Unarticulated Labour: Anonymity in an Artist-Led Space
Author: Gino Querini and Lucy Elvis
In a necessarily self-critical approach to Artist-Led practice, this paper looks theoretically at the implications of artist-led practices on a broad scale. Considering galleries theoretically as the space in which the private activities of the artist are brought to the public realm, this paper considers the implications of the de-mythologisation of art and art practises on a wider scale, with particular emphasis on artist-run spaces. The latter are in fact spaces in which the roles that populate the artistic community are hidden behind a layer of anonymity due to their overlapping in a single entity whose working mechanisms are ambiguous to say the least. The similarities of this situation with the so-called Web 2.0 (in which creators and viewers are confused as well) provides an analogous situation through which to investigate possible theoretical futures for artist-run organisations.
This paper proposes that artist-led practice return to the criticality at its genesis as both a means of self-reflection and a safeguard against the production of a microcosmic hierarchy that might, eventually mirror the commercial world for which it hopes to act as an antidote.
Stemming from the first-hand experiences of both authors of the realities of working within an artist-led space the foregoing is a theoretical exploration of the implications of the tendency of the artist-led towards a demythologisation of artistic practice, the de-subjectivisation of the artist and curator and blurring of the public and private elements of arts practice. This paper provides a nuanced contribution to the debate on a rapidly expanding area within the visual arts sector by embodying the critical stance it seeks to inspire.
Key words: Artist-Led practice, Visual Art, Art Galleries, Anonymity
This brief paper investigates the Artist-run gallery as a space of distinct anonymity, one in which the identity of the involved agents is significant –art and artistic creation- yet in the artist-led process elements of these practices they are faced with a process of “de-subjectivation” which tends, at least indirectly, to erase a portion of their agency from the process of artistic creation and exhibition.
This piece is at once based in first-hand experience (both authors were part of one artist-run organization at the time of writing) whilst also acting as an orientation paper aimed at addressing some issues in the relatively young practice of artist-run institutions. For the purposes of this paper, an artist-led organisation is: organisations run voluntarily by arts workers, and operating on a not-for profit basis. Research into this area has tended to aim towards self-justification, stressing the distinct contribution to visual arts ecology made by such grassroots space. In the UK, a significant contribution was made by Jones’ 4 year study Measuring the Experience(Jones 2016) . In Ireland, the FOOTFALL research report and the Artist-Led Europe project identified such organisations as a significant and growing proportion of the visual arts sector. (Laws 2016; Cullen and Murphy, 2016)
This study will take 126 Artist-Run Gallery an artist-run space in Galway City in the West of Ireland as an exemplar from which to draw examples of projects and exhibitions (“126 – Artist-Run Gallery” 2016). As a nation that has one of the worst records in terms of municipal funding for the arts in comparison to its European Counterparts, interrogation of the growing area of the Irish cultural ecology occupied by voluntary labour and the artist-led has been a recurrent theme. (O’Halloran 2016; Laws 2015; Cullen and Murphy, 2016) However, this does not render the findings here merely of parochial significance, since such models are adopted internationally as a means of providing emerging arts practices with a platform focussed on fostering meaningful engagement with ‘non-commercial’ art practices. 1
A number of convincing cases have been made for the distinct value of artist-led practices as those that, on a micro-level, place emphasis on their duty-of-care to the artists and audiences they embrace (Heilgemeir, n.d.; Laws 2015). In this regard, the vitality of such spaces in local, national and international visual arts ecologies is justified through their claim to having a tangible positive impact on the career trajectories of early career artists and to bringing non-commercial and experimental art forms to new audiences by placing them in informal settings outside of an elitist art establishment. This paper, by contrast, will avoid engaging in such self-referential (and at times self-aggrandising) analyses, by looking at the ideological implications of the artist-led as a model on a macro level and the effect this has on the delicate relationships between the role of creator, the administrator and curator as stewards of these pieces. In this regard the paper will share some critiques outlined by Murphy (Murphy, Gavin 2015) in its attempt to critically engage with the implications of artist-led practice as ‘fantasy islands’ that often compromise their ideology in order to maintain positive relations with the external forces of funders and municipalities.
