The Making of P.A.P.A.

Article by Michelle Kasprzak about Lino Helling's work.

“We were like a farmer’s family,” Lino Hellings tells me as I sit in her Amsterdam studio. She’s telling me about Dogtroep, the theatre group she was a core member of from the time the group started in 1975, until 1992. The group became well-​known for a particular style of visual theatre, mostly wordless, and mostly in public spaces. Lino describes Dogtroep as a “travelling workshop”, a descriptor that seems apt not just for Dogtroep but for the projects she led or has been involved with in the following years. The farmer’s family work ethic was combined with a bottom up, process-​oriented way of working that continues to mark Lino’s practice right up to the present day, including her work leading the Participating Artists Press Agency (P.A.P.A.). Flipping through a book covering the work of Dogtroep the importance of the visual dimension of this performance group becomes clear -- each image is striking and composed, though it is just documentation. “My working method is unchanged, but society has changed”, Lino says. It’s true, I think, reflecting on P.A.P.A. and how it works.
      But we’re not talking about P.A.P.A. just yet. I’m still interested in finding out more about what the projects that came before: how they worked and where they came from. There is a stack of books on the table that reflect the range of influences on these projects: A book documenting the Fotoaktion group; Essays on the Blurring between Art and Life by Allan Kaprow; The Art of Taking a Walk by Anke Gleber; Non-​places:Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity by Marc Augé. I pick the books up and flip through as Lino continues to describe the transition from Dogtroep to later works. An initial cover design for a forthcoming book about P.A.P.A. sits next to this stack of books on the table. This design concept is a photo of stacks like the one in front of me on the floor of Lino’s studio, along with piles of notes and printed emails and other files. It is an attractive mess, and though the piles are representative of so much work, as a photo they could also be anyone’s pile of paperwork and books to file. I am reminded of something Allan Kaprow wrote: “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.” Here the line is indeed liquid. Everyday paperwork becomes part of the process, and the artistic process is disguised as everyday paperwork.
      After Dogtroep, in the early nineties, the power of the World Wide Web was making itself known and here Lino saw a creative opportunity. She asked herself how “...we can transform ‘the virtual’ back into ‘the physical world’ in a refreshing way.” One project she described to me stands out for its ingenuity in this regard. A project entitled ‘The School with the Most Windows’ involved Lino working with children at a school, where she asked them to look again at their surroundings, drawing the entire school. Once this mammoth task was completed, the drawings were uploaded to a website to create a 3D walk-​through of the school online. Different drawing styles mesh together, and the result is a charming and highly personal portrait of this place.
      The changes in governance of public space over the years have significantly altered the conditions in which artists can use it. An increasingly litigious society means that working in public was no longer open to Dogtroep’s free-​wheeling antics but about getting health and safety waivers. As Lino put it, commissioners often wanted “vandalism proof, maintenance-​free” artwork. This oppressive air sparked a re-​evaluation on Lino’s part, thinking about where else she could apply elasticity and flexibility in a creative process, while remaining free of the white cube gallery context. As her stories of failed or abandoned public art projects were told, the importance of the process became clear: “that’s where my heart lies, in the process, the research” Lino says.
      The first parts of Lino’s response to these unfavourable conditions came at the Internationale Fotomanifestatie Noorderlicht 2006 when Lino first set eyes on the work of Drik, a photo agency based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Drik (which means ‘vision’ in Sanskrit) is a photo agency representing the “majority world” and is a direct challenge to “Western media hegemony.” They also make beautiful images. I recalled the beauty of the images of Dogtroep’s work as Lino told the story of her initial interactions with Drik. She wrote a letter to the director of Drik asking if they would take her on as an artist in residence. At first there was no reply, but a second email resulted in the invitation to go to Bangladesh. “How does Drik work, what can I learn?” Lino wondered. “Curiosity is my motor.”
      The seed for the Errorist movement, which was the project that would evolve into P.A.P.A., was planted in Bangladesh. The concept of this movement was simple: everyone should be free to make mistakes and look a bit foolish if it means you might reach out and learn something about someone else. The idea that the right to make mistakes is a human right resonated with people. This light-​hearted movement posited that mistakes indicate risk which indicates openness – radical openness. “I made it a mission to make contact,” Lino said and then described how when she was in Bangladesh and asking if she could take pictures, people laugh and smile, they clearly enjoyed it. Once, in a car, she flipped the LCD screen of the camera around to show the people she was photographing outside the car, and this simple, uncommon gesture made the action of taking someone’s photo more of a conversation.
