On the occasion of her farewell to Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen, I sat down for a talk with Zippora Elders, director and curator since 2016. In Cafe De Oranjerie in Amsterdam, accompanied by a moderate serving of ‘bitterballen’, we talk about her leaving the Kunstfort and what that is like, on what seems to be a crucial moment. While the last two years were about “making do” and upholding that which was carefully built, with some plans having been put on hold, it is clear the ambitions were never far out of sight. The fort is, in her own words, “a place that had always been somewhat lifeless, a military heritage site, a concrete structure erected on a lake, in a manufactured landscape. Through maintenance and organizing, with laborious commitment, we are constantly breathing life into it.” Traditionally, it served as a defence structure for the capital, a historical fact that resonates with her dedication in building a team and leaving behind an infrastructure. A conversation with Zippora Elders at the end of her Kunstfort journey.
A vigorous home for art and artists
“It is important to me that in order to be a good home to art and artists, you make sure you are a vigorous home. Ideally that means a home with a financial structure that offers continuity to its team and its audiences. I don’t mean continuity in itself as a value, but it offers a certain amount of trust that is generative. It serves as the solid ground to build a team on, and in the end, I believe this also enters the experiences of your audience. When I made a proposal for the position, I wanted to propose an artistic programme that didn’t feel the need to justify itself or explain itself. In my opinion, that diminishes the ambitions of what art can do. Through the lens of science fiction, I focussed on the unexpected, the undefined and the speculative. I wanted to put forward art that examines the status quo, art that offers a different story or reading, through imagination. The political of course was always present, but I did not feel the need to make that explicit all the time. In that decision, I considered the location of the Kunstfort: its remote location means that audiences make a deliberate choice to visit, and it consequently affords them the time to listen and to look at something. That commitment makes it possible to tell stories that claim space for the unarticulated, the undefined or uncomfortable. Art goes beyond instant gratification, which is basically just amusement: it resonates more deeply. That takes time and effort, which also holds true for our audiences.
When I started at the Kunstfort, I mostly worked with just one other employee. There were a few thousand euros allocated for the programme and we had little to do with the rest of the budget. We searched for another structure: I wanted to review the entire budget, I wanted less bureaucracy and clear governance, I wanted more permanent positions and specified duties within the team with fair pay for internal and external workers. I installed a board of advisors to involve more perspectives and I diversified income and structural funding. In addition to more permanent positions, I wanted a team that works complementary, a team that is invested in keeping a critical eye on my decisions and leadership, and the workings of the space. This to me is very crucial when managing art institutions: to work with a team that doesn’t approve everything unconditionally but remains critical. It is curious that the curator is often placed in such a central position. I believe that a good producer or a good communication manager or staff member can be just as meaningful to a well functioning organisation. To be honest, I do not know where this idea of prestige, which is often attached to the curator, comes from.”
On professionalism and the fixed position of the “standard”
“I thought a lot about what professionalism means in this field. On the one hand, I consider challenging constructed boundaries as a way of upholding the artistic. At the same time I notice in my activities as a mediator, that timelines and fixed criteria don’t allow for this criticality at first. I have often offered the feedback that something can only flourish when it is permitted time, time to try and time to fail. A culture of bureaucracy and constant answerability obstructs this. Of course, I understand that if you work with public money, you have to deal with accountability. But the meaning of this accountability is defined by a very specific perspective on what quality is. It creates a certain standard that is established from a dominant position, a position that upholds specific values or that speaks a specific language. To comply with this standard is easier from a dominant or privileged position, which continues to legitimize itself. That which is considered professional, falls within those boundaries. But does this leave room for the unexpected, or invisible practices? Putting this question into practice has concerned me a lot over the last years. It can’t be denied that the “standard” is hostile to anything that moves outside of its boundaries, that is how power operates. Especially now, when it seems we are finally talking collectively about diversity, it comes down to questioning this standardisation. In practice, however, I notice that people find this difficult to hear.
At the same time, within those fixed structures, you are dealing with individual and particular connections, or official contexts that change over time, structures that are in fact less solid. This means you remain in a constant conversation and in a mode of keeping up, and keeping in touch. Combine that with a growing distrust of the arts, and the prevailing idea that “we” are not in touch with “the people”. There seems to be a consumer-relationship to the arts and “we” have to deliver. Of course, that is asking the impossible. In my opinion, many people are falling in line with populist and right wing conservative rhetoric, without being aware of it. As cultural workers we constantly have to defend what we are doing. In which case, I love to hear what the critique is based on, so I know what I am arguing against.”
On precarity and transparency
“The other interpretation of flexibility that is rarely discussed is the fact that cultural workers are often being asked to overextend themselves. Next to producing or leading a project, they are assigned the responsibilities of a semi-executive, which is often concealed as an opportunity or a compliment albeit informally since there is no fair compensation. However, the logic of keeping tasks separate and to be transparent about it comes from the intention to protect people in their job. I sincerely hope that it is understood in our field that this too is what fair labour means. At the Kunstfort I tried to be open about the challenges, and to be transparent to artists and staff members about financial situations, within the context of temporary project funding as well as during the pandemic. It offers someone a fair estimation of their position and you can have an honest conversation about that.”
“To me, this is what I see as the task of the curator: to make space and to be a mediator. The positions of artists are often precarious, and I intend to be a bumper as much as I am able to. I have learned to position myself and know what I can take. You do what you can and try to ensure space. In that process, you establish a relationship, which is sometimes with someone who feels overlooked or is disappointed. This obligates you to be transparent about the possibilities. And you need to find money that frankly has not been there for twelve years. It is necessary to be open about this. This might sound a bit business-like, but it is perhaps the reality of a society that is run like a business. This is the field in which we operate; we chose to work in it. But if someone tells me: I can’t make it, then that is what it is. In those situations, I think it is professional to let go of certain regulations, bureaucracy or deadlines. I think we shouldn’t see this as a moral failure. And there’s the rub in the cultural field: we tend to be a bit moralistic, which is different than approaching something politically. This is something I am still figuring out, how to have this conversation in an agreeable way. Because it is of course important to uphold whatever it is that you set out to do.”
“We recently did a programme at the Kunstfort with artists from post-Soviet countries. It took place not long after Putin invaded Ukraine. Although it did not refer to the invasion explicitly, it of course was a part of the conversation on the effects of imperialism. I noticed that people appreciated the support this gathering offered. When so much of what is being reported concerns the news of the day, I think people often feel the need to respond individually: I need to take action. I think this is the trap of neoliberal thinking: it creates the feeling that individuals are personally responsible for a given situation. In the end this works debilitating or has as a result that energy sizzles out in a captured moment. The public programme offered people insight without putting ourselves in the centre. It exceeded the individualistic response and offered entanglement and complicity instead. It elaborates on a complex situation and connects it to your own choices: Who do you vote for? Which values do you find important? That kind of resonance is important: knowing that everything resonates and that you’re dependent on each other. This has become a constant thread in my thinking, and also in my role as director of the Kunstfort.
At the Kunstfort, the time has come that artistic departure points can be carried out as a team. Perhaps I could have stayed longer to devote more time on the execution. I see in my own generation and after so many wonderful practices and perspectives, so I also know that now is a good moment to have trust in the team, the successors and the space. And there is trust.”
For completeness: Zippora and I are colleagues at sonsbeek20→24. Next to that, we share a love for fried food. Hence, this interview should not be read as objective.