Diving into Common Space:

On Becoming A Critical and Fearless Cultural Practitioner.

The following essay elaborates on how the cultural practitioner can respond to challenges created by a society causing a feeling of uncertainty for its inhabitants. The essay questions the cultural practitioners’ approach to produce artworks, critiques or designs which aim to confront the characteristics of today's society but often fail to provoke real criticism and to invoke change. The first part of the essay aims to capture the reasons why individuals struggle in their surroundings. During the second part the essay elaborates on how these struggling individuals transform into cultural practitioners who are much likely to work superficially and thereby tend to misuse their position of power. In the end, the essay discusses possible routes to become a nomadic artist and participate in cultural and societal change in order to create common space for conversation.

The We that creates the surface-artist.

The surface-artist is standing on thin ice,
sliding through unknown channels,
being blinded by the sun,
which is reflected in the sunglasses of the others.
Was there a cracking sound?
The surface-artist can't tell, the others make too much noise.

In his book Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman describes how the individual is confronted with the pressure of being on its own, without any safety net, but with full responsibility for its own fate. Additionally, the individual is insufficiently equipped to deal with this responsibility.1 Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović extend this picture with the idea of the individual being left in an “ideological vacuum,”2 without any reassurance by a common belief and therefore having the need to constantly give meaning to its being by itself.
            Zygmund Bauman describes the search for identity as “the ongoing struggle […] to give form to the formless.”3 He therefore implies that the ambition of defining identity is an unattainable goal. Stuart Hall portrays the characteristics which built a self, or a community, as “arbitrary closures” and therefore as temporary and fictional.4 This arbitrary closure “makes both politics and identity possible,”5 but leaves the individual with an ongoing struggle of defining itself. When everything is fictional, who and what is able to give safety and security? Today's societies are built around changeability, which can be defined as the idea that what was certain yesterday—your work, your passport, your neighbour being a reflection of your inners and outers—is precarious today and might vanish tomorrow. And whilst from the perspective of the individual everybody else seems to applaud the progress, the individual itself might feel left alone in its own uncertainty. This struggle is combined with our perception of identity as a combination of “harmony, logic, [and] consistency.”6 We see identity as something pure, but the incapability to define ourselves in a black and white manner leaves us with self-doubt.7 As an easy way to deal with this, comparing ourselves with others seems like an effortless option for reassurance. But being confronted with the well-curated images everyone shares on social media, and even in real life putting up a facade in conversations and interactions, we perceive the others identity and character as “work of art.”8 We are easily tricked into believing that whatever the others are and do is better than whatever we are capable of. By idealizing the other we set ourselves unreachable goals.

The life of the other becomes more important than the society in its entirety.9 We watch our few role models and forget about positioning them in a bigger picture. Zygmunt Bauman describes that, in order to deal with this development, the leaders of the community turned themselves into counsels. The counsels set examples and give proposals on how to behave, but the individual still has the responsibility to choose.10 In the end, the individuals who hunger for leadership and the comforting feeling of being part of a community supporting this leader, are reassured in their loneliness.11 They trusted and got disappointed.

The counselling politicians are the symptom of a development, Irmgard Emmelhainz articulates in her essay Can We Share a World Beyond Representation?. She describes how politics are privatized and turned into a spectacle watched for entertainment.12 Politicians have to fight for the reassurance of their own importance and thereby become part of the collective struggle for attention, due to the decrease of interest in and identification with politics. Vasyl Cherepanyn describes that because of this development, many people use culture in order to find validation.13 We use culture to give form to the formless. The need for leading, not guidance, stresses an expectation on culture to be a reassuring and a safety-giving tool. Therefore one-layered meaning and direct communication earn hearts. Culture aiming to open up questions and different possibilities is unpopular. Those who want to participate and voice their opinion cannot show multiple routes or unsolved problems, if they are not willing to risk losing the attention of the audience. In order to become popular and participate in the conversations of the community, they have to reassure their followers to go in their chosen direction.

The surface-artist meets their surface-artist friends.
They often sit around a wobbly wooden table.
With red wine and candles dripping on old red wine bottles.
On a Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Never on the weekends.
Nodding to the others’ thoughts and applauding themselves,
their thoughts are much alike.

