Doing More with Less

By Geoffrey Wildanger, 4 August 2014
Image: All images: Installation overview, New Habits, Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, Utrecht, 2014, photography: Niels Moolenaar

Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory’s first exhibition in a new building, New Habits, raises crucial questions for Geoffrey Wildanger: what has to happen when one has to do more with less? What, or where, are the 'commons' in austerity Europe?



The exhibition begins with the building, it is the first exhibition in the building to which Casco recently moved. Near the city centre with its canals, the building, a traditional brick building with a lightly modernised (white walls, grey painted floor) interior, is accessed via a courtyard in which grows the oldest tree in Utrecht. The exhibition thematises the rich history of the site of the current building. From 1412-1602 the site held a Franciscan monestary (the cellar of the current building is the only part of the monastery that survives). From 1396-1412 Utrecht was home to Third Order Franciscan nuns, that is nuns who do not necessarily wear the habit or live in the monastery, but still live, in part, in common and participate in acts of religious devotion. In 1412 the Third Order nuns moved into the monastery, wearing the habit, living celibate lives of devotion, until it was destroyed during the reformation when it, along with other Catholic institutions in the Netherlands, were done away with.1


New Habits was curated by Casco's director Binna Choi, with the contribution of curators Jason Waite and Sanne Oorthuizen. The curators, explore the history of the site of Casco’s new building, and tie it together with a larger history of Franciscan monasticism, into debates in the contemporary art world via Giorgio Agamben’s recent book, The Highest Poverty, an investigation and theorisation of Franciscan practice, as well as by relating it to contemporary feminist debates around 'the Commons', and, finally, Italo Calvino’s novel, The Baron in the Trees. Calvino’s novel recounts the story of the young duke Cosimo Piovasco who leaves his life of nobility to live in the trees of his village, never again descending quite to the ground, carrying on a wide variety of adventures defending the village people told in a way reminiscent of the picaresque. This novel, presented in the form of an audio book, opens the show, as one may listen to it on headphones positioned such that one stands, looking out a window, onto one of the oldest trees in Utrecht.




The show is divided into five chapters. While the audio book technically opens Chapter 1, one can hardly help but feel it in fact creates a framework for the show as a whole. It establishes a relation between the story of Cosimo, traitor to his class and devoted to the peasants above whom he lives, and the history of the site with its old tree. From there one enters the first room, but not before leaving one’s shoes behind to don wooden sandals, Christian Nyampeta, Prototype (sandals) (2014), that on the clean, painted floor of Casco feel a bit precarious. I almost tripped twice – though, having seen the show both with and without the sandals, the latter seemed a richer experience. Chapter One is dominated by several video pieces: Jinsuk Kim’s Life on the Crane (2011) documenting the activist’s year living high on a crane to protest the layoff of shipyard workers; Andrea Büttner’s Little Works (2007) and Little Sisters: Lunapark Ostia (2012), the first made with footage filmed by nuns in a monestary at Büttner’s request as they prepare various crafts and the second being a conversation with two contemporary Franciscans. Büttner also contributes two large woodcuts which, along with two further pieces by Nyampeta and Frederico Rosselini’s Francesco giullare de Dio / The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), round out the room. The high ratio of video to objects continues throughout the show, which also features fine installations of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A (1966), Andrea Fraser’s Projection (2008), and five films of various lengths by Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri (one from 2012 and four from 2014). As may be clear from the various works mentioned, the two threads the curators pull from their foundation, that is the history of the building, are the habit (both as clothing, as form of life, and, reluctantly, as habitus) and various versions of commons, cooperation, and ‘commoning.’ Each chapter helpfully sets out new aspects of this development. Chapter Two displaying documentation from a performance made with the children of the former employees of a cooperative textile enterprise now relocated to Germany. Chapter Three containing Fraser’s piece, an internet piece by Natascha Sadr Haghighian (, and Tehching Hsieh’s Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999 – his poster declaring that for those thirteen years he would make art but not display it. Chapter Four contains a poem written by Sung Hwan Kim and music by dogr (aka David Micheal DiGregorio) that stands as a continuation of a private two-week workshop, and the aforementioned Anastas and Gabri pieces. Finally, Chapter Five exists in Casco’s office, where they hold workshops, have installed a number of ferns, and have opened up a previously hidden door between their office and a studio next door. The five chapters thus draw a rather crooked line between the medieval, through the ’60s, to the Tunisian revolution, and ending with the possible futures of the institution. The pieces chosen largely reflect a great amount of consideration by the curators, and this show confirms that they intend to continue to install compelling contemporary work and host talks and workshops at the intersections of leftist, feminist, art world, and academic theory.



