The Total Work of the Cultural Institution
Yazan Khalili with Rayya Badran
March 9th, 2020
The Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center (KSCC) in Ramallah, Occupied Palestine, is a non-profit organization that was created in 1996. It is named after Khalil Sakakini (1878-1953), a Palestinian scholar and poet from Jerusalem. Housed in a renovated, early twentieth century house, the KSCC fosters Palestinian cultural work through its various programs of exhibitions, readings, screenings, and workshops. Not unlike the region’s non-profit cultural and art organizations, the Center has not benefited from (the already strangled) public cultural or funding institutions in Palestine. Its recourse to international grants to secure funding for its running expenses and programs therefore meant that the longevity and sustainability of the Center was at the mercy of foreign aid, or private funding entities whose interests in Palestine ebbed and flowed, or more recently, came to a complete halt. In June 2019, I interviewed Yazan Khalili, artist and director of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center between 2015 and 2019. More specifically, the conversation revolved around how the KSCC is currently reorienting its mission as a cultural institution in light of the Palestinian political and economic situation, under a new paradigm, which Khalili calls the Total Work of the Cultural Institution. Here, Khalili fleshes out the details of this new proposition at the heart of the KSCC in Ramallah, which he hopes will extend across certain art and cultural organizations.
Rayya Badran: You have been the artistic director of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center (KSCC) since 2015, but your experience, as well as your intellectual dedication to, and work in this institution, precedes that position. You have begun sketching what you call the Total Work of the Cultural Institution, which was born out of your past and present experiences with the KSCC. Can you tell us about the genesis of this approach and what prompted you to theorize it for this particular institution?
Yazan Khalili: In 2014, the KSCC found itself in a disastrous financial crisis. In fact, the crisis wasn’t just financial; we had started to ask ourselves why our, or any cultural institution, existed at all. In fact, the crisis started before that, in 2011, with the Arab revolts. "What is the role of a cultural institution in the context of political and financial upheaval?" I asked myself. By 2014, our donors--such as the Ford Foundation and Swiss funding entities-- had begun pulling out and halted their funding activities. It became clear that there was no money coming in, and that the KSCC would have to start tapping into its own reserves (a small reserve that had been saved up throughout the years), capacities, and relationships. You could say that it was on its way to closing.
RB: Could you walk us through the specificities of this crisis at the KSCC, and how it helped lay the groundwork for the Total Work of the Cultural Institution?
YK: Since its inception in 1996 , the Center had become totally dependent on funds without any future plan on how to function in the absence of these international grants. The institution became a superstructure of sorts, a structure that mainly aimed to continue existing regardless of its necessity or effect in society. Its main task was to write applications that responded to the funders’ requirements in order to justify the overhead costs to pay the salaries of its employees. In a way, this structure implemented donors’ projects and managed the funds it received. My understanding of a "superstructure" is one that thinks of culture at-large as dependent on its existence. It employs cultural managers who are essentially employees and administrators, not cultural workers, or intellectuals who have a mission in culture, the intellectuals that can use the institution as a tool that can challenge dominant culture and power structures.
This shift towards management coincided with larger incoming funds that were being granted from the early '90s up until the Arab revolts in 2011. The culture sector became institutionalized only through this professionalization of cultural managers. After the crisis and the ensuing drainage of funds once directed at cultural institutions, these individuals found themselves without a deeper function. Their involvement was purely bureaucratic, and therefore, one could argue, institutions became structures empty of meaning, using their reserves merely to pay salaries, without being able to "think culturally" or politically about the imminent crisis. The KSCC, as a medium-sized institution, fell into a catch-22. It needed funds to be able to produce “culture,” but it also needed to produce “culture” to be able to attract funds. The Center became unhinged. The structure was based on having an artistic director, supported by a small administration team, and when the crisis happened, the artistic directors became unnecessary since there were no funds to do projects. The administration, which was still funded, couldn’t produce any cultural projects; this only showed how fragile the structure was, and how much its cultural work depended on funding.
RB: You make a distinction between cultural managers and intellectuals in the framework of current cultural institutions in the Arab world. There are obvious external factors that allowed such structures to exist in their current economic and structural models, and which you find insufficient to carry out the cultural work of the institution. Perhaps you can elucidate what "culture" means here, and how best to approach the level of engagement of its workers?
