First IMAGINART Panel Discussion

with Wayne Modest, Helena Nassif, and ruangrupa’s farid rakun 

In the framework of the IMAGINART project at the University of Amsterdam

Friday, July 2, 2021, 12:00-13:30  CET 

Please register for the Zoom panel discussion here:


Invitees to this roundtable lead established cultural institutions, museums, and biennials that they are trying to change into more open, inclusive, emancipatory and transnational bodies—thinking public space and publics otherwise. In Audre Lorde’s words, they are trying to ”dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” We’d like to ask them how they are doing that.

We want to hear from our invitees how they think and practice radical institutionalism. Towards this end, we ask how they translate transformative and decolonial ideas into a program of sustained action to change        established institutions. How are they changing their institutions and/or see it changing, and how much control do they have over this process? How can one create commons and micro-utopian spaces within, across, and beyond established institutions? How do they relate to grassroots groups and activists that want to hold their institution accountable for the histories and power relations they are part of? How do they see this relationship transforming in the future? Are we moving from classic institutional forms towards shifting ecologies of networked organisms?

Wayne Modest is the Director of Content for the National Museum of World Cultures and the Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam and head of the Research Center for Material Culture. He is also professor of Material Culture and Critical Heritage Studies (by special appointment) in the faculty of humanities at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam (VU). Wayne Modest was previously head of the curatorial department at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam; Keeper of Anthropology at the Horniman Museum in London, and Director of the Museums of History and Ethnography in Kingston, Jamaica. He has held visiting scholar positions at the Yale Centre for British Art, Yale University and the School for Museums Studies, New York University. Wayne Modest’s work is driven by a concern for more historically contingent ways of understanding the present, especially in relation to material culture/museum collections. His research interests include issues of belonging and displacement; material mobilities; histories of (ethnographic) collecting and exhibitionary practices; difficult/contested heritage (with a special focus on slavery, colonialism and post-colonialism); Caribbean Thought. More recently Modest has been researching and publishing on heritage and citizenship in Europe with special attention for urban life, and on ethnographic museums and questions of redress/repair.

Helena Nassif is a multi-disciplinary researcher of culture. She is currently the managing director of Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy), a non-profit organization working on supporting the arts and culture sector in the Arab region and diaspora. Helena received her PhD in Media Studies from the University of Westminster in 2015. Her career in culture and media research builds on years of work in the non-governmental sector, the development industry, program design and evaluation, grants management, adult training, and television and documentary film production.

farid rakun is trained as an architect (B.Arch from Universitas Indonesia and M.Arch from Cranbrook Academy of Art). He wears different hats, depending on who is asking. A visiting lecturer in the Architecture Department of Universitas Indonesia, he is also part of the artists’ collective ruangrupa, with whom he co-curated TRANSaction: Sonsbeek 2016 in Arnhem, NL, and currently acting as the documenta fifteen’s collective Artistic Direction.

ruangrupa, a Jakarta-based collective established in 2000, is currently preparing documenta fifteen (Kassel, 2022) in their capacities as the event’s first ever collective Artistic Direction. It is a non-profit organization that strives to support the idea of art within urban and cultural contexts by involving artists and other disciplines such as social sciences, politics, technology, media, etc, to give critical observation and views towards Indonesian urban contemporary issues. ruangrupa also produce collaborative works in the form of art projects such as exhibitions, festivals, art labs, workshops, research, as well as books, magazines and online-journal publications. As an artists’ collective, ruangrupa has been involved in many collaborative and exchange projects, including participating in exhibitions such as Gwangju Biennale (2002 & 2018), Istanbul Biennial (2005), Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Brisbane, 2012), Singapore Biennale (2011), São Paulo Biennial (2014), Aichi Triennale (Nagoya, 2016) and Cosmopolis at Centre Pompidou (Paris, 2017). In 2016, ruangrupa curated TRANSaction: Sonsbeek 2016 in Arnhem, NL. From 2015-18, ruangrupa co-developed the cultural platform Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem together with several artists’ collectives in Jakarta, located at Gudang Sarinah warehouse, Pancoran, South Jakarta. It is a cross-disciplinary space that aims to maintain, cultivate and establish an integrated support system for creative talents, diverse communities, and various institutions. It also aspires to be able to make connections and collaborate, to share knowledge and ideas, as well as to encourage critical thinking, creativity, and innovations. The results of these joint collaborations are open for public access—and presented with various exhibitions, festivals, workshops, discussions, film screenings, music concerts, and publications of journals. In 2018, learning from their experience establishing Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem and together with Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara, ruangrupa co-initiated GUDSKUL: contemporary art collective and ecosystem studies (or Gudskul, in short, pronounced similarly like “good school” in English). It is a public learning space established to practice an expanded understanding of collective values, such as equality, sharing, solidarity, friendship and togetherness.

The IMAGINART project at the University of Amsterdam explores how artists and cultural workers are reimaging public institutions. Following the so-called social turn in contemporary art, several political and cultural theorists have argued that art’s primary function is to “imagine reality otherwise” and incite social change. Still, despite this theoretical interest in art’s capacity to reconfigure society and politics, there is a dearth of empirical studies showing how this happens in artists and political movements’ everyday practices. Accordingly, this multi-researcher project undertakes a series of ethnographic studies exploring the role of artistic practices in reimagining and transforming societies from below.  Against the backdrop of state failure, transformation or withdrawal under (post)colonial, postsocialist, neoliberal, and (post)pandemic conditions, art and cultural workers create “micro-utopias”: alternative spaces of collaboration and cohabitation in which to prefigure new forms of organized collective life. IMAGINART researchers explore creative institutional experiments in Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Kurdistan, Palestine/Lebanon, and South Africa. In these contexts, artistic practice has figured prominently in recent protest movements against oppression, corruption, neoliberal restructuring, inequality, and racism. What does it mean for political and social projects to present themselves as art, and what agency does this enable and/or disable? Can we reimagine the state and our failing institutions through art?

Group members: Chiara De Cesari, Nuraini Juliastuti, Yazan Khalili, Abdulkerim Pusat, Aria Spinelli, Eszter Szakács, Carine Zaayman.