Terms of Belonging

By Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh

This past spring, wave after wave of social and political change swept across Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East. After decades of undemocratic and unjust rule, the people of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya took to the streets to overthrow their respective leaders. In Spain, Greece, and the UK, the young and old alike took to their city centers to protest against forced austerity. Prior to the ‘Arab Spring’, Sudan was the only Arab country to have successfully conquered its dictatorial regime. In the decade leading up to these popular revolutions, more quiet, structural, top-down transformations have taken place in other parts of the world. A combination of neo-liberal ideology and nationalism has been spreading like wildfire, turning once-progressive nation states with strong welfare and justice systems, like Denmark and the Netherlands, into places where aggressive privatization goes hand in hand with xenophobia as prejudice takes over the political discourse. By now, it will have been decided whether Denmark will continue in this direction or seek out a new path.[1] Art historian and writer Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen has argued, in context of the political situation in Denmark, that “the meaninglessness of capitalism, in which we reproduce the world each day but feel devoid of agency and control over our life, calls for the nation-state to momentarily stop constant deterritorialization and glue society back together again. And that operation increasingly take place through exclusion” (7).

The point of departure for our curatorial project, Terms of Belonging, can be considered a response to the problematic articulated by Rasmussen: Are there ways we can be together in the world that aren’t overly determined by the nation state and existing law? We are thus seeking other social formations, other terms of belonging. The five main components of the project, outlined here, overlap with our research into contemporary discourse on community and the commons and its relationship with contemporary art. They include the orchestration of a production residency in Copenhagen with a group of international artists concerned with the rise of nationalist racisms, a related exhibition and program of events at Overgaden Institute of Contemporary Art, a one-day Forum in which participating artists were joined by scholars and activists in conversation and debate about the future of community and a website documenting all of these activities (www.termsofbelonging.org). This essay on Terms of Belonging thus attempts to articulate the ways in which art practice is able to both document and critique the complex relationships uniting state legality, nationalist racism and neoliberal capitalism while gesturing to possible modes of social life outside these problematic limitations

Rethinking Communities

Bolt Rasmussen’s work is part of a broader theoretical and practical discourse that situates nationalism as a historical phenomenon, and one which we should be wary of accepting as natural. In his seminal book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson sheds light on a series of 19th century historical developments that laid the groundwork for imagining nations in a new way, such as the decline of the Christian faith, the demise of royal or dynastic authority, the transformation of medieval subjects into national citizens, the fall of Latin and rise of vernacular languages and the development of commercialized platforms such as novels and newspapers. Anderson posits these factors, amongst other 19th century specificities, as creating the conditions for the imagined basis of nationalism. If nationalism is a constructed phenomenon with a rather short history, we should be able to imagine a world governed by other forms of social structures generating other communities. Carefully constructed efforts to move beyond these 19th century frameworks can be found in the work of many artists (including those participating in our curatorial project Terms of Belonging), in philosophical discourses that have developed around issues of community and the commons and through less formalized channels that employ new media to undermine existing structures of inclusion and exclusion in order to create platforms for informal exchange, such as Aaaaarg, Facebook, Pirate Bay or WikiLeaks.

The Inoperative Community, published by philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, has emerged as a key text for rethinking the idea of community beyond the traditional discourses of unity and essence. In the book, Nancy aims at recovering the notion of community from both the disasters of 20th century and the skepticism of poststructuralist discourse. On the one hand, Nancy argues, the concept has been compromised by totalitarian formations through the creation of a fictive mass identity, and on the other hand poststructuralists have questioned collective forms of identification and conventional notions of coherent self and body politics. Nancy finds it impossible to imagine a form of dialogue that could challenge essentialized identity, and therefore he insists that an ethical community cannot be realized through communicative interaction. Instead, he argues for creative gestures that act as ‘voices of interruption’ destabilizing the mythical articulations of community and deconstructing totalitarian figurations.

