in plural. These arts were based on a set of clear rules through which artists imitated nature in the correct form, a poetics. The first rule was precisely the rule of representation: the splitting of the world in two, a nature to be represented, and an art that would imitate it, and this would be done through precise techniques, imposing form upon inert matter[28] Matter has to be dominated, fetched, to achieve correct mimesis. This implies a disciplined process of learning the rules and techniques of art. Technical mastery, the correct imitation of nature, was then identified with superior quality and beauty. In this classical model, academic knowledge is a clearly hierarchical, regimented knowledge, built on distinction: only those who have knowledge of the processes of representation can be the arbiters of beauty.

According to Rancière [29], the aesthetic regime broke with this hierarchical access to beauty. The aesthetic judgment of taste would not anymore be the privilege of a few academicians, but the constitutive quality of a community of sense. If the representational regime of art was based on poetics, where art was made following objective academic rules, in the aesthetic regime art was based on Politics, understood as the subjective and free capacity to judge. This was clearly formulated in the writings of Schiller. Aesthetics, after Schiller, does not simply constitute a separate field of practice based on the autonomy of art. It is not art that is autonomous, what is autonomous is the mode of experience that aesthetics proposes,[30] which is a mode of experience based on play. For Schiller “play’s freedom is contrasted to the servitudes of work”.[31] Work is what we do for a living, out of necessity, but it is not necessarily what we want to do nor something we identify with. Play, as opposed to work, is a free activity were people can afford to be themselves. Schiller’s proposal to put play at the center of existence is not just a proposal to educate good and responsible citizens but, further, the utopian promise of a different form of life, in which what we do and who we are, work and life, are not separated: “a collective life that does not rend itself into separate spheres of activities, a community where art and life, art and politics, life and politics are not severed one from another”.[32]

Rancière’s reading of Schiller is clearly in line with the long Marxist tradition of critique of alienation of work, represented by philosophers like Lefebvre.[33] Moreover, it is also deeply indebted to the questioning of the academy and the professional role of the artist since Duchamp and Dadaism: the idea of starting from scratch was already central to Rancière’s work well before he directly engaged with aesthetics. In his seminal book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster[34] he proposed a radical conception of pedagogy. Arguing against the given inequality between master and student, by which the master has knowledge and the student is ignorant, Rancière suggest reconsidering their relation from a different perspective: what if both master and student were ignorant? In that case, the role of the master would be not to explain his knowledge to students, but to make them learn by themselves, as his equals. From this shared ignorance, new knowledge can emerge. A shared ignorance would be thus at the foundations of the pressuposition of equality. Art is no longer concerned with making beautiful objects that imitate nature, but with the judgments made by the community of sense. In this context, the academy, its teachings, rules, techniques, hierarchies, and forms of knowledge no longer make sense. Modern and contemporary art is ‘anti-art‘ because it goes against all the principles of the ‘art cult’ that was constituted precisely in the representational regime: the sacralization of the artist as genius with creativity, the museum as a temple of culture, etc…The hierarchy of the academy is replaced by the egalitarianism of the distribution of the sensible.

The aesthetic regime brings art to its extreme form: it becomes its very opposite- heteronomy, the dissolution of art into everyday life. ‘Art‘ in the singular, as a form of life, replaces ‘the arts’ as a profession. Art’s mission in the aesthetic regime is to show us the way towards liberation from labor. Artists in the aesthetic regime aim to reintegrate art and life, labor and play. [35]The founding paradox of the aesthetic regime is that art is art insofar as it is also something other than art: as far as it brings with itself a promise of emancipation, the elimination of art as a separate reality, and its transformation into a form of life [36]. And yet, this reintegration of art and life always appears as a utopian horizon: early Twenty-first Century art practice is still constrained by art institutions constituted in the representational regime: the museum, the art work, the artist as genius…

