While I would never normally begin a text in the first person, it is necessary in the interests of context and transparency to know that, in 1996,I contributed a text to the anthology dedicated to artist-run spaces produced to coincide with the "Life/Live" exhibition at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris,' which looked at the artistic scene in the United Kingdom at that particular moment. This publication emerged in response to a prevalent phenomenon that could no longerbe ignored and spanned 50 artists' initiatives, largely based in London, some associated with a particular space, others loose associations of artists, maybe collaborating with each other and/or others to make work. It was my job to construct something of an overview of historical and contemporary artist-run spaces and their modus operandi loosely based on a central consideration of Transmission (1983-present) in Glasgow, one of the longest-running initiatives.
Beginning with a consideration of "Life/Live" and building an overview of subsequent endeavours - together with the stated aims of the organisations - I intend to examine the shifting relationship between artist-led initiatives and the art establishment. This involves a discussion of the broad spectrum of approaches by the artists and, to some extent, the host institutions in order to analyse the results of the process whereby artists are being invited into the museum and examine what each party has to gain - or lose - from their collaborative efforts.
In what would seem to be a direct response to these new kind of institutional relationships, there is also clear evidence of smaller publicly-funded European institutions adopting the methods of artists, including local political engagement and process-based strategies - to reshape their own ways of working. While many of the individuals and organisations under discussion here are known to me personally, I shall try to objectively study some examples of this trend and examine the cause and effect in terms of the relationship between artistic practice and the institutions.
For the purposes of this text, the art world may be envisaged as a microcosm of the current world order. By referring to institutions, I mean the museums, galleries, biennials and, to an extent, educational mechanisms that make up the art establishment. Large institutions often function in much the same way as global corpora-tions and one only needs to look at the transnational Guggenheim brand to see that this is the case. One of the greatest risks of global business practice is the impact it has on local communities. Global media corporations buy up small, local television channels in an effort to control local programming by marketing cheaply produced imports while global fast food outlets seek to replace local cuisine to the extent that local restaurants try to ape the imported food to retain their popularity. So, when art institutions begin to behave in this way, we must be vigilant that local culture and funding forsmall local initiatives is not undermined.
As the majority of the spaces under consideration at the time of "Life/Live" did not survive the gentrification process of the 1990s (in some cases to be replaced by others), sadly this specific period of maverick activity must now be referred to largely in the past tense. Considered retrospectively, the general trend of alternative spaces in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Britain was of an unpaid group of people, surviving on unemployment benefit and part-time work, using every means possible to produce exhibitions. The spaces available to them for low rent were, before the developers moved in, generally unsuitable for any other purpose. All but the most sophisticated were not in receipt of any public funding and, as a result, only opened theirdoors to the public over the busy weekend period. The methods by which artists were selected for exhibitions were as diverse as the programmes themselves, which tended towards non-thematic group shows. Often, the original motivation for these ventures was an exercise in self-promotion in the absence of any established galleries offering opportunities for the artists involved. These were avowedly social spaces, centerd on the alcohol-fuelled private views and, in the best case scenario, this was complemented by a lively events programme. An informal network was established that often yielded international exchanges of artists between different spaces. This process continues today and, at the time of writing, such an exchange is taking place between Transmission and Signal in the southern Swedish city of Malmö.
In 1991, Glasgow-based artist Ross Sinclair noted that artist-led initiatives defined their own terms for how work should be made and shown and, particularly when occurring outside London, were most successful when dealing with a specifically local context rather than aspiring to adopt the language of the commodified center:
When the context of art dissolves into the realm of formalism and the art world exclusively, it has relinquished much of its potential for social function. It loses an important dimension and diminishes from a potentially rounded, holistic art practice and becomes a two-dimensional veneer. Then its meaning and location exists primarily for the market and the cultural activity, Art, ceases to have a wider social function other than in matters of economics.|2|
Any retrospective consideration of "Life/Live" usually includes a mention of the young British artist (yBa) phenomenon, whereby a handful of artists participated in creating their own mythology and achieved international attention. The core of the constantly mutating yBa group (most of whom exhibited in "Life/Live") is taken as the graduates from Goldsmith's College in London who - motivated partly by their predecessor Julian Opie being signed up by the influential Lisson Gallery - organised a series of warehouse exhibitions between 1988 and 1990 ("Freeze", "Modern Medicine", "Gambler"), together with Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman. I mention this now for two reasons. Firstly, because this do-it-yourself ethos inspired and permeated many of the initiatives that were to follow - the floodgates were opened for recent graduates to organise exhibitions for themselves in the many buildings left vacant by the recession. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, at the time of my research for the "Life/Live" text, Carl Freedman spoke openly about the willingness of sponsors to be part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is by now well documented that, far from being innocent, youthful forays into independent exhibition-making, the early yBa projects were supported, both morally and financially, by, among others, Charles Saatchi (who would acquire and popularise much of the work) and Norman Rosenthal (Director of the Royal Academy). The pair would go on to collaborate in 1997 on the blockbuster exhibition "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" at the Royal Academy.|3| The start of the tour in London attracted 285,737 visitors paying £7 for a full price ticket, generating more than £2 million in admission fees alone and significantly boosting the provenance and value of the Saatchi collection, thereby adequately consolidating their earlier investment.
