On Sunday morning the keynote presentation was given by Tim Dallett and Adam Kelly from Artifact Institute. The Artifact Institute is an artist project which conducts research, collects artefacts, provides services, gives workshops, presents exhibitions, and produces publications. It positions these activities in a “hybrid space between contemporary art, technological practice, and critical inquiry to create multiple points of access and engagement.” For instance, one of their projects from 2007 consisted of collecting old and out-of-date technology from artists’ centres across Canada. What at first appeared to be a straight-forward archival project soon unfolded into a delightful and ingenious project where collecting the detritus of older technologies was only part of the process, they also provided services, such as advice and help with people’s relationship to the artefacts. It isn’t as simple as repairing old technology but also helping people to decide what to do with the older stuff. Adam described the collection space as bringing together two unlikely activities, “a repair shop and a psychotherapy space.”
The main focus of the keynote was the presentation of their project Study 1, commissioned by The Institutions by Artists Convention (Vancouver, 2012) and conducted during the 3-day Convention. This project proved to be really fascinating. The “study” was a very well thought out survey of artists and their relationship to artist-run initiatives. Although the Study was couched in a broader notion of the role of the group in current art practice as opposed to the individual artist. “Groups appear to be an increasingly common context for the activities of contemporary artists.”
It consisted of a questionnaire for artists, initially carried out at the Convention, but later including an online survey. For their keynote they selected about 20 of the most interesting questions to discuss showing the results with percentages and figures and pie charts. For instance “How do you fund your individual practice?” For the majority of respondents (92%) the answer is “personal investment.” Another question “How does the group make decisions?” A range of possibilities were cited from “Entire Group Decides” (48.6%) to, surprisingly, “Board makes some decisions.” (51.4%).
As they themselves acknowledge, their survey does not pretend to be a comprehensive survey of artists and the groups that artists form. Rather, as Tim described it, their approach was as “a thought experiment: what happens when you try and do a survey about artists and their relationship to groups that they initiate, form or are part of?”
This project has many parallels with my own – and I couldn’t help nodding my head in affirmation when I read their online introduction to the Study: “Attempts to categorise groups [artist-run] are frustrated by exceptions and counter-examples. The wide variety of group forms, types, locations, and activities resists classification. The possibilities for obtaining representative samples of both individuals and groups vary widely with context, location, resources, and access to social networks. Research on artist-group dynamics will thus inevitably have a contingent and partial character.”
Tim and Adam presented their projects from the Institute with a seriousness that belied their often humorous and witty nature. Their final report is online and definitely worth checking out — Study 1.
After lunch the next keynote was Marco Vera, the founder and director of Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center, a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for the community youth of Mexicali, Mexico. In a very compelling and absorbing presentation Marco told us the story of Mexicali Rose, how it came about and why he wanted to create a space for the youth of the border town, Mexicali, his own hometown. It was a very inspiring story of risk, danger and great courage. And Marco told it like a true story-teller. For instance, the space that now houses Mexicali Rose was once used by criminals, drug pushers and people smugglers. It was a very dangerous place. In 2007, after some encouragement from Marco, these criminals left and Marco and his collaborators were able to begin rehabilitating the house, which was in such a terrible state that it took him and his friends a whole year to get the place in working order.
For Marco, a documentary film-maker, the driving passion was to create a media centre where local kids from the neighbourhood – who would not normally have access to such learning or equipment – could learn video-making and film-making and media in general through free workshops. However, the project soon expanded to include lots of different sorts of workshops. The initiative seemed to release an enormous amount of creative energy, with many different people offering workshops to the kids, including hairdressing. Marco remarked that people flocked to the centre, it seemed the city really needed a space like this. Originally conceived as a media centre, it soon began expanding its activities to include first an art gallery, needed to show the work being produced. Then with some govt funding they were able to build a micro-cinema, and soon after, an internet radio station was added to the mix. The last enterprise that Marco described was an independent gallery that is devoted to publishing. Surprisingly for such an incredibly worthwhile project Mexicali Rose receives no govt funding. Even though they did receive some specific govt funding previously, they are now surviving and struggling without any – and trying to find ways to pay the rent through selling art or selling beer at the art shows.
