Circle II. Where is the Art?


Lumbung Diaries

Herbert Gallery, Coventry (UK)

27 November 2021

10 am

As I walk the streets of Coventry to arrive at the Herbert Gallery for Project Art Works’ public programme ‘Where is the Art?’, I come across a beautiful church, which, as Google informs me, is called Coventry Cathedral.

It’s early, I’ve already had breakfast and have a bit of time. I realise I am exhausted and I go inside to have a little moment to myself before I’m due to go. I need to see the Turner Prize exhibition eventually, and go meet Kate and the others as they set up the event space. Sara couldn’t make it to England this time because the invitation was short notice, so I’m here on my own. Joachim from Trampoline will also show up later, as he is based in the UK. I’m feeling both slightly uncomfortable to go in there alone and really excited about walking into the scene and seeing their bodies move in space after a year of covid and online Lumbung meetings which always involved talking, eating dinner, dancing, complaining, singing karaoke or plotting at odd, shifting times that always suit some around the globe better than others. It kind of feels like a MySpace reunion or any other kind of post-Internet set up where you finally meet virtual friends or lovers in the flesh and decide whether you actually like them or whether there was too much fantasy or projection poured into the virtual relationship to begin with. I have decided I will not be wearing a face mask, because in the UK, I don’t have to, and I realise I miss randomly touching my face.

I’m here in Coventry because Kate Adams from Project Art Works extended an invitation to me and my colleagues at Trampoline House, other Lumbung friends and the documenta Artistic Team to contribute to ‘Where is The Art?’, a documenta-themed public programme they have organised on the occasion of their 2021 Turner Prize nomination. Being on the Turner Prize shortlist is undeniably one of those labels that is due to change the course of an organisation or collective, whatever the result, as well as having the potential to redefine - however temporarily - the social and cultural value of the communities, environments and causes they support. This year, five collectives have been nominated. As the Tate website reads, ‘this is the first time a Turner Prize jury has selected a shortlist consisting entirely of artist collectives. All the nominees work closely and continuously with communities across the breadth of the UK to inspire social change through art’. Solely judging by the Turner Prize and documenta fifteen, it seems fair to assume that this year is, without a doubt, the year of collectives and communities, and it is inevitable to wonder what that might mean for us, for our communities, for the so-called art world, and who the attention will benefit.

Me and my Trampoline House co-curator and partner in crime Sara Alberani met Kate in a Lumbung online research group called ‘Where is the Art?’, which gathered interested members from all fourteen collectives in the Lumbung network. Before that, in the winter of 2021, Trampoline House had voted to include Project Art Works in the growing network of Lumbung members that would, we hoped - pandemic and all, not to mention the endless series of calamities of a political nature that Germany had in store for us - make it to documenta fifteen and beyond, as Lumbung pals.

Photo: Harvest, Where is the Art? working group. Source: Lumbung dot space.

Sarcastically replicating an insidious, repetitive question that many of us often get, along the lines of ‘yeah, great work but ‘where is the Art?’ the group became the site of some frankly interesting and moving conversations about the ways that our practices inside the Lumbung network intersect art, affect, politics, and life, and how they are often read as anything but art, because art continues to be wounded by the idea of objects, exhibitions, and artist geniuses, whereas social practices have typically belonged in the paternalistic realm of governmental, non-profit and NGO work. We often talk about how the artistic field is increasingly engaging in advocacy and crisis work and taking up certain spaces that used to belong to social care, and how that is a consequence of welfare cuts and neoliberal ideology, but also of the desired evolution of certain artistic practices from something lofty, authorial, inaccessible and concentrated to something communally, spiritually, ethically and socially beneficial, a circular energy that moves and transforms in an ongoing flow of action, where ‘artworks’ and objects, if and when they are produced, become traces of conversations where the art actually happened.

Other important reflections and questions emerged in this research group, such as the fact that the all-too-common separation of art and life could also remove and reduce some practices from their active political and social lives into formal artistic and exhibition value. How can the exhibition in Kassel provide an engaged context? But also, how do we make art in a place - a locality - that doesn’t perceive what we are making as art?

This one hit home at Trampoline House: the house was born in 2009 from socially engaged practice, as the result of a series of creative workshops run together with asylum seekers and refugees, who were very clear that they did not need another workshop, but a house they could come to every day and feel the community, safety, hope and joy they had been denied as part of a planned government strategy of breaking them down so as to deter them from seeking asylum in Denmark.

Trampoline House House Meeting. Photo: Viktoria Steinhart.

