Criticism in the Post – Letters from Axel Andersson and Sonja van der Valk

With the symposium Criticism in the Post (2 and 3 June, Stockholm), the Swedish initiative Kritiklabbet finished two years of investment in art criticism. Sonja van der Valk (Domein voor Kunstkritiek) had the pleasure to be their guest.

In the very beginnings of art criticism, critics often used the letter as their medium. Going back to this epistolary history of criticism, Kritiklabbet decided to make the letter the theme of their symposium. Does the letter have any chance to become a critical medium again, as a form of dialogue in between the public and the private, was the question that organizers Axel Andersson and Hanna Svensson posed.

The audience, which came partly from Finland and Norway, listened to the readings of a broad scope of letters. Some were full of anger (from a writer to his publisher), some more analytical (like the correspondence between a Japanese visual artist and an English critic). The letter from Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish author and Nobel prize winner, had already been published in her own time. On the contrary, the annual Happy New Year letter from a woman who kept a teahouse near the laboratory of the Manhattan project in Los Alamos – she served tea to Robert Oppenheimer and his wife – had a purely personal status for a long time. Hearing such a variety in subjects, styles and moods, the letter as a critical, slow, and performative medium indeed became imaginable.

Next to the reading of letters there were presentations of critical works from the various regions of Sweden, where the public library takes a pioneer role in the democratization of literary criticism. Julie Andersland, member of the City Council for Climate, Culture and Nutrition of Bergen, brought hope and optimism. Since the Norwegian government decided to make art criticism a part of arts policy, the Community of Bergen is the first city to genuinely deploy money for criticism in the next years budgets.

Magnus William-Olsson (Free Seminar in Literary Criticism (FSL) and initiator of Kritiklabbet) and the others who pushed the lab forward are now initiating and discussing critical practices within the framework of FSL, whose activities you can follow and participate in, via its Facebook group. Being partners in international activities the INC and Domain will surely meet with them again.

In the months leading up to the symposium, Axel Andersson and Sonja van der Valk sent each other letters by international post. It was partly an exchange about writing and receiving ‘real’ letters, but mostly they wrote about art criticism and the trial, errors, and successes of their organizations. It is up to the reader to decide what the public value of those four letters is.

Stockholm, 3 April 2018

Dear Sonja,

A little over two years ago I was first contacted by Magnus William-Olosson, a poet and critic, who was asking me of who he thought he should hire to lead a lab to investigate the possible paths of criticism in the future public sphere. I gave him some names and we had a nice conversation. Just a day later or so, he wrote and asked if I wanted the job.

Writing letters has often been somewhere in between the private and the public, a little like that meeting with Magnus. Or like criticism itself, that usually deals with some other object than the object at hand. They are all processes of complex deferrals.

I have been, throughout the work with Kritiklabbet, fascinated by the letter itself. It constitutes in many ways the beginning, in the Republic of Letters, of the public sphere in which criticism as we know it arose. In these days our emails and social media posts are always read by others, or by some other thing: the algorithms read. My idea was simply to turn back, impossibly, to the old letter and see what we could say to each other now if we knew that our correspondence would be read out in a semi-private setting. And to investigate what process of deferral would occur today. Hence the theme of this symposium to which I have invited you.

When our Dutch intern Pim Verkleij  found out about Domein voor Kunstkritiek I was very excited. I felt that I had found a sister organization for Kritiklabbet. And this belief was strengthened when I got your enthusiastic response. It was also great to see you when we travelled down to the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam for the first meeting of the “Art of Criticism” network. What I realized then was that our thinking had been going in similar directions when it came to the democratization criticism.

Still, despite contacts with both you and your colleagues, it is as though our sister organizations have remained somewhat divided by the simple fact that you work in Dutch and we in Swedish. Already here we see how so many critical practices are hyper-situated in their contexts, and that is of course the way it should be. But I wanted to take this letter-writing opportunity as a way to bridge this, and to, seeing that our correspondence will also be made public, give more an opportunity to take part of you work and your findings.