YK: Decades of an NGO economy in Palestine (and elsewhere) had naturally forced cultural institutions to be led by financial and economic needs. Core teams in cultural institutions included cultural managers who hired cultural producers to work on certain projects depending on the funds they managed to receive. These cultural producers are freelancers and therefore not part of the core team or structure of the institution at hand. They are outside of the institution and are unable to interfere in its direction. The manager hires curators to curate a shows, artists to produce an artworks, and filmmakers to organize film programs, which are all implemented in order to spend the received grants, and to justify the salaries of the managers and their team. What results from this larger process of cultural politics is that the institution applies for funds here and there, and ends up financing projects that may be disconnected from what its initial intention. For example, if the grant is geared towards democracy, the local institution’s project has to revolve around democracy. The same goes for topics like social engagement or women’s empowerment in society. Cultural funding is compartmentalized into topics and categories, and each institution reconfigures its work in order to suit the requirements of the funder, usually a larger donor body based elsewhere. It was in a response to these funding policies and cultural compartmentalizations that I began thinking about the Total Work of the Cultural Institution. Culture, in this sense, is the way we think of politics, economy, and society. It has to be consistent and intentional, a platform to challenge, connect to, and be involved in the different struggles in the community. It is not a means of representation; it has to be challenged all the time within its structures.
RB: To the point where the urgent, or even long-term political needs of your community become secondary. It’s as if the urgency itself becomes compartmentalized under headings that others (the donor) deem urgent.
YK: Yes. The institution is no longer linked to the community or to place, but to the agenda of its donor. Funds may occasionally target a specific community, but once the funding ends, the connection to that community fades. We began thinking about a kind of connection to the community that isn’t based on funding and resources, but rather on a common interest in cultural production and politics. This connection is based on the fact that those who work at the center, the core team, are also cultural producers. So, the team began having two tasks: to produce and to facilitate public work in and through the institution. To do so, we had to operate simultaneously as a team, a collective, and as individuals. This new way of conceiving of our work affected our relationship to the public, the institution, and to the curation; it pushed us to keep questioning and challenging what is expected from us and how we work.
RB: Could you theorize, or further contextualize this approach, and explain how it matured in a place like the KSCC in Ramallah?
YK: Yet, the Total Work of the Institution, our position as Palestinians who have critical standpoints towards contemporary economics and politics, and our relationship to the socio-political situation in Palestine were not simply reactive. We did not seek to solve the cultural crisis we were in as if it were separate from the general context. Our curatorial approach results from an intellectual and artistic investment that began in the 1990s after the Oslo agreement. Many intellectuals, artists, and people working in the cultural field were reflecting on, reading about, and discussing the impact of our political and social context and cultural activity in general, whether in Palestine, or its environs. When the opportunity to take over the Sakakini presented itself, I started contemplating what to do with it in the current context. We had to decide whether to seize the opportunity to do something radical, or to let it die.
When one starts working, one tends do so intuitively. But we were then faced with a situation where we were forced to ask ourselves: How do we put theory and critique in motion, in practice, but also create a theory and critique of that motion? How is one to be involved in the everyday politics of running a center, while at the same time being able to think about it from a distance, as something we can learn from and build on? There was a cycle of crisis that we wanted to break. Inside the center, one focuses on managing daily affairs and the physical space itself. Yet, on another level, there is intellectual and theoretical work that exceeds the center itself. This is what I’m referring to. The Total Work of the Cultural Institution can be reflected on, or indeed put into effect even in another institution, or country. The point is to talk about the general condition of the art and funding economy—to connect it to what goes on in Croatia, Romania, Lebanon, or wherever else, and to begin thinking about and working across bigger structures. It is about how to expand in a horizontal way; to be able to ask the question of how to work together.
RB: Do you believe the economic models adopted by cultural institutions thus far necessarily point to a loss of ideology? And how does the Total Work of the Cultural Institution work towards a reactivation of ideology?
YK: Yes, absolutely. This is what I’m trying to get at. When institutions are bereft of ideology, which encompasses a political line of thinking, a practice, but also a theoretical framework, they start to lack the crucial elements from which they can build the institutions’ social, political, economic, and cultural relationships. It is essential to think of the economic model and its relation to politics. Which one leads the other? If we don’t understand the economic basis through which institutional politics are produced, then the institution is emptied of its cultural impact and becomes (as it actually did become) an institution that manages funds. And this is possibly most relevant in non-Western contexts due to funding structures here, and to global, art funding politics following the Cold War, 9/11, and then the Arab uprisings.