Founded by two artists - Morten Goll and Joachim Hamou - and one curator - Tone Olaf Nielsen, the project’s DNA is deeply rooted in art. Art was since the inception at the core of Trampoline House’s way of working, whether it was a means to raise funds, frame discussions, celebrate togetherness, or orchestrate national political campaigns. Art also lies at the foundation of each infrastructure decision, from the way that house meetings are democratically run to how care giving and receiving and capacity building is strategised in the house: people provide something that they are good or highly skilled at - such as teaching their native language or cooking for the community - in exchange for the things they need - for instance, legal counselling. In short, art made the imagination, creation and practice of a new ‘social contract’ between asylum seekers and Danes possible.

‘Both Trampoline House and Project Art Works are rethinking the social contract at documenta fifteen’

Joachim Hamou (Trampoline House), Where is the Art? Herbert Gallery, 27 November 2021

However, it is undeniable that there can often be a gap - a lack of resources, energy, imagination, time, capacity - between the demands of the sort of crisis work that is being carried out daily in the house - for example, working with a lawyer against a deportation case, taking care of an orphan child who has just lost his mother, whose only family was the Trampoline House community, sort out paperwork and find a safe adoption route - and the dreams and aspirations that art demands. Art needs to be constantly practised, it is an infrastructure, a horizon, and a point of reference, but at the same time, I am 100% sure that most house users would not necessarily identify themselves as participants of an artistic practice. For them, this is a part of their life and their home. For the Trampoline House Artistic Team, art is a powerful, high-exposure environment to initiate difficult conversations and get our point across into society: culture dignifies and generates value, art makes the invisible visible, any form of human expression can be channelled through art. From the camps to documenta to the parliament, from documenta to the parliament to the camps: those are the kinds of movements that we are interested in. That might be where the art is.

10 30 am

Photo: Interior - Coventry Cathedral, Postcard, date unknown.

As I sit inside the church and proceed to ponder, I remember my recent, somewhat mad, private correspondence with Chris Kraus after I published a series of open letters to her on the topic of the double standards of the art world. Amongst other existential questions prompted by the observation that the art world art was increasingly becoming a space not only to feel, but to talk about - and, rather worryingly, perform feelings - I asked her, quite desperately, when art had become a hospital.

To this, she replied:

As I remember her words, I connect to the quietness and emptiness of the church space and wonder if churches were once also collective spaces made to heal people’s hearts and not just to control them, and if perhaps, the fact that art is becoming - or, as Kraus suggests, has always been - a hospital is not so bad after all. I sit there wondering who our practices affect, who they touch, who they elevate, who they heal, other than artists’ own broken hearts. In short, I wonder if there is any relationship at all between the church I am sitting in and the collective space I am about to walk into. I then remember that, after the closure of the old House due to bankruptcy, Weekend Trampoline House is now nested in the Apostle Church, an immigrant church in Central Copenhagen, with the approval of house members from different faiths.

I realise I’m choking back tears of frustration and exhaustion, and they follow an 11 hour journey from Vienna to Coventry, a 10 day long week in Kassel battling our ground with the artistic and production teams because we’re late with our programme plan and a 3 hour argument on Zoom with the rest of the Trampoline House Artistic Team about an inner conflict with people who are illegitimately and shamelessly using the house to promote their own individual careers as artists without the consent of the group, one that went on in a loop where no solutions were found, and where I found myself unable to speak. Many times, arguments that in principle revolve around housekeeping and programming and budgeting also end up being boxing rings for men to take up as much space as possible, whether as artists, activists, refugees, authors, authorities of some sort, or a combination of the above.

I am one of four women in an artistic team currently made of fourteen people. One of the other women is Shakira Kasigwa Mukamusoni. She is an activist and artist from Congo, and she had lived in a detention camp with her son Taufiki for ten years before she was recently granted asylum in Denmark. Shakira is one of the most powerful speakers I have ever come across. She simply opens her mouth and stops the room in its tracks. Shakira was not able to participate for the whole duration of our Zoom team meeting because her internet connection in her new home is still unstable - but at least she has one, in the camps that was simply not possible. She also isn’t here because she can’t fly to the UK as her passport isn’t sorted yet, but hopefully it will be, before documenta fifteen opens in June 2022.

Shakira is currently learning to read and so, her preferred method of communication is either Facebook Messenger voice notes or being called on the phone whilst we’re having a Zoom meeting, which often causes her voice to crack and her points to not come across as neatly as others’. Other times, she has to work an extra shift and simply can’t make it to yet another Lumbung Zoom meeting. For instance, for the most part, she has not made it to ‘Where is the Art?’.

I send a voice note to Shakira from the church thanking her for her brilliant read of some difficult macho at the meeting yesterday and telling her about my trip to Coventry, walk out of the church and into town. I wish she was here.

11 am

Photo: Street view from the Herbert Gallery - courtesy of the author.

I start my Turner Prize exhibition tour at the Herbert and leave Project Art Works till the end - as the saying goes, save the best for last, I say to myself, fully aware that I do not wish to be objective, but have instead yielded to friendship and affect as my guiding principles.

