04 September–16 October 2005

Test Department #1

Test Department #1, 2005

BAK, basis voor actuele kunst presents Test Department #1, a project consisting of an exhibition and a series of conversations developed by students of the MA Fine Art MAHKU—Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design. Participants are: Karien van Assendelft, Nancy Bleck, Ellamarthe Debeij, Chantal Ehrhardt, Juha Laatikainen/WOW, Joris Lindhout, Theo Marks and Eva Roovers.

Test Department #1 is a long-term platform hosted by BAK and the result of collaboration with the Fine Art department of MAHKU. It is developed as a forum for thinking about art and for collective learning, in which the generation and exchange of knowledge are seen as critical vehicles supplying key dynamics for contemporary artistic practice. Test Department #1 evolved through a six-month seminar on artistic research and knowledge production in the context of an art institution developed by BAK.

Central to the exhibition are the notions of “restriction,” “limitation,” and “conflict” seen as critical concepts defining our contemporary condition in the world. The students bring these to the fore by means of imposing a particular limitation on themselves: they are invited to express their articulations exclusively in the form of a drawing, realised only with the materials available at BAK. Further, the students install an informal “reference room,” a kind of archive in which their other works are available to the audience for consultation. By using such a framework, the students attempt to challenge the format of a conventional graduate exhibition.

In addition, each student hosts one conversation to which he/she invites guests—artists, curators, writers, philosophers—to discuss issues of importance for his or her artistic practice. The conversations take place on 3 September, 13 September, 20 September, 27 September, 4 October, 11 October, and 15 October.

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Test Department is a long-term platform hosted by BAK, basis voor actuele kunst and the Fine Art department of MAHKU—Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design. It is developed as a forum for thinking about art and for collective learning, in which the generation and exchange of knowledge are seen as critical vehicles supplying key dynamics for contemporary artistic practice. Its first issue (#1) evolved through a six-month seminar on artistic research and knowledge production in the context of an art institution developed by BAK. Test Department #1 consists of an exhibition and a series of conversations hosted by the participating students, as well as an international expert meeting, which is entitled Towards Education? and examines potential alternative, critical educational strategies positioned between academia and the art institution.

Rather than by instruction or prescribed curriculum, Test Department has unfolded through exploration and experiment. In the framework of graduate art education, we have collaboratively tested a possible model of how to bring art theory and artistic practice closer to each other through systematic negotiation and interactive processes both within the group of the “artists-to-be” and the art institution (which in the particular case of BAK is itself oriented towards artistic and knowledge production). As an alternative to traditional teaching, we searched for a form of sharing ideas that would create an adaptable structure, a flexible venue for informal gatherings on issues we consider urgent. The group has collected impulses for inquiry from within itself, fed by participants’ own interests and concerns and has sought ways of accommodating each individual’s professional needs. Such impulses thus defined the choice of literature, suggested themes for writing, inspired the organization of a series of public talks (MAHKU platform), but mainly nourished discussions (avid, at times!) loaded with productively conflicting intellectual and artistic positions.

To carefully navigate through the multitude of themes the group dynamics brought up, as well as to maintain a sense of advancement towards a common project, a writing assignment was formulated for the participants, in which they were to answer, time and time again, a simple but essential question: “What do you do as an artist, and why?”. Participants’ responses to the (seemingly same) question recurring throughout different stages of the course, however, underwent a process of constant critical and theoretical revitalization. What more could be hoped for from the “department,” in which “testing” is central?

Yet, the meanings residing in the notion of testing do not only refer to experimentation by means of trying out various ideas, concepts, or diverse possibilities (i.e. testing from “within”). The term also points to the examination, an external testing that serves to assess students’ performance, knowledge, and skills. The latter concerns the formal requirement of the graduate academic structure: in this case, a presentation of the completed research in an exhibition (parallel to the written thesis) as a prerequisite for obtaining the Master of Arts degree. This, alongside the fact that the exhibition is to be presented as part of a program of an art institution, and thus not within the sheltering context of the school, naturally lends the intellectual and artistic experimentation a particular undercurrent of striving to attain a goal; a specific quality of tension impinging upon the creative processes, which would otherwise presuppose error and failure as prominent options. Additionally, the search for theoretical fundamentals for a common group project, with ambition to become more than just a summary of individual positions, provided yet another source of conceptual discomfort. Is there more that would link the individual artistic practices within the group than a mere coincidence of being in the same study program? And if the group wanted to challenge the format of a conventional graduate exhibition, what would the options be? Wherein lies the urgency to do it this or that way? How can one negotiate artistic freedom with these restrictions?

It is possible that tensions, restrictions, and antagonisms effectively define the general condition of the world today in a similar way that they determine this particular micro situation of the group of students. Instead of negating these “conflicts” in a belief they could be eliminated, in Test Department #1 these productive challenges are placed in the center of attention as the project’s main, constitutive dimension. Acknowledging the notion of confrontation within this condition as internal to the practice of art also indicates how the participants identify the possible role art can play within current society: as posing the challenge to the prevailing consensus on how things are, and imagining how they possibly could turn out in new and unforeseen ways.

To practically translate these thoughts in preparation for the main part of the exhibition, the students “insert” themselves into the conditions of limitation by means of expressing their personal understanding of contemporary urgencies in art and society solely in the medium of drawing. Only the materials available at BAK (paper, pencils, and the like) can be used to realize the drawings.

The choice of drawing as primary vehicle to communicate the participants’ concerns reflects on the basis articulated in the MAHKU program: “After all, there is not any object, plan, or idea that has not been drawn first or begun as a drawing. Drawing seems to provide transparency: it gives insight through visibility. The conceptual meaning of this primary form of visualization for the domain of art—as well as for domains such as science and technology and their interaction—is the starting point for researching the position and meaning of the (artistic) image in our current visual culture.”

The drawing room is concurrently a place where the students host the weekly public talks with their guests on issues they identify as important. Together with the reference room installed on the first floor, the hosted conversations are there to seek ways of extending the zones of urgency articulated in the drawings. In the reference room, an informal archive containing works and projects produced by the students during the course year, as well as other related materials are installed for consultation. Envisioned like a toolbox for use, it is drenched with anticipation to offer enough means whereby the circumstances of restriction the project speaks about be further tested, but perhaps, with a bit of good luck, eventually overcome.



  • 03.09.2005 (sat) at 18.30 hrs: Nancy Bleck in conversation with philosopher Rosi Braidotti
  • 03.09.2005 (sat) at 21.00 hrs: Juha Laatikainen/WOW presents music, text, and moving images
  • 13.09.2005 (tue) at 20.00 hrs: Theo Marks in conversation with drawing instructor at Eikenstein Max Randrianrivelo
  • 20.09.2005 (tue) at 20.00 hrs: Karien van Assendelft in conversation with cognitive psychologist Frans Verstraten
  • 27.09.2005 (tue) at 20.00 hrs: Chantal Ehrhardt in conversation with artist Fiona Tan
  • 11.10.2005 (tue) at 20.00 hrs: Ellamarthe Debeij in conversation with artist John Körmeling
  • 15.10.2005 (sat) at 20.00 hrs: Joris Lindhout in conversation with semiotician Michel Scherrer

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Suggestions from the archive

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