This examination is not however, the statement of a derogatory value judgement toward this form of cultural development. As Walter Benjamin pointed out in regard to the loss of aura, change in the means of cultural production is somewhat ambivalent, possessing the potential to be liberating as well as highlighting such regressive characteristics(Benjamin 2008.). If Artist-run spaces are, then, rupturing practices as they understand themselves, this paper will be a first attempt to face such rupture, by working to: “brush against the grain” (Benjamin, Arendt and Zohn, 1968) of their young history and measure their lofty claims against their tangible results. Hegel reminds us in The Phenomenology of Mind:
‘But the life of mind is not one that shuns death, and keeps clear of destruction; it endures death and in death maintains its being. It only wins to its truth when it finds itself utterly torn asunder. It is this mighty power, not by being a positive which turns away from the negative, as when we say of anything it is nothing or it is false, and, being then done with it, pass off to something else: on the contrary, mind is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and dwelling with it.’(Hegel 2014)
That which is “dead” and what remains “alive” in the practice of artist-led spaces is what we will try to measure in this paper. As a result, given the lack of similar studies in the scholarship, both methodologies of investigation and results should be taken as provisional.
Since the tendency to “anonymize” the activities of those who run them, will be considered a key characteristics of artist-led spaces we will draw a comparison between them, as a form of anonymous cultural institution, to the nature of Web 2.0. The participatory production of digital content that describes the use of internet in our present epoch is characterized by the conflation of roles between creator and viewer, both allowing for dynamic and different approaches to creativity and increasingly erasing the identity of those involved, leaving a number of agents and the result of their labour passive and defenceless in the face of possible exploitation. Akin to what the invention of mobile characters print in the fifteenth-century meant for the nature of knowledge, similarly, its contemporary digitalization consistently erodes the embedded social mythologies that knowledge production carries (such as, for example, that of authorship). Similarly, anonymity in artistic practices is a part of a wider process of a similar demythologisation, carrying similar possibilities and risks. As a result, anonymity creates new spaces of conflict in our interactions with visual art and creativity, a theoretical understanding of which this paper will attempt to outline.
Using then a brief examination of 126 as a case-study to offer more general observations on the implications of artist-led practice as a whole, we will consider whether the risk-taking approach that artist-led spaces offer is really the oasis of experimentation that its core ideology suggests or whether, as an anonymising process, it might work to denigrate a number of creative processes to the level of means of material production.
Public and private: A Brief genealogical note
In order to fully understand the conflictual nature of the relationship between the roles of artist, gallerist and curator that artist-run spaces address, and the potential risks of simplistically collapsing all three through the adoption of artist-led ideology, a discussion of the conceptual role of the work of the artist in the studio and the work in the gallery is required.
An artist-run gallery is a creative space, for the purposes of this paper a not-for-profit gallery or gallery and studios, run by artists themselves. Putting aside the specific organization of workforce for this paper (i.e. whether the artists involved also work as technicians and administrators, if their work within the gallery has a deadline, and so on), we can summarize the artist-run process as that of an overlapping of the role of the artist with that of the gallerist and curator. A process which, in removing the distinct character of each of these individual roles increases the anonymity at the heart of the organisation (i.e. literally, who does what and under which premises, becomes irrelevant). If we understand the nature of artistic creation as, metaphorically, that of an inner space of elaboration and imagination, epitomised by the image of the “artist’s studio” as a separate space, the gallery (or whatever physical space wherein exhibitions take place) should be the space in which those outside of the “studio” interact with the products of said inner dimension. The “gallery” is, conceptually, the space in which contact between the reality of the artist, and the non-artist, or viewer, is mediated. This definition includes not only experiential mediations (i.e. the fruition of artistic work) but also the technical (i.e. how this interaction ought to occur, with regard to installation and accessibility) and the economical (how to relate the work of the artist to the lay concept of money). Artist-run spaces overlap these two conceptual dimensions of public and private: the studio and the gallery become one and the same.
