The reason for doing anything connected to contemporary art for myself is that contemporary art is an incredible form of understanding. Like nothing else it can help us grapple with existence today, what it means to be a human being in the world the way it functions and looks right now. This experience of contemporary art is something that I want as many people as possible to have access to. But it is not easy to do this wholesale, on a macro level, as it is not about converting big masses. At best, it starts with individual encounters with artworks, one at a time, although it can be several individuals in the same room doing it together, rather than a massive group at an arena, who can absorb and digest something over time. The music and sports classes offered to all school children in Sweden in the 60s and 70s were the primary reason why the Swedish so-called “music wonder” came about, with The Cardigans, Robin and others, as well as the “sport wonder” with Björn Borg, Ingmar Stenmark, etc. Therefore, the term ”constituency” is more appropriate than ”community”, which I generally avoid as it easily slips into essentialism and other simplifications.
Everything we did at Tensta konsthall was art-centric. From the outside, at first glance, it might look like some projects were implemented as “outreach programs”, but mostly they were not planned in that way. They began as artworks and carte blanche invitations to artists. For instance, Ahmet Ögut’s Silent University happened at first as a part of a group show called “Tensta Museum: Reports from New Sweden”. The artist, who is based in Istanbul, Amsterdam and Berlin, had initiated The Silent University a year before in London in a collaboration with Tate Modern, The Showroom and Delfina Studios as an independent educational platform. This platform is making it possible for people whose legal status does not allow them to practice their education and competence to do so without them having the right papers. Most of them are migrants without the right papers. Then The Silent University reached other cities across Europe and beyond, even Amman in Jordan. We invited Ahmet with The Silent University to Tensta konsthall. After a short period of time the receptionist of the konsthall, Fahyma Alnablsi, who came to Tensta in the early 90s from Damascus as a trained teacher but could never get a job as a teacher in Sweden, proposed that The Silent University at Tensta konsthall should take a form of a language cafe. That was a way of activating her competence in a fruitful way, but also for others to share their knowledge of languages.
The language cafe, where people can learn and practice Swedish and Arabic, has been running since 2013, with Fahyma at the helm. First it was once a week, and then people started to ask for more and it became twice a week. We soon added monthly excursions to cultural institutions around the city, to practice a different vocabulary and to explore our common city together. Native speakers of Arabic and Swedish come as volunteers to help others learn. The learning is very much conversation-based. The participants have changed over the years, with some elderly people who have often spent several decades in Sweden hanging on and a changing group of younger people who are mostly newly arrived migrants, many of whom have come in the boats across the Mediterranean. You might wonder how they find out about the language café? Well, it is word by mouth, through Fahyma’s extensive network of contacts. It might look like something that we initiated in order to reach out to a particular group of people, but in fact, to a high degree the art project has evolved according to its own logic.
Most of the things that happened during my time at Tensta konsthall started in a similar way. In other words, something within or with the artwork lent itself to involving different groups of people. This occured with numerous projects, including Petra Bauer’s long-term collaboration with the self-organised Women’s Center in the neighborhood, which now goes on under the name of “k.ö.k.”, or Women Desire Collectivity. This being said, it is crucial that the activities of the konsthall also included things like straightforward solo exhibitions with discreet art objects such as for example the exhibition by Iman Issa, the retrospective with the queer feminist New York-based collective LTTR, a commission by Ingela Ihrman which ended up being a huge suspended sculpture in the form of the invasive plant “giant hogweed”, and a presentation of Anton Vidokle’s film trilogy around Cosmism. Also important is that we organised art events in the neighborhood, not only staying within our own premises, for example collaborating with the shop owners in the modest shopping mall above the konsthall showing art works in their shops, and inviting artists to display works and do workshops in local schools.
It is essential to know that the team of the konsthall is small but dedicated and energetic, and they were the ones realising most of this, based on many daily contacts with all kinds of people living and working in the area. Because, as you can imagine, when you get to know a lot of people and when they become curious, they start to return to the konsthall. It became somewhat of a meeting place, in its non-spectacular premises in a former storage space. Of course, not for everyone in the neighborhood, around 20 000 people are living in this suburb built in the late 1960s, located about 20 minutes on the subway from the city center. Nevertheless, quite a number of people started to come on a regular basis to participate in the language cafe, and other activities. After that we started what we called “the Women’s Cafe”, where primarily middle-aged and elderly women came to work with textile and craft, often connected to the exhibitions and other projects we had. We collaborated with different organizations where people specialized in weaving, knitting or embroidery gave workshops. Again, it was an organic development, where it was less about reaching out to those people, and more about meaningful activities with a connection to art and craft. A key decision was to allow various groups to use the premises of the konsthall for their own activities, like the meeting of an activist group, homework assistance, the yearly assembly of a local association or a team gathering of the local city administration. This meant that every day a different group would be present at the konsthall, doing whatever they were doing, next to art, either literally in the exhibition space where we put up tables and chairs or in a room called “the classroom” furnished for such events. This could be happening next to a solo show with Naeem Mohaiemen, an installation by Leonor Antunes or a retrospective with Goldin+Senneby. I call this “the proximity principle”: people are spending time in close proximity to art without necessarily engaging directly and intensively with it. Almost like with osmosis something happens then. We always offered brief introductions to current art projects to these groups but we avoided “throwing” art at them. At the core lies the question: how do we “massage” contemporary art, and the encounter between it and people, in such a way that we can retain the integrity of both the art and the visitors as well as collaborators-partners?