On a summer morning in 2012, two young artists, Esta and Jack, from the Russian art group Tesamie (Those Ones), held up a sign with large printed letters: “Good Morning!” It was directed at passengers in a St. Petersburg metro station, who smiled in response or just passed by them without looking. The artists wore smart suits and carnival masks as they welcomed citizens of the city. The following day, several local media outlets reported that the artists had been removed by police. As one newspaper explained, police officers told the artists (who recorded their conversation with authorities), “Citizens have no right to address strangers and wish them a good morning.” A passerby interviewed by a local TV crew expressed dismay: “What kind of a city do we live in? It was nice to have someone wish me good morning as I was rushing to work. They did not bother or obstruct anyone.”1 Police officers explained their actions as a matter of public policy: “Right now, you cannot express your opinion about ‘certain social values’ in public without getting official permission in advance.”2 The implication is that to greet strangers is to threaten the existing political order. In this case, the welcome (of these artists) was literally arrested.
The artists wanted to dress “appropriately,” in a way that would imply respect and attention, to mirror their intention of creating a special atmosphere for those whom they were greeting. The gestures and behaviors related to a proper greeting are part of the personal repertoire that an individual employs in social encounters. The collective term for these learned behaviors is etiquette, which is defined in Google’s dictionary as “the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group” and in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as “the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life.”3 The authorities in Russia revealed the meaning behind the latter definition, as they wanted to manage how citizens greeted each other—or not—in public places. The artists, in contrast, used their own sense of polite behavior to influence what constitutes etiquette in urban spaces among Russian citizens.
When is a smile or a greeting an expression of defiant hospitality, and when is it a sign of complacency with the inbuilt inequalities of welcome that privilege the wealthy and the powerful? The answer is complicated because the duality implied in this question, between the personal and the political, is not strictly fixed in real life, even in authoritarian societies. Individuals who have authority to enforce “proper” behavior in their own families might not have much authority in the larger society, particularly if that society discriminates against them. A smile that is seen as appropriate when directed at a member of one’s own social group might be viewed as a faux pas or even treasonous when given to a perceived “enemy” of that group, moving into the realm of “defiant hospitality.” Therefore, this topic is relevant to any society in which inherent inequalities result in some people being deemed more worthy of welcome than others.
In this chapter, I examine the tensions among various histories of, attitudes toward, and approaches to etiquette and how they reveal the politics and aesthetics inherent in the minor gestures of hospitality scenes—greetings, smiles, small talk, and the like, or what I call here microcourtesies, as analogous to microaggressions.4 I explore criticisms that such gestures are potentially complicit with existing inequalities, maintaining the status quo between the powerful and the powerless rather than challenging it. It is possible that Esta and Jack, the artists who stood in the St. Petersburg metro with greeting signs, could be seen as placating the authoritarian regime by soothing citizens’ feelings, helping to create a Potemkin village, rather than calling for regime change (as the Pussy Riot art group did, for example).
Recent years have seen increasing interest among artists and scholars regarding the topic of the use of civility and graciousness as tools for promoting social progress. To some extent, this interest is driven by the search for new forms of resistance, because old party politics are seen to be in crisis: no matter which party is in power, economic inequalities continue to grow, and social tensions are growing with them. The rise of nationalism and hostility toward immigrants and refugees often takes the form of open incivility, such as rudeness, verbal threats, and expressions of mockery intended to make anyone who looks like an “Other” feel unwelcome. Even if a society’s immigration laws protect a specific person’s right to reside in that society, that person may end up living her everyday life within a hostile environment that specifically targets her sense of belonging.
In his contribution to a fascinating collection of essays titled Etiquette: Reflections on Contemporary Comportment, American thinker David Farrell Krell makes an argument that civility can avert communal violence:
For a period in U.S. academic history that loves to chase loudly after an ethics, hoping thereby to found a lasting and decent politics, discussions of etiquette must seem to be aiming far below the mark—indeed, such discussions must seem apolitical, unethical, downright rude. Yet our time may come to understand that the ethico-political craze in philosophy and theory these days is precisely that, a craze, and an expression of some deep-lying desperation—so that, when all is said and done, what we have to learn how to cherish is the meager hope that human beings may learn civility. If they cannot refrain from murder, let them at least try a touch of politesse. Who knows? Etiquette may reduce the killing more effectively than an entire ethico-political police force hiding in our philosophy departments.5
If Krell is sarcastic here, it is because he believes that the grand political claims of his discipline, philosophy, have gone nowhere. Civility, which has been downgraded as a minor and bourgeois strategy, might end up being more important and powerful than larger claims to ethics and politics by academic progressives who have been fighting big political structures (think neoliberalism and capitalism). Krell does not chastise “snowflakes”—a name often used to mock college students and other young people who call for safe spaces, grammatically “incorrect” use of gender pronouns, and training about mansplaining, microaggressions, and unconscious biases. Although many of his fellow critical theorists do offer criticisms of “snowflakes” and their approach, Krell champions civility as a saving grace of our age. If his tone sounds desperate, it is because he seems to think that other strategies have failed.
In another contribution to the Etiquette collection, leading African American scholar and writer bell hooks paints a more complex picture of the power of civility. Her account is enriched by nuances regarding the differences in how civility affects those who have been welcomed by the society at large (such as white Americans) and those who have been excluded from any national welcome. In hooks’s account, a different type of hope for etiquette emerges.