To sum something up is a difficult task. I can already foresee the risks for my part. If I would try to say what Kritiklabbet has been it is easy to get into an automatic mode of saying that which one has trained oneself to deliver as a pitch. I would thus begin with that “Kritiklabbet is an initiative for and by critics that with financial backing (but also editorial independence) from a big Swedish publishing house is exploring the aesthetic, technological and financial dimensions of criticism in the new public sphere”. I would then continue with outlining our various types of “experiments”.

I would like to be direct, as the letter format in this case dictates. In the hope of getting to hear more about how you have been thinking about the Domein I will share some tentative ideas and impressions from this very moment, two months before Kritiklabbet shuts down for good.

That it has been difficult to try to think of the role of criticism is perhaps the least shocking thing I can tell you. For the critic, especially one that is trying to change the status quo, it is a challenge to win allies and friend – or it has been that way for us, at least. It seems that many people in many places are happy to see the critics bow out from the scene. If they pay lip service to the importance of criticism, it is mostly towards some theoretical construct of a critic that does not exist in reality.

It has also been liberating, of course – there is so much to do! In Sweden, criticism has been thought of in very traditional forms with very minor developments since the advent of the profession and the reigning formats. We were helped by the idea that we did not want to become an institution. We were to think about the future, but not our future specifically. I think this made us bolder. And we dared to go in many directions, such as towards thoughts about the democratization of criticism, that the Domein has also worked with.

The thing that we have kept on coming back to is the issue of money. This was also where we began. How can criticism survive if no one can afford to be a critic, or, alternatively, how can criticism survive if only some socio-economically fortunate people can afford to be critics. We see a development where digitalization hang intimately together with the demise in the newspapers’ willingness to finance criticism. Few people read criticism, and the critical text is primarily important for the (small) cultural world, its players and institutions. So, there are maybe two main ways of going. The first would be to make criticism read to a greater extent and in so doing entice traditional media to start paying adequately. The second would be to say that the world in need of criticism is also the one that should pay for it. We have been working on both tracks concurrently.

I am both pessimistic and optimistic. I think that criticism as we know it can disappear, and that not many people would actually miss it. I fear that it would be a huge mistake to think that critics are essential somehow. It feels like that has led to the demise of many other professions. But I also believe strongly in that many things can be done. And here I have been very inspired what you have done before us, and by your general effort.

Do you think you could tell me a little more about the Domein and maybe share a little when it comes to your reflections on these things that I have briefly touched? It would make me very happy. I am looking forward to seeing you in June when we celebrate Kritiklabbet’s two years in the public sphere!

Yours Sincerely,

Axel Andersson

Amsterdam, 8 April 2018

Dear Axel,

Sunday morning. Again a sunny day. Yesterday evening for the first time this year I had dinner on my balcony. Spring has come, the future full yellow flower of the big tree in front of my kitchen windows started to grow.

Yesterday morning I received your letter. It immediately solved one question: writing the letters to you by hand or by computer? Explaining the letter project you used the word ‘real letter’. Which for me means a handwritten text. In one way not a difficult task. I often write first drafts with my fountainpen, very fast, driven by my thinking and associations. In another way it is. Those texts are absolutely not readable for someone else. So rewriting would be necessary. Because you used a transparent envelop the moment I picked it up from the floor, it was clear: I would use the computer – like you did. Relief.

For the first time in my live I received post from Sweden, yes, it’s really true. In my career as journalist, critic, theatre expert of the Theatre Institute Nederland and later as the director of Domein voor Kunstkritiek, I had contacts with people from all over Europe but not with Swedes. Therefore your first KritikLabbet mail was a happy surprise: Wow, Domein voor Kunstkritiek has a sister company in Sweden. Our contacts abroad till then never brought up an organisation similar to ours.

Axel, we are already playing the game of turning back to the ‘old letter’, not quite honestly. I received the Word Document before the letter. And too curious to wait I opened it and gave it a quick scan. Just enough to trigger my brain: answering starts. Even on a unconscious level.