What I keep on bumping up against in this is just what the commons might mean? For example, blue is thematised throughout the show. In Büttner’s fabulous Little Sisters one nun talks about the Franciscans’ blue habits as the colour both of the Virgin Mary and of workers’ clothes. Chapter Two which contains the documentation of the performance/workshop for the children from the former textile dying cooperative only puts on display coveralls dyed various shades of blue during the workshop (many colours were used in fact), and photos are in black and white. Blue was once the most expensive colour, but through developments of industrial dying it is now a sort of commons. The ubiquity of blue jeans can mask a variety of social antagonisms, making economic class illegible. Blue jeans have become a sort of commons and they have likewise become neutral.


Commoning is not always neutral. Abolishing private property and holding all things in the world in commons would presumably be adversarial to capitalism. That commons refers both to the neutral and the radical may explain why it has so quickly become a rather fashionable discourse. Rather than use this space to make launch a polemic for or against commonism, I would like to look at the specific way this show thinks about the commons.



While being quite historically conscious, the show attempts to make a very punctual intervention into an art world habitus. This habitus may be thought of as the ideology of the major museum/major commercial gallery/auction house triumvirate. This is the ideology of vast shows with lots of work that are only up briefly. For the defenders of this position, the most important site in which shows circulates are the (mostly internet based) ‘commons’ of e-flux, art magazines, and blogs. This ideology doesn’t need people to attend the museum so much (though it still wants the type of attendance that encourages donors), but rather wants images of its works and installations to circulate as much as possible. The Casco exhibition sets out rather different stakes. By putting such an emphasis on durational works like video pieces, the audiobook, and the ongoing public workshop, the exhibition encourages not just attendance but also attending multiple times. This feeling is emphasised by how effectively the show is installed in the space. The peaceful courtyard in Utrecht’s already quiet city centre feels like it flows into the office (i.e. Chapter 5) in which various ferns have been planted. One wonders whether there is a sort of meditative or prayerful attitude to the type of attention one can pay to the durational pieces. At the same time, a certain type of austerity marks the show throughout. Cosimo, like Francis, leaves his title and wealth to live an austere life. The Franciscan order demands identification with common people. Anastas’ and Gabri’s video pieces and text drawings explicitly raise the question of austerity with their meditations on the Tunisian revolution.



The Tunisian revolution, along with the various movements of the squares, proposed particular ways of thinking about commoning. These movements were to varying extents directly antagonistic to capital, to austerity, as well as to continuing US foreign policy hegemony as expressed by authoritarian regimes in near eastern and North African states. Of course not everyone talked about the commons. Nor did they talk about the weather. Still these movements conducted a real process of building common forms of life that were visible in tent cities, occupied buildings and ports, and communal kitchens and trauma centers. This is only one form of the commons, however. One cannot think about the commons now and not also reflect on the austerity politics of the US and EU. Whether one thinks that austerity is the expression of a systemic crisis of profitability, or a neoliberal project, either way young people not just in the global south are increasingly being told to do more with less. Those of us with degrees – we ‘graduates without a future’ – enter a job market for which we are over-qualified yet still unable to find employment, or we find jobs that barely afford us to pay our student loans. Numerous forms of life seem to be developing out of this. For instance, the much remarked upon unwillingness to marry or even enter into long term relationships that is demonstrated in the demand for services like OKCupid and Tinder appears to confirm the supposition that marriage is something people do when they can afford to do. Likewise, fewer of us live alone, rather, living with roommates deeper into our twenties and thirties or returning to live with our parents. This, too, creates forms of life with economies based around car or ride sharing, recycling furniture, cooperative housing. While I do not wish to claim that any of these things are merely neutral or even bad for us – sharing is a good thing – it seems worth trying to disentangle where we have the opportunities to make the commons into a vibrant intervention and where the commons is a necessary response to the hostile politics of austerity. For when one is not attentive to the forms of rhetoric that the commons can take, one can fall for the sorts of policies David Cameron paints as the ‘big society.’ Of course, we all want a world where we care for each other. But we can never let that desire become a means to accept sacrifices for the benefit of capital and the state. It is rather from capital and the state that we should take everything.


Somewhat explicitly with the Anastas and Gabri pieces, as well as more implicitly with pieces that dwell on habitus like Rainer and Fraser, the show opens up the possibilities for various ways of thinking about the commons. No single way is foreclosed, however. The viewer is left slightly unsure about the relation of the commons to secularism and religion, to militancy, and to feminism. The commons here are always held in flux. It is left to the viewer to draw her own (tentative) conclusions.




Geoffrey Wildanger is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Recent work can be found in Transmission Annual and Industrial Lunch. He currently lives in Berlin



New Habits was held 1 May-13 July, 2014 at Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht




1These historical data were compiled by a researcher at Casco. I am referencing them from correspondence with Jason Waite.