Opening speech by Rita Agdal
November 2, 2023
Conceived by Brandon LaBelle:Communities in Movement
Alexander Apóstol: Yamaikaleter
Dirar Kalash:unsieged resonance
*Rita Agdal is associate professor at the Western University of Applied Sciences. She works with dialogue-based community development, focusing on how communities can mobilize and produce new insights while building on the community’s own experiences and perspectives.
This is an exhibition that is very meaningful to me and holds great personal significance, as the works can be seen as representations or explorations of the concept of community. My role as an anthropologist working with community development, at the University of Applied Sciences colours the way I experience these works. When I say community development, I think about how to facilitate positive development together with people in a specific community, and I think about how we can understand the dynamics of what enables community (and mobilization).
While community is mostly taken for granted in everyday life, the works exhibited here today thematize and explore conditions for a community in different ways. I will share some reflections on community and the works.
Let's begin by asking: What is community? Its etymology traces back to the Latin pre-fix "Con” (meaning "together") and "municipal," related to "citizens of a free town." The Norwegian version, "samfunn," from the Norse term "sam-fundr" conveys the idea of finding each other and getting together. The Norwegian word for community - sam-funn is based on a VERB, something we do.
In the project Communities in Movement (2019-2023), Brandon Labelle has brought together at least 21 artists from 13 or more countries. Brandon Labelle and his team emphasize the doing of community – rather than just thinking about it as something that is – as a verb rather than a noun. Community is a process, it is enacted, and it encompasses the acts we do as part of communities, to support, create and demarcate its boundaries. (This acknowledges that community only exists through its participants and that it is both fragile, because it is dependent on people to do community, but also resilient in the sense that people constantly establish and transform communities in their own ways. (And communities can transform us. We embody the traits of the group. The values of our community are in our bodies, and show themselves as spontaneous responses, for instance to sounds. Brandon has written extensively on this.)
I find it fascinating how the “Communities in Movement” project has explored what it means to be in a community. The artistic research seems to have allowed both naturally occurring communities and the creation of social laboratories. The collaborative experimentation has taken place in different kinds of sites, from parties to urban gardens. Events have been acted out and explored.
I am intrigued by their use of research methodologies – where they have been able to open new rooms and paths to do and reflect on “community in movement”. Artists have a space for exploration and use of methodologies that social scientists can envy. I would like to invite them to our research group to talk more about this, - “the how’s and whys” of what has been done through the project.
The exhibition here consists of some of the materials and artefacts from activities of the artistic research project. I would also recommend texts related to the project.
The communities in Movement project have included frameworks such as radical sympathy, experimental gatherings, the listening biennial, and party studies. The project has explored community in different versions, like “the party” setting that you can observe, which is commented on by Brandon Labelle in one of the videos. His commentary is slightly more poetic than those of David Attenborough commenting on other species, as he reflects on the conditions of this particular kind of community event. (I don’t know how Brandon Labelle participated, but I wonder if he was sitting like Erving Goffman did, as an observer in the corner of the party. Erving Goffman is a social scientist whose explorations of interaction shaped our everyday understanding of social life, providing the idea of role-play and negotiations in social encounters.) The explorations of Brandon Labelle and his team can be digested and discussed. I am looking forward to learning more about the insights and find the work fascinating and thought-provoking.
All three parts of this exhibition seem to have a shared starting point: we are social beings who crave community. It's deeply embedded in us as part of being human. This craving for community is shared by many species, like horses or sheep. Fun fact: After the documentation of stress hormones in horses who were alone, they now have the right to have a least one companion, preferably a flock. The same has been found for sheep. The sheep feel better just by seeing an image of another sheep, or a mirror. (Are we that easy, too?) Like us, most species crave a community.
We tend to think of community as something positive. But the urge to belong and to be part of a community has a shadow side. The longing for connection and belonging implies that individuals are willing to give up their individuality to be part of their group. Not only in the mystical rituals or for the pilgrims, but in movements and demonstrations, or groups that we identify with. The darkest consequence of this is demonstrated when people turn into mobs or soldiers, sometimes aided by mobilizing artefacts, such as artworks.
The film Yamaikaleter by Alexander Apóstol (in the vault) can be seen as a demonstration of how politicians use artefacts to mobilize their community of followers. We see political leaders in Venezuela reading the letter by Simon Bolivar, that was central to the struggle for independence from colonial rule by Spain 200 years ago. The Venezuelan politicians in the video read it in English, but do not know English, and we can observe their attempt to keep going while they hang on to this treasured artefact that has mobilized people many times before. It becomes hollow, and maybe we can read it as an enactment of a mystical ritual where the text adds to their power as leaders - and sets them apart from common people.
It adds to the complexity that the text by Bolivar avoids “controversial” topics like slavery and has been seen to ensure the British that their interests were safe. This is a work with many layers to reflect on.
The third work – that you heard on your way in – by the Palestinian artist Dirar Kalash – was finalized today. This sound installation is based on recordings from the current attacks on Gaza. We have all seen some of the destruction. Such an attack, where there will be investigations of war crimes, can also be regarded as an example of both the dark side of community mobilisation where soldiers seem to know no limits, and on the other side, we see people who gather across the polarisation and boundaries of communities, like in the singing of 3000 people with different backgrounds in Haifa. Please lend your senses to this work. Don’t rush past it.
In this exhibition, I find an invitation to explore or observe embodied manifestations of community. Experiences of community are often beyond language but embedded in culture inscribed in our bodies. The sounds of the last work will be experienced in different ways, depending on our background. An example that I observed, was when two teenagers who had experienced war came to our New Year party. The moment the fireworks started, they threw themselves to the ground and crawled towards shelter. This is an extreme example of embodiment, but exploration of community, and how we embody culture and experiences is an important field of exploration, also in artistic research.
Brandon Labelle has previously theorized about sound and embodiment, and I look forward to the continuation. With this introduction I encourage you to explore the exhibition, including the activities of the pirate academy, starting at seven today and continuing other days.