afb. Maria Hlavajova spreekt haar dankwoord uit. 

BAK basis voor actuele kunst ontving zondag 3 februari tijdens een feestelijke bijeenkomst de AICA Oorkonde 2004-2006. Aica voorzitter Janneke Wesseling overhandigde de Oorkonde aan Maria Hlavajova, artistiek directeur van BAK. De AICA oorkonde is toegekend via een stemming onder de AICA leden afgelopen zomer. Er was een ruime opkomst in de grote zaal van de in Utrecht gevestigde kunstinstelling, waaronder Aica leden, ondersteuners van BAK en kunstenaars die ooit in BAK projecten hebben uitgevoerd. Hlavajova was in 2007 artistiek verantwoordelijk voor het Nederlandse Paviljoen op de Biennale van Venetië, waar zij als curator optrad voor het project Citizens and Subjects van Aernout Mik.

In haar dankwoord gaf Hlavajova onder meer een karakterisering van BAK:

If I had to search for words to define what BAK is, I would probably want to think of it as a space dedicated to thinking from, about, and through art. Given this, BAK invests itself in the exploration and empowerment of two vital relationships: the link between art and the public sphere, and the alliance between artistic practice and theory. In this respect, BAK initiates research on diverse subjects of urgency both in art and in society, and together with artists and other cultural practitioners realizes projects such as exhibitions, lectures, education, and publications, but mostly long-term, multifaceted projects including all these options. 

afb. Irit Rogoff: Taking Part

Irit Rogoff, professor of Visual Cultures aan het Goldsmith college van de University of London, hield onder de titel Taking Part een ontspannen lezing over kunstparticipatie en de rollen die de beschouwer kan aannemen, bewust of onbewust, ten overstaan van kunst, of onderdeel wordt van het kunstwerk.

Marga van Mechelen, werkzaam aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam en Aica lid, sprak in haar laudatio over de cruciale rol die BAK inmiddels speelt in de discussie over de positie van kunst ten aanzien van maatschappelijke vraagstukken als culturele identiteit en migratie. Samengevat zegt Van Mechelen in haar laudatio:

AICA Netherlands presents this award to BAK for the extraordinarily strong fabric of its programme; the coherence of its subjects; the mutual support of its diverse activities (exhibitions, publications and debates); the courageous way its deals with major topics; the thorough preparation of all its activities; the quality of the art and artists it has presented to the Dutch public; and the way it has made that public aware of art from regions lesser known in the Netherlands. Further: AICA presents BAK with this award for its approach to the public; the active role it has played in bringing people from different disciplines and backgrounds together; its stimulating role in joining forces in the cultural field. Finally: AICA presents this award because BAK has now become an essential element within the art world in the debates about war, cultural identities, new citizenship and migration – issues that dominate the world today.

 afb. Marga van Mechelen, laudatio

Binnenkort willen willen we hier een quick-time film van de lezingen plaatsen. Voor de complete teksten van de redes door Maria Hlavajova en Marga Van Mechelen klik op  


Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues and friends, it is my pleasure to welcome you to BAK, basis voor actuele kunst on this special, two-fold occasion: the presentation of the AICA Award 2004–2006 to BAK, and a lecture by Irit Rogoff, Professor of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths College, University of London, entitled Taking Part.

We are very proud that the members of the Dutch section of the International Association of Art Critics have chosen to give the AICA Award for 2004–2006 to BAK, and I would like to take this opportunity to briefly mention some aspects of our work, especially at this point in time, as just three days ago we submitted an application for a new four-year period of financing within the Dutch “Cultuurconvenant”—and like most of the art institutions in the Netherlands, we have been busy articulating what is it that we stand for and what moves us forward. Yet before doing so, I would like to express my admiration for and support of the other five institutions that were selected as Award nominees by AICA for their outstanding work: Stedelijk Museum Schiedam; Amsterdam-based Public Space with a Roof (PSWAR); Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA); Stichting Kunst en Openbare Ruimte (SKOR); and Kunst en Bedrijf. I think this award is a little bit your award too, so congratulations.

