Lab Project

Haduwa Apata

Barbara Putz-Plecko

We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.*


It is incumbent on academic institutions and art schools to recognize their social mission, to make themselves aware of current and future issues and challenges that have social relevance, to address these actively and, accordingly, to develop appropriate formats for the conduct of study and research. This requires both a critical practice (one that also reflects the conditions surrounding one’s endeavors, the interests that motivate them, and their consequences) and a general framework that favors new movements and encounters and permits the creation of open, experimental spaces. As a consequence, attention is also focused on (institutional) infrastructures, which must constantly be reconsidered, called into question, adapted or renewed.

It has long since become clear – and not only as a result of the dramatic developments in the Near East and this last year’s mass movements of refugees – that we must not only realize that we are living in a world for which we all bear responsibility, but also that this realization must be followed, on the large scale and the small, by adequate actions.

In his book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, the American sociologist Richard Sennett describes cooperation as one of the most essential and necessary abilities one can possess, virtually as a “craft” that will determine our future. For how, he asks, can people who differ fundamentally with regard to their experience of the world, their relation to the world, and their idea of what is self-evident live together and cooperate with each other – in a world that is characterized by competition and inequality more than ever – in order to accomplish something, to preserve something, to alter or to renew something? How else but in a collective spirit can we sensibly meet the challenges of the present and the future? The ability to act together appropriately, however, entails certain prerequisites: taking an interest in each other, learning to communicate with each other, relating to each other both in thought and in deed, sharing knowledge, being able to correlate different perspectives constructively, collective decision-making through negotiation, acknowledging multiple meanings, contraries and differences, measuring one’s actions according to criteria other than mere personal interest, and, not least, the ability to reflect critically on the ways in which one goes about one’s work.

Aside from dialectical forms of communication – the ultimate aim of which is to open the way towards finding a synthesis and, especially, to develop the practice of communicative dialogue – Sennett sees an open-ended exchange of intentions and experience as essential, which eventually makes deeper mutual understanding possible. 

Providing cooperative impetus, writes Sennett, must be the order of the day. Changes of perspective, flexibility of points of view, constructive ways of dealing with ambiguousness – all of this absolutely must be encouraged and supported so that our ability to cooperate is neither further repressed by institutional structures (and here Sennett refers to – among other things – analyses done by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum in The Quality of Life, 1993) nor further undermined by the existing social order (cf. Sennett, 2012, p. 374).

His plea for dialogue-based, collaborative practices – which harbors expectation that such practices will allow new ways to coexist to emerge – is very much in line with current processes of transformation in the arts and sciences in regard to disciplines being opened up and boundaries being crossed. It has long since become clear that the unrelenting specialization of the sciences and their fragmentation into increasingly narrow areas of concentration is a development that frustrates efforts to deal constructively with the major, urgent problems of daily life. The boundaries between science, art and society must become more permeable, and research processes must be geared toward addressing issues that have relevance to our everyday lives and incorporating non-scientific forms of knowledge. Complex problems can in most cases be better understood and more effectively dealt with in cross-disciplinary processes, that is, in integrative research processes: boundaries between disciplines are crossed, heterogeneous research practices and forms of knowledge becoming closely intertwined; problems are defined from a cross-disciplinary perspective and solved independently of disciplinary bounds (cf. Mittelstraß, 1998, 44f.).  In order for this to take place, interaction through open and transparent dialogue among all persons involved is essential. The resultant process of mutual learning – a shared learning of the arts, the sciences and forms of practice – shapes cross-disciplinary collaboration and renders it fruitful. However, such collaboration also demands considerable presence on the part of everyone involved. What grows out of this – and what proves effectual – is knowledge that reflects social awareness, knowledge that has a particular potential to initiate development and innovation and to generate strategies for grappling with social issues.


In view of these observations, the university must set itself the task of opening up its institutional structures, breaking its institutional routines, and – by transcending institutional boundaries and boundaries between disciplines – enabling new synergies to be tapped. In concrete terms, this also requires – through modification of familiar frameworks, rules and habits – making room for the unforeseeable and creating the conditions necessary for experimentation in cooperative and collaborative processes, conditions for learning and investigation, in order to make it possible to redefine the space in which we act and coexist.                  


In the course of the last century, the cult of the artist as genius, that is, the dominance of the individual author as well as conventional aesthetic autonomy, were repeatedly called into question by various avant-garde movements and countered by the creation of production collectives. By the same token, one of the most significant accomplishments of the modern art movements was to blur the boundaries between disciplines. Forms of cooperation between the arts and the sciences (which give rise to various kinds of knowledge that are of equal importance) have been both a logical and a fruitful consequence of this evolution. Crossover projects involving different art forms, different artistic and scientific disciplines and a concern for practical relevance to our daily lives have become an obvious and important part of a contemporary practice of art and design. Even such a major exhibition as the 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice highlights their significance when, under the catchphrase launched by architect and curator Alejandro Aravena: “Reporting from the Front”, it approaches – from the most diverse angles – the question of how social responsibility, in a constant struggle against economic pressures, together with the design of more humane living spaces are to shape the environments in which we live, both now and in the future.


Due to the way in which the world is currently constituted, the position of the artist is being more radically redefined and is being considered more in its relation to social, economic and political structures and dynamics.


At a time of great uncertainty, in an unresolved contest of forces, collective practices could be a possible artistic response to the situation and could open up a space for forms of knowledge that could break the hold of conventions – cognitive, political and social (cf. Kester, 2011, p. 11). 


However, this also means constantly subjecting the group and the collective’s modus operandi to self-criticism – and also developing a mode of thought characterized by “intersection”, a transversal practice – one that transects existing axes and definitions.


Current political, social and economic developments make it perfectly clear: deconstructive thinking is needed in order for us to be able to break up the binary forms of logic and the binary structures that legitimate inequality and social exclusion. A kind of network thinking is also needed, a way of thinking in terms of différence that recognizes ambivalence, contradiction and contraries without immediately seeking to iron them out, a mode of thinking that does not require forced disambiguation of the multilayered and the complex. Both of these – deconstruction and thinking in terms of difference – and their interplay constitute an essential element of a transversal practice that can make new forms and concepts of our ability to act politically possible.


In the projects carried out by Baerbel Mueller in the form of [a]FA Labs, I was able to recognize all the above-mentioned fundamental characteristics of a contemporary practice that self-critically demands accountability and is able to consider, from different perspectives, the conditions, the network of interrelationships in which it is embedded, as well as the consequences that these imply. These characteristics are inscribed in the projects themselves. They constitute their foundation. They remain a reliable frame of reference – even in working conditions that are sometimes difficult due to exterior factors.


Thus, both multifariously and consistently, these projects give life to an aspiration – and to developmental dimensions that derive from that aspiration – of an art university today that sees contributing to social developments and to the identification of problems to be addressed as its mission – a mission that it takes seriously. Everyone involved in the projects deserves thanks for this.  


Richard Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Yale University Press, 2012)

Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, The Quality of Life (Oxford University Press, 1993)

Grant H. Kester, The One and The Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011)

Jürgen Mittelstraß, “Interdisziplinarität und Transdisziplinarität,” in Die Häuser des Wissens: Wissenschaftstheoretische Studien (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998)

* Slogan read on a T-shirt, Los Angeles, 2011

BARBARA PUTZ-PLECKO, artist, professor, and Deputy Rector of the University of Applied Arts Vienna, is also Head of the Institute of Art Sciences and Art Education, the Department of Art and Communication Practices, and the Textile Department. A focus of the last two is developing contextual, transdisciplinary, and transcultural art practices.