More than most in this debate, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have popularized the dangers of nationalism and the need to rethink how we are in common with one another. In particular, their re-purposing of the term “love” has become a touchstone within this conversation. In Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri write “sameness and unity involve no creation but mere repetition without difference. Love should be defined, instead, by the encounters and experimentation of singularities in the common, which in turn produce a new common and new singularities” (184). This concept has a particular resonance at a time when Europe and the United States are becoming increasingly hostile to recent immigrants and refugees. Notions of national purity and related protective policies are determining encounters in the common making reflection and counteraction imperative.

Shaping Structures of Togetherness

But despite this critical inquiry into new modes of being, and in spite of the explosion of technologies and treaties that have enabled a greater sense and presence of the global, there has been a failure to translate these concepts and connections into lasting and far-reaching commonality. In the last decade, a surge of nationalism through much of the world, has addressed the problems of atomized societies and individuals with an imaginary sense of belonging. However, nationalism comes at significant cost since it necessitates rigid borders. Some belong, many do not.

A couple of years ago we – two curators presently based in Berlin – began conceiving of a project which could push back against the community of objects normally formed by exhibitions and open up the possibility for establishing new, temporary, experimental social congregations. After an invitation from Overgaden – Institute of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen – we began engineering a three-part framework that could allow us to engage artists in thinking about how we might affect the future of belonging. The project involved: a production residency, an exhibition, and a forum, bound together by an online publication. At the core of what came to be Terms of Belonging is a group of artists who weave and alter social fabrics to enter into new and unexpected relationships with their collaborators and audiences: Libia Castro & Ólafur Ólafsson; Kajsa Dahlberg; Luca Frei; Olivia Plender; Pia Rönicke & Nis Rømer; Superflex; Althea Thauberger; and Johan Tirén. Their practices engage minds and bodies by forming temporary communities, employing strategic separatism, or reframing social contracts in order to generate other modes of ‘being-in-common’.

The production residency is a collaboration between Overgaden, CPH AIR, and Fabrikken for Kunst og Design in Copenhagen. It will give the participants an opportunity to form a community amongst themselves and to establish ties with Copenhageners who may become participants in the project. The exhibition takes place at Overgaden’s main exhibition space from early September to late October 2011 and will be the key point of contact between artists and audiences by becoming an active space for the object and images produced by the artists. The one-day forum is a collaboration between Overgaden and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. Here, artists and curators will be joined by scholars and activists in a series of lectures and panel discussions addressing issues of the future of being together, departing from the specific local situation. Since Overgaden was originally a printing house, it seemed appropriate to tie everything together with a publication that offers information about Terms of Belonging, presents its background, current and future events, and which ultimately documents the project as a whole. In order to increase accessibility, we opted for an online collection of texts and images rather than a catalogue or brochure.

Artists as Producers in Times of Crisis

The contemporary belief in the efficacy of art as a catalyst for social change can be linked back to Walter Benjamin’s 1934 lecture, “Author as Producer,” which he first delivered at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris. In this essay he argues that works of art should create frames in which readers or audiences can intervene in the artwork, thereby becoming producers themselves. For Benjamin, a revolutionary work cannot simply have progressive content but must have its revolutionary qualities embedded in its technique, in its own mode of production:

An author who teaches a writer nothing, teaches nobody anything. The determinant factor is the exemplary character of a production that enables it, first, to lead other producers to this production, and secondly to present them with an improved apparatus for their use. And this apparatus is better to the degree that it leads consumers to production, in short that it is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators. (93)

The relevance of authorial models that emphasize the need for active and critically engaged minds in the production of a new future is perfectly clear when considered in view of the recent social and political developments introduced at the outset of this text. Underlying the projects comprising Terms of Belonging are profound desires for audience activation, expanded definitions of authorship and new forms of community. And with these aims comes a greater ambition for re-imagining social formations with the long-term desire to see real social change.