But to return to BAK…. BAK opened on 17 May 2003— just over four years ago—as the result of the conceptual and practical transformation of its predecessor, the artists’ initiative Begane Grond. Three years prior to that, in 2000, the organization appointed me as artistic director and Arjan van Meeuwen as executive director, with the ambition to infuse its activities with new energy and vision. From then on, the institution undertook the task of rethinking itself and embarked on a process of reorientation in search of the ideal contemporary art institute. BAK could be said to be an embodiment of such a trajectory of continuous questioning of the conditions and parameters for a space dedicated to art, and as such, an experimental response to a number of questions that marked this endeavour: Why call a new institution to life, and specifically why in the Netherlands, with its field of art oversaturated with institutions? How can one conceive of an art institution that recognizes the profound international—global even—condition in which we work, and at the same time deals with the issues that appeal to and are relevant for the people in Utrecht and in the Netherlands? How can one activate the potential of the city of Utrecht vis-à-vis cultural players such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, not to mention Berlin, Istanbul, or Hong Kong? How can an art institution operate beyond the capitalist imperatives of the cultural industry, entertainment, spectacle, and quantitative visitorship today? How can we imagine an institution that would not be just an empty vessel waiting to be filled with unrelated exhibitions and objects, but rather a body that seriously engages in thinking together with artists and cultural producers, and which speaks only when it has something to say? Can artistic practice(s) and the discourse around it be recognized as equals and dealt with as such? How might we rearticulate the notion of the art institution’s power into one of responsibility? What are the possibilities at our disposal for responding to the urgencies of our times? In short, what is to be done?

BAK is in fact our answer to these questions, exemplified by practices of participation, discursivity, production, flexibility, fluidity, and criticality. Envisioned not as a number of strictly defined contents or projects, but rather as a way of acting and thinking, not as the discovery or realization of something pre-given, but a process and a development, a continuous activation of the possibility of art, BAK has become a basis; a base, an understructure, a principal constituent, a fundamental support, and a foundation on which artistic practice and discourse activities can rest and develop further.

Through its activities, BAK proposes the understanding of art in its expanded sense, envisioned beyond the traditional art sphere based on the Enlightenment ideals of display of knowledge, power, spectatorship, and the bourgeois public, and thus as a uniquely open field of possibilities inside society, in which imaginative speculation, experimentation, and the articulation of alternatives, proposals, and models of “what might be” takes place, and as a field in which various discourses—aesthetic, cultural, political, social, economic, and other—intersect and exchange.

If I had to search for words to define what BAK is, I would probably want to think of it as a space dedicated to thinking from, about, and through art. Given this, BAK invests itself in the exploration and empowerment of two vital relationships: the link between art and the public sphere, and the alliance between artistic practice and theory. In this respect, BAK initiates research on diverse subjects of urgency both in art and in society, and together with artists and other cultural practitioners realizes projects such as exhibitions, lectures, education, and publications, but mostly long-term, multifaceted projects including all these options.

There is so much more I would like to say here, but I will not, as we all actually want to listen to Irit’s lecture this afternoon. I’ll just mention that in case you are interested, you are very welcome to read BAK’s policy document entitled “Space for Art and Thinking” on our website. Yet, there is something I find of critical importance to mention: if BAK, in its brief history, realized outspoken range of projects, contributed significantly to the discourse about and through art, and achieved large recognition on numerous levels—and the AICA prize we are about to receive proves this—it is only thanks to the strenuous efforts of a few committed individuals both within and outside of the organization of BAK, dedicating themselves to this work beyond the call of duty, testing the boundaries of what is possible, and doing all of this in uncertain conditions. At this moment BAK finds itself at a crossroads and it only has a chance to survive and hopefully develop further towards exciting new possibilities if the conditions under which we work improve. BAK’s existence has so far been an existence in “precarity”—given limited financial means, an existence without predictability or security, affecting all facets of its welfare. In order to achieve a realistic situation in which BAK can move forward, its subsidy needs to significantly increase. BAK would then be capable to undertake a trajectory of intelligent growth: growth not in size of exhibition space, not in the number of its activities, but in depth and concentration. For it is only if we manage to overcome the asymmetry between the quality and intensity of our activities on one hand, and the circumstances within which we labor on the other, that BAK will have the chance to meaningfully move towards its future.

BAK’s short history has certainly taught me that a powerful vision and a great team are not all that are required for doing significant work. Institutions also need a political constellation open for new ideas and possibilities. I admit we have had luck in this respect and encountered openness in the City of Utrecht and on the national level, as well as at numerous foundations, and—well, in most cases—amongst colleague institutions, for which we are grateful, but also truly hopeful that this generosity, but mainly the recognition of the possibility to take part in our ambition, will continue.

While most of the time I speak on BAK’s behalf, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the people who are responsible for much of the “real work” behind our projects. I want to stress their role and contribution to what BAK has become, and what it strives to become further, namely I would like to thank: Arjan van Meeuwen, executive director; Binna Choi, curator; Jill Winder, curator of publications; Suzanne Tiemersma, project coordinator; and Franka Faase, office manager; as well as all the people that have worked with BAK since its inception. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank BAK’s board, as they have been courageous in supporting what sometimes seemed impossible: chairwoman Annelies van der Horst, as well as Dirk Jan Blikendaal, Tom van Gestel, and Alex de Vries.

