The Slow Processes of MOBIUS
The Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Finnish Institute in London launched MOBIUS—a transatlantic fellowship program for visual arts professionals in New York, UK, Republic of Ireland and Finland—in early 2014. A publication looking back at the successful three-year pilot phase, and the yet to be defined future, of the program will be published in October 2017. The MOBIUS Manual is meant to act as a tool and inspiration for individuals and organizations interested in international partnerships and mobility. In the following article Ilari Laamanen, the Project Manager of FCINY and MOBIUS NYC, opens up the key ideas behind the transatlantic program and contemplates on the importance of collaboration and regrowth of visual arts organizations.
When visualizing the word mobius, the image of an infinity loop first comes to mind. Channeling the ethos of the fellowship program, we decided to call it MOBIUS to communicate the idea of a movement that is slow and steady, and long-lasting as well. The underlying agenda of the program is to create bonds and build partnerships that will continue long after the fellowship collaboration has ended. MOBIUS stresses the importance of working together across geographical and ideological frameworks. Current cultural climate cries for openness and curiosity, not another fixed, conservative structure.
The MOBIUS Manual brings together articles written by the organizers and participants of the MOBIUS Fellowship Program and presents selected projects that have been realized as part of the Program. Alongside reflecting on the Program’s pilot phase (2014–2016), the MOBIUS Manual looks towards the future, too. Like a living organism, a hybrid in nature, the MOBIUS Fellowship Program operates between individuals, organizations and disciplines, and aims to bring them together in meaningful ways. Instead of strictly predetermined working periods and end results, each MOBIUS Fellowship is customized to meet the interests and needs of both the participating fellow and their partnering organization. The MOBIUS Fellowship Program stretches temporality and aims to provide enough time for its participants.
Time is becoming a scarce resource in a culture where all things imaginable are measured, calculated and formulated. Following the logic of the artist, designer, or curator, and the way creative processes function in general, one needs enough time to come up with something relevant and new. Thus, instead of volume and spectacle, MOBIUS focuses on slow, open-ended processes. At the core of each fellowship is a thematic project that will be realized in collaboration with the fellow and their partnering organization. As the organizers of the program we instigate and support these processes and partnerships––but choose not to control them.
Working together requires flexibility and willingness to remain open for surprising, and perhaps unorthodox, influences. One should let go of the handle of control and go with the flow instead. One should also be patient, tolerate instability and remain open to sharing––both ideas and resources. Through the MOBIUS Fellowship Program I have seen how freelance curators, museum professionals, and partners at nonprofit organizations and established institutions alike have welcomed this unselfish and positively unpredictable mode of collaboration with open arms.
Alongside supporting organizational collaboration through updating and exchanging professional knowledge, MOBIUS has invested in cross-sectional collaborations as well. In practice this means bringing together selected independent visual arts professionals and organizations. MOBIUS provides freelancers an invaluable opportunity to work in close collaboration with an organization that supports their practice; simultaneously, the organization benefits from the fresh perspective of the newcomer.
The MOBIUS Fellowship Program relies on the idea of customized fellowships: not a single fellowship is predetermined or fixed in terms of duration, working methods or project outcome. However, it is highly important to make sure all the parties involved are on the same page about the expectations of the partnership before the process starts. When a fellowship collaboration is initiated, the fellow, partnering organization and the organizers of the MOBIUS Fellowship Program discuss and determine the parameters of the collaboration together. It is important to invest enough time in the planning to avoid potential misunderstandings. As the MOBIUS fellowship model is very flexible, it is crucial that all the parties involved also remain in close and constant dialogue with each other.
Open discussions and sharing of ideas about the joint project realized by the fellow and the organization are at the core of each collaboration. Furthermore, the aim is to engage the fellows and their partners on a deeper level, including discussions about the organization’s agenda, current state and possible future scenarios. While the focus of each partnership is the thematic project, the collaboration also includes sharing of professional knowledge and informal peer-to-peer moments.
Working in the context of visual arts means working with both stable and unstable currencies. The more fixed structures apply to large-scale cultural institutions that are guided by the conventions and histories these institutions carry with them. The smaller the organization, the more flexible it typically is. One of the intriguing challenges of MOBIUS is to operate on the grey area between emerging and established––or independent and institutional. The two Institutes running the MOBIUS Fellowship Program act as mediators between all the parties involved and do their best to inspire them to work together around a shared thematic interest.