In short, the gallery is a place in which the encounter between certain individuals, in regard to their specific social role (artists and viewers) is mediated by others, who possess a different function (curators, gallerists, etc.). It is no surprise, under these terms, that alongside a more “official” (or conventional) realm of artistic mediation, an “underworld” of independent practices of artistic mediation has flourished, since the instances of these specific figures is often (if not intrinsically?) conflictual. With the onset of modern age artistic creation was inextricably connected with individuality and “non-mundane” activities, consequently a more general agency of “the artist” developed, meaning that the artist qua artist became an agent among other subjects. As Lessing put famously in the Laocoon, using the comparison with religion, the artist is something different from all the other roles, as art is a pure endeavour:
But since, among the antiques that have been unburied, there are specimens of both kinds, we should discriminate and call only those works of art which are the handiwork of the artist, purely as a artist, those where he has been able to make beauty his first and last object All the rest, all that show an evident religious tendency, are unworthy to be called works of art. In them Art was not working for her own sake, but was simply the tool of Religion, having symbolic representations forced upon her with more regard to their significance than their beauty. By this I do not mean to deny that religion often sacrificed meaning to beauty, or so far ceased to emphasize it, out of regard for art and the finer taste of the age, that beauty seemed to have been the sole end in view. (Lessing and Frothingham 2013, 63.)
Of course, such a vision of both art and the artist has been questioned and its limits increasingly assessed since in the onset of ‘modernity’. However, is has never fully descended into complete obscurity. For our scope, is interesting to notice the paradox that underlies such an understanding of artistic practices is still alive and well in the contemporary practice of art. Namely, the understanding that the artist has a voice, and hence is a subject, through the material goods he or she produced, distinguishing him or herself from a labourer who disappears behind the process of production of goods 2. A paradox that had to wait for artists such as Duchamp and Warhol to stage it openly within the gallery itself.
It is important to keep in mind that this understanding of the artist is historically determined, and as such, it remains in flux. The “birth” of this creative freedom came at a certain cost. In her reconstruction of the figure of the modern artist taking Van Gogh as a model, Heinich, connects the figure of the modern artist to that of a “protestant Saint” meaning that certain dimensions of religious experience are projected on Van Gogh first, and then to the figure of the artist (Heinich 1997, 150.). She states:
What should be done instead is to take advantage of the process of displacement or decontextualization of religious behaviors[sic.] toward the artistic domain, in order to bring out the fundamental components of what is called “saintliness” in a religious context, and “heroism” or “genius” elsewhere. Depending on its extent and context, it is a phenomenon pertaining to love, admiration, celebration, veneration, or idolatry. (ibid)
Without expressing judgement on either the reconstruction the figure of the artist that Heinich proposes, or Van Gogh’s cult, we can, however, summarize that: if the premodern artist was an artisan, the modern artist is a creator. The first had a workspace, the latter has a studio. This process has been masterfully captured by John Roberts:
In the fourteenth, fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries, the workshop-artisan had to be skilled in a wide variety of painterly, carving, woodworking and metalworking skills, from casting medals and constructing caskets and chests to painting in tempera and painting frescoes. With the mercantile and ecclesiastical rise of Florence and Rome and the birth of the large private commission, in conjunction with the development of a new model of the artist based on the importance of the concept of drawing from life (to distinguish it from the artisan’s working-to-order), this wide skill-base breaks down. That is, with the arrival of the independent artist and the model of disegno – the close working from the particulars of nature, by the artist – the workshop has to adapt to the demands of the individual artist rather than the workshop-master’s multiple tasks. The result is that the old workshop skill-base is divested of its collective integrity (the apprentices finishing various tasks and completing different processes for the workshopmaster as interdependent parts of creative whole), to be given over in support of the ‘revealed creation’ of the independent artist who, increasingly, is commissioned by court and ecclesiastical authorities, in his own right as an artist, and as such where and when possible seeks to complete the majority of the work himself, and without tutoring apprentices in the process. The diversified skill-base of the workshop, then, becomes subordinate to the commercial dictates of the independent artist of exemplary distinction, transforming the workshop-apprentice, eventually, into a studio wage-labourer. (Roberts 2010)
The birth of this figure of the artist (which remains unsurpassed, remaining a quintessential figure in our contemporary artistic community, or at least something against which artists attempt to define themselves), called in question the power balance between those who commission, and exhibit; those that “use” the artwork and those who create them. The anonymizing process that is at the core of the artist-led practices is in fact a certain answer to a definition of artistic work that is still felt strongly in current times (i.e. that artists are somehow detached from the earthly realm and need external guidance from authorities such as critics, curators, etc.).
