“Was Ist Kunst?”: On Bureaucracy and a Work of Art I May Have Imagined

This post was originally published November 13th, 2021 on the original Soprano on the Verge blog. 

I recall going to an exhibition of dissident art from the Soviet Block at the Centre Pompidou in Paris when I was 18 or 19. 

I only remember one of the pieces of art I may have seen there: A video installation made to look like a recording of a cross examination. The camera was pointed at a haphazard angle at the face of a woman in a plain room while someone in the role, I assume, of a Stasi officer, interrogated her from off camera. He kept repeating the same question: Was ist Kunst? Was ist Kunst?– “What is art?” – in different inflections. The woman kept her eyes down and seemed, as is so often the case in interrogations, to have no answer. 

That’s how I remember it but I haven’t been able to find a record of this work nor so much as a record of this exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in those years, even after sifting through the back end of the gallery catalogue. But it must have been at the Centre Pompidou in the summer of 2009 or 2010 and I’m sure it was an exhibition having to do with underground art from the USSR and that I did, at some point, see a video installation similar to this one. I do have a few assumptions to add: I assume the artist was the woman in the video and that she was from Eastern Germany and, given that the video was, as I recall, in color, that it was made in the 1980s. 

Whether the work exists or not, it (re?)emerged in my memory recently as I struggled through several bureaucratic procedures. The first was our – now postponed – application for Erasmus+ funding for the short film Sentiment. Erasmus is an EU organization dedicated to funding educational initiatives. The second was getting my song duo, Duo KaM, recognized as a legal entity, so that we can apply for funding. 

As I struggled to fill out the grant application and legal entity recognition forms, I learned more about the world we live in than I had in most of my official education. 

In the case of the Erasmus funding, I had approached a grant-writing agency with an idea for a short film and, before I knew it, found myself making the case for an elaborate education project conceived around the film, concocted simply for the purpose of being able to apply for the lump sum of 60 000 Euros for a “small-scale” educational collaboration. This is, as it turns out, typical of grant funding – there is no carte blanche. The people creating the funding opportunities are, unfortunately, creative themselves and the elaborate funding calls they concoct are fever dreams of specifications which, from the perspective of the faceless committees charged with creating them, insure that funded projects are of a high quality and align with governmental goals but, for the person or organization applying for the funding, are mere hoops to jump through and, occasionally, dodge. 

There is a 328 page manual dedicated to Erasmus+ grants – that is why, for a grant such as this, you need someone to guide you, at least if it’s your first time. The problem is that you are then dependent on someone to read through 328 pages of bureaucratic jargon and tell you clearly what you need to do which, in the case of the particular grant advisor we were working with, turned out ot be a problem – the clarity, that is and, I suspect, the actual reading as well. I would ask our grant consultant a “yes” or “no” question (for example: “Do I need to ask for CVs from the FAMU film professors to include in the application?”) and would receive a two minute reply which was neither “yes” or “no” because it turns out there is a funky, subjective, instinct-based aspect to a process governed by a novel-length manual. 

I came to the grant writing organization as a performer with the idea for a short film and a tentative collaboration with a small film production company. The Erasmus funding they recommended is actually meant for two educational institutions, which should have pedagogical experience and an educational mission, and are in two different EU countries. You see the problem, right? I managed to start a collaboration with the Operosa festival, which I was quite proud of procuring, though when I did start the collaboration I did not know to what extent they needed to be involved in the project, because I hadn’t seen the application form, yet. In the form, which I only received after months of deliberation and a couple weeks before the deadline, and which I was filling out myself because my producer had so far been a producer in name only, you must explain how and why the two organizations applying for the funding chose to collaborate and the specific “know-how” they each bring to the project. You must also explain how this project is, in fact, something new for them, how it will “develop” the applying organisations. You must, of course, have a clear sense of your “target group” (i.e. the people being educated by your project) and how your project will benefit them, and whether the benefit will extend beyond the scope of the project itself. You must explain what the final “product” of the educational activity will be and how you plan to advertise it to the public. The project must be 6 to 24 months long and (though this is merely something the grant advisor had told me and I don’t know if it’s written in the manual) some kind of “activity” should be happening every month. In the application, you must write out each “activity” the project consists of, the month(s) in which it will take place, and how many days it will last, how it will benefit the project as a whole, the organizations involved (because it is possible, and perhaps expected, that auxiliary institutions become involved – in our case, it was the local theater school, DAMU), the approximate cost of each activity, and why you think it will cost that much. There also has to be a “methodological” component – activities dedicated to planning and assessing the pedagogy of the project – or so the grant advisor told us a week before the deadline, though that is also something I have not found in the manual. Oh, and all this has to align with the overarching goals of Erasmus, outlined in their manual. 

