After reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948), I decided that the only way to respond was by reflecting upon the topic of friendship. The story involves violence and reveals characteristics of routine and oftentimes inconsiderate aggressive behavior from the masses; it unfolds around surreal conditions of a ritual known as ‘the lottery’ which is performed yearly by inhabitants of an imagined American small town. Friendship on the other hand, especially one between minor, excluded, seemingly powerless groups, in my view, is a tool which can be used against dominating powers such as ritual or tradition—and even against political authority or failing economic structures; I see this as a particular counterbalance.
To elucidate upon this idea of counterbalance, I will use an example given by curator Chus Martínez in her article “The Octopus in Love.” She shares her encounter with the artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz, founder of El Museo del Barrio—New York City’s only museum dedicated to Caribbean and Latin American art; in their conversation, the artist revealed his idea of creating a rainforest in the museum. The curator argues that the rainforest is the radical opposite of the museum or gallery space—in terms of scale, as well as in ideology and within the discussion of culture versus nature. However, it is strangely tempting to imagine the process of balancing something as strong as an institution, a white cube, with a place, structure or habitat no weaker nor smaller than a rainforest.1 Similarly, it is suggested that one regard friendship and solidarity relationships within communities as a ‘rainforest’ necessary to reverse the potential of anonymity and indifference which can lead to violence and hostility in society.
I would like to think through three ways of how either the representation of friendship or friendships themselves have become catalysts of certain otherwise unexposed issues. The first example revolves around a public art sculpture in The Hague titled Friends (2014), as well as public reactions and discussions which surfaced in the city after the sculpture was inaugurated. The second instance begins with a story of friendship in the seventies which occurred in Milan—connecting it to a specific space in Amsterdam where meaningful encounters take place. The third example: architect Céline Condorelli’s research suggests that what is already here—friendship as an important support structure—should be exposed and reconsidered.
In addition to its exhibition program, the arts organization Stroom Den Haag focuses on the relation of visual arts, architecture and the urban environment by organizing regular discussions, as well as commissioning artworks in the public space. There exists an understanding that art should inhabit the public space and be performed throughout the Netherlands—where accessible artworks are located near and within train stations, in central parks, as well as in surrounding already existing cultural institutions. In the summer of 2014, an entire street of new public sculptures were launched in The Hague. The Sculpture Gallery harbors sculptures on pedestals—placed every 25 meters in the pedestrian area of a central street in The Hague. Forty Dutch sculptors were invited to produce a sculpture for the area. One of them, Tony van de Vorst (1946), created the sculpture Friends (2014) which began an unforeseen chain of events and reactions. The sculpture depicted two young Muslim girls casually walking next to each other, looking at an iPad—both dressed in light blue costumes, wearing similar veils. The sculptural work is realistic; however, due to its colors and rough texture, it maintains an almost naïve quality. The artist depicted friends and friendship among women on various occasions in a more or less abstract way; another work includes two sitting or standing female figures—either nude or dressed. The inspiration for this particular sculpture is a work which stems from the artist herself approximately 40 years ago—Tony van de Vorst’s sculpture titled Two Friends from the World (2014), which was in turn inspired by a painting by the Dutch 19th-20th century painter and photographer George Hendrik Breitner (a well-known Dutch impressionist recognized for his realistic street scenes and harbors).
When the sculpture was publicly launched, it caused unrest and violence among certain societal groups such as Dutch right-wing activists and Muslim immigrants. Suspicious entries appeared on the internet with agitation, expressing that an attempt to promote Islamization among the Dutch was underway, thereby revealing how fragile the ostensible peace and coexistence among city inhabitants can be—emphasizing the fragility of everyday balance. Despite being casual and friendly, this scene accentuating two Muslim girls magnified strong undercurrents roaming beneath the surface of a heterogeneous Dutch society. Would a similar sculpture depicting two Dutch girls cause a similar reaction? Or would it, for example, invite a passerby to contemplate strength and the meaning of friendship—instead of Muslim immigrants?
This example not only elucidates how a public artwork can become a catalyst for unmeasurable matters such as tolerance, but it also stresses how an initially almost naïve intention of depicting a nonviolent everyday scene can possess the political potential to raise discussions outside often self-contained art world circles. It also leads one to think of the ambiguity and unpredictability of an artwork; when it is finally exposed, it ends up in the hands of public (they can either throw stones at it or cherish it). Of course, violent collisions among people are exactly what I turn against via the ties of personal friendship; the following examples support this stance.
The conceptual, yet fine and almost personal approach of artist Alex Martinis Roe (1982) leads the visitor of her exhibition “Once I wrote the story of her life, because by then I knew it by heart”2 into a story of the friendship of two women: Emilia and Amalia. Their relationship unfolds in Milan during the seventies; they meet one another as participants in the same education program. The program “La Scuola delle 150 ore” (“the 150 hour school”) consisted of schools founded by the Italian Left in the seventies; their purpose was to provide supplementary education in the arts and sciences for workers and housewives who lacked higher education. They were allotted 150 hours, paid, out of their work year to attend these schools.
