Site for Unlearning is an ongoing, collaborative research project by Vienna and Utrecht-based artist Annette Krauss that takes place in various situations. Its point of focus is how rarely we question the social norms and structures that we internalize, and thereby sustain. Krauss deploys “unlearning” as a tool to collectively reflect on our (unconsciously developed) habits, so that we can adapt our ways of behaving and thinking towards a more common practice. A key question for the artist is how to “unlearn one’s privileges” ( quote by postcolonial critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak). This is not meant to be taken as turning our backs on these privileges; rather, the aim is to think how they might help us in individual and communal ways of envisioning non-capitalist futures that embrace social values like wellbeing, care relations, and collective responsibility.
Since March 2014, on the occasion of preparations for Casco’s inaugural exhibition New Habits at its new home, Krauss and the Casco team gathered together to work on a particular case of unlearning: the art organization. Until today, the main question we have been exploring in our weekly “unlearning” discussions is what we could unlearn to institute a more communal way of working. Casco’s public “front”, meaning its exhibitions, events, research projects, and publications, propose the commons as a viable alternative to capitalism (for more information on what the commons can mean, see the Casco website). If we adhere to the motto that we should practice what we share with a public, the “back” of the organization should be a sound reflection of what you, the viewer, sees and hears from us. The questions then arise: How do we deal with the contradiction between having a responsibility to the public in a neoliberal society (Casco is a public institution after all) and the desire to unlearn many of the core values of neoliberalism? What is the role of an artist in all of this? And how can we actively practice a commons-based approach in our daily work?
During meetings each Monday, the complexity of the task came to bear in seeing each answer begging new questions: Why are we always so busy? Why do we feel the constant need to be productive? What does being productive mean to us? How does this particular feeling of responsibility affect our bodies and our minds? We realized that running a business, the business of an art institution, is irrevocably tied up with our personal feeling of “busyness”, the latter bringing stress and nervousness. Moreover, it became apparent that we continuously undervalue certain reproductive tasks, such as cleaning, cooking, hosting, and non-public administrative and organizational tasks. However, without this “domestic” work, our institution would not exist. So we asked: How can we unlearn this form of valuing productivity, and how can we value reproductive labor as an essential part of productivity and dismantle the rushed feeling of always being too busy?
In response to these questions, we have been striving to narrow down our focus and invent our own specific methods and tools for unlearning. We talked, sat on wobbly chairs while hanging onto each other for balance, we drew diagrams and mind maps to discern our passions and things that hamper their fulfillment, we argued and laughed; we also transcribed audio recordings, then edited transcriptions. And we did the Unlearning homework we assigned ourselves, sometimes with reluctance because we surely should not spend our precious time on something that wasn’t immediately “productive” in the narrow sense of the word. Slowly but surely, key issues started crystallizing: if we want to unlearn busyness, we need to unlearn devaluing reproductive labor. We also need to find a form of sharing this un/learning process and situating it within a broader context so as to distinguish “busyness” from dedication or commitment.
We started with cleaning, inspired amongst others by the Manifesto for Maintanance Art, 1969, by artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. At Casco each team member used to have a responsibility to keep the space clean. But because there is so little time, cleaning often does not seem as urgent as sending out a press release, preparing for an exhibition, meeting with artists and our public, and so on. Due to a resultant lack of collective contribution, interns along with the team members who take care of production matters would take on all of the cleaning work, while being no less “busy” than the rest of us. To solve this pressing practical issue, as well as to think through standardized notions of work and productivity, we decided to make it into an Unlearning exercise: each Monday, right after our weekly staff meeting, the whole team cleans the space. We put on music and get to work. By cleaning collectively, we not only schedule time for it, we make it into a new common habit. The work gains visibility and becomes valued. And in fact, “chores” are actually much more joyful when you share them.