Internationalism: Bad Mobility


What is bad mobility? I was in Brussels, taking part in a Creative Europe workshop on the i-Portunus artists’ international mobility funding scheme, when this question came up and resounded around the room in uneasy silence. 

The workshop brought together institutional representatives who are in the business of working internationally – artist residency centres, intermediatory arts bodies, biennials and festivals – and a number of artists who had recently been awarded mobility grants to allow them to travel, research, produce work and ‘internationalise’ their practice in an unstructured process-driven way.   

Until the question of bad mobility came up, it hadn’t really been obvious (to me, at least) that discussions of artists’ mobility and internationalisation tend to be progressively self-confident in their approach. In this particular workshop, like many others I’ve previously attended, there was a general consensus to do more, and to solicit further funding to do it even better; to mobilise more artists and encourage those artists that had so far been excluded; to work beyond the axis of cultural centres; to minimise access barriers and the hindrance of the application process; to make the funding less accountable to results, receipts, justifications of value. The entire discussion defaulted on the attitude that artists’ mobility and internationalisation was unquestionably vital in improving the horizon of opportunity for artists and cultural work more generally. 

The question of bad mobility was introduced by Alan Quireyns, Director of AIR Antwerp (and one of the authors of Contemporary Artists’ Residencies: Reclaiming Time and Space – one of only a few books that has sought to build a discourse around the artist residency as a particular institutional and behavioural model of artistic practice in recent years). His rhetorical question introduced the problem of evaluating artists’ mobility in any grant-aided or competitive application process. Regardless of other typical criteria – project proposal, career profile, etc. – should we consider that all mobility is justified in-principle or should we set some limit to its acceptability?

Asking ourselves to consider bad mobility could put some precision to the assessment process of the i-Portunus funding scheme (and various others), but it might also compass the values of international mobility in a broader sense. Environmental impacts are surely top of the list, when it comes to thinking about the detrimental effects of international mobility, and the arts sector should not seek exception from the calls to reduce the carbon emissions of air travel and other mitigating efforts. There are other negative impacts if we also consider how mobility programmes actually exacerbate the precarity of artistic livelihood and cultural work, through their disruption to domestic routines and social and family relations. In the worst cases, I have seen how mobility programmes have effectively pushed artists into the systematic homelessness of seeking one residency after another, year upon year. 

There is also, of course, the broader political discourse in which mobility now finds itself, amid suspicions of ‘global elitism’, growing protectionisms and travel restrictions based on religion and ethnicity. To assume the entitlements and freedoms of travel against this geopolitical backdrop doesn’t necessarily make it bad, but it should act negatively on the conscience if we’re to believe in working internationally as an act of networked solidarity and codevelopment. As Taru Elfving stated pointedly in her essay ‘Residencies and Future Cosmopolitics’: “The age of innocence is over concerning international mobility even for us here in Europe … What does it mean to be mobile at a time of enforced migrations, reinforced borders, growing xenophobia, escalating climate crises, and mass extinctions?… Who has access to global circulation? How and what processes of value production does it take part in? Who and what do travel and, for example, ‘networking’ actually serve?”

In 2018, Flanders Arts Institute published a short pocketbook, titled (Re)framing the International: On new ways of working internationally in the arts, that collected testimonials and research findings on internationalisation from its own regional perspective. The book’s findings, regarding the negative impacts of artistic mobility, included worsening economic inequality, detriments to personal health, cynical instrumentalisations of professional networks, ethical impositions, practice-based compromises, and (albeit slight) examples of environmental abuse. For a state-funded arts advocacy organisation like Flanders Art Institute to support research like this, it threatens to burst the bubble of its own stated mission to promote internationalisation yet provides a rare example of institutional leadership through critical self-awareness that many could learn from.

These issues also need to be seen from structural and infrastructural perspectives. This is especially true in an Irish context, where internationalisation is entirely embedded within models of success and enablement, to the extent that we have naturalised the very real potential differences that it can make, in terms of access to technical and production resources, for instance. There’s a question to be asked about how artists’ funding and policy attitudes have actually reinforced place-based advantages and disadvantages, leaving a small country like Ireland sustainability lacking the kinds of things that we’ve become accustomed to seeking elsewhere. 

This VAN column is the first in a series focusing on ideas of internationalism, and it serves as a way of introducing some of these problematic ideas. Over the next issues, I will focus on how internationalism is precisely manifest in the focussed examples of the biennial model, curatorial research, the commercial market, and the geopolitical distribution of arts discourse itself. For those of us who believe in the value of working internationally, there is a responsibility to be sensitive to what it actually is and what, beyond our own self-interests, is being performed in the process of exploiting these opportunities and privileges. To do anything less would be extremely bad mobility. 

Matt Packer is a curator and the Director of EVA International.