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Thinking Again about Artist-run Culture

Self-determination

As I understand it, the impetus behind the formation of artist-run centres (ARCs) was artistic self-determination. ARCs, as a form of self-determination, distinguished themselves from commercial galleries in their distance from (if not their opposition to) the market, and they distinguished themselves from museums in the temporal direction of their activity, which was unconcerned with historicization and prioritized experimentation over connoisseurship. Emerging in the late 1960s, arguments for self-determination were taken seriously and the support of ARCs can be read alongside other social phenomena of the time, such as the civil rights movement, second wave feminism and antiestablishment counterculture. At this time, the infrastructure of the Canada Council already existed and the Council’s expansion to support artist-run initiatives reflects its adoption of the zeitgeist.

Given the oppositional stance of artist-run centres—from the beginning operating against the market and against the museum—I think there is a case to be made for these impulses of self-determination as an early model for what came to be known as institutional critique. Avoiding the inherent contradictions of institutional critique—namely, that there is no outside from which to offer critique because, as Andrea Fraser demonstrates, “the institution is inside of us, and we can’t get outside of ourselves”—ARCs offer instead a practice of critique by embodiment [1]. ARCs are the institution, which has allowed them to be influential on the form of institution itself.

In Diana Nemiroff’s essay, “Par-al-lel,” which was written in the early 1990s, she studies the history of ARCs through the words that have been used to describe them: alternative, artist-run, parallel. I am not sure how the term “parallel” emerged to characterize the relationship between ARCs and museums, but in her essay Nemiroff quotes Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker suggesting that “a problem with the term ‘parallel’—‘something similar which is continually equidistant’—is that it does not adequately define the artist-run centre as an alternative, that is, ‘mutually exclusive, available in place of another, and a group of persons disassociating themselves from conventional social practices’” [2]. According to Nemiroff and Danzker, “parallel” did not reflect the alternative positioning that was fundamental to the early conception of these centres. At that time, the term “artist run” was in favour, but contentions surrounds that term now, as Reid Shier points out in his essay “Do Artists Need Artist-Run Centres?” Alternative was and remains an aspiration.

Is there virtue in reconceptualizing curators and administrators as artists in order to maintain fidelity to the moniker “artist run”? Might the reclamation of “parallel” offer any value in better describing what these organizations have become? Can “alternative” act as inspiration?

Mutual Becoming

While the desire for self-determination played a part in the formation of ARCs, it is not an argument for their continued existence. The political, economic and social climate of 2014 bears only slight resemblances to 1967 and it must be recognized that we change the world by being in it.

A pervasive example of this practice of mutual becoming is the phenomena of organizational structuring and programming, both geared toward council mandates. That ARCs have boards of directors cannot be untangled from the Canada Council’s dictate that they do so. That so many Indigenous artists show work in ARCs probably, unfortunately, cannot be divorced from the strategic priorities of funding bodies. Nemiroff notes another early example of this mutual becoming: “Because the [funding] programmes were community oriented, they encouraged artists to define themselves in practical terms as a community. This orientation in turn affected the way in which the artist was able to perceive his/her role vis-a-vis the larger community” [3]. AA Bronson suggested as much in his 1983 essay, that while the development of artist-run culture in Canada led to our humiliation as bureaucrats, it also led to the realization of an art scene where there had been none previously [4]. This changes things. We have an art scene. We have access to production resources. We have exhibition opportunities. There are structures of mentorship.Given these changes brought about by a history of artist-run culture in Canada, the terms of what artists need to practice have also changed.

From the position of artists in Canada, what do they need from artist-run centres today?

Die Die Die

And I can’t help but think of death and dying, of organizations on life support, of the reality of limited funding. There is a general lack of of public discussion about the ethics or necessity of organizations folding; there is no lack of private discussion on the matter though.

Why?

What better time than now to reflect on how these organizations—a relatively fixed set of institutions across the country—are serving their constituents. In my visions of a utopic art-world future, I want to live in a world where the presentation and contextualization of art is supported outside of the market and where historicization is complicated (those classic desires of the artist-run model).

