On the Institute for Human Activities

8, 10/05 – 20:30
9, 11/05 – 18:00


In the sensational Enjoy Poverty: Episode III presented at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in 2009, Renzo Martens launched an awareness campaign to encourage the Congolese to benefit from their own poverty. The Institute for Human Activities is a response to the excitement caused by Enjoy Poverty and to the film's main charge that art about Africa brings in money over here but not over there! The IHA is an ambitious project bringing several cultural organisations, artists and theorists together around a long-term objective: the gentrification of a corner of virgin forest on the edge of a plantation 800 kilometres from Kinshasa. Means of artistic production have been mobilised with the aim of formulating a new and more radical critical mandate for art. The Institute's artistic director, Renzo Martens, is coming to give a status report and describe what makes the project so (im)possible. A disconcerting lecture about a project that aims to bring the conditions of art production out into the open. And make them productive!

Performed by
Renzo Martens

Barbara Van Lindt

Video editing
Rudi Maerten

Developed in collaboration with
Delphine Hesters, Jaap Koster, Els Roelandt

Kunstenfestivaldesarts, WIELS

Institute for Human Activities (IHA)


Supported by
Mondriaan Fund, AFK, Prince Claus Fund, Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven),
 KASK School of Arts (Ghent), KVS (Brussels)

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A Conversation by Renzo Martens and T.J. Demos

T.J. Demos: During summer 2012 the Institute for Human Activities was inaugurated with an opening seminar in the Democratic Republic of Congo, announced at the 7th Berlin Biennial. Can you describe the goals of this Institute and say something about its topology?

Renzo Martens: We held the opening seminar in a place called Boteka in the northwest of the country. It was held right next to Plantations et Huileries du Congo, where Lord Leverhulme received a concession from the Belgium colonial government in 1911. This is where he produced the palm oil for Sunlight soap, and these plantations are at the basis of Unilever's business empire.

This new institute will start a gentrification programme there, which may be provocative as a term. The idea is that there is a problem with some critical art, that however much pieces may critique or deconstruct political or economical systems, they don't seem to change much at the place where the critique is aimed. However, they may change a lot in places where such art is shown, distributed and taught, places that happen to be mostly the former colonial centers - New York, Brussels, London, and Berlin. There are many examples of this accumulation of capital, intellectual and symbolic, but also of financial capital through the arts. This is something people also speculate upon; not just real-estate developers, but also famous curators know well that their projects will be funded if they can present their institution or biennial as something with an economic impetus. This is something important if we really want to look at the mandate of art, and if we want art to deal with its terms and conditions. I thought, well, all this should be taken into account as a basic parameter of artistic production and we should start such a gentrification programme as the intervention.

The Institute for Human Activities, which I established together with Delphine Hesters, Jaap Koster, Jean François Mombia, and Els Roelandt, aims to build an art center, a museum, a residency programme, and a school to provide master classes. We will offer training for plantation workers in art practice and there will be artists from Kinshasa and from other African cities that we will invite. We will also include artists and scholars from the West. In the end, hopefully, we can help these plantation workers, who now - truth be told - already work for us indirectly in a very old-fashioned type of economy, via physical labour paid very little per day or per hour. We will try and help them enter into the new immaterial and affective economy.

TJD: So the institute will act as a kind of education centre and later a site of exhibition for the emerging artists. If so, how will the sales happen? As we know this was a limitation exposed in your film Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, in which the Congolese photographers you "trained" couldn't ultimately get press passes or sell their photographs to international media organizations.

RM: True. The sales will happen under the umbrella of this institute. Not that the profits will go to the institute, they will go to the artists. But the institute will comprise something like a branding scheme, because one won't just exhibit or buy this or that particular drawing, but will invest in this bigger endeavour, this larger social sculpture and artistic experiment.

TJD: You're creating a context in which local participants - whoever will be involved in the institute - can take on some agency, in terms of creating something for themselves. It's not like the project is completely defined and determined by you, as far as I understand it.

RM: Hopefully, we can create structures that allow for this flexibility. I guess that any museum director hopes that he or she can build a museum in which other people find it possible and useful to make their own propositions - in, against, around, under, or above the museum.


