Lab Notes I

Social Interventions: Improving Our Coexistence

Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Retrofitting Urban Life

Improving Conditions in Deportation Detention, Salzburg, Austria (1996)

“21st-century cities need artists who practice innovative, offbeat social science. The alternative is to perpetuate problems that traditional methods neither see nor touch.”

WochenKlausur, a Vienna-based art collective, designs social interventions. Since 1993 it has staged more than 30 interventions involving 50-plus artists. Each project arises from a particular community’s needs at a particular moment in time. Embodying the Lab’s do-it-yourself spirit, WochenKlausur empowers people to build better lives for themselves.

The group’s name stands for “weeks of closure”—which evokes, as they say, “the concentrated atmosphere of a closed working-session.” When WochenKlausur receives invitations from cultural institutions, they’ll convert galleries (or whatever space they’re given) into an office where the projects get planned. WochenKlausur doesn’t manipulate canvases, stones, or paints. They believe “art” is irreducible to “mastery of craftsmanship.” It’s a flexible concept.

Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, WochenKlausur observes that people who define art similarly tend to form groups. These groups are no different from those based on “religion, morality, or tulip cultivation,” since all remain bound by their own discourse. Such an outlook provides WochenKlausur great aesthetic freedom. They can declare: “Enough consumption and enough genuflection.”

WochenKlausur challenges the desire for spectacles and exalted entities. They sink themselves in local flaws, improvising solutions (many of which are unorthodox and for this reason beyond any trained expert’s scope). WochenKlausur’s attunement to political circumstances has prompted interventions from Chicago, Illinois to Fukuoka, Japan.

Of course other artists have dispensed with objects for the sake of social relevance. WochenKlausur acknowledges the Situationists, Conceptualists, Post-Conceptualists, and Actionists. But when the group surveys art’s history, it finds empty talk. Little effort has been channeled into actual, physical existence—those environments where our days pass. Given the fragility of life, this absence is problematic. It demands interventions.

Here’s a slideshow featuring ten WochenKlausur projects. I hope it encourages us to retrofit our own communities, while at the same time celebrating WochenKlausur’s work. 21st-century cities need artists who practice innovative, offbeat social science. The alternative is to perpetuate problems that traditional methods neither see nor touch.

 

Community Survival Cabin, Plymouth, UK (2011)

 Community Survival Cabin, Plymouth, UK (2011)

Efford lacked a space where residents could meet for communal dinners, fitness classes, and reading groups. Officials ignored requests. WochenKlausur oversaw the construction of a temporary cabin to make the town’s wish more visible. Soon citizens had an empty building for their community center.

 

Vacant House for Students, Porto, Portugal  (2010)

 A Vacant House for Students, Porto, Portugal (2010)

From its research, WochenKlausur learned that Porto has many abandoned houses. It also learned of students who need affordable accommodations. The group told an official that it would find students to renovate a building in exchange for free rent. Once the contract was complete, and sponsors came aboard, the students moved inside.

 

Room for After-School Activities, Alfred, USA (2010)

 A Room for After-School Activities, Alfred, USA (2010)

Alfred University asked WochenKlausur to teach an intervention workshop. Students examined Allegany County—New York State’s poorest area. They discovered terrible public transportation, high unemployment, polluted ponds, and no after-school programs. Students chose to start an after-school program in a room they renovated.

 

Intervention Group Delta Augsburg, Augsburg, Germany (2007)

 Intervention Group Delta Augsburg, Augsburg, Germany (2007)

As part of the city’s 2007 program on “water,” WochenKlausur assembled 12 local experts in microbiology, medicine, and law. Together these experts formed a group that provides fresh water to impoverished countries. Their first project was to remove arsenic from drinking water in Bangladesh.

 

A Cinema for Immigrants, Limerick, Ireland  (2006)

 A Cinema for Immigrants, Limerick, Ireland (2006)

Limerick’s economic opportunities have attracted immigrants from Romania, Hungary, Russia, China, South Africa, and the Congo. WochenKlausur learned that city officials aren’t developing integration programs. The group founded a free film series for immigrants at a local art center. Each month the films depict different countries.

 

Furnishing Social Institutions, Chicago, USA (2005)

 Furnishing Social Institutions, Chicago, USA (2005)

WochenKlausur established a network between cultural institutions (museums, galleries, theaters) and social organizations (homeless shelters, soup kitchens, thrift stores) that converted exhibition materials such as shelves and walls—which would otherwise get tossed out—into furnishings. The network ran several years.

 

Activity Program for a Nursing Home, Graz, Austria (2003)

 Activity Program for a Nursing Home, Graz, Austria (2003)

For many residents at Kainbach Nursing Home, life is monotonous. They seldom leave the facility; nobody visits. WochenKlausur designed a yearlong program of trips across town. The calendar took residents’ interests and disabilities into consideration. More than 50 sponsors offered support.

 

Voting Systems, Stockholm, Sweden (2002)

 Voting Systems, Stockholm, Sweden (2002)

WochenKlausur invited Stockholm citizens to participate in an experimental election two weeks before parliamentary elections would take place. This experiment allowed people to vote for or against a party. The group discovered that results vary depending on how votes are cast, urging an evaluation of electoral customs.

 

Improving Conditions in Deportation Detention, Salzburg, Austria (1996)

 Improving Conditions in Deportation Detention, Salzburg, Austria (1996)

Conditions inside the Salzburg Police Detention Center were bleak. A chief ignored WochenKlausur’s proposal to form an on-site social agency, so the group assembled figures from politics, academia, and the media in a tiny cottage occupying Salzburg’s historic center. Their cottage caused a stir. WochenKlausur got permission to start an agency.

 

Shelter for Drug-Addicted Women, Zurich, Switzerland (1994)

 Shelter for Drug-Addicted Women, Zurich, Switzerland (1994)

Pressured by conservatives, Zurich cut services for women who work as prostitutes to support their drug habit. These women became homeless and lost rights. WochenKlausur initiated dialogues with political leaders on a boat in Lake Zurich—somewhere away from public exposure. Plans for the shelter were established.

Photos courtesy of WochenKlausur.

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the fourth is Retrofitting Urban Life.