Born in Kentucky, in the segregated South, hooks observed how important etiquette was for African Americans, helping them to feel a sense of belonging within their own community. Smiles, greetings, and respect for each other served as a foundation of flourishing support for the community that moved beyond mere survival in a white society that was determined to disrespect and exclude:
Growing up in the segregated South, I was raised to believe in the importance of being civil. This was more than just a recognition of the need to be polite, of having good manners; it was a demand that I and my siblings remain constantly aware of our interconnectedness and interdependency on all the folk around us. The lessons learned by seeing one’s neighbors on their porches and stopping to chat with them, or just to speak courteously, was a valuable way to honor our connectedness.6
Here hooks makes a distinction between the mechanical following of good manners, such as the use of proper cutlery or a formal greeting, and this sense of interconnectedness. She points to how these minor gestures of civility imply community and create a sense of belonging. For her, civility matters in ways both similar to and different from Krell’s interpretation. Her account is also thicker, as it complicates the sense of “one” country with “one” civility to go around for everybody, and it is especially poignant because she writes about the American South. In discussions of American hospitality, “southern hospitality” is often specifically mentioned. Anthony Szczesiul, author of The Southern Hospitality Myth and one of the main scholars who has written about the trope of southern hospitality, asserts that it is a myth originally created by white southern plantation owners and since perpetrated on the backs of African Americans, the white poor, and new ethnic minorities who work in underpaid jobs in the southern hospitality industries—they are the ones who have actually provided the labor of hospitality in the South.7
If Szczesiul’s account is bitterly and systematically critical, hooks suggests how civility can heal some of these old wounds, even if it cannot also change economic inequality. Returning to the South after decades of living on the West and East Coasts of the United States, hooks meditates on what has changed and what has not. First of all, the South is now desegregated, by law. This means that she, as an African American person, cannot be discriminated against openly and legally when she purchases a house in the middle of a white neighborhood. Now living among white people, she finds that her neighbors’ everyday interactions with each other, and with her as a newcomer who is not white, become important sources of information. Is she considered an equal to her new neighbors? Does she belong? She cannot know what is in their souls—they will have to express their feelings to her themselves. Their microaggressions and microcourtesies reveal answers to hooks’s question of belonging.
Various groups live different hospitalities depending on whether they are within or outside their personal communities. Old hostilities endure even when laws change. After hooks returns to the South and purchases her house with its desired porch, she notices how the civility of her now interracial welcome—when she calls out to white neighbors “How are you doing?” from her porch, with a smile—is not often reciprocated by the very white folks who probably have been taught a version of southern hospitality. In this instance, hooks’s experience confirms the conclusion of Szczesiul’s wide-ranging study, that so-called southern hospitality was designed and has since been largely institutionalized as a practice by whites for whites only.
Toward the end of her essay, hooks reaches out to white southern women in particular, who, in her sharp critique, “are the least willing to be civil, whether old or young . . . who long for the old days when they could count on being waited on by a black female at some point in their life, using the strength of their color to weigh her down.” However, there are occasions when their “racist hostile white gaze” can be contrasted “with the warm gaze of welcome and recognition from those individual white folks who also understand the etiquette of civility, of community building and peace making.”8 Szczesiul echoes hooks’s observations at the end of his book, finishing with the hope that “hospitality in the South can perhaps be renovated as an ethical principle oriented toward the future and the arrival of new strangers.”9
Here civility is envisioned not only as a strategy of huddling together with others inside one’s own community but also as something that offers a possibility of an enjoyment of shared humanity; a welcoming greeting can thus become more than just a smile. I must stress here that neither hooks nor Szczesiul suggests—and I am not suggesting—that smiles and good etiquette are enough to solve the problems of intolerance, white supremacy, and racial injustice. But neither is hospitality unimportant, as it plays a big part in the process of making people feel a sense of security and belonging.
How might we enact this change toward an enjoyment of shared humanity? What stops people from making these relatively small gestures of welcome, such as greetings, smiles, and warm waves of a hand to a neighbor? In the rest of this chapter I explore these complex questions by engaging with the work of contemporary artist Ana Prvački. When Prvački declares, “Let us not be naive about the power of hospitality,” she implies this complexity around welcoming gestures, in concert with David Farrell Krell and bell hooks as quoted above (see Plate 1). This phrase, “Let us not be naive about the power of hospitality,” also has a double meaning. First, it would be naive to think that hospitality is so powerful as to solve all social problems. But at the same time, it would be naive to underestimate the power of hospitality in enacting social change. Prvački’s art project The Greeting Committee Reports . . . (The Greeting Committee for short) will be my focus below as I seek to learn from her about the power of civility. Before discussing the project, I will describe the personal context in which Prvački developed it, as this background is important for an understanding of her subsequent artwork.
Ana Prvački is a Serbian-born performance and installation artist currently based in Berlin; her practice encompasses theater, music, visual art, and design. In 2011–12, Prvački’s The Greeting Committee Reports . . . was realized in two venues: the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the (d)OCUMENTA (13) exhibition in Kassel, Germany.10 The project consisted of staff training, art videos, performances, and lectures.