We are not presenting this genealogy as a criticism of the current state of affairs. Rather, we are hope to trace the main trajectory of the development of the artists’ unique agency and describe its possible developments. This would allow us to justify positions that, from different perspectives, may even appear counterintuitive. For example, that more than freeing artists from their “religious” heritage, retreat into anonymizing artist-led spaces, might risk further alienation from the society in which they find themselves.
Wind’s melancholic description in Art and Anarchy, of the shared theoretical work undertaken by buyers and artists to bring the works to life early modernity, as opposed it to what he saw as a solipsistic tendency of later art that would lead to an insignificance of art and its products, helps to better illustrate the risks of the artist-led as a new form of segregation, and thus anonymity (Wind 1963). His appreciation of Early modern art was no philistinism. As a matter of fact, it was more of clarion call for the loss of significance of art in the contemporary world due to a process that, artists had partially brought on themselves by transforming their identity and “inner space” to self-referentiality. Wind wasn’t prophesising some sort of “end of art” as much as he was experiencing the shift toward an art that needed to be understood what is known as the “institutional theory of art” described by Arthur Danto in The transfiguration of the commonplace (A. C. Danto 1981). The main characteristic of such art is its aboutness, i.e., its being “about” something. Such ‘aboutness’, however, cannot be accessed without a reference to the artist’s intention, and cannot function if not internally the so-called Artworld:
To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry-an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld. […]The artworld stands to the real world in something like the relationship in which the City of God stands to the Earthly City. Certain objects, like certain individuals, enjoy a double citizen- ship, but there remains, the RT [the theory that artworks are new entities and not imitations] notwithstanding, a fundamental contrast between artworks and real objects. (A. Danto 1964)
Without including the artist’s intention, it is even questionable if a work of art is understandable as such. Without an Artworld, even seeing something as art is impossible. Wind is describing (and lamenting) this as a shift in the anthropological value of art, more than expressing a Judgment of taste or value 3: for him, art secluding itself into this ivory tower is a defeat, not a victory. He feared that art might become increasingly self-involved foregoing any chance of “reaching outside”: in his comparison, the religious and political significance possessed by art during the Reinaissance is forgotten in modern times. He exemplified this process with the feeling of being lost experienced by Jean Arp while making sculptures for the Unesco building in Paris:
Jean Arp was astonished and disappointed that not even the architects could spare time. – he uses the expression ‘spare the time’ – ‘to discuss in earnest with the painters and sculptors’ how their work was to be conceived as part of the general plan. Although the patron was a corporate body, and had commissioned a group of artists including Miró, Moore, Picasso and Tamayo to decorate a building with a well defined purpose, the usual method was adopted of leaving the artist to himself, so that each might follow his individual will. Their wills were not made to clash and then to work out their harmonization. The result of this loose notion of laissez-faire was a visual and intellectual paradox: in this building devoted to the cultural work of the United Nations the arts loiter about the place without function, distracted and disunited (Wind 1963, xiii)
This excursus is not meant to end up with us deciding whether to bring to completion this process of destruction for figure of the artist after its birth in the modern age, or to argue for a retrograde move toward “earlier times”. Rather, we wanted to highlight what is at stake in current times when we experiment with, and render anonymous, the figures involved in artistic creation and experience.
With this chronology in our purview, we return to the general notion that art galleries are the spaces (among others, of course), in which the agency of artists qua artists is expressed inter-subjectively, through the use of what, in the end, amounts to material goods (i.e. their works). Specifically, in modern times, they act theoretically as “non-places” in Marc Augé’s sense, “places” in which the exchange (whose nature is determined then primarily in economical terms) between subjects should happen, disappearing as a neutral background for said process to occur(Augé 1995). One could argue that Artist-led galleries challenge the economical nature of said non-places, but this doesn’t mean that they evolve to have an identity proper. As we will see, they risk remaining non-places devoid of identity, that damage those involved in their activities.