But what are the limitations of the current technology of artist-run centres?

The Future

I don’t think it’s that ARCs are obsolete, but that they are living beings (of a sort), subject to succession. This metaphor has limited use-value, but like any ecology, artist-run culture requires periods of growth and periods of destruction. It’s not that I have an interest in killing off organizations per se, but there’s an undeniable stagnancy in the system. I think that artist-run culture is ready to have conversations about what a reconfiguration of the landscape might look like. And actually, just last year, the Canada Council announced a policy of a redistribution of funds, implying that they are ready too.

There was also an anonymously published text in one of the final issues of FUSE, where a group of cultural workers delineated some tactics for infrastructural redistribution, including merging institutions into “super-centres,” but, they note, “part of what’s standing in the way of such succession is that no one’s done the math. With a dearth of precedent, no one is sure how the councils will respond, and people fear losing jobs and programs…The death and merger of centres are not suggestions; they are inevitable as the sectors evolve with changing climates. The only question is where and how the decisions will be made—collectively by institutions and the artists they represent, or top-down through the funding process?” [5].

So, where do we want those decisions to be be made? And are we brave enough to make them?

[1] Fraser, Andrea. “From the Critique of Institutuions to an Institution of Critique.” Artforum, 44-1 (2005), unpaginated.

[2] Nemiroff, Diana, “Par-al-lel.” In Sightlines, edited by Jessica Bradley and Lesley Johnstone, unpaginated. Canada: Artexte editions, 1994.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bronson, AA. “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-run Spaces as Museums by Artists.” In Museums by artists, eds. Peggy Gale and AA Bronson, 29-37. Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983.

[5] Anonymous. “Art, Austerity and the Production of Fear.” FUSE Magazine, 37-1 (2013), unpaginated.

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Considerations, Happening

MVS

I always knew that words would be central to my life, but a teenaged version of myself—clad in black and folded over piles of paper—never would have predicted that I would find myself as a woman working in the arts. When I decided to go to university, my choice to study philosophy was the perfect consequence of listening to too many The Doors albums (and thus reading a lot of Nietzsche), combined with a desire to study science but knowing that I am no good at math. Maybe the logic is hard to follow, but suffice to say that art was not there as a beckon. And yet! After so many years of thinking and writing about what art does, the fall brings with it a return to school at the University of Toronto in the Master of Visual Studies program. As part of the Curatorial Studies stream, I will have the immense privilege of studying with a stellar faculty and some impressive fellow students. I am stoked and skeptical, humble and curious. It’s gonna be tough, but what a privilege to have this time to read and think and talk.

I have no illusions that what I think school will be about, now, will be what it turns out to be, at the end of it all. But at this bright moment at the beginning, here’s what I hope.

Over the past few years, I have noticed that I lack the language to speak about what I would broadly term conceptual writing (a problem with words) and abstraction (a problem with images). I stutter, and because I am constituted through language, this lack corresponds to an inability to make sense. As it stands, the only real tactic I have in response is to open myself to the work. To move through it despite not knowing, but I am convinced that these works want something more, something explicit, from me as their audience. In approaching the MVS program, I am excited to use this as an opportunity to develop some basic conceptual and aesthetic literacies as have been provoked by these encounters.

I want to develop a fluency at detecting or developing these strategies for engagement, and I want to develop a fluency at engaging.

I anticipate that one consequence of this will be that I being with art and artists. In my practice so far, I have often started with ideas, a result, perhaps, of coming to curating by way of philosophy. I have tried not to do the thing where art works are selected as demonstrations of a curatorial thesis. But what I have done, I think, is use artworks as a way to test curatorial hypotheses, which means that ideological propositions have been central to how I approach my work.

Andrea Fraser has diagnosed this need to develop aesthetic fluency thusly: “[there is] an ever widening gap between the material conditions of art and its symbolic systems: between what the vast majority of art works are today (socially and economically) and what artists, curators, critics and art historians say that art works…do and mean.” I want to challenge my impulse to first assign political and philosophical meaning by beginning with form instead, to practice making sense of the things that make up my world, not as instrumentalized nuggets of language, paint, sound or material, but on their own terms, which are always embedded.