Why did Prvački become interested in the topics of hospitality, civility, and etiquette? Born in socialist Yugoslavia, she became an immigrant as a teenager, moving from one country to another (first with her parents and then by herself) as her birth country disintegrated as the result of war. During this time she also moved from one school to another and from one group of friends to another. Prvački’s mother is Romanian and her father is Serbian. She grew up with her mother’s stories about traveling to a foreign city, in a foreign country, to marry a man whose language she did not speak and whose familial hospitality was often alien to her. In such situations, small gestures of attempting cross-cultural welcoming grow in significance. Prvački notes:
Growing up half-Romanian made me half a stranger in Yugoslavia. When I was a teenager, my family immigrated to Singapore, as Yugoslavia was in a state of dissolution. Living in Singapore as an Eastern European teenager was twice as alienating (as puberty can be its own kind of exile). Plutarch wrote, “The soul is itself exiled, errant, an arrival from elsewhere. Birth is a voyage into a foreign land.” In a world that is foreign, learning proper etiquette is a survival mechanism and a technique of assimilation and adaptation. To me, these rituals hold the promise of social harmony, or at least a fantasy of it. Holding open doors and shaking hands, mundane as these acts may seem, could potentially save the world.11
Echoing Krell, Prvački expresses a desire for a more welcoming world, or at least a fantasy of it. The experience of being forced to move has also made Prvački more sensitive to others who have had to move. The Greeting Committee demonstrates the impact that those early immigrant experiences had on the artist, even though her family, which was both white and middle-class, was much more privileged than many of the other immigrants in Singapore.
I can relate to Prvački’s personal history. Prvački and I met for the first time in the 1990s at an art college in Singapore, in what was a new cultural setting for both of us. The city-state of Singapore was different from the countries she and I had grown up in (the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, both of which disintegrated). Singapore Airlines and its home base, Changi Airport, have been consistently ranked as the best worldwide; the airport greets arriving passengers with orchid and butterfly gardens and a swimming pool inside the terminals. Singapore’s hospitality industry has long been supported by the Singapore Tourism Board and its governmental partner, the Economic Development Board. When Prvački and I arrived, Singapore was actively promoting its tourism sector and welcoming as many visitors as possible from around the world. As white women, we benefited from the racist and imperialist legacies of Singapore’s colonial history as part of the British Commonwealth, as well as from its postcolonial and authoritarian present, when tensions and inequalities around race were being managed by the government from the top down.
Our shared history of experiencing various kinds of “polite authoritarianisms” helps me appreciate Prvački’s message about governmental anxiety around public expressions of hospitality. There is a whole tradition regarding the spectacle of public greeting in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Whom to welcome, when, and how are not just taught in the context of family rituals or conveyed through traditional fairy tales and folk stories. When I grew up in Soviet Moscow, most public expressions of welcome did not take place on the city streets among strangers; rather, they involved a variety of orchestrated rituals and were carried out through embodied preparation for those rituals, such as when (mostly) party men would be met in the formal aesthetic of the red carpet, with obsequious bows, smiles, schoolchildren acting as cheerleaders, and a traditional Slavic offering of “bread and salt.” Although I was once one of those young people dancing and marching in Red Square, cheering Mikhail Gorbachev, most people observed these rituals on television. We learned them in school so that we could participate.
Hence, I was accustomed to public expressions of hospitality being either hierarchical, performed in order to establish who is important in a society, or managed through graphic design on the trains, with images calling for politeness toward certain groups (for example, passengers would be reminded of the practice of giving up seats to the “elderly, pregnant women, and disabled people”). The clash with which I began this chapter, between the artists greeting strangers in the metro and the authorities who arrived to stop them, reveals governmental concerns about welcome and its intended recipients. Greet a “wrong” person in the “wrong” place, and the community will punish the greeter through its powers of the police, the city government, the neighborhood watch, or the sheer force of peer pressure.
That is why when Singapore’s tourism authority launched a public campaign, the Singapore Kindness Movement, to encourage Singaporeans to be more welcoming to visitors and kinder to each other, Prvački and I found the strategy familiar, even if the welcome was directed toward tourists and citizens rather than limited to party leaders. Our Singaporean friends, just like us, expressed ambivalence about the government’s history with “courtesy” and “kindness” campaigns, elements of which Prvački later used in her art. We asked each other whether the adults of an entire nation could be taught to be kind. Did we need the government to tell us to smile? Wasn’t such a campaign offensive, since it implied that Singaporeans were not already kind?
Such blunt government intervention—encouraging Singaporeans to “be nice” to foreigners in specific ways understood by those foreigners (like smiling and greeting with a handshake)—seemed to us to take on the familiar form of state propaganda. Here the fear of hospitality being forced on citizens highlights the precarious nature of any hospitality relation, when the dividing line between a fake smile and a genuine one, for example, is often a matter of trust. Those who are born into such governmentally forced hospitality conventions often find themselves not very trusting. I remember a common cultural stereotype in Russia about Americans faking their smiles (“They don’t really care about you; they just have to wear a smile, like clothing”). The desired effect of hearing and saying this was to feel better about “authentic nonsmiling us” by comparison with “fake smiling them.” The implication was that when individual Russians smile, they really mean it.
After meeting in Singapore in the mid-1990s, Ana Prvački and I lost contact until she moved to Los Angeles in 2010. Shortly after her move we began a correspondence about her thoughts on etiquette and hospitality, as she started working on The Greeting Committee. Since then, I have made several studio visits and conducted interviews with Prvački to learn more from her project, and we have continued to correspond. I also participated in the publication that was part of her exhibition in Kassel.
The Greeting Committee Reports . . .
Because humans are not born knowing how to treat each other with dignity, we must be trained. By whom, how? And who decides? Etiquette training has become the key element of Prvački’s artwork on hospitality.