We took this genealogical (in a Nietzschean and Foucaultian sense) detour to properly frame this assessment, understanding it neither as a value-judgement nor a self-fulfilling prophecy. We wanted to highlight how artist-led spaces are both part of a history of conflict and act as grounds of conflict themselves, a battleground in which the identity of the artist and of those involved in the arts is at stake. In fact, far more than being spaces that “circumvent” conflicts by conflating what are generally multiple figures (artist, gallerist curator,) into one (artist-as-curator-and-gallerist systematically), galleries as such are the litmus paper of the conflict between public and private, that is one arguably defining artistic agency in its modern, or post-modern sense. From this conflict a new form of artist practice could be born. To try to measure its possible nature we can offer some insights from personal experience in order to (hopefully) shed some light on an already confused situation. It is for this reason that we now turn to 126 Artist-Run Gallery in Galway, an 11-year project in self-organised exhibitions and non-commercial arts practice variously funded by The Arts Council Ireland, Galway City Council and an international body of members, both artists and non-artists.
126 Artist-Run Gallery: a cottage industry
Defining artist-run spaces as non-places allows us to consider a whole different set of questions. If the preceding section addressed the intrinsic ambivalence of the public face of the artist and the curatorial dynamics that this creates, we now have to question how the organization of artist-led spaces, as attempts to level the ambivalences of already tried solutions, influences the actual labour of those involved. We argue that by virtue of the artist-led space’s own constitution, the specificities (tastes, interests, activities…) of the members of their organization (directors, technicians, etc.) tend to disappear, sacrificed by virtue of the fact of gallery as a space for others, becoming akin to exploitation. To properly clarify this point it is better to use a factual example and examine closer the nature of one such reality, namely 126 artist-run gallery.
At its inception 126 was the archetype of a grassroots organisation. Informal and ad-hoc, exhibitions were sporadically hosted in the living-room-come-white-cube of the projects instigators(“Artists in the House” 2005). They cited frustration at the lack of a platform for contemporary visual art in the city and, once established, adopted a constitutional model based on that of Transmission Gallery (Glasgow) for 126 as an organisation(“Transmission – Info” 2016). In its eleven-year history the gallery has occupied four different physical spaces and fallen under the stewardship of over 50 different directors, none of whom are accredited as individual curators of the exhibitions produced and who are constitutionally restricted from remaining as such for a period of more than 2 years.
Oftentimes, this organisational model of wilful flux sees such spaces awkwardly juxtaposed against the staid backdrop of cultural administration on a local and national level. In the case of 126, its city which has retained a number of the same Arts Administrators for more than two decades. Central to the operation of artist-led spaces, is a commitment to paying exhibiting artists 4. It for this reason that the board of directors, commit their time without remuneration. The irony at the heart of this arrangement, is that for the most part, the unacknowledged time that these directors spend anonymously fostering 126 is the studio time that they might otherwise invest in their ‘own’ creative works or research, their own internal creative identity slipping into obscurity(Laws 2015).
The work that artist run organizations do, which is also quantifiable in the fundraising activities that the gallery undertakes given that the main directive is that of privileging the artist and thus leaving no profit to be made for the volunteers, acts as what institutions should be providing for arts and artists, namely to pay, train, educate, create a network, etc. However, to do so, artist-led entities, have a major drawback in comparison to public institutions: that is, acting under the guise of an impartial “public body” while being a private, or independent enterprise, means that the economical exchange that takes place in between private entities, doesn’t happen for artist-led spaces. To put it simply: artist-led spaces are private actors in the market which cannot make a profit while acting as public founding bodies. The fact that those organizations are voluntarily run isn’t an excuse for this criticism, since artist-led spaces possess a distinct social role in terms of providing opportunities for artists at the beginning of their careers, and perform the social function of offering cultural events and venues to the community as well as influencing economic tangibles such as visitor numbers for the cities in which they are located.
