The exhibition space is a special place, not because it displays strange objects and ideas and serves as a gathering place for Prosecco drinkers with crystal glasses, but because it acts as a junction between the public and private spheres, capable of transmuting art objects and ideas into actions and chains of events that have nothing to do with art or Prosecco. Only when this transmutation is complete and the art ideas, like neutrinos, pass through the walls of the exhibition space, impacting anything they encounter, can the exhibition be deemed successful. Of course, this is my definition. After all, this is my article and I can say whatever I please. Until this transmutation occurs, the exhibition space must be occupied like a squat. And now, let me show you how.
Work Hard, Celebrate Harder
Finding a place to organize an exhibition is an event to be celebrated, especially when you are in a completely gentrified capital. This, of course, we will do in the mythical Berlin, the city where art flows through the veins of the streets, where walls are covered in graffiti, people shoot up heroin in passport photo booths, and where artists dare to be bold. So, are you ready to put these rules into practice and live your exhibition as if there’s no tomorrow?
Artists vs. Gentrification: One Exhibition Space at a Time
The struggle for a long-term contract is a constant fight in Berlin, just like the short-term rental contracts that 90% of residents have. This fight for stability extends to exhibition spaces, atelier and apartments as well, where the competition between workers, families, and students is exhausting, and nobody emerges victorious in the bloody boxing ring of gentrification. Artists can be seen as Ring Girls, carrying signs displaying the round number as they enter the ring between fights. They are not there to fight, but rather to give information, passing through with the hope of being noticed. However, now these Ring Girls of the art world are demanding emancipation and are ready to fight for their slice of the stage. The struggle for space is an ongoing challenge, but I’m no longer willing to simply pass through and hope for the best. I’m here ready to fight for my rights and to make my voices heard.
For this reason, I came up with these 7 rules for successfully squatting in the exhibition space, achieving maximum results with minimal resources!
Rule #1: Their space, your rules: How to occupy an exhibition space indefinitely.
In an era where the art world has lost its profound relational dimension with the public, the organization of a collective exhibition that has an impact not only on the art scene but on the surrounding social context can represent an act of rebellion, and at the same time, an act of cohesion. What I call “artistic squatting” has to do with the necessary assumption of responsibility for public and semi-private spaces by artistic communities, by restoring their cultural value to society through independent and sophisticated artistic programming that would otherwise be lost in the gentrification process of urban areas and institutionalization of cultural art spaces. But we’ll talk more about the latter in a later chapter. What I present in this chapter is the organization of the intermediate process of a collective exhibition (i.e., assuming that you already have an exhibition space) through an approach that I call “artistic squatting.”
Artistic squatting is a resistance to the homogenization of art with the institutional logic of exhibition space usage and also resists the logic of the finished product. Artistic squatting intends to generate the maximum result with the minimum space.
“Artistic squatting: A show that begins before the opening and has no end.”
For a successful artistic squat, it is necessary to request continued access to the exhibition space, not just a couple of days before the exhibition, but every day, at least one week before the opening and every weekday during the exhibition period. We’re not interested in exhibition spaces that open only two days a week because the managers are busy with second jobs. We want responsible people who invest themselves fully in what they do. This request is an instance of participation and involvement, active cooperation between the artist and the exhibition space, and what this habit implies. The goal is to create a collaborative work environment and to stimulate dialogue between the parties involved. Only in this way is it possible to create an exhibition that goes beyond the aesthetic surface of the exhibited works and inscribes itself in a broader discourse on contemporary culture and society.
Rule #2: Transform the exhibition space into a living environment (or a living room into an exhibition space)
Once you’ve secured the space, it’s time to start your squatting. And I don’t mean doing squats to stay fit (although that’s not a bad idea). I mean, really living in that area. Bring people you know from the street to the exhibition space, bring your friends, family, your tinder date, your neighbor’s dog, anyone who will appreciate your art. Open an instagram account or start an online survey to get feedback on how to present the exhibition works, open a last-minute open call to receive alternative projects and collaborate with you, ask others how they would use that space, talk to existing communities in the area, have lunch together and sleep inside (if possible), breathe and create in that space, make it dirty. Be creative! The possibilities are endless. In short, anything that will puncture the bubble of perception in which we use to live in and saturate the air of that space with life.