The first iteration of project that became The Greeting Committee took place at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2011. Prvački was the artist in residence at the museum and created a series of events she called Greeting Committee Social Performance. She worked with an etiquette trainer, Vartouhi Keshishyan, who led several informal groups in etiquette training while Prvački greeted the audience with handshakes and smiles. The project expanded for the documenta 13 exhibition in Kassel in 2012. This specific work is the focus of the discussion that follows. The description of the project at the German exhibition reads:
Ana Prvački’s project Greeting Committee is made up of two distinct but complementary parts. On the one hand, it trains the guides, ticketsellers, and invigilators of dOCUMENTA (13) in welcoming visitors to the exhibition in order “to practice civility and congeniality” and to create a “contagious atmosphere of hospitality.” This part of the project is experienced by visitors simply through coming into contact with the trained staff. On the other hand, Prvački reflects on this process and experience by hosting two conversations. She invites Kwame Anthony Appiah to give a keynote lecture about inter-personal conversations as a model for the relationships between societies, and hosts a discussion with representatives from the Deutsche Knigge-Rat (German Etiquette Council), on current forms of civility.12
This description has an intentionally tongue-in-cheek, provocative tone. Is the artist laughing at us here? How can one train people in being “congenial”? The description mimics the form of the top-down approach to etiquette in the second definition presented above. By bringing together, in one work, staff members of the art exhibition, the well-known philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, and German Etiquette Council members, Prvački mixed usually separate worlds to create an uneasy conglomeration of people and perspectives.13
First, there was the etiquette training of staff members. Before the opening of the exhibition, Prvački spent two months in Kassel working with documenta employees. She hired etiquette trainers from the German Etiquette Council (also known as the Knigge Society), and with them ran workshops for the exhibition staff. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the exhibition curator, took part in the training as well. It was highly unusual for a contemporary art show to include such etiquette training in its program, and the fact that the training was part of an artwork made it particularly controversial.
Groups of five to ten people attended the two-hour training sessions. Prvački attended all of the sessions over two weeks, training about a thousand people. She wanted the training atmosphere to be intimate rather than corporate, so that the trainees would be comfortable and enjoy the sessions. The training was offered to all documenta employees, including administrators, janitors, and security personnel, as well as all volunteers. Prvački started the sessions by explaining various elements of The Greeting Committee, what her intentions were, and how the training component would be complemented by etiquette videos and lectures.
Apart from a few people associated with that year’s exhibition production, no one knew about the training in advance, and exhibition visitors were not informed about the training. This was intentional, because Prvački’s idea was that her art project would change how staff members treated exhibition visitors and each other. Prvački wanted to make the exhibition more welcoming to all who experienced it, especially compared to previous years, and the smiles and handshakes of documenta staff were part of her project.
The etiquette training part of The Greeting Committee as it was presented in Germany was the most time-consuming and labor-intensive aspect of the work, especially for Prvački. She talked to hundreds of people about her art project and her idea of using the project to make everyone’s life a little bit smoother and happier during the multimonth exhibition. For an artist who herself is clearly ambivalent, even if hopeful, about “the power of hospitality,” the work was hard psychologically as well as logistically.
Credit should also go to the curator, Christov-Bakargiev, for bringing many controversial works to Germany, such as this one. This work was controversial because training adults to be nice to each other is controversial: Who wants to acknowledge that they need training in kindness or in how to smile? Isn’t this what authoritarian governments do in their propaganda campaigns? Isn’t this how people in an aristocratic class act when they want to affirm their privileged upbringing? The training was also controversial because of where it took place and who was conducting it. The art world audience—comprising art critics, curators, intellectuals, and artists—was suspicious of “etiquette” training and trainers coming from the Knigge Society.
What is the Knigge Society, and why is it so controversial? The Knigge Society is the best known among the number of businesses in Germany (as in other countries) that specialize in etiquette training. In fact, one of the German words for etiquette is Knigge. The society is named for the thinker Freiherr Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge (1752–1796), who argued in his book On Human Relations (1788) that the goals of equality in human relations and human rights for all cannot be achieved unless all persons are treated with the same measure of respect, decency, and dignity. Knigge wrote: “A person wishing to associate with men and live amongst them should study the art of accommodating himself to their manners, customs, tone, and disposition.”14 His position was based on ideas developed during the French Enlightenment; Knigge’s contemporary Immanuel Kant also wrote about hosting and hospitality. These ideas, however, were politically out of favor at the time, and his writings on the subject cost Knigge his job and his livelihood.
Knigge’s position represents a somewhat radical attitude regarding the proper treatment of strangers: a good person not only provides shelter and water to guests (or, as Kant suggested, treats them without harm) but also accommodates him- or herself to the guests’ “manners, customs, tone, and disposition.” This progressive position, however, is not what the Knigge Society is known for in contemporary Germany. Rather, the society’s reputation is tied to the more formal aspects of etiquette, such as the business etiquette of the proper use of the handshake. Moreover, during the Nazi past, fascists weaponized these kinds of formal manners and the rules of etiquette to serve their larger message of the “civilized behavior” of ethnic Germans as opposed to the behavior of those who were not “fit” to be fully German, such as Jews, homosexuals, and Romani. Who would want to appear to be polite just for the sake of it, while at the same time being potentially complicit in Nazi violence?
