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Cover image: The Curriculum, a workshop by Paz Ponce.
The following article contains extracts from an archival report of da:ns lab 2019, written from the perspectives of participants Chloe Chotrani and Chan Sze-Wei. This article also contains verbatim transcriptions of conversation between the participants.
The fourth and last day was facilitated by Paz Ponce, a Berlin-based independent curator and arts educator. Paz is taking the place of Sheena McGrandles who was initially invited but was unable to come because of family commitments. Paz’s lecture was especially useful for fellow arts managers and producers, or artist-led businesses or companies. She shared the fragilities and journey of Agora Collective, a Berlin-based Center for Collaborative Practice, speaking with eloquence, poetry, and speed. Similarly, her tasks for us consisted of groupings to brainstorm and discuss the place of independent practitioners, collective efforts within artistic communities, and international collaborations. Leading into a series of tasks that felt somewhat irrational yet meaningful. Such as, taking a nap for 20 minutes, then having a conversation either on the phone or in person, then, somehow, it ended in a collective massage chain.
We also gladly disrupted a public space. We went to the underpass area of Esplanade to have a series of walking conversations of specific memories that we have, in relationship to the skills we value in ourselves. We had to repeat back our partners’ stories, which was a good listening practice. This exercise felt performative. We then had to write these stories, and compiled all of them in an ocean of collected memories. From these pieces of paper, we re-read our memories, written by others that we had a conversation with, and we selected snippets to create a carpet on the floor of the Esplanade Annexe Studio. At this point, we were exhausted. It turned out that this was one of Paz’s intentions: to take us to a space of new ideas. Paz offered a multitude of little ideas throughout the day, one thing leaking into the next. No grand ideas of how to work, how to converse, or how to create. Only a series of suggestions, for us to take, or leave.
Agora Collective was founded in 2011 by a multidisciplinary team as an independent project space. Since then, Agora expands its mission to be a place to conceive and experiment with models of working together; providing stable spaces for artists to engage within collaborative and community-based practices.
"Agora" means "now", in Portuguese, the language of its Brazilian founders and also coincidentally, in Greek, Agora is the place for encounters and exchange, the market-place. Agora´s focus has ranged from food and hosting practices, co-working spaces, event series, workshops, and programming, as well as with a strong take on visual and performing arts. The four pillars of Agora, considered to be essential values that come together in hybrid programming to express Agora’s core value of artistic solidarity. The pillars also determined the function of the respective floors of the Mittelweg building.
Questions that the Agora founders worked with: How can we make a community in Berlin? How do you develop an architecture of encounters? Possibilities of people to interact?
She then shares about the significance of the physicality of a space. How one response to the way the building is structured, to the “skin” of the rooms, the definition of the floors, and how that cultivates an organic growth. Agora has inhabited different spaces. From 2011-2016/17 they were based in a five-story historic former factory building in Mittelweg, and then from 2017-2019 in the upper and then lower floors of a large industrial warehouse in Rollberg. Both locations were in Central/South Berlin in Neukölln, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. She acknowledged that artists too have contributed to that gentrification. The initial move to the expanded space in Rollberg prompted the addition of a fifth and missing pillar Play/Move which became the first dance house for Neukölln. They also planned for an extensive complex of 26 artist studios.
The growth of Agora came in forms of highlighting sustainability structures which dealt with the binary of a business model and a non-for-profit structure. With the insistence of trans-disciplinary practices through their four pillars, the collective produced a co-working space, an event series, workshops and programming, community dinners, production and experimentation, education, a garden. The discursive emphasis was on processuality, experimentation, collaboration, interdisciplinary, participation, community-driven, critical engagement, and artistic solidarity.
Agora explored the kitchen as a space of pedagogy. Agora would host community dinners that were open for all, where the cooking and cleaning was done on a voluntary basis. This brought an awareness to the invisible labours of a space. There were a lot of storytelling sessions around food, as well as permaculture workshops. There was an intermingling of cooks, dancers, and choreographers. They had various Chefs-in-Residence who would experiment every day with a different menu, which turned out to be unsustainable as a business model. The Agora café was a failed project, a failed business. But, it was an interesting one.