Obfuscating this work behind the anonymity of voluntarily-run activities leads clearly to a form of labour exploitation by tacit agreement(Dore 2016). However, in this paper we won’t investigate this kind of exploitation further. Leaving this aside, we want to address how this situation impacts the nature of creative agency in the arts. Namely, the question that we want to answer (at least provisionally and subjectively) is that of: what effects have artist run spaces to the creative endeavours of those running them? And what are their risks?
The Facebook effect
To answer this question we’ll use the digital analogy in order to better highlight the specific issues at stake. This investigation is not a repetition of the lament of the ‘Death of the Author’ (Barthes and Heath 1978). More than this, we will highlight tendencies that, probably due to the singular velocity of the digital space, can be witnessed there with greater expediency than in the “outside” world, and can then be used to understand what artist-led organizations are toying with.
The web 2.0 presents itself as a space of neutrality and undermining of hierarchies in favour of a shared dimension of fruition and a dialogical understanding of production (on a global scale!) First describing web 2.0 in 2004, O’Reilly describes, amongst other things, how the involvement of “the masses” in the creative process is one of the inspirations behind the creation of such a digital world(“What Is Web 2.0” 2016). To summarize, he quotes: with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. The sentence refers to programming, meaning that the wisdom of the masses forms a remedy against individual mistakes. Without getting involved in specific issues with such a work philosophically in the digital age (i.e. the content is produced by the masses, but the platforms, and main revenues are owned by private subjects –see Amazon, Facebook, Airbnb, Twitter, Ebay, Youtube…) and the overlapping of an approach proper of IT toward the whole of information (not every problem of humanity can be understood as a bug to be fixed), what emerges is an understanding of labour (of any kind) as an undifferentiated effort, unqualified, which results, by sheer addiction, in an output, valid by the very fact of its coming into being.
Yet (again, assuming that there is a truly equal standing in between the actors of the Web 2.0) the necessity of a certain introduction of values from the outside of this level playing field seems to be necessary. The example of Wikipedia is enlightening: despite the idea of a 1:1 proportion between quantity of labour and quality of output, a hierarchical approach to work has been implemented into the system (König 2013): Wikipedia relies on qualified external sources to function, and had to implement an internal policy to protect itself against destructive behaviours (i.e. labour aimed explicitly against its proposed goal of “encyclopedicity”). Furthermore, internal to the sole activity of adding content, the agents easily enter (in regard to controversial topics) into what are called “edit wars”: different groups of editors modify against each other the content in order to foster their respective ideological point of view (until, appealing to the practices of “externalizing” and “policing” that we described, the contest is settled).
What has this to do with artist-led galleries? It exemplifies how, in cultural production, the enforcing of anonymizing practices, can become little more than a shield for ideology, and highlights the need for a clear distribution of powers and clear division of responsibilities as a means of avoiding this. Otherwise, in order to pursue their role of “pseudo-funding bodies” that we examined before, artists involved in artist-led practices risk acting in a way that is simply self-referential, relevant to their specific, local scene, in order to remain viable for the artist that are to exhibit in such spaces. Obfuscating the difference between artist and curator simply creates an area of confusion out of which creative choices are made. The space without identity-less space that the artist-led gallery is, become open to exploitation not only by institutions that rely on the volunteer work of artists as curators, but also by artists themselves, as the gallery space increasingly becomes victim to the whims of its local artistic scene. This doesn’t mean that there is the establishment of a taste or tendency, but simply that the artists end up erasing a layer of criticism and self-understanding (occupied by the curators) with the result, as with the internet, of greater compartmentalisation. A proliferation of different echo chambers (the so-called “filter bubble”) in which, those in the temporary role of curators for the community are exploited both of their labour and their creative endeavours.
It would appear then that longevity is in fact the enemy of artist-led spaces. 126, as a gallery that has existed for over a decade has attained the paradoxical position of maintaining, at least ostensibly, an anti-institutional, grassroots stance even as the project grows into the position of an institution in terms of scope, scale projects and the size of its membership cohort.
