Compléments de Multitudes 15

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The creation of an exhibition project on the changing concept of creativity todayVersion originale de

art1286Creativity – from Exception to Imperative

For a long time creativity was a shimmering term endowed with an almost mythical touch – a synonym for a rare gift that defied closer definition. Yet in recent decades the term has undergone a fundamental transformation. Its current usage for a vast range of different social fields is astonishing: creative management, creative living, creative learning, the creative unemployed, creative home design, Creative Bagel Corner, creativity as the ultimate resource for the future, creativity as technology for new production processes all the way to the neologism of the ‘creative industries’, to name but a few examples from a list that could be spun out indefinitely. Today creativity is no longer regarded as a skill exclusive to the artistic professions, but also as an indispensable prerequisite for survival on the labour, attentiveness and relations markets.

Only since the 16th century has the ability to be creative, to beget the world, ceased to be interpreted as a purely divine but (also) as a human talent and come to refer to a specific manner of production that combines intellectual and manual skills and differs from activities of pure craftsmanship. In this interpretation the term creativity includes reflexivity, a knowledge of techniques and an awareness of the contingency of the creative process. In the 18th century creativity was defined as the central characteristic of the artist who, as an autonomous creator, would repeatedly beget the world anew. In the emerging capitalist social system, the concepts of aptitude and ownership combined with this male-connotated idea of an ingenious exceptional mind. In the 20th century, the term creativity is mainly found in its usage as an artistic method for finding ideas, and is increasingly associated with the field of applied arts, graphics, design, architecture and fashion design.

For the social movements of the late 60s and early 70s, creativity and creative living were part of the vocabulary of emancipation. The May ’68 generation, but also dissidents and drop-outs, artists and intellectuals of previous avant-garde movements, attacked the commercialism of the social system, the discipline of the factory, bureaucratic rigidity and hierarchical power structures in the industrial societies with experiments in alternative ways of life, demands for autonomy, authenticity and creativity, but also with artistic practices beyond the classic interpretation of what constitutes a work of art. This liberation from the discipline of bureaucracy and the mechanised, industrialised work rhythm joined forces with the vision of a self-determined creative life, leading to new models for relationships and learning, utopian architectural proposals and designs; minority and sub-cultures demanded the right to have their say, self-representation and independent cultural articulation.

Creative action and thought are now demanded from all the citizens of Western industrialised societies. They are the customers of the booming market for creativity promotion and are supplied with the relevant manuals, seminars, software programmes and so on. These education programmes, learning techniques and tools provide the relevant methods and, at the same time, illustrate new possibilities for being in which it seems desirable to optimise oneself. Creativity trainings call for and encourage approval of the social conditions whilst at the same time liberating creative potential.

Thus on the one hand creativity proves to be the democratic variation of ingenuity: everyone is credited with the ability to be creative. On the other hand, however, everyone is also forced into having to develop his creative potential. The imperative to turn oneself into a creative being and entrepreneurial self has thus absorbed the autonomy slogans of the 60s and 70s. The call for self-determination and participation no longer only denotes an emancipative utopia, but also a social obligation. Individuals apparently subject themselves voluntarily to the new power conditions that encourage them to be accountable, autonomous and self-responsible – they are “obliged to be free” (Nikolas Rose). Their behaviour is not regulated by a disciplinary power, but by government practices that build on the neo-liberal idea of a “self-regulating” market and are more likely to mobilise and stimulate than to monitor and punish. People are now meant to become as contingent and adaptable as the market.

The exhibition “Be Creative! The Creative Imperative” at the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, (29.11.02-16.02.03) emerged on the initiative of myself at the ith (Institute for Theory of Art and Design, Zurich) and of Beatrice von Bismarck at the D/O/C/K project section at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, Leipzig. It used many examples to illustrate and focus on this transfer from liberation programme to employment profile: it followed the altered structure of the economy and the working world on the level of company and spatial organisation, from time management all the way to the compulsion to be mobile; it observed the demand for cognitive abilities that are assigned terms such as creativity and intelligence; it showed the boom in manuals on how to achieve greater creativity and questioned their applications; reflected on the appropriation of artistic production processes and subcultural ways of life for the worlds of advertising and real estate and pursued the transformation of emancipatory models from the call for participation to political control techniques.

