Renzo Martens, Institute for Human Activities

Renzo Martens: Institute for Human Activities

Yesterday afternoon, Renzo Martens held a short lecture at V2 about the Institute for Human Activities and the workflow behind the chocolate sculptures currently for sale in the pop-up store at V2. The basement quickly filled up with the Rotterdam art crowd.

With his current project, Martens questions the mandate of art in times where the art world is so connected to, and gets more dependent on the big corporations to get their shows made. With their sponsorship, critical art is shown in big exhibitions, biennales, documenta and the likes.

The Institute for Human Activities is set up as a gentrification program established in the Netherlands, Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The phenomenon of gentrification and its esteemed result – more wealth and improved labour conditions, is not coincidentally created mainly in the cultural centres of the world – near the big corporations. Martens mentions the example of artist Tino Seghal. Unilever provided sponsorship (Unilever – Tate series) for an artist who, through his work, is thinking critically about immaterial labor. Paradoxically enough, this same company exploits and underpays their workers in the plantations in Congo.

As artists we must be aware in what environment we create, what environment allows our position; no art is made outside of this stream of attachment in money that finance and/or sponsor big exhibitions and institutions. Those big, and often critical exhibitions speak about conditions elsewhere, but generate wealth in Kassel, Venice, London or Rotterdam; – not in places critically observed.

What do we do with the critiscism we generate? To not also problematize the conditions one is working under can perhaps never truly critical, despite Seghal being a brilliant and important artist.

Martens wants to take his responsability in this proces. He moved his artistic production directly to Congo, to work with the plantation workers; to collaboratively enrich a critical artistic product with feelings, emotions, and vision – just as Richard Florida has put it, functionalising himself within the neo-liberal model we all are currently working in.

The workers create selfportraits from river clay. The sculptures are put through a 3-d scanner and digitally exported to Belgium. Through a sponsorship with a cacao trader, Martens was able to make the work re-appear here: made from the very material plantation workers harvest everyday in raw form under the worst conditions, the cocoa bean. The sculptures are sold in the shop and the money flows back to the artists / workers. Exhibitions in Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels are coming up. The first check has been received with great enthousiasm.

Meanwhile, his settlement at the plantation is taking more and more shape. Some western artists have been working as resident artists already. Soon, it’s not unthinkable the first coffeeshop wil open to serve the best latte’s in the jungle – to visiting art critics.

If the Institute expands, as it already does, some workers will have to move – according to the laws of gentrification. Someday, if Unilever would agree to sponsor, the circle would be round. Until today they have not accepted his kind invitations.

As these plantation workers are not being able to live off their labor under rough conditions at the plantations – then at least they might be able to live off their artistic engagement with their labor at the plantations. The lecture left me with mixed feelings of shame, fear, admiration, and drinks at the bar. 

The popup shop of the Institute for Human Activities is open today at V2, Rotterdam