Given this history, in the period after World War II, references to manners and etiquette immediately become controversial in Germany, especially in leftist and progressive circles. Despite the “progressive” history of Knigge himself, the society named for him is today considered to be nonprogressive, with a focus on maintaining old-fashioned manners and the status quo rather than on calling for social change. Although Prvački wanted to bring in members of the Knigge Society to encourage them to consider the wider social implications of etiquette, one artwork was not necessarily going to be able to change the perception of an organization that had been largely absent from public discussions about Germany’s treatment of immigrants, especially Syrian refugees. Prvački’s work could, however, enable further consideration of the role of civility and what it means to welcome each other in Europe and Germany. The artist created a space where Knigge’s ideas could become helpful again, where contemporary Germans could ask themselves if they should expect immigrants to accommodate themselves to German rules of behavior and customs versus Germans accommodating themselves to the immigrants. (No handshake with a woman? No serving of pork at lunch? How should cultural differences be handled appropriately?)
If we follow Knigge’s original suggestion, the proper behavior for Germans would be to accommodate themselves to immigrants’ “manners, customs, tone, and disposition.” More than just the minor gestures of greeting strangers, such accommodations would rise to the level of a cultural identity crisis in contemporary Germany surrounding the proper welcome of newcomers to a country or a community (I come back to this specific context in my Conclusion, where I discuss the work of Ken Aptekar). And Germany is certainly not alone in this respect (I am mindful here of current discussions in the United States about whether the country should welcome or deport refugees who cross the Mexican border).15
As I discussed in the Introduction, many societies and individuals define themselves by how they treat others who are in need of their welcome. What can civility do around questions of power and justice? A lot more than we might think, as we can see in Prvački’s work, which pushes her audience in the direction of hooks and Krell. The challenge that The Greeting Committee posed involved the creation of a welcoming space where the historical connection between the notions of etiquette and racial superiority would not be erased or glossed over. One has to be mindful about this history and the danger of using etiquette to mask brutality and enforce hierarchies. The artist commented that during the exhibition, the discussion with the Knigge Society representatives did not go smoothly, primarily because those who participated in it—curators, intellectuals, contemporary artists—wanted to distance themselves from what the society has come to represent.
At the same time, staff members were not as opposed to civility training, because it created a new safe space where they could raise their own concerns around power and inequality as employees of the large art exhibition. During the training days, Prvački asked exhibition organizers to enable her to listen to the many Turkish residents of Kassel who were on the staff of documenta, and she heard what they had to say about this big exhibition taking place every five years in their city. The topic of immigration, especially in relation to Turkish immigrants, many of whom came to Germany as “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter), was part of the artist’s theme of hospitality. Ironically, it was these workers’ designation as “guests” that reminded them that Germany’s welcome was only temporary, rather than an invitation to stay indefinitely, or as long as they wanted. The conversations between the artist and the Turkish staff members remained private.
When I asked Prvački why there was no video documentation of her encounters with the Turkish immigrant employees, she said that she had chosen not to document them so that she could build “trust” and “authenticity” among the trainees. She did not hide that the training was the first part of her art project and informed staff members about it as part of her opening remarks when meeting them. The training was used primarily to build a community in Kassel among exhibition staff around their conversations. She gave people enough time to express themselves and mingle. The artist organized the space so that it was comfortable and not filled with intrusive cameras. Her goal in training with professionals was to build skills in what she calls “social lubrication” (which she defines as “small gestures of generosity of spirit”). Prvački did not play any kind of character or take on a persona. She was as genuine as she could be throughout her work on The Greeting Committee.
It is difficult for me to assess here how much the Turkish immigrant staff members responded to these discussions. I can say only that it was important for Prvački that they be visible and that their immigrant background be acknowledged. I am also mindful, however, that Prvački’s own position as a white middle-class artist might have affected her interactions with the exhibition staff and other members of documenta of various cultural backgrounds. I have access to this history of etiquette training only through Prvački’s own account. I appreciate, however, how the various histories of hospitalities and hostilities became part of the context of The Greeting Committee. Prvački mined this controversy and problematic histories when she invited Knigge Society instructors to facilitate her “etiquette training” of the exhibition staff in Kassel. She consciously wanted to bring back difficult conversations around the connection between the national welcome and the personal greeting.
The Institutional Art of Welcome
The documenta exhibition itself has a long history with questions of national German hospitality, and this context needs to be acknowledged. A big, ambitious, institutional exhibition such as documenta, which takes place every five years, represents a significant investment of funds and resources, and from its very origins, documenta was designed to present a new and “welcoming face” of the German nation in the postwar period. The exhibition is very important to the city of Kassel and to the country as a whole as a symbol of the current German cultural outlook and how Germany sees itself, as indicated by the artists who are invited to participate in the exhibition and to curate the event. The exhibition affects the whole city for a few summer months, with a multitude of cultural events and artworks. For example, in 2012, when Prvački showed her videos and did her staff training, documenta 13 attracted 905,000 visitors. The larger cultural meaning that connects the venue and Prvački’s work also speaks to this contextual history.
When documenta 1 opened in 1955, it specifically announced a welcome of those art forms that had been banned and destroyed under Nazi rule, which had labeled them as “degenerate art.” The exhibition was meant to signal a new, more open, post-Nazi Germany. Throughout the years, documenta has acquired a special status in German culture, signifying more than just what is going on in contemporary art or culture as a whole; the show also addresses the place and the role of culture, and of art, in relation to social and political issues at large, whether in the community of Kassel or across Europe. In 2017, documenta 14 created a dialogue between Greek and German artists, influenced by their countries’ relations, including the economic crisis in Greece and the refugee crisis in Europe. The art world, thus, as part of the national agenda with its public funding, is implicated in the larger question of the “national facade.” Countries often “sell” themselves as attractive to “cultural tourists.” Thus, documenta was intended to invigorate Kassel, a city that had lost much of its manufacturing base; the exhibition was seen as a way to attract visitors, a way to put the city on the map.