Who is deciding the soundtrack?
Who gets drunk first? And who will clean up?
Since they are all equal, they share their duties.
But somehow, always the female surface-artist cleans.
Maybe because she is just better doing it.


The surface-artists ignore the one empty chair in the room.
Not even their coats cover the chair.
And in the summer, not even one surface-artist's naked feet.
The chair is just not seen.

In his essay Waiting Out the Crisis: On Stuckedness and Governmentality, Ghassan Hage points out that crisis is not longer received as an extraordinary situation,14 but as a daily event, most of the time watched from the comfort of our couch, the newscaster competing with the sound of the after-dinner snack. As Hage expresses it, the good citizen is the one not questioning, not rebelling, and not aiming for change.15 Those who try to participate in innovation are perceived as “the ‘lower classes’, [and] the uncivilized […] others.”16 Thereby, they are outsiders and excluded from the cozy community. 
            Bauman states that Western societies stopped questioning themselves,17 even though they are formed by doubtful individuals who constantly question themselves. In Pascal Gielens position society is designed to keep us from examining the existing order. He articulates that critical citizenship was replaced by active citizenship. In his opinion, the individual is encouraged to participate in society, but without questioning pre-existing orders.18
            Our citizenship is dependent on us trading the responsibility of our own destiny with the comfort of being as incapable of acting as the others. This liberates us from the feeling that we should. Additionally, the fear to be perceived as the uncivilized leads to the fear of being excluded from the comfort of our own community. This prevents us from critically reflecting and breaking out of our comfort zone.
            We are communicating, but without the aspiration to develop new ideas. And because everyone is talking, we learned how to make ourselves heard, how to scream over the voices of the other and how to position ourselves as being worthy to listen to. We watch the pile of information getting bigger and encourage ourselves and the others to keep on trashing our thoughts. We make it harder and harder to filter and recycle the pile of information. But, as Gielen states, “agony and dissent are at the core of (deliberative) democracy.”19 The fear of dissent keeps the individual from putting himself out there and actively participating by forming an unique opinion, not by mirroring pre-existing concepts.
            To conclude: We are struggling to find reassurance and safety within our community and within ourselves. We learned to endure crises and accept our current situation. In order to deal with this, we search for an easy way to reassure our own existence and a confirmation of our own importance, a reason to be alive and to keep on moving.

The surface-artist.

The surface-artist is a shell,
filled with the characteristics of others.
They are not opening up for conversation,
but use their outside to give solutions.
Their pearl got stolen long ago,
but they forgot how to grow a new one.
The surface-artist is glad to be in shallow water,
because they are afraid of the deep sea.
They watch the stars passing by, and the moon, and the sun.
Over and over again.

Everything seems to move but them.

Today it looks like everything has been said, but everyone expects the new next big thing.20 As Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović describe it, this might paralyze the creativity.21 One reaction to this might be that ideas are perpetuated and the artist who aims for change might be unmotivated or scared to show and express an unique point of view. The fear of being exposed to criticism and risking our position within society or our own peer group might lead to sticking to proven opinions.
            This “crisis of social imagination,”22 as Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović call it, prevents the artist from finding new ways. Common routes are criticised, but “rarely are other possibilities affirmed.”23 The individual has to be brave to use unused paths and not to reassure the taken path by denouncing the other. It is easier to be in the opposition blaming the ones who do, than doing yourself. But arrogant critique does not lead anywhere new. The artist is not critical if they impose an opinion on the other. Instead, they are using propaganda for their own benefit.
            In the same way, cynicism is a safe haven for those who want to show that they are intelligent enough to recognize the flaws of the system they are part of, but are not brave enough to engage “with a critical or constructive stance from which to change it.”24 Another consequence might be that artists who speak up might be more radical, tend to be more bold about what they say, and stick to clear ideas, in order to get recognized.