RM: I came to the conclusion that institutional critique in the arts eventually is beneficial to only some areas of the world. But if you want to make some kind of a structural analysis of what the benefits of art are, who benefits from institutional critique, and if you consider the people who inhabit the most problematic areas in the system that is critiqued (in this case, poor African rainforest regions fully integrated in the global economy), then you can't just make some critical art about it and show it in New York or Europe, and stop there. Such work would exhibit no awareness of its own functioning.

TJD: In that sense your frustration with past modes of institutional critique (IC) resonates with the concerns of like-minded artists such as Andrea Fraser and Hito Steyerl, as well as other writers who have addressed this issue, such as Gerald Raunig and Brian Holmes, who have voiced similar critiques recently.[1] I think your institute is provocative because it seeks to avoid the dangers of IC in its present guise. For instance, Fraser writes about how political artwork that attempts to expose some system of oppression within the world often neglects to account for how it benefits economically from making that critical exposure.[2] Fraser terms this "negation," which equals a selective and potentially hypocritical criticality. We might say, IC risks solipsism on the one hand, referring endlessly back to the institutional functions the art sets out to analyze, and negation on the other, disavowing the economic impact of its critical gesture, and betraying IC's original reflexivity.

RM: Maybe it's reflexivity that I search for, when I talk about identifying the parameters that allow this institution to exist. There are so many enormous inequalities, and the accumulation of benefits are pretty much to be found in the same centres of consumption, whether it's the benefits of artistic critique or of ubiquitous economic exploitation. So if artists want to register this condition, and deal with it effectively, then something else needs to be done. And it's by putting action on the ground, creating a site where the parameters of art production are made transparent, that I hope the art that is going to be produced for this institution, or through it, or in opposition to it, will develop, and will facilitate a deeper understanding of its own functioning.

TJD: Given how you've explained it, your goal of gentrification isn't the conventional one, where gentrification means revitalizing dilapidated urban areas that can then be infused with capital by real-estate developers to make profits, resulting in the forcing out of local, less affluent people who have lived there for generations.[3] I struggle with the term, because of the western connotations with a certain model of predatory capitalism, its imposition of economic inequality, and its spatial politics of uneven development. But the context in rural Congo is completely different. My question for the project is whether it will be about the mimicry of a very problematic set of global relations, or if it will veer more toward the transformative set of goals you've mentioned.

RM: Both - we need the first to do the second.

This is a short version of a text first published in Camera Austria 120 (2012), p. 44-53

T.J. Demos is an art critic and reader in modern and contemporary art at University College London. Renzo Martens is the creative director of the Institute for Human Activities

[1] See Hito Steyerl, 'Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Postdemocracy', e-flux no. 21 (December 2010); Andrea Fraser, 'L'1% C'est Moi', Texte zur Kunst (August 2011), 114-27; Brian Holmes, 'Extradisciplinary Investigations. Towards a New Critique of Institutions', at eipcp.net (January 2007); and Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray, eds., Art and Contemporary Critical Practice Reinventing Institutional Critique (London: Mayfly, 2009)

[2] Andrea Fraser, 'There's No Place Like Home', The Whitney Biennial 2012 (New York: Whitney Museum, 2012)

[3] See Rosalyn Deutsche, and Cara Gendel Ryan, 'The Fine Art of Gentrification', October no. 31 (winter 1984): 91-111

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The Institute for Human Activities was founded in 2012. With legal structures in Amsterdam, Brussels and Kinshasa, a number of renowned institutional partners and advisors, and a dedicated team of artists and thinkers, the Institute’s raison d’être is to recalibrate art’s critical mandate. The Institute operates on a settlement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, eight hundred kilometers upstream from Kinshasa on the river Congo. Here, in one of the most burdened yet promising regions in the world, the Institute for Human Activities launched its five-year Gentrification Program and, in an in-vitro testing ground, mobilize the modalities of art production. Together with an array of cultural institutions and corporate partners, the Institute for Human Activities envisions a new model for local development. In the course of its implementation, the Institute will establish a site for love, art and profit.

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