As I step into their space, I walk into a white room with large paintings hanging from the walls. Disappointed, I admit to myself that these paintings really do remind me of Abstract Expressionism and white cube aesthetics. After this difficult first impression, I notice how the room is dominated by a large, makeshift wooden structure that looks like some kind of storage for different sized canvas paintings and rolled up drawings. Inside it, a beautifully evocative film shows a group of neurodivergent and neurotypical people on a weekend trip out in the Scottish countryside.

Photo: Project Art Works, Installation view at The Herbert Gallery. Photo: Garry Jones.

As I pay more attention to the art on display, I am particularly struck by a very large drawing made of hundreds of words that repeat in space making colourful patterns, its meaning incomprehensible for my neurotypical brain, while the trace of a ritualistic, intricate process of repetition and arrangement emerges with astonishing clarity. Close to it is another drawing depicting six buildings that I presume are important to Sharif, who must be a Project Art Works artist and somebody with complex support needs. Hastings Sussex Coast College, Riley House, The Roebuck Day Centre - ‘staff not qualified for looking after Sharif’, the drawing reads - Sussex House, the Selden Centre, Green Wood, and in the centre, Project Art Works. In a heartbeat, the combination of these pieces takes me out of the white cube I had initially found myself in, as if the initial impression had been an intentional gimmick designed to create a false sense of comfort in me, only to strike all the harder just minutes later.

Photo: Carl Sexton, Installation view detail at The Herbert Gallery. Photo: Author

Finally, I direct my attention to the last line drawing on display: a series of concentric circles with beautiful handwriting on them. The words ‘person’, ‘caregivers’ and ‘family’ are written in the core circle, while curvilinear pathways lead outwards, pointing to words evocative of joy, agency and desire. ‘Being close to the sea’, ‘sex’, ‘choice in who to spend time with’, ‘love’, ‘being in wild places’ - all simple, yet noble aspirations to a fulfilling existence. Moving outward, a cryptic maze of acronyms and bureaucratic terms stands between the person, their family, and these expressions of life and desire, in concentric circles that signal - I am guessing - a person’s most immediate and concrete needs - such as housing - in contrast to the funding systems, government benefit plans, and national suprastructures - from the NHS (British National Health Service) to the Court of Protection - that rule over a person’s life.

Image: Kate Adams, Cosmologies of Care - Drawing III - Navigating Systems, 2021. Photo: author

I look at the title, and see that this drawing is called ‘Cosmologies of Care’ and it is by Kate Adams. I know, from our Lumbung conversations, that, besides being an artist and the co-founder of Project Art Works, Kate is the mother of a 39 year old man, Paul, who has very complex support needs. Before I understand it with my brain, I emotionally understand the exhibition in a completely different way. This, I say to myself, is her attempt at starting from herself, an old feminist strategy and still a very powerful weapon in practices where oppressed subjectivities and/or care needs lie at the core. Here, care becomes visible in all its ambiguity, as does a person’s - and, indeed, a family system’s - aspirations to live meaningful lives, making art an active part of that empowerment process through public conversation.

Conforming a frail balance in space, these diagrams, paintings and drawings conform ‘a soft entry to hard truths’ - to quote Project Art Works artist Anna Farley. Through the cosmology, everything becomes instantly legible as a conversation between the public, the artists, and the community - a conversation about who has the right to live a meaningful life, and which systems enable or hamper that very possibility. In other words, subjects who produce situated knowledge, which is embodied and rooted in a concrete social structure - but not any less valuable - emerge from anonymity into public space.

From this point onwards, I become not only completely attuned to the space, but also certain of the ways that Project Art Works’ and Trampoline House’s - practices resonate. And not only that: it dawns on me that cosmologies now also promise to fulfil a collective need to visualise the nooks and crannies of the Danish asylum system and the ways it exercises control upon people, which is a recurrent topic in the House, as well as give shape to individuals’ legitimate aspirations and dreams - in other words, the cosmologies could perhaps help us ‘massage’ the asylum system, share survival strategies, and evoke resilience and solidarity.

1 pm - event begins

‘Where is the art?’ is a question that we want to pose to the audience. We want to unfold the question alongside neurodivergent and neurotypical people. The act of coming together is the most important thing. In fact, what we want to do for documenta fifteen is bring neurodivergent people from hiding into safe, public spaces. In this way, we shift a narrative where they are seen as recipients of (social) care to one where they are contributors to a social project. That’s where the art is for us.’

Kate Adams, Internal Lumbung/Where is The Art? Zoom meeting, 23/11/21

As part of ‘Where is the Art?’, different participating collectives from documenta were asked to host events in their localities extending the discussion to various places. Using the Turner Prize gallery as a temporary locality, Project Art Works is doing precisely that. This strategy sought to have this conversation - where is the art? - as a form of circulating, artistic practice that would take on different forms, depending on the locality of each collective. It also sought to create new methods to produce and share knowledge together - I’m guessing something like what I just thought about: how Project Art Works’ Cosmologies could work with the Trampoline House community.