The ethics of modern art

In Formes de Vie,[37] art critic Nicolas Bourriaud made a very similar argument , if perhaps more specifically focused on artistic practice than Rancière’s. For Bourriaud, “modern art rejects to separate the finished product from existence; Praxis= poiesis. The act of creation is to create oneself.”[38] Modern art is not simply a specialized form of work or an autonomous field of production, a profession. It is a utopian form of life. Bourriaud traces the origins of this auto-poietic move back to dandism and to Baudelaire’s painter of modern life, who is something more and something else than an academic painter: a “man of the world”, a “man of the crowd”, a lover of universal life,[39] a spectator, more than a producer; “with an insatiable appetite for the “non-I”, [40] that he finds by chance as he strolls through the modern city. This lover of life immerses himself in the crowd walking idly, he is a flaneur, a dandy, whose form of life appears in direct contraposition to the work ethics of the bourgeoisie. Because aesthetics is indeed an ethics. Modern art’s ethics are formulated precisely in opposition to the ethics of professionalism, one could say, at least at three levels. First, at the level of the product: modern art in its more radical incarnations did not simply reject academic styles of artistic production to propose new ‘schools’, but it rejected academic art production as such. Since Duchamp and Dadaism, artistic practice is often conceived more in terms of appropriation and experimentation rather than the skilled and professional production of objects. This experimentation enacts a withdrawal of agency [41] and control and an explicit engagement with chance, starting from scratch, a tabula rasa approach to practice. This notion of starting from scratch, from one’s own ignorance rather that from specialized knowledge. Similarly, Rancière’s argument on the presupposition of equality, as I explained before, is not based on a shared knowledge or status, but on shared ignorance.

Second, modern art’s ethics differ from the ethics of professionalism also at the level of the producer. The rejection of academic work entails a wider rejection of work itself, as wage labor. The utopian horizon of modern art is to overcome the division of work and life, praxis and poiesis. In opposition to the alienation of capitalist wage labor, the aesthetic utopia is predicated on a self that does not make a separation between the professional I and the private I, artist and person. To produce is to produce oneself. Artistic practice would become then an ethical practice, in the sense of becoming a process of constitution of a unified self.

The rejection of professionalism and work inevitably leads to a third point- the rejection of economy. Modern art often emphasizes gratuity and the excessive and irrational use of energy, the “happy waste of productive forces”.[42] Dilapidation, subjectification and expenditure, in direct opposition to economization, objectification, and saving. “The pleasure of generous artistic expense”, to use Marcel Mauss’s words. [43]. It is no surprise that anthropological discussions of the gift, the potlatch, and sacrifice have been a constant source of inspiration for modern and contemporary artists. At all these three levels, the ethics of modern art appear in radical opposition to the protestant ethics of capitalism, as defined for example by Weber. Modern art produces a different common sense, or a new ‘distribution of the sensible’ in radical conflict with the common sense of the capitalist work ethics.

The expanded field of art and the new economy

Authors like Rancière and Bourriaud have described the general principles of modern and contemporary art as a form of life, a form of politics, a utopia. But has this utopia been achieved? The separation between art and life–the alienation of labor– was indeed questioned by the new kinds of society and economy that emerged in the 1970s. Workers in the last decades have become flexible, mobile, adaptable, participating simultaneously on several different projects, rather than keeping a life-long job with the same ongoing tasks and responsibilities. And yet this new society is still a new form of capitalism, with a ‘new spirit’, as Boltanski and Chiapello have defined it.[44] The new spirit of capitalism described by these authors is built upon an ontology of the network, an open plane of immanence, in Deleuzian terms, opposed to the hierarchies of structure and representation of previous models of capitalism. The immanent network privileges relations, communication, encounters, openness, and indeterminacy over structures and objects. for them, this new capitalism expands horizontally by extending networks, establishing relations, opening communications, promoting innovation, rather than vertically by producing structures and objectified commodities.