Thus the Be Creative! exhibition took a look at the changing concepts of creativity and the social design process that goes with them. It included company mission statements, working organizations, design concepts and motivation tools that have profoundly changed everyday life in the workplace, and took in the educational system as well. It considered very recent town planning developments demonstrating these social changes. Interviews and film projects where designers, artists and employees have their say about their everyday working lives and the situation in the education world were produced especially for the project. At the same time the exhibition took a new look at utopian models for living, learning and working against this background. Contestational models taken from history and present-day phenomena appeared alongside archetypes of flexibilised labour in an intermedia environment that refrained from judgment (videos, art works, photographic works, design objects, newspapers etc.). By making the exhibition, we tried to grasp and precisely depict the dynamics involved when aesthetic practices and modes of life become a telos, a road to ‘greater achievement’.

The character of the exhibition corresponded to that of a production site for social processes, design and communication. The show therefore did not seek to teach the right information, but much involved the visitors in the above-mentioned antagonisms through the scenographic layout and compositions of the thematic clusters. The image of the factory, a space somewhere between an artist’s loft, a sweatshop and a marketing floor, was selected as the basic architectural metaphor and also corresponded to the spatial context of the gallery space in the Museum für Gestaltung, which is actually the (hidden) administrative wing of the building. The visual technologies we choose were those that are nowadays specifically used for making “ideas” and “concepts” visible and included presentation media such as video and slide projectors, overhead projectors, light boxes, monitors, laptops, computer terminals or flatscreens and the accompanying visualisation strategies and programmes such as PowerPoint presentations, in-house TV, home DVD, training videos, Internet sites and so on. Beside this visual narration, a brochure about the issues and thematic outlines was published by myself and Peter Spillmann, including quotes by Stuart Hall, Christian Marazzi, Tom Holert, Ulrich Bröckling and Thomas Lenke. This brochure functioned as a guide book which does not explain the phenomenological or sensory part of the show, but the theoretical, social and political framework to which the “objects” in the exhibition refer. Several discussion rounds and guided tours reflected on new labour forms, urban restructuring, educational policies and questions on representational discourses. As the show took place not in an art gallery but in a museum of design, which is in Zurich a very popular place, we had 5,000 visitors, which was extremely astonishing and unusual for such topics.

Making an exhibition as a counter-cultural practice

Beyond the positive response, ‘Be creative!’ had to carve out a lot of paradoxes. First of all representing aesthetic practices’ tendency to respond ‘optimally’ to capitalistic imperatives, while continuously resisting ‘achievement’ or ‘success’. Second, this hybrid practice, located between the realms of art, theory and design, is not only based on disciplinary flexibility: it also relies on an anti-institutional, flexibilised economy of underpaid but highly motivated freelancers. Therefore the project itself came into being under working and production conditions very similar to those documented, analysed and criticised in the exhibition.

The problem of one’s own involvement in the current normative change becomes even clearer when the self-organised creative professions are attributed central significance for economic growth, as in the Talent Economy proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Angela Mc Robbie, 2002). With the accompanying metropolitan discourse on the capitals of talent, the European competition for location advantages in the global market has, since the late nineties, led to labour markets being rehabilitated and neighbourhoods enhanced, not only in England but also in Germany and Switzerland (Spillmann/von Osten, 2002). In this idea of economics, cuts in social and cultural spending are legitimised under the paradigm of the self-sufficiency of (cultural) entrepreneurs. But the reality of the labor conditions summarised under the construct of creative professionals (self-employed media creators, multi-media, sound and graphic designers) is blurred or idealised in these optimistic assumptions. At the same time, the labor conditions of artistic-creative professions, but also those of the remaining industrial production and other precarious service occupations, are covered up.

I have been asked several times: What does the Be Creative project propose as an alternative, does it have a mobilizing perspective, or was it just a display of critique? These questions, in my opinion, are important to ask, but they underestimate the practice and history of project exhibitions, which have been initiated by cultural producers since the 70s. My thesis is that the practice we chose in making the show questions the assumptions of the neoliberal commodity economy very radically, even or precisely because it finds itself in the antagonism between radical critique and the current, normative transformation. The “Be Creative!” exhibition was realised collectively by a team of artists, architects, designers, theoreticians, students and ex-students. The practice of producing the project tried to overcome the traditional division by discipline and professional hierarchies in the existing forms of the cultural system. Sociologists and cultural theorists were involved in the exhibition making and design process, as well as designers in the development of the theoretical framework. The collective, then, was critiquing sites of contemporary theory and culture production. Its criticism was directed towards three specific discourses on traditional knowledge production: the disciplinary division and elitism of theory production; the division of theory and practice, hand and mind, the social and the cultural; the split between a linguistic and a visual culture. It also questioned the tradition and future of art and design universities, specifically the College of Design and Art in Zurich, where it took place. To make an exhibition against this background was empowering in itself.