Borrowing an example from nature, hybrid is best described as an offspring resulting from crossbreeding. In the case of the MOBIUS Fellowship Program, the act of hybridization takes place on multiple levels. The key idea is to bring together people and organizations who are willing to discover novel ways of thinking, working, and sharing ideas and resources.
Firstly, the idea of the MOBIUS Fellowship Program is the result of a dialogue between two nonprofit organizations––the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Finnish Institute in London––working at the intersection of cultural disciplines. While FCINY focuses on contemporary art, design and architecture, the Finnish Institute in London runs cultural and societal programs. MOBIUS was launched with two slightly different profiles in early 2014: FCINY’s focus was on curating and new organizational models, while the Finnish Institute in London chose to focus on catering for museum and archive professionals. During the three-year pilot phase the two profiles have come closer together––currently the shared focus is on curators and project-driven collaborations.
Secondly, the cross-pollination of cultural influences is at the core of MOBIUS. While geographical location does not tie individuals down as much as it used to because of developments in technology, it is still worthwhile noticing how much a change in one’s location can actually affect their professional practice. Many matters in the world might seem more shared than ever before but simultaneously the importance of being physically present becomes heightened. In order to get affected by an unfamiliar culture, one needs to do proper background research, but more importantly spend enough time as part of the culture to start to get a sense of its characteristics. During the process, meaningful collaboration starts to emerge.
Thirdly, the will to collaborate requires a decent amount of trust and also willingness to remain open to change. In terms of a fellowship, trust involves all the parties included: the fellows, hosting organizations, sending organizations, funders, and the managers of the program. To open the doors to a temporary collaborator involves risks. How will the ‘outsider’ perceive us? How much are they willing to contribute and share their knowledge and other resources? How well might we get along––if at all? The decision to let someone in requires patience and willingness to engage in a long-lasting process. But it also holds in itself a potential for something unforeseen and new. That is something that all the institutions, no matter how established or successful, need. The desire to re-formulate and change is what keeps our cultures alive.
INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE INSTITUTIONS
The burning question of today is how cultural organizations formulate their programming to match the turmoil outside the walls of these constructions, both online and in real life. Internet and word-on-the-street are fast; institutional framework and forms of operation are typically slow. Yet the more traditional constructions of cultural heritage represent some quintessential qualities, such as consistency and cultivation of values, aesthetics and craftsmanship. These qualities should not be overlooked in favor of the seemingly new.
The current cultural climate of the visual arts field is obstructivesticky. There is a growing pressure to quantify one’s actions and to prove that all actions have tangible results. While these developments resonate with the broader cultural climate, it should not be taken for granted that any given action should have a numeral equivalent. In fact, those actions that defy categorization and make people think should be more welcomed––and supported––than ever.
In the worst-case scenario, visual arts organizations start to practice premature self-censorship and put too much emphasis on data gathering to prove how impactful their actions might be in the eyes of potential supporters. But when diving deep into this process one might lose sight of something more valuable: progressive and relevant art and design practices, that is. It is worthwhile remembering that cultural institutions would not function or exist without the work that is produced outside the institutions. Thus, it is elemental to find ways to continue to support the work of designers, artists, thinkers, philosophers, and performers. While the focus of the MOBIUS Fellowship Program is on the mediators––curators, producers, educators, conservators and the like – their work is always connected as much to these aforementioned makers and creators of our contemporary culture, as it is to the institutions who share their vision with audiences.
In many ways, the MOBIUS Fellowship Program functions as an integral part of the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Finnish Institute in London. More than organizers and facilitators, the two organizations act as mediators that bring together individuals, institutions, and ideas. MOBIUS started as a pilot project but has developed into a flexible model that we are happy to share with peers and supporters alike. Small-scale cultural organizations like the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Finnish Institute in London are able to question and rethink their modes of operation and implement new ones, when needed. Ability to function on varied timespan is a necessity for any contemporary organization: one needs to remain grounded enough to provide stability for partnerships and productions, but at the same time it is imperative to remain alert on the most recent developments in culture. Cultural institutions should not remain static but update their functions as the world around them is in constant flux as well.
Text by Ilari Laamanen
Ilari Laamanen works as the Project Manager at the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York. He has been planning and managing the MOBIUS Fellowship Program’s New York chapter since its initiation in 2013.
http://fciny.org/projects/iiu-susiraja-what-am-i http://fciny.org/projects/aily-nash-and-jaakko-pallasvuo-screening-and-conversation http://fciny.org/projects/mobius-20