In her text “Viewers as Producers,” art historian Claire Bishop builds on Benjamin and outlines three motivations for the insistence on audience participation in art that have recurred numerous times in the last century: activation, authorship, and community. The lineage of the first is most clearly evident in the ambitions of Bertold Brecht, a central example of an author in the above mentioned Benjamin text, whose theatrical methods emphasized alienation and disrupted narrative flow over audience absorption in the story by using tactics where songs comment on the action, for example. The aim of Brechtian theatre is to compel viewers to reflect critically on the action and adopt a position rather than allow themselves to be taken on a passive and affective journey. Again drawing on theatre, Bishop cites Antonin Artaud in her explanation of the importance of authorship in participatory art. With his “theatre of cruelty,” outlined in The Theatre and its Double,Artaud sought to collapse the gap between actor and spectator, bringing multiple bodies into the process of production. Collaborative production became particularly important for many participatory practices of the 1960s which is not surprising given that The Theatre and its Double was only translated into English in the United States by M. C. Richards in 1958. The desire to collapse the distance between author and audience which is so central for Artaud, is further evident in Allan Kaprow’s Happenings and Fluxus works such as George Brecht’s event scores and LaMonte Young’s “draw a straight line and follow it” (also know as Composition 1960 #10 To Bob Morris). In Europe, Palle Nielsen’s Model for a Qualitative Society of 1968, although not Artaudian, is an excellent example of how strategies of participation were being used to challenge social norms. The piece transformed Stockholm’s Moderna Museet into a large adventure playground. For three weeks, children played in the playground as active subjects in an exhibition space, in which their play embodied a spirit of freedom and creativity. What these strategies have in common is an underlying idea that participation, be it mental and critical or physical and authorial, can play a role in social change. Ideally, awakened participants will be motivated to effect real, structural change. In this way, participation in art can be a factor in producing new social bonds, new communities. Relations to the two strains of critically engaged participatory practices outlined by Bishop can be seen running though the projects in Terms of Belonging, which we will now discuss.

Berlin and Rotterdam-based Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson will continue their ongoing campaign Your Country Doesn’t Exist in this Danish context, a country marked by ‘Liberal State Racism’ to speak with Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen. The project began almost ten years ago at Platform Garanti in Istanbul, and has since developed to include different forms and formats. The piece traveled the world spreading the statement “Your country doesn’t exist” in different languages and through various visual modes, including billboards, TV advertisements, postage stamps, wall drawings, and, lately, neon-signs. The work directly assaults notions that nation-states and the laws and sentiments of nationalism that maintain them are facts. If my country does not exist, the field is blown open and I am free to re-imagine my socio-political context.

With a simple graphic sign, Stockholm-based Johan Tirén will require visitors to Terms of Belonging to take off their shoes. Footwear is a symbol of class, gender and, in some contexts, religious belief and the ceremony surrounding them may forge other, accidental, communities. The work has an aggressive and authoritative edge, which is exercised to meet a seemingly arbitrary outcome: the removal of shoes. The work functions similarly to a Brechtian alienation device, pushing the audience to question the conventions of both art spaces and the domestic sphere where codes relating to shoes are most evident.

With their Corruption Contract, Copenhagen-based Superflex forces us as curators to directly challenge the Danish nation-state. We have signed a contract prepared by the collective which commits us to carry out at least one of the following crimes: bribery, forgery, embezzlement of public funds, bid rigging, fraudulent bids, misuse of funds, obstruction of justice, product substitution, acceptance of gratuities, fraud in an audit inquiry, fraud in contract performance, misuse of entrusted power for private gain, or trading in influence. The work forces us away from our protected position as initiators, facilitators, or interpreters and turns us into actors. Superflex will test our commitment to undermining national democracy, capitalism, and existing laws.

Berlin and Malmö-based Luca Frei’s installation DK-1414, named after Overgaden’s postal code, consists of a movable wood and chain sculpture lying on the ground and a set of chairs at the edge of the room. It sets up a scenario in which audiences are invited to play and to observe others acting. The sculpture can be manipulated and re-formed by performative interventions and thus authorial power is disrupted. Frei has relinquished his control over the spatial and social interactions that make up this tactile work and set many potential bodies into action and interaction. In relation to the work, the change of title highlights its nomadic quality, something which can also be reflected in its openness to change and reconfiguration.