From the 2nd of October 2018 until the 24th of February 2019, Tania Bruguera, a Cuban activist and artist installed the installation ‘10,148,451’ in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern London. The title was a sum of people migrating in 2018 and migrants deaths in 2019, to express the amount of people taking the risk to migrate. During the installation, the number increased.25 The installation features a heat sensitive floor that hides the picture of a syrian refugee—Yousef—who is supported by the charity SE1 United. This charity is overseen by Natalie Bell, who gave her name to the Boiler Room of the Tate Modern complex for that year. When visitors stay on the heat sensitive floor for enough time, their physique gets copied onto the ground.26 Another part of the installation is a crying room, where visitors get exposed to a menthol-smelling substrate in order to trigger tears. Bruguera states that “she wanted to create forced empathy, to rehearse how we feel about others in times of fake news”.27 To complete the installation, visitors can read a manifesto which is shown to them when they lock into the Tate Modern's Wifi. This manifesto is written by 21 neighbours of the Tate Modern, who worked together with Bruguera.28
            The artist claims that the whole project is about invisibility. She invites the visitors to work with strangers, in order to unveil the picture of Yousef.29 They can hug the ground, lay on it, stand on it or sit on it. But the aim to show the picture of the Syrian refugee is hardly achieved. A huge amount of people would be needed to show the whole face. Most of the time you only see the bottom of the people who sat on Yousef's face. If they do not recognize the space of the Turbine Hall as an installation, they do not even notice his face hidden underneath the black colour. They walk over him.
            Surely, this could be a comment on how the need of refugees is ignored and treated by politics and society, but an artwork aiming to turn invisibility into visibility using group effort should not perpetuate the bad habits of society. Yousef is not positioned on an equal basis, which could have been achieved by painting the walls, or something else inviting to be hugged, instead of walked over. Additionally, the artist did not give the stage to the face of Yousef, but to the people stepping on him. The artist should have initiated a confrontation on the same eye-level, without preserving the hierarchy between refugees and the inhabitants of the countries they run for shelter. In doing so, the chamber of tears might not have been necessary to create empathy.

In his text Cultural Diversity, Stuart Hall explains that culture teaches indirectly. He describes the process as a time-consuming dialogue of mutual understanding.30 Vasyl Cherepanyn characterizes the goal of this process as making the invisible visible.31 If the artist wants to voice their opinion in order to change a given circumstance, they have to be willing to explain, not to state their thought. Making the invisible visible does not mean to rely on common, perpetuating thoughts, but to take those thoughts as a starting point for a process which takes effort and patience. This process also requires the humbleness to give the stage to the others and acknowledge our dependence on them.32 The cultural practitioner has to let the others speak, and listen not in order to find a response, but to understand. However, listening to what other people say means letting them in. This opens up the possibility to feel the other's pain and might let us question our own perspectives, goals, and wishes. It might even turn our world upside down. Listening in order to understand makes us vulnerable.
             In order to avoid dealing with the pain of the others the individual talks about or on behalf of the others, not with them. In this way the other becomes the content, a subject turns into an object and the artist does not need to engage. As Ivan Krastev explains it: “Dehumanizing the ‘enemies’ blunted the moral sensitivity to the pain of the different of other.”33 Rosi Braidotti locates the “superiority of the dominant subject […] in its ability to position the others as inferior.”34 Following this thought, we position ourselves as good by saying the others are bad, as rich by saying the others are poor and as better by showing the problems of the other. We justify yourself by including our peers and excluding the others.35 Irmgard Emmelhainz states that the main problem with artworks that communicate in the name of others' difficulties is, that they position this individual as “the martyr or scapegoat seeking recognition and visibility.”36 From this position we can earn the benefit of helping others, without getting our hands dirty. As Emmelhaniz describes it, this “enables a spectacularized, uncommitted, and “post-political” position vis-à-vis the world.”37

In conclusion: The surface-artist tries to speak about important matters, but fails to reflect wholly on possible effects their work might have. The surface-artist is the artist who is, as any other individual, confronted with the current state of society and deals with it in a manner which positions themself as a helping hero, but does in reality, not change anything for the better. The surface-artist does not question existing concepts and states their opinion, instead of opening up space for conversation. The  surface-artist feeds the opposition, instead of calling for people to engage.

One surface-artist comes from the toilet,
back to the wobbly wooden table.
The conversation went on,
but somehow one surface-artist can tell what they talked about,
while they were gone.


They usually talk about those they never invite.
One surface-artist looks at their surface-artist-friends.
They do not look back.
They never do. They follow the lips of the one who talks.
And then they follow the lips of somebody else talking.
And then they are happy that it's their turn to talk.


