THE ΤΕΛΟΣ SOCIETY speaks to Stefanos Tsivopoulos, Founder | Co-Director and to Chisoula Lionis, Co-Director of AFA Masterclass
Artists for Artists (AfA) is a platform run exclusively by and for artists.
The guiding ethos of AfA is that mentorship, community, exchange, and solidarity are each central to the art-making process. This ethos is underpinned by three key principles: artists for artists, peer-to-peer exchange, and radical care.
Operating without institutional intermediaries, the AfA platform brings leading international artists in direct communication with early career artists of diverse backgrounds. Bypassing major cultural and educational spaces (museums, galleries, art schools), and moving beyond the co-option of cultural capital and exploitation of artistic labor that characterises many institutional structures, AfA strives to generate and strengthen international networks and communities of artists. Connecting artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, across various stages of their career, AfA contributes to professional development, whilst engendering new social and artistic encounters.
Georgia Kotretsos: Launched in May 2020, the inaugural AFA Masterclass culminated on July 20th, 2020. What appeared at first to be a post-lockdown initiative having organically been created in response to the many challenges traditional pedagogy was called to attend to, a second in-depth look made apparent AFA Masterclass had just launched a well-thought out alternative educational model. Directed for early career artists, it advocates for peer-to-peer exchange, formation of networks and radical care. May you please elaborate on how the aforementioned goals are implemented into the AFA Lectures; AFA Workshops, AFA Funding and Exhibitions?
Stefanos Tsivopoulos & Chrisoula Lionis: Germination for the idea of AfA sprung in 2019 well before the COVID pandemic. However at that time, our thinking was geared toward the foundation of a physical workshop program in Athens. As the COVID pandemic took hold three important things began to become apparent: the first was early career artists would be disproportionately impacted upon by this crisis, the second was that institutional models and systems (particularly those of formal art education) did not have the agility necessary for impactfully navigating the challenges of the pandemic; and finally, COVID presented an opportunity to connect people in ways that might not have been possible before, as the majority of the world was largely locked in their homes.
More than this, what became clear is that the people best able to identify and navigate the challenges of COVID (particularly as they pertain to early career artists) are other artists. In developing our pedagogical model (which is now being refined through collaboration with Participating Artists from our inaugural edition) we began by asking some key questions that included: What are the key challenges facing early career artists? How can we respond to the individual needs and mentorship crucial to early career artists? How can we develop a program that is inclusive, impactful, and non-hierarchical? How can we build practical systems of support and solidarity in the face of pronounced precarity?
In answering these questions, we were attuned to structure, but also to language – as we understand it as central to building (and indeed dismantling) discriminatory and limiting hierarchical structures. We describe our ethics, structure and praxis within the frame of ‘radical care’. As we were developing key ideas (and corresponding terminology/key terms) for AfA, the term ‘radical care’ (as outlined by Tamara Kneese and Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart) resonated most for describing non-hierarchical collective work in the age of compounding emergencies. In operating with a praxis of radical care, we are mindful of how non-hierarchical and autonomous ‘care’ work has been increasingly instrumentalised by various institutions. For us it was important to address this concern immediately with everyone in involved (from our Steering Group, to our Advising Artists, Participating Artists, guest curators and speakers) – we did this by being transparent and explicit about our operation: we are an experimental model (our inaugural edition was a pilot), all work is unpaid, and these is our structure and key terms and we thrive on constructive criticism.
This approach and praxis really resonated with all artists involved. The feedback we received was particularly humbling – with Participating Artists describing it as a ‘safe space’ and more impactful than their experience with prestigious art education institutions (particularly during COVID). We found that our group of masterclass artists wanted to move forward with us with this approach of radical care. For this reason, we have developed the ‘radical care collective’ with all AfA Participating Artists, and together we develop the future applications of these key ideas (eg. peer-to-peer exchange, and targeted mentorship) and work together to build all aspects of the next masterclass edition.
GK: The pilot sessions were led by Advising Artists: Terike Haapoja, Mediating Political Ecologies; Ahmet Ogut, Artworks Made at Home; and Stefanos Tsivopoulos, Private Goes Public followed by an international cohort of artists. Could you walk us through the selection process of both the Advising Artists and the early-career-ones? How were the lecture-topics facilitated and informed by the remote synchronous experience?
ST|CL: AfA is geared toward early career artists - that is artists within 5 years of graduation, or within 5 years of beginning their professional practice. The reason for this is that we understand these are often the most precarious professional artists: for example, they often work for free, they are cultivating international networks, they often do not have gallery/institutional representation. This precarity is particularly pronounced for artists living and working in the Global South. Further to this however, COVID presents this particular generation of early career artists with an acute precarity – for example, they are now even more limited in terms of accessing residencies, international network building, exhibitions opportunities etc. We held this in mind when developing our masterclass, and affiliated programming.