This new capitalism re-appropriates artistic critique and proposes a life in which the worker is creative, entrepreneurial, identifies with his work, doesn’t really make a distinction between his life inside and outside of his work: his social relations are part of what he does for a living. This is the new model of management, also a utopian model, because it does not fully correspond to reality but is enforced through performative bureaucratic mechanisms of that try to bend reality (everyday life!) to the model: mechanisms of accountability and auditing, which quantify creativity. In them, the value produced by everyday life as it becomes a commodity, transforming relations into objects.

In the new spirit of capitalism, the division of labor has been overcome in particular ways. The autonomy of different fields of practice has been superseded, to an extent, by the imposition of a transversal model of life and work: management. Nowadays, artists are also managers: they have to demonstrate they are able to raise money, independently from the quality of their work in the autonomous terms of their practice as art. To what extent social practice art, which in theory would in direct opposition to capitalist production and the society of the spectacle, often ends up being instrumentalized by the system they question? Or even worse, it may end up being used to justify the dismantling of actual social services, by channeling notions of empowerment, creativity and collaboration, becoming devices of neoliberal governmentality [45] Claire Bishop has shown how during the New Labour governments in the UK, community art was embraced as a sort of “soft social engineering” [46] promoting “participation” in the arts as a form of preventing social exclusion. For Bishop, social “inclusion” for New Labour was deeply rooted in a neoliberal agenda, seeking to “enable all members of society to be self- administering, fully functioning consumers who do not rely on the welfare state and who can cope with a deregulated, privatized world.”.[47] Notions of creativity as innate talent of the socially excluded, an energy that could be transformed from a destructive to a constructive impulse, are also quite common in these cultural policies. In these terms, the ‘expanded field of art’ could be seen in superposition to the extended field of management, or ever worse, as the smiling face, the surface of a deeper economic truth.


In these terms, critiques of the artist as amateur and of the expanded field of art could run much deeper. The critique of professionalism, of the separation of roles, and of hierarchical knowledge and skills that is implicit in some forms of contemporary artistic discourse, the ‘expanded field of art’, could be just a tool for a deeper structural revolution of management, hidden under the kind aspect of the aesthetic utopia. In simpler terms, if everybody is empowered and has the potential to develop their own forms of knowledge, why does one need experts? Or even worse, if one has artists who can take on the role of any other professionals – historians, educators, sociologists, etc.; why does one need these other professionals?

These are relevant questions, and maybe they could be asked in reference to the examples I have provided in this article. LaFundició appears as a very good example of some of the main points that we have raised in relation to the aesthetic regime of art as a form of life: the rejection of academic knowledge and expertise, the search for the reunification of art and life, art as a horizontal process of collective creation, where everybody is an artist, etc. If such is the case, is LaFundició helping to question forms of specialized knowledge, systems of education, with the pretext of egalitarianism and creativity? Is LaFundició a social service provider[48] under the façade of an art project? Is it complicit with new forms of social management in the periphery?

The answer to these questions is complex. First, is proposing to raise knowledge founded on ignorance, understood after Rancière as a process of collective creation, a form of questioning expertise and hierarchical knowledge? It is indeed. But in the case of LaFundició we should take a detailed look at who constitutes the collective. In their historical recreations LaFundició brings together different social actors who come in with their different backgrounds and interests, from role-game players, to comic book script-writers, amateur theater companies, and local historians. These historians, one must say, never felt threatened by the process; on the contrary, they understood that these processes would give them access to oral narratives of the local history that they may not have reached otherwise. This is a quite obvious point for anthropologists: everybody is an expert in their own history, in their own culture. But in spite of being obvious, it is always good to remember it. On the other hand, the form that this collective creation takes may or may not be objectified in terms that are recognizable to scholars. The archives may be left open, the films or the performances perhaps don’t analyze the data in the form that a professional anthropologist or historian would in a scientific essay. In the artistic and curatorial project, the form of knowledge is more important than knowledge itself.[49] But they still constitute data and archives that then can be used by specialists. My impression is that the historians that participated in the process had a very clear understanding of this fact.