This tension between self-justification and a need for criticality was exemplified in the exhibition series that emerged out of Laws’ FOOTFALL report. Following a relatively fruitful dialogue regarding the state of artist-led practice at a national level, 126 invited a number of artist-led organisations to curate exhibitions in their own space during 2015. The result was a series of varying exhibitions in which each organisation moved their own local practice into the space to curate an exhibition. However, this was a multiplication of the problems explored above, artists of the artist-led sector producing work for others within said sector, by its very nature a potential closed circle of self-congratulation, which may be why no external critic had much comment to make on its products.
Given this state of being, from the personal experience of running an artist-run organization from the inside, we can draw a provisional practical-yet-theoretical conclusion. This is a paradoxical one, as it comprises a call for making anonymity known. In other words, to explicate the working mechanism of the anonymous machine. This does not mean simply, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater by reverting to the traditional format of patronising galleries and curatorship. In this regard, in fact, artist-led spaces play an important role in deconstructing the figure of the modern artist with whom they work. Consequently, they need to find forms to further this process of transformation or, at least, to safeguard those that run them from the risks of exploitation and self-referentiality. Our suggestion is then for artist-run spaces to engage more actively in forms of critical self-understanding and opening their internal mechanism to ever new external vistas. To do so we strongly argue for the empowering of archival structures in regard to artist-led activities. This does not mean simply to keep track of “what happens”. It means instead that, in order to be really risk-taking, artist-led galleries should put themselves in the place of risk, laying themselves open to consequent critical assessment. This is perhaps the only possible solution to a situation in which, as curators, artist are exploited by a system that asks them to be curators for other artists, and, in turn as artists are denied the chance to have fruitful experiences for their personal growth. As we anticipated in the introduction, with the words of Walter Benjamin, Artist-led spaces need to examine their activities “against the grain”, namely, highlighting all that is beyond those two weeks in which the exhibition installed and congratulations are passed around. Artists that run artist-led spaces, need, for example, to say clearly how much they are doing in covering the institutions’ lacking involvement with the arts and make such criticalities come to the fore in their daily making.
The foregoing has identified two key problems with the artist-led as a model. Firstly, its tendency to blur the lines between artist, curator and gallerist appears to render all three of these simply forms of production for audiences hungry to consume ‘non-commercial’ visual fayre. Add to this the tendency away from criticality that can be endemic in the closed discussions of artist-led practice as a newly emergent sphere keen to assert itself and a real potential for these democratic spaces to become bastions of a different kind of hierarchy emerges. As we saw in the analysis of the Primary Resource project, such efforts, rather than leading to meaningful critique of the methodologies and practices at play risk becoming a self-congratulatory pageant of self-reference only. This may be exacerbated as the role of a curator or gallerist in a conventional sense disappears. No longer a scholar with an in-depth knowledge of the tradition in which they stand, nor a gallerist with specifically honed taste or awareness of growing trends, rather, they are simply a conduit to the use of a space, a person who facilitates all the demands of the exhibiting artist at hand, the performer of the ‘sexiest form of accountancy’. Such a loss of specialist curatorial understanding creates a risk for the ‘artworld’ as a whole, if literature advocating for grassroots practices as a source of inspiration and a testing ground for the mainstream is to be believed. (Sholette 2010)
The question remains then, what remedy might exist for the loss of knowledge in the precarious practices of the artist-led? Artist-led spaces as youthful points of experimentation carry the energising charge of youth that Benjamin describes and is later used by Kozik as something other than an old person in a youthful body. In this regard, the situation of long-standing artists-led organisations such as 126 and its base-models Transmission and Catalyst arts becomes a case in point. For all three organisations who have reached the age of 11, 21 and 35 years respectively, their longevity creates an ideological rift at the heart of their organisational identity. With the bureaucratic deck stacked against them, such organisations slowly adopt institutional structures and ways of working as a means of self-sustenance (adherence to a number of best practice guidelines are a must for those in pursuit of municipal funding) slowly drifting away from the rebellious and youthful exuberance that was once their raison d’etre.