We developed our open call and corresponding selection criteria with the AfA international Steering Group. Our Advising Artists (Terike Haapoja, Ahmet Ogut, alongside AfA Founder Stefanos Tsivopoulos) were invited to work with us on their strength of their practice, their commitment to experimental pedagogy, and their commitment to nurturing early career artists. Importantly, they all offered their expertise to AfA without payment. We are extremely grateful to them for this, and we believe that their gesture in turn encouraged a real commitment and spirit of solidarity and collaboration amongst Participating Artists.
Our selection of Participating Artists for the inaugural edition was based on assessment of portfolio, artist’s statement, and importantly – their description of an art project they would like to develop in the AfA radical care masterclass. We received applications from around the world, and with great difficulty, finally settled on 26 artists from 17 cities ranging from Bangalore, to Fez, Melbourne, New York, Santiago, Mumbai, Cairo, and Berlin. Artists were selected according to several criteria: whether their projects would benefit from the masterclass, the alignment of their work with the theme of radical care, and the correlation between their practice and that of Advising Artists. Once this list of Participating Artists was finalised, we assessed each application for direct lines of connection (whether theoretical or practice based) with the three Advising Artists – ensuring that artists where paired into workshop groups were they would find the most targeted and aligned mentorship and feedback (from both peers and Advising Artists).
Although one of the most thrilling aspects of AfA is our international collaboration and network. On a practical level, this means we are operating simultaneously across very different time zones. This is a challenge overcome not so much through technology, but rather through the commitment of all our artists (staying up well after bedtime!). Conducted entirely via Zoom, the structure of the masterclass first involved the AfA Team meeting all our Participating Artists. All Participating Artists were then invited to three lectures presented by each of our Advising Artists on their practice and on issues of their choice relating to the theme of ‘radical care’. This was followed by two full days of online workshops. These workshops were hosted by Advising Artists, with 8 Participating Artists in each group – all presenting their work and receiving tailored feedback from their groups.
GK: Last, but not least the AFA Masterclass in place of fees or a tuition introduced the micro-grants and Peer-to-peer Funding alternative. May you please discuss the objectives of the proposed opportunity?
ST|CL: Peer-to-peer praxis is crucial to AfA and manifests in multiple ways – the primary of which are direct mentorship between artist peers, and our AfA micro grants. It is important to understand that the AfA pilot (with its peer-to-peer structure) was originally conceived by Stefanos Tsivopoulos a single art project. The peer-to-peer emphasis began in essence as an extrapolation of over ten years of research on alternative forms of currency, exchange and labor (seen for example in works History Zero and Alternative Currencies: An Archive and a Manifesto). This approach is emblematic of what we have elsewhere described as the ‘artist as infrastructure builder’ – an artistic approach that is not just socially or community engaged, but is geared toward the construction of new infrastructure through art practice.
Although we of course welcome future funding opportunities, the pilot edition of AfA ran with no funds – all work was voluntary. And yet, we were able to generate micro-grants. This central peer-to-peer aspect was achieved by asking Participating Artists to each contribute 50 euros enrolment fee. These funds were then collected and distributed into three pools - one for each workshop group. These pools became our microgrants, and were distributed to artists through a voting system. Although the scale of these funds is modest, our aim in developing these microgrants was to establish a new self-sustainable model of grant development and distribution.
We are now moving forward onto our next AfA masterclass edition. Following from our inaugural edition, over the next year we are developing a suite of four masterclasses under the rubric of Radical Care. Our next edition, taking place in November 2020, takes the title of Radical Care Series: The Institutional Collapse. This new edition is but one reflection of the fact that it is very important that AfA remain accountable to artists that work with us, and that we do not replicate institutional hierarchies, or systems of structural disadvantage - particularly in terms of exploitation of labor and cultural capital. Beyond our masterclass program, one of the structural ways we have grown to address this, is through the creation of the AfA Radical Care Collective – who work together to develop future AfA activity.
The Collective’s activity includes working together on our future masterclasses, but also satellite events. This also includes our first exhibition of AfA participants which will be curated by Abhijan Toto (director of the Forest Curriculum, and curator of the Moscow Biennial for Young Art). And beginning in October, our AfA Open Studios. These take place via Instagram and involve pairs of Participating Artists ‘taking over’ our social media with live broadcasts posts, and events with guest theorists to discuss artist’s practice, to critically engage with each other’s work, and to explore art practice in their respective locations. Finally, we are all working together to – in a post COVID environment – to bring our first ‘physical’ masterclass to Athens!
1.[Hobart, Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani, and Tamara Kneese. "Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times," Social Text 38, no.1 (142) (2020): 1-16.}