If we compare the precedent outlined by Ross Sinclairto the approach of the yBa generation, a dialectic for artist-led activity emerges, with total autonomy from institutional hegemony on the one hand and willing collaboration in return forcommercial gain on the other. I will use this metaphor throughout this text in order to examine these relationships more closely.
Eight artist-led initiatives were invited to participate in the main part of "Life/Live". These represented a diverse cross-section of the UK scene, whose inception, in some cases, pre-dated the yBa phenomenon. BANK began life as a four-person graduate collective (Dave Burrows, John Russell, Simon Bedwell and Milly Thompson) based in London. Peaking in the second half of the 1990s, their collaborative object-making (typified by the papier maché dummies of "Zombie Golf") was inextricably linked with extreme exhibitions, toying with context in a swimming pool or covering everything with fake snow ("Cocaine Orgasm"), sometimes involving people outside the group. Self-appointed arbiters of the art world, they parodied its insidious mechanisms, through projects such as "Dog-u-Mental" and "Fax-Bak", a service by which they corrected the hyperbole of press releases and returned them to theirauthors. Cairn Gallery, perhaps the most obscure of the choices for invitation, was founded by writer Thomas A. Clark in Gloucestershire as a space for contemplation. City Racing was run by a committee of artists (John Burgess, Keith Coventry, Matthew Hale, Paul Noble and Peter Owen) in a former betting shop/terraced house in south London between 1988 and 1998. They diversified from showing their own work into offering exhibitions to artists who generally would not have the chance to show their work in London otherwise. Throughout the 1990s, this became the main point of reference to find out about emerging artists in London. In a low-key domestic setting (the building was variously a home to some committee members), typically Sunday evening opening events were populated by dogs and often spilled over into the garden. In keeping with their ethos, for"Life/Live", the City Racers offered first shows to artists and punctuated theirworks with exposed plumbing to disrupt the slickness. This was accompanied by a running commentary of their history from memory by City Racing devotee Douglas Park. Cubitt Gallery was attached to a studio complex and each of the artists in the studios had an obligation to be involved with running projects for the gallery, although inevitably some were more proactive than others. At the time of "Life/Live", Matthew Higgs was actively involved in Cubitt, and another of his projects, Imprint 93, a photocopy/mailout project, was also selected for inclusion into the exhibition. In the mid 1990s, Max Wigram invited curators to make projects for the ground floor of a family-owned house in one of the most expensive parts of central London just off the King's Road, which he called the Independent Art Space. For "Life/Live", Wigram commissioned Carl Freedman to undertake a project which became English Rose, a film in which the three main female protagonists of the yBa scene - Tracey Emin, Georgina Starr and Gillian Wearing - pretended to be each other. Newcastle-based organisation LOCUS+ evolved from a more event-based practice. Their relatively conventional presentations in Paris - by Stefan Gee, Gregory Green, Cornelia Hesse-Honeggerand Paul Wong - showcased a number of their recent commissions. Finally, Transmission took the opportunity to exhibit work by five artists - Heather Allen, Martin Boyce, Roderick Buchanan, Sue Tompkins and Richard Wright - who had a close relationship to Transmission at that time. Since mid 1989, Transmission has occupied a roughly square generally white space at the eastern side of Glasgow city center, the aesthetics of the exhibition programme changing with the committee every two years, and this was typical of that period.
In reflecting on "Life/Live" seven years after the event, I asked Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-curator (with Laurence Bosse) to explain what motivated their decision to invite artist-run spaces to participate:
Our main inspiration to invite Artist Run Spaces in Life/Live was the idea of shows within the show, the Russian Matriuschka kind of thing, it was Hakim Bey's book on TAZ [the temporary autonomous zone] but also more importantly urbanists like Lucien Kroll, Cedric Price, also de Carlo and Yona Friedman and their ideas of SELF ORGANIZATION, the curator not as a master planner, similar to the urbanist not as a master planner who controls but to trigger complex dynamic systems with feedback loops, it was Heinz von Foerster's books, it was of course the conviction out of many conversations with artists and curators in the UK that these spaces played such a vital role, it was last but not least and most importantly my incredible experience at Transmission in the early 90s.|4|
Obviously, this decision was predicated on enthusiasm and respect, but is it entirely genuine to say that the curators are relinquishing their role as master planner? Admittedly, they could not control what the individual initiatives chose to present but, by confining their activities to small, pristine booths, much of the spirit of the original activity was arguably lost, and the members of City Racing subsequently described their considerations upon being invited to be involved in the museum element of "Life/Live" thus:
City Racing was very much about the physical space that was our gallery, and the limitations and freedoms it provided. City Racing was a polished up old squat run by five diligent artists and supported by an audience made up of colleagues, previous exhibitors, future hopeful exhibitors, compatriots from other artist run galleries...
City Racing's first response was to squat the Museum. We wanted the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris to become City Racing. We proposed that our front of shop sign should be transported to Paris and replace theirs, so that Life/Live was to be hosted at the Paris wing of City Racing! This however was not possible, so instead the sign adorned the entrance to the exhibition. We intended this arrogant statement to convey our inadequacies, and the feeling of disparity between the lo-tech reality of City Racing and the mega budget French culture machine.|5|
Museums of Modern Art wield huge influence in cultural centers around the world and Paris is no exception. As the feelings of City Racing show, there was a huge disparity in scale between their low-key activities and those of a huge museum. We mustn't forget that there was much talk about Brit Art in those days and the Paris museum was among the first to present such a huge exhibition in an international context. By including artist-run spaces in theirselection alongside a more conventional exhibition of artworks, they could outdo their competitors by presenting a more thorough survey and they were keen to stress in the subtitle of the exhibition that this covered the artistic scene, which gives a bigger picture than just a group of exhibiting artists.
