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Time for a Network Revolution: Coalitions, Working Groups, Confederations

Image: the links between the constituencies and collaborators of the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art MSUM+, Ljubljana, in the space designed by the artist Apolonija Sustersic, MSUM+, Ljubljana.

By Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez
On May 29, 2015

Image: the links between the constituencies and collaborators of the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art MSUM+, Ljubljana, in the space designed by the artist Apolonija Sustersic, MSUM+, Ljubljana.

Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez was selected for the 2014 ICI/French Institute Fellowship, where she traveled to New York and Mexico City to conduct interviews, lead think tanks, and research the common urgencies, solidarities, empathy and antagonisms that drive some institutional networks in Europe, the US, and also transnationally.

Image: L’internationale Online, publishing platform of the confederation L’Internationale.

As a starting point of the research scholarship, organised by ICI and L’Institut Français, I chose to embark on the short but intense investigation and comparison into the common urgencies, solidarities, empathy and antagonisms that drive some of the more visible institutional networks in the contemporary art world in Europe, the US, and also transnationally. The research included cooperatively-run spaces, advocacy groups, and artist activist groups. Having just begun to work as the managing editor of L’Internationale Online1,  the new online platform of the confederation of European museums and art institutions, the idea of cooperative practices in curating and institutional politics has been at the forefront of my current research interests.

In the past, I co-founded a network of small-scale institutions called Cluster2, and participated at the contemporary art network TRAM that connects contemporary art centres in and around Paris. On a more autobiographical note, I am originally from Slovenia, where the web of active solidarity of the artistic associations’ tissue has always been inspiring and important for the artistic and curatorial scene. After Yugoslavia broke apart that same scene received a significant impetus from the former Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, a member of the George Soros’s Open Society Institutes across the former Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Image: Cluster network's website.

“The notion of network is of use whenever action is to be redistributed,” writes Bruno Latour in his self-critical re-evaluation of the seminal theoretic proposal known as Actor-Network-Theory3 (ANT) that Latour and his colleague Michel Callon developed in the early 1980s in Paris. With this theory, the concept of the network expanded into comprising action and the space that surrounds actors, made visible by the deployment of networks. The ANT transformed the way the object is comprehended, as a self-contained entity, by enabling the visibility of forces and actions that sustain it. As Latour describes, this “ecological” movement is reversible: “an actor is nothing but a network, except that a network is nothing but actors… To be self-contained – that is to be an actor – and to be thoroughly dependent – that is to be a networks – is to say twice the same thing.”4 Since the notion of work of the actors is in the foreground, some authors, including Latour, suggest using the word worknet instead.

The range of network’s potency spans from natural, organic self-organisation of the cells into tissues in any body on a micro-level, to a potentially omnipotent mega structure on a macro-level. There is a negative side of that term widely used today, due to its increased criminalisation and being under scrutiny due to terrorist organisations in many different areas of the globe. In both cases, the first and foremost driving element that brings two actors together is friendship, affinity, and affect. I will explore a few case studies, using the lens of the aforesaid Latourian definition of actor-network ideas, in order to observe the intentions, subjective histories and the energy produced when working-together that has brought translocal and transnational networks to achieve efficiency and visibility in the art field over the last few years.

Several events have recently brought together the collective creative endeavours that are driven by artists or institutions. First we can mention the meeting organised by Art in General and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics in 2014. The symposium What Now? Collaboration and Collectivity brought together members of different institutions mainly from the US and Europe; it focused on the questions “how we work together and how we form a community,” exploring collaborations between artists and institutions, while also examining the modes and methods of collective action, including positions of engagement and disengagement. Another example would be the unique and very inspiring transcontinental network Arts Collaboratory5, a platform for exchange and cooperation made up of 24 arts organizations from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, which held its first assembly in 2014 in Indonesia. A week-long series of encounters was centered around working groups that addressed topics including crisis and post-crisis sites, alternative pedagogies, urban intervention, rewriting (art) histories in terms of organizational practices, the commons, and different curatorial methods. The mission of Arts Collaboratory is to promote collaborative, inventive, and open visual arts practices that are socially engaging and transformative. It was co-initiated in 2007 by DOEN and Hivos, two Dutch foundations, as a financial support structure and program of exchange for art initiatives in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Arts Collaboratory aspires to be a unique form of transnational network for art and organisational practices that experiment with different collaborative structures, and is committed to working closely with all the participating organizations.