Last night I had a dream full of images connected to your letter. Imagine. I am doing what I often did during the last years – almost 15 – that the Domein is active: organising a masterclass in writing about one of the arts disciplines or a mix of arts forms (or perhaps it was a masterclass in writing essays). One of the guests is an experienced critic and journalist, a white man, aged between fifty and sixty. (The masters of the Domain workshops and masterclasses often belonged to the experienced older generation of male and female critics, and yes, they were mostly white). In reality those masters were open, generous and gave their ‘pupils’ a lot of knowledge and insights in the skills of writing about art, and in their role as intellectuals who reflect on art in the public domain.

The guest is accompanied by his colleagues, who are all looking the same, with their cheap trousers and jackets or woollen sweaters, and smoking. But most importantly, they undermine the masterclass with their sarcastic remarks and noisy laughter. My guest invites everybody to visit him at his home. Most of the participants, losing their feeling of security, refuse the offer. The group of colleagues  is growing bigger and bigger, looking for a place to sit in the tiny rooms of a house full of paper, books and old-fashioned furniture. I know them by name and position: they are intellectuals, opinion leaders in the art scene, members of the editorial boards of influential media. I still hope my guest, and okay, also his friends, will teach my pupils something new and important. They don’t. On the contrary. We are neglected, our critical questions woven away. They are absorbed in a never ending talk and drink ceremony, hanging out in corners with their cigars and some women, groupies more than colleagues.

Future reader of this letter, don’t feel harassed if you are an older intellectual man, with a long life of working in the field of art criticism. The historical source is totally mine. When I was a young women I wrote for the weekly news magazine De Groene Amsterdammer about theatre. Still unexperienced I had an utmost respect and admiration for the other journalists, knowing them as well informed thinkers with strong opinions. At that time I could not connect that image with my experience at a party: Those same men and women in a state of drunkenness singing tearjerkers and swinging from one side to the other as if in a setting of carnival.

Me, my colleagues of De Groene and of the monthly for professionals in theatre, Toneel Theatraal, my other publication medium, and most other critics in those years – the eighties – believed our work was essential. We held ourselves for influential. And perhaps we were in a certain way. The way we organised our practice was natural.

I took the initiative to create the Domain of Art Criticism in 2004 when working under the roof of Theatre Institute Nederland, which is a library and expertise center in one. In 2006 Domein became independent, though until their closing in 2013 (government cuts on art), the Theatre Institute paid for my work. Art criticism was then internationally seen as in crisis. The position and practice of the critic was not as natural anymore as before. I never believed in this crisis. The establishment of Domein voor Kunstkritiek was based on the realisation that the existing format of art criticism was no longer ‘fit for purpose’ and needed recalibration. The format was developed two centuries ago, in a period characterised by nation-state thinking, the rise of mass media, a bourgeois middle class, a still-cautious culture industry (books, concerts and exhibitions in the new national museums) and the desire of the elite to educate ‘the people’ through art or bring about a revolutionary class consciousness. In the digital, global culture of the twenty-first century, this format has become an anachronism. The traditional critic who writes reviews for professional journals or newspapers, earns a living from commissioned work, works at a university or as a (freelance) professional in the culture sector, is like the last of the Mohicans.

And so here they came, right into my dreams. And showed their true faces, the ones of the Mohicans who are not able to deal with your dangerous idea, shared by me, of the dispensability of art criticism. We had lots of formal and informal talks with them, until we decided to neglect them. Happily your Magnus William-Olsson and my masters are of a different kind. Thanks to them, other people of my generation (1952) and new generations engaged with the future of art criticism, we can be ‘bold’, as you write, in keep on spreading the beauty of the act of reflection on art.

Behind my laptop – I am writing this letter sitting on my dinner table in the living room – handwritten printing papers call my attention. Thursday the 19th of April, Domein voor Kunstkritiek, the Institute of Network Cultures and our partners will present our brand new How To Digital Art Criticism, together with a debate about the democratization of criticism. I draw the outline for the program.  To prevent miscommunication about something complex as ‘the democratization of criticism’, during the preparations and the debate itself, I forced myself to define our frame of thinking. This is what I wrote down: “We see art as the product of a culture – or may better ‘cultures’. As part of culture it has a value in which everyone should be able to share. Art manifests what is happening in a society and does proposals for the future. Therefore a common valuation of art should belong to the basics of every society. If not only for ethical, moral or political reasons, then for the reason of giving people the chance to think and talk about the art they experience in their communities. (You find this idea too in the application for our hopefully common European project for the next years). The question on 19 April will be: how to develop the idea of democratization in a workable practice.