Much has changed since "Life/Live" opened in October 1996. Many of the spaces have closed and the associations dissolved. BANK, Transmission and City Racing have consolidated their place in history by archiving their adventures in book form. In his foreword to the 2002 City Racing publication, Andrew Wilson quietly resigned himself to the assimilation of artist-led initiatives into the establishment, citing commercial galleries as the first on the scene:
Commerce wasn't so much the issue as exposure and the creating of supportive communities. In time, some of the commercial galleries, such as Interim orKarsten Schubert, took note and engaged in these other scenes. [...] Art history of the twentieth century is in many respects the repetitive story of one generation's avant-garde becoming the next generation's mainstream orthodoxy.|6|
Viewed with hindsight, City Racing can be thought of as pioneers in embarking on collaborations with established institutions. In 2001, after their space had closed, a selective history of their activities was compiled by associate director Matthew Higgs at London's Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA),|7| a publicly funded, ostensibly experimental space where, arguably, artists at the beginning of their careers should be seen. The related ICA publicity material for "CITY RACING 1988-1998: A Partial Account" discussed recent history in parallel with the yBa scene. The rhetoric used about the exhibition is replete with descriptions of the energy around the space during its ten year history:
... [the exhibition] seeks through the re-presentation of works originally shown at City Racing to identify something of the dynamism and flux that has ensured City Racing's continuing influence on both the British art scene and the wider culture of artist-run spaces and initiatives.|8|
The starting point for the project was the partiality of the account, with an outside curator perhaps inevitably being more partial to some artists than others. According to Paul Noble of City Racing this project was very much the initiative of Matthew Higgs, and the City Racers were only involved in a couple of meetings at their instigation to raise concerns that they had:
The meetings we had with ICA/Matthew were asked for because we were concerned that the artists selected from the City Racing roster were mainly the known ones. Perversely, or properly and despite any grumbling we might have made at the time, we were always proud of every show we did. City Racing was not about providing a pick up joint for commercial galleries to meet new artists - as happy as we were for any artist to go on to work with whatever commercial gallery - this had nothing to do with us. Nor is it really that interesting to be the first to show someone; what is interesting is to show someone before they've become spoilt, and to make the best show possible between the two parties.|9|
Additionally, the notes related to the project, while attempting to justify the limitations of their survey, elaborated that the exhibition "seeks to foreground the notion that any development within any artistic milieu is ultimately reliant upon shared dialogue and mutual exchange."|10| It seems, however, that in this case that exchange did not take place. What could those members of the ICA audience not familiar with City Racing and its unique context, dialogue and exchange hope to gain by seeing these works - which were exciting new commissions when first realised - when installed in this way, with the site-specific works necessarily edited out of the selected highlights?
Who stands to gain in the process of collaboration - was it a case of the ICA appropriating the research and kudos of City Racing in particular and artist-led initiatives in general? Or had art finally come home to roost, with the artists having been excluded from institutions like the ICA finally being offered a chance to show there?
I guess the persuading factor for us to go along with Matthew's proposition was embarrassingly straightforward. One of City Racing's simplest goals, to give visibility to unseen work, could be met. We knew that the multifunctional ICA could never reflect the fragilities and particularities of City Racing, but I guess we were not expecting the ICA City Racing to replace the original - which unfortunately did seem to happen. It was the moment for City Racing to be discussed as a whole, but the discussion seemed to be defined by Matthew's particular or "partial" view.
Responsibility for the representation of City Racing will always be with the City Racers, as is any misrepresentation. Unfortunately it takes experience to learn this lesson." The main motivation would seem to be gaining access to a wider audience when artists participate in this kind of exchange. In the case of City Racing, the benefit of exposure was conferred on the exhibiting artists, albeit those with enough of a reputation to appear in the selective exhibition, rather than the original artist-organisers (some of whom boycotted the exhibition opening). While the ICA could not be described as a huge institution, having just one branch in London, it is nonetheless a faceless operation that increasingly markets itself as the rightful heir of the yBa legacy. ICA director Philip Dodd was recently quoted in The Guardian in an article that reads "Charles Saatchi's huge and much-hyped new art gallery was dismissed yesterday as a 'monument to the 90s', hopelessly out of touch with the rising wave of Dl Y and 'bedroom' art."|12| It would seem that hosting projects like "CITY RACING 1988-1998: A Partial Account" proved an important foundation for the ICA's vanguard claims.
While public institutions did little to support this initiative at the time, the efforts of five artists occupying a house and fora decade inviting their contemporaries to make and show new work, has retrospectively been claimed as the flip side of Cool Britannia and used as a part of marketing strategies. The cynical among us may ask why such public institutions didn't do more to challenge the Saatchi-driven ethos at the time by actively supporting the production of new work and, in turn, why the British government was quite happy to jump on the yBa bandwagon to promote London as a cultural center and encourage overseas investment in the capital at the expense of any serious investment into the local visual arts scene.