Project exhibitions and other forms of curatorial practices by artists or cultural producers are – in the best sense – not just staging knowledge in the counter-information manner, but intervening in an existing and specifically local hegemonic setting and its representational politics. A side effect of this practice is that it establishes a physical space of alternate forms of exchange and can give rise to multitudes of groupings that exist much longer than the actual show and will in most cases keep on working on the same issues in new formations. This perspective stands in a longer tradition of a critical cultural practice, which has it roots on the one hand in the critique of the museum’s institutional order and the use of the public space as a space for intervention. But it also stems from the counter-cultural use of the exhibition space by small leftist, anti-racist and most of all feminist collectives, which established a tactical, marginal use of the exhibition space and the public sphere for possibilities of self-articulation and political action. Therefore an exhibition cannot only be read on the level of what it presents, but also on how, why and by whom it was produced, and under which conditions.

The format of the project exhibition was mainly established in the late eighties and early nineties due to collective artistic practices, or artists who started to curate shows in collaboration with actors from other fields because of specific purposes.[[See projects at: or The exhibition “If you lived here” in the Dia Arts Foundation in 1989 organized and initiated by the artist Martha Rosler is a paradigmatic example, as she focused on gentrification processes and homelessness not just because it was a “relevant issue,” but because the gallery itself was located in the specific gentrification area and was therefore involved in the transformation process. The exhibition addressed the bohemian surroundings of the new gallery location also, which provided the potential audience of the gallery, people who at the same time were important actors in the gentrification process. This example shows how the audiences can be addressed as actors via the issue, but also how other audiences can enter the gallery space and participated in the project, in this case political activists involved with housing projects, homeless people, urbanists and social workers.

Therefore the fact that the exhibition space usually establishes a specific normative public also includes the potential of its alternative use: to address and involve audiences which are normally separated due to disciplinary divides or the social and class order. Project exhibitions in that sense use the white cube of the gallery or museum as a communicative platform, a place for a counter-public, a stage where not just knowledge is exhibited, but ideas about collaborative and collective practices, where new spaces of discourse can be established or used for a local intervention.

As the “Be Creative!” project attempted to show, the term creativity has not only left behind its shadowy existence but also its innocent reception, it has broadened the perspective of a common understanding of design processes. A current examination of notions about creativity no longer only calls for reflection on the methods of creation in art and design, but also for creation to be used as a description of a social process which has a political and cultural dimension that has long since left behind its actual production connection with the artist. The project created a counter narration of the artist or designer. It gave a place for a dissidence, empowerment and intervention. When vocabulary and subject positions are borrowed by cultural producers in management theory and political phantasies, it is the cultural producer who has the possibility to resist, to critique and to intervene in this unfriendly takeover. To produce an exhibition has always been a cultural strategy and a specific (historical) form of knowledge production, but it can be used and appropriated as a political act as well.

Notes on the exhibition

The project was developed jointly by the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, the Institut für Theorie der Gestaltung und Kunst Zürich and the D/O/C/K department at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig. Be Creative! was devised by two project groups in Zurich and Leipzig including designers from academic institutions and academic guests; it was shown in two different exhibition formats in Zurich and Leipzig. An accompanying brochure, published by the Edition Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, also exists as an insert in the publication “Norm der Abweichung” [Norm of Deviation (edited by Marion von Osten) in Edition Voldemeer /Springer Verlag/publishers.
Team Zurich: curator: Marion von Osten, Zurich/Berlin; co-curator: Peter Spillmann, Zurich; research fellow: Tom Holert, Cologne, Ulrich Bröckling, Freiburg i. Breisgau; exhibition project team: Regula Bearth, Zürich; Ursula Bosshard, Zürich; Caro Cerbaro, Zürich; Thomas Comiotto, Zürich; Sabine Falk, Hamburg; Anna Valentina Francia, Leipzig; Monika Gold, Zürich; Stefanie Habluetzel, Zürich; Linda Herzog, Zürich; Tom Holert, Köln; pro qm (Jesko Fezer, Axel John Wieder, Katja Reichard), Berlin; Irene Ledermann, Zürich, Renate Menzi, Zürich; Felix Reidenbach, Hamburg; Dominik Roost, Zürich; Simone Rüssli, Basel; Teresa Salerno, Zürich, Kilian Schellbach, Leipzig; Peter Spillmann, Zürich; Mladen Stilinovic, Zagreb; Marion von Osten, Zürich/Berlin; Monika Wisniewska, Zürich; Carey Young, London; scenography: Peter Spillmann / Marion von Osten; Zurich, architecture: This Dormann; graphics: version / labork3000, Zurich ; curatorium HGB Leipzig: Prof. Beatrice von Bismarck / Alexander Koch for the /D/O/C/K Project, HGB Leipzig