Last but not least, the Artist Organisations International, a congress organised by Joanna Warsza, Florian Malzacher and Jonas Staal at Hebbel Theatre in Berlin took place in January 2015. In their statement the organisers diagnose a current shift “from temporary, precarious art projects to long-term structures of engagement built by artists. The economic crisis, the global erosion of civil rights through the so-called “War on Terror” and the massive rise of social movements have demanded new models of structural participation from politically engaged artists. The shift from the working model of the project to that of the organisation no longer reduces artistic engagement to the singular figure of the author but expands its scope and influence – for example by creating new forms of educational and community structures, non-parliamentary groups, liberation movements, unions or even political parties.”6

In relation to the real politics, two examples of artists’ “unions” can be mentioned, both originating from the US: Gulf Labor and W.A.G.E. Gulf Labor7 is one of most instigating initiatives, run by artists, writers, architects, curators, and other cultural workers who are trying to ensure that workers’ rights are protected during the construction of new cultural institutions on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, UAE. After letter-writing and meetings with the Guggenheim in 2010 produced insufficient change, this working group, as its members call it, initiated a public boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (GAD) in 2011. Almost two thousand cultural workers have signed on to the boycott, agreeing not to sell work to, accept commissions from, or participate in events on behalf of the GAD. Its most visible tactical shift came in autumn 2013 when the group launched the 52 Weeks campaign and released one or more artist’s projects every week for a year. These projects called attention to some aspects of workers’ conditions on Saadiyat Island, the political context that enables their situation, and the problematic compact between the institutions building on Saadiyat and their partners in Abu Dhabi : or they make links between the situation of the workers on Saadiyat and similar struggles by other migrants and workers in other places and times. As one of the group members, the artist Mariam Ghani described it: “52 Weeks represents a move from the strategic use of artworks (withholding them, or imposing conditions on their sale, production and exhibition) as an activist tactic, to an attempt to apply the same kind of pressure through the production and distribution of artworks that directly address or enact that activism.”8

At this moment, Gulf Labor’s demands with regards to Saadiyat have not changed. They remained fully determined to seek uniform and enforceable protections for the human rights of all workers on the island. Over time, however, a second, less specific goal has been developed: bringing the conversation around labor, migration, and cultural capital from the margins to the center of cultural discourse. As read in the FAQ section of their website, Gulf Labor is not funded and is transnational. The Working Group donates their time and efforts. Occasionally members of the Working Group participate in panel discussions or produce texts for publication, for which they receive a small fee, which then can subsidize Gulf Labor’s website and outreach efforts. Working Group currently includes: Haig Aivazian, Ayreen Anastas, Doug Ashford, Shaina Anand, Doris Bittar, Tania Brugera, Sam Durant, Rene Gabri, Mariam Ghani, Hans Haacke, Brian Holmes, Rana Jaleel, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, Michael Rakowitz, Andrew Ross, Ashok Sukumaran, Gregory Sholette, Beth Stryker, and Murtaza Vali.

Another activist and advocacy group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.)9 is driven by the ambition to realize concrete answers to the regulation of the payment of artist fees by nonprofit art institutions. W.A.G.E. aims to establish a sustainable model for best practices between cultural producers and the institutions that contract their labour. It was formed in New York in 2008 with the writing of the Wo/manifesto10 and launched its public appeal at the several conferences that same year. In this way, a path toward building solidarities, solidifying a core group, and galvanizing a community was united by a sense of inequity. W.A.G.E. is comprised of practicing artists, but they do not consider it an art collective or a work of art : “Our participation is never in the capacity of being artists; we may use performative strategies or our skills as artists to craft messages and deploy them strategically, but what we are advocating is policy change – not symbolic change, but actual systemic change.”11 Following several public meetings, W.A.G.E. Certification was initiated in 2010. It is a programme that recognizes non-profit arts organisations that adhere to a set of self-regulatory initiatives, demonstrating commitment to paying artist fees that are calculated according to the organization’s annual budget. On the website of W.A.G.E. one can read that Artists Space is the only institution which has been W.A.G.E. Certified, as of February 2015. The Board of W.A.G.E. is comprised of artists, curators and theoreticians : Douglas Ashford, A.K. Burns, Howie Chen, Andrea Fraser, Suhail Malik, A.L. Steiner, Marina Vishmidt and Tirdad Zolghadr. It is supported by a system of donations.

A type of network that works on specific content transnationally is Red Conceptualismos del Sur or The Southern Conceptualisms Network. It began in 2007 when a core group of Latin American researchers decided to establish a platform for thought, discussion, and positioning. At the time, the work of some of these researchers had sought to map and recuperate a disparate constellation of artistic practices, which had developed across Latin America, between the 1960s and the 1980s, during times of conflict or under conditions of the dictatorial military regimes.

Image: website of Red Conceptualismos del Sur.