One surface-artist feels the empty chair.
They always wondered why this chair was there.
Do the others even see that chair?
Or is the one surface-artist the only one seeing the chair?
Should they see the chair?
Should they ask about the chair?


One surface-artist asks about the chair.
All heads turn around.
One surface-artist has never seen them moving so quickly.


Somehow, one surface-artist finished their last glass of red wine.
At that wobbly wooden dinner table.
Finding common space in difference.

Travelling through space.
Exploring behind old horizons.
Using the stars to navigate.
Landing in unknown territory.
Just to keep on going.


One surface-artist became a nomadic artist.

Rosi Braidotti speaks about “the politics of location and situated knowledge” as “a way to explore and analyze the kinds and the degrees of difference, in terms of access and entitlements to power.”38 In order to situate ourselves we have to recognize our own position of power. Being able to watch ourselves from outside our own body enables us to acknowledge where we come from and helps us to realise how we can use our resources in order to produce together. Situating ourselves empowers us to recognize connections between ourselves and the others we share the world with. We are more likely to speak from a personal perspective instead of speaking on behalf of others. The artist situates their work as an individual approach and therefore does not need to capture the whole, but can explain where they come from in a humble way.

Miroslaw Balka is an artist born in 1958 in Warsaw. He lives and works in Poland and Spain.39 His work ‘Common Ground’, exhibited in 2013 and 2016, features 178 doormats given to the artist by some of Krakow’s poor inhabitants in exchange for new mats. They compose a walkable surface.40 Balka states that the artwork features several meanings. In replacing the mats from the poor area of Krakow into the Centre of Culture in Krakow the artist reflects on the cultural clash between the rich and the poor. Another important point for him is that the former function of protecting the space the doormats are placed in front of, is changed to form a common ground. He explains that all the individual stories are combined into one big narrative, visualized by the artwork. Another point he wants to make is that the doormat as an European invention turns into a carpet, which often functions as the meeting ground for members of other cultures, such as the arabic culture. Thereby he is able to speak about the current migration and introduces his work as a “welcoming proposal.”41
            Through his work, Balka is able to give room to those narratives he wants to introduce to the visitors of his artwork. He does not speak about them, but lets the embodiment of these narratives speak for themselves. It is a silent and subtle work, which gives room for interpretation but at the same time leads the receiver of the artwork into a direction of mutual understanding.

Rosi Braidotti describes that because we are built by different attributes, we are able to become part of many different communities. She illustrates the subject as an “multi-layered [entity]” and characterizes it as nomadic, because it embodies “multiple—and potentially contradictory—locations and power-relations.”42 But being a nomadic subject means that we need to accept a state of never being fully developed. We have to acknowledge that we are a work in progress, in Rosi Braidotti’s words: “subjects-in-becoming” who “flow, because the boundaries between our different cultural locations are porous and not rigid.”43
            In accepting our multiple layers and embracing the differences to other individuals we are able to create a space in between the cultural main-stream. As Braidotti expresses: we develop “margins of encounter and negotiations between them.”44 In the overlap of these margins we can build the common ground to start a conversation. We can create the space to talk, not on behalf of others, but with them. Culture “as a reservoir of meaning and purpose” has the possibility to give significance to this space, a space where the most heterogeneous ideas can be challenged.45 The tension in this overlapping space created by the differences of the inhabitants, who are brought together by even these differences, does not erase the possibility for communication, but creates it.
            We become nomadic when we accept our own heritage, the place we are coming from, and are able to watch this place and ourselves from the perspective of others. We are nomadic when we are not afraid of moving forward and see our becoming as a journey, not a destination. We need to be confident in order to honestly situate ourselves, because it liberates us in the same way as it makes us vulnerable. Rosi Braidotti positions the critical thinker as responsible to mediate between different possibilities.46 Thus, the critical thinker—the critical artist—the nomadic artist needs to perform their duties and be brave, in order to extend the margins into a common space. Used wisely, the power we recognize by situating ourselves can enable us to move forward instead of hurting others.
            To summarize: The surface-artist is—as any other individual—confronted with being responsible for choosing their path, without any reassurance by a common ideology, a leading figure, or their peers. Simultaneously, their surroundings are changing constantly, and what functioned as a parachute yesterday may not work tomorrow. The surface-artist—as a cultural practitioner—manifestes their ability to communicate without arising dissent, still managing to claim to work towards change without really aiming to tear down existing orders or to start a conversation instead of stating an opinion. The surface-artist works as a reassurance and comforting tool for the other struggling individuals, perpetuating proven concepts in a cynical and bold way, and tending to speak on behalf of others. Thereby the surface-artist dehumanizes the other as the content of the work whilst positioning themself as a helping hero. The surface-artist willing to become nomadic has to situate themself in order to embrace their differences to others and to accept their position of power and the possibility of causing harm. But, by situating themself, the nomadic artist is able to use their position of power to build common space. In this common space those being brave enough are facing the tension being created by communicating with others rather than mirroring the same thoughts. They can work towards innovative and fearless ideas.