After a short break we were back to hear the second debate. “Utopian Spaces? To what extent can one talk about artist-run spaces as ideological entities?”
This was a wide ranging discussion with a diverse group of artists that meandered across issues of financial and economic models as well as social responsibility, social inclusion and the tensions between artists’ need for autonomy and their social responsibilities.
After describing their spaces the discussion moved to the question of participation and engaging vulnerable communities. Everyone seemed to agree that art can’t save anyone, only perhaps give people a different choice or sense of possibilities. In response to a question about disadvantaged kids and the need to help them stop hating their oppressors, like “the Americans or the Danes,” an artist from Queens Park Railway Club in Glasgow objected to what she thought was an underlying assumption in the discussions: that art must be good, art must be good for society — that art should be for the greater good and help the oppressed or change people’s behaviour in some way. Her response implied the question: what about artists who made work engaged with ideas other than ameliorating social ills? As she noted “I’m an artist I’m not qualified to be a social worker…And I’m happy for different people to exist”…rather than needing to change who they are.
This discussion revealed a very real tension in the way artists approach the social, the political and the economic. Not surprisingly, it seems to depend on where you are situated in the world. For several artists it is the real urgency they feel and the sense of social responsibility for the communities around them that drive their need for creating a public space of encounter and engagement. For other artists this urgency is not so real nor perhaps so necessary, but rather there is another need that is equally as important, which is the need for autonomy and independence. For Marco there actually are no ‘shoulds’, rather there is always a choice. Marco made clear that his own view is that whenever artists work together in independent spaces, either socially-engaged or otherwise to make something happen, they are already social.
The argument, that art cannot perform social work or be a bandaid, was echoed by an artist from the USA, where, she noted, socially-engaged art projects were proving to be very problematic, especially, as they are filling in the space left by governments and local councils depleted of funding, as neo-liberal privatisation decimates the public sector. As the public sector’s funding is cut and govt responsibilites for providing educational opportunities or other social services are diminished, art is now called upon to perform these social services. This is a very valid worry in these neo-liberal times. (Read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” for a brilliant analysis of the last 30 years! )
Overall this was a very thought-provoking discussion for me. I found myself sympathising with all sides. Yet I do agree with the artist who asked: why is it assumed that if an artist-led organisation is not doing socially-engaged work then they are simply working towards a commercial and professional career? This simple division between artists working for and in the art market versus socially-engaged, politically aware artists does feel like a deep division. Although not insurmountable. Maybe that’s why this discussion was so fascinating. What it does do is occlude the vast majority of artists who make art with passion and belief, yet may not fit either category. Most of these latter artists work for little or no remuneration except the joy, intensity, curiosity or other non-monetary values that can drive an art practice and often sustain the artist-led community. And art can perform in many other ways too. Thinking here of Rancière where he writes of the aesthetics of the sensible, understanding that aesthetics is not supplementary to politics but fundamental to the vey idea of politics.
“Wherever people gather together it is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever.” Hannah Arendt
The Artist Run Festival kicked off on Friday night, May 9, with a grand opening of all the artist-run spaces that were part of the Festival – 17 in all – in Copenhagen. Each of these spaces had invited an international artist-run to show in their space for the Festival. Later everyone gathered at BYGNING 5 @ PB43 for a late night party. It was a great start to a very important and stimulating weekend of talks and discussions.
The Conference, very intelligently conceived and well-organised by two Copenhagen-based artists, Honey Beckerlee and Suada Demirovic, was framed around a provocative and germane quote from Hannah Arendt, which seemed to catch the contemporary moment exactly. It’s a moment where artist-runs are flourishing, not just in Denmark, but in many places around world. It is a moment when artist-led spaces need just such a conference. It is a moment when questions of self-organization have become complicated with the relentless neo-liberal agenda that seems to leave a sticky, stinky trail like Rosetti’s goblins in Goblin Market. And so the aim of the conference, as the organisers write, “is to create nuanced and complex knowledge about artist-run initiatives with their various ways of working and to approach the practical, aesthetic and theoretical outcomes of the self-organised.”