Note that my above description is a mere summary of the specifications and a paraphrase written in fairly plain English. It is a kind of translation from the grantish. Consider a selection of actual questions (my translations from Czech) in the application form. Note how they have this magical way of seeming perfectly sensible until you actually try to answer them: 

“What are your specific goals and what is the result or results you would like to achieve? How do these goals reflect the Erasmus priorities you have chosen?” 

What is the difference, in this case, between a goal and a result? Never mind, I can talk around that but the formulation of the first question already gives me a headache (the Czech original also had a confusing typo). The full list of priorities is listed in the aforementioned book-length manual. The PDF summary of said manual, created by the grant organization I was working with, listed these specifications in general terms – vague but typical stuff about the environment, digital competency, diversity and inclusion, social engagement. My first hurdle was figuring out how my short film fits into any of the priorities – and the disingenuousness of reverse-engineering alignment with said priorities created a knot in my brain which made answering just the first question of the application one of the most emotionally draining things I’ve ever done. 

“Describe the motivation for your project and explain why it should be financed.” 

I feel like it is impossible to answer the first question without also answering the second – but I guess the second one asks for more heart, something more impassioned, poetic, even? 

And – why should it be financed? Do really I need to justify the notion of education to an educational grant organization? Or are they asking me to justify the existence of the particular field I am trying to educate in? Also shouldn’t my “motivation” for the project already answer the question of why it should be financed? And imagine trying to answer this question for a project which teaches a creative discipline. It really is asking you to justify art itself. Or worse: Was ist Kunst? 

“How does the project contribute to the needs and goals of the involved organizations and the identified needs of their target demographics?” 

How do you distinguish between the “needs and goals” of an institution and its target demographic and why is that distinction important, in this case? Is it important to write out that the goal of an educational institution is to educate (and potentially make money, or create employment, off of said education – but would it be wise to include that in a grant application?) and that the goal of its target demographic is to get educated? Do I have to explain the notion of purpose, the basic human motivations of curiosity and self-actualization – and explain them separately for educators and students? 

The answer is “yes,” you do have to spell those things out, but you cannot explain “purpose” and “self-actualization” in normal human terms. Rather, you must use the right code phrases, written out in the so-called “priorities.” In our case the code phrases were, among other things: digital competency, professional insertion, expansion of professional skills, employability, working with new demographic groups, shifts in the live performance landscape due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“How does cross-country collaboration contribute to the goals of the project?” 

I thought it was mandatory that there be cross-country collaboration? You’re asking me to justify your own specification? 

 “How will you ensure the effective management of the project and good collaboration between the two partnered organizations during the realization of the project?”

How do you even begin to answer this question honestly? 

“Have you used, or do you plan to use, the Erasmus+ platform to prepare, implement, or continue the project? If, so describe how.” 

I did not know this until I procured the aforementioned tome of a manual in order to find answers to questions the grant writing institution never answered, and found there are many platforms, that is, online spaces with various focuses, which are created for EU funded projects to, as they say, “exchange experiences and knowledge.” Behold: 

SELFIE (“Self-reflection on Effective Learning by Fostering the use of Innovative Educational technologies”), a free, multilingual, web-based, self-reflection tool to help general and vocational schools develop their digital capacity 

A “self-reflection tool” with a cool acronym! Move over, Ministry of Magic, move over, J.K. Rowling. 

Despite the fact that the question implies that using such databases is optional, the grant advisor informed us that using the platform was, in fact, necessary and, without consulting us, added a paragraph to the form that said we planned to use the EPALE (Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe) platform and, in fact, had already been using it to prepare the project! 

“How will participation in the project aid the development of the involved organizations in the long term?” 

Another impossible question – obviously, organizations want to complete projects related to their specializations, and every such project contributes in some way to their development. I suppose this question is meant to ascertain whether this project will bring something new to the involved organizations (even as they have to prove that they are utterly prepared to undertake it, of course) and therefore lead to ever-coveted “progress.” But what is the term “long term” doing there? How do you even assess “short term,” let alone “long term,” development – or, for that matter, where one ends and the other begins? And why make that distinction, anyway? 

In his Poetics of Music, Stravinsky writes: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” I tried to remember this as I filled out the form. 

But I couldn’t help feeling like I was speaking to an extra-terrestrial to whom I had to explain why humans want to do the things they do. Why do we want to self-actualize? Why do we want to create and teach others to create? There is no creative purpose which can be explained truthfully without getting deep into philosophy, attempting to answer impossible questions like “Was ist Kunst?” and the purpose of Kunst, and what “purpose” even means. And I realize that the fact that I think this way spells doom for my happiness in the world of smoke and mirrors that is grant writing. And I realize that some of the difficulty of grant application forms is a perfectly valid and, in fact, necessary, attempt to ensure that people don’t apply haphazardly – it’s kind of a “how much do you want this?” shit test. 

But what worries me is that I have heard of individuals who funded their projects (even non-artistic ones) through government subsidies who have said that if they had to do it again, they would only go to private companies for support, because government grants and subsidies have a tendency to put projects through wringers that create something totally different than the applicant originally intended. My experience with the film project is a perfect illustration. 