Second, is LaFundició a social service provider under the façade of an art project? Is it complicit with new forms of social management in the periphery? I sincerely doubt that this project can be easily classified as a covert social services operation. First of all, because as we have seen, LaFundició has often had trouble with the social institutions it has worked with– schools, museums, city councils. It is important to say that they are not necessarily dependent upon the institutions they collaborate with. They are working in local social programs, but most of their funding comes from general public sector grants for cultural projects and associations, and secondarily also from their collaboration with art curators. This is a simple but important point: if the task of LaFundició is to reunite art and life, it does so from the standpoint of its independence, the possibility of having a leveled relation with the institutions they work with.

Secondly, and very important, LaFundició understands its independence as a result of its awareness of the political implications of its work. The fact that the old forms of critique have been re-appropriated does not mean that the potential for critical thought and action that has emanated from art has been canceled in all cases. Not all forms of participation and collaboration have become toxic just because participation and collaboration have become buzzwords. The proposal that ‘everybody is an artist’, may still have a potential, if we see it in direct confrontation to the dominant ‘everybody is a manager’ This confrontation may reveal, first of all, that both are based on utopia: they are not descriptions of reality but political projects. What makes art political, a part of public life, may be very different to the managerial utopia: it proposes opposed notions of the person, of the world, of the relation between people and things…. And hence it may imply a certain politics, in contraposition to the politics of utility, impact and added value. This different politics entails working in collaboration with others. This collaboration must probably start from what we have in common, not from what makes us different; not from our expertise, but from a common political ground. La Fundició is a good example of a social practice cooperative that is faithful to these principles.


Roger Sansi was born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1972. After studying at the Universities of Barcelona and Paris he received his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Chicago (2003). He has worked at Kings College and Goldsmiths College, University of London. Currently he is Professor in Social Anthropology at Universitat de Barcelona, Spain. He has worked on Afro-Brazilian culture and religion, the concept of the fetish, and on contemporary art in Barcelona. His publications include the books Fetishes and Monuments, (Berghahn, 2007), Sorcery in the Black Atlantic (edited with L. Nicolau, Chicago University Press, 2011), Economies of Relation: Money And Personalism in the Lusophone World ( University of New England Press, 2013) and Art, Anthropology and the Gift (Bloomsbury, 2015).


[1] https://www.fmirobcn.org/es/exposiciones/5134/arqueologia-preventiva/ (accessed on January 20, 2018).

[2] Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991), pp.33–40.

[3] Entendemos que poner en relación a los agentes, el trabajo, los saberes y los discursos provenientes del campo del arte contemporáneo con los presentes en el contexto de Bellvitge, pasa por crear “zonas de contacto” es decir, tiempos y espacios en los que poder abordar colectivamente los puntos en común y las controversias que pudieran haber entre ambas esferas. No tratamos pues, con el Espai 14-15, crear un espacio dialógico neutral ni tampoco, por descontado, coadyuvar en un proceso de colonización cultural. Por el contrario, aspiramos a generar, en colaboración con todxs lxs implicadxs, un espacio en el que se pueda demarcar la posición desde la que habla cada unx, sus estructuras de referencia y los hábitos que cada unx encarna; con el objetivo de construir colectivamente un conocimiento común sobre la producción de memoria. “Espai 14-15,” LaFundició (blog), http://lafundicio.net/blog/2013/09/18/espai-14-15/ September 18, 2013, (accessed on January 20, 2018).

[4] Opening of Space 14-15, Bellvitge, September 21, 2013.

[5] Irit Rogoff, “The Expanded Field,” in The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating, edited by Jean-Paul Martinon (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp.41–48.

[6] Néstor García Canclini and David L. Frye, Art beyond Itself: Anthropology for a Society without a Story Line (Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2014).

