‘Towards Perma-cultural Institutions. Exercises in collective thinking’, Stiftung Künstlerdorf Schöppingen 2022, photo: Camilo Pachón
Make a Garden Before You Build a House – talking to Giulia Bellinetti about institutional ecologies in the age of environmental emergency
Giulia Bellinetti combines her PhD at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) with a coordinating position within the Nature Research department and the Future Materials programme at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. Bellinetti tells Joris van den Einden how she digs into the visible and invisible structures that give shape to art institutions during a time of ecological crisis.
How would you describe your research?
‘I will try to keep it somewhat simple; it’s a good exercise for me to describe my research without being too technical or academic. I am looking at how art institutions in Western Europe are evolving as a reaction, and in response to, the ecological emergency. More specifically, I am focusing on the epistemic cultures of these institutions: the ways, mechanisms, and principles by which these places produce knowledge, as an understanding of the world, and how they form relations to it. I am looking at the production of knowledge in museums, galleries, art academies, and residencies to research how growing ecological concerns and ecological awareness are slowly intruding into these systems, troubling and subverting them all the while. So really, I am looking at how more political, ethical, and ecologically responsible approaches to knowledge production can be reflected into the mechanisms of art institutions. As you can imagine, this also leads to thinking about the legacies of capitalism, colonialism, and modernism within those art institutional systems. I am focusing on Western Europe, simply because that is the context that I know best, both from a personal and professional point of view. In order to really dive in deeply, I am using a selection of specific case studies of different types of art institutions and, as my methodology, I am using organisational ethnography.’
Why that methodology?
‘I think it allows me to grasp and perceive the complexity of the various dimensions that exist in art institutions, including much more than just the human presence within them. It is not only about artists, or staff members, etcetera; it is also about collaborations between them, and about how bodies can be interpretative mediums, as tools to perceive things. This ethnographic methodology allows me to consider how elements such as infrastructure and architecture allow for interpretation to emerge. Think, for example, of the effects of mundane things like budgets and logistics, but also of the presence of gardens and other non-human, vegetal or animal beings!’
‘Projects may address climate change among their thematic concerns, but still, these exhibitions often have exceptional – but also highly wasteful – temporary scenography’
You definitely seem to focus on all of the larger, overarching structures of power that dictate what these institutions look like. Where does that institutional interest hail from?
‘It definitely comes from my professional experience. While I am currently a part of the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, I used to first intern, then work in, and eventually coordinate the production department of a contemporary art museum. In the last ten years, the ecological discourse in artistic practices has been growing immensely. But working in an art institution like a museum, I was faced with the paradoxical gaps between practice and discourse, or practice and theory. So, while the artistic practices we were exhibiting did often address many of these important topics, they often did it in representative ways, which did not concern their actual, material presentation. There were particularly a few projects that addressed climate change among their thematic concerns, but still, these exhibitions would often have exceptional – but also highly wasteful – temporary scenography. As coordinator of the production processes of these exhibitions, you are really in direct, tangible contact with this paradox. I felt responsible for these dilemmas and realised that the potential solutions and alternatives were actually much more complex than simply choosing different materials or changing installation approaches. Really, it is about time: how much time you have to build up and build down an exhibition, the time you have for waste management and recycling, the time you have to get more storage to conserve materials for them to be reused, and so forth. All these practical aspects eventually lead to deeper problematic levels that often concern time, and the immaterial infrastructure that underlies exhibitions and institutions.’
I read that you are dealing with four types of art institutions.
‘I think it will probably be three, in the end.’
How did you go about their categorisation and selection?
‘The choice is actually quite intuitive. I am investigating an emergent ethos in institutions and want to include a diversity of approaches which could be read as symptoms of that ethos. I have written the first chapter on the Jan van Eyck Academie and I am in the process of writing about documenta fifteen. The third case-study is not yet confirmed, so I prefer to keep it for myself for now.’
Even just those first two institutions are already quite different from one another. One is an educational institution, the other focuses on exhibiting, for example. I could imagine it being difficult to bring these various types of places and spaces back together within your research.
‘There are definitely some narrative lines that permeate the entirety of the research, binding everything together. Those narrative lines are developing along the way, as the writing process unfolds. This shows, to me, that our own practices are actually intrinsically ecological by nature. Apart from this overarching meta-presence of ecology in both the content and process of my research, there are two concepts that have clearly emerged throughout my work so far: soil and, again, time. Soil is approached more as a metaphor, as a way to interpret and unpack certain dynamics within these institutions. And then, of course, the question of time, which reflects on institutional rhythms – think of the cycle of artist residencies, the rhythms of staff members, the rhythms of administrative systems in art schools, for example. These are some of the recurrent themes that I focus on – for documenta fifteen, for instance, time is really interesting, as the scope of the lumbung is meant to extend beyond the usual duration the exhibition.’
‘My two positions – my PhD and the one at the academy – are mutually nourishing. The most important thing is to be receptive and aware of our existence as part of a number of intersecting wider contexts’
It must be interesting to think about the fact that you exist and act within the types of institutional frameworks that you research. How do you navigate your own personal implication within the very systems that you are investigating?
‘Going back to the question of what ecological thinking and ecological practices could be, it is vital to recognise that we always exist and act within broader systems. Being entangled with one another, our actions have political and epistemic impacts. Similarly, my two positions – my PhD and the one at the academy – are mutually nourishing. The most important thing is to be receptive and aware of our existence as part of a number of intersecting wider contexts.’
Looking at your own background, there does not seem to be entirely clear-cut itinerary that brought you into this ecological discourse. I imagine that it is observations like these, where you are starting to recognise ecological structures and elements within the very institutions you are a part of yourself, that aid the development of such an interest. Do you feel there were specific instances or observations along the way that made that ecological affinity clear to you?
