Sixten Kai Nielsen and Martin Rosengard are founders of the Copenhagen-based Wooloo, an art network that provides an online platform to connect artists around the world. At Manifesta 8, their New Life Residency, “the world’s first non-visual residency programme for artists”, sees five artists, selected through Wooloo’s trademark open-call for artists via their website, working successively one week each in a dark exhibition space, where they are assisted by a local blind guide to create a guided tour, opened to visitors at the end of the week.
VIEWS FROM THE NEW LIFE RESIDENCY
Set in the Centre Párraga, Murcia, the first residency project was Condimentos, by Albanian artist Helidon Gjergji in collaboration with his guide Cristina Martinex Roldán. The visitor enters alone, and follows, by touch, a rope nailed horizontally along the wall. The walls of the large rectangular room are imbued with five spices, each of which is key to the cuisine of the five largest immigrant groups in the region of Murica, historically a crossroad of routes of cultural exchange. The experience of walking—or groping—created complete immersion while breaking the security of personal space.
VUKADIN: How did you arrive to the idea of New Life Residency? Did it stem from the CPS collaboration or is this something you were thinking about beforehand, from New Life Copenhagen.
WOLOO: A combination of the two. When we first arrived to Murcia, we were in the middle of New Life Copenhagen, where, in preparation for the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, December 2009, we managed find free housing for over 3000 activists in private homes in Copenhagen and then used this large-scale human meeting as our exhibition platform, inviting artists to explore its social architecture. It was a work which in many ways dealt with human consumption. This work helped us consider a broader view of history-not just the history of visuality, but the impact of visuality on human history as a whole. With New Life Copenhagen and the UN Climate Summit in town, we were suddenly in dialogue with all these activists wanting things to be radically different. There were almost as many proposed scenarios for our planet as there were alternative groups, and from here we began to play with the idea of a completely non-visual world.
With billions of images constantly produced, the history of visuality is also a history of consumption. An uncontrollable consumption of styles and products that is not only threatening to destroy our biosphere, but can also be an exclusionary force throughout every society. Images are a way of establishing difference.
VUKADIN: How was your experience when you arrived to Murcia, working with the blind community? What were the first stages of your project?
WOOLOO: In Denmark, where we are from, you do not see blind citizens in the streets very often. The welfare state keeps them at home and brings services to them. But being visually impaired in Murcia means walking the streets to get things done. Blind people are working selling lottery tickets for ONCE, the Spanish organization for the blind, and we began talking to these lottery sellers with their stall all over the city.
We asked them if they knew about Manifesta and they didn’t. But neither did anyone else we talked to locally. We asked the visually impaired men and women of their experience with art and it was very limited. This was how it began.
VUKADIN: Why did you settle on a residency as opposed to, for example, a single work? What significance do residencies have for you?
WOOLOO: We have long been interested in the artist residency as a form. In a financial crisis, this is a working model on the rise, as it’s a way for artists to afford a studio. We see this tendency from the increasing number of residency programs using our wooloo.org platform to connect with residents. What we are not seeing, however, is much experimentation with the genre. Most contemporary residency programmes seem to have a very Enlightenment idea of isolating the artistic “genius” to create work. We wanted to challenge this position, while exploring the infrastructure that Manifesta was already creating in Murcia: Bringing international artists to a specific locale to create or present work.
VUKADIN: How did the space itself inform your project?
WOOLOO: The space was a big practical hurdle. Manifesta was struggling in general with securing enough spaces for everyone and at one point we were considering working in the San Anton prison in Cartagena. But it was simply too loaded for this project with its long and violent history. We needed a “clean” space. The cultural center on top of the Manifesta office was perfect for our purposes. Downstairs they were pumping visuality into the region and upstairs we were blacking everything out.
VUKADIN: How is Manifesta different for you from other biennials?
WOOLOO: Like many other biennials there seems to be a major problem in communicating with the local community. It will be interesting to see what the participation has been like, once we get further away from the previews days and the usual, international art crowd. Should we make a suggestion to this Manifesta, we would probably change the tag line from “in dialogue with northern Africa” to “in dialogue with Murcia.” That is already difficult enough.