Interview ARFAO with Ausstellungsraum Klingental
Thomas Heimann (TH)
Alexandra Adler (AA)
Simon Krebs (SK)
AO: So what is your approach to ARFAO?
AA: I've been to the SUMME meetings a few times and the idea behind them is similar to ARFAO. It is about creating a network of the independent scene of art spaces and that is very important. It helps that you can network with each other and appear together, make your concerns – also politically – visible. Personally, I think that the two formats belong together. ARFAO is something you can give to people who are new to the city and want to find their way around.
AO: It is often the case that one project can emerge from another. Ten years ago, ARFAO was the first vessel here in Basel that tried to create an overall view. Then, with SUMME, the discussion rounds and exhibition formats were added. It is a shared concern that those involved can network better with each other.
TH: And there the ARFAO is a kind of time document, which was updated annually. And it's good to have this plan as an overview of where what takes place.
AO: If you look at your current team, you can see that there have certainly always been changes, right?
SK: There are five new people since last fall. I sort of started with the annual dossier meeting, where we decide what the coming annual program will be. At that time we were still counting on the earlier date of moving back into the barracks, which has often been postponed until recently.
AO: How many members are currently on the team?
AO: And you always invite new people yourselves?
TH: Yes, when people quit, or are on the retreat list. Then we realize that we need new people. And in the programming phase, this is actually the most exciting moment. Or rather, this programming phase is one of the most exciting moments of the whole business. For a few years now, it has always taken place in the fall, when all the proposals for exhibitions come from outside and we then put together the program. And that was also the moment to ask new potential team members, because in the exhibition business it is about whether they want to participate in the projects.
«So it's about the question whether someone not only finds the project great and exciting, but also wants to be part of it in the next step and help to realize the project.»
AO: Has it actually always been the case that there is an annual open call and then the program is generated from that?
TH: Together with Annina, I'm one of the oldest in the team, having been there since 2006. And the principle has always been the same. But in the beginning, we didn't communicate it quite as explicitly as we do today, with an ad in the Kunstbulletin, etc. We worked a bit more over time to make sure that people were aware of it. Over time, we have worked a bit more to make sure that people are aware of this. There is a deadline, we collect the dossiers and then everything is sifted through and the projects are selected. There is a mixture of projects. On the one hand, from us, that is, from people on the board. They also submit their ideas, that goes into the same pool. However, there is no big discussion at this point because the energy comes from the board, as long as it is not a really stupid project. It is also desired that the people from the team contribute themselves. This is related to the identity of the exhibition space. Because we don't have a clear face, a recognizable profile, but we realize that this very fact probably constitutes our identity.
AA: Just quickly back to the RFP, because in the initial phase of our reflecting two years ago, we questioned that as well. Do we want to continue to do the RFP this way? Or what do we care about in particular? But it's actually a great thing, because we're all such different people, age-wise, character-wise, interest-wise, and so different projects appeal to us. With tenders, you don't just get to the already familiar network of friends and friends of friends. There is a different openness here, despite the connection to certain people. For me, the dossier session was a big highlight because it's a good opportunity to exchange ideas and learn what the others find exciting and why.
AO: And have you defined certain criteria for yourselves? Because if there is this platform idea, then these are basically also political decisions, because they ask questions about belonging.
AA: We have a fixed criterion that decides whether a project takes place: Whether a member of the team wants to accompany the whole thing. To take over the supervision of it. Within the team, it's a voluntary commitment, and you have to want to do it and enjoy it. It is not a matter of taste or subjective decisions, because we are discussing the content. So it's about the question whether someone not only finds the project great and exciting, but also wants to be part of it in the next step and help to realize the project.
SK: It is basically the case that every project is accompanied by two board members. And volunteers have to be found for that. And even if they are great projects, but no one can be found to take responsibility for it, then it won't become part of the program.
AA: I think it's crucial, because we discuss every project and on the basis of the project itself we consider whether and why it's interesting for us and then there's an exchange of many opinions and then there are situations. To have enthusiasm for something, I think that's already very central.
