Adrien Tirtiaux's architectural installations channel a new form of political opposition
Recent austerity measures taken by the Dutch government have slashed cultural funding for the Netherlands by 21%. The major cuts to individual artist grants and funds for institutional research will go into effect next month, and while some small institutions subsequently have gone under, others are bracing themselves for the upcoming changes.
The Great Cut is Belgian artist Adrien Tirtiaux’s response to this shift. The project, a performative architectural intervention, was on view at Stroom Den Haag as part of the Fall 2012 exhibition Expanded Performance. The accumulative sculpture occupied 21% of Stroom’s site, imposing a physical obstruction to the center for art and architecture that both mirrored the economic impediment and encouraged conflict and consensus to surface. The work was produced in tandem with a series of discussions with the members of Stroom’s staff, who collectively navigated the conceptual, aesthetic, and logistical problems introduced by the project’s invasiveness. The intervention began in the office spaces, where the budget cuts will be most severe, and moved out into the exhibition space in stages over the course of the exhibition. I sat down with the artist in December, among the sounds of construction at Stroom to discuss the unfolding narrative of The Great Cut.
Annie Godfrey Larmon As the progress of The Great Cut has been inflected heavily by the site of Stroom, perhaps you could talk about how the project was conceived and how it changed when you arrived in The Hague?
Adrien Tirtiaux I’ve noticed that when I am invited to work within a specific context, I am drawn to the problematic situations within a site. I hate working with a white cube. I’ve found it is better to have a bad space, or disturbing elements with which to engage. It’s been interesting for me to thematize problems, rather than provide solutions. I have many Dutch friends, and for the last two or three years, all anyone can talk about are the cuts, the cuts. It seems as though the symbolic problem engages more thought than the work that is shown in the galleries.
This project relates to a previous work I did in France. I was invited to do a show in an art school, and while I was there I realized there was a big conflict regarding the de-localization of the school. Teachers were fighting; it was a very strange climate. As an artist, I could arrive and comment on what was in the air, so I proposed a project that would bring together the whole school. Because I am an outsider, no party could appropriate the project, and there was no question of which side it belonged to.
The reactions to that project encouraged me to realize something similar here. There was less electricity in the air here when I arrived, but there were the similarities of a program that is moving forward while people are consumed with something else. I wrote a letter to the people at Stroom and told them I was interested in working with their situation. Their violently negative reactions in the beginning confirmed that it would be an important project. This is what I look for—a way to challenge others and to challenge myself. When I work with twenty people, it becomes a responsibility for me that is very complex.
AGL How has your status as outsider functioned at Stroom?
AT The immediate critiques were familiar: "What can someone from outside tell us about the way we are working?" But in the end I think I was able to lend a refreshing view. Maybe I’m being too positive, but it seems that I have a distance that gave the staff a view they didn’t expect, and maybe the project can help them to reflect on their situation.
AGL But it also seems you’ve developed the project in real solidarity with the staff.
AT I believe that if I want to impose something on people, it should be a dialogue. Similarly, the political decisions of the cuts came from outside the institution, and then people had to figure out how to deal with it, how to develop strategies. So here, I was the dictator who says, "okay, we’re going to take 21% of your space," but I also accompanied the process of reaction. I played two roles: the asshole in the beginning, and the mediator that helped the thing to fit, and the staff to develop and respond. So I began to become an insider. I worked with the team and got to know them. But because I don’t know them or their conflicts so personally, it was like a tabula rasa. I brought a new perspective. I was expecting more conflict. I designed some parts I thought the team would hate, I wanted to be a pain in the ass, but they continued to adapt, and even to like the work.
AGL You mentioned that the project ended up generating a sense of camaraderie based on the response to the architectural interventions. Can you talk a bit about that?
AT That is, of course, a positive in any restructuring situation. Everyone is uncomfortable together, and has to respond together. From my very first proposal, people reacted emotionally. Many talks were had. Maaike Lauwert, the curator, said the project really began with the proposal. The team began to discuss personal things they never had until the proposal was introduced. A process of dialogue began—a more human and social way to deal with the idea of the cuts.
AGL The physical structure you’ve installed here takes the form of a slope, cutting through the space on an angle. It’s a precarious form.
AT I have done a few works in the past using slopes. It’s a very simple, performative form that is nice to introduce to a landscape. If I had made a straight cut through the space it wouldn’t have produced such interesting situations. A slope requires balance, and makes visible the precariousness of the cuts. The slope here is at a 21 degree angle, so both the volume and the degree of the slope integrate the basic, simple relationship to the budget cuts.
AGL In one of the documents of your meetings with the staff I see you’ve outlined three general ways that people have responded to the slopes: adaptation, submission, and compromise.