Rather than claiming a unique geographical cultural identity, the term ‘Southern’ calls for furthering knowledge processes from subordinated places, bodies, and aesthetics—historically in unequal standing vis-à-vis a Western-Imperial world view. Without plural cognitive equality, global social justice is impossible. As cultural mediators, we face the challenge of imagining and proposing more equitable forms of producing and sharing knowledge on a transnational level.12  The Southern Conceptualisms Network is an autonomous entity consisting of about 55 researchers, artists, curators, psychoanalysts, art historians, sociologists, and activists from Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, the United Kingdom, and Spain, whose aim is to remain independent from the current demands of academy or art market. Red Conceptualismos del Sur collaborates with institutions from different areas to organise editorial projects, exhibitions, research groups, and public events. In the past, the exhibitions and public events have taken place in São Paulo (April 2008), Rosario (October 2008), Madrid (March 2009 and November 2010), Santiago de Chile (July 2009), Lima (July 2012), and Buenos Aires (October 2012). Project Archivo Graciela Carnevale (curated by Fernando Davis, Ana Longoni, Ana Wazdik, and Graciela Carnevale) was organised in Rosario in 2008, as a reflection on the intersections of art and politics in Argentina in the 1960s from the Carnevale’s archive. The members of the network continue to publish collective essays and statements about the urgent matters that correspond to its research field.

On the side of the institutional work regarding the mutualisation of resources, solidarity and working together on the basis of affinities, L’Internationale can be taken as a starting point. Through its organisation one can detect what are the possibilities of participation today, given the global exchange of ideas, the spectacularisation of the art institutions, and wild speculation of art market. L'Internationale is a confederation of six modern and contemporary art institutions. It proposes a space for art within a non-hierarchical and decentralised internationalism, based on the values of difference and horizontal exchange among a constellation of cultural agents, locally rooted and globally connected. It brings together six major European museums: Moderna galerija (MG+MSUM, Ljubljana, Slovenia); Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (MNCARS, Madrid, Spain); Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA, Barcelona, Spain); Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium); SALT (Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey) and Van Abbemuseum (VAM, Eindhoven, the Netherlands). L'Internationale works with complementary partners such as Grizedale Arts (GA, Coniston, United Kingdom), Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU, Liverpool, United Kingdom), Stiftung Universität Hildesheim (UH, Hildesheim, Germany) and University College Ghent School of Arts (KASK, Ghent, Belgium), along with associate organisations from the academic and artistic fields. The confederation takes its name from the workers' anthem "L'Internationale," which calls for an equitable and democratic society, referencing the historical labor movement. The ethics of L'Internationale are based on the values of difference and antagonism, solidarity and commonality; its mission lies in collective intra-institutional research into legacy, cultural and symbolic heritage. It aims to build a sustainable constellation of European museums: civic institutes where art is used for public benefit, for inspiration, reflection and debate.

Image: The constituencies and their projects in relation to the Museum Reina Sofia, Madrid, on the museum’s website.

The first collaboration addressed these issues through the EU-funded project 1957-1986. Art from the Decline of Modernism to the Rise of Globalisation (2010-2012), which analysed the relationship between art and society on both sides of the traditional East-West divide. Based on the experience and aspirations drawn from this project, the current five-year programme The Uses of Art – The Legacy of 1848 and 1989 (2013-2017) proposes new readings of European art history for the broader public. This new perspective on the past is anchored in the long history of civil society, tracing it back to the civic revolutions of 1848 through wars and social changes up to the revolutions of 1989, and then on to the economic crises of today. The organisation of exhibitions, symposia, publications, education programmes and staff exchanges, will culminate with simultaneous projects across Europe in 2017. This will generate a content-driven, sustainable form of collaboration in the museum field that will ensure new forms of transnational access – both physical and digital – towards what L’Internationale terms as “institution of commons” as well as work on the intercultural dialogue on society and visual art, and the sharing of professional skills and knowledge about collections and artistic projects.

At this moment, L’Internationale is in its most performative phase where the focus is directed to its constituencies and to the question: to whom does it address, what the actors are experiencing internally, what they are researching and proposing. The most relevant question that the members and partners within L’Internationale are asking is where and when does the responsibility to the funding bodies (Culture Programme of the European Union) that enabled this coalition transform into working together for the sake of urgency only.

Image: the links between the constituencies and collaborators of the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art MSUM+, Ljubljana, in the space designed by the artist Apolonija Sustersic, MSUM+, Ljubljana.