Finally I would like to express my appreciation to the many supporters of BAK in attendance today who have come to share this afternoon with us. . . I can see people from the Mondriaan Foundation, Utrecht University, and other institutions—Casco, de Appel, Witte de With and many others, but last but of course not least the many artists and cultural practitioners—among them Aernout Mik, who has made especially last year so memorable for us.


BAK is one of the very few institutions to be chosen to receive an award. While many awards are given to individuals – excellent artists, writers, musicians, brilliant scientists or promising students – only a few awards are meant for abstract entities such as art centres.Awards are given for outstanding qualities, which are then given verbal form in tributes that mention all, and nothing but, the virtues of the person awarded.

It seems odd to speak of the virtues of an institution, but is it? Especially when such an institution is not actually that “abstract”? Is it not often simply because of a recognisable and distinguished identity that institutions are selected?

A look at the other nominees of AICA Netherlands confirms this notion. Both SMBA, Public Space without a Roof and, in the past, the Pavilions in Almere all have a highly specific identity – as I think you will all agree.

In the case of SKOR, the fourth nominee this year, one is probably less inclined to see its identity as its main virtue. It brings another criterion to the fore, one that perhaps counts more for institutions than for people, namely that the nominee has made much more of its task than could normally be expected.

All these qualities come together in the manner in which BAK has presented itself to the world since it began operating in May 2003. It has a clear identity; it has many virtues; and its numerous efforts to let art play a productive role in debates about social, cultural, and political issues were almost – so to speak -“superhuman”.

By saying this I move in a somewhat risky direction: the area not so much of tributes as of eulogies There is a Dutch saying: “over de doden niets dan goed”, which means: one should only speak well of the dead – a phrase that can be applied all too easily to tributes as well. As we all know, there are many prizes given to people who already have one foot in the grave. But the AICA award is not such a thing. It is an award for being alive and keeping alive the things for which one stands and for which one garners praise. In other words: We can’t do without BAK. It has a job to do, or more appropriately in this case: BAK has a mission to fulfil.

Although I usually hesitate to use grand phrases, on this occasion I won’t hold back. I’d like to talk about virtues, identity, and qualities, which I will name and make as concrete as possible for you.

BAK began in 2003 in the enlarged and renovated building of the former artists’ space Begane Grond, in the centre of Utrecht. Maria Hlavajova and Arjen van Meeuwen became the directors and they formed their staff. Maria had come to the Netherlands in 1999, after working for almost 10 years at the SOROS centre for contemporary art in Bratislava – for five of those years as its director – and this background, as many of you know, still plays a role in her idea of an open society and in her interest in issues affecting Eastern Europe and the artists who come from there. Her stay and teaching in the US also gave her the experience of another world. But what has she, Arjen and their team made of BAK in the last couple of years?

BAK’s primary virtue is the way in which it encounters its public, be it through its website – a virtual encounter – or when visiting its exhibition space or attending the many debates it has organized. The website opens with a mission statement of 460 words. (I promised you I’d be concrete) and is signed by the director.

I won’t quote from it – you can read it yourself – but it a true self portrait of an institution. Having known its practices for many years, I recognize it in every feature. BAK takes its mission seriously.

The website is a reflection of all the qualities one finds elsewhere in the program: it is up-to-date, accessible, precise, and thorough. Every project is documented first by an introduction, then a short text, followed by a longer text for further reading. Of course, biographical details and photographic documentation are also included, and visitors are given the possibility to react and to exchange opinions with one another.

I spent the days between Christmas and New Year’s listening to many talks and debates I had missed last year, thanks to the links on this website to the video archive. Thank you so much for making this possible!

BAK’s identity is also partly formed by its series of little booklets which every visitor to the exhibitions gets for free, and which they undoubtedly cherish for their eminently readable content. The introductory texts are usually written by one of the staff members, most often by the director or by Binna Choi. These are the texts I like to read and re-read. They take the reader seriously and the style is excellent, even in Dutch translation; (Jill, Danila this compliment is meant for you in particular). These texts are deeply engaged with the artists and with the subjects at hand.

The choices of the artists in solo exhibitions are always a surprise. Sometimes names that are hardly known in The Netherlands, or are almost forgotten. Sometimes unexpected big shows as the one of Kutlug Ataman recently.