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Happening

TBD

TBD-Feature-Image3-2x7743tcb0xaol2sfyhe68

As a cultural work, I harbour many desires about how the institutions and practices that make up my work might operate differently. Familiarity breeds familiarity. Familiarity also breeds insight, and insight corresponds to imagination. In the cultural work that I do, I try to make authority and convention strange, or at the least I try to work in ways that maintain the possibility of ideological or programmatic disruption.

Over the past year, I have been collaborating with the STAG Library (Aja Rose Bond and Gabriel Saloman), Gina Badger and Eric Emery on Brew Pub #3, a journal in the form of a beer whose contents, labelling and other printed and online material constitute the contents of the publication. Published by the STAG, this issue of Brew Pub explores a relationship with Artemisia vulgaris, commonly known as mugwort, an invasive species which has spread from Eurasia across Canada, flourishing in urban spaces that have been altered by human intervention such as abandoned lots, rail-yards and roadsides. Through the development of a beer using wild-crafted mugwort from the city of Toronto—land with which the Huron, Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe people have a long, historic and profound relationship—we have been considering what and how mugwort can teach us about exploring the conflictual complexity of settlement. Here, publication is liquid, consumable. Here, authority is plant.

Tonight, the exhibition TBD, curated by Su-Ying Lee, opens at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) and Brew Pub is a part of it. As described by Lee, “the exhibition title TBD, most typically used as an acronym for ‘to be determined’, proposes that the definition of a contemporary art gallery is not fixed. TBD exposes the defining factors of contemporary art galleries for scrutiny and examines the institutions’ effects on communities in order to imagine possible futures and new approaches.”

Lee also partakes of these visions of experiment that accompany cultural labour, and at the MOCCA, these questions are timely. As the organization gears up to leave its Queen Street West space—subject to a familiar story of gentrification that the gallery no doubt participated in—the opportunities for reflection, consideration and dreaming are ripe. What do we want arts ogranizations of the future to be? What provokes us to anger or joy in how arts organizations function today? Is there a way for a gallery to responsibly shepherd its gentrifying aura? Within TBD, the inclusion of Brew Pub poses a question of scale: how can a large, institutionalized gallery work with a small, experimental space in a way that does not subsume nor stifle the energies of either organization? I can say that so far the experience has been incredibly supportive, but I wonder what you think, of translations in scale and of institutional possibilities.

Join us tonight for the opening! And then join  us a series of events related to the launch of Brew Pub #3. Further information can be found here.

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Happening

Cities for People

For the next year, at the invitation of Musagetes, I will be contributing to the dialogue at Cities for People, a research project and collaborative experiment looking at how the tenets of resilience theory can be usefully applied to our social world. Operating from four perspectives—governance, the economy, the built environment and culture—the project aims to describe the ways our North American cities and societies are currently shifting. If we better understand how the different aspects of our communal lives intersect, the hope is that we can mount suitable responses to the challenges awaiting us, such as a changing climate, overpopulation, the unethical concentration of wealth, austerity politics, neoliberalism, access to clean air and water, access to healthy food, racism, sexism, urbanization, et cetera. I will be focusing on the arts, on the ways that artists’ practices might be described through resilience theory, but also exploring the ways that artists are already employing (or challenging) its doctrines in their works. My first posts are up now (an introduction to myself, an introduction to my methodology and a profile on entrepreneur Lisa Baroldi) and as I begin to deeply engage the project, I realize it is asking me to take seriously the claim that art can do things, real things, change-the-world kinds of things. I predict I will be disappointed at times, but I’m sure that that won’t be the end of it. If nothing else, this is an opportunity to consider how better to leverage art to do the things I wish it to do. Surely art is not so different from the practice than science, in that we can effect change by way of it—a tool to use in service of a vision, complete with unbreakable parametres. Or so this will be my task to demonstrate.