Many countries use sporting events to the same end. In these cases, etiquette training of the kind that Prvački provided to documenta staff might be seen as “business as usual.” For example, before the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, many world media outlets circulated stories about the civility and etiquette training being provided to the Chinese hosts of the games. These articles reported that, among other things, the Chinese hosts were trained not to spit in public, especially in the presence of their international guests. The media reports often had an ironic tone, presenting such training as “exotic” and the local hosts as “uncivilized” and in need of such training. But later, when staff for the 2012 Olympics in London received civility and etiquette training, many of the same media outlets reported, seemingly with pride, how good the games were for the international guests in attendance, presumably as a result of this training. Why did the media outlets find the government-sponsored greeting committees in China problematic and ridiculous, while they complimented the training organized by the London city government? This is the kind of question that Prvački’s work enables us to ask.
When etiquette training in one culture is portrayed ironically by the media of another culture, the politics of etiquette—its subtle power to divide the world into “us” (who are “civilized”) and “them” (who are not)—is revealed. Prvački’s project resists such divisions by asking us to “rescue” etiquette: “It is ultimately a question of morals and ethics, and beyond assumptions of good and bad, right or wrong or changing anyone. It is about doing our best to treat another with dignity.”16 That is why when Prvački writes about Singapore’s National Courtesy Campaign, launched by the government in 1979 and later renamed the Singapore Kindness Movement, she does not ask us to laugh at it; rather, she insists that we take it seriously.17
At the same time, Prvački does not hide her ambivalence toward these kinds of governmental campaigns. The title of her art project—The Greeting Committee Reports . . .—mimics governmental and official meetings, but she also subtly insists that, despite the irony, there is value in learning how to be nice, in performing a hospitable self. And I can relate to that subtlety of Prvački’s stance on etiquette. The “greeting committees” that inspired Prvački’s title were born in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. My own experiences with those greeting campaigns taught me to be especially sensitive about authenticity and the intention behind the greetings and smiles. Their meaning is limited when their value is outweighed by factors of disempowerment, hierarchy, and political repression.
The training that Prvački conducted benefited the staff of the exhibition, according to what staff members told her (as reported by the artist), and led to a more pleasant experience overall for visitors (I heard this from the visitors and also from the artist, who mentioned in our conversations that she still receives such feedback from those who visited the German exhibition and knew about her training). Though one could be cynical about etiquette training overall, it is important not to leave civility education only to governments, schools, or etiquette societies in a world where members of various cultures of civility encounter each other on an everyday basis.
Public Video Artworks
What the public actually saw when viewing The Greeting Committee in the main venue at documenta 13 were Prvački’s video artworks. Prvački first produced several videos on etiquette training in Los Angeles as part of the project. She then made another six videos for the exhibition in Kassel, which were shown in the main venue as well as by a local television station. In addition to the training of the people staffing the exhibition, these videos were intended to train the audience of the exhibition, as well as the citizens of Kassel and other German cities who watched them on television. In Los Angeles, Prvački worked with etiquette instructor Vartouhi Keshishyan. For documenta 13, Prvački also worked with Shane Valentino to make videos in the format of public service announcements. Keshishyan, Valentino, and Prvački appeared in the videos, in which they offered guidance on how to deal with specific faux pas situations.
At the main exhibition venue in Kassel the videos were placed strategically for the audience to view depending on location. A video about a person accidentally bumping another person standing in front of her in line was shown on a monitor fixed directly facing those who stood in line to buy exhibition tickets. In the video, one woman bumps another with her bag accidentally, and the second woman responds by bumping her back; the bumping and pushing then begin to escalate, until the expert “magically” appears to explain what the best response would be in such a situation, suggesting that when bumped, that person should turn to the other person, smile, and, to defuse the situation, say something nice, such as complimenting the other person’s bag design. Other monitors, with a diverse set of scenarios of faux pas, were placed along corridors and next to resting benches and chairs, as well as in the museum bookstore, alongside the publication coauthored by Prvački and me.18 These video artworks took the form of educational videos, similar to materials produced by business etiquette training groups. Prvački deliberately imitated that format in creating her high-quality short films. In her videos, there is humor and ambivalence around awkward situations, following the overall style of this work. For example, in one of the videos a guest has food stuck between his teeth. Prvački appears in the video and asks, “What do I do in this situation? Do I tell them or not?” An etiquette instructor replies, “Smile, apologize for interrupting them. Let them know about stuff in their teeth, and they could cover their mouth to get the stuff out.” Adults in the videos are shown how to turn awkward social situations into pleasant social encounters. This follows Prvački’s desire to provide “social lubrication” by teaching people what to do in awkward situations with strangers. These scenarios are well thought through, crisp, and sincere, but at the same time they deal with social anxieties that are unlikely to be resolved so easily, and they linger in the audience’s memory.
I learned from my conversations with visitors to documenta 13 that people remembered these videos well and found them amusing and very appropriate to specific locations. The public service announcement format of Prvački’s videos corresponded to her intention to mimic, comment on, and deconstruct governmental, policy-driven courtesy campaigns. Reaching an even wider audience, these videos were also screened on a German public television channel. This aspect of the work is little known, because Prvački chose not to include her name or references to the exhibition in the video credits; she took a similar stance in deciding not to document the staff etiquette training. These hidden aspects—the training and the public television broadcasting of the videos—make The Greeting Committee profound, complex, and challenging in its execution and reception. Why did Prvački decide not to brand the videos with her name or reference to the exhibition, as most artists would want to do, to enforce their copyright and be acknowledged? Was she afraid that audiences would not take her messages seriously if they knew they were part of an “art project” made by an artist with a Serbian name?