[7] Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?,” in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, edited by George Marcus and Fred Myer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp.302–309, Jennifer González, Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art (Cambridge,MA: MIT Press. 2008), Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London; New York: Verso Books, 2012), and Alana Jelinek, “An Artist’s Response to an Anthropological Perspective (Grimshaw and Ravetz),” Social Anthropology, 24 (2016), pp. 503–509.

[8] Duncan Garrow and Thomas Yarrow, Archaeology and Anthropology: Understanding Similarity, Exploring Difference, edited by Duncan Garrow and Thomas Yarrow (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010), Detachments: Essays on the limits of Relational Thinking, edited by Matei Candea, Joanna Cook, Catherine Trundle and Thomas Yarrow, (Manchester: Manchester University, Press; 2015), Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz, “The Ethnographic Turn–And After: A Critical Approach towards the Realignment of Art and Anthropology,” Social Anthropology 23 (2015), pp. 418–434, and Roger Sansi and Marilyn Strathern, “Art and Anthropology After Relations,” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory vol. 6, no. 2 (2016), pp. 425–439.

[9] “LaFundició,” LaFundició (blog), http://lafundicio.net/ (accessed on January 20, 2018).

[10] TPK Art i Pensament Contemporani (blog), http://www.tpkonline.com (accessed on January 25, 2018).

[11] Mariló Fernandez, and Francisco Rubio, interview with the author, March, 18, 2015.

[12] Lafundicio.net/blog/2013/11/18/los-embajadores-de-bellvitge-llegan-al-poble-espanyol/

[13] Oriol Fontdevila, “Allan Kaprow: Sweet Wall,” Oriol Fontdevila (blog), http://oriolfontdevila.net/sweet-wall-allan-kaprow/, August 11, 2015 (accessed on January 25, 2018).

[14] Mariló Fernandez, and Francisco Rubio, interview with the author, March, 18, 2015.

[15] John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (London: Verso, 2007).

[16] John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), p.39.

[17] John Roberts, ibid.

[18] Katrina Crear, “The Material Lives and Deaths of Contemporary Artworks,” (Ph.D. diss., Goldsmiths, University of London, 2012).

[19] Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (Cambridge; MA: MIT Press, 2005).

[20] Katrina Crear, ibid.

[21] Grant H. Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), p.4.

[22] Creativity and Cultural Improvisation, edited by Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam (Oxford: Berg, 2007), Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (London: Routledge, 2011).

[23] Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, p.6.

[24] Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam, ibid., p.47.

[25] Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, p.6.

[26] Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam, ibid., pp. 47-49.

[27] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London/New York: Continuum, 2004).

[28] Jacques Rancière, ibid., p.39.

[29] Jaques Ranciere, ibid.

[30] Jacques Rancière, “On the Aesthetic Revolution,” New Left Review 14 (2002), p.133.

[31] Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009), p.31.

[32] Jacques Rancière, “On the Aesthetic Revolution,” ibid., p. 136.

[33] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 2 (London; New York: Verso, 2002).

[34] Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991).

[35] Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, ibid., p.36.

[36] Nicolas Bourriaud, Formes de Vie: L’art Moderne et l’invention de Soi (Paris: Denoël, 1999).

[37] Nicolas Bourriaud, ibid.

[38] “L’art moderne […] refuse de considérer comme séparés le produit fini et l’existence à mener. Praxis égale poiesis. Créer, c’est se créer.” Nicolas Bourriaud, ibid., p.13.

[39] Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London: Phaidon press, 1995), p.9.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Kester, op.cit.

[42] Nicolas Bourriaud, ibid., p.15.

[43] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: Cohen & West, 1954 [1925]), p.67.

[44] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2006).

[45] Markus Miessen, The Nightmare of Participation (Crossbench Praxis as A Mode of Criticality) (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011).

[46] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London/New York: Verso Books, 2012)

[47] Ibid., p.12.

[48] Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge; MA.: MIT press, 2004), p.117.

[49] Irit Rogoff, ibid., pp.41–48.