The Conference was held in a large airy room above a contemporary gallery at Overgaden, Institut for Samtidskunst. It was a perfect space for the two days of talks and meetings. The room was full for every session – with different crowds of people attending each different session. The format was simple and effective – with one session in the morning and one in the afternoon – no need to worry about overlapping sessions! Each session was opened by a keynote speaker who addressed different themes and ideas. Matthias Hvass Borello was the moderator for the first day and his introduction made clear that the purpose of the conference was to create a dialogue together in a public forum, where both Danish and international artists present their work and ideas.
Allison Collins, an independent curator from Vancouver and the Event Manager for the Institions by Artists: the Convention, was the first keynote whose session began at 10am on Saturday morning. Quite a feat in itself as everyone looked a little raggedy from the celebrations the night before. But Allison was able to capture our attention with a very articulate and compelling presentation where she described both the specific situation and history of Canadian artist-run centres, and the 2012 Institutions by Artists Convention. She began by returning to the quote from Hannah Arendt’s book, “The Human Condition”, that the Conference organisers, Honey and Suada, had so brilliantly utilised to frame their project.
“Wherever people gather together it is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever.”
As Allison noted, the link between ephemeral projects and this evocative quote is very clear, yet, she asked, what might the “it” be that was potentially there? And so she returned to Arendt’s text and found the “it” is the polis, or what Arendt describes as the “space of appearance”. Allison then asked “could we consider what is artist-run as potentially involved in making a space of appearance”? This sense of the potentiality of artist-runs as spaces for public dialogue and public action was one of the key concerns of the conference and festival itself. Allison reflected with great insight on the broad ramifications of the Canadian conference of 2012, Institutions by Artists, with its rich after life of associated documentation, including an online resource as well as a unique publication of essays. For Allison it is just such meetings and activities that bring forth a community of artists.
As Allison’s presentation made clear, Canada has a long and rich history of artist-run centres. It was interesting to hear why. She quoted from A A Bronson, one of Canada’s most well respected artists, who describes the cultural moment that was unique to Canada at that time – the 1960s. His list of what it was about Canada at that particular time included: the largeness of the country where there existed a reliance on media to communicate across the distances, a lack of Canadian identity, the proximity to the United States and its cultural dominance, the lack of a real art market so that Canadian artists left Canada to pursue their careers elsewhere. For me, as an Australian, these conditions resonated very strongly with Australia as it was in the 1960s. And perhaps that’s why independent artist spaces took off in Australia too, many following the Canadian model. Later, in reply to a question by Matthias, Allison admitted that most of the older artist-run centres across Canada today are now not run by artists but by curators, who are keen to preserve this history. Although she qualified this statement by adding that many new centres arise regularly that are run by artists, but usually on a much smaller scale.
What follows is necessarily my own gloss of the one and half hour discussion:
After morning tea a panel of artists, representing nine different spaces, sat facing the audience. One of the most interesting and innovative features of the Festival was that each of the 17 Danish/Copenhagen artist-runs invited an international artist-run. This gave the Festival and the conference a broad and and very international flavour. And it created some great discussions amongst the panellists as the international guest panellists talked about their own approaches and ideas on how it worked for them. Artists were invited from Berlin, Paris, Athens, London, New York and Toowoomba Australia – to name just a few.
It was noted that like Canada, Denmark has a long history of artist-run institutions. In fact, as Hannah Heilmann from Toves gallery and Marie Thams from Odradek, described to me in an earlier interview, the history of artist initiated spaces in Denmark goes back to the late 19th Century, when artists, many women included, started Den Frie, a contemporary art space. Den Frie (“the house is built by artists for artists”) still exists today in its original building, across the street from Østerport railway station. Another notable comment from Louise Lassen Iversen (NLHspace) on this first panel was that there has been a great explosion of artist-runs in Copenhagen in the last five years, coinciding with the financial crisis (many people I spoke to in Denmark referred to the financial crisis of 2008 as an important moment for Denmark). Many commercial galleries closed at this time. Louise reflected that it was fascinating to note that with less money around there seemed to be more creative activity. Although Matthias, the moderator, noted that all the artist-runs included in the Festival did receive some form of funding. I suppose the question for me is: has the funding changed, decreased or increased since the financial crisis?