One pursuit of women who participated in these schools was self-expression through self-narration—writing it down—acquiring a self or identity through action. The school’s manifesto was closely connected to the feminist movement of the era and women’s empowerment, as well as to more specific and lesser known practices like experimental history writing or an ‘Affidamento’ (a.k.a., ‘entrustment’) relationship between two women practiced in Milano Women’s Bookstore Collective.3
Amalia was skilled at storytelling and writing; however, her friend Emilia had problems concentrating and following her own narrative thread—Emilia fell into memory traps and had problems putting her story onto paper. Emilia’s story was often too subjective; she found it impossible to tell her “real” story. However, Amalia felt so affected by her friend’s sadness which stemmed from Emilia’s inability to document her story—Emilia expressed a desire to have her story finally written—that she wrote her friend’s life story and gave it to her. Emilia was so happy and moved; she cried upon reading her story. 4
Alex Martinis Roe often works within the domain of stories and practices which unveil the not yet completely forgotten and lost, but slightly unnoticed narratives; she is interested in feminist histories that she unravels through perspectives of individual women combined with archival and literary findings. Even though her work reveals captivating moments from the past, it is also the relevance of these stories and their translations today which are important. The artist defines her own political and artistic position through these interpretations.
This example makes me rethink encounters with friends and the relationships that we build together, wondering whether they would enable me to transcribe another person’s story—or if mine could be written by someone. While this is still under consideration, the idea that history is not solely gathered around events of seemingly historical significance (e.g., elections, revolutions, famous peoples’ love affairs), my mind is triggered by my experiences while living in Amsterdam. The place where I encountered the work of Alex Martinis Roe is of a great, but non-mainstream importance, and I would definitely help someone wishing to explore the micro-histories and friendly liaisons of Amsterdam’s art crowd thirty years from now. I now refer to the art space rongwrong (founded 2011); it is located on the ground floor of a dwelling house near one of many canals. A space for art and theory, it is run by Arnisa Zeqo, Antonia Carrara, Laurie Cluitmans and Vincent Verhoef; according to the organization’s description, it explores recurring questions concerned with the constant friction between the inner self and theoretical, professional and artistic practices that describe and inscribe us in daily life. The conversations which take place there easily evolve into friendship-like alliances. The particular size of the space (tiny) is also one prerequisite for physically and emotionally closer communication; an invitation to drink cacao together can turn into a collective fortune telling adventure.5
A space for meaningful encounters and potential friendships leads to the work of architect Céline Condorelli who has developed research around the notion of friendship. Her interest in this theme started from a long term project on support structures that she developed together with artist and curator Gavin Wade. Condorelli believes friendship to be one of the most fundamental forms of support in practice.
Project Support Structure is long-term project aiming to create a space continuously reinvented by its users in relation to its context. Founded in 2003 in London’s Chisenhale Gallery, it first embarked with the exhibition “I Am a Curator;” Support Structure offered a storage, archival and organisational space for all artworks in the exhibition, whilst being an artwork in the exhibition itself. “I Am a Curator” allowed gallery visitors to become curators for one day; they selected artworks housed in a specially constructed architectural environment inside the gallery. From this early experiment and in the years following, Support Structure began reinventing different types of spaces: corporative offices, community centers, educational and shopping zones—among others. From a very physical architectural solution towards a more conceptual and research-based work within the publication Support Structure, the project undertakes both a direct and metaphorical approach to the question: what does support resemble today—and in the future?
It would be misleading to say that Condorelli’s work is about friendship; however, it could be more true to claim that she embodies friendship as a working method, as well as research, thought, writing and discussion on the topic through her work. Within the environment of independent cultural workers, curators, artists and producers, the company that one keeps 6 remains important, thus I suggest (unlike an institutional environment where one cannot choose colleagues) that the semi-autonomous work of independents occurs often due to the condition of friendship.
Communities are built upon friendships of those involved, however, as Condorelli emphasizes in her conversation with sociologist Avery F. Gordon, all of the inspiring philosophical texts about friendship written by men explicitly exclude women and slaves from the realm of friendship.7 Thus, Condorelli seeks ways to enter and address this topic—how to rethink the entire discourse on friendship. Throughout the conversation, Condorelli and Gordon also note that most stories of friendship—more explicitly: solidarity and mutual help—appear exactly among those excluded (e.g., slaves, women, prisoners). And with this, we return to the friendship of Emilia and Amalia in Milan during the seventies, as well as friendship depicted in the sculpture by Tony van der Vorst.
I aim to link these three instances since each one highlights the possibility of starting a rainforest at your place—returning to the earlier metaphor. However, perhaps it is better to begin by placing a few orchids on your work desk as reminder that spring approaches—while in the midst of a rainy Dutch winter.8
- This exhibition occurred at the Amsterdam art space rongwrong (4.10.2012-9.11.2014).
- ‘Affidamento’ is a social-symbolic practice exercised and theorized by the Milan Womens’ Bookstore Collective and is a reciprocal relationship between two adult women; by referring to one another, each gives the other authority in her spheres of political practice by acknowledging her desires, competences and differences; this relationship is the fabric of which the collective is built (Alex Martinis Roe’s exhibition “A Story from Circolo della Rosa”).
- According to Adriana Cavarero’s Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood.
- I refer to the performative gathering organized by artists Milena Bonila and Luisa Ungar at rongwrong called “This Rabbit Looks to the Left: Chocolate Scrying.” http://www.rongwrong.org/This-Rabbit-looks-to-the-left-Chocolate-Scrying
- Céline Condorelli, “Notes on Friendship,” Mousse 32, February 2012: 222-227. http://www.celinecondorelli.eu/files/celine-condorellifriendshipmousse.pdf
- Which is exactly what my curator friend and roommate Lian Ladia has done.