Now is always different

October 2014

Five years of experimentation have passed through the minds and bodies of more than 400 people – including non-violent-communication experts, vegan cooks, composers, lawyers, philosophers, social scientists, astrophysicists, architects, poets, parkour and slacklining specialists, choreographers, artists, a deer imitator, a kung-fu master, and a politician. All came to the Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments) and made their mark as participants, teachers, friends. They became the Institut für Raumexperimente – ifrex in daily use – by charting out a path of questioning and learning that remained permanently under construction. The institute stayed, by design, a model of education in the making. No conclusive model ever arrived – we never wanted it to. From 2009 to 2014 the Institute was based one storey above my studio in Berlin, but it went its own way. It was a cacophony of voices and encounters – and still is. The activities remain accessible at, an archival resource that we have made public to allow the accumulated thoughts and actions to move (us and you) into the future.

Generosity and inclusion were ideals for defining the modes of interaction at ifrex, ideals that I generally consider essential in art. Whereas other parts of reality often grapple with these terms, art inspires trust and accepts differences – of opinion, of expression. At the Institute, we wanted to stay open, to welcome the space that ideas, artworks, and people occupy; the demands on our time, attention, and senses that they make. We insisted that any new encounter, whether anticipated or unexpected, was potentially relevant and artistically valuable. We felt certain that embracing uncertainty was crucial to bringing critical material and thoughts to the table.

‘Contact is content’ is a phrase I recently picked up from the eco-theorist Timothy Morton. Touching something or someone is where content emerges – touching the ground, touching the city, touching another person. An artwork’s potential lies not only in the object or in the concept; rather, it is located in the nature of the touch between object, people, and world. A fundamental skill to develop is our ability to understand the relationship between idea and action, thing and world; this is true of arts education and of life. It is about realising that there is no outside. We are all, inevitably, in the world, caught up in networks, entangled.

Producing art, working creatively, connects debates about personal and social values with (physical) forms. It is a form of doing. To make a sculpture, to walk in slow motion, to choreograph movement or to design a building is to shape reality. It means gradually giving ideas and values a body, giving them space – letting them space. It is a process of embodiment.

And embodiment – alongside reality production, inclusion, and trust – was one of the ideas guiding our work at the Institute. Such ideas accompanied us on packed three-day marathons, urban walks, and trips to Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Iceland, and China, and also while we were planning exhibitions and sculpting each semester with Eric Ellingsen and Christina Werner, the brilliant co-directors of the Institute, and me.

I encouraged the participants to ask themselves the most basic question: why? It may not be a question that can be answered in language, but I think there’s a tendency to overlook the why of art making and the individual choices that it involves. I see why as the glue between the artwork and the world. It is what gives the artwork its status as a reality-producing machine; it highlights the agency of art in its various contexts. Most art schools teach as if creativity were about choosing between two colours or two materials, but to be creative is to see the consequences that the choice of colour or material has on and in the world. The people who became the Institut für Raumexperimente were bound by a shared interest in the consequences of their artistic choices, in how creativity co-creates the world. We worked with the various systems of art, with how artistic ideas circulate, and what the contexts for making art are. Since these contexts are intimately connected with the artwork, they become part of it.

To expand our understanding of context, we organised a variety of events and experiments that took place on the actual street, in the city of Berlin, and at different locations around the world. The longest, most sustained excursion was our two-and-a-half-month residency in Ethiopia in the autumn of 2012, generously hosted by the Alle School of Fine Art and Design at the Addis Ababa University.

Addis Ababa, to me, is as much about life and art as any other city we might have chosen to visit. It is a vibrant space for living and thinking, for being with others and making art. And it is a place that I was certain would inspire us to question assumptions about the everyday. Addis did, indeed, offer the means to reflect on and test the spatial and temporal dimensions of artworks, how they reach out into the world, how they unfold their social potential – that is, to reflect on and work with the performative qualities of artworks. In Ethiopia we did what we would otherwise do in Germany; we invited old peers and new friends and contributors to join us at our temporary home at the Alle School of Fine Arts and Design, hosted by its great team. Experiencing Addis was profound, but it was just as interesting to see Berlin from the perspective of being in Addis.

Whether in Berlin or Addis, society is a system constructed by us, its inhabitants; we all co-create it through use. Societies institute hierarchies, which create realities, but hierarchies are also negotiable. Reality is negotiable. In Addis, the former horse track, Jan Meda, became our test site for alternative encounters and models of knowledge production; in Berlin, the central field of Tempelhof, the old airport, became a meeting ground. The efforts made there, and throughout the five years of ifrex, linger on in the pages of our new book, titled TYT [Take Your Time], Vol. 6: Institut für Raumexperimente, 2009–2014; How to Make the Best Art School in the World.

Throughout the Institute’s life, I downplayed the feeling of institutional hierarchy. It would be a mistake to think that my own way of being creative is a model for others to adopt; each participant had to find his or her own Umsetzung, or way of implementing artistic ideas. We first referred to everyone at the Institute as ‘participants’, later as ‘practitioners’; everyone was already an artist. They were facing the same challenges that all artists encounter. The most important thing was for the participants to gain confidence in what they do. Having confidence and believing that most everything is possible is a powerful driving force. In education, it is far more productive to make this felt than to teach crafts, skills, or career management. Our main approach at ifrex, therefore, was to teach from the participant’s desires and to work on their behalf, not at their expense. This is why we derived the topics of our shared learning from individual projects rather than insisting on overarching themes. The curriculum was written at the end of each semester, if at all.

Creating confidence in the artists’ personal trajectories and in the process that leads from idea to artwork contrasts with the somewhat destructive focus on criticism adopted by many art schools, and apparent in their selection processes, represented by the ‘crit’ situation. Being disconnected from this machinery gave us a more positive, unpredictable perspective. I think some of the practitioners may have found me soft. At times I would feel that they were asking for direction, for a ‘This is great!’ or ‘This will never work!’ My effort lay rather in getting to the origin of the question they were asking, focusing on where the question was coming from. Supporting the participants in developing their own view on why, and then how, was more important to me than giving opinions about the results of their artistic inquiries – the artworks.

Teaching at art schools should aim at enabling the participants to feel confident and inspired by the negotiability and instability of reality, comfortable with the fact that the world is full of risks and not predictable. When you accept that everything can change, it makes you incredibly strong as an artist; it is hard work because every time you do something, you have to reinvent the system and principles according to which you work. You have to reconfigure the present. There’s no resort to formalism; there’s no repeating successes. Being an artist means embracing relativity and uncertainty while maintaining precision.

I was lucky to work with an inspired – and inspiring – team. Christina and Eric trusted the potential of taking one day at a time; they trusted the quality that emerges from accepting both programmed and unexpected encounters while staying attuned to the subtleties of artistic creation. And the team working with Eric and Christina shared the responsibility for developing the programme with them and with the Institute participants. Education was produced, not consumed.

Thank you to everyone for joining this uncertain journey.

Olafur Eliasson