Connecting art, knowledge, and advocacy through long-term research projects on urgent issues facing the world today, BAK—in charting its discursive space within the realm of what is called “contemporary art”—has, time and time again, been challenged by a disturbing question: “What if democracy was not a show?” Amusing at first, but troubling in fact, this question inquires into the modes of representation employed both in politics and art. It might be that the ritual of representation is what conceals the real split between contemporary power and contemporary politics, in which the “democracy” we know is but a “show” to distract from our actual democratic deficit—a noble diversion offered to people as “bread and circuses.”
When I turned to artist Jonas Staal with this question, he immediately shifted the conversation into the realm of education, proposing that we join forces to establish New World Academy (NWA) as a way of challenging the erosion of the principles that underlie the democratic ideal. It is an extension of his project New World Summit (NWS) and its underlying philosophical motivation to combat what he calls “democratism”—that is, “the disastrous present of the world dominated by the condition of capitalist democracy.” NWA would bring together political organizations invested in the progressive political project—not without controversies within the given political constellations—to share with artists and students their views on the role of art and culture in their respective political struggles. Gathering around concrete examples of transformative politics—models of cultural activism as both an imaginative and practical force in shaping the democratic project—teachers, artists, and students would then work together to realize collaborative projects that challenge the various frameworks of justice and models of representation. By activating civic imagination through newly forged, practical alliances between art and progressive politics, the project would reinvest in the possibility of art to propose an alternative articulation of the democratic project.
In only a brief few months, the tremendous efforts at BAK and NWS, and an extraordinarily enriching collaboration with various political organizations and artists, have made NWA a reality. Its three inaugural sessions, organized and developed in close collaboration with the cultural workers of the National Democratic Movement of the Philippines, the collective of refugees We Are Here, and the open-source advocates of the international Pirate Parties, all take place at BAK between 15 October and 22 December 2013. Each session is followed by public presentations, performances, advocacy campaigns, and exhibitions, hosted at BAK and other cultural institutions such as Centraal Museum in Utrecht and De Balie in Am- sterdam. Participants in NWA include artists as well as students from ArtEZ Academy Of the Arts, Interactive Design Department, Arnhem; Dutch Art Institute (DAI), Arnhem; Sandberg Institute, Amsterdam; Theaterschool, Amsterdam; Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design (MaHKU), Utrecht; and Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam.
For each session, a reader with a selection of key texts related to the organization’s core political concerns as well as actual strategies of artistic and cultural engagement with the political processes at hand is published. I am happy to present you with the first publication, titled New World Academy Reader #1: Towards a People’s Culture. As a supplement to the curriculum of a three-day-long assembly of students, artists, theorists, activists, and artworks, we hope that this informal compendium of writings stays with you as an active reminder of art’s possibility to initiate a rethinking of the notion of democracy away from its current post-democratic workings and toward the realization of its true potential.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all of the contributors to this project, including all of the authors, my colleagues, our partner institutions whose support has made this project possible, and Jonas Staal. Although the future iterations of NWA will take place in various geographical and political contexts throughout the world, I hope it will occasionally find its way back to its co-establishing base at BAK.