Repairing the Social Bond: An Interview with Joshua Schwebel

by Cristina Ramos // Mar. 31, 2023

This article is part of our feature topic Money.

Joshua Schwebel exposes the inner workings of contemporary art through installations, interventions and video. Often departing from exchanges with people involved in facilitating work—from museum directors to an art space’s landlord, in the case of his work ‘Solvent’ (2019)—Schwebel reflects on the nature of a structure that is both precarious and exploitative.

Moving away from typical strategies of institutional critique, his practice offers vantage points to reimagine the cultural politics of financialization, as well as pathways beyond it. Schwebel often unveils and reconfigures the performative role-playing of art agents, such as in the work ‘From the Aesthetics of Administration,’ wherein the artist invited employees of the Berlin Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa to make their own artworks reflecting on their relationship to art and arts funding. We spoke with Schwebel about the challenges of neoliberal artistic structures and the effective tactics that he carries within his practice.

Joshua Schwebel: ‘Solvent,’ still from the video ‘There Are Places on Earth,’ 2019 // Courtesy the artist, Or Gallery, Vancouver

Cristina Ramos: The often opaque dimensions of art financialization tend to evade analyses about the topic. However, your practice positions money and invisible labour straight in view. What triggered you in the first place to work with these dynamics?

Joshua Schwebel: I think that the financialization of art is naturalized to the extent that it is not considered artistically interesting. Art in Berlin depends on a close coupling with capitalist structures and with capitalist logics. The weakness of the public funding system, and the acceptance of a culture of austerity has effectively instituted the current precarity and marginalization of not-for-profit cultural organizations and aspiring or working artists without a financial safety net. The majority of artists and cultural workers do not have any financial independence, and without that, it is difficult to choose how and what to work on. Inversely, there is such a great valorization and visibility given to cultural actors and institutions that strategically use the tools of capitalism to their advantage. These complicities have made it difficult to propose a head-on challenge to financialization in art.

I feel like I am working at a time when commercial success has merged with cultural value in a way that makes no sense to me. I believe in art having a value independent of the market. I make work for people who are interested in wealth redistribution and critical exchange. I want to participate in a cultural community of openness, non-authoritarianism and trust. I want to think through how to achieve these goals, and my work is for people who want to have this discussion and can contribute to concrete methods towards achieving this cultural community.

My political concern with the erosion of critical resistance to financial capitalism within the artistic community has caused me to be interested in these issues. So my practice looks at, and attempts to improve its own infrastructures and supports. I am interested in context, expectations and preconditions. Many of these happen to be financial.

Joshua Schwebel: ‘Subsidy,’ 2015 // Photo by Sandy Volz, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin

CR: In this sense, it’s very relevant to bring back your work ‘Subsidy’ (Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2016) where you redirect the exhibition budget to the unpaid interns who were laboring during your residency. I find it very interesting that the first response from the institution director (as mentioned in your interview with François Lemieux) was to consider the proposal emptied of artistic value. To what extent do you think political art is often misunderstood, and how does it get confused with other types of artistic practices?

JS: My work begins from a reflection on its situation and the institutional factors or power structures that condition its particular reception. The material manifestation arrives much more slowly and is not autonomous from these concerns. My sense is that the current primacy of the market has a great influence on the parameters of value here. Because my work does not generate saleable objects, it is of little attraction or use to these structures.

The misunderstanding between myself and the director of the KB had to do with this fundamental disagreement of where artistic value is. He wanted to see the budget go towards the production of objects, whereas I saw a pre-existing deficit—both ethical and financial—lodged within the infrastructure of the residency. For him, there was no art in a transaction that did not generate a material product, whereas, for me, there could be no art within a fundamentally exploitative context. So I made it my artwork to point to, and attempt to reorient the conditions of value of cultural work within the structure.

Joshua Schwebel: ‘Towards an Aesthetic of Administration,’ 2017 // Photo by Ute Klein, copyright Centrum Project Space, Berlin

CR: What is the role of participation and redistribution in your work?

JS: Redistribution, whether enacted or not, points to an already-existing distribution of money, labor, materials etc. that precedes my proposed redistribution. Whether or not this redistribution takes effect, it prompts a response from the institutional representatives addressed by the proposal, often defending the current distribution of the resources in question. This defense shows not only the underlying political, ethical and institutional priorities, it also shows the people who are choosing in the decision to deny my proposal to uphold these values. These decisions are very important aspects of my work, because they position institutional actors within the ongoing reproduction of our current political structures. Too often we consider an anonymous block of institutional authority. But the institution is made up of small decisions to reproduce the everyday, decisions taken against risk, against instability. Moreover, in these moments, these are decisions taken against art. And when I am dealing with an art institution—a space that declares its reason for existing to be in support of art—these decision-making moments are decisively revealing.

Similarly, I use delegation as a way of examining the ambivalent interpassivity of institutional representation that I was describing above. To be more specific, I use my role as an artist to designate, or to consider, institutional positions within the art institutions as performances. Working for an art institution is always already a performance in which one assumes the interests of the institution and enacts certain protocols. Through delegating activities that fulfill my artistic concerns to the administrators of the institution hosting my work, I foist into visibility underlying conflicts of interest between the art institution and the artwork. These are presumed to be identical, but actually differ quite often, especially given the frequency with which art institutions internalize the methods and values of financialization, as for example regarding questions of philanthropy, labor, publicity or hierarchy.

Joshua Schwebel: ‘The Tenant,’ 2021 // Photo by Paul Litherland, CLARK gallery, Montreal

CR: If we see art already entangled with capitalism in a process of continuation and evolution, how can artistic practice develop new modes of autonomy and resistance without reproducing its malady?

JS: As I sketched out above, we are compliant with capitalism because of the systemic structures that unfairly distribute wealth. In order to achieve some level of critical autonomy we need to bolster the already-existing and ongoing artistic-political organizing that demands increased, ongoing public funding and the horizontal distribution of resources. This could mean getting involved with the BBK to lobby for more public funding and for fair and transparent distribution of funding, and to demand greater and sustainable support to the subsidized studio program. The BBK is staunchly committed to publicly-accessible infrastructure for artists, and is a structure that is incredibly inspiring to me.

With each invitation, the challenge I set for myself is to generate an interesting artistic proposal: that the work should reflect the complicities of the particular artistic structure with capitalist imperatives without reproducing other hierarchies and values of capitalism within the work and within the working context. This is very difficult because of how pervasively the aforementioned incorporation of capitalist values resides within all aspects of the process of producing art. Especially, how these pre-conditions concatenate through institutional structures, and within the relations between institutions and artists, and even the relationship artists have to their own authorship and subjectivity as a career or a resource to be exploited.

I have realized that in order to not disappoint myself in this work, I need to work very slowly. I need to understand, for myself, what is at stake in each new invitation. Who are the commissioning partners? Who are my community? What is the discursive terrain? And what are the support structures? How transparent is the institution about its complicities with financial capitalism? I certainly don’t have a prescriptive answer. This is just what is important to me, and what keeps me connected to my work.

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