Council was founded in 2013 by Sandra Terdjman, who also co-founded the Kadist Art Foundation, and Grégory Castéra, a curator with a specialism in educational programmes and curatorial research, from a shared interest in how knowledge is produced within artistic practices. Based in Paris but working internationally, the team of four develops long-term research inquiries, produces exhibitions and events, and curates a fellowship programme. Each project has its own funding stream, and is supported by co-producers, but at present Council has no sustained core funding for its activities.
Mission: a new understanding of social issues
All arts organisations choose their names carefully; but for Council, says Grégory Castéra, the name is more than an identifier. “It’s really a description of our practice: we make assemblies, we make councils.” Council gather people with a specific mission: “To compose knowledge in order to give a better understanding of social issues. We insist on the word understanding because the more accurate a description of social issues, the more people feel concerned by it, and the less there is stereotypical, black-and-white division on it.”
“The more accurate a description of social issues, the more people feel concerned by it, and the less there is stereotypical, black-and-white division on it.”
So far, those issues have varied from the experience of deafness to climate change to the wording of a law affecting LGBTQ+ people. “The issues don’t belong to a territory; some are in many territories. Some are very small-scale, some very large-scale. So, we need to have an agility of changing scale, and moving: we are international but not in trying to have a global vision of everything, it’s more about trying to find the right scale for each issue.”
Castéra admits this can sound “a bit abstract”: but within Council’s work is the concrete activity of making, whether objects, exhibitions or writings. “We always need to improve our description of social issues, but description isn’t only words: it’s a matter of representation. This is where we need art, but also we need a composition, a relation between art, science and society. And by society I mean both the people standing for others – such as the activist – and the people who are daily affected by issues and have ordinary knowledge about it, who are sometimes not asked to take decisions about the thing that is directly connected to them.” Council aims to build up a network – “a web” – of people who are concerned around a chosen issue, and through that gathering create a change in representation, which might in turn create the conditions for a change in thinking or action.
A series of inquiries
Council’s mode of working was developed through its first research inquiry, Infinite Ear (initially called TACET), a response to an invitation from the Sharjah Biennale 11 in the United Arab Emirates to work with a school of deaf children. The project began with “a hypothesis: we gathered a deaf person, a sound artist and a researcher, all of whom could have similar concerns”. What emerged from that initial workshop was a new understanding: “Deaf people are hearing – they are hearing differently to the hearing ones, but they are hearing. So the idea of disability, the phantasm of silence, is wrong: instead there is a diversity of hearing, a whole spectrum.” From this recognition, Council began to work with the sound artist, Tarek Atoui, to create “a sound instrument, with deaf people taking part in every element of the conception”. And this open process resulted in an exhibition in an unoccupied swimming pool in Bergen, Norway, attended by some 4000 people, as well as rehearsals and concert performances using this bespoke instrument.
It was through this work that Council built a sense of its own identity: “We are a research organisation, but not only focused on research, because we try to produce works and have some public visibility. We like that the format of that production is a consequence of the research: so we don’t know what will come at the end, but we do know that we cannot work short-term, so we have to do a few projects parallel to each other.” While Infinite Ear continues to develop – Castéra hopes that all the research conducted so far might be used as the basis for “an institute, a permanent centre for this knowledge; something that is not a deaf centre or a music centre but in between” – Council has been developing two further inquiries:
1: The Against Nature Journal (initially called The Manufacturing of Rights)
Commissioned by a NGO of lawyers and an art centre in Beirut, this inquiry is concerned with “gender equality”, specifically “an article of law condemning ‘sexual intercourse against the order of nature’. This law exists in more than 50 countries in the world, and it’s the main law used to prosecute LGBTQ+ people.” The concern of the commission is to illustrate the nuance, or disparity, of its interpretation; that is, to demonstrate that there is no precise definition of what “against nature” constitutes, through a “philosophical discussion, where you bring in theology, anthropology, tradition, colonial history amongst other fields”.
“We like that the format of that production is a consequence of the research: so we don’t know what will come at the end, but we do know that we cannot work short-term, so we have to do a few projects parallel to each other.”
Again, the inquiry began with gathering “artists, NGO workers acting locally, and scholars working on similar issues, to talk about language and the invention of language”. From this, Council aims to support the making of “a journal to be distributed by hand to a group of a few hundreds of people across the world: religious leaders, judges, politicians”, which will also require “creating a network of diplomats and activists who can knock at their doors and give them the journal”. This journal will advocate a shift in language and “create discussion” where currently there is punishment and silence.
2: Measuring With a Bent Stick
Initiated as a dialogue with the COP21 climate change conference in Paris in 2015, this inquiry aims to think beyond the usual frame of environmental discussion, which Castéra describes as “fear of catastrophe, or hope to solve this crisis with engineering”, and instead talking about “how we might conceive humankind in 100, 150 years, and our relations to the boundaries between nature and culture”. The dialogue Council established for this inquiry, the “Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge” by Mobile Academy Berlin, brought together “75 experts from many fields, scientific and non-scientific”, each inhabiting a series of tables allowing people to move between their different conversations. Through this, Council “realised that the problem that was appearing in the conversation was the relation between scientific perspective, traditional knowledge and art”. From that, a film project has been devised, to commence in 2018, taking place in “different sites around the world where a scientific observatory is measuring the impact of climate change – and the local population are facing that impact”, with the film focusing on the dialogue between these people with “a shared concern”.
A series of fellowships
To further expand its activities beyond the frame of research, in 2014 Council began working with the Tsadik Foundation in Zurich to create an international fellowship for artists and cultural producers who initiate long-term social initiatives – a fellowship that, says Castéra, set out to question the relationship between “art projects and the notion of social efficiency used in philanthropy”.
Castéra admits that money is a major obstacle, and for the first three years of Council’s activities, “I was full time and almost unpaid”. He’s “not against public funding” but is aware that Council “doesn’t fit to any existing boxes of the French Ministry of Culture. The only solution is to find patrons and foundations, with all the complexity of that: you need to build a relationship with a person, it takes time.” He’s also aware that money creates a greater sense of accountability, and of “knowing what you will do” – whereas Council’s desire to innovate and invigorate the dialogue between these practices repeatedly puts it in a situation of “walking in the dark”.
The argument for new ways of thinking can be alienating, which is something Castéra frequently has to counteract: “I consider that what I do is a way to reinforce the fields of art, science and activism.” But Council also seeks to avoid the traps associated with each practice: “to look at science but not fall into the structure of institution, or look at politics but stay outside the internal conflict of politics, or look at art but beyond the relation to the market”.
“I consider that what I do is a way to reinforce the fields of art, science and activism.”
Ironically, given Council’s focus on communication, Castéra feels that the group needs to get better about communication around its own work, although by that he also means “building communities for every project, and using a social network as our space”. Sustainability is also a preoccupation: building relationships with funders to ensure “sustainability of all the projects”: a considerable task when each one is expected to last 5 to 10 years. This requires “diversification of the funding – because we don’t think public funding is a sustainable economy for us”.
The precarity of funding does limit Council at present: “we already have several commissions that are on hold”. In terms of social issues to move on to, however, there is no limit. Castéra particularly mentions “child pedagogy, refugees, influence, and care” as potential focuses of interest, and it will continue to be important to him that the organisation tries not to impose its existing knowledge or opinions on any of these subjects, but instead to develop further its “empiric approach” of listening to and working with those experiencing the problems of each topic first-hand.
Photograph: Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge, Musée de l’homme, Paris, 2015, ph. Alexis Vettoretti. Courtesy of Council.