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– Autumn/Winter 2015

Gentrification After Institutional Critique: On Renzo Martens’s Institute for Human Activities

T.J. Demos

Launch of the Institute for Human Activities’ ‘Critical Curriculum’ at an undisclosed location in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2014, video still. Courtesy the artist; KOW, Berlin; Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; and The Box, Los Angeles

The Institute for Human Activities (IHA), founded and directed by Dutch artist Renzo Martens, represents an ambitious five-year project based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that is as ethically provocative as it is conceptually complex.1 Neither a purely local initiative nor one made solely for international audiences, the IHA attempts a critical and creative interface between, on the one hand, its platform for artistic production in sub-Saharan Africa and, on the other, Western art markets and cultural institutions. While clearly an ‘institution of critique’, the project differs from past models in Western contemporary art, most significantly in not being based in the developed cultural centres of the global North.2 The IHA should also be distinguished from the examples of cultural institution-building in the African context, with groups like Huit Facettes (Senegal) and Le Groupe Amos (DRC) working to develop workshop-based collectives and events programming in order to revitalise traditional craft production or advance models of African modernism, strengthen grass-roots communities, overcome regional social stratification and build local cultural networks.3 While the IHA also shares certain of these goals — such as

Footnotes
  1. Inaugurated in 2012 during the 7th Berlin Biennale, and overcoming many initial logistical challenges, the IHA will likely continue beyond 2017 owing to a stalled beginning and complications with its initial sponsored site.

  2. See Andrea Fraser, 'From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique', Artforum, vol.44, no.1, September 2005, pp.278—83.

  3. See Okwui Enwezor, 'The Production of Social Space as Artwork: Protocols of Community in the Work of Le Groupe Amos and Huit Facettes', in Blake Stimson and Greg Sholette (ed.), Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp.223—52; Grant Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012, especially pp.96—99; and Clémentine Deliss, 'Brothers in Arms: Laboratoire AGIT'art and Tenq in Dakar in the 1990s', Afterall, issue 36, Summer 2014, pp.4—19.

  4. For an extended analysis of this film, see T.J. Demos, 'The Haunting: Renzo Martens's Enjoy Poverty', Return to the Postcolony: Specters of Colonialism in Contemporary Art, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013, pp.97—123.

  5. As Martens said recently, 'However critical it is of labour conditions in Congo, in the end it only improved labour conditions in Berlin's Mitte and in New York's Lower East Side. Because that's where people see it, talk about it, write pieces about it — whether for or against doesn't really matter.' Quoted in Stuart Jeffries, 'Renzo Martens — the artist who wants to gentrify the jungle', The Guardian, 16 December 2014, available at http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/16/renzo-martens-gentrify-the-jungle-congo-chocolate-art (last accessed on 10 June 2015).

  6. Critics generally point out how gentrification generates wealth for developers while entailing the eviction of working-class and poor people. See Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, 'The Fine Art of Gentrification,' October, no.31, Winter 1984, pp.91—111.

  7. Among the non-profit European funders of the IHA are the Berlin Biennale, the Mondrian Fund, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds and the Prince Claus Fund.

  8. Email from the artist, 17 June 2015.

  9. See Jules Marchal, Lord Leverhulme's Ghosts: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo (2001, trans. Martin Thom), London: Verso, 2008. Also, for comparison, see Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, London: Icon, 2010.

  10. See Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, London: Macmillan, 1999.

  11. Email from the artist, 14 June 2014. See also 'Institute for Human Activities: Renzo Martens in Conversation with T.J. Demos', Camera Austria International, no.120, 2012, pp.45—52.

  12. For more information, see http://www.palmwatchafrica.org (last accessed on 10 June 2015).

  13. See the IHA website at http://www.humanactivities.org/conferences/ (last accessed on 17 July 2015). In my presentation 'Toward a New Institutional Critique', I explored the problematic notion, then quite trendy in the art world, of 'immaterial labour', particularly misplaced, I argued, when considered in relation to precarious plantation labour practices in the DRC. I also called on the IHA to develop African participation at all levels of its organisation so as to avoid the dangers of perpetuating new forms of colonial relations in its implementation. The IHA is currently preparing a publication that will include this and other texts from the seminar.

  14. S. Jeffries, 'Renzo Martens — the artist who wants to gentrify the jungle', op. cit.

  15. This view correlates with recent observations made by artists such as Hito Steyerl and Andrea Fraser. See H. Steyerl, 'Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Postdemocracy', e-flux journal, no. 21, December 2010, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/politics-of-art-contemporary-art- and-the-transition-to-post-democracy/ (last accessed on 14 July 2015); and Andrea Fraser, 'L'1% C'est Moi', Texte zur Kunst, August 2011, pp.114—27, and 'There's No Place Like Home,' The Whitney Biennial 2012 (exh. cat.), New York: Whitney Museum of America Art, 2012, pp.28—33.

  16. This is clearly articulated by Martens in 'Institute for Human Activities: Renzo Martens in Conversation with T.J. Demos', op. cit.

  17. In this regard, Martens's project participates in the recent energy around exhibiting European collections in zones of conflict outside Europe, such as Khaled Hourani's 2011 'Picasso in Palestine' project, also supported by the Van Abbemuseum, which brought Buste de Femme (1943) to Ramallah — the first time a European work of this order has been seen publicly in the West Bank. See Sandy Tolan, 'Picasso comes to Palestine', Al Jazeera [website], 16 July 2011, available at http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/07/2011715131351407810.html (last accessed on 10 June 2015).

  18. Email from the artist, 19 June 2015.

  19. Daisy Carrington, 'The secret artists colony that wants to change the world with chocolate heads', CNN [website], 6 March 2015, available at http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/05/africa/drc-artist- hipster-paradise-in-the-heart-of-africa (last accessed on 10 June 2015).

  20. Florida was an exceptional case as the sole advocate of creative-class neoliberalism. The IHA aims to divert such capitalist interests toward other ends by proposing to apply certain of Florida's principles to redistribute the economy in the specific, rural circumstances of the DRC. Part of the plan appears to be to test his Pollyannaish rhetoric, including his so-called 'three Ts' for cultivating urban regeneration: Talent (a highly talented/educated/skilled population), Tolerance (a diverse community) and Technology (the technological infrastructure necessary to fuel an entrepreneurial culture). For a critique of Florida's position, see Martha Rosler, 'Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism, Part I', e-flux journal, no.21, December 2010, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/ culture-class-art-creativity-urbanism-part-i/, and 'Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism, Part II', e-flux journal, no.23, March 2011, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/culture-class-art- creativity-urbanism-part-ii/ (both last accessed on 13 July 2015).

  21. See http://www.humanactivities.org (last accessed on 10 June 2015).

  22. S. Jeffries, 'Renzo Martens — the artist who wants to gentrify the jungle', op. cit.

  23. D. Carrington, 'The secret artists colony that wants to change the world with chocolate heads', op. cit.

  24. See, for instance, Vivian Ziherl, ‘Renzo Martens and the Institute for Human Activities’ “A New Settlement”’, Art Agenda [online magazine], 27 May 2015, available at http://www.art-agenda.com/ reviews/renzo-martens-and-the-institute-for-human-activitiess-a-new-settlement/; and Nora Kovacs, ‘Discussing the Matter of Critique with Renzo Martens at KW Institute for Contemporary Art’, Berlin Art Link [online magazine], 26 May 2015, available at http://www.berlinartlink.com/2015/05/26/ review-discussing-the-matter-of-critique-with-renzo-martens-at-kw-institute-for-contemporary-art/ (both last accessed on 24 June 2015).