‘Positions #4’ the latest iteration in a series of solo exhibitions in dialogue with each other at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven concentrated on activist practice.1 The selection of work included two films and a video installation by Naeem Mohaiemen that address recent histories of failed leftist movements. Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti presented several installations, such as Common Assembly (2011–ongoing), which consists of a life-sized section of the abandoned Palestinian Parliament building in Jerusalem, a video essay projection and a number of interviews. Hilal and Petti’s Refugee Heritage (part I) (2015–ongoing), a photographic dossier of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp that is part of an application for UNESCO’s World Heritage List, was mounted on light boxes. In the next gallery, the second part of the project presents another dossier, this time displayed as 44 books, each documenting the reality of a Palestinian village that has been left behind. While these works are easily accommodated in the gallery space, others do not fit in so comfortably, such as Hilal and Petti’s Mujawaara / The Tree School (2014–ongoing), a spontaneous site of communal learning turned art installation. In the case of Gluklya’s (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya) project, the third position considered within the series, this uneasiness to adapt to the exhibition space proved productive in presenting the artist’s difficult collaboration with refugees and asylum seekers in Amsterdam. In what follows, my analysis of three video works from the exhibition concentrates on the way in which Gluklya's feminist approach brings different people together.
Gluklya’s early work developed in the context of Factory of Found Clothes, an artist collective she co-founded with Tsaplya (Olga Egorova) in St Petersburg in 1995. The first line of their manifesto indicates a strong social commitment: ‘The place of the artist is on the side of the weak.’ Since 2003, Gluklya has also been an active member of Chto Delat (What is to be done?) and she shares the collective’s feminist emancipatory approach, the demand for equality and interest in micro politics, as well as activist self-education and co-creation. Under the pseudonym of Gluklya (a childlike, made-up name), the artist keeps working with clothes and across media to explore the notion of ‘fragility’. She is especially interested in how clothes have a closeness to the body and considers them as the frontiers between individuals and society that can also complicate the boundaries between the internal and the external, the private and the public, and ultimately, between art and life. Her Clothes for the demonstration against the false election of Vladimir Putin (2011–15) was presented at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 as a reminder of a weakened movement that nevertheless took place. Dozens of garments displayed as banners stood tall on wooden posts against the wall at the Arsenale. In some cases, tulle-wrapped foam hands and limbs stuck out. A small, white ‘resistance dress’ bore a drawn raised fist, with a long piece of flowing red fabric attached. Other items were inscribed with phrases such as ‘anti-abortion law is Russia’s shame’ or referred to poet Pavel Arseniev’s protest slogan: ‘Represent us? You can’t even imagine us.’ The installation set out the agency of clothes and their ability to stand in for the will of protesters to take to the streets. In more recent work, Gluklya makes use of clothing and found objects to bridge people’s experiences and enable ways of being and working together and reclaiming the street.
The exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum focused on work developed over the last couple of years as part of the Utopian Unemployment Union, a wider framework under which Gluklya develops different projects in collaboration with refugees, asylum seekers, students, other artists and academics. In partnership with TAAK, an Amsterdam-based collective that supports artistic projects in the public domain, Gluklya set up her studio at Lola Lik, a ‘creative hub’ located in one of the former buildings of the Bijlmerbajes prison.2 Her intention was to be close to the Wenckebachweg refugee center, which occupied the neighboring building of the former prison. Lola Lik worked with the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers COA and provided affordable space to local artists, entrepreneurs, pop-up restaurants, designers and the like. As I discuss below, the exhibition design brought to the fore the artist’s studio as a site of encounter. However, establishing contact with often traumatized refugees and asylum seekers still required going through multiple bureaucratic barriers, at which point the artist then needed to deal with the language barrier.3
Gluklya came up with a game that consists of matching words in different languages that sound alike but have different meanings. This playful method upends the difficulty of learning Dutch as a mandatory integration requirement. Shown on a monitor placed on top of Homeless Chair (2017) and its stuffed cardigan and joggers, Language of Fragility (2017) takes the viewer into one of the former prison’s buildings, with its long corridors, heavy doors and, later on, the sound of a sharp alarm. Participants use sheets of paper with drawings and words in Dutch and their native language to show some examples to the camera. A young woman wearing a hijab explains that pen means the same in Dutch and English; in Arabic, بن (pronounced ‘ben’) means ‘coffee’. A man points out that kennis means ‘knowledge’ in Dutch, while كنز (‘kanz’) means ‘treasure’ in Arabic. Another young woman plays dead in a tiny tiled cell and utters in Russian труп (‘trup’) means ‘corpse’. In the next scene she remains lying down, covered with a blanket and a bunch of hair, and exclaims, ‘in Dutch troep means garbage!’ Wearing a black veil over her head, she dips a sock into a glass of juice and explains that сок (sok) means ‘juice’ in Russian. The video gives a glimpse of the stiff environment inside the building and the slow passage of time. Anyone can relate to the need to do something other than wait. In this context, and from a feminist pedagogical perspective, the artist’s game creates what bell hooks calls a ‘space of bonding’, the opportunity to listen without mastery and to build political solidarity with those staying at the refugee center.4
At the Van Abbemuseum, the video was shown in the first of two rooms, which was arranged as a prison with a central corridor and dividing walls and bars that structured a row of interconnected cells on each side. A stuffed fabric ‘snaketree’ climbed up and down the walls; a large red carnation (a symbol of the October Revolution) hung from the ceiling. The space was filled with found clothes, embroidered textiles and Language of Fragility drawings: in Arabic كأس (kas) means ‘glass’, whereas in Dutch kaas means ‘cheese’. There were protesting potatoes, a red hood with wolf ears and the words ‘I want to go back to Syria’ written with black paint on a white tunic. In recreating the atmosphere of the artist’s studio at Bijlmerbajes, the staging of the exhibition presented the work as ‘social practice’. This display strategy emphasized the creative process, the time and space required to sustain collaborative work.5 While it was clear that the room was an installation, its lived-in feel, disorder and confusion supported the objects’ active role not only as props, but also as witnesses and facilitators of the work undertaken at the refugee center. Through the notion of ‘fragility’, Gluklya’s project explored ways of being together and building social interdependency in the sense described by Judith Butler as the need to acknowledge our corporeal vulnerability to others that nevertheless ‘does not mean we are merged or without boundaries’.6
Another cell in the room was covered in green, government-issued blankets. Inside, a monitor presented Embracing all the strange (2017), a video set in Bijlmerbajes that follows Tuncay Korkmaz, a political activist from Kurdistan who spent seven years in a Turkish prison. He wears a blue tunic with a raised fist on the chest and a single silver wing; this item also hung from the gallery’s ceiling. A woman bangs on the door repeatedly with the large red carnation. Another woman writes the percentages of female and male victims of domestic violence on a chalkboard in white paint, which Korkmaz smears all over the board. In a poignant scene, he sits in bed, repeating: ‘appointment, interview, lawyer, letter, meeting, money, status, house, appointment, interview, lawyer…’ He walks around a room followed by a woman in a snake costume. As he lies down in a cell, he exchanges a few words with another character in a heavy costume, saying: ‘my roots are long and free. I can go anywhere, and I will never collapse.’ A loud siren invades every room. The work provides insight into a process-oriented, feminist practice that challenges the gendered, asymmetrical dichotomy between subjects and objects and rationality and affectivity, and explores their interdependent relationship. In the video, the chairs, the white paint, the brush, the unmade bunkbed, the tiled walls and floors, the laptop, the doors, the carnation, the pile of clothes, the costumes and the green blanket are all actively involved with the performers in the production of meaning. They take part in collaboratively dealing with feelings of loss, fear, hope and frustration.