In parallel with City Racing at the ICA Jate Modern, hosted "Century City",|13| which "explored the relationship between cultural creativity and the metropolis, by focusing on nine cities from around the world at specific moments over the previous hundred years."|14|
Tate Modern, the new bastion of the British art establishment, is the fourth franchise in the Tate group (also including Liverpool and St. Ives), its very existence necessitating a corporate-style rebranding of the organisation to differentiate the existing London department as Tate Britain. Five years after "Life/Live", it had become established practice to attempt to represent the independent arts scene when considering the artistic output of a particular nation state or city, and this was no exception. Included in the portrayal of London (1990-2001) alongside the yBas was a consideration of artist-led initiatives:
Ironically, it was a recession that laid the groundwork for London's thriving art scene in 1987, £50 billion was wiped off share values in a single day, signalling the end of a stocks and property boom. Former shops, offices and warehouses became available on cheap, short-term leases as studios and exhibition spaces. Young artists, some still at art school, began to promote themselves outside the established gallery system. Their work was clever, accessible and often funny. A nation rarely concerned with modern art woke up and began to take notice...
The traditionally separate roles of artist, curator and dealer have been
combined by groups such as City Racing, an artist-run gallery space situated
in a former betting shop. Collectives, such as Bank and Inventory, have a/so
challenged the idea of individual creativity by producing work authored by the
Again, the host institution has done nothing to support indigenous activity but is content to claim the artists' output as its own, harnessing their means of production. For City Racing, the jump from ICA to Tate takes the discussion into a different league, into the territory of the British cultural superpower. Although they have a more positive memory of theirdealings with Tate Modern, as an audience member, my impression was that the attempt to describe a decade of artistic activity in a city like London - with artist-led initiatives being represented by archive material and vitrines - was inadequate. So, if the criterion for their inclusion was not to represent their activities in the best possible light, what other motives could there be? Again, the answer for both parties would seem to lie with audiences. For City Racing, the change of venue meant a one hundredfold increase in the size of audience who would become aware of their activities. It is probably a reasonable assumption that the average Tate Modern visitor is unaware of the precedents for this kind of exhibition making, neverhaving visited the ICA, and would greet this as a fresh and interesting approach, with added appeal for younger audiences.
As with any large corporation, there is a question of accountability and the Tate machine is notoriously opaque. Official attendance figures (that are not freely available) show that "Century City" attracted 106,067 visitors and that the full price of the adult ticket to the exhibition was £8.50. Assuming that the total value of discounted tickets would have been supplemented many times over by various merchandise around the exhibition and money spent on refreshments within the building, this amounts to almost £1 million in admission fees alone. If we follow the market analogy with this example, it is clear that the commodity for sale is culture, with artist-led initiatives powerless to resist and standing to gain nothing financially.
Of course, this is by no means a new phenomenon. As the preface to a conversation with members of City Racing, BANK and Beaconsfield in a 1998 issue of the magazine "Variant", Dave Burrows noted:
The removal of art from institutional and commercial settings to independent lodgings [...] is a familiar story throughout the history of the Avant Garde. In the 20|th| century the attempt to occupy a space beyond the institution allowed artists to broaden the field of artistic activity. The Bureau of the Surrealists, for instance, was a place where the visitor could not only encounter surrealist objects but the Surrealists themselves. The Avant Garde's occupation of territory beyond the institution, which defines the social challenge of the Avant Garde, is often accompanied by a second process in which the institution accommodates such independent enterprises. The role as chronicler of culture furnishes the institution with its power. In this process the museum is not all-powerful of course. If institutions do not refresh themselves they become dry and crumble. The institution always requires fresh bodies.'|6|
To what extent are the artists complicit in this process? Does experience suggest that independent organisations only exist because they aspire to be shown in the museum but don't have any access? Are they hoping to replicate the yBa model and, through their complicity, generate commercial recognition and success? Steven Duval - an active member of the Edinburgh College of Art branch of the educationally sceptical protoacademy,|17| initiated by Charles Esche in 1998, which recently hosted a convention of artists' groups - has this to say:
These initiatives rarely stand by any moral/ideological stance when a larger institution comes calling. Many artists are hungry for recognition and/or find survival difficult. These institutions control the power and can allow an artist freedom as long as they play within the system and most initiatives are gagging to do this. Also many artists find "success" through their participation within these structures as organisers because they fit in with the growing hierarchy of arts administration. So, I'd say that most are complicit but their awareness is varied.'|8|
The emergence of the artist as curator demystified the process of exhibition-making to a generation of artists. Moreover, in addition to developing the practical and organisational skills necessary to mount an exhibition, these artists had the added benefit of working with their equals, in a situation without hierarchy. One would presume that this would lead to some kind of crisis among aspiring and established curators alike as their inherent worth was called into question. In parallel with these developments in the artistic community, a new breed of curators was being born. In 1992, the Royal College of Art initiated a new course in Visual Arts Administration under the directorship of Teresa Gleadowe, with a nod to strategies beyond the institution:
.. .this ambitious new course provides a professional training in, and a critical examination of, curatorial practice, with special emphasis on the selection and presentation of exhibitions of contemporary art and the management of public art commissions. This is the first postgraduate programme in Britain to specialise in curatorial practice as it relates to contemporary art and is designed specifically to train exhibition curators, arts administrators and those who wish to work with artists to present art outside a gallery setting. The course investigates the skills required to present the visual arts in a wide variety of contexts, ranging from specialist museums and galleries to public spaces.'|9|
It is a requirement of the course at the Royal College of Art that an annual exhibition is planned by the proto-curators for the in-house galleries. In 2000, the students of the course, under the tutelage of Matthew Higgs, curated the exhibition "democracy!" and clearly wanted a part of the artist-led action:|20|
democracy! at the Royal College of Art might be seen as a contradiction in terms, because the work in this exhibition has largely arisen in opposition to the specialist institutions of art. democracy! is about questioning the structures which prompted the search for alternatives in the first place.|21|
"Contradiction in terms" is a somewhat polite way of saying harnessing the means of production of alternative spaces. We can think of this exercise as follows: from their place firmly within the art establishment, Teresa Gleadowe's protegees invite artists such as Aleksandra Mir, Jeremy Dellerand Dave Mullerand artists' groups from Superflex to Minerva Cuevas' Mejor Vida Corp to exhibit that have adopted strategies to deliberately resist those big institutions. This kind of activity has its parallel in information technology companies hiring computer hackers (in the old sense of the word) to work for them. The question that should be asked, again, is what the artists get out of this exchange. The individuals and groups in question are, more than the initiatives considered so far, supposed to have resisted institutions as a deliberate and conscious part of their practice, so they must be considered as willing participants in this game. What makes them want to jump into bed with the establishment? To some extent, this question remains rhetorical as I have not yet received a convincing answer.