While writing you this, I realise how idealistic a lot of our proposals for new forms (collected in the how-to) and democratization are. Coming to the question that seems always the last one in our circles: how to be able to get money out of the work as a critic, whatever the role you take. Kritiklabbet worked on two tracks in this. Track one: make criticism read to a greater extent and entice traditional media to start paying adequately. Track two: if the world is in need of criticism, the reader should pay for it. What possibilities came out of your actions?

One of the issues in November in Amsterdam was the question how to make art criticism more inclusive. It is certainly an issue in the work of Domein voor Kunstkritiek. I used this first letter to introduce myself and Domein voor Kunstkritiek a little bit (ah, here the future reader looks over my shoulder). So I postpone writing about our experiences in this. In the meantime:  You told me about an experiment in which young fugitives valued the literature, written by the generation that came to Sweden earlier. With the help of Google Translate I tried to find information about this experiment, but I could not find it.  I can’t remember from which country those fugitives came. My question: can the Kritiklabbet experiment become a regular practice in Sweden or elsewhere?

Morning became afternoon. I print this out and mail it.

Yours sincerely,

Sonja van der Valk

Stockholm, 17 April 2018

Dear Sonja,

I can catch my breath now after some busy days. I have been looking forward to resuming our conversation. I was in Paris, and then the entire Kritiklabbet crew was at Supermarket, an art fair for artists’ run galleries, here in Stockholm. For five days we live-produced, and distributed, a newspaper with participant criticism. It was crazy. A fair is exhausting after two hours. Five whole days is punishing. I think half of us are ill now, but I am still standing. There was some hint of spring coming to Stockholm, but as we were inside we could not see much of it. It is in any case very late, the spring. Quite rudely late. But hopefully it is warm when you come here in June.

I am happy that you finally received mail from Sweden! And that we could make this link. And thank you for your thoughts about generations, change and the crisis-ghost – if we may call it that. We are indeed living in interesting times. The last week in Sweden has been completely dominated not by our live-produced newspaper (by the way, it had the great name “The Last Mass Mail”, I send you also the copies we made), but by a scandal enveloping the Swedish Academy that, among other things, award the Noble Prize in Literature. Maybe you know a little about what has happened. A question of nepotism and more. The particular circumstances are not so interesting – it is more or less what all institutions produce once in a while. The public discussion is, however, captivating. For in it a paradigmatic question comes to the fore, aimed at the existence of the academy: what the relationship between meritocracy and democracy should be. Can one have a hierarchical system in culture these days? And on what grounds? After thinking about this back and forth it becomes difficult to define a position that is conservative or radical in any clear-cut manner.

Criticism is about hierarchies, in some ways. But, I think, for the same reason it can be transgressive and make a change. What if voice can be given to those that normally don’t have one in the public sphere? But there are important steps in-between that are becoming more visible to me now as I am understanding this topic a bit more. Both you and I are interested in the democratization of criticism understood as the critical response to works of art in the public sphere. I hope you can agree with me there when it comes to the definition. Maybe criticism is, in this definition, the least important term. Maybe it is with democracy and the public sphere that one needs to begin the analysis? What is democratization, and what is the public sphere today? But then maybe I have a defect in me after reading too much Borges. It is as though one needs to solve everything to begin with something. But this is maybe another impasse of being “idealistic”, as you wrote about in relation to economy.