TH: Exactly, enthusiasm is definitely a prerequisite. Ultimately, it's the killer argument in the judging process. We've had some amazing projects, some great ideas come in, and yet we couldn't realize them because, for example, no one in the desired slot was able to help
supervise the project. The supervision is done in your free time and you can't force anyone to do it.
AO: But the voluntary commitment is also an essential characteristic of project spaces, the will and the motivation and the private commitment are the basic condition. In this respect, there is no shame in acting accordingly. The question and the freedom to decide for yourself where you put your time in and what you can draw added value from yourself.
AA: But the fact is that we're not just talking about the organization here, but also about the content. And there you have a different approach than when you work in a large institution where you certainly talk about it in a completely different way. But you also have to say that in the dossier meetings there were projects where perhaps no one had time at the beginning, but which we are now doing anyway, because they say: We have to do them now!
SK: There are also simply too many good projects. And there is practically a limited number of exhibitions per year that you can do.
TH: Now what I find interesting, but this is again looking over the whole time, so over the last 14 or 15 years - how the program has shifted. And I think it's related to that, with people's motivation and how you read and discuss these submitted proposals. With new members just come different perspectives and priorities. I'm thinking of works that go beyond the respective position of the artists, also cross-disciplinary and possibly participatory, experimental... The emphasis is shifting away from the pure exhibition of works, which we still inherited from our predecessors. At that time, they did almost exclusively shows of works. They already had guest curators, but the city required them to carry out one project per year with an invited guest curator, and so other perspectives on exhibiting came in earlier. I myself am also still from that generation. For example, our Iceland project in 2015, that was a classic exhibition of works. And you don't really see that format anymore, at least not in the sense of, for example, one name, ten works, and, more or less appropriately, a second name and ten works, done.
AA: We have many projects that have a social component, that think about exchange.
SK: What is also important is the keyword platform. And that has to do with the location and the potential low-threshold, because the entrance is free and the space is centrally located in Kleinbasel. And it's a criterion, whether they are projects, to involve the people who are active on site.
TH: That is then also a spatial question. We were busy planning and implementing the conversion for over two years. In this matter, I represent the exhibition space vis-à-vis the canton, which is carrying out the conversion. And the longer this planning went on, the more contradictions developed for me. In the sense that a white cube is being planned and the city is putting a lot of resources into building this classical, almost museum-like art space, but in parallel there are all the discussions in the group about the projects and the program we are doing. That already raises conceptual questions, because for these kinds of projects you don't need that kind of space. I find that a bit strange, but at the same time interesting, when we talk about the connection to an active scene, and about a low-threshold platform.
The institution and the architecture here are not particularly low-threshold. It is on the border.
SK: That's why I said potentially low-threshold....
AA: So to continue with these white spaces, for example, we discussed for a very long time how we as a group could open up this new, clean space. What can we do as a first exhibition project? Our first project was therefore a program with which we slowly crept into the new spaces with various artists who let us perceive the space differently. And now we have a lot of space and sound works that work with perception, and with that we slowly approach the regular operation with the annual program. And thus also dealing with the initial inhibitions and fears of contact and ambivalence with the new place. The focus was on thinking, what can we do to get closer to the thing?
AO: So a kind of approach to the new spaces by means of artistic works that are able to establish a relationship.
SK: And the other thing is the breakthrough to the barracks area, which will probably also change the whole square, by making it accessible from the Rhine side.
AO: So then you make the new beginning like together with the audience.
«There are simply too many good projects.»
AO: Accessibility also raises the question of the outreach program, which would have to be fundamentally strengthened under the given circumstances.
TH: For the new period of cantonal funding, we also went to the canton with this demand to obtain funds for a longer-term and regulated mediation program. Unfortunately, this was rejected. Then two of our members decided that they would try to set up such a larger and more constant project on their own, and part of the funding has now been obtained, thanks to Pro Helvetia and the CMS. It is not enough for the planned continuity, but at least it is a start. However, this development is running parallel to the exhibition program and there will certainly be overlaps.
