The Power of Many
Kathrin Böhm, Photo by Dominick Tyler
The Power of Many
Everything is made by many. Nothing is produced by just one.
Kathrin Böhm is more than just an artist. She eagerly supports collaborative, citizen-driven cultural co-production in rural and urban spaces and co-founded numerous organizations and initiatives inside and outside of the artworld. Over the years, she has been actively involved in shaping what she calls “trans-formal networks” on an international scale. She wants to “take back the economy” by breaking down and remodeling economic habits – moving towards a "de-colonised activism" that subverts and liquifies entrenched oppositions.
Kathrin, what's your specific approach to making art?
Everything is made by many. Nothing is produced by just one. Culture is something we all produce together; it always involves co-workers and co-users. During the last 25 years I co-founded several collectives, among them Myvillages, public works, UNO INO and Keep it complex. Anything we do, we do collaboratively. So, yes, my name is Kathrin Böhm, sometimes it’s in the foreground when I'm initiating an idea or talking for myself, but I never work alone.
Could you describe these collectives?
They are trans-disciplinary and focus on shared economies. The architecture collective public works, for example, addresses how the public realm is questioned and shaped by its various users. Myvillages is an international artist initiative which advocates for a new understanding of the rural. We look at different forms of production, pre-conceptions, and power relationships while questioning the cultural hegemony of the rural. We, as artists, work within the everyday, meet others to identify overlapping interests and then co-produce something new on common ground. At UNO INO we set up a co-operative to practice and promote a new purpose-driven economy.
Who are the stakeholders?
It really depends on the work and its context. If the work is situated in the context of a village, then it's the inhabitants who want to be part of the project. If the work is connected to a university, it's my colleagues and students. If the work takes place in a consultancy, it’s my colleagues and the clients involved.There is a shift away from the individual genius to collaboratively organized groups. I don’t think that’s new.
Artists have always worked collaboratively; it was just less visible for a long time. Artist collectives might have been politically and culturally more present in the 1970s and 1980s, in times of a more general critique of the social and political circumstances. Those collectives have been more or less subdued when the art market became more dominant around the 1990s and 2000s, creating a rather conservative audience which prefers to buy conventional formats of art, paintings or sculptures made by one artist.
Artists have always worked collaboratively; it was just less visible for a long time.
Activist and artist Gregory Sholette describes this phenomenon quite poignantly: On the surface you mainly see the works traded on the art market. Beneath the visibility line you can find all the artists, art workers, cultural producers and their work that isn’t “for market” or isn’t on the market. Much of this work is often collectivized and actually constitutes a much larger art world – or art worlds – than the one made visible by the market and subsequently through art institutions.
Does that shift to collectivity relate to current political and social circumstances?
We can generally observe the emergence of more collectivized movements, such as Occupy Wall Street or Fridays for Future. They are not formally organized anymore, but they build on a critical mass doing things differently. The arts have become more politicized, too.
I'm also extremely hopeful for this year’s documenta fifteen, curated by ruangrupa, a group of artists with a non-European perspective who are organizing the world’s largest art event as a collective effort. They don’t distinguish between the artist, everyday culture and the community; they are not only producing everything together, they also create new economic systems, based on lumbung, the Indonesian word for a rice barn where collective harvest is stored and shared. There is a new fluidity, a will to shift the focus on who we as artists work for.
How do the arts and the economy relate to each other?
The economy is more than just markets, business management or financial products. It’s first and foremost cultural activity. It is the public realm in which each one of us produces or expresses their values and how we want to relate to others. If we want to promote mutual relationships, we need to organize economic relationships that are mutually beneficial.
You can think of art as an iceberg, where the art market is on the top and a lot of cultural production is hidden underwater. I would like to turn it upside down. I want to create an awareness of interdependence, where the freedom to make art is less dependent on the art market. I would like art to be seen as one among many other instruments to change the economy.
I also think of artistic practice as economic practice. An increasing number of artists are putting the economic side of their works to the foreground. The problem is the almost romantic idea that you need to sell art pieces to survive, which is still being taught at art schools. They should rather educate artists as economic individuals with many options. In real life, most artists rely on a very diverse set of economies that underpin their work and life. Their existence relies on colleagues, friends, family, and groups supporting each other, but they often don’t acknowledge it as a particular economic practice or culture. One that is diverse, collective, value-driven.
You can think of art as an iceberg, where the art market is on the top and a lot of cultural production is hidden underwater. I would like to turn it upside down.
Can artists change capitalism?
This idea of a diverse economy is not exclusive to the arts. We all rely on a diverse economy. The capitalist economy, however, relies on under-paid or unpaid labor. It relies on exploitation of other economies and natural resources. It relies on histories of slavery. As a collective being and artist, I'm interested in how we can re-relate different economic practices, recognizing their interdependence while working towards more equal systems. As an artist—with the privileges I have as white and middle class person—I am relatively free to decide who I want to work with and who I want to work for. These are all economic decisions. To make such choices an option for many is where activism starts. We also talk about enacting new practices—walking the walk while talking the talk, and that’s what we need.
Would you describe yourself as an activist?
I shy away from describing myself as an activist. I have too much respect for many activists whose clarity and energy I admire, who can hold difficult spaces for systemic change. I would rather describe myself as a practitioner, a doer or a collaborator, building structures and spaces where art contributes to richer everydays.