RB: How would you differentiate a cultural institution’s ideology from the current prevalence of identity politics in institutions, for instance?
YK: I believe that working via identity politics is the liberal take on what I mean by ideology; it breaks the collective, or even the universal into individualistic, identitarian struggles and interests that do not allow for broad, collective action--similar to the compartmentalization that we spoke about earlier. What ideology does in this usage of the term, is to allow one to connect the individual to the collective, the specific with the general, the local to the universal, and vice versa. Ideology is a position, a stance and a starting point for action. To be clear, ideology here isn’t referring to corrupt party or state ideology , but rather as a praxis that keeps shifting and moving from theory into practice, and practice into theory. Culture is at once about politics, the economy, and social engagement. They do not exist separately from one another, but we begin from cultural work, understanding culture as superstructure in order to engage political economies, challenge them, and expand their limits.
The practice of culture evidently englobes a political economy. Therefore, art is not different from culture—at least the art that we are interested in, one that is aware of and questions the context of its production. The question of gender, for example, is not separate from the economy at large, the liberation of Palestine, or the war in Syria. Gender is closely linked to concerns about architecture, the city, and its marginalized communities. It becomes a position one takes to gage and act upon causes and struggles, affinities and disagreements, which are born from the cultural institutions one is working in.
This all-encompassing vision in culture cannot take place through an institution that is structured in clear opposition to this very idea. I was re-reading Jean-Luc Godard's manifesto on cinema the other day. He claims that we should not make political films, but make films politically. The cultural institution has to become structurally, ideologically meaningful, where one thinks of all the parts and elements of the institution through this political position, and not just nominatively; every detail has to work together: the team, the audience, the hierarchy, the funding, the building. Together, they produce the institution’s project. The many parts that constitute an institution have to undergo change. One has to look at the infrastructure and at the problem of professionalization. Who runs the institution, and how should it be run? The first thing we did at the Sakakini Center was to think of the hierarchical structure—how to create a structure that looks like the landscape of Ramallah—different hills, different heights, but never flat like a coastal landscape, or too steep like a mountain. A soft hierarchy with many levels-- one can be on top of a hill and at the same time in the middle of another hill-- where the administrative and artistic tasks are split horizontally rather than vertically. Everyone has both a cultural input and administrative tasks.
RB: Yet, the terms collegial, collaborative, and horizontal have been and continue to be used by cultural institutions to describe their governance structures in an effort to avoid a pyramidical or hierarchical scheme, even when they embody precisely that. How would you describe the governance inside the KSCC? Is it defined through shared responsibility?
YK: Yes, but I would add that it’s also about shared practices, or a shared vision. I’m not saying that we should all be sharing the same point of view, or that we are coming with pre-set visions that we are unwilling to negotiate. Workers, the administrators, and the public have to challenge and question institutional structures all the time in order to avoid rigidity. Our convictions need to be reconcilable and not too disparate from one or another. We need to believe that cultural and political practices are solid and tight-knit. The financial crisis made us put our critique of the donor economy into practice. We worked on finding community support, and at the same time, on a series of discussions and talks questioning economy and politics. I chose to work at a cultural institution because I have a political and cultural vision, which I will put into practice within the institution. It is an extension of my politics. Work at the institution is not driven by external needs, but arises from practice, both as an individual artist and as someone who belongs to a social collectivity. It comes from that drive. My own work is a portal through which I will intervene in society to shape its currents and its future.
For example, one of the first things we wanted to do at the Sakakini Center was to engage its workers. We wanted to go back to the idea of the center being an infrastructure. We, as a center, have specific powers, accessibility, and capacities. How do we use these to build and support culture without the institution growing vertically, without having a corporate notion of growth as our main goal? We were thinking of horizontal growth, one that is based on working with more partners and producers rather than budget and team. We decided to open the Center to collectives and individuals to utilize it in the ways they need to produce and work. The Centre now works with more than forty collectives and individuals on a continuous basis, who contribute to a large part of Sakakini’s programming.
