Rayelle Niemann

The Motion of the Movement: Artist-In-Residence

The open window affords a view of the harbour, the sea, the snow-covered mountaintops, the roof gardens of the city, the skyscrapers looming on the horizon, and – as far as the eye can see – endless fields and forests. The muezzins calling the faithful to prayer in the mosques, the trams squeaking, bells on bicycles tinkling and horns in rush-hour traffic honking endlessly all herald the end of the day. From the Hindu temple nearby, faint and high-pitched sounds of a bell pierce the air. Sounds of hip-hop, salsa and the twittering of birds commingle with the din of automobiles. Human voices tout potatoes and eggs in a foreign language. The hot desert wind blows sand on the tiled floor. The steady whirr of the lawn sprinkler from the surrounding park penetrates indoors. Drumbeats permeate the starlit night. And then there is silence, peaceful stillness. Swaths of mist obscure the clear view. Sweet-and-sour fragrances hint of Oriental cuisine, while the smell of coffee, cardamom, cinnamon and diesel exhaust hover in the room—where a colourfully painted glass from Russia stands next to a delicate Chinese porcelain teacup in the sink. On the wall hangs a tall and narrow Turkish coffee urn. Next to heavy, gold-embossed editions of Britannica on the shelf are rows of books in Finnish, French and Spanish. A Japanese comic book lies next to kauri shells and a city map on a simple, large metal table. A woollen Peruvian blanket covers the bed. English art magazines and Italian design magazines are piled in a corner. On brightly whitewashed walls there are small notes with messages written in different alphabets – Korean, Arabic, Latin. From the wooden ceiling dangle golden, parchment-thin notes from the temple in a mobile.

The universal room looks like this or completely different; the imagined room, the much-inhabited room, the much-sought-after room, from time to time also the much-hated room, the room of fleeting freedom – somewhere in the world; traces of worlds having converged, worlds which have set up camp there one after another; hints of those who have been invited to stay there and spend time in another world. There are many such rooms, in different worlds, furnished with objects which are, on the one hand, useful and, on the other hand, indicative of the exceptional features of the particular culture. The location and surroundings complete the picture, filling the blanks as to whether the area is “exotic”, inspiring, colourless or refreshing, depending on individual past experience.

The room is actually of simple design, furnished only with the bare necessities: a table, chair, bed with nightstand and lamp, bookshelf, kitchenette, bathroom with toilet and shower, perhaps a telephone and Internet access, with guides and information about the location on a notice board.
Either the room is entirely unique or it is one of many, all of which are furnished more or less the same. A neutral place, a hotel room and yet not really. Perhaps a sterile place, completely without atmosphere.
A place, a room for clear thoughts, seemingly barren and without a past.

Descriptions of these temporary residences sound magnificent: interdisciplinary and intercultural, artistic productions, theoretical reflections, exposure, an exchange of ideas and plans, a place for new friendships and the discovery of affinities. Crucial is the personal investment, which bears fruit (or can bear it) independent of the factor of time.

Do you know what room this is?

Residency programs might be aptly described as a worldwide phenomenon these days: they are found in every sector of the arts and in academic fields as well. While in the past princes, wealthy industrialists—even the Church—provided artists with accommodation and temporary studios in which to carry out a specific commission and/or to be able to devote themselves completely to their own work, today private and public foundations bear the responsibility for these endeavours.
In recent years, the interest in such residences on the part of artists, as well as on the part of the donor, has increased immensely. A network of studios can be found from Brazil to Taiwan, from Estonia to South Africa, from Finland to Japan, offering artists the opportunity to live in a different culture for anywhere from two weeks to up to one year. Alone in Switzerland, approximately 125 studios are provided through public and private initiatives at home and abroad.
An application is required for some residences, whereas the participants at others are invited directly by the institutes.
The conditions linked with a residence are as different and diverse as the locations themselves, with each being dependent on its own history, context and atmosphere. Just as varied is the financing. Some institutes offer only the studios, and the artists themselves are responsible for financing the stay. In turn, others link a budget to the provision of a residence: sometimes generous, sometimes curtailed.
The motives for a residence are as diverse as the offers. While some artists choose to use a residence as a shield against daily problems and devote themselves to a project, others take the time to become familiar with the country and its people, to work in new disciplines or to develop mutual projects with local artists.

Thus, there is no formula, no universal program or general conditions—from one side or the other—which could describe a residence.

One universal aspect is, however, the fact that the cultural “global village” is becoming ever larger due to the artists’ willingness to lead a nomadic existence for a limited period of time. No less significant is the fact that the possibilities offered by institutes today are no longer limited to metropolises, but can also be located in areas which are completely unexpected. The reciprocal exchange – artists from the Western culture travel to distant lands and vice versa – leads to an active exchange (and adaptation?) of artistic strategies. Is there not a trap lurking here? The facts cannot be ignored, be it that western countries still invest considerably more in art than countries which comprise the underbelly of capital, or that western culture organisations finance residences in economically disadvantaged countries and are also responsible for the funding when artists from these countries are invited to the historic homeland of the foundation.
An age limit of 40 or even 30 years confines the offer. The phrase “We want to give young artists a chance…” can be found in many guidelines. What sort of objection might there be to the “mature” view? Why is this less worthy of support?
Depending on the commitment of a residence, there may also be supplementary programs, support and an infrastructure. When artists are left to their own devices, it often takes weeks before they are able to feel relatively free in this foreign environment. People in shops and people in the streets become ambassadors of the foreign culture. And vice versa: artists function as ambassadors of the country from which they come, conveying an identity of which they may not have even been aware until then. Things that are taken for granted when dealing with one’s own self take on a new dimension in this context. Living in an unfamiliar environment can provide astonishing answers to personal issues, with personal or artistic processes taking an unexpected turn at times.
The initial openness and curiosity for a different culture can evolve into utter dismay and an abject lack of understanding; urban composure can wither into desolate despair in rural regions; not being able to speak the local language can lead to a gloomy state of isolation and the lack of familiarity to a feeling of emptiness. The individual, the artist “as a human being”, is also challenged. And this is concomitantly the design of many initiatives: the invited artists should react with their “own view” to this new environment, to the different cultural conditions, and express this in their works, without ignoring their own cultural context.
What kind of view is there other than one’s own? A foreign view? A personal view coincident with a foreign one? A view that is not one’s own? How can a different culture be captured in art? Are residence programs physical manifestations of surfing on the Internet? Is communication among artists becoming globally uniform? What roles do economic, geographical and the inherent cultural differences (still) play? Is a curriculum vitae more appealing when as many locations (around the world) as possible can be listed as residences?
Language speaks. Art speaks about its formal implementation and content. Personal encounters and discussions are met with attempts at explaining—to bring the other closer and to understand in the context of cultural embedment.
Answers to questions gather momentum in continuous processes and individual experiences. And then change again. New questions are formulated. Other answers will be found.

©Rayelle Niemann, Zurich, October 2005


10 years artist-in-residence, Atelier Krone, Aarau, 2006