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Happening

Open Sesame

Tomorrow afternoon, I am going to be part of the Open Sesame Critics’ Forum alongside Ame Henderson and Alex Bowron, moderated by Amy Lam. Hosted by LUFF, an independent art space committed to supporting and presenting experimental and emerging work across disciplines, we will approach criticism as dialogue, taking on a number of summer exhibitions across the city. Up for debate will be Vasco Araújo’s Under the Influence of Psyche, Jimenez Lai’s Flipping Properties and the group exhibition First the Pleasure, then the Thesis. This will be my first time participating, but I am hoping the afternoon will be something like privilege of a a great editor: an idea formed through generous intellectual reciprocity. Although I don’t imagine Ame, Alex and I will reach some sort of critical consensus, I do imagine that my ideas about the exhibitions will be made better through an engagement with theirs.

The conversation starts tomorrow, 26 July 2014, at 15:00. Meet us at #202-688 Queen Street West.

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Happening

Canadian Ecstasy

AR-Main

Emerging from a conversation now years in the making between myself and Kim Simon, which itself emerges from some central concerns of Kim’s curatorial practice at Gallery TPW, I am excited to have had the opportunity to engage Kim and TPW in putting together this week of events with Ariana Reines, a poet, playwright, translator and artist based in New York City. Collectively titled, they are Canadian Ecstasy.

The question has been variously formed, but it is generally supported by a concern for how we talk when we are talking, about difficult things especially. The question betrays an investment in developing the means to sustain a relationship to something (in this case, usually an art work) that one is in conflict with. Instead of turning away, as may be our impulse, how can we stay inside that moment of confrontation between a work and our expectations? Can that experience of confrontation be generative? At TPW, under Kim’s direction, the question has confronted the experience of looking at difficult images, both as a semantic concern (what does “difficult” mean in these contexts) and a methodological concern (how to gather to accomplish such a thing). Upon reading Ariana’s introduction to her translation of Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl, we realized that the translation itself was an example of what is made possible when that relationship is maintained. From the desire to talk with Ariana about her own methodologies, a week of events were developed, some more or less directly related to this initial interest, though the preoccupation remains.

In the context of the TPW R&D project, we have invited audiences to engage the charismatic and bold practice of this interdisciplinary thinker. Through a week of performance, reading, writing and talking together we’ll consider practice, methodology and what it might mean to be in relation.

Based in New York, Ariana Reines is the author of The Cow (Alberta Prize, 2006), Coeur de Lion (2007), Mercury (2011), all from FenceBooks, and Thursday, (2012), from Spork, and the Obie-winning play TELEPHONE (2009), commissioned & produced by The Foundry Theatre. She is the translator of The Little Black Book of Grisélidis Real: Days and Nights of an Anarchist Whore by Jean-Luc Hennig (2009) and Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by TIQQUN (2011), from Semiotext(e), and of My Heart Laid Bare by Charles Baudelaire, (2009) from Mal-O-Mar. Performances and theatrical works include THE ORIGIN OF THE WORLD at Stuart Shave Modern Art (2013), LORNA, with Jim Fletcher, at the Martin E. Segal Theatre (2013), MISS ST’S HIEROGLYPHIC SUFFERING at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (2009), and SWISSNESS at The Swiss Institute (2012). Most recently she published The Origin of the World, a book for Semiotext(e)’s contribution to the 2014 Whitney Biennial. This summer she will present MORTAL KOMBAT, a new performance work with Jim Fletcher, at Le Mouvement Biel/Bienne in Switzerland.

Events

Reading at TYPE bookstore
Monday, June 23, 2014
883 Queen Street West
8pm
Join us for a casual evening with Reines sharing some of her work, have a glass of wine, and maybe buy a book from the beloved TYPE books on Queen St. West.