RB: Who works at The Sakakini Cultural Center now? How has this vision changed the governance model of the institution?
YK: Individuals who feel close to the institution and to its vision of critique, participation, and collective work as their main practice. We really don’t want just people with “expertise,” or people who are skilled managers. We want people who approach culture as intellectuals. We looked into the Dutch football strategy of the '70s, the total football, where every team player had to know how to play in all positions in the field. This became our method as well. Everyone works on all the projects at the Centre or is involved to some extent. Also, no one does only one type of task; the division of work isn’t administrative or artistic/cultural work, but rather vertical: everyone does administrative work, and everyone is involved and does cultural work. And like in total football, the only defined position is the goalkeeper. And for us that’s the accountant.
The four people who now work at the Center defy the classical understanding of cultural institutions that should function by thinking about how structures should serve culture, and not the opposite. For example, we sat down with our accountant and discussed how to think of our financial structures in ways that make them more accessible to the public; how not to treat them as sacred and rigid materials. So now we are working on sharing our overhead budgets with whomever needs to use them in their work and practice.
RB: Did this shift also allow you to think about the community you are engaging with? In what ways do these changes affect your audiences, for instance?
YK: The question of the audience had been previously articulated as being separate from the Center. What is an audience? And why should there be an entity called audience in the first place? Audiences are often described as outsiders we continuously have to reach. We would like to engage the audience not as spectators, but as a producers. The team at the KSCC is currently proposing a cultural project through which we wish for the audience to be part of the process through activities and events taking place there, whether it is film screenings, talks, workshops, or exhibitions. In 2018, we had 180 public events and 70 percent of those events were conducted by a member of the community who relies on the Center’s infrastructure for their projects and works. The relationship between the center and its audience thus doesn’t boil down to disseminating news about events and inviting people to come. We want to invite a more productive audience whose interests, ideas and projects are important to the Total Work of the Cultural Institution. These collectives and individuals need an infrastructure to help them achieve and reflect on their projects. So, these changes are twofold: on the one hand, the audience becomes a producer, and on the other, the Center builds an infrastructure that can sustain production under an overarching mission. The term infrastructure is a pivotal one in the Total Work of the Cultural Institution. It is the point of tension holding the individuals who work within an institution and the institution itself as a meta-structure. There are times when you, as an individual, are struggling with an institution because it imposes things on you. It imposes them through us. We become traitors against ourselves.
RB: Can you expand on this betrayal, or how an institution produces tension between itself and its workers?
YK: The cultural institution becomes more demanding on a bureaucratic level. As an entity, it takes advantage of those who work in it. It wants us to give it more power, more prestige; it wants to grow into a megastructure. Once one gets funding and begins doing larger-scale projects, it is presumed that one should apply for more funds for more projects. I believe it’s important for an institution not to grow too much because this inevitably implies more bureaucracy, and returning to the compartmentalization that we are trying to avoid. One of the goals is to stop the KSCC from growing, whether it’s the team, budget, projects, or size. Within this scheme, a given institution will prevent hiring too many specialists like event planners, financial officers, and managers, or exhibition coordinators.
RB: The question of sustainability has always loomed large over most, if not all, non-profit art and cultural organizations in the region. If we were to relinquish the previous governmental and financial models that many medium or small cultural institutions have adopted, and reclaim ideology at the heart of culture, how do you envision this issue under the Total Work of the Cultural Institution?
YK: One of the recurring questions at cultural institutions is the question of sustainability but it’s addressed as if it was only a financial issue. If you want to be sustainable from a financial point of view, you might as well turn into a commercial entity. We’re trying to address the relationship between cultural practice and financial considerations. Sustainability is a cultural question. You have to rethink your entire structure so that your practice is thinking through culture, not through finance. We need to think about the economic crisis through a cultural prism. The structure should allow such questions to arise in order to find monetary solutions and rethink funding, opening it up to other possibilities than money, like time, efforts, and knowhow. It’s not to say that we don’t have financial problems, or that we don’t depend on philanthropy. We’re always worried. The Total Work of the Cultural Institution is about finding political solutions and positions to work through such difficulties. It becomes the cultural activity in itself. We always try to keep defining this cultural work, as well. We don’t want culture to be an activity that is sheltered and that contemplates political, or economic problems from afar. It has to engage in self-criticism constantly through a continuous practice.