Throughout the years, Agora would review ways of collectively approaching work through vast curriculums of artists working collaboratively and using art as a relational tool. Agora was a partner member of the Collaborative Arts Partnership Network, a dynamic and contemporary form of arts practice that straddled the categories of participatory arts, socially engaged arts, community arts, and arts in social and community contexts. Artists interested in engaging with people to make exceptional art often engage with communities—a neighbourhood organisation, people united by a hobby or interest, like a chess club, working fishermen, farmers, or asylum seekers.
Collaborative arts encourages cultural democracy by contesting notions of authorship and the idea of the artist-genius working in isolation. Work that is made collaboratively with different groups often exists outside of the gallery and traditional theatre spaces. Instead it may take place in a prison or a hospital. It can also be interdisciplinary.
How can we host smaller economics circulating from space for the artists themselves?
How can we test modes of assembly?
How can we play with architecture and space?
Where does art intersect with the social?
Agora shifted their sustainability model from 2016/17-2019 from a dual structure of co-working business and non-for-profit cultural association model. The organisation operated as a cultural association, only, entailing shared rent, space division, external funding, rentals, and municipal support. The way of working has always been based on freelancing, now it was heavily based on pro-bono work. There was a fixed core team of co-curators/artistic directors/self-managed artist communities and collaborative practices, led by Caique Tizzi, Sheena McGrandles, Elena Polzer, and Paz Ponce.
Agora Collective was interested in creating smaller economies. New collectives were hosted at Agora: Babes Bar, an Artist Run Bar, Ceramic Kingdom Collective, Burnt Sienna (a Drawing Cooperative), and more. Their collaborative programmes focused on the space as residency, academy, and public lab.
How is it possible to transform the world from scratch and rebuild a society which would be totally different? I think that is totally impossible and what artists are trying to do now is to create micro-utopias, neighbourhood utopias, like talking to your neighbour, just what’s happening when you shake hands with somebody. This is all super political when you think about it. That’s micro-politics.
Agora reached a transition period when they lost their Rollberg space due to disagreements with their corporate partner in 2018. The hosting foundation however negotiated to give them the basement of the same building. Through tremendous failures, Agora had help and empathy from many people. They rallied by calling a one-year-long working group Vision Meeting. As an artist-run organisation, their practice became the space.
They looked at the following internal structures:
“Having a space and running a space in Berlin is highly political. It’s an act of resistance, its preaching even.”
What are soft forms of creativity and creation?
How we pay attention to this idea of relationship?
How we build networks of care?
How can we become an institution of tomorrow?
Agora is different because they are structured on relationships and their art forms are generated from the discourse. The discourse is build by devising an architecture of encounters which fluctuates between different ways to:
Today, Agora Collective is in the process of moving to Uferstudios, a contemporary dance complex in northwest Berlin. They plan to connect to their new neighbourhood, re-create a community café, artist-run-bar, and to continue their work as a Centre for Collaborative Practices.
After an insightful lecture on the sublime failures of eight years as an artist-run project spaces/initiative, which is still an on-going negotiation party. “Process Bar: The Curriculum – Challenging the conventions around self-development, productivity and high-performance", where we break into three groups through a question of self-identification: Do you consider your development path as single entity or more intertwined with/juxtaposed to/blended with a larger working entity/structure?
Group 1: Independent Practitioners
Group 2: Collective Efforts
Group 3: International Collaborative Efforts
Some notes from the break out groups:
Mok Cui Yin shares in the Independent Practitioners group: “In Singapore so many institutions and state funded venues trying to increase their audience numbers do it through free programmes. What that results in, is it turns the arts performance space into a gig space. One bad thing about that is that you spend most of your time preparing for gigs for a general tourist audience. You have less time to invest in developing new work.”