AA: Actually, we're doing very well in terms of organizational and curatorial support for the individual projects, which is covered by the voluntary efforts of the team. But what doesn't work so easily within this framework and workload are two things that have a lot to do with opening up, with accessibility and being a platform, namely mediation and communication. We have discussed for a long time what this means for us, if one sees mediation not only as a guided tour to the exhibition, but even more in the sense of participation, with new formats and the development of topics for exhibitions. This also applies to communication, and that was the reason why we asked for more money. If we already see ourselves as a platform here on site, then it would of course also be nice if we could work on this more and better in order to create more content ourselves.
SK: I'm in the communications department. And it was a big point in the last meeting who is responsible for which department. This includes communications, social media, media relations, documentation, archives these are all tasks that have to be coordinated with
each other, where processes have to be established. That is already time-consuming.
TH: We hadn't done that with the subgroups yet, at that time when I joined and the board was even smaller than today. Sometimes we were only six people who ran the whole place. But that was the initial phase, where you kind of kept the whole thing going. Back then, the commitment was on a different level. That was in 2006 with the idea of the Takeover, which became the Unfriendly Takeover. It was really just about the only money being given by the state for alternative or self-managed art presentation at this space and the group that was responsible for that. But this group had pretty much slipped away from the active scene at that time. They did a show of work every few weeks with one or two local positions, which hardly generated any charisma beyond a narrower circle of friends of the artist and the association. It was really a bit of a phase-out, they somehow didn't make the connection.
And for the first few years, the new troupe was basically only concerned with being noticed at all. It was about opening up and repositioning ourselves.
AO: What does Unfriendly Takeover mean? Did they decide all this at a general meeting? Now we vote you out and take over ourselves?
TH: They just knew how it worked with these annual general meetings. Nobody goes there. That is, if you get enough people together who go there and are members themselves who have paid the amount, then they get to vote. So you can put somebody up and say we want this person or that person for the board. We had also prepared that we will be more board members than they have been so far and had them all elected. At that meeting there were 65 people, whereas normally there were sometimes 2 to 4 or 5, no more. Suddenly the place was full. Afterwards, the board counted about 11 people for a few months, because we had not taken the next step of voting out the predecessors at this particular meeting, because it was clear that the people we were attacking were doing nothing other than what we wanted to do. They led and supported the Klingental exhibition space, and you can't just vote them out. Maybe we were too cautious with that, but then it turned out from the board work that there was no other way, because we didn't find a common denominator. And then they left a few months later.
SK: So that maybe as a tip for future generations - you can always do that.
TH: That's what I've always said - you just have to come to the general meeting and be members. If you are at least 10 noses, then you have a majority and can do what you want. That's democracy. Super simple.
AO: On paper. We can leave it at that. Maybe you would like to say something about the program beyond the new opening? Or other points where you say: We're working on that?
TH: Something that will certainly continue is the matter of the last application for a state grant, with which we failed. That was about the mediation position and the communication position and a consistent payment for the artists. At the moment, this is still happening more in a symbolic framework. According to the Visarte guidelines, we have set up a budget to show what a year would cost. In the end, this means a doubling of the state contributions for the existing range of exhibitions. They told us all the way up in the government that it was all comprehensible, but in the end it was not presented to the Grand Council.
AA: But we kept at it and that's why we are currently thinking about how we can implement the idea of opening up in terms of mediation and communication. We would like to be able to pay the artists that we show on our platform an appropriate wage, and we want to be able to communicate this accordingly. It's not as if we also want to pay ourselves a wage. But those are the three points we want to stick to. And another thing. During the two years of interim use, we were on the road a lot. One group was in Georgia, another in Athens. I can well imagine that this kind of exchange will continue.
TH: Like so many things here, it depends on the individual people who are involved and who push such initiatives. For example, a cooperation with people from Chile and Colombia, possibly also Mexico – there is a bit of a focus on Latin America on the horizon.
AO: That is also a point. People who come to Basel via the Klingental exhibition space and the connection is strengthened and has a long-term effect.
SK: Yes, I think the exhibition space Klingental is a good and important place for everyone who wants to get to know the Basel scene better. Arriving here is made very easy after all.
«Like so many things here, it depends on the individual people who are involved and who push such initiatives.»