Our Deskilled Times. A text for The Studio for Immediate Spaces Yearbook 2014

March 1st, 2015 – .
Published in Sandberg Yearbook.

We live in deskilled times. Rather than being very good at one thing, we are good (alas, not always very good) at many things. This is true of most households, where men and women do a bit of all the tasks and jobs at hand, and true too of our professional lives, where we mix and combine skills and jobs. It is, for example, not uncommon to find people who claim not only to be an artist but also a writer and curator. So, besides being deskilled (or maybe multi-skilled would be a better term), we are also generalists. One follows from the other. This is a sign and a condition of our current times.

Other manifestations of this deskilled, generalist condition are networks without a core and interdisciplinarity without disciplinarity. Let me give an example… I want to return a used Mac battery to the Apple Store in Amsterdam. I’ve read online that the company has a recycling programme for used batteries. Downstairs I ask the first red-shirted guy I see where I can leave my old battery. He sends me upstairs. Upstairs I ask a second red-shirted guy who sends me to the far corner: someone over there will know. I approach a third red-shirted guy who is walking around there and he tells me to wait at a table while he gets the necessary forms. He never reappears. A red-shirted woman walks by and I ask her to help me get rid of my old, defunct battery. She walks me to yet another red-shirted guy and, slightly baffled, I push the old battery into his hands, telling him to go recycle. Before he can say anything, I walk away. Clearly, no one knew what to do with me and my battery. Every red-shirted person floating around the store simply referred to the next floor, corner, level, guy.

The free-floating personnel, mobile helpdesks, and wireless pay stations at the Apple stores signify this core-less, networked condition we are in. The network has replaced the hierarchical, the general the specialised, the deskilled the skilled in many areas of our personal and professional lives. Especially in the service industries, we are confronted with the downsides to these developments that are, in and of themselves, not always bad.

This condition results in, to give an extreme example, the current idea of doing away with several Dutch philosophy faculties (too specialised, too expensive) and have participants ‘shop’ and ‘snack’ courses at various faculties. The core – the philosophy faculty – is simply obliterated, and literally replaced with a networked way of studying. A more positive outcome of our deskilled and generalised times is a Master’s course such as The Studio for Immediate Spaces at the Sandberg Institute. Instead of focusing only on outer spaces (architecture) or inner spaces (interior architecture), this course considers any space – mental, physical or imaginary – as a possible place.

Take the work of the course participant Elejan van der Velde. For his The Reminding Remains he worked on reconstructing a hallway from memory. He tried to estimate and define the measurements and the look of the hallway. He created plans, a model; finally, parts of the walls were cast in chemically bound sand that is normally used for mould-making in metal casting. He calls these walls ‘spatial still lives’ – they are large, bulky objects that somehow resemble (in the way they work) black-and-white photographs of objects or scenes that we used to know in detail but that have faded over time.

This hybrid of places that The Studio revolves around, constitutes the spaces we live in – where we work, eat, socialise, discuss, or perform. As the course director Anne Holtrop explains: ‘For us [spaces] are in- and outside. They are here and on the moon. They exist in our minds and are physically around us.’ These multifaceted spaces are at the core of The Studio. The programme works towards a post-disciplinary spatial vocabulary. What is shaken loose and opened up here – without the centre or core being lost in the process – is the way in which spaces are approached, considered, looked into.

The work of Annee G. Viken is a good example of this. She finished her studies with an investigation into the meaning of space in several novels. These spaces are turned into characters who are given a voice by Viken. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, for example, represents the concept of the fictional space ‘The Museum’. Extracts of the dialogue between the museum space and the novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield are included in these pages.

Looking through the publication, one sees that the spatial versatility opened up by The Studio for Immediate Spaces is tremendous. The participants’ work is a tribute to The Studio’s open and generous approach. The work is as wide-ranging as we might expect in our generalised times. Here we find works that range from reimagining the Sandberg Institute (Rachel Himmelfarb) to investigations into colour and oxidation (Juri Suzuki, Luuc Sonke), from still lives (Nicolo Scatola) to geometrical, spatial studies (Esther Bentvelsen), from architectural works (Elejan van der Velde) to research projects (Alonso Vázquez, Ewelina Marta Niedziella).

The media used by the participants are as varied as their topics: performance and the body in the work of Roeland Otten, Maximiliaan Royakkers and Ryuta Sakaki; paintings, installations and scripts used by Annee G Viken; video works in a project by Alicja Nowicz; photography by Eva Schalkwijk; performative objects by Johanna Nocke; and works on paper and installations by Juri Suzuki.

This loose attempt at placing the participants’ works on an axis of medium or theme doesn’t do justice to their flexibility. They are comfortable and confident in different worlds and move between them.

The concept of deskilling, which entered art discourse in the 1980s, was perhaps most prominently framed by the art critic and theoretician Rosalind Krauss1. She argued that one consequence of the post-material, conceptual art condition is deskilling, meaning that artists no longer need specific skills connected to the knowledge of certain materials. Rather, artists are generalists in a post-disciplinary era. This is not to say that artists don’t need other skills – on the contrary. They now need a wide array of other, no less complex, and often managerial skills.

More recently, another protagonist of international art critique, Claire Bishop, introduced the concept of reskilling2. Reskilling is the move from one area of disciplinary competence to another. Any form of deskilling will require reskilling in another area or discipline (e.g. an artist who knows everything about working with marble outsourcing the marble work to a specialist and having to learn how to deal with this process of outsourcing).

Besides the versatility of the participants’ projects, what  leaps out of these pages is a quote by Jan Verwoert from his seminal essay Exhaustion and Exuberance. Verwoert writes that, in this post-Fordist era, we no longer just work but perform3. This ‘we’ is a growing group of creative people who always have to be ready to perform, who cannot say no, and live by the ‘just-in-time’ production of post-Fordism. Always tired, always prepared to do more, always ready to say yes. Even (and this is what the quote in this publication deals with) if we are not ready or able to say yes. Within a framework of impossibility, exhaustion and limitations, we push ourselves to make whatever is expected of us possible. In a deskilled culture of generalists, exhaustion and hence exuberance are heightened by the fact that there are so many things we could potentially do, say yes to, add to our list of tricks and skills. 

The practice of the The Studio participants is ‘to see space as a circumstance to let something happen’. The multifaceted ways in which things happened for the participants is documented in this publication. Enjoy! 

  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea. Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, London: Thames Hudson, 1999. 
  2. Claire Bishop, Unhappy Days in the Art World? De-skilling Theater, Re-skilling Performance, The Brooklyn Rail, 2011. 
  3. Jan Verwoert, Exhaustion and Exuberance. Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform, Art Sheffield Catalogue, 2008, p. 90.