And that’s not even talking about what happens after you receive funding. The film producer with whom we were turning in the grant told me he heard horror stories about what Erasmus, in particular, does to organizations after they grant them money – he told me that at the FAMU film school, where he works, a film project had to go through a bunch of extra paperwork because they bought a different brand of data-carrier then they listed in their planned budget. Giving money back to grant organizations, he said, is common at the FAMU film school and if it’s common at a well-established institution that surely has its own grant writers, it must be common in general. 

The final breaking point in our first attempt at applying for Erasmus funding was when, a week before the deadline, the grant advisor started writing promises into the form she hadn’t consulted with us – promises that we would track increases in the partnered organizations’ website and social media visitors (she actually wrote that “a 20% increase in website visitors will mean we have reached our goals”!), recording a podcast, and using the EPALE platform. This is when the producer woke from his apathy and started to get paranoid. I could not argue with him when he pointed out that the grant advisor would get her 7% of the grant money whether or not we met the goals of the project or not and that we or, rather, he, through whose company the money would go, were the ones who would have to bear the financial penalty of not meeting our stated goals. He postponed the application to Spring and said he would help me, this time,  draft a less haphazard pedagogical plan and budget. He should have come to his senses earlier but maybe this will mean I finally won’t be doing all of the work myself. 

One more bureaucratic anecdote: 

My own bureaucratic breaking point came recently when I got a response from the Municipal Judiciary about Duo KaM’s request to become a legal entity which asked for some corrections. That in itself was not alarming – I know many people who have founded this lowest form of legal entity (a so-called zapsaný spolek, registered association) and they have told me getting a request for corrections is part of the process for most people who don’t accidently get it right the first time. The request said I must provide an “authorization for the chairwoman of the association, appointed by the members’ meeting, to submit a proposal for registration in the association register – section 226(2) of the Civil Code.” I’m the chairwoman and I turned in the application. There must be at least two other people, besides the chairperson, who found the association – in our case, they are the guitar player of my duo and his wife (I have performed the role of a co-founder for associations I had nothing to do with to help friends out as well – it is standard practice.) 

Here’s what section 226(2) of the Civil Code has to say: “The application for registration of the association in the public register is submitted by the founders or a person designated by the constituting meeting.” Now, I had certified signatures (that’s when you go to a special office to have someone witness you sign something and put a stamp on it) of all three founders as part of the application. The signatures were on our Articles of Association (a kind of constitution), which also appointed me as chairwoman, able to represent Duo KaM in all things. So, it seemed to me that it was clear that a) all of the founders were applying b) I, as the chairwoman (I had to get an extra official signature on a document in order to officially accept the role of chairwoman) could submit the application for Duo KaM. 

When I called the judiciary for clarification the woman on the other end promptly informed me, as every one of her colleagues I spoke to before her, that they are not, in fact, obligated to answer my questions because I’m supposed to find the answers on my own. I pointed out that my question had to do with the unclarity of the very original source I was supposed to consult. The woman pulled up our information and finally said that it seems I should have been designated as someone allowed to turn in the application on behalf of the other two members – this being something else than being appointed chairwoman. I asked what such an authorization was supposed to look like. There was no description in the Civil Code of how one is to be officially “designated” by the constituting meeting. Was it simply a statement written on a separate piece of paper? Were the signatures on it supposed to be certified, like those on the Articles of Association? 

I held for 5 minutes. 

When the woman returned she said she and her colleague “think” that the problem is that the signatures of the other two members are on the Articles of Association and not on the application form I turned in along with it, in which I was listed as the person turning in the application. Instead, she said, I should list Duo KaM z.s. (yes, an as yet non-existent entity, the one we are trying to bring into existence through that very form) as the applicant and get certified signatures of all three member on THAT document instead. 

I know that, as a German guest to my podcast said when he complained about EU bureaucracy, that “I complain at a high level.” Bureaucracy is a kind of safety net, a web of checks and balances which insure stability, if not thriving. I think of lawyers as the intelligentsia of bureaucracy. My grandmother is a law professor who helped rewrite Czech law after the Velvet Revolution and calls law (and therefore, I think, bureaucracy) “the stuff that states are made of” (never mind Kafka’s quote about bureaucratic slime.) So perhaps the opposite of bureaucracy is anarchy, and I am not an anarchist, because, even though anarchy seems to be a bedfellow of the far left, it reminds me more of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, a Slavic sister who lost her heart somewhere between Lenin’s Russia and the American Dream. So, despite feeling as lost as Kafka’s K. and, like him, feeling trapped in a world of unclear questions demanding highly specific answers, being chastised for following vague rules incorrectly, and witnessing lies wherever documentation isn’t required, I cannot but embrace the bureaucratic process. 

And, besides, is there any other interaction with the state during which one finds as many reasons to laugh?