The year after the exhibitions at the ICA and Tate Modern, the 2002 Gwangju Biennale in Korea,|22| curated by Wan-Kjung Sung, Charles Esche and Hou Hanru was divided into several different Projects, allowing maximum scope for the incorporation of artist-run spaces:
The exhibition spaces of Project 1 consist of three elements: alternative spaces for national representation; exhibitions featuring the works of individual artists; and pavilions providing a resting place between the first two elements. Alternative spaces are vivid presentations of alternative models of artistic creation and communication of individual countries.|23|
Content ranged from slick presentations (Signal, Transmission) to the messier aesthetics we might expect from "alternative" spaces (Artis Pro Active, University Bangsar Utama), that give the impression of process and dialogue. Somewhere in between, Project 304's Mosquitoooo Net was typical. A square painted on the floor, a corresponding mosquito net hung from the ceiling and the Project 304 graphic identity demarcates the territory for action. This then allowed a loose configuration of video monitors and benches, a contemporary re-working of a Dan Graham Design for Showing Videos. The installation conferred a freedom through stylistic choices that perhaps the curators did not feel able to take themselves. In an attempt to foreground the inclusion in the biennial of 26 artist-run spaces from Asia, Europe and beyond, Hou Hanru championed artist-led activity as a counterpoint to pervasive Empire, the local influencing the global:
DIY communities and self-organizations are the main source of sus-tainability, the main force in the revival and continued development of today's post-planning cities. The creation and development of alternative art spaces is a perfect example.|24|
Despite the fact that intercontinental networks of spaces already exist, the inclusion of artist-run spaces into the biennial was predicated on networking:
Meetings and conferences among the various groups in Asian cities are regularly organized. Information, experiences, and visions are published, exchanged and distributed. Many of these groups have also established wider, transcontinental collaborations with artist-run organizations in Europe, North and South America and elsewhere. The Project 1 of 2002 Gwangju Biennale is perhaps the most important summit for such networking so far.|25|
As we have already seen and as is acknowledged here, exchanges between artist-led initiatives have consistently taken place without any outside intervention. Perhaps what was on offer on the part of the biennial was increased mobility, providing the opportunity for even more groups to come together in one place. Significantly, Hanru acknowledges the continued dominance of the art institutions and finds in their relationship to artist-led initiatives a parallel with that between multi-national corporations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It is interesting that he chooses NGOs as a model for artist-led initiatives. If the hegemony of the big institutions is to be held to account, artist-led initiatives around the world would need to be thought of in the same terms as members of what has come to be known as the Global Justice Movement. The British writer George Monbiot makes a compelling case for global democracy on the basis of people around the world coming together to put pressure on organisations - from the World Bank to the United Nations Security Council, which effectively protect the interests of the most powerful nation states - and corporations that operate on a non-democratic basis.|26| By this rationale, the small groups of artists underdiscussion are relatively democratic and could collectively lobby for a fairer system, including at the very least increased investment in developing theirwork, more control overthe dissemination of their efforts and a share of the profits when their output is sold to audiences.
Following the Gwangju experience, Charles Esche organised a project called Baltic Babel under his directorship at Rooseum in Malmo.|27 |Eight cities (all capitals, with the exception of St Petersburg) around the Baltic Sea were represented in Malmo (itself not a capital, situated just across the waterfrom Copenhagen) through their artist-led initiatives. This project was accompanied by the most explicit understanding yet of the role of artist-led initiatives in local communities and their political potential:
These organisations are concerned with art and culture though they could also be involved in other independent political, or social activities. Such groups of artists have emerged as the key force in art making as artists have developed alternative strategies to negotiate a different basis for making institutions, questioning the relationship between art and society and reflecting the position of art in relation to globalism. The huge political changes that have occurred around the Baltic in the past 12 years have affected art and its possibilities. Young artists want to instigate independent alternative spaces so that they can continue to exist in the places to which they are committed without leaving for the presumed centers or being dominated by the market and central institutions. This development is a very beautiful metaphor for the power of negotiation between globalised economic power and all kinds of effort to provide alternative solutions and local responses.|28|
The subtext of the statement would seem to be that Rooseum should not be viewed as one of the "central institutions" and it is fair to say that institutions like this are more benign than the Tate. Thus, they attempt to differentiate their approach from previous invitations for artist-run spaces to enter other institutions. In the publicity material surrounding the exhibition, attention was paid to geopolitics as an attempt to situate Malmo in the center of a network, with Rooseum as the portal to other, nearby worlds, so perhaps this should be viewed more as an attempt to replicate an internationally established practice in a small town.