One nomadic artist sometimes feels lonely.
They have their own wooden table. It is quite stable.
But, they wonder, if they and their wooden table will get company.
They bought this wooden table to meet other nomadic artists.

It is heavy and quite a burden to move around.
And they are still moving.
But, whenever or wherever they find another nomadic artist,
They want to be able to invite other nomadic artists to their table.
That’s why they keep their quite stable table.

1 Bauman, “Liquid Modernity,” 30, 64.

2 Cvejić and Vujanović, “The crisis of the social imaginary and beyond,” 145.

3 Bauman, “Liquid Modernity,” 82.

4 Hall, “Minimal selves,” 41.

5  Ibid, 42.

6 Bauman, “Liquid Modernity,” 82.

7 Ibid, 161.

8 Bauman, “Liquid Modernity,” 82.

9 Cvejić and Vujanović, “The crisis of the social imaginary and beyond,” 146.

10 Bauman, “Liquid Modernity,” 30.

11 Ibid, 65.

12 Emmelhainz, “Can We Share a World Beyond Representation?”

13 Cherepanyn, “Art, Knowledge, and Politics,” interviewed by Wietske Maas, 71.

14 Hage, “Waiting Out the Crisis: On Stuckedness and Governmentality,” 8

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Bauman, “Liquid Modernity,” p.22.

18 Gielen, “The Global Civil Parade: Constitutions of Transnational Citizenship,” 124.

19 Ibid, 125.

20 Cvejić and Vujanović, “The crisis of the social imaginary and beyond,” 144.

21 Ibid.

22 Cvejić and Vujanović, “The crisis of the social imaginary and beyond,” 143.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid, 144.

25 Tate, “Experience a community-driven response to the global migration crisis.”

26 Saic, “Tania Bruguera Debuts Interactive Art Installation at Tate Modern.”

27 Bruguera, “Tania Bruguera: Why I renamed Tate Modern.”

28 Saic, “Tania Bruguera Debuts Interactive Art Installation at Tate Modern.”

29 Bruguera, “Tania Bruguera: Why I renamed Tate Modern.”

30 Hall, “Cultural Diversity,” 30.

31 Cherepanyn, “Art, Knowledge, and Politics,” interviewed by Wietske Maas, 77.

32 Hall, “Cultural Diversity,” 30.

33 Jesse Darling, “‘Speaking from a Wound’: Jesse Darling on Faith, Crisis, and Refusal,” interviewed by Saelan

34 Krastev, “Foreword,” 6; Braidotti, “Becoming-World: A New Perspective on European Citizenship,” 53.

[37] Ibid, 54.

[38] Emmelhainz, “Can We Share a World Beyond Representation?”

[39] Ibid.

38 Braidotti, “Becoming-World: A New Perspective on European Citizenship,” 50.

39 Balka, “Biography”

40 Pirelli HangarBicocca, “Miroslaw Balka CROSSOVER/S”

41 White Cube. “Miroslaw Balka on 'Common Ground' | White Cube”

42 Braidotti, “Becoming-World: A New Perspective on European Citizenship,” 51.

43 Ibid, 52.

44 Ibid, 51.

45 Gielen, “The Global Civil Parade: Constitutions of Transnational Citizenship,”133.

46 Braidotti, “Becoming-World: A New Perspective on European Citizenship,” 52.