Giving a talk the other day, I was struck by a thought on another matter that might throw some light on this thinking from the frame or from within the frame. For two years we have been working (hard!) on the question of the continuous existence of the professional critic. That is to say: we have been dealing with the question of professionalization. The amateur projects have been about this, as we figured that it does not make sense to talk about the professional unless an amateur (in a positive meaning) exists. But my insight was that maybe it would have been better to start on the amateur end of things. And to start with ourselves. We all came to work in the arts and culture because we were lovers of it. How can one keep that romance with art alive? I don’t believe that being paid to be in this world kills the romance, but other things do. What about the world of “aura” or resonance that the public space gives, or has given to art? Maybe that one is constitutive also in forming our desire. What we have seen these years is how the public space around art is shrinking rapidly in Sweden, one can almost notice it in real time. It takes away something of the joy from this world. I want art to be able to affect people. I grew up in the Swedish countryside and would not have been in this world if art had not first reached me through being reported about in the media and existing in a wider public discussion. It feels wrong, even towards myself, to be in this world when people like I were can no longer enter it. It makes it much harder to love the arts and to find my inner amateur.

Alright, I have been digressing to much now. I want to return to some specific things you wrote. Maybe first about this with idealism in relation to money – to get back to the professional theme. We have indeed tried to think about the money aspect almost first in our experiments. That was how the project was set up. But you misunderstand when you write that we have been working on ways to see how the reader should pay for criticism. We rather quickly came to give that idea up, at least in a direct way – and this after extensive discussions with different parts of the media industry. The readers have never really paid for criticism in Sweden, so it is unlikely that they will do that in the future (here digitalization did not mean a huge change). It is maybe useful to separate “customers” of criticism from “readers” of criticism. The customers are the ones that should rightly pay, and that have paid before. Part of our work has been to identify who the customers have been, and who they are today. In simple terms one can say that it is those that produce culture. They are the ones for whom criticism can be almost like a commodity. But, as you know, the producers cannot pay for criticism as it then would be marketing. Or, rather, they cannot pay directly. There has to be what I have called a “hinge” between financing and criticism. This used to exist in Sweden in the cultural sections of the newspapers. Institutions advertised there and that money when to paying critics. This model does not, for many reasons, chiefly digitalization, exist anymore. How can we re-invent it outside of the old media context? I think it can be done, but it is complex, and it also needs help from those that finance the institutions that finance criticism. In Sweden, this means the public sphere, as in most of the Nordic countries. Just the other month the Norwegian city of Bergen, for example, proclaimed criticism to be one “art field” in their long-term art plan, alongside theatre, music etc. The immediate implication of this is that public funding can then be allocated to criticism. The public takes a responsibility for the criticism that has helped to create the public sphere out of which democracy one time arose etc.

Before ending on the big question of democracy I want to tell you a little about our Kurdish criticism workshop. The idea was, as you know, to let people from the second generation of Kurdish diaspora write critique in Swedish of writers in the first generation that wrote in Kurdish. This has been an incredibly interesting experiment led by Agri Ismaïl. But… we have encountered a problem that keeps on emerging. It is very difficult to get people to participate and to contribute. We saw this also in the art fair. It is something that worries me and that I don’t really know what do about. Everyone loves the idea in theory, but then when it comes to the practice, it is difficult even though one has done very extensive ground-work before. We have not yet done any evaluation of this, but we will of course do. But I would really like to know how you feel in relation to this. Has it also been difficult for you to engage people to take the step and formulate themselves in critical texts in these types of contexts? One can have great models, but they are not completed until this question receives an answer. And since it is the same thing in many different projects, maybe it is something more general. Can you coach us in some way?

I am sorry, this letter became so confused and rambling. But I will send it off in any case and hope that you excuse me!!!

All best,

Axel Andersson

Amsterdam, 28 april 2018

It is the day after Koningsdag (Kingsday). This national holiday brings a lot of young people to Amsterdam. The shops in the train and metro station I use were closed, but everywhere groups of girls and boys circled around, at least one part of their cloths or bodies in orange. It is funny to hear many of them speak English…

Thank you for your second letter. This time I had the good old experience of opening the envelop with the trilling sense of curiosity mail messages seldom give, partly caused by the fact it was a thick one. Like the most famous Dutch football player Johan Cruyff used to say: every bad side has a good side: Because of the launch of the How-To Digitale Kunstkritiek I was too busy to read your letter by mail.

The series of The Last Mass Mail look beautiful and interesting. Giving context to the texts, written I assume by people visiting and working for/on Supermarket 2018, by publishing the theories of David Hume on the standards of taste is a strong idea.