Less is said about ways in which the artists' groups might benefit from such an association. What could these organisations gain from an institution like Rooseum harvesting the results of their labour? Jakob Jakobsen, co-founderof the Copenhagen Free University, justifies their participation on the grounds of dissemination of information:
I think our participation at Rooseum was useful as a means of communication. We have made a series of "media products" (a slideshow, a sound piece, some posters etc.), which can be adapted to any useful context, regarding the communication and the dispersing of our ideas and methods. At the moment a network of Free universities are emerging across Europe, in London, Vienna, Madrid and Strasbourg, and the concept of independent activist research is being developed and amplified. We would never set up a "simulated" university within any Museum or Kunsthalle but see no problem in using them as means of communication. We would like to see the media products we make travel, and the art platforms are useful in that regard. Of course there are places we wouldn't go, but our experience at Rooseum with Baltic Bable [sic] was positive.|29|
As we have seen, a desire to reach a wider audience on the part of the artists has been exploited by institutions in the past, so how does this experience differ? For the purpose of this study, it is important to view an exhibition like "Baltic Babel" in the broader context of the remit at Rooseum. Learning from the models of the past, Rooseum has clearly articulated an aim to re-think the institution:
It has become an active space rather than one of passive observation. Therefore the institutions to foster it have to be part community center, part laboratory and part academy, with less need for the established showroom function. They must also be political in a direct way, thinking through the consequences of our extreme free market policies. Secondary questions are whether individual institutions will have the courage to find their own balance in this mix or follow the old center-periphery model and whether funders can be persuaded to drop the touristic justification for art institutions in favour of increasing creative thinking and intelligence(s) in society. These are the things we will try to deal with over the next five years.|30|
Here we have the crux of a new institutionalism of which Charles Esche is a proponent. What we see happening - with the institution aspiring to be "part community center, part laboratory and part academy" - is essentially a response to the working practices of artists and the energy of artist-led initiatives in determining the way in which an established, publicly-funded institution functions. There is a certain freneticism associated with this way of working, an urge to keep moving; the opposite of the old-school contemplative role for museums would seem to be never to stand still. What impact has this way of thinking had on the cultural life of the city? Speaking anecdotally to artists in Malmo, the initial response is that the new Rooseum is a positive development, playing as it does one side of the institutional triangle with Malmo Konsthall (currently without a director) and Malmo Art Museum (noted for its strong collection of contemporary art primarily from the Nordic region). If they succeed in theirsecondary aims, Rooseum may help to educate local funding bodies and make it easier for other initiatives to apply for money. The existence of what seems to be considered a relevant institution may also encourage graduates from Malmo Art Academy to remain in the city after graduation in a similar way to Transmission in Glasgow in its formative years. The connection between Rooseum and the Academy is being strongly developed through the Protoacademy.
A note of caution, based on the experience of 1990s London which I have tried to describe and some knowledge of the Malmo scene in which one institution can easily assume dominance. The fact that Charles Saatchi was known to buy work from degree shows according to his particular aesthetic arguably influenced the work that was being made at London art schools in the 1990s, so one pitfall Rooseum must avoid is becoming the only viable mainstream contemporary institution whose ethos influences work being made in the art academy and beyond. Furthermore, by playing host to small, fast projects and situating themselves at the center of an artists' network, Rooseum can be seen as having usurped some of the traditional territory of artist-led initiatives. In programming terms, artist-led initiatives will be forced to re-evaluate their role and take more risks.
Another main advocate of incorporating the ways of working favoured by artists into the institutional framework is Maria Lind who, for five years, was a curator at Stockholm's Moderna Museet. There she initiated the Moderna Museet Projekt (MMP), using the old vicarage in the museum grounds as a base from which to develop a series of solo projects with artists, moving beyond a fixed space to permeate the city and other parts of the museum. Lind has spoken of her interest in the kind of artistic practice that goes beyond the gallery to engage with everyday life, sometimes process-based and ephemeral, and the need for institutions to change in response to this, moving away from being a static repository:
Is the art museum's sole purpose really to display and mediate art? Or is the museum to function as a production site and as a distribution channel as well and, in that case, how can we make it happen? An important section of contemporary art can be compared to research and the artist to a researcher who needs a place both to carry out the research and to present it.|31|
Like Esche, Maria Lind also poses questions about the validity of the museum's existence:
When much art is moving away from the institutions, or has a loose connection to them, and it seems difficult to find new models to apply when discussing contemporary art, the unavoidable question that arises is: does this kind of contemporary art still need the institutions? Can it not communicate directly with the audience? Have the institutions become redundant?