Rule #3: Involve Artists and the Local Community: Get Ready for a Wild Ride
To create an authentic and engaging artistic experience, it is not enough to do as grandma did and invite everyone to participate, but it is necessary to actively involve an equal number of interested artists, local community and total strangers. We want to maintain a certain degree of serendipity. After all, randomness is the father of creativity and biological variety. You can ask what their needs and issues are in their context. A show requires information, and a real team effort, in which everyone has their role and all work together to create a collective exhibition. This can be done through the creation of shared workspaces, where artists can meet and exchange ideas, or through the active participation of artists in the realization of events and performances. In addition, involving the local community in the planning and organization of the exhibition can generate a sense of belonging and involvement in the event’s realization. This can be done through the creation of local working groups, and the active participation of the community in the realization of collateral events. The exhibition is based on creating relationships between all the actors involved, generating an impact not only in the prosecco drinkers world, but also in society and the local community.
Artists and communities: Like Peanut Butter and honey
An example very close to my practice is the work of Cuban artist-activist Tania Bruguera, known for her highly collaborative and participatory approach to creating works of art, which often involve local communities in collective activities. An example of this approach was her work at the Tate Modern, where she developed an exhibition in collaboration with the residents of the neighborhood, who were involved in the selection and presentation of the works on display. This method allowed for greater inclusion and participation by the local community in artistic production. For example, she brought together a group of 21 people who live or work in the same postal area as the Tate Modern. Called Tate Neighbours, they explored how the museum can learn and adapt to its local community. They decided to rename Tate Modern’s Boiler House for a year in honor of local activist Natalie Bell. The Tate Neighbours also wrote a manifesto that appears when you connect to the free WiFi.
In this case, the “artistic squat” consists of a form of resistance to the logic of the exhibition space by using it to its fullest cultural potential as a social container for the inclusion of collateral events to the exhibition, which extend beyond the boundaries of the exhibition itself. This artistic method aims to generate the maximum social and cultural impact with minimal resources and space, challenging the traditional conventions of artistic programming.
While Tania Bruguera and my work may differ in our approach to creating works of art, we both share an interest in the inclusion of local communities and the expansion of exhibition space beyond the boundaries of traditional exhibitions. While Bruguera seeks to involve local communities in the artistic production itself, the artistic squat seeks to use exhibition space as a means for social and cultural activism. In this way, we both challenge the conventions of contemporary art and seek to create a more inclusive and participatory space for the production and presentation of works of art.
Rule #4: Make your exhibition an interactive experience, but without video games.
The interaction between the artwork, artist, audience, and surrounding context can occur in sophisticated ways without turning the gallery or artwork into a playground as Carsten Holler would or a restaurant as Rirkrit Tiravanija would. This is not a bad thing, I love these artists, but it’s simply not what I mean by an interactive experience. Here, the goal is to create an engaging experience for the audience that goes beyond the aesthetic experience of the artwork or direct interaction with the artwork itself. We’re talking about an artistic experience that extends beyond the boundaries of the exhibition space and follows you home, makes you think during the day, and inspires you to work in ways that no other exhibition has done before. If the artworks are capable of generating a chain reaction of events, the result will be an exhibition with an impact on the audience and the surrounding context. But how to achieve all of this? Don’t worry, there is a strategy behind all of this, and I’ll explain it in the next chapter. For now, focus on rule number four: interact with your audience, but do it with style.
“It’s Not a Table, It’s a Conversation Starter: The Magic of Relational Art”
As Nicolas Bourriaud, one of the major theorists of relational art, would say, the interaction between the artwork, artist, and audience becomes the focus of the artistic experience. Creating an interactive experience means creating an artwork that is not isolated from its context but becomes an integral part of the world that surrounds us. This presupposes that artworks are not seen as the sole resource of the artistic experience but as the epicenter of a broader process that stimulates discussions and actions outside of the exhibition space. But don’t think that it is necessary to turn the entire exhibition space into a high-tech playground to achieve this goal. You don’t need virtual reality glasses or projections that interact with movement for the exhibition to act as a catalyst for social interactions. In fact, art can become the epicenter of a broader process that involves discussions, actions, and reflections outside of the gallery. This means organizing events and activities that invite the audience to actively participate in the artistic experience, such as guided tours, workshops, performances, and discussions not only during the opening day. In this way, art becomes a tool for creating relationships between people, a space for meeting and exchanging ideas where the barriers between artist and audience dissolve, and the ideas developed through the artworks can travel beyond the surface of the artwork and outside of the gallery. After all, if the artwork cannot travel, it would be a shame.
And if these experiences are not only more intense and meaningful than traditional visits where the audience is just a passive spectator, but can also influence society as a whole, then we can say that we have achieved a very ambitious goal. With this type of approach, the artist becomes a facilitator of creative processes, not just an eclectic individual dressed in trendy clothes searching for impact in the market. The impact they must pursue is the one directed towards society, which needs it more than the market. So, if you want to make a truly engaging exhibition, consider this approach. I’m ready to see what you’ll be able to do!