      Lino wondered if she could read public space in another culture, and in a way that is not about pity or parachuting in as an expert. She found that the kind of reading public space that she was exploring in her first trip to Bangladesh and with the Errorist movement was of value in terms of trying to understand the set binaries of our world: poor and rich, good guys and bad guys. “It’s a slippery area, you don’t want to be inhuman and make it into an abstract thing. On one side, I’m an artist, I don’t want to change the world, I’m not a social worker.” Later on in our discussion she also acknowledges that “making research available to people is a method of empowerment.” Clear parallels with Dogtroep and the School with the Most Windows are visible in the working methods: research-​by-​doing, and having the people in the process, as co-​authors.
      So why create a news agency? Lino quotes a report from a contact at BBC News: “News is what someone, somewhere decides that it is” and she goes on to explain that “it is impossible to provide a simple definition or formula for news. It comes down to a judgement as to what is important or interesting to a particular audience.” Described in this manner, the allure of news as a framing device is apparent: everyone understands what it is, and everyone is also hard pressed to come up with a true definition, making it the ultimate flexible container.
      Drik was also a powerful example of what was possible in the press agency model, and that example combined with other advice being given at the time were strong influences. The 1st P.A.P.A. lab was in Sept. 2009, and Lino had come into contact with an advertising agency that wanted to help. They told her the name “Errorist” was not good, and advised her to create an artistic press agency from the beginning. The advertising people came up with the P.A.P.A. name, built the first website, and developed the first logo. Advice and guidance flowed freely, especially in these early days.
      Lino has resisted the urge to insert “big ideas” and managed to just keep it simple. Her role is as a kind of film director, using a fractal model of working, where an observer zooming in and out of the process finds P.A.P.A. photographers using the same methods and finding links between disparate places all over the world. Her process is public, but not democratic. The photographers she works with in each P.A.P.A. lab receive instruction, but also have to be able to write, and work independently. When Lino is there she shows the method, which can be summed up in a single sentence -- picture whatever catches your eye. Though the project director, she doesn’t interrupt or correct people, and she doesn’t have to: the rules are so clear and simple that operating within them is less like being behind fence and more like positioning within a frame. Indeed, Shahidul Alam from Drik commented that he had never before worked with such an open brief, though he also comments that “freedom is very strict.”
      The sections on the front page of the P.A.P.A. website give you a sense of its wide range of influences: “Skinny Jeans”, “He Is Probably Drunk”, “Lonely”, “Business Woman”, “Dove”, “Luck Out”, “Attorney General’s Office”. Or as the P.A.P.A. website explains: “The keywords are the gold of P.A.P.A. They are ‘generating categories’, ‘new frames of mind’ that enable the public (general as well as professional) to create ideas in their head.”
      The mission statement of P.A.P.A. has shifted over the years. Initially, it was described as “a network of artists and correspondents that creates news by taking action” and that the correspondents “report on a selected number of world scripts” that “everybody in the world takes part in.” Later this mission changed, and P.A.P.A. was called “an internationally curated network of artist-​correspondents”, with an emphasis on its nomadic nature and how it emerges in a temporary fashion in places around the globe. Around this time P.A.P.A. was also described as “an instrument for world mapping gently fixing even the most stubborn pieces into a meaningful pattern.” Now, bearing the traces of experiences from P.A.P.A. projects in Lagos, Sao Paolo, Rotterdam, and most recently in Bishkek, P.A.P.A. is “an institute for artistic research” and explicitly stakes its interdisciplinary claim on “art, city development, politics and the news industry.”
      The P.A.P.A. working method and concept inspires a lot of people, who have at various points directly offered to share in shaping its future. So far, these direct overtures have been resisted. At first P.A.P.A. existed as a system with Lino at the head of it, giving it shape, but now it is perhaps ready to open up. Satisfied with the shape it has right now, for the first time Lino is now able to listen to other people’s visions and ideas for P.A.P.A. What’s the future of P.A.P.A. then? Lino wonders if I have any ideas. I lean forward, and say “Well, ...” but don’t have an immediate answer. Tinkering with the future of something so beautifully simple and that works so well is an imposing task.

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