Erik B. Duckert from BETON described the somewhat unusual goal of the BETON space – which is a sort of meta-artist run where “interviews as sculptures” are conducted. That is, rather than a program of exhibitions, artists are invited to the space to reflect upon the artist-run that they are involved in. They in fact analyse the scene in their own ways and BETON’s aim is to document the last five years of artist-run activity through artists’ own words and activities, in an artist-run space.
Several people remarked on the increased presence of curators in current artist-run spaces. In response to Matthias’s provocative suggestion that it is the growth of paperwork, bureaucracy and the need to chase money that perhaps there seems to be many more curator’s involved with artist-runs than ever before, Louise Lassen Iversen, gave a very lucid and strong reply to this suggestion. She is a curator working in an artist-run space and she thinks that there are many reasons curators would find it appealing to work and collaborate in artist-runs. Administration wasn’t one of them. She described her own situation at NLHspace as a creative partner collaborating with artists to make exciting programs – something that would be very difficult to do in the established art institutions.
An interesting discussion began around the contested idea of artists showing their own work in their own artist-run spaces. In both Canada and Scotland this is, apparently, considered “gauche” and could be considered a conflict of interest. But the Danish artists felt much more flexible and ambivalent about this. Several voiced their concern that this seemed too rigid, and perhaps counter-intuitive. Aren’t artist-runs for artists? Marie Thams from Odradek, reminded us that artist-runs are hybrid and multifaceted and that it’s important NOT to have rules that are applicable to all. As she noted, the driving force behind setting up a space in the first place is the possibility of working and collaborating with other artists. She described her own practice as one that thrives on collaborations, working with others and participating herself. “It’s not about profiling myself rather it’s a way of working.” For me, Marie’s response went some way to problematising and blurring the the seemingly intransigent line between romantic idealism (alternative) and cynical opportunism (stepping stone) in the question: Is it an alternative or a stepping stone?
Hugo Hopping, in pointing out the need to consider consciously the business framework and how one conducts the “business” of artist-runs, or as he put it “conjugating their management” (I love this phrase) highlighted a generational shift, where artists are not afraid to “do business”. Alison Collins added that “we don’t need to be afraid to do business…all terrains of identity are open to the artist.” This shift away from ideological frameworks or critiques like the institutional critiques of the 1960s and 1970s came up again when Hannah Heilmann characterised TOVES management as “expressive” and went even further by saying that “we are all colonised by neo-liberalism and we are colonising back…we are all institutions.” Here she is referring to the self-publishing and self-branding exercise that is a central part of networked life. We all have webpages, or internet profiles. We are all institutions.
The session wound down with people referencing the question first posed in the program. Do artist-run spaces offer something unique, separately from more established institutions like museums and institutions?
The idea of process as one of the most important aspects of artist-run spaces was discussed by several speakers. CirkulationCentralen in Sweden is a space whose mission is much broader than simply exhibitions. They want to create a platform for artists to work from, to create opportunities for artists through a diverse program of workshops, a space where artists can engage through process and discussion. They are inspired by artist spaces of the 1960s, such as Allison Collins described, where process and engagement were so central. Pointing to this example of the broader mission of CirkulationCentralen, Honey Beckerlee wondered if it is this opportunity for process that differentiates the artist-run from more established institutions. It is a need that’s not met elsewhere and this is exactly what an artist-run has to offer.
Allison Collins added that perhaps what artist-runs have in common is that they don’t necessarily focus on the object for exhibition, but focus on the needs of the artist, whether that be process, discourse or other forms of engagement. Koor-i-Nor added that they are a space with no space, “not existing, but still existing.” The actual space closed down several months ago, but for the eight members it is a way to meet and talk about things. Everything is unknown. They are now all process!
The issue of audience and numbers was brought up as another point of differentiation. Something that artist-runs have to offer. As one participant pointed out, artist-runs now have a confidence in showing art, simply, and without the need for other strategies and tactics to win an audience. This is in contrast to larger established institutions and museums, who, under a lot of pressure to produce large audiences, often need to resort to entertainment strategies and other schemes to win the numbers game. Artist-run spaces, on the other hand, allow that there might be a small audience for the show and that’s alright too.