Art as a tool of daily life

Daniel Baker in conversation with Angelika Stepken (2020)

Daniel Baker is the curator of the FUTUROMA exhibition which premiered in the accompanying program of the 2019 Venice Biennal and was shown at Villa Romana the following year. FUTUROMA features 14 Romani artists from eight countries: Celia Baker, Ján Berky, Marcus Gunnar-Pettersson, Ödön Gyügyi, Billy Kerry, Klára Lakatos, Delaine Le Bas, Valérie Leray, Emília Rigová, Markéta Šestáková, Selma Selman, Dan Turner, Alfred Ullrich, László Varga.

The FUTUROMA exhibition was commissioned by ERIAC (European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture). Daniel Baker examines the role of art in the enactment of social agency through an eclectic practice that interrogates contemporary art discourse and its social implications via the reconfiguration of elements of the Roma aesthetic.

Daniel, let us start with the title of your exhibition and its reference to the “Afrofuturism” movement. Why did you choose this kind of strategic lesson from the black diaspora to envision a future for Roma culture?

Having become increasingly aware of the of the ways in which Afrofuturism has enabled new ways of thinking about and reporting the black experience, it became clear to me that such an approach could also be Inhabited in order to look again at the Roma experience. In the light of this, the FUTUROMA project is intended as a locus for radical re-interpretations of Roma past, present and future via a fusion of the primeval, the everyday and the futuristic. Along with its forward focus the project offers a means to critique the current situation for Roma people and to re-examine historical events by drawing upon aspects of Afrofuturism to explore the role of Roma contemporary art in defining, reflecting and influencing Roma culture.
Imagining Roma bodies in speculative futures can set in motion counter-narratives which challenge the reductive ways that Roma culture has been understood and consequently constructed. Such an approach can also be used to move our cultural expression beyond the restrictive motifs of oppression toward a radically progressive vision of Roma. As well as being a means to re-discover Roma history in an impactful and engaging way the project also creates a space to envision a future where Roma truly belong — countering the narrative that we remain relics of the past and that we have no future. The project therefore acts as a means to draw together alternative perspectives on Roma past and Roma future, whilst at the same time locating Roma firmly in the here and now.

I do not know how many artists you took into consideration for this exhibition. Your final choice created a very subtle balance, between intimate works and those which relate to community and public life, between very contemporary statements and those who stick closer to handcraft tradition, between professionally educated artists and autodidacts, between young artists and older ones. I was wondering if this concept is given by the subject itself: Roma art today? Or is it a concept which could be applied in different contexts as a critical approach to so called contemporary standards?

I agree that the backgrounds and practice ethos of the artists is very varied and this is one of the strengths of the exhibition. It was my intention to select each artwork for its own ability to convey meaning rather than the reputation of the artist. This has indeed resulted in a broad cross section of practice and object. This approach has also been the focus of my research, studio practice and curatorial work to date i.e. looking at the implications of community and domestic artistic practice through the lens of contemporary art discourse in order to unpack the meanings and implications therein. This also chimes with the arguments that I make regarding hierarchies of artistic practice as emblematic of social marginalistion.
Each artwork in the exhibition has been chosen to perform its individual role in populating the narrative of the FUTUROMA concept. By embodying elements of the past, the now and the tomorrow they denote a cycle of existence in which we all have our part to play. Consequently the artworks are intended to interrupt expectation to push toward new insight, thereby highlighting the potential for Roma artistic practice and its consequent visibilities to interrupt prejudice and make way for new narratives. Within the exhibition these disparate elements are brought together to offer a kind of unification across various networks of difference in order to make a case for the value of these artworks, these people and these communities as they operate within and relate to wider fields of practice and knowledge.
These ways of thinking about artistic practice, art objects and the people that make them are certainly transferable to different contexts. In an art world, where artistic activity is often pitched as a rarefied practice whose ultimate goal is transference into hard currency, there must be room for other approaches. The ideas being thought through within projects like FUTUROMA can certainly be a valuable addition to the range of current thought and practice.

When you are talking about “art as a tool within daily life” it reminds me of the utopian ideas of “Modernism” which were searching for a union of art & life/improving life by artistic considerations. It also brings to mind the so-called autonomy of since Renaissance time ending up in art as global investment goods today. This too is everyday life. But I guess you are speaking much more in dimensions of the human and communities.

Perhaps the notion of art as a tool of daily life can be thought of as an utopian ideal following on from, as you suggest, the introduction of Modernism and before that, the spread of initiatives like the British Arts and Crafts movement from the mid-19th Century with its advocacy for economic and social reform. But I would say that the idea of art as a tool of daily life is less about art and design as a way of improving life and more about a way of living, in which creative practice is integral — a bottom up process rather than top down. The idea of a closer alliance between the practices of art and of living has implications too in terms of the reclamation of art from the privileged arena of the museum and the art world where emphasis is placed upon market interests and hierarchies of knowledge — the segregation of intellectual, cultural and financial capital.
Being situated in Florence, the birthplace of the autonomy of art, you are encountering the meaning, the power and the pleasures that the renaissance artworks instill every day. At their core these objects remain instruments of the power of the state and the church. Here the public are persuaded of the transcendental nature of art, its beauty and skill used to promote ideas and narratives that point away from daily life toward the profoundly spiritual and the intellectual. This model of separation is how the modern museum is still understood and from my perspective there seems to be little appetite for approaching things in different ways.