In erasing her authorship, Prvački intended, I assume, to make the videos appear even more recognizable as parts of a “public courtesy campaign” rather than an “artwork.” After all, Prvački has declared her hope that such courtesy training might significantly improve and “lubricate” interpersonal relations, whether in Kassel, Singapore, or Los Angeles. The Greeting Committee presents social alternatives ever so gently—be nice to each other in everyday life; this is how you can do it, and see how it will work out for you from now on—similar to the Russian artists from the group Tesamie offering greetings in public places in St. Petersburg. Prvački’s unusual gesture of not including her name in televised videos enhanced her effort to take this work outside the art world community and into the public sphere, where it has had, potentially, a much wider impact on ordinary people who might not visit an exhibition of contemporary art. The artist’s anonymity in this context speaks to her commitment to the message of hospitality, and to her desire to increase its power of democratization and welcome.
This gesture has also made her more vulnerable to being erased and becoming invisible in art history. Ironically, presenting work in a gallery or a museum creates more cachet for an artist than showing it to many more people (possibly thousands more) but without the artist’s name attached to it. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, who, as the curator of documenta 13, commissioned The Greeting Committee, makes a similar point. After praising Prvački for the complexity and impact of her engagement with new forms of sociality since 2004, for “offering her services to people in very practical ways,” Christov-Bakargiev, echoing Krell in her approach to etiquette, observes how the impact of The Greeting Committee was largely missed by the members of the media who wrote about the exhibition:
This work occurs at a time when the world is ever more barbaric, and in an international exhibition like dOCUMENTA, to think about that barbarity as a lack of etiquette seemed urgent. It was an almost invisible and yet very “widespread” artwork that went unnoticed by the media, who generally have poor etiquette, usually noticing very spectacular, very visible, works even if only to criticize them. That’s where the contradiction lies; the less spectacular works that would have been appreciated by those who criticize the spectacularity of art are in fact overlooked.19
This project is easy to overlook because so many of its elements are quiet and subtle, and the work has been distributed across various platforms and communities. I am writing here in part to preserve the memory of Prvački’s The Greeting Committee in the scholarly community, as I find the artist’s aesthetic choices in this work important to discuss because of their ethical and political impact. Throughout elements of this work, Prvački seemed to blend the artwork and the work of welcome through her efforts to erase her own importance as an organizer and “hostess”—just as a perfect hostess is supposed to do. In the next chapter I take up this topic of the expected erasure of the perfect hostess more systematically when I discuss the work of Faith Wilding.
Prvački’s Social Design
The most recent war in Europe touched Prvački’s family closely. When French philosopher of hospitality Jacques Derrida writes about how fragile hospitality is, especially among those who are closest to each other, he chooses to make his point based on former Yugoslavian, Bosnian, and Serbian history, when the “destructive hostility can only aim at what Levinas calls the ‘face’ of the Other, the similar other, the closest neighbour, between the Bosnians and Serbs, for example, within the same quarter, the same house, sometimes in the same family.”20 This topic of hospitality—especially European, American, or Singaporean hospitality—is not an abstract entity for Prvački. Is she also mourning the country that does not exist any longer, that was torn apart by hostility and intolerance activated among neighbors, within families, leading to a type of violence that Europe had not seen since World War II? The Greeting Committee was informed by all of her experiences of hospitality, both its successes and its failures.
On a traditional Serbian kitchen towel that Prvački keeps in her studio, we see an image of a woman who represents the perfect housewife and hostess, just as Prvački performed in The Greeting Committee videos, when training and serving others. The woman depicted on the towel is cooking, preparing a meal to greet her family. Prvački values this towel as an artifact of where she came from, and she keeps it in memory of her grandmother, who inspired many elements of her own tradition of welcoming strangers around the world, which she shares with us, her audience.
In a video recorded in 2011, a blindfolded Prvački is seen setting a table, placing one spoon after another, one plate after another, moving gracefully near the table as her guest sits patiently, watching her, with his hands on his knees rather than on the table. I am fascinated by the aesthetics of this hospitality scene. Prvački is trying very hard to be a perfect hostess. A lesson, or two, probably was in order before this performance. A crisp, formal voice-over gives the impression that this is some kind of high-end reality TV program. I can imagine this footage going straight to Martha Stewart’s repository of “how-to” video manuals. Prvački repeated her training to the point that she could do the hospitality tasks blindfolded, pushing the idea that one has truly mastered a skill when one can perform it with one’s eyes closed. Prvački can serve us with her eyes closed. This scene shows her precise, elegant gestures.
Prvački created and performed this scene at the Hammer Museum in April 2011, as part of the first version of what would become The Greeting Committee. A young beautiful woman serves an older man, as the voice-over tells us, adhering to etiquette rules that have not changed for more than a century. I happen to know that the man in the video is the artist’s father, and he is also my friend, painter Milenko Prvački. He and his artist wife, Delia, have hosted me many times in Singapore. I have sat at the table as their guest, being served by Milenko during our heated discussions about the Balkan wars of the late 1990s. We have talked about what neighbors can do to each other during war, when all etiquette rules break down and even small gestures suddenly become big.21 I describe this complex context to show how the meanings of this video change depending on what one actually “sees,” whether one is implicated in a scene or not, with those memories, debts to repay, and shared meals.