I believe we still need art institutions - besides the obvious archival function of gathering our collective memories - to act as platforms for different activities such as experimental art. However, the institutions must become more flexible and heterogeneous, just as art itself is, and we who work with them must be more imaginative. The institutions must be capable of regularly renewing and reinventing themselves and their audiences. We who work within their frameworks must refine our strategies and our methods of address, a/so in relation to local and global contexts.|32|
In these new models, a conscious effort is being made to move away from the monolithic institutions of old - with long lead-in times and established artists - which is a noble enough intention, no doubt shared by many of the artists agreeing to exhibit. The exhibitions coming out of this new way of working could perhaps best be summarised as a tendency towards showing works in progress in a move away from object-based practice. But, does it go far enough? For mainly pragmatic reasons, young directors have decided to take on small institutions which are easier to turn around, rather than raise the funds to start something new. Inevitably, with small institutions, there are budget shortages, with much money being diverted into the overheads of maintaining a building at the expense of artistic production.
How successful the re-orientation of existing structures will be in generating extra funding remains to be seen. At the moment, invited artists are generally expected to produce and install new work for little more than the sums involved in artist-run spaces. Eventually, the artists may be able to use this experience as one more notch on their curriculum vitae in order to lever more funding from other sources, but, in the current situation, the institution itself stands to gain much more from the association. Maximum kudos for minimum investment.
As we see, the kind of dynamic we are experiencing at the moment relies heavily on the goodwill of participating artists. Comparing the current generation of artists with their predecessors, the proponents of institutional critique Hans Haacke, Andrea Fraseretal., Maria Lind distinguishes thus:
This art takes the art institution and the art system into consideration but in order to problematise them rather than dismiss them. [...] Furthermore, this kind of art often contains an institutional critique, but whereas the critique of the older artists [...] is perhaps negative, this one is more constructive. It is about scepticism and enthusiasm, affirmation and critique all at the same time. As the older generation, so to speak, "broke the ice" with their confrontations and polemics it is easier today to be more nuanced, smart and sensitive.|33|
Having opened the door to artists and artist-led initiatives that may have been previously reluctant to enter the institutions, Maria Lind has continued to develop this practice in her post as director of Kunstverein München since 2002. There, she has established a system of "Sputniks"- taken from the Russian meaning of "partner" or "travelling companion" - long-term collaborators who may realise or propose projects at the Kunstverein at any given moment. The group is comprised of artists such as Liam Gillick, Nathan Coley and Carey Young and curators like Lynn Cooke. At the time of writing, the current exhibition is called "Totally Motivated: A socio-cultural ma-noeuver [sic]"|34| and included, among others, the two Norwegian artists Gardar Eide Einarsson and Matias Faldbakken. While studying in Bergen, this paircollaborated to run a space, a parody of a museum, called the Bergen Museum for Samtidskunst [contemporary art]. The Museum was a mobile concept, also used as a banner for various publishing activities including, in 2000, a pocket-sized anthology of texts called Controlling the Means of Production. Citing technology and a new way of artistic thinking as factors in an increasingly fluid situation, potentially liberating artists from institutions and dismissing the blatant careerism of certain artists they suggested:
Marx' call forworkers to control theirown production has found a new resonance in the art world, and can now be seen as one of the alternatives to the established structures of producing and distributing/ selling art. It remains to be seen however, whether this tendency is able to function as it has been intended, or whether, as can be seen already today, it will end up as just a stepping stone for individual careers within the established, and economically more lucrative, bigger art institutions. In this case, the self organized, "independent" ways of producing/ distributing art would turn out to be nothing more than what Freud calls "a revival of the old state of things at a new level. "|35|
Einarsson, who has exhibited at both Kunstverein München and the new Rooseum says:
It seems pretty clear to me that in both these cases, there is a strong will to use the respective institutions to make a difference and change things. The engagement with the institution is here based on the logic of gaining access in order to change the structure from the inside. This is, of course, a classical democratic problem, whether one should engage in order to change or simply ignore in order to establish something else on the outside (the classical and in my view false distinction between alternative and oppositional). I do very much still believe that it is not enough to only change the group of people who are exhibited, but Rooseum and Kunstverein Munchen are slightly different from what was described in Controlling the Means of Production in that, in both places, there have been really visible attempts at changing parts of the structure of the program. The problem, of course, always comes back to whether these changes are actually structural or whether they end up as smaller negotiations of something that is perhaps more fundamentally problematic -I don't really know.
But I do hope that the idea of going into an already existing institution does not become the only possible trajectory for "alternatively-orientated" people. I sincerely believe that new forms of institutions also need to be constructed more or less from scratch - institutions that also function long term and which are not simply thought of as transitional.|36|
Following a gradual acceptance by artists and audiences of artist-led initiatives being absorbed into public institutions during the 1990s, organisations like Rooseum and Kunstverein München are attempting to reinvent themselves by adopting the methodologies of such initiatives, including a tendency to show process-based work, retaining an ability to react quickly to developments in the art world and consolidating artists' networks with the institution at the center. What all of these activities have in common is that they take the existing institutional framework - complete with brand identity, audiences and expectations - as the starting point and it remains to be seen how far they will look beyond that. One of the main pitfalls with this way of working is that artists and their activities are forced into a construct defined by the institutions that generally serves to flatter the institution and disempowerthe artists. Anothercrucial question is an economic one as, in many cases, the institutions are only too happy to reap the rewards of work that has been developed by the artists at the expense of time and money. At present, there is little institutional support for developing new work and creating a viable economic framework for emerging artists.