The second room of the exhibition concentrated on The Carnival of Oppressed Feelings Trying to Overcome Suffering (2017), a performative demonstration that took place on 28 October 2017 and the culmination of Gluklya’s project at Bijlmerbajes. The event brought together around 150 people, including asylum seekers, refugees, activists, social workers, students, the Fair City movement, artists and academics. Preparing for the carnival involved making costumes, masks and objects based on the experience of asylum seekers at the former prison. The artist was inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualization of the medieval carnival, where there was a temporary suspension of rules and any form of inequality between people. In this case, the carnival became a moment of joyful togetherness. At the same time, the use of masks and costumes allowed people to both remain hidden and to become other. A route was drawn between Bijlmerbajes and Dam Square in Amsterdam with several stops at city landmarks for participating artists’ performances, as well as activist and academic speeches on human rights, critical journalism and Spinoza’s philosophy. These were shown in separate monitors, while a two-channel video projection concentrated on the festive mood during the walk.
The carnival kicks off with Robert Steijn’s performance at Bijlmerbajes, closing with a collective scream. The leading banner reads: ‘Better conditions for refugees in AZC’ (asylum-seekers’ center). Some people are dressed as books, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot or Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Others carry the massive carnation. The blue snake costume and the silver wing reappear, as does a furry monster. Gluklya wears the red hood with wolf ears. Others hold dresses as placards or wear Language of Fragility drawings. They smile, chant and laugh. An accordionist joins the march. The camera captures skeptical but curious onlookers. Towards the end, the artist reads the Utopian Unemployment Union’s manifesto over the loudspeaker: We call out to you courageous creatures without jobs, visas and or status, Mothers and children, Lions, Eagles and Partridges, Winged deer, Fish, and Algae and Sea Wheat and all microorganisms, witnesses of migrants drowned on their way to Europe and to the destroyed houses and the suffering people from wars, in a word, all lives, that completed their sorrowful circle now embodied as nomadic artists […] Artists and Refugees Unite!7
Despite the cheerful ambience, this coming together was based on difference rather than sameness. The protesters’ costumes acted as barriers between each other. Feminist educator Elizabeth Ellsworth has argued for a notion of unity that ‘is necessarily fragmentary, unstable, not given, but chosen and struggled for’.8 Rather than relying on consensual dialogue, the strength of the work lies in its momentary enactment of the feminist ambition to build interdependence on the basis of difference. There was no pretense of fully understanding each other. The march was about meeting the unknown and recognizing how dispossession uncovers our fundamental implication in each other’s lives.9 It involved sharing common but differing experiences of injustice. The alliance between artists, refugees, activists and students demonstrates the kind of collaboration that acknowledges each other’s perspectives as ‘partial, interested, and potentially oppressive to others’.10 Gluklya’s defamiliarized protest puts forward the longed-for possibility of liberating the unknowable from notions of absence, lack and fear and redefining it as a transformative practice.11 The works at the Van Abbemuseum offer glimpses of the artist’s project at Biljmerbajes. They reveal a feminist pedagogical approach that sustained a co-creative process and emphasized the interdependent relationship between participants and between objects and subjects. Throughout the exhibition, the clothes acted as boundaries within a collaborative practice demonstrative of ways of coming together and at the same time recognizing that we will never fully know each other.
‘Positions #4’, curated by Charles Esche and Diana Franssen, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1 December 2018–28 April 2019.↑
Bijlmerbajes was built in southeast Amsterdam in the 1970s. The prison closed in 2016 and temporarily housed asylum seekers from the Middle East and war-torn African countries. It is currently being redeveloped into Bajes Kwartier, a green residential complex designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Lola Lik closed at the end of 2017. See http://www.lolalik.nl/ and https://oma.eu/projects/bajes-kwartier (last accessed on 13 June 2019).↑
Conversation with the artist, 19 May 2019.↑
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York: Routledge, 1994, pp.169–72.↑
See Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, New York: Routledge, 2011, p.14.↑
Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004, p.27.↑
Elizabeth Ellsworth, ‘Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy’, in Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore, ed., Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy,New York: Routledge, 1992, p.107.↑
See J. Butler, Precarious Life, op. cit., p.28.↑
E. Ellsworth, ‘Why Doesn’t this Feel Empowering?’ op. cit., p.115.  Ibid., p.113.↑