AT This specific situation—these conditions—have provoked those three reactions. People here had to accept and adapt to the budget cut, and play the game, even though they didn’t believe in it. The Great Cut required compromise as well. We made the structure smoother than the original design in some places in order to keep the facilities functional. I never imagined The Great Cut would be as radical as I initially outlined—I simply hoped the design would trigger a process of exchange.
AGL And submission?
AT They submitted to the concept and then adapted, trying to find the best of it. That’s how it works in life too. Resistance is something we don’t see so much in politics today. You can occupy and resist, but looking back, it doesn’t move things further. I feel that demonstrations and sit-ins need to be re-invented—to be different than those that took place in the ’60s and ’70s. Immersion, or to submit and adapt, can be more radical than resistance.
AGL The physical presence of the piece immediately called to mind Daniel Buren’s stripes of institutional critique. This work began behind the scenes, in the office spaces of Stroom, but it will creep into the gallery spaces and intervene in the work by other artists that is installed there. It also has had an effect of flattening an institutional hierarchy, providing some transparency into the inner-workings of the institution. The offices are now partly open as part of the exhibition . . .
AT My work draws on the art and politics of the ’60s and ’70s, but I work in a playful way. I want to make an institutional critique about the systems that we live in, if we have to follow them, and how we can open up other perspectives. It is not so much Stroom that I question, but the way any structure works, and what social foundations it depends on. I am asking how flexible one can be within such an institution.
AGL You’ve been present in the space while the gallery is open. How do you see your own performativity in this work?
AT I constantly engage with people here, managing compromise, and I incorporate every reaction and situation into the work. Even those who were really against the project in the beginning have realized how serious I am about the intervention and the discussion around it. It’s a sort of constant care.
AGL Do you see that notion of constant care as a proposition of a strategy for thinking through the budget cuts?
AT For sure! What I like about Stroom is that they took over the role of giving funding to artists in Den Haag from the municipality. Normally the city will give artists funding, but here they give it to Stroom, which then allots it to artists. So there are curators who already know local artists. For me, this is a system of care. Ours is a society with increasingly more intermediaries between decisions. It keeps personal responsibility out of the equation. If you shorten the chain of intermediaries, people become much more invested in decisions. It encourages a connection with who and what is affected.
AGL In considering this project within the context of the Expanded Performance programming, how might we consider the staff as performing for this project? You have produced major architectural interventions that force a different engagement with space. Have you noticed a change here in the way people perform?
AT It’s interesting, Arno van Roosmalen, the director of Stroom, started to hold weekly Wednesday meetings in the entrance hall where anyone from The Hague can come and discuss issues with him. It was something he had in mind for a long time, but only started now because his office had already become much more public with the sculptural intervention.
AGL So, what is going on with the bathrooms downstairs?
AT As the physical cut was originally designed, the slope would affect the women's, men's and handicapped toilets differently. The cut through the women's toilet would completely block access, so women would have to crawl to get in. The men’s room would be much more comfortable. I discussed the issue with the whole staff—what does it mean that the cuts aren’t gender correct? Should we do horizontal cuts instead that provide an equal disadvantage, or make the cuts opposite, impacting the men’s room more?
That’s the nice thing about the project—it just draws a line through the architecture, but the lines end up having strong political implications and significations. In the end it was the women who decided we should make the cut as originally planned, restricting access to their bathroom. The solution was for women to use the men’s bathroom, or some still crawl or go elsewhere. Each person has found his own way to cope. It most affects the cleaning team, I think—now they don’t have to clean the women’s bathroom so often!
We also replaced the signs on the bathroom doors and they are now based on height. The first room is for children under one meter, the second is for one meter and forty, and the third is for taller people. This makes a playful way to think about different roles. Every fragment of the cuts prompts stories and questions that revolve around this restructuring process. The humor and playfulness make it easier for everyone to communicate about it.
AGL What will happen to the work after the show? Do you think any sections will remain?
AT The whole team will dismantle what is unwanted together. A researcher of organizational aesthetics from the university here will do interviews with the Stroom staff, so everyone can reflect on the whole process. I think the office spaces that were raised will stay—the new mezzanine actually provides more workspace for the team. That was part of the concept. The real cuts will begin to impact Stroom in January of 2013, just after the work is dismantled. The whole chronology allowed us to do something physically that will prepare everyone for the economic changes. We’ll see if this process helped, or if it was more of a parasite to the organization . . .
Annie Godfrey Larmon is an arts writer and curator living and working in New York. She is currently a Masters degree candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2013), and is a former fellow of the Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writing Workshop.