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Thought Provocation: IFP's Long Game
A look inside The Institute for Provocation, a research workspace and artists' residency tucked away from Beijing's commerical art zones.
By Feb 21, 2014 Arts
The Institute for Provocation's name is an intentional contradiction. "We're not an institute," says program director Max Gerthel. "There is an output, and I think we'd like to say that output, whatever it is, has a value in terms of research, in terms of creating new knowledge. But it's outside of the given framework for how to output knowledge in a traditional sense." They're also not out to provoke anyone in particular. "It's a form of internal provocation related to cross-cultural encounter. I think everyone who comes to China for the first time is provoked in one sense or another, even if you wouldn't perhaps use that term."

IFP grew out of Theatre in Motion, an alternative performing arts platform founded in 2005 by Belgian curator and consultant Els Silvrants-Barclay. From 2005-2010, Silvrants-Barclay organized a series of public art interventions mostly centered in 798 — then not the gentrified caricature it is today — inviting artists from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Norway, Denmark, and elsewhere to engage Beijing's rapidly evolving contemporary art environment. In 2010, she teamed with Chen Shuyu and Max Gerthel, both architects with cross-disciplinary practices, and changed the name of the project. By 2011, as funding opportunities were drying up but interest from foreign artists continued to rise, the Institute for Provocation narrowed its focus to a tightly organized residency program and set up a permanent space in central Beijing.

IFP's workshop and residence areas (photos by Esther Kokmeijer)

IFP in its current incarnation is a courtyard workspace and artists' residency nestled in a relatively quiet stretch of Heizhima hutong, just outside the blast radius of Nanluoguxiang's noise. There's a long workshop room with Gerthel's office on one end, and behind that a few small, tidy pingfang apartments to accommodate up to three visiting artists at a time. For Gerthel, the location provides both a conducive work environment and a mode of institutionalized "provocation": "We don't want to be in an 'art' community, because it's an isolation and a monoculture. We would rather have a situation where you have to engage with daily life. For everyone who comes here, it's usually their first time in China, so it's a very direct exposure to a lot of elements that are very specific to being here. I think it really benefits the artists to engage more with the local community and not just the 'art crowd.'"

The Institute maintains a low public profile among those not in the immediate orbit of its artists and directors. Many of the artists they've hosted, like French animator/shadow puppet performer Serge Onnen and Dutch multimedia artist Roderick Hietbrink, have utilized IFP as an office and an informal salon, staging public-oriented gallery shows and performances in the more established art zones of 798 and Caochangdi. This is changing, slowly. "It's a long-term goal of ours to be more public, at least within the possibilities of being public in China. If too many people know about it, we might get a sort of backlash. But at least we want to have some sort of influence in a sense that it's not just a very closed group that knows about it." One of the first truly public events they're hosting happens this weekend, when current resident Stéphane Blumer leads his participatory Under Humour workshop in IFP's main space. "Previously we've done workshops mainly with students, and this is the first one that is more open that we're organizing here ourselves," Gerthel elaborates. "It's also directly involved with the creation of a new artwork for this artist. So it's necessary for him to invite people to join, to bring their experiences and their knowledge. It's not educational so much as just being interactive."

Still, the pace at IFP is slow and steady, carefully adaptive to the changing cultural landscape of Beijing and the evolving interests and practices of its resident artists. IFP's modus operandi is the antithesis of the rapid-fire, bite-size format of TED or Pechakucha presentations, both of which also have their proponents in Beijing. Another current IFP resident, Dutch artist Esther Kokmeijer, is working on a piece explicitly addressing slow-moving state shifts over space and time, composing "cinematic essays" on water's transition from ice, to liquid, to vapor, and back again via government weather modification. Most of IFP's artists — who usually stay in Beijing for six months at a time — are attracted to the Institute's similarly glacial pace of discovery, research, and adaptation. "We don't have an exhibition space for the artists, they're not really here to produce work for an exhibition. That's another type of residency. Usually [at IFP] it's a very long process, where things can transform many times. You have to adapt continuously to new impressions and new information. And that's a part of the process."

Ultimately, Gerthel believes, this approach leads to a richer and deeper experience for both the visiting artists and the local community. "Beijing is such an open field, in a way. There's a lot to be explored because it hasn't been explored before, because it's sort of lagging behind in terms of a certain form of intelligentsia who is constantly investigating both theoretical and also practical issues about the city and its structure, its history, its way of working as an organism." By providing a landing point for a first encounter and paving the way for future development (2012 resident Serge Onnen is returning later this year for a second residency building off his previous work), IFP provides an alternative scenario for those not oriented toward the capital-A Art world grind but still motivated to explore the unique, often confounding, certainly provocative opportunities to be found within Beijing's creative tributaries. "There's a lot to do, and whatever you do, it's a reflection of the situation that Beijing and China is in right now. It is a very potent time, and it will be for a long time ahead. I think Beijing really needs this influx."

The Institute for Provocation is open for select public workshops and discussions. Catch current resident artist Stéphane Blumer's Under Humour workshop over the weekend, and keep an eye on the listing for future events. You can find more information about IFP — including application guidelines — on their website.
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