The ever-challenging relationship of a periphery towards the centre of a metropole is in the heart of a shared research of the network Cluster. Since 2011, this international network comprises eight visual art structures13, each located in residential areas peripheral to large cities in Europe, with an extension in Holon pointing towards the Middle East. Each of these structures is actively implicated in its respective local context through the development of connections with their immediate environments – most of the organizations are situated in underserved or impoverished areas with large immigrant populations, and where many languages are spoken – while also being active on an international level through projects and knowledge-sharing. Each organization is focused on commissioning, producing, and presenting contemporary art, and the nature of the work is often experimental and process-driven; is based on working with international and local artists; involves research and often engages with diverse publics on a local level. Cluster believes there is a strong need to build a dialogue around this work, largely because the activities of art institutions in peripheral cities are hardly covered in art publications, but also because these spaces play a small but crucial role in the constitution of the public sphere—they are physical spaces for unusual forms of assembly, experience, and exchange.14  Another significant discussion between the members of the network implies the questioning of the value of the research or work produced in such kind of art spaces. In the beginning years of its existence, Cluster was supported through European Cultural Foundation and European Commission Culture 2007-2013, in connection with the project COHAB, and is currently renewing its funding structure.

Cluster is closely connected to another London-based network of small-scale organisations Common Practice, which also established a New York franchise several years ago. It published a report titled Size Matters in 2011, which was significant inspiration for the discussions taking place between the members of the Cluster. When those organisations invest in an artist, the financial and social benefits of this investment rarely comes back to the organisation, and current formal reporting procedures are unable to capture this "deferred value," whereby the value created by an initiating organisation is realised long after a commission has moved beyond its jurisdiction. One of the writers, Sarah Thelwell notes that: "Artworks accumulate value throughout their lifetimes in both the public and private sectors, but the small organisations which originated them are not the ultimate beneficiaries of these processes...we see that value accrues over the lifetime of an object or idea which is often capitalised upon by larger institutions and the commercial sector."15

Furthermore, the role of these small-size art centres is influential on many other levels within a wider artistic field. Thelwell writes, “it would seem that small organizations act as an unofficial support mechanism for larger organizations, by investing in risk-taking and the development of work,” as well as “developing new delivery formats and implementing highly participatory educational strategies.”16  Acknowledging these facts, it becomes apparent that the cultural value production of these institutions exceeds their precarious economic circumstances. Mark Fisher and Nina Möntmann reflect on the effects of exchange and mutual support of small-scale, peripheral institutions combined with decentralised internationalism in their essay “Peripheral Proposals”: "When cultural production plays a central role in the process of valorising capital, the role ascribed to art institutions is to expose their publics to the corporate interest as well as the political interest in city marketing. In its peripheral setting the (network) Cluster is sort of a participant-observer in this context of valorizing capital in the art field: It can use the advantages it accrues from not being under the microscope of public attention, while collectively imagining different models of identification from the margins.”17

Lastly, Independent Curators International (ICI) has existed for the last 40 years, since 1975, and it has supported the development of independent curatorial practice, organisation, networking and profiling. Born in the time of the rising wave of artist-run spaces such as White Columns, Art in General or Artists Space, ICI defined its aim in doing field work to find out about curators from all over the US and their needs, and paving an alternative national policy to the one that existed. During this process, independent curatorial practice has been in constant mutation as well, and ICI has opened up to the global networks of curators by providing numerous opportunities for them to meet and start working together. This unique and decentralised network of peers is today oriented towards research into new internationalism, but also in instigating curatorial networks in Central America and the Caribbean.





3)  Bruno Latour, « Networks, Societies, Spheres : Reflections of an Actor-network Theorist », keynote speech for the International Seminar on Network Theory, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Los Angeles, 2010.

4)  Bruno Latour, ibid.




8)  Mariam Ghani, Gulf Labor Working Group, « Notes from a Boycott », Manifesta Journal nr. 18 : This Situation Never Leaves Our Waking Thoughts for Long, 2014.





13)  They are: CAC Brétigny, Brétigny s/Orge, France; CA2M Centro Dos De Mayo, Madrid, Spain; Casco - Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht, The Netherlands; Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers, Aubervilliers, France; Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden; The Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon, Israel; The Showroom, London, UK; Zavod P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E., Ljubljana, Slovenia.

14)  See the interview among the members of the Cluster network : Pierre Bal-Blanc, Ferran Barrenblit, Alexandra Baudelot, Binna Choi, Eyal Danon, Maria Lind, Pablo Martinez, Sanne Oorthuizen, Emily Pethick, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, Tadej Pogačar, « How to Begin Living in the Trees? », e-flux journal nr. 53, 2014.

15)  Sara Thelwell, Size Matters, London: Common Practice, 2011, p.6.

16)  Sara Thelwell, ibid.

17)  Mark Fisher and Nina Möntmann, « Peripheral Proposals », in: Binna Choi, Maria Lind, Emily Pethick, Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez (Eds.), Cluster : Dialectionary, London, Berlin : Sternberg Press, 2014, p. 191-192.


The research for this project was made possible by the generous support of ICI and the French Institute through the ICI/French Institute Fellowship.