ANCIENT EVENINGS
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

TPW R&D
1256 Dundas St. West
8pm
An ongoing project of Reines’s, Ancient Evenings is a weekly writing sabbath of sorts, incorporating liturgical reading, automatic writing, and neglected arts of conversation. Born of the yearning to marry the spirit of sacred spaces with the spirit of frank yet generous companionship, Reines says of its origins that, “I wanted to try reading and writing in company the way I fantasized a Heian courtier or an erudite merchant in Al-Andalus might read and write—slightly or very drunkenly and at leisure in some kind of cohort, not the solitude of scholars or professionals, though with great focus and maybe a little sociable competitive spirit—I wanted to take the space of sharing and writing poems and tales away from the workspace of classrooms and workshops and programs and degrees and return it to something more proper and more relaxed, but also, perhaps, more stimulating…”

Refreshments and a (surprise) ancient text will be provided. Those interested in attending are asked to pre-register here: kim@gallerytpw.ca

Please note that this event is free, but that those who attend are asked to be willing to write and read under special circumstances for an evening.

MORTAL KOMBAT
Performance by Ariana Reines and Jim Fletcher
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
TPW R&D
1256 Dundas St. West
8pm

Le Mouvement Biel/Bienne invited Ariana Reines to create a performance in dialogue with a pair of sculptures from the Swiss art festival’s midcentury origins. In the spirit of Gallery TPW’s R&D programming, Reines will present a preview of the work. A kung-fu drama structured like a game, MORTAL KOMBAT is inspired by the 1992 videogame, enacting and aggravating scenes of pre-adolescent masculinity, boredom, nostalgia, violence, and fantasy. Created with the actor and writer Jim Fletcher, MORTAL KOMBAT also exacerbates the problems of equality, asymmetry, and fairness that come up in any so-to-speak contest of equals. Where are the lines between gender and the physical drawn? Born on the same day in different years, Reines and Fletcher will undertake this game as ersatz twins—but, as in the case of Romulus and Remus among so many other sets of brothers, theirs is also a fight to the death.

Ariana Reines is joined by actor and writer Jim Fletcher. Fletcher is a founding member of the New York City Players and The Bernadette Corporation. He performs frequently in New York and abroad with many artists and ensembles, including The Elevator Repair Service, The Wooster Group, Sarah Michelson, and Tony Oursler. Among the many productions in which Jim has recently starred: GATZ (Elevator Repair Service), Isolde (NY City Players), and Cry, Trojans! (The Wooster Group).

In conversation with Ariana Reines, Gina Badger and Yaniya Lee
Thursday June 26, 2014
TPW R&D
7pm
Departing from Reines’s work as a poet, translator and artist, this participatory discussion will consider the critical methodologies enacted by different forms of creative practice.

Reines is joined by provocateurs Gina Badger and Yaniya Lee.

Gina Badger is an artist and writer based in Toronto. Working in the expanded field of sculpture and installation, her favoured research methods include listening, walking and cooking. At the heart of her practice is a critical engagement with the time and material of colonial ecologies from a settler perspective. Born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Badger is the descendent of farmers in Treaty 6 territory. She holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) and a Master of Science from MIT (Cambridge MA). Badger currently acts as Editorial Director of FUSE Magazine.

Yaniya Lee is a nomadic arts writer and cultural documentarian. In both print and audio her practice is focused on using conversation as a productive space of exchange and exploration. Most recently she published the chapbook In Different Situations Different Behaviour will Produce Different Results, a conversation with Chris Kraus and Jacob Wren. Her next project is an experimental, critical look on the ways in which semio-capitalism affects our relationship to labour.

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SBC

Subjects as Things

In reframing the concerns of sovereignty from the perspective of the subject, there remain differing locations of embodiment: there are sovereign subjectivities formed by power relations, gender, language, class and race; on another reading, there are to sovereign subjects, as things, formed by power relations, materials, pressure and gravity. Within A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, the works of Tiziana La Melia occupy this latter position—paintings and sculptures that insist on being read inconclusively as kinds of things despite the act of looking that otherwise wants to fix objects as immutable or understood. La Melia’s works want something else from the viewer: the maintenance of multiple identifications, such as the tending to an oscillation between painting and sculpture, or an ambiguity between the objects of art and the accoutrements of the domestic.