I was surprised The Last Mass Mail was not on the Swedish news. Our brand new How To was on the frontpages. I am joking of course. Let’s be realistic, we are working in a field that seldom makes the news.

Until now, I would like to add. Because people like you and me are working on a new kind of art criticism, and/or because the field of journalism itself is changing. Indeed perhaps criticism is the least important term. It is democracy and the public sphere that need analyses and changes. I see something happening. On the International Journalism Festival in Perugia in Italy journalists and publishers declared models in which subscribers are involved in the journalistic work the most popular at the moment. One paper organizes monthly meetings for their readers to discuss with the editors, another, the news site City Bureau in Chicago asks them to write articles and offers journalistic workshops. It is partly a strategy to retain readers. And yes, it is also a cheap way to get lots of information, but at the same time, they offer their readers space to write their stories. They are in charge. Since Facebook and Google have lost their self-acclaimed innocence, the call for a democratic public sphere is growing. At least I see and hear these calls in the media I use. The activities of organisations as (the former) Kritiklabbet, Domain and INC, and hopefully the European Network we try to set up, can benefit from those developments and make them stronger at the same time.

In a way there is a cultural war going on. These days democracy seems to be on the losing side and intellectuals like you and me are not as influential anymore as were other ‘left’ generations. We have to cut our losses, analyse the battlefield, make plans for the future and do underground work. Being subversive and realistic in the same time. In doing so your sons and daughters (or less optimistic your grandsons and granddaughters) in the country side of Sweden will be able to read about exiting new art – in their villages, in Stockholm and in Amsterdam.

There is another dimension in the relation between art, art criticism and the public sphere. One of the speakers in the discussion INC and Domain organized around the launch of the how to was Fenneke Wekker, a theatre maker, playwright and scholar. She works on a PhD about the interventions in local communities that the Dutch state is promoting since ten, fifteen years. One of those interventions: the work of artists. Like you worrying about the amount of people wanting to participate in art criticism, I said to her: ‘Domain for Art Criticism and The Institute of Network Cultures are striving high: We want a culture in which everybody has their acknowledged part. We want art being a legitimate part of that culture and shared by everybody. And we want people to reflect on the art they experience. Not for the sake of art only, but because art does proposals for the future. Perhaps we want too much.’ With ‘everybody’ I mean different groups, classes, a diversity of people.’ ‘No’, she said: ‘Turn that around. People will talk and think about art in case art is deeply connected to their daily existence, when it is part of their social live. And if they feel recognized and represented in what is made.’ The history of art in mind I agree with her. What we call art now has been an important aspect of societies, as ritual, as political arena (yes, minus women and slaves), as an healing instrument, as an instrument to keep a people together. The users themselves were in charge in creating, presentation and evaluation. (My words, sure an African tribe used other concepts.) But how to look at the place of art in this period of history? And what to do for us?

To be clear: Fenneke was not pleading for the popularisation of art, she tried to turn around the frame in which I was thinking. I am still struggling to fully understand her way of looking. And even more struggling to explain it to you. Her first premise is the fact that the public sphere is now dominated by art that only one group of people, heterogeneous but devoted to art, has declared to be art. Though many artists, festivals, institutions, other art professionals and the State (!) brought in the engagement with communities and the daily lives of the so called ‘ordinary’ people – it still this, in a way homogenous, a small group who is engaged in those efforts. And who are struggling with what seems a lack of interest in their intentions. You and I are belonging to this homogeneous group, which, I am convinced, has to be the premise of each of our projects in participating art criticism.

The second premise of Fenneke Wekker is: ‘Do not try to change the actual art world, it had a right in its own. But give other communities and their ways of looking at culture and art a place in the public sphere. Let them decide what is worthwhile to speak about.’ And here the crux of the matter, or what I understand as the crux in her thinking: try to create canals of communication and dialogue between all those communities, included the community of people devoted to art as we know it now. To understand this ‘theory’ (sorry again a theory) I tried to connect it with some of the practices in participating criticism I know. Perhaps this also brings some answer to your question: How to engage people to formulate themselves in crucial texts?

