It is late in the afternoon when I walk down the medina of Sefrou and make my way to the souq of carpenters and tailors. There I find the offices of CultureVultures,1 an artist-run AIR programme based in and around the city of Fez in Morocco. The office in the first-floor gallery consists of a six-square-metre room with a desk, a couple of chairs, and a planning board with art-related scribbles and logistics hanging on the wall. In the gallery itself, two benches and a table make up the meeting room. To the right and left, tailors sit outside similar-sized studios, piecing together colourful djellabas.
“Ideas come to many artists when they are in transit, moving from one point to the next,” writes Monkiek Toebosch in her article Fleeting Profundity, which is included in a collection of essays I picked up the other day in a bookshop in Amsterdam as a travel companion for this trip. Toebosch, the renowned late performance artist and former director of DasArts, goes on to say that this “is not so much about a specific moment, but about a state of being: a permanent sensitivity to what surrounds them.” Accordingly, she refers to the studio as a safe haven, a place where new things can take shape: a physical and chiefly a mental space that is larger than outside and inside combined.
This description is a good definition of the artist in residence: somebody who embraces this particular state of being, who sets out to engage in a temporary studio programme away from home. Moving from one place to another affords you the opportunity to find the things you lack in your studio at home: time for undisturbed research in a specialised library; a sandy landscape that makes a perfect backdrop for your film; a traditional kiln to bake your porcelain; or simply a huge space to build the installation that has been sitting idle on your computer desktop. Moving also makes you encounter things that are different, remarkable, surprising or experimental, to discover what you wish to relate to. And watch out: this otherness could be waiting for you around the corner, in a studio programme on the other side of your home town, as much as on another continent. It requires an exploratory approach, a sense of adventure as much as a pragmatic spirit, to make that transitory experience come true.
Where to begin? There are more than 1,200 international artist-in-residence programmes listed on the TransArtists website. Programmes vary from interconnected institutions that function as a career stepping-stone for artists, to a unit of shipping containers in a coastal surf village. Some programmes merely provide a space, others have a specific curatorial focus. Some charge basic costs for rent, others pay artists a fee. While the latter certainly creates a more comfortable situation for working, I invite artists to keep an eye on small, independent programmes.
Programmes that are content driven, flexible and sharp, turn up eagerly in the most unlikely locations: in a rundown neighbourhood in New Orleans, adrift on a boat in the polar circle, or ensconced in a small Moroccan town such as Sefrou. The artists and art professionals who initiated these programmes are true pioneers: they develop and protect spaces for art, while dealing with logistics and sometimes negotiating with cultural and social conventions. In all their stubborn but generous resilience, these programmes offer something extra.
Who do you invite for dinner and why? What do you bring to the table? Is it a dinner party? Do you exchange recipes? Discussing these matters over a delicious tajine, it becomes clear that there is specific deliberation involved in orchestrating programmes to support and optimise the artistic process. Rides in a packed white Mercedes; the view onto the garden from the bedroom window; the call to prayer from the mosque in the middle of the night; discussing ideas with other artists over coffee; practicing friendly greetings on the street: all of this is part of the joint venture between guest and host that makes a programme run. By then your studio space overflows its parameters. Who wants to stay inside? Move! Keep looking for that fleeting profundity and at the end of the day, full of wonder and confusion, make your way back to the dinner table. Who knows whether one day you will find yourself on the other side, shaping your ideas and experiences into the logistics of another artist in residence programme, as yet unknown.
by Heidi Vogels of Transartists | Dutchculture and AiR Platform NL
Heidi Vogels at Culture Vultures pOp uP Gallery in Fez with her project Gardens of Fez
From a publication by ART MOTILE in the context of the symposium for residences in Madrid