One of the principles of Lumbung is that whatever is produced or created in documenta brings something back to each locality - in our case, to Trampoline House. The event hasn’t even started, but I already feel that we have come full circle: we will be bringing back a Coventry Lumbung harvest to the House, in the form of a proposition for a joint collaboration, where we explore the asylum system - and its impact on people - using Project Art Works’s Cosmologies of Care as our main tool. I can see how this circulation of methods and community knowledge could generate new learnings: how do life experiences compare, and how do government systems liken them to one another? As I instinctively knew when I saw the drawing, our communities have a lot in common in the way they are seen as improductive, and thus a burden, for European capitalist societies, and therefore, support, care and maintenance of these forms of human life becomes a form of charity, a superfluous luxury, or an exhausted resource in an equally exhausted welfare system, most commonly.

For Project Art Works, the ‘Where is the Art?’ event at the Herbert is primarily an occasion for parts of the Lumbung community to get together, physically, for the first time, to see each other’s faces beyond a screen, and to match excitement and synergies with bodies and practices. It is also an occasion for Project Art Works to include audiences and their artists, families, care workers and community members into conversations that had, up to that point, been restricted to Zoom, generating a series of hard borders and exclusions, especially for non-verbal people or people whose language is not neurotypical. The gathering provides an opportunity to show us that drawing, or simply taking up space in a room and making sounds is an important, genuine way to contribute to this big translocal conversation about art and life that we had all been having. It also reminds me of the ways in which our own community remains for the most part excluded from international travel and thus from this event and half of documenta, and how I am one of only six people in a team of fourteen holding a EU passport that I can fly with.

‘People are not into [artistic] objects or artefacts, but into what they mean’.


‘My daughter’s only release is through art’.

Audience members, ‘Where is The Art?’, 27 November 2021

We gather around a large circle on the floor made of drawing paper, which is peppered with large cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other. We begin standing up and drawing with posca pens attached to long sticks, in a quiet, collective ritual that resembles a dance without music, while some people do their own thing - drawing, painting, listening to music - outside of the circle, unbothered by the others. Seeing those cardboard boxes makes me think of the idea of the factory, its relationship with complex care needs and the concept of compulsory occupation. I think of how, in Western societies, fordist ‘occupation’ is seen as a moral imperative for the disabled, often resulting in work programmes that propose dehumanising manual work to people as a cure-all. I remember Martin from Project Art Works telling us about their recent field trip to map the local care sector in Kassel, and their heartbreaking visit to a factory where disabled people work. That’s how they had found out that some people had been literally sticking the same sticker on the same box in the same assembly chain for close to twenty-five years. They were horrified.

Turning to dehumanising labour as a way to assimilate disabled populations and people with complex support needs and curb our obsession with occupation makes me think of capitalism, Christianity, guilt and our sick, compulsive relationship to productivity in the West. But inevitably, it also makes me reflect on forced inactivity as a dehumanising strategy applied to people in camps in Denmark.

In 2019, in the context of a collaboration with Trampoline House and its former Centre for Art and Migration Politics (CAMP), cultural theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff visited the refugee camp of Sjælsmark, which I have also visited. Sjælsmark houses people whose applications for asylum have been rejected but who cannot be returned to their country of origin (technically “non-deportable rejected asylum seekers,” according to EU law). Speaking about migration policies in Denmark, which are amongst some of the most aggressive in the world, Mirzoeff referred to what he saw there as ‘social death’ by inactivity: refugees stuck in places like Sjaelsmark are denied the most basic rights, such as the right to work, education, the right to a home, or even to decorate their rooms or cook their own food. He recalls the words of the Danish immigration minister Inger Støjberg - ‘we intend to make conditions for people in the asylum system unbearable’ - to illustrate how social death by isolation and inactivity is the means to an end - disappearance.

‘The [Danish] state wants asylum seekers either to go underground or “run”—meaning seek an inevitable rejection for asylum elsewhere. Although both actions are illegal, they would fulfil the state mission of having refugees disappear’.

Nicholas Mirzoeff, ‘Social Death in Denmark’, on the occasion of his exhibition ‘Decolonizing Appearance’ with Trampoline House, 2019.

Social death vs compulsive fordism: Seemingly opposing, aligned forms of control and disappearance? I think so.

2 pm - 4 pm

I decide to stop taking notes and tune into the many voices around me and what they have to say.

Image: Where is the art? Workshop, Project Art Works, Turner Prize exhibition, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, 2021 © Project Art Works
Image: Where is the art? Workshop, Project Art Works, Turner Prize exhibition, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, 2021 © Project Art Works