For me growing up in a Western white exclusive canon of art and meeting fortunately again and again practices/cultures/people which were excluded in this hierarchy makes me question again and again what we have to unlearn. Just accepting that there is room for other approaches? Would this mean: leaving behind the strategies of inclusion – exclusion?

The art world, certainly in terms of large institutions, is a cumbersome beast which takes time to react to societal change. It therefore lags behind other more immediate instruments in reflecting and mediating the contemporary state of play. Consequently ongoing challenges regarding inequality within society in relation to ethnicity, gender and class for example are slow to be mirrored within the art world. This is perhaps partly because the art world often relies upon familiar environments to find new work and new voices. But maybe the kind of art which reflects the changes and emerging challenges in society are not always accessible in those places. The circular path of art galleries, art fairs and biennales can result in a limited range of influence and opinion and not necessarily reflect the range and quality of work that is happening at any given time. There continues to be a reluctance to look beyond the safety and convenience of familiar circuits to find fresh approaches.
I suppose that a desire for equality is at the heart of my work and my ideas, and accepting that there is room for different approaches certainly fits with this notion. Nevertheless such a level playing field does not yet exist in my experience. When equality exists then the act of exclusion disappears and with it the need for inclusion. But maybe it is too early for such a radical strategy to be fully embraced. Perhaps more progress needs to be made to involve those that remain on the outside before such ideas can take hold.

With the “FUTUROMA” exhibition and other growing GRT (Gypsy Roma and Traveller) activities in the cultural field are you using the contemporary art platform in search of visibility, to frame culture in the eyes of majorities?

Visibility is a key issue for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities (Roma being the collective term in an international setting). Negative images of Roma persist based on historically prejudiced understandings of the group and the need for these to be countered with more alternative examples of Roma culture and varied accounts of Roma life remains an important tool in the path toward equality. The contemporary art platform is one of a number of contexts within which more genuine and meaningful images of Roma life can be disseminated and celebrated by Roma. It also allows access to wider society in terms of educating people about the realities of the Roma experience and the value of Roma culture. The contemporary art world also serves to offer artists from Roma communities a path of professional development through which to further their careers and impact upon wider contemporary discourse.
The existence of work by Roma artists within the contemporary art setting also signifies to other Roma individuals the possibility that they too can become part of public debate is a way that may not be as confrontational or perhaps unsafe as other more directly political platforms might be. The contemporary art setting therefore offers a number of possibilities that more politically framed arenas may not. This is I think one of the remaining values of this field, that no matter how extreme the message or the action it can still be viewed with a more open mind and perhaps as less confrontational than in some other contexts.

I wonder how single GRT artists are dealing with being representatives of GRT and how/if this affects their artistic production? I remember discussions in Turkey in the 1990s, where a certain political art was expected from Turkish artists especially in the European context.

I think that artistic practice attached to a particular identity position can be limiting, especially if specific meanings within the artworks are only relatable within a particular context. I have discussed this with a number of artists that are Roma and the conversation often follows the same trajectory; artists want their work to be seen and experienced by as many people as possible and any specific label can be seen to negate this. That said I believe that good art can operate in multiple contexts and continue to convey meaning and insight in a variety of situations thereby transcending their labels whilst at the same time embracing them. FUTUROMA presents an example of this by showing works which carry universal meanings whilst also being grounded within a particular subjectivity. Only a couple of the works in the show make direct reference to Roma concerns but within the framework of the exhibition the Roma qualities in each of the works are explored and brought to light. I think that most Roma artists, myself included, are happy for their work to be interpreted in as many ways as possible and to convey multiple meanings. All those meanings are valid in some way.
Having operated as an artist, researcher and curator in the field of Romani visual arts for a long time I have had the opportunity to experience the work of a great number of artists and makers from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller origin. My initial research took place in the UK, where the number of professionally trained artists that identify as being from GRT communities is very small. The main focus of my interest became the community artistic practices which populate GRT daily life and which are seen as very much integrated into the acts of living rather than as a separate art activity. This notion of art as tool within daily life, a functionality of art if you will, is a unifying element across the works included in the FUTUROMA exhibition. This is more apparent in some works than others, some indicating such moves in narrative terms and some in more experiential or phenomenological ways. Such common threads generate a dialog across the project and act to stimulate new ways of thinking about the artworks in relation to each other, the artists and the communities that they come from.