Over the past few years, I’ve been increasingly frustrated when people ask me what I do for a living, as I’ve lacked a title, a narrative to make sense of what I do. So, I’ve decided to do something that I’m not entirely comfortable doing. I’m going to declare something. I’m going to define my position:
I am an artist.
Declaring myself as an artist is very liberating, because nobody really knows what it means. Just like nobody seems to know what art is anymore. We tend to only recognise art once it’s been approved by experts, curated and included in a museum exhibit somewhere. But art is not defined by institutions that approve it. Nor is it not limited to what you can put in a museum, hang in a gallery or find in a library.
Art is the experience that it invokes. The imagination that it releases. The possibilities that it opens.
Art allows us to see the world anew. It creates experiences that don’t fit with our existing worldview. Art is when you least expect it. It is when you think you know what it is about, only to realise that it is something else entirely.
Art makes us reconsider the things that we have come to take for granted. It shows us the world from perspectives that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Art rips open the frictionless world that we inhabit and shows us the seams. It turns seamless into seamfull. It traces all the dirty interconnections of the systems of which we are part.
Art turns us into beginners again. It gives us that beginner’s mind where everything is possible. It opens up spaces where we can experiment and reach our own conclusions. It frees our imagination to dream of how things can be different.
Art creates the tools for change and leaves it up to each of us to decide when and how to use them. Art builds on the fundamental truth that people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.
Art doesn’t force change. It merely makes change possible. It allows us to act, learn and change for own sake, in our own time. It allows us to change our understanding of what’s possible through the act of doing it ourselves. It allows us to realise new possibilities by exploring them.
For instance, realising the amount of food that is available for free by going out dumpster diving. Or realising that other kinds of communal decisionmaking are possible by participating in a consensus democratic process. Or realising that other ways of understanding reality are possible by dropping acid. Or realising the interconnectedness of all the things we depend on to produce our food by volunteering on an organic farm. Such experiences are usually not recognised as art. But in fact, they are the most profound opportunities for change.
As an artist, I work to create such opportunities for change by disturbing the expected.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around how what I do can be conceived of as art. I think a big part of it is the fact that my work doesn’t really seem to fit neatly in the usual boxes and categories. Not a writer. Not an academic. Not a consultant. Not an activist. Not a teacher. But something more and in-between.
I am what Frances Whitehead calls ‘a professional dot-connector.’ A trickster living in the interstitial spaces between disciplines, sectors and organisations. A cross-pollinator of ideas who traces the patterns in the overwhelmingly complex systems of which we are part. A clown working to create disturbances and surprises — not to shock, but to challenge each of us to think for ourselves.
This sounds awfully grand, and that is a big part of why I don’t feel comfortable claiming this position. But when I consider the projects that I’ve been part of over the past 4 years, I see them very much as artistic projects in the sense that I’ve described here (even if I haven’t been very conscious of their artistic qualities before):
Borgerlyst is laboratory that creates small disturbances, questions, unexpected directions in our conversations about society and democracy. We work to point out patterns in the everyday systems of Danish society that we inhabit and challenge others to consider their implications.
For instance, through the conversation salons, we create a setting where different, deeper conversations are not only allowed but actively encouraged, pushing participants to reconsider the kind of conversations that you can have with strangers, and how.
Similarly, with our SMS campaign Folkets Valg (“The People’s Choice”) that focused on the underlying and unspoken premises that all politicians appeared to take for granted when designing their policies on. Every day during the election campaign we asked questions that challenged these assumptions and invited people to reconsider them: What do you take for granted? Which possibilities have you ruled out?
Our book project Borgerlyst — handlekraft i hverdagen is an attempt to bring together the tools and ideas that we’ve found over the past 3 years in one coherent whole. No preaching, just a humble handbook about how each of us can act and get engaged in our everyday lives.
Københavns Fødevarefællesskab is another project that generates an neverending stream of everyday disturbances. As I’ve described elsewhere, it challenges people to consider some of the things they have come to take for granted about how organisations work, about how we buy our food, about how we make decisions as a group, about what kind of future we want to live in. It is a school for everyone involved, because we don’t know how to do what we want to do. The only way is to do it ourselves. We can only try and learn.
My writings, especially the essay Choosing Restraint, has built on these themes as well, challenging the way we usually see the world, and reaching some (hopefully) unexpected conclusions. I hope to write more in a similar vein soon.
I guess we are all looking for a pattern in what we do. A pattern that connects us to everything else in a meaningful way. As I’ve been looking for my pattern, I have found this. But it doesn’t end here. This is not even an answer to the question “so what do you do?” It is just another starting-off point. Another beginning. Another question.
Rainer Marie Rilke advised a young poet: Don’t seek the answers, live the questions.
That’s what I intend to do.