"Very soon, art will be the only activity left worth pursuing."

Dutch artist Tenant of Culture, selected as one of Bloomberg New Contemporaries' artists of the year, talks about the position of the artist in the post-internet world. 

Text by Scott Causier
Photography provided by Tenant of Culture

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Words: 1,200
Approx reading time: 7 mins

Tenant of Culture is a Dutch artist, with a background in textiles, who is exploring themes of functionality and purpose, amongst other notions in the post-internet world. She recently completed her MA at the Royal College of Art and was selected as one of Bloomberg New Contemporaries' artists of 2016.

First and foremost, could you briefly introduce your practice and some of the key themes of your work/creative output?

The name Tenant of Culture refers to the position of the artist as cultural post-producer rather than autonomous creator. By taking this position I want to question the notions of working within a fixed medium, authorship and what it means to be a designer/artist in the post-internet landscape. The subjects I examine in my practice centre mostly around the lifespan of objects and data. I specifically work with the question: how do we determine what to save, store, conserve and defend? Which relates to the way institutional archives are constructed. And on the other hand I look at everything that doesn't fit into these archives, like debris, in the form of discarded objects as well as content, ideas and data.

How do you select the materials that you use in your works? And what sort of processes do you exert upon them to reach your endpoint in the creation of a work?

The way I select my materials has a lot to do with the way I select the clothes that I wear. It is a highly subjective, taste and trend related process. Recently I have been trying to work mostly with mundane garments that I found around my house, stole from friends or bought in Charity shops. The project was called 'how to preserve a happening' so I looked at garments that specifically implied motion, like cycling jerseys and white shirts with sweat stains. Garments that, when you see them, you can just smell and feel the intensity of what has happened to the wearer. For the rest I use 'trapping' and 'fixing' materials like cement, plastic, resin and silicone, whose primary function is to hold other materials together. Sort of 'supportive' materials.

Looking at images of your work, coupled with your background, how central is the garment and its function to your work?

I have a background in womenswear and textiles that influences the way I select my materials. From an early age I have been obsessed with garments. At first, I thought this was a love for fashion, which explains my BA in womenswear, but later on I realised that it was the actual garment itself I liked so much. First of all, because it is an interface for communication, whether wearable or fashionable or not. But in my practise it also represents the absence of the living, captured motion or decay put on hold. Garments can have a very dramatic effect and are actually very sculptural. What I like about it is that the status of the garment is essentially ambiguous, especially within the realm of fine arts it is still associated with frivolity, trend and fashion. I like to work with this multitude of associations surrounding the garment.

There is definitely an inimitable quality to the way that we break down, and as you say, sculpt the garments that we wear. Joseph Beuys once said "Art alone makes life possible". How do you see this notion applied in the post-internet age that we live in?

I think that this statement, besides being slightly too deterministic for my taste, does relate to the position of the artist in the digital epoch. This is in the sense that people are more and more aware of metaphysical occurrences as a condition for existence because of the amateur-friendly internet. Surpassing the boundaries of institutions, art reclaims ‘life’. The dynamic is different but art as a phenomenon becomes more and more decentralised. I think that the dialectical position between the enthusiasm of the amateur and the codified languages of the professional is becoming the new territory to explore. Somewhere in between lies the answer. I think slowly, the position of the ‘expert’ is losing its meaning and soon, very soon, art will be the only activity left worth pursuing. Or, to quote Beuys again: “jeder mensch ein künstler” (every person is an artist)”.

There is definitely a very interesting shift taking place, particularly when viewing it in line with the quotations cited before and the digital development of the amateur. Having recently completed your studies at the Royal College of the Arts (RCA), how do you feel that experience has (potentially) shaped your views on the institutional archives and how they are constructed?

The RCA is a very classical institution. It is great to study there and to be granted access to their archives and resources. There is a lot of history and tradition there. I have enjoyed the experience but I do think that eventually schools that rely so heavily on their exclusivity will have to find ways to become more inclusive to remain relevant. Like MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), who recently made all of their courses open and free to everyone online. Accessibility is the key word, I think soon people will not trust these hierarchical structures that institutions maintain to keep the 'other' out. I did some research into the RCA's special collection of art works of alumni.

There are about 1200 works in there from people like David Hockney. But, no one ever gets to see these and they just remain in storage as the risk of exposing them and them getting damaged is too big. The manager or curator of this collection told me he preferred safety over accessibility and this is a common way of functioning for (institutional) archives, as a safe keeper or gatekeeper between the object or information and the public. 

I think that again, this has to do with the ambiguous status of accessibility. Art as a system works a lot with inaccessibility and exclusivity. I think somewhere along the way accessibility has become a negative word that is associated with popular culture, which has a low status. A lot of artists still work with the idea in mind that creating work that is accessible means 'selling out', whereas actually trying to remain 'exclusive' is exactly the same, because in the art world exclusivity sells even better. 

Institutions know very well that they exist by the virtue of their exclusive status simply because something that is rare or hard to access is worth more. We should probably come up with a word for accessibility that isn't tied so closely with economical value. I like the word 'hospitality' which relates to the concept of 'Tenant of Culture'. Michel de Certau uses this to describe how the reader temporarily inhabits the author’s mind or work whilst reading a text. I think this is how we should see accessibility, as allowing others into your work and not being territorial about it. 

Yes, there is an almost comic irony that such an institution, in its preservation and protection of its collected works, merely inhibits their potential to inspire others in their creative pursuits. Universal inclusion and access of art generally can only enhance its power. However, do you feel that discovering a work digitally can ever emulate that of the physical experience of viewing a work?

To answer the second part of your question: There is definitely work that needs to be experienced, but the reality of the situation is that this is not possible the majority of the time. So to be 'hospitable' in the digital age means making some sacrifices maybe? This is a difficult one because I would never say that the actual experience of encountering a work in the flesh could be substituted by looking at the documentation of it but we have entered this hyper-real stage where documentation becomes work and work becomes documentation. Like the work of artist Brad Troemel for example, who sells the disparate parts of his sculptures on Etsy. If you buy one of the sculptures you get sent a manual of how to put it together and the objects you need for it sent to you by post. The images of the sculptures are photoshopped so in the end Troemel never even physically encounters the objects himself. 

These are strategies of survival in the art world that economically relies on the exclusive status of institutions to sell the artist’s works. The system has the artist checkmate. If you decide to sell or display your work online there is this idea that you’re 'selling out' because it’s the platform that amateurs use. There is a hierarchy attached to the 'real' way of selling and displaying and the online way of doing it, but this is just a construction and I definitely think it needs to be reconsidered.

You were recently selected to feature as part of this year's Bloomberg New Contemporaries. How has that experience been so far?

Bloomberg is cool! They're very well organised and generous. On Friday, the exhibition opens at Liverpool Biennial in Bluecoat Gallery and will then move on to The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London in November. I'm excited to see all the other artists work as I only know one other person who's in it. It's cool to be in such a high exposure show straight after graduation, it feels very serious.

Tenant of Culture’s work will be displayed as part of Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2016 at The Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool until 16th October. The exhibition will then travel to the ICA in London and open in November.

Further reading: 

Bloomberg New Contemporaries: http://www.newcontemporaries.org.uk/exhibitions-and-events/exhibitions/bnc-2016-bluecoat-liverpool-9-july-16-october

Tenant of Culture: http://tenantofculture.com/

IG: @tenantofculture

Text by Scott Causier
Photography provided by Tenant of Culture