Andrei Pamintuan is impressed with how things are articulated in Singapore. In the Philippines, it does not happen a lot. He feels artists would deeply benefit to have these conversations both locally and internationally. While Shawn Chua shares about how strategies always need to be flexible. He finds it interesting that people in the current da:ns lab are also running spaces, whether nomadic or physical, with different degrees of institutionality.
Many people from the International Collaborative Efforts group share concerns over the international circulation of festivals—How can there be conversations beyond navigating festivals, and more conversations on strategies and support?
Some questions Paz prompts in relationship to space:
How can you monetise your space?
How can you start a new educational structure based on your practice?
How can your artistic practice be a context of learning and experimenting, in which you advance your research but you also have ways of surviving?
It’s more important to have questions than to find answers.
Paz’s lecture focused on the details of what is means to run an artist organisation, humbly revealing its fragilities and insecurities. Remembering all the people that were in the room, cultural workers, festival directors, artists within different communities around the region. This was a large learning curve that was condensed into a morning lecture where we could follow the trajectory of the obstacles, joys, empathy, and meaning that came out of the process of Agora Collective, and still on-going. However, I do wonder how applicable their journey is in Berlin, compared to such the unique and alternative landscapes in Singapore, Taipei, Chennai, Manila, Shanghai, and Bangkok.
Because of archipelagic geography and less developed transport infrastructure in Southeast Asia, cultural mobility functions at higher stakes as compared to Europe. We have to fly often, which is affordable on a monetary level, but it comes at the high cost of CO2 emissions. Returning to the conversation during Jacob’s lecture on listening to land and to Martin’s choice to be absent or rather, present through technology. Conversations during the group discussion touch on how we can focus more on long-term collaborations rather than producing for the art market are questions on systemic and strategic measures. How do we have more of these conversations and apply them in a working model? How can we have a deeper understanding of our landscape in Southeast Asia and allow ourselves to work with this land in a way that best serve both the people and the place?
Chloe is a movement artist, writer, gardener, yogini with recent trauma sensitive training. She is interested in how one can go beyond cultural boundaries yet staying rooted on ancestry and memory. Currently, she is curious about the experience of ceremony work with psychotropic medicines and its relationship to her performance work.
Paz Ponce (Cádiz, 1985, Spain) is a Berlin-based independent curator, writer and researcher actively involved in alternative education and cultural cooperation between Asia, Europe and Latin America. With a background in art history (Universidad Complutense, Madrid / Freie Universität, Berlin), she researches on the collective context in which art is produced and mediated, with a special focus on self-organization and the culture of cooperativism, departing from the Arendtian notion of “the common interest” (Welt-Bezug). Her practice is oriented towards the development of co-creation formats in a collaborative and networked environment in Berlin and abroad, via archival research and exhibition projects, art in residency programs and learning platforms open to the participation of artists and communities. She understands her curatorial role as an active mediation of thought-processes derived from the experience of encountering art. She is an associative member of: Calipsofacto Curators (Madrid, 2010), berlinerpool arts network (2013), Agora Collective (2016), Club Real artist collective (2017), Kap Hoorn (2018), and lecturer at Node Center for Curatorial Studies in Berlin. She is co-director of Agora Collective e.V. Berlin-based Center for Collaborative practices, together with Sheena McGrandles, where she coordinates AFFECT Residency program for Collaborative Arts in Berlin (s.2014), and founded ¡n[s]urgênc!as: Berlin-based platform for socially conscious artistic practices & activist positions from Latin America. She has curated and participated in projects at NON Gallery, Galerie Wedding, Entretempo Gallery, Agora Collective in Berlin, Cinema Lumardhi (Prizren, Kosovo), ZK/U Berlin, 48 Neukölln, B-Tours Festival (Tel Aviv/Berlin), 13 Havana Biennial (Havana), Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam (Havana).
da:ns lab is an annual platform for dance practitioners to reflect upon key issues surrounding their creative practice, as part of da:ns festival at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay. The programme aims to engage dance practitioners in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region in artistic discourse, research, reflection and exchange.