Falke Pisano:
to be
governed like that
by that

For her project-based exhibition at Kunstinstituut Melly, artist Falke Pisano presents a new work that stems from her year-long research into the first savings bank in Rotterdam. Established in the early nineteenth century, the Savings Bank in Rotterdam (Spaarbank te Rotterdam) was created by a group of affluent residents and an emerging local bourgeoisie. Some of the people involved in this bank’s foundation were related to the Society for Public Welfare (Maatschappij tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen), which, for its part, had been established a few decades earlier, in 1784. The purpose of this foundation was to stimulate personal growth and self-discipline amongst working-class citizens and those who were financially underprivileged. The foundation saw the dissemination of “virtue” as a way to mend a divided society. The opening of Spaarbank championed this belief, too.

At the Rotterdam City Archive (Rotterdam Stadsarchief), Pisano had access to board-meeting minutes, reports, and correspondence pertaining to these institutions. She also regularly visited the Engelfriet family's website, which shares various kinds of histories about Rotterdam. These findings, along with further reading, introduced her to the advent of a “civil society” in The Netherlands at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The artist explains that, through her research, she came across the so-called bourgeois “civilizing offensive” of the 19th Century, and that she was able to place the history of the Savings Bank in context. “I focused largely on the way common values and worldviews of the upper classes were conveyed through administrative language,” she says, “which I found future-oriented and patronizing, and, as such, disruptive and transformative of social relations and institutions.”

In her new work, not / to be / governed like that / by that, Pisano straddles the legacy and contemporary currency of such viewpoints and language around poverty prevention. The centerpiece of Pisano’s installation is shaped after a typical boardroom table. The tabletop is made up of seven separate panels, each with unique screen-printed illustrations underneath. These illustrations show actions, spaces, and moments of exchange, crisis, and control. While at first concealed, the illustrations are revealed during scheduled performances by Pisano, where she will use them to deliver different narrations. This also means that, formally, the artist’s performance involves overturning the sculpture’s main surface, and thus the purported function of a table connoting decision-making power.

The artist's performance consists of a three-part monologue; each part is performed once a month by Pisano between September and November. The first part of the performance focuses on the establishment of the Rotterdam Savings Bank in 1818. It speaks to forms of resistance and positions against notions of virtue, both then and now. The second part revolves around the national financial crisis of 1844, which sparked a public debate, eventually leading to the creation of new policy and a modern approach to personal and societal responsibilities. A key topic of conversation at the time was the bill proposed by Finance Minister Van Hall for an extra tax levy – avoidable if wealthy Dutch people provided a loan of 127 million guilders to the state by purchasing government bonds at 3% interest. The third part of Pisano's performance focuses on 1899, when the Savings Bank began to take steps towards expansion. The bank office was reorganized: teller counters were introduced to improve customer flow; banking services were no longer carried out by board members but by trained officials; opening hours were extended to eight hours a day. Optimization also began to appear in other institutions at the time. Whether it was the development of living rooms in homes or social welfare programs, spatial and legal arrangements in society were shaping institutions into managers.

On Sunday, 11 June 2023, as part of the exhibition-opening weekend programs, Pisano will give a brief introduction to not / to be / governed like that / by that. Then, during the summer, she will meet with different people experienced in matters and policies pertaining to savings, debt, and social welfare. These meetings will be held within her exhibition, lending another use to her sculpture and art installation. The artist anticipates that the conversations held there will have meaningful repercussions for her work. These exchanges will shape not just the script’s narrative, but likewise the artist’s overall performance. For example, they may sway the viewpoints and voices she takes on, her body movement, and her uses and displays of the image panels.

The composition of Pisano’s not / to be / governed like that / by that will thus take different arrangements over the course of its five-month exhibition period. Her installation also includes a series of posters displaying, among other things, historical announcements from the Savings Bank and the Society for Public Welfare, plus an audio piece by the artist. The latter serves as a voice-over to the mise-en-scène of changing value systems that Pisano’s work comes to picture. Her attention to the current financial inequality experienced in Rotterdam motivates and informs her new work. So does her long-standing artistic interest in changing value systems that support, transform, and upend common language and social relations, as much as civic institutions.

Pisano’s exhibition is titled after a fragment of a longer line in a text on “critique” authored by Michel Foucault. The artist splits the cited words with line breaks, encouraging interpretations in the breaths marked by the pronunciation of each segment: not / to be / governed like that / by that. With this new work, her critique is directed towards economic “autonomy” and financial “independence” as guiding principles, terms common in the arts sector and no less in conservative discourses on wellbeing. These are ideologically-charged terms, often promoting blank statements on “freedom” to romantics, as much as to the working class of an ever-precarious society. The work of Pisano, whose artistic practice has engaged with language for nearly two decades, is thus an invitation to meaningfully probe: who comes to use these terms as guiding values; when, and to what ends; at what cost?

For the artist, “making and presenting art is a way to publicly think about enduring ideas, customs, and institutions.” Pisano’s artistic practice persistently engages with institutions so as to address and challenge their roles in society. With not / to be / governed like that / by that, she inaugurates a new body of work exploring historic and contemporary forms and domains of governance; what has unsettled these in the past, what could unsettle these today?

Falke Pisano not / to be / governed like that / by that is curated by Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, and organized by Julija Mockute. Her performance-based exhibition is presented in the project space of Kunstinstituut Melly’s second-floor galleries. This space was created in 2020; before then, it was the director’s office and a meeting room. Pisano was commissioned to realize this new work as part of Anchored, an exhibition series focused on the institution’s building, its street, and its neighbors and vicinity. This series promotes the understanding that making meaningful transformation requires historical awareness as much as an understanding of the present. Two earlier projects of this exhibition series, which were also presented in this project space, were created by artist Sam Samiee and artist Michel Huijben, and curated by Vivian Ziherl and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, respectively. In recent years, other projects of Anchored have included documentary displays about other nineteenth-century developments in Kunstinstituut Melly’s street. These were developed through research at the Rotterdam Stadsarchief, conducted by Wendy van Slagmaat-Bos, and have featured a defunct museum and a demolished botanical garden.

Thanks to Peter Graafland / Mesh Print Club for silkscreen production




Supported By

Stichting Elise Mathilde Fonds

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