Climate change challenges our economic and social system. How does it affect your work?
You can't think ecology without economy, and you can only think of the economy if you think within planetary boundaries. The word ecology seems to be more prominent in the arts discourse and economy is strangely unattractive, because it represents something harsh and destructive for many people. I often refer to the work of the feminist economic geographers J.K. Gibson Graham who introduced the idea of “taking back the economy”. Their work links to the idea of community economies, where we directly take care of the communities and the planet we live in. It’s an ecologically centered economy. So, I like the word economy.
The Rural School of Economics has been founded by Kathrin Böhm and Wapke Feenstra, where everyone is a teacher and learner. The inter-generational and trans-local school is organised around those who create and use rural economics. It started in five European regions in 2021, among them Pushkino (Russia) where young people led the classrooms, and developed the bottom-up open source brand Pushkino-Style, to translate local knowledge into possibilities for their futures.
What’s the main driving force behind your work? What makes you stay up at night, wanting to change the world?
I entered the arts because there was a promise of freedom, the promise to do what’s important to you. Our current European idea of art clearly ascribes the right to self-expression and autonomy to artists, with the second one having created an ivory tower situation for art. Art is seen as remote and removed from what matters in life. In my opinion this needs to come to an end. At the same time, we need those fundamental rights to self-expression and autonomy for everyone. My motivation is to expand and share them within wider society.
Speaking of privileges, in one of your texts you talk about de-colonized activism. What does that mean?
The art world has become extremely international over the last decades, with biennale hoping to be just one phenomenon. At the same time, a new criticality and a new thinking about locality and localized practice has evolved that, for me, comes along with a demand for de-colonization. I often borrow a short and poignant explanation from the sociologist Rolando Vázquez of how to understand colonialism in the current debate: local European rational has become global design. As an artist, I use “de-colonizing” as a concept to become aware of my Western understanding of art, of the European tradition which creates binaries, such as art and non-art, good and bad, culture and the everyday.
You also mention the “dig where you stand” approach.
Yes, it means critically analyzing where you stand, and whether you should act or listen first. It’s about understanding that the lived experience of a place holds more knowledge for action than the place one occupies as a guest or visitor.
Summarizing your thoughts, can art change the world?
I wouldn’t use the word change. I think art is an important part of actively dissolving and overcoming binaries.
Art is just one of many voices, movements or histories that try to overcome this pattern of othering and claiming space for cultural values that resist neo-liberalism and colonialism and ultimately serve the exploitation of others and the planet.
Which initiatives, groups, books or authors inspire your work?
There are many other movements like La Via Campesina, uniting the voices of small farmers and Indigenous groups worldwide, or the Community Economies Institute with researchers, practitioners and activities worldwide who support diverse localized economies. Those are important large-scale movements. Art can, but doesn’t have to, operate on that scale. What makes art strong is that it operates on a one-to-one scale, on the scale of life.
And what about movements with artists involved?
Art.coop is a very good example of an art-led movement, working towards a new cultural economy built on solidarity. It’s a US-based growing network of cultural producers and funders who reorganize the terms and conditions of how cultural money is distributed. It is establishing a new terminology and way of thinking that fundamentally changes the relationship between those who give and those who get money. The slogan is ‘Solidarity Not Charity’ which changes the existing dynamics and hierarchies. This relational aspect of the economy is very interesting in cultural terms: it’s based on equality and mutual reciprocity. It’s fundamentally different from philanthropy or charity.
If art wants to think of itself as progressive and radical, we need to reorganize our organizational forms, and think of art as a practice of actual “Gestaltung” rather than just welcome critical thinking.
How can the arts support the implementation of a solidarity economy?
There’s still a huge gap between the discourse and the image artists like to create, and the actual day-to-day practice in many art institutions. Many exhibitions showcase artists’ ideas and proposals for, let’s say, new economies or concepts of radical care, but at the same time they exploit their workers.
If art wants to think of itself as progressive and radical, we need to reorganize our organizational forms, and think of art as a practice of actual “Gestaltung” rather than just welcome critical thinking. Instead of producing more objects to criticize conditions, we might as well reorganize the conditions of cultural production. I just worked closely with The Showroom in London, to compost my work of the last two and a half decades, and we declared that the new in art will come from how we carefully reorganize our institutions.
Can you complete this sentence: To me this is personal, because...
“Change starts with you”. So you might want to change the world, but the thing you can change immediately is yourself. That's why it's personal.
Questions by Antonia Lagemann
ruangrupa and Lumbung documenta fifteen, A drawing of a ricebarn, Illustrating the leading motto and economy for documenta fifteen, Illustration by Iswanto Hartono, 2020
Community Economies Institute, the Economy as an Iceberg, Diverse Economies Iceberg by Community Economies Collective adapted by James Langdon, as part of the ‘Trade Show’ at Eastside Projects in Birmingham, curated by Kathrin Böhm and Gavin Wade, 2013. This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Lesson in local foraging in Pushkino (Russia) as part of the Rural School of Economics, a project by Kathrin Böhm, photo by Wapke Feenstra, 2021
Myvillages, mapping the village of Pushkino (Russia) whilst walking, part of the Rural School of Economics, photo by Wapke Feenstra, 2021