All these layers in this complex project of Prvački’s, shown through videos, training, and public programs such as lectures and discussions, reveal the artist’s ambivalence about making work as a Serbian-born artist who lived in four countries and was now making this work in Germany for a global audience. Prvački would understand her critics well if they suggested that etiquette fails, again and again, to lead to a better, kinder, more beautiful society. Additionally, citizens can become cynics, building resistance to any message coming from mass media outlets.
I can hear Prvački’s ambivalent laughter about greetings, especially when they are prescribed by “committees.” I also recognize how hard-earned her optimism and hope are in her own version of etiquette training. In places like the Soviet Union and Singapore, laughter at government policies is a weapon of the powerless, helping them to keep their sanity and dignity under oppressive circumstances. But what Prvački offers is more than this: she challenges her audience to start welcoming strangers, immigrants, and foreigners by learning, respecting, and sharing each other’s conventions of hospitality, but without taking these conventions too seriously. Prvački also calls on us to give each other a break and demonstrates how we might do that. She values a stranger’s smile without questioning its authenticity and forgives in advance any “wrong moves” of hospitality others might make, as it is their effort to respond to her offer to be recognized as another human that counts.
The Greeting Committee is not just a replication of the governmental aesthetic of a greeting committee—Prvački actually offers her own alternative. That is why this work is so complex, leading art critic Raimundas Malašauskas to call it “a mix of Dada, Zen, and Martha Stewart.”22 Another critic, Bala Starr, describes Prvački’s project as “civilizing, open-handed, ‘in tune’ with the present,” and as having “emerged through her need to negotiate the role of stranger or visitor in so many circumstances.” But there is even more to it, Starr goes on: “Prvački describes her practice as ‘gently pedagogical,’ and her approach as based on empathy. It stresses the person who is experiencing her work before its presenter or ‘subject’—who is usually herself.” Starr also considers the work much more significant than it might appear to be, since “from little things big things do in fact grow.” I am particularly struck by the empathy that this writer extends to the artist, as if her hard work on social lubrication elicits this feeling: “Prvački is unusually observant of social discomfort and uncertainty as well as opportunities for seduction between people and things. She applies her imagination—her problem-solving—to model new protocols for contemporary living. Her artworks represent a desire to be of service that has developed from careful attention to courtesy, propriety and decorum.”23
Writing about a series of Prvački’s social design ideas, most recently in book form, Starr shows how central the concerns of service and protocol are to the artist in general. There is an aesthetic strategy in Prvački’s works that develops forms of sociality and being in this world that have not previously been experienced. Prvački creates new forms of sociality as a matter of fact, in the materiality of the work itself (as Chus Martínez notes about Prvački’s work, “Language is confusing but the actions are unmistakable”), which actualizes new hospitalities, what Starr calls Prvački’s “new protocols for contemporary living.”24
Prvački deals with questions of protocol in video artworks, performances, installations, and drawings that have been shown in multiple exhibitions of art and design and published in art catalogs and in the artist’s books and design proposals. The artist surrenders before the unpredictability of social encounters by building a strong foundation of etiquette training. As Starr observes: “Kindness, sincerity, optimism, resilience and a can-do attitude are among the tools proposed here for ameliorating unavoidable social anxieties.”25
Prvački tries to find an immediate etiquette solution to the daunting problem of social anxiety. The darker interpretation of her work is that it depicts a state of being that puts on a smile as armor against the hostile world. The artist prefers to keep us at a distance, just enough at ease to make an encounter pleasant but not too intense. Life is awkward and full of anxieties. Prvački diligently and elegantly molds herself into a socially well-adjusted artist, counteracting the stereotype that artists must be socially awkward, and, in the process, helps her audiences also find a path to potential new forms of sociality.
We, her audience, could still doubt that this is all about decorum if not for the fact that we are all too busy comparing the scenarios presented to us with our own everyday lives and trying to decide how we would (or should) react in similar situations. Audience members have no time for this artist’s anxieties—they are too busy living in their own. In The Greeting Committee and elsewhere Prvački approaches hospitality as a design project and tries to help us, her audience, by breaking it down into smaller elements. Handshakes, faux pas, head turns, smiles, timing, schedules, napkins—all are accounted for and redesigned for her new world of sensing each other even before we have to ask for something. The line between authenticity and acting out a lesson in etiquette is blurred. After all, most of our social skills have been acquired and learned consciously or mimicked unconsciously, through repetition and through trial and error, like perfected dance movements. In effect, the artist also uncovers the power imbalances of the forced hospitality of greeting committees in authoritarian contexts.
Prvački is not alone in believing that etiquette “could potentially save the world.” She stands together with bell hooks and David Farrell Krell, whom I quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Prvački’s project resurrects this demand, teaching me that a first step of recognition of your fellow human being could be “just” a greeting. The Greeting Committee does not shy away from raising this topic, with all its difficult history in Germany, including its most recent past of grappling with whether and how to welcome new refugees and immigrants. Prvački also echoes bell hooks when she says that greeting “rituals hold the promise of social harmony, or at least a fantasy of it. Holding open doors and shaking hands, mundane as these acts may seem, could potentially save the world.”26 The ambivalence of her work, the other side of her training and what being “always nice” means, is left for other artists to unpack.
Similar to Prvački, I am not naive about the power of hospitality. I do not think it will save the world all by itself. But it would also be naive not to acknowledge the power of welcome. Those initial small gestures of generosity of spirit, microcourtesies such as smiles and welcoming greetings, do not require much effort, but they are not small in their meaning and impact, especially in contexts where they have been denied.