Rule #5 “The Opening: A Battle of Chaos vs Control”
It is time to collect one’s belongings and clean the exhibition space for the opening. The inauguration of an exhibition is a celebration, like a birth, that requires a lot of energy and enthusiasm. An energy that is necessary to kick start the process of transmutation of artistic objects and ideas into life. But many “super cool” galleries seem more like a funeral scene than a celebration. They are sterile, neon-lit white boxes where every hint of life has been removed to make way for the divination of the art object that reinforces, like every lifeless art object, the division between rich and poor, between educated and uneducated people. And that’s not what we’re looking for, right? If it is, then I’ll spare you the time of reading and give you this book to give to a friend for their next birthday. The challenge is to create an exhibition space that is both evocative and accessible, in which not only your works of art but the surrounding environment can communicate directly to the public rather than separating from it.
It’s time to clean up the exhibition space in preparation for the grand opening. We literally lived here in the last week, so it’s time to tidy up a bit. But don’t throw away all the ideas, inspirations, and suggestions that your street friends, neighbors, and other entities have brought into this space. Think about how you clean the house before your friends arrive – tidy things up, but don’t erase all the photos of your vacations, posters, and everyday objects that give character to your home. After all, this is your home, not a rented space for meetings.
The Unexpected is Always on the Guest List
The creative process is unpredictable and is one of the most sophisticated things that make us human. It is important to consider what gave value to the execution of your works in the studio and now to take into account the circumstances of the exhibition space and the surrounding social environment to bring these variables together. Important to maintaining a detached approach. It is a process of introspection, self-correction, transformation, and has nothing to do with imposing one’s will on every circumstance or manipulating them. Because, let’s face it, the unexpected is part of the game. In fact, it is a response from your subconscious that emerges to highlight a lesson you need to learn. So, position your works, do your job, and embrace the unexpected as if it were your best teachers – your subconscious. Give yourself time to integrate the lesson and continue with your work until the end of the preparation.
Rule #6: Take advantage of networking and economic development opportunities.
Every art exhibition can become an opportunity for the economic development of the local community. The Farm Cultural Park, located in Favara, Sicily, is a shining example of how an artistic project can create jobs and attract investments to the area. Founded in 2010 by Andrea Bartoli, the Farm Cultural Park is a cultural and creative center that transformed an abandoned old neighborhood into a reference point for art and culture in Italy. But this is a large project and we want to focus on a collective exhibition in an exhibition space we have found just around the corner.
To do this, we must take advantage of networking and collaboration opportunities with local organizations and authorities. Thanks to this approach, we can create a network of contacts that allows us to promote the project and attract other relevant entities to the area. The result is to create a chain reaction that leads to the birth of other projects and communities based on your drive and I would say based on your exhibition.
From Starving Artist to Economic Powerhouse
In summary, taking advantage of networking and economic development opportunities is an important lever for creating a successful artistic experience. Creating relationships with local organizations, authorities, and other stakeholders, participating in artistic and cultural events, and collaborating with other artists represent the most effective tools for creating a network of contacts and promoting the event. The success of the Farm Cultural Park demonstrates how art can become an engine of economic and cultural development for a community, generating a positive impact on the area and society at large.
Rule #7: Go beyond the exhibition, create a lasting connection
Once the exhibition is over, it’s important to keep the spirit alive by involving the audience and other artists in subsequent activities. Don’t just close down your art squat and leave the exhibition space. Create a lasting connection with the audience and other artists involved in the exhibition. Organize follow-up events, informal meetings, debates, and workshops that aim to share and deepen the topics addressed during the exhibition. Try to create a network of collaboration and mutual support among artists, curators, and the public, so that you can continue to develop ideas and projects together.
In this way, the exhibition becomes only the beginning of a dialogue and a process of collective growth, rather than an isolated and temporary event.
The Art Must Go On
Rule #7 invites us to look beyond the temporal limits of the artistic event and to see the exhibition as an opportunity to create lasting connections and build meaningful relationships with the audience and other artists. Only in this way can art become a tool for cultural and social transformation, an engine of change that goes beyond the individual event because it reminds us that the real exhibition begins before the opening and doesn’t end at the close of the show.
Final Note: Don’t Be a Square
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the guidelines I have shared with you are only the starting point for creating a “living exhibition”. An entity in constant evolution requires continuous adaptations. However, I want to emphasize that I don’t want to impose rules on anyone. These are the rules I have decided to follow for myself, and I advise you not to let anyone impose rules on you without adequate motivation. On the contrary, I encourage you, innovative artists, to follow your creative instinct and, if necessary, to break these rules. Because only through exploration, experimentation, and audacity can new creative heights be reached. So, take my guidelines as suggestions, but let your artistic spirit guide you towards the creation of something truly unique.
Author: Andrea Mineo