The first project in ‘participating art criticism’ we developed in a neighbourhood in Amsterdam called De Pijp. We got in contact with a small theatre, and a community center and used both places as the basis of the project. We developed together with three starting visual art critics a walk along pieces of art in the public space in De Pijp. We used a broad interpretation of  ‘pieces of art’. The participants visited a church, a mosque and a synagogue, touched and admired the ornaments of a bridge and some modern sculptures in the streets. In the weeks before experts on Islamic art, Jewish and Catholic art – curators of museums in Amsterdam and Leiden, gave lectures in the theatre. After the walk we invited the participants to share their experiences with each other and with us, and write those experiences down. In the end their texts – edited by me, trying to keep at close as possible with their words and sentences – were published on a special page in the local paper. Sounds fantastic, not? It was. Proudly we saw the paper distributed in the neighbourhood. But…

It cost a lot of time and energy to involve the community members. The lectures were visited only by a small amount of people. I visited some local places (for example a meeting point for elderly people from Italy, Turkey and Morocco), we spread the invitations by flyers (it was before every household owned a computer with internet and Facebook), we phoned people. In the end we had three groups of about six / seven people. Not all of them were living in De Pijp. Everybody was happy and enthusiastic, but we were a little disappointed about the participation of community members.

From my perspective now we made the mistake to develop the project without using the expertise of the community center and the theatre. They offered their communication canals, but for the rest we did it on our own. To involve them more could have made it possible to handover the idea of this form of community involvement with art in the public space. Perhaps the second edition done with a little help from us, the third on their own. Another ‘mistake’ (the word is too big here) is our focus on words and texts. We could have facilitated other ways of formulating experiences, like making photo’s, drawings, recording the talks, the dialogue afterwards, making movies with your phone (at that time that was not as easy as it is now).

Initiatives like this in De Pijp need time and repetition to gain ground. The Edit This Post tool is a good example. As you know Edit This Post is a digital tool. It offers the public a chance to share in real-time their experiences after a performance, concert, or other cultural event. They only need their smartphones or a tablet. They write together (like in Google Docs). After logging in immediately you see your own writing and that of the others, each in a different colour. While a part of the public is thinking, talking and writing, the other part can see the growing of the text. It is projected. With one click it can also be printed on – beautiful designed – paper. We did experiments in 2017 during a dance festival with editions in eight Dutch cities. And worked close with the organisation to attract visitors. It was not easy this first time. This year the festival is using the tool again and with already more people involved.

You know, there has been a time that organized talks with the public before or after a performance or exposition was unique. Then art professionals started to see it as innovative (as part of the marketing of cultural institutions). And now it had almost become a standard. I think if we have perseverance (and money) enough, in the future this kind of public participation will be common.

A last example. In Flanders two guys started De Zendelingen. In the beginning they worked under the roof of the Lab of rekto:verso (Wouter Hillaert) and later independently. They created different formats to give the public a voice. Well known and successful is De Biechtstoel (The Confessional). They copied the confessionals you see in Catholic Churches. At one side of the small window sits a critic or artist, at the other side a visitor. Their dialogue is recorded and made into a video clip, the spoken words illustrated by animations and drawings. You can find their work on Facebook, which is their canal to distribute.  About a dance performance by Alain Platel: https://www.facebook.com/zendelingen/videos/1688493401210219/

To finish this letter, two remarks on the issue of money. In the Netherlands nowadays it is quite normal for a festival to cooperate with a magazine or journal. Most of the articles are giving context to what will be programmed. Imagine what could happen if such a festival has the courage to accept critical pieces. Talking about sponsoring, in the Opinon and Debate pages of the weekend NRC a young philosopher, writer and initiator of a series of pamphlets called Nieuw Licht (new light) pleaded for the financial support of the media by maecenas’s to bring art criticism back to their pages. I wonder whether this will happen (the money maecenas’s pay for art products is shrinking in the Netherlands) but it brings the issue at least in the public sphere.

Dear Axel, I have to do shopping now. Next time I will react on what you wrote about the Kurdish literature project.

With all the best from Sonja

 

 

 

Share