Essentially, Artist-led spaces can only maintain themselves as a spaces of conflict, as the 126 aims tell us: ‘place[s] for criticality’(“126 – Artist-Run Gallery” 2016) a problem that becomes increasingly apparent as such spaces become forced to adopt institutional structures as a means of insuring their fiscal viability. Their fragile balance of complete anonymity and democracy finds itself in the same problematic as radical occupy leaders, who after celebrating the potential for technology to become a force for radical democratization, simply sought to introduce a new hierarchy through its possibilities:
‘…..Tunney [former occupy leader, now reactionary] was never against the one percent—she just thought that the one percent were the wrong people. The problem was they were tie-wearing investment banker fratboys and didn’t deserve to be on top. Just like in her view government fat cats and Hollywood celebrities and snooty academics don’t deserve to be on top. But tech geeks, with their superhuman ability to manipulate ones and zeroes, do.’(Chu 2014)
In their strong adherence to democracy, the position of the individual within the Artist-Led is precarious. A repeatedly probed question of whether Artist-Led galleries lead to a valorisation of problems such as ‘burn-out’, at once fetishizing the idea of the impoverished artist-curator even as they call for proper remuneration of those they exhibit, remains unresolved. It is unlikely that a maintenance of the anonymity in operation here will resolve the issue- rather, our introduction suggested, this leaves individuals, their time creative capacities open to exploitation.
In returning critically to the archive the site of the diminution of anonymity, that area where artistic practice, curation (or even, the lack thereof) and viewer become once again distinct; artist-led practice might be able to provide its own remedy. Research that moves away from ‘making the case for….’ to ‘interrogating the relevance of…’ as a means of keeping the hierarchical tendencies we saw emergent in the digital realm at bay. In order to maintain their precarity, their youthful outlook and the fruitful anonymity with which they were conceived, the artist-led must maintain its position as a place of contestation, not only with the art elite outside, but as a force that calls itself constantly into question.
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About the Authors
Lucy Elvis is a researcher, writer and curator from the UK currently living in Galway. She holds a BA in Art History and Politics from the University of Leicester (UK) and an MA in Visual Culture from Lunds Universitet (Sweden) where she was also a part of the team at Galleri Pictura. She is currently a Doctoral Scholarship Student at the National University of Ireland Galway completing a PhD in the Philosophy of Art and Culture. Her research focuses on an Embodied Hermeneutics of Architecture and how such an approach might expand our understanding of the experiences generated by our built spaces.
Gino Querini is a NUIG (National University of Ireland, Galway) Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy of Art and Culture. His research focuses on Aby Warburg and Immanuel Kant.
- In an Irish context, artist-run spaces include (but are not limited to) Basic Space, Pallas Projects, Block T and MART (Dublin), Ormston House(Limerick), ArtLink Fort Dunree (Donegal) and, in Northern Ireland Catalyst Arts and Platform Arts (Belfast). Many of these organisations borrow a constitutional structure from Transmission Gallery in Glasgow. (“Projects | ARCHIVES OF THE ARTIST-LED” 2016) ↩
- Clearly one could say that artists produce “cultural capital” hence, a different kind of objects from those of the labourer. However, the element we want to investigate in this paper is their perception, i.e. the material conditions in which these object are made visible to others. Or, to be more precise, what kind of labour is it that makes the artist’s work visible. Becker examines the necessarily intersubjective nature of artistic production (see: Becker 1974) but limits himself to the practical elements (i.e. how to make works) and how artists interact with those that physically produce (or perform) the work (e.g. musicians, actors, welders, woodcutters…). In his paper curators are briefly mentioned as passive bystanders before such changes, fated either to accepting or rejecting it. In contrast, we argue that curators are also part of the organic network in which the artwork is created (ibid.) with their own specific skills and know-how and thus part of the process in which art is created. Overlooking this is, in part, what is at stake with artist-led spaces, as their anonymizing nature tends to erase the specific competences of those who are part of them. ↩
- And more than a theory of the meaning of art, as Danto presents it ↩
- Visual Artists Ireland, the body for representing visual arts workers has spearheaded a campaign on this issue in recent years, to encourage visitors to seek out information regarding whether the artist has been paid(“Payment Guidelines for Professional Visual Artists – Visual Artists Ireland” 2016). This mimics similar recommendations made by artists collectives in the US and UK.(See “Common Practice – An Advocacy Group for the Small-Scale Visual Arts Sector in London.” 2016; and Cruz 2016) ↩