Hanging from the walls of the gallery, the usual presentation devices (frames, mats, glass) are exchanged for mundane if seemingly jerry-rigged supports.

“Yolk Tabs medieval genuflex and still,” 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

In Yolk Tabs medieval genuflex and still (2012), a painted scene of portraiture hangs from an undone coat hanger alongside a significant collection of pop tabs. There is no frame in the regular understanding of things and no stretching of the canvas that, as it is, falls away from the magnetic supports that barely keep the painting attached to the hanger.

"Dust selves, reflect and flex," 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

“Dust selves, reflect and flex,” 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

For Dust selves, reflect and flex (2012), a purple colour field (lighter and softer than “purple” suggests) does keep a more regular shape, long and straight, but instead of a glass barrier between the linen and the world, there is a sheet of mylar stapled to the wall, right through the painting beneath. A rusty nail marks the top centre of the field, off of which another undone clothes hanger spools, precariously supporting a pair of sunglasses. Almost as though a chain reaction, another piece of bent metal extends from the frame of the glasses and a single magnet keeps in place a magazine clipping that, as gallery visitors pass by, sways in the air.

"Curly roads, ysl opium, aerosol hair pointing at, a living fact if lucky to hand registration, cement finisher who wants to be a banker’s wheelbarrow and reverse the desire switch the character," 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

“Curly roads, ysl opium, aerosol hair pointing at, a living fact if lucky to hand registration, cement finisher who wants to be a banker’s wheelbarrow and reverse the desire switch the character,” 2012. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

A third work—Curly roads, ysl opium, aerosol hair pointing at, a living fact if lucky to hand registration, cement finisher who wants to be a banker’s wheelbarrow and reverse the desire switch the character (2012)—is planted on gallery floor. Kicked out from the walls, a simple armature creates a stiff 90 degree angle, upon which two more paintings hang, their subject matter being two-dimensional abstractions of the shape of their support. The work is an object to circle around and regard, with no vantage point for optimal viewing suggested.

"clay voice drink still," 2013-2014. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

“clay voice drink still,” 2013-2014. Photo credit: Guy L’Heureux.

La Melia’s final contribution to the show is a series of small ceramic sculptures entitled clay voice drink still (2013-2014). As the name of the collection suggests, the small ceramic works could be read as dining ware, but queer dining ware as their shapes and sizes are just a little bit off scale to common cups and mugs. Thus, the domestic value of the set is questionable (despite being displayed in close proximity to Maggie Groat’s Fences will turn into tables [2010-2013]). 

The indeterminate character of form in La Melia’s work is not remarkable in itself, but it is foregrounded in a way that compels consideration by the viewer. If sovereignty is properly characterized by negotiation, then La Melia’s work performs this give-and-take at an aesthetic level. Since when is canvas the stuff of sculpture? Since when is painting draped from a coat hanger? And yet, her work suggests that the answers to these questions are beside the point. By resisting resolution as strictly one medium or form over another, any one understanding becomes provisional at best. Which just might mean that there is something to this idea of negotiation after all. Like the effects of Rubin’s vase (an image that uses a common border to alternately appear as a single vase or two faces staring straight on), distinct narratives are produced if the works are considered from particular art historical perspectives, and other narratives emerge from other lenses. To encounter her work is to engage in a process of concession and insistence with no clear end in sight. 

While often utilizing forms of abstraction, La Melia’s work comes from a place of trust for her materials and processes in a way that does not glorify the genre, but seeks to make meaning of it. So then, abstraction becomes a way to embed oneself in the world through materials and work. What are the effects of looking? What of the field of possible responses an object or experience can generate? Within the exhibition, La Melia’s work provides a focus the action that happens in objects as material things. Maybe it seems a bit funny to talk about sovereignty in regards to things, but humans are just a special case of things. We use tools all the time, and art is just another tool we can use to make sense, relate and do things.

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