While any attempts to democratise ourcultural institutions are to be encouraged, and I would certainly not advocate a return to a more conventional approach, I do have some concerns about the scope of this new way of working. On a political level, with reference to exhibitions like "Baltic Babel", simply being aware of the local social significance of artist-led initiatives and inviting them into the institution does not make it ethically sound. Herein lies an important point: the explicit consideration by the institution of the activity being undertaken by the artists as synonymous with a political act. Their very decision to organise themselves outside the officially sanctioned institutions could indeed be perceived as so and their incorporation into the institution as a (deliberate or otherwise) act to undermine it.
In more general terms, absorbing activist politics into the museum runs the severe risk of disarming the radical potential of the work. As the artist Colin Darke has commented:
Just as capitalism creates in the working class its own "grave digger", bourgeois culture cannot avoid accommodating revolutionary ideas. In the process of doing so, it subsumes and dilutes those ideas and forms them into respectable bites of liberalism.|37|
The current state of affairs seems far removed from Ross Sinclair's vision of a social function for art. I would suggest that, to function more democratically, a progressive institution needs to engender more of a reciprocal exchange. There is a very real danger of speaking the language of local democracy but subscribing to the NGO model which - in the art context - doesn't change anything in the bigger picture. If, as Rooseum states, they are to "be political in a direct way, thinking through the consequences of our extreme free market policies", they must go further in their democratic mission and work together with artists to lobby for change.
As artists have consistently found their own ways to produce and distribute their work, surely institutions should be asking themselves what they can offer the artists, beyond access to audiences and networking opportunities during a one-off event. To close the gap that persists between artistic and institutional practice, maybe a new model needs to be born, from the ground up rather than the top down, which can respond more effectively to the needs of artists. Less money should be poured into infrastructure, and funding bodies need to be convinced that artistic production should be more actively developed and sustained. There needs to be a focus on new research and production and a new way to mediate projects to the public, with an emphasis on the artists' original intentions, and perhaps this is best achieved beyond the influence of the museum brand.
Sinclair, Ross: "Questions" in the catalogue for Windfall, an artist-initiated
exhibition at the Seamen's Mission in Glasgow, 1991.
Wade, Gavin (ed.): Curating in the 21|s|' Century, Walsall: New Art Gallery & Wolverhampton: University, 2000.
Wilson, Andrew: City Racing: The Life and Times of an Artist-Run Gallery, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2002.
|1| "Life/Live: la scene artistique au Royaume-Uni en 1996, de nouvelles aventures" took place at the Musee d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 05.10.96-05.01.97 and toured to the Centra Cultural de Belem, Portugal 22.01.97-21.04.97.
|2| Cf. Sinclair, 1991.
|3| 17.09.97-28.12.97, touring to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York 02.10.99-09.01.00.
|4| Hans-Ulrich Obrist in dialogue with the author, 2003.
|5| Cf. Wilson, 2002, p. 102.
|6| Cf. Wilson, 2002, pp. vi-vii.
|8| ICA press release for"CITY RACING 1988-1998: A Partial Account".
|9| Paul Noble of City Racing in dialogue with the author, 2003.
|10| ICA exhibition notes for"CITY RACING 1988-1998: A Partial Account". " Paul Noble of City Racing in dialogue with the author, 2003.
|12| Cf. Gibbons, 2003.
|14| See http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/centurycity -The featured cities and moments were: Bombay/Mumbai 1992-2001, Lagos 1955-70, London 1990-2001, Moscow 1916-30, New York 1969-75, Paris 1905-15, Rio de Janeiro 1955-60, Tokyo 1969-73, Vienna 1908-18.
|16| Cf. Burrows, 1998.
|17| Convene, a convention of artist-run groups, spaces and projects took place 28.04.03-04.05.03. See http://www.protoacademy.org/
|18| Steven Duval in dialogue with the author, 2003.
|19| See http://www.crd.rca.ac.uk/alumni/95-97/shiro/courseJnformation/ humanities/vaa.htm
|20| 14.04.00-12.05.00. Participants included Artlab, B.a.d. Foundation, Clegg and Guttmann, Plamen Dejanov and Swetlana Heger, Jeremy Deller, Annika Eriksson, De Geuzen, Group Material, Jeanne van Heeswijk, Carsten Holler, MejorVida Corp, Aleksandra Mir, Dave Muller, No Problem Agency, Nils Norman, Oreste, PH Studio, Cesare Pietroiusti, Punish, Rigo 00 and LPDC, Hinrich Sachs, the Stand, Superflex, Sarah Tripp, and Stephen Willats.
|2)| Press release issued by Swedish artist-run organisation Konstakuten.
|23| See http://www.gwangju-biennale.org/eng/05_pds/04_fr.html
|24| Cf. Hanru, 2002.
|26| Cf. Monbiot, 2003.
|28| See http://www.rooseum.se
|29| Jakob Jakobsen in dialogue with the author, 2003.
|30| See http://www.rooseum.se
|31| Cf. Lind, 2000.
|34| 04.03.03-03.05.03. See http://www.kunstverein-muenchen.de
|35| Ibid. Cf. also Einarsson & Faldbakken, 2000, p. 11.
|36| Gardar Eide Einarsson in dialogue with the author, 2003.
|37| Cf. Darke, 1995.