'When you are about to act, do not rely on any general reason that would give you the right to act. Do take the time to open your imagination and consider this particular occasion. You are not responsible for what will follow, as you are not responsible for the limitations of your imagination. Your responsibility is to be played in the minor key, as a matter of pragmatic ethos, a demanding one nevertheless : what you are responsible of is to pay the best attention you can, to produce the best discrimination you can, about the particular situation. That is to decide in this particular case and not to obey the power of a more general reason.' (Isabelle Stengers, 'Introductory notes on an ecology of practices')
Whoever has been involved in artistic, collaborative practices in the last years has probably been confronted with this problem: in a lot of cases the
open-endedness of the projects proposed,
the conscious lack (or crafty masking) of any kind of power positions in dealing with the invitation to the participating artists and thinkers,
the (historical) loss of a shared ground, methodology or reference frame and
the absence of a clear limitation of or grasp on the subject at hand,
often produces frustrating non-debates or futile practices undermining the belief in the potential power these collaborative endeavors started off with. It would sound nostalgic or even full-on reactionary if I were to use this text to express an vague longing for former ideological times. (Which I anyway, taking into account my political background and upbringing, never experienced. The only times I witnessed a full-on politically driven intellectual debate were the rare occasions I took part in discussions and festivals in Zagreb, Belgrade or Ljubljana). After so many years of trying to redefine the artistic working field - and especially collaborative work processes - as a potentially political one, I have become somewhat wary of the effects these initiatives create. Not only do they seem to lack the reverberating power to do more than polishing up the ever-changing language of cultural politics (where terminology recuperation is is used as loose change in the formulation of ever more regulative practices), but they neither seem to be able to generate the necessary critical self-awareness to fully imagine other environments to work, think and produce in than the ones proposed to us by the institutional frameworks that largely uphold, frame and center the artistic sector’s desires.
On the other hand, as I point out in the text ‘Curating as Environmentalism’, what has changed is the attitude of the artistic worker towards his/her own position within that field. And towards the redistribution of means that might undermine the powers of authorship, visibility and institutional renewal as they largely exist nowadays. An important feature in these ‘environmentalist’ practices is exactly the embrace of different topicalities of interest or method, each relating to particular (and precise) practices. As Isabelle Stengers points out in her notes on the ecology of practices (in which she addresses not so much artistic practices as any kind of research practice), this ecology forgoes any kind of sure outcome or common understanding of what it stands for or produces. In her distinction between playing the major key of ideological ‘common’ change, and the more humble minor key of the ecology of practices, Stengers proposes an alternative to the often quite bewildering interpretations of the power of the multitude.
'I would thus claim that an important divergence between thinking in a major or in a minor key may well concern the relation between thinking and what we may call, in each case, ethics. The need and power to define a central stage is obviously determined by a political, that is also, by an ethical, project. Celebrating the creative power of the multitude as the very resource Capitalism exploits in its own self-transformation is not a neutral characterization, but one which is intended to participate in its own enaction.' (Isabelle Stengers)
In contrast with this creation of a common movement, shared by all in its desire to overthrow the current political stage, Stengers places the ecology of practices as a tool to rethink the - and thus: any - situation:
'What I call ecology of practice is a tool for thinking what is happening, and a tool is never neutral. Also, a tool can be passed from hand to hand, but each time the gesture of taking it in hand will be a particular one: the tool is not a general mean, defined as adequate for a set of particular aims, potentially including the one of the person who is taking it, and it does not entail a judgement on the situation as justifying its use. Borrowing Whitehead’s word, I would speak of a decision, but a decision without a decision-maker. The decision is making the maker as it is producing the relevant relation between the situation and the tool. The habit of the tool user may make it plausible to speak about recognition, not decision, as if those situations where this or that tool must be used had something in common, a sameness justifying the use of the same tool. (…) But when we deal with "tools for thinking", habit must be resisted. The stake here is "giving to the situation the power to make us think", knowing that this power is always a virtual one, that it has to be actualized. The relevant tools, tools for thinking, are then the ones that address and actualize this power of the situation, that make it a matter of particular concern, that is make us think and not recognize.'</blockquote> Making this distinction certainly saves artistic practices in their particularity from any kind of pragmatic political reduction. But at the same time these practices are not value-free: as we can read in the above-mentioned quote, they come with a responsibility. Every practice is born out of an attachment, a way of relating to things, a belief system that is or is no longer accepted within the ‘common sense’, but which needs to be acknowledged for it to be able to play its role within the ecology. In other words: every practice expresses a sense of belonging that will orient the attachment (to a certain way of doing or interpreting things) of this particular practitioner to the shared space, adding a particular understanding and perspective to the experience of the moment. A practice doesn’t have to express an ideological position in order to be able to produce change, but it has to entail a proposition: an invitation to handle the situation, to talk and negotiate, or, in Stengers words, a diplomacy that always takes into account its own risk-taking.
So instead of the proposed ‘mass intellectuality’ as the ‘antagonist force against the Capital’, which is sustained by the theory of the multitude, Stengers places a much more complicated and subtle coming together of different practices and their attachments, taking serious what they stand for and the changes that their coming together in the diplomatic process might produce. Against the strong dialectics of positions and outcomes, she places the slow diplomacy of manoeuvring often incompatible methodologies until they magically transform the or/or into the and/and. Or: 'It is important to contrast empowerment, as the transformative power produced by what the witches call rituals, with unity in the name of a cause, that is mobilisation.'
(The full text 'Post-Salon' is part of the publication Post-Salon, published by a.pass. The eclectic material you find in this book is the outcome of a one month salon about curating in the performing arts which took place in Brussels in April 2011.
Are there projects in the contemporary performance scene that are exemplary for the specific ways in which the notion of curating is transformed from its visual arts context into a more collaborative and performative gesture? From this starting point, the one month salon on curating in the performing arts was developed. On the basis of the online article 'Curating as environmentalism' people were invited to gloss the text, highlight fragments, and add other texts, images, links and thoughts. The added material then was the inspiration for the ‘live’ salon in the workspace nadine in Brussels
The online contributions, and some of the work developed during the ‘live’ meeting are assembled in the book. Pieces of knowledge, truth or fiction, texts written by others, poems or jokes: they all come out of this thinking process. Added to this is a new text, looking back at the process, and formulating new problems for thought.)