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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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In the spirit of careful precision, this distinction as articulated by Nelson Maldonado-Torres:

Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday.

We are all students and subjects of coloniality. So what are we gonna do about it?

And what happens to sovereignty when it rests upon an empire, both to the colonizing nation and the colonized state? Is sovereignty diluted or made stronger when set in relation to patterns of oppression?

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In the first issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang present “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” a call to examine the ways the term is diluted when applied to projects that are anything other than the repatriation of Indigenous lands and life. It’s a powerful article. Read it here. Their call to be aware of the import of the term corresponds to a reconsideration of what exactly we are doing in cultural venues (like art galleries) when we try to critically approach ongoing processes of colonization. In short, most of the time, the thing we are doing is not decolonizing. It’s not that there is no value in this kind of work, but we need to grapple with “how the pursuit of critical consciousness, the pursuit of social justice through a critical enlightenment, can also be settler moves to innocence–diversions, distractions, which relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility, and conceal the need to give up land or power or privilege.”

In working toward that consideration, Tuck and Yang make some important clarifications in what they call the set of settler colonial relations. I found these two particular articulations to be precise and useful in thinking through a colonized landscape in North America.

First, distinguishing between settler and immigrants, they note that “settlers are not immigrants. Immigrants are beholden to the Indigenous laws and epistemologies of the lands they migrate to. Settlers become the law, supplanting Indigenous laws and epistemologies.”

Second, an idea of race is deployed differently according on one’s position in the set of relations, which Tuck and Yang see as being composed of three nodes: settler, native, slave. Race is constructed in ways that always lead back to the fortification of settler power so that “through the one-drop rule, blackness in settler colonial contexts is expansive, ensuring that a slave/criminal status will be inherited by an expanding number of ‘black’ descendents. Yet, Indigenous peoples have been racialized in a profoundly different way. Native American-ness is subtractive: Native Americans are constructed to become few in number and less Native, but never exactly white, over time. Our/their status as Indigenous peoples/first inhabitants is the basis of our/their land claims and the goal of settler colonialism is the diminish claims to land over generations (or sooner, if possible). That is, Native American is a racialization that portrays contemporary Indigenous generations to be less authentic, less Indigenous than every prior generation in order to ultimately phase out Indigenous claims to land and usher in settler claims to property.”

Understanding the way our own identities are configured in relationship to access to land, resources and power is just one essential step in being able to re-do the order of the world in a decolonial way. And it must be accompanied by those literal re-doings.

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I do not put much stock in polls, but the recent proposal to ban religious headwear and symbols in Québec, which is laid out in a piece of legislation titled the “Charter of Values,” is supported by a shocking 58% of people in the province according to a Forum Research study. The proposal has less support in other parts of Canada, but not by much: disturbingly, 47% of people asked are in favour.

The legislation, as it is formulated now, aims to outlaw public employees from wearing hijabs, turbans, kippas, visible crucifixes and other religious clothing and symbols in schools, hospitals, day cares and other government buildings in the province. Or as Colby Cosh summarized it, the charter seeks to dictate “purely personal, passive displays of religious faith by employees [which] are inconsistent with the government of Québec’s overall secular mission and nature.” The idea is that the adornment of religious symbols by public employees somehow compromises the province’s commitment to secularism, but I really don’t follow the logic. The province is composed of individuals, all of whom have beliefs. State functions are processes carried out by people. I’m not sure how this competency is affected by religious clothing or symbols.

Québec Premier Pauline Marois has said that the charter “reflects universal values, Quebec values, and would be a uniting force for the province.” But just to be clear, the value represented in this charter is racism, a racism that could propagate further intolerance by normalizing imposed conformity to a single dominant culture. I follow this logic, and it’s shameful. Monoculture does not make unity. Cultural unity, to have any real value, must require something of its citizens: at base, an acceptance of diversity. Which means encounters with difference, not cultural camouflage.

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Last year, Vancouver’s Access Gallery presented Always Working, a curatorial project by Gabrielle Moser. The exhibition reflects on contemporary modes of working–often intangible, rooted in process of care and computation–and asks how global flows of capital respond to these process when they malfunction. Specifically, Moser is curious about useless excess (not necessarily work for its own sake, but deliberate actions that refuse their regular associations with service) and how it resists being absorbed back into an economic accounting of labour and capital. In the stumble of the economy in the face of these kinds of unproductivities, Moser proposes that work is activated “as a space for social critique and political action.” Affective tendencies, here, become thoughtful disruptions of systems that otherwise rely on totalizing mythologies for their propagation.

Departing from this exhibition, Moser has guest-edited a section of Fillip 18, further exploring the relationship between desire and labour. She has commissioned projects by Sven Lütticken and the artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian to reflect on the conditions under which artistic labour is made to appear or disappear.

Moser will be hosting a launch of the journal tomorrow night in Vancouver at Access, and has arranged a performative discussion where a number of cultural workers have been invited to present texts that further interrogate the ways labour is utilized, exploited or subverted in the art world. Though I will not be present for the launch, Gabby will channel me (its own kind of affective labour!) to contribute excerpts from Samuel C. Florman’s The Existential Pleasures of Engineering and Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. The former, published in 1976, is a manifesto imploring engineers to recognize the emotional and intellectual privilege of the work they do. Berardi’s text, published in 2009, counters the propagandistic tone of Florman’s treatise, suggesting that a globalized economy relies on the promise of creativity and flexibility in order to demand excessively more labour from workers. Our desires are leveraged to prolong the working day (because we believe in the work we do and/or because we live in debt) and expand working spaces (to the home office, or the wherever-you-may-be when your cellphone rings).

In a way, it boils down to this: what is our desired (practical) result? How do we imagine the relationship between ourselves and society? How can labour be in service of our desires, not the other way around?