‘The turning point was definitely one exhibition that I produced while working in a museum, but from there on out the investigation of this ecological ethos grew quite organically. I started dedicating more time to be inspired by my personal relations to nature – even on very personal levels such as gardening. In a quite early stage of the research, I was intrigued by what the Jan van Eyck was doing, as an institution that was placing the questions of climate change at the very core of its policy plan. For me, seeing this central infrastructural inversion, and not merely a thematic shift of focus, was incredibly interesting. Afterwards I became a part of this institution, and everything started unfolding organically.’
In such an organically and ecologically developing investigation, do you have an idea about the stage you are currently in with your research process?
‘A PhD is quite a challenging endeavour, I am realising. It is also an exciting and inspirational journey as time goes on. Still, being in between my PhD and my institutional practice at the Jan van Eyck, I need to be incredibly structured. At this stage, I am writing my second chapter on documenta fifteen, with the first chapter about the academy already being finished. Hopefully, I will be doing the fieldwork for my final chapter in the coming summer, when I can really be a part of another institution for a few weeks to observe everything there. The summer gives me my rhythm; as we take a break at the academy, I will be using that time to dive back into the field.’
You previously mentioned collaboration as an important element of your work. How have forms of collaboration made their ways into your research?
‘The academy is highly multidisciplinary, which is very noticeable in the Nature Research department and the Future Materials programme, the projects I coordinate. I am not a material scientist or designer myself, so everything I do there has to be incredibly collaborative! One of the things I bring to the participants there, is a helping hand in getting them in touch with knowledgeable people as we invite practitioners and experts to come by. We really are trying to connect everything and everyone between science, arts, and design. It is about bridging different worlds and different practices – when we think about the challenges that lie ahead, we need to collectively think about and construct alternative ways of inhabiting our planet. That can only be done by joining forces and joining perspectives.’
Could you tell me more about the Future Materials programme?
‘The programme already existed when I entered the academy, as it was founded by my predecessor, Yasmine Ostendorf, in collaboration with Central Saint Martins in London. It was created at the beginning of the first COVID lockdown, with the aim to gather knowledge and experiences concerning sustainable alternative ideas and materials that can be used in artistic and design practices. When I arrived, the programme was mainly an online archive, but I really felt it was important to activate its knowledge and create moments of exchange in order to have conversations about these transitions and alternatives. I tried to activate the programme’s archive to bring the community behind it into the academy, sharing processes and knowledge with the academy’s participants, and receiving questions and insights from them in return. It was really about reciprocity and the idea of creating a community around the future of materials.’
‘For me, Future Materials is about the subversion of human understandings of these materials as passive elements’
‘And also, coming from the academic world, I was interested in the theoretical field of New Materialism – to think about materials and the narrative powers that they hold. I am thinking of bacteria and fungi, but also more “stable” materials like wood, as living forces. I started to engage with these materials as storytellers – the material brings its own histories of violence and resistance into the artistic practices that are employing them. For me, Future Materials is about the subversion of human understandings of these materials as passive elements. Instead, we should learn to engage with materials as active agents, elements that we do not, or should not, control. I remember coming into the academy after a particularly warm summer and seeing that a sample of a food-based material had grown mould. My first reaction was to panic, thinking that the sample was ruined – coming from the museum world, this is a nightmare! But then, I learnt to look at it differently: I was looking at life, in action. So it is also about challenging and redefining preconceptions we all have in our practices. It starts from a very practical point of departure, but it carries with it many broader societal affordances.’
I guess that also ties back in with your PhD research, where you do not only talk about collaborative processes, but also about participatory processes of knowledge production. I first understood this as a participatory relation between an institution and its visitors or participants, but now feel it could also be about the participatory processes between the institution and the very materials it consists of. Could you elaborate a little on the role of participation in your research?
‘I will give you an example that, I think, highlights what I mean by participation. When the academy building was closed in lockdown, one of its previous participants, Nickie Sigurdsson, had decided to take care of the garden we have here. Together with a number of people who helped her, she grew a heirloom seeds garden there. I find her practice very poetic, especially as she was reflecting a lot on her own interference in the existing ecologies of the garden. But what struck me even more, is the presence of these participatory processes in these forms of ecological artistic practices. She did not have full control over what she was creating in the garden, with seeds sprouting from previous generations, new species arriving through birds, snails, and other inhabitants of the garden, and so forth. The final result of her work – which is, in fact, never final, as the garden keeps growing – was really emerging from an instance of collective action, between people, animals, forms, materials. The humidity of the air, the wind blowing, it all came into play here. Nickie’s digging into the garden was literally digging into past times, engaging with all those agents and stories that have been there before her, leaving traces for those that will come after. Looking at these types of artistic practices as participatory processes between agents which are not only human, you can gain an understanding of how knowledge, and life at large, are inherently participatory in nature.’
‘Looking at these types of artistic practices as participatory processes between agents which are not only human, you can gain an understanding of how knowledge, and life at large, are inherently participatory in nature’
Is that how you imagine the future of art institutions to look like?
‘Actually, I was recently part of a symposium titled Towards Perma-cultural Institutions. Exercises in collective thinking”, where the idea was to gather different art practitioners to think about alternative ways in which an art institution could function – we thought about art institutions as forests, or as compost, and much more. I have actually given a talk about the museum as compost a year ago. But yes, what I am also trying to forward in my research, is to learn more from ecological and natural processes, and to translate this unbelievable knowledge that is all around us into, for example, the institutional sphere.’
Like as a framework to conceive of the things that are already there.
‘Exactly. And how to work better, as well – again, how to engage with time in a different way. How to instil different values, or how to value differently.’
Joris van den Einden
is an intern at Metropolis M