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Dina Yakerson

Questions on community with Ursula Biemann

Questions on community – developed by Agustina Strüngmann, Eleonora Stassi, Kenneth Paranada, Adriana Domínguez Velasco, Dina Yakerson, students of the Postgraduate Program in Curating during the workshop for the realization of an issue on On-Curating on new social sculpture – to be addressed to the artist who participated in the exhibition “Archive of Shared Interests”, Thun 2012.

1. In the framework of your practice, how would you define community?

UB: A community is a group of people who share a common attitude, cause, or interest, wherever they are located on the planet. In the context of my practice, I currently think of artists and scholars involved in political ecologies and new materialisms as constituting my narrowly defined community. My community morphs when shifting my focus onto another field of interest. My wider spanning community would include any research artists, scholars, and activists who, in critically engaging with their subject, also rework the framing and conventions of their discipline. As a consequence, my community is situated in an expanded field of art.

It frequently occurs that my field work brings me in contact with communities that are located outside my professional field of action, as for instance in my current work on nature rights in Amazonia, where indigenous communities shared their knowledge and struggles with me. These instances of overlapping communities are particularly fertile. They always emerge from intense negotiations, where territories are sensed and mapped, and common grounds elicited.

2. Do you feel that locally engaged projects need to have a global impact?

UB: There is no prescription of scope for any project. My practice specifically consists in linking micro and macro conditions, tying a planetary perspective to social and political histories on the ground. Because of this, the projects reach a world audience, but to call this global impact would seem megalomaniac.

3. Are you interested in the "afterlife" of your project, when the artist goes home?

UB: There is no such boundary between life and art in my practice. All my projects are alive and actively doing something in the world. I’m continuously getting feedback which confirms this. Now, if you are asking if my projects also act outside their designated place in the art world, I would say yes, because they are clearly not hermeneutic projects; they often draw on live testimonies of people whose livelihoods, whose very existence, is at stake. So there is an inherent urge to publicize beyond the art context to reach communities who will use them for advocacy. If the project emerges from a combination of theoretical reflections, aesthetic considerations, and political activism in the field, it will begin circulating in these same channels at the moment of release. Some of it can be initiated by myself, a lot of it, however, will be happening without my knowing. 

4. Is there a relationship between socially-engaged/community arts and artistic projects that choose to engage with communities?

UB: I can certainly say that there is a big difference between these two notions of art interrelating with community. I speak for myself when I say that I have never thought of art having the task of changing realities for specific communities on the ground. My place of intervention has always been in the symbolic realm.

5. Can art have a transformative effect on a community?

UB: Art hopefully has an effect on the art/academic community itself. If your practice doesn’t affect your own community, whom do you hope to affect? I know that by reworking discourse and image-making on the global labour of women, for instance, I had reached an entire young generation of female scholars who began to use my videos in their research. These videos also infiltrated the field of cultural geography as an expanded form of mapping and they helped cement a new community made of landscape architects, video makers and geography and media scholars sharing interests across their disciplines.

Working with members of other communities, like NGO women who are representatives of a specific local or global community, the process is always somehow transforming for both parties. They typically use my videos for their activist, lobbying, or advocacy work, and I would assume that the radically different form of representing women that my videos propose makes an impact on their community work. What I’m saying, I guess, is that when my videos reach outside their designated field, they rely on intermediary figures, some sort of agents who activate them in their circuits.

Ursula Biemann is an artist, writer and video essayist based in Zurich. Her artistic practice is strongly research oriented and involves fieldwork in remote locations where she investigates the ecologies of oil and water – most recently for Forest Law in Amazonia. She is part of the collective art and media project World of Matter. Biemann is publisher of several books and her video installations are exhibited at art biennials and museums worldwide. http://www.geobodies.org

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