Berlin and Malmö-based Kajsa Dahlberg presents Femø Woman’s Camp 2008: Film and Agreement, a video and contract made in collaboration with a group of Danish women a few summers ago. Every year the island of Femø in Denmark is transformed into the oldest existing women-only camp in the world. In addition, Dahlberg will co-organize an action with Malin Arnell, Johanna Gustavsson, and Fia-Stina Sandlund in the public sphere: a collective reading of I want a president… by Zoe Leonard from 1992. The text aims at creating a future horizon where we can imagine power as something other than a white, straight, middle-class man.

For the first phase of her project, Berlin and London-based Olivia Plender will spend two weeks in August conducting a survey of Copenhageners, interviewing people about how they behave in groups and how they construct their singular identity in relation to larger group identities. She is interested in examining the legacy of the social democratic movement in Denmark in terms of how people imagine themselves in relation to society and the various collectives that they also inhabit, and how this is changing in relation to neo-liberalism. For the second stage, Plender will channel her findings into a questionnaire, the Audience Survey, which will be conducted during the Terms of Belonging Forum.

Vancouver-based Althea Thauberger is creating an event-based work that brings together a group of 20-30 new mothers and their infant children who are statistically representative of the babies born in Copenhagen in a single year. Parameters include the age of the mothers, family income, ethnicity, and immigration status. Thauberger sees it as a potentially highly empathic and at the same time possibly stressful situation, one which has the potential of fostering new and different communities of mothers. The actions that unfold during the event will be determined by discussions between the artist and the participating mothers.

Gåafstand, or Walking Distance, is a project by Copenhagen-based Pia Rönicke and Holbæk-based Nis Rømer. It is an informal walking club for people with an interest in walking, urban planning, infrastructure, and communities. The starting point is the idea of having a subjective experience of the city through walking tours, either self-initiated or led by a guide. In their project for the show they will look at examples of localized communities in Copenhagen. It will oscillate between Garrett Hardin’s concept of “The Tragedy of the Commons” and Elinor Ostrom’s ideas of successful self-organization between people building communities and of other forces, powers, persons, and conditions tearing them down. At Overgaden Gåafstand they will also present a number of friezes composed of text and image from the past walks.

Future Terms of Belonging

Terms of Belonging was initiated in order to devote time, energy, and creative thought toward the question of whether there are ways we can be together in the world that aren’t overly determined by the nation state and existing law. Artworks by Castro & Ólafsson, Tirén, Gåafstand, and Frei challenge audiences to be aware of the structures that currently condition the way they relate to other people in their immediate environment and on a global scale. Entering into an active dialogue with this ambition, the works of Superflex, Dahlberg, Plender, and Thauberger create scenarios where new modes of being together can be tested on a public platform. As we write this text, much of the action is yet to unfold. The uncertainty underlying this project permeates all attempts to generate change. Like the outcome of the Arab uprisings, Greek protests, or the Danish election, we can merely speculate as to what the outcomes of this project might be on a local, national or even international level. We believe that artists offer different ways of addressing these problems than those of other professionals. They are able to test new ideas without being ethically accountable or financially responsible to any one governing body. By working through these concerns with the artists and their audiences, we strive to create dynamic sites for exchange between multitudes of actors.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and its Double. Trans. M.C. Richards. New York: Grove Press, 1958. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “Author as Producer.” New Left Review, 62 (July-August), 1970. Print.

Bishop, Claire. “Viewer As Producer.” Participation. Ed. Claire Bishop, London: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2006. Print.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. Ed. Peter Connor, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. Print.

Rasmussen, Mikkel Bolt. “On the Turn Towards Liberal State Racism in Denmark.” e-flux, n. 22 (January) 2011. Print.


[1]The Danish parliamentary election of 2011 took place on 15 September 2011 in order to elect members of the Danish parliament. As a result, the centre-right coalition led by the Liberal Party lost power to a centre-left coalition led by the Social Democrats, making Helle Thorning-Schmidt the country’s first female Prime Minister.