And then there are the debates. As you will have noticed, I have so far paid most of my attention to the forms through which BAK communicates with its public: the contents of the website and the format and content of its booklets. I want to continue in this vein by stressing the way Maria moderates the debates. I hope that those of you who have attended these debates will agree that their quality owes much to the eloquent and emphatic way Maria introduces her speakers, explains the purpose of the debate, and challenges the speakers as well as the audience. I once heard someone say that she is the best moderator in the Netherlands at the moment – and because I promised myself that for once I would not be afraid of superlatives, I would like to say how wholeheartedly I agree.

BAK is diligent. I counted 17 books and booklets in just five years time. Not too bad, I think, especially if we look at the content of these publications, and the range of important, internationally known contributors – artists as well as cultural practitioners. Publications related to Now What? Dreaming a Better World in Six Parts. A book published on the occasion of the series of conversations entitled Becoming Oneself in 2002. Lots of titles one can easily remember: “Cordially Invited”; “Now What?”; “Who if not We?” Often titles ending with question marks. And if you missed any of these publications, you certainly will not have missed Citizens and Subjects, a series of debates and a book related to Aernout Mik’s contribution to the Venice Biennale. A difficult task for the small but highly motivated BAK team.

Many institutions choose the easy way of creating an identity, namely by way of their house style. Not BAK. Although BAK mostly works with the same graphic designers, content and purpose always come first. It is through these relatively small details that one notices BAK’s intelligence and capacity for critical reflection.

BAK is hospitable. Visitors and artists always receive a warm welcome. This should be normal, but it is not. Forgive me for once again for maligning those other – usually large-size – institutions that organize lectures and symposia. It has all too often been my experience that only one member of staff is present at these events. At BAK it would be unusual for staff members to be absent. There is always ample time to chat with them and others after talks or debates, even if the events are hosted elsewhere. Sometimes you will be invited to join in a meal together in order to have more time to speak with the artists or lecturers invited. These are all things that have to do with commitment and beliefs.

This element of hospitality recently took on another, more institutional form with BAK’s Research-in-Residence programme, which provides international artists, researchers, writers, curators, and critics with an opportunity to spend a period of time living and working in the city of Utrecht. The programme is open to anyone with an affinity to BAK’s practices and committed to the development of cooperative projects revolving around BAK’s primary themes. BAK has courage: courage to undertake big projects and, when it concerns cooperation with other institutions (as is often the case, especially the University of Utrecht), courage to take the lead as well; courage to deal with big issues; courage, above all, to experiment with new ways of tackling them. So let me mention – I think you are waiting for it – a few of these projects.

Now What? Dreaming a Better World in Six Parts is one of those memorable large-scale projects so characteristic of BAK. Two exhibitions, one done by guest curators, one by BAK itself; a re-enactment (so to speak) and actualisation of James Lee Byars’ The World Question Centre; five talks about a better world; a newspaper and a book of artists’ writings. The project was prepared beforehand in workshops with art theorists, philosophers, critics, curators, and artists.

And then in the year 2004 “Who if not we should at least try to imagine the future of all this? 7 episodes on (ex)changing Europe” – again ending with a question mark, although an exclamation point would have been just as appropriate. On the occasion of the Netherlands chair-personship of the European Union, Maria Hlavajova coordinated seven exhibitions, three in the Netherlands and four abroad, all dealing with the art of so-called “New Europe” following the expansion of the EU, under the heading of Thinking Forward. Again a project that was accompanied by a book, this time with important texts about European cultural diversity. One of the three exhibitions took place at BAK under the title Cordially Invited, an invitation to artists to play with conceptions about hospitality and newcomers. Concerning War began already in the end of 2005 as a project developed out of the urgent need to create a space for artists, writers, curators, scholars, and the public to speak about our contemporary condition in an ongoing “general global state of war”. These are the words of Maria Hlavajova, quoting from Hardt and Negri’s book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. This time a project that was planned in two parts: an exhibition called Soft Target and a series of talks entitled “Undercurrents”. History, however, took a different course. Following these two events, Aernout Mik’s Raw Footage/Scapegoats – what was probably BAK’s best received installation – kept the subject alive. There is no need to talk about this work, nor about his installation at the Dutch pavilion in Venice. In spite of all the difficulties, the criticism in the press – “why Mik again?” – and the problems in getting the project financed, Maria’s choice appears to have been the right one. Perseverance is undoubtedly one of her virtues as well. Perseverance inspired and fostered by engagement and commitment to things that are important to her, her team and to us. A strong belief in the role art can play in the reflection on social, political and cultural issues.

Marga van Mechelen, February 3, 2008

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