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For the summer issue of Monte Cristo, I ruminate on a constellation of films through the lens of memory, backward and forward and alive right now. To recall, to see, to dream. It’s funny timing, having received the beautiful print copies in the mail only days after arriving home from burying my grandmother. In considering Michael Haneke’s Amour, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour and Oliver Husain’s Item Number, it seems to me that “memory and imagination rely on the co-existing of tenses in the present moment. To be alive, then, is this movement backward and forward, the complex and mundane experiences of holding on, of forgetting and of writing anew. Sometimes it is proper to not let go either of the past or the future…[sometimes] the past must be unshackled from the everyday less it suffocate living. [Other times] it’s the overly determined idea of the future that needs be released, making room for what can’t be predicted, for what falls outside of schedules and scripts. These fates are shared amongst us: memory persists unevenly, imagination moves unpredictably. Our lives are simply to engage in these negotiations, wherever they may take us.”

Coming back to Toronto from Alberta, having just visited the hospital where I was born to collect the physical belongings of my grandmother’s that she had with her when she died, I am very much steeped in this negotiation of past, present and future. In culling through my own memories, I have come across this, a love letter to my grandmother that is also an attempt to contend with memory as being a flimsy and fading thing:

Thick rows of raspberry bushes and I was once a small girl hurtling through them, summer in my veins. My stick arms and legs collecting the tiny cuts of prickling thorns as I ran through the rows with abandon. Then, the abrupt halt of a changing plan and my feet would fall silent, caught on either side by bushes taller than I. My fingers would grope forward for the carmine fruit, an action of body remembrance while my mind wandered with wild imaginations. My fingertips would slowly stain red with a disregard to proper picking etiquette, pressing too hard the tiny fruit, seeds catching in my teeth, and I would eagerly, unconsciously, taste of the sweetness. When my games of make-believe fell silent, I would recognize the adventure as my home. Just raspberry bushes in a garden, a fantastical leap to the marvelous, far away lands of my play. And yet, such abundance, I have come to realize, in the bounty right there before me. But then, just a given, just fruit close-by on the other side of my whim.

My abandon played the predictable counterpoint to my grandmother’s methodical stripping of those bushes near the end of summer’s drunk light, collecting berries for the winter ahead. She would drift so deliberately that my young eyes could discern movement only by turning my head for a spell of accumulation–childhood is no keeper of small progressions. Still, buckets and buckets more would fill of the small bits of ripe redness. With opaque plastic, the weight of a full ice cream container would hint at the shallow collection of juice near the bottom and these pools were evidence of the riches of a season.

Next, the fruit was found scattered all over my grandmother’s kitchen. She would sit, hunched over in deep concentration, turning every one of those berries through her fingers. Again. Looking for bits of the world not to be preserved, tiny worms or bits of rot, removing all the impurities, all the whitened, foamy centres the berries grew round, all the accidentally torn bits of green leaves. Methodically.

I do not remember ever bearing witness to the magical process that preserved the berries on into the winter, but I knew that soon a cold room in the basement of my grandmother’s home would fill shelves with electric red. Better than candy, raspberries preserved in their own juice would be served over vanilla ice cream. Or, sometimes, just the berries themselves, straight from the jar that sat faithfully replenished in her fridge. I could even catch my father in the indulgence, sneaking just a single spoonful, the softness of a man. These were my first lessons in parts and wholes, of how then yields now, because at the end of the winter the seemingly never ending store of sweetness would be small and depleted, but oh! The bushes in abundance and the dance would begin again each spring. The itch of winter to send me careening again through those rows, and soon the slow, following steps of my grandmother.

Yet, that lesson of wholes and parts did not prepare me for this, those shelves empty, the bushes overgrown, my grandmother’s hands so ravaged by arthritis that they are no longer capable of small movements. Not even one hidden jar of electric summer exists anymore, and I am caught off guard admitting this. Like, having spent so many of my teenage years laying alone and lonely in a small bed, a heavy heart not yet able to recognize the space outside of solitude, and now, the staggering privilege of another’s affection. Yet, even if I could take my lover’s hand and lead them back to that bedroom where I laid, even with their kindness to go there with me, evidence against a solitude that once seemed irrefutable, my bed is not there anymore. Could not lay there with my lover despite their generosity. Cannot taste the sweet red of summer, though my grandmother extends toward me the courtesy of memory. And this is because: our childhoods no longer exist. Our childhoods are gone.

These are the words of a young woman realizing that having come to pass really means never again. It was not so long ago, this lesson, and I still just don’t know it in certain ways, and yet now my grandmother is dead, and even her hands are but a memory, not unlike the jars of raspberries, not unlike the summer light.

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Consensus kills questions. A colleague of mine recently brought something like this up, reflecting on a public conversation where a participant had noted the Canadian tendency to need to find agreement when really, we need not concur. Sitting with an unresolved tension can be good because it asks that strategies be developed for living with difference and it requires a person to admit that while logics can be internally coherent, they are not totalizing. As I sit with a long list of works for my upcoming exhibition at the AGW, and as I begin to think about how to articulate what holds these works together, I am encountering the aliveness of my own questions to the gallery’s collection. It’s exciting, but it also feels like being totally sure of what the artworks do together would be great. I’m not sure that this will be resolved in the end, and instead, how do I let the dissensus live through exhibition? How do I keep the questions alive for myself and an imagined audience? Borrowing a sentiment from Danh Vo, exhibition “enacts art as a process of learning for artist and viewer [I would suggest the curator also], in which failures are also ways of learning” (Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education, 217). So perhaps I keep the question alive by not knowing the answer, or somehow allowing conflicting answers equal space to exist within the hypothesis that frames the collection of works. Let me not reach consensus!

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