Show some initiative!
Susannah Thompson questions the levels of critical engagement within the artist-led scene.
For over two decades Scotland has been (and continues to be) promoted in the international art press as a utopian fairyland of artist-run initiatives (ARIs), co-operatives and collectives, a place where everybody knows your name. While the struggles and successes of a myriad of one-off, temporary and long-term artist-run projects are undoubtedly admirable, there is, perhaps, a growing recognition in critical circles that the once-radical motivations of the artist-run initiative have long since given way to a more individualist, entrepreneurial spirit. Whether or not ambition and careerist incentives as a catalyst for artist-run initiatives are a good or bad thing is not the argument here. Rather, I would suggest that the artist-run initiative, historically synonymous with leftist, anti-establishment (art) politics, has resulted in a tendency to discuss any artist-run initiative as a positive development, with little revision or re-definition of what some of these spaces and projects have come to signify. It is this perpetuation of givens surrounding self-determinist practice (ie that by virtue of simply being artist-run, organisations and projects should be celebrated and encouraged) which may be problematic in broader critical terms.
To compound the issue, there is a sense that (particularly younger artists) believe the very concept of an artist-run space or a DIY sensibility to be a relatively recent development. In Scotland at least, discussion of artist-run initiatives frequently imply that an explosion of grass-roots organisations suddenly occurred and began to flourish, big bang-like, in response to the restrictions and political conservativism of the Thatcher administration in the 1980s. Whilst this is undoubtedly true to an extent, what is rarely referenced is the long history of non-commercial grassroots activity amongst Scottish art communities throughout the twentieth century, particularly those events and projects established with much energy and resourcefulness in the war years of the 1940s. The fact that individuals who have been active in ARIs for only a few years have been frequently heralded or alluded to as pioneers must be slightly galling for the numerous unacknowledged projects and activities which have preceded them (such as the prolific projects organised and facilitated by Richard Demarco in 1960s and 1970s Edinburgh).
The Scottish media (particularly broadsheets such as The Scotsman) have been particularly blinkered when it comes to coverage or reportage on the subject of the artist-run space, describing such activities almost invariably as quirky, progressive, alternative or even (in one especially toe-curling Scotsman piece) as sweet and boho. This kind of lazy journalism knowingly invokes tired romantic clichés of eccentric, starving artists in garrets, an image that is both incorrect and patronising. Writer and lecturer Neil Mulholland, in contrast, has written extensively on artist-run initiatives in Scotland with a more interrogative eye, paying particular attention to the machinations of government and funding organisations who attempt to professionalise, refurbish and makeover community-based organisations whilst favouring national organisations such as Dundee Contemporary Arts, CCA (Glasgow) and Fruitmarket Gallery (Edinburgh) in terms of funding. Mulhollands recent article Going for Bronze1 discusses this in depth, and should be required reading for artists and, more pertinently, for those officials involved in the culture industry.
However, while there is an undoubtedly strong (and often hard-won) grassroots infrastructure in Scotland in terms of ARIs, the resultant success and critical acclaim of some of these spaces and projects has precipitated a wave of artist immigration to Scotland (especially Glasgow) by opportunist artists who naively see Glasgow as their stepping stone to instant commercial success2. Part of this naivety involves a perception of artist-run spaces as cool, fashionable places in which to be seen, and networking venues that can provide a short-cut to social capital and opportunities.
As a result, a number of artist-run spaces and projects appear to be regarded as a fast-track route to credibility and career success (or, as one Glasgow artist described it, as something to put on the CV or something to do before you get a proper job). From the outside, some A-list figures on the Scottish art scene seem to have come through involvement with ARIs to forge successful careers as artists, curators and arts administrators. Another Glasgow-based artist, recently asked about his experience of working for two years as an unpaid Committee member of Transmission Gallery, responded in kind: Darling, it was a finishing school. Despite this sardonic reply, the fact remains that this is the perception amongst many young art students and graduates, unaware of the dogged hard work involved in the running of such spaces, who only see the glamour of exhibition openings. The apparent ease with which these figures seem to have attained their success belies the often indefatigable effort, cultural commitment and personal investment that artists have poured into these arenas over years and years.
The (silent) perception of ARIs as a rung on the career ladder also side-steps the very issues that gave rise to these organisations and affiliations in the first place. In his essay Another year of alienation, Malcolm Dickson (himself the founder of and participant in several artist-run initiatives and projects) succinctly sums up this shift:
The original impetus to establish the artist-run space was conceived as an ideological quest to destabilise the prevalence of complacent thinking, and create a contextual framework that made art more of a meaningful activity. The motivation now is more pragmatic and functional revolving around the potential of making it and the demand to exhibit more work. The notion of an alternative does not have the critical import it previously embodied.3
In Roles and reasons in 1997, Ian Hunter supports Dicksons claim noting, some critics and artists active in the field are dissatisfied with the present achievements and critical orientation of artist-led initiatives, and uncomfortable with the claims being made for them' it is possible to argue that for all the excitement about the new critical territory won by artists and artist organised initiatives over the past few years, that the genre may already be in decline, critically and ideologically speaking, and showing premature signs of the onset of a mid-life crisis.4
In essence, Dicksons argument is that the original ideological catalyst for the establishment of artist-run spaces was a desire to work outside of the cultural establishment and the mainstream gallery system. In recent Scottish history, the earliest artist-run spaces and initiatives reflected these concerns, demonstrating a kind of non-manufactured punk sensibility directly opposed to the commodification of art by the culture industry. Artist-run spaces in particular were often established for the purposes of showing site- or culturally-specific work in what were genuinely alternative venues for emerging directions in art practice. Other developments, in a Scottish context, which can be linked to the burgeoning proliferation of ARIs in the 1980s and 1990s include factors such as the establishment of the Environmental Art course at Glasgow School of Art and the increased focus on non-traditional disciplines such as time-based media in the Electronic Imaging Department at Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee. Because of the increased focus on work which couldnt or wouldnt be exhibited in a traditional gallery context there was a feeling amongst artists that it was necessary to consider alternative platforms for the exhibition and reception of contemporary art.
In political terms, the failure of the 1979 referendum to deliver a degree of political autonomy to Scotland came as a devastating blow to many Scots, including artists. One of the cultural implications of this was that Scotland-based artists began to try to establish a sense of artistic independence outside of London (and outside of the conservative, Academy-led gallery system in Scotland). Another motivation for the establishment of ARIs was the obvious attraction of cutting out the middleman (ie the curator) and of working alongside like-minded practitioners.
By cutting out the middle-man, artists effectively remove the boss class and disrupt the traditional hierarchies of power common to official institutions. In other words, by making the role of the curator or arts administrator obsolete, middle management is effectively dismissed. This kind of thinking a desire for greater control and autonomy on the part of artists implies some kind of leftist agenda which links ARIs to a specifically British history of cooperatives going back to the Rochdale Pioneers in 1840s Lancashire (ie the idea of the cooperative founded for the purpose of mutual benefit, progress and improvement of conditions). Amongst contemporary ARIs there is often an emphasis on the kind of terminology that implies this kind of identity. The mission statements and constitutions of ARIs, for instance, often stress terms and phrases such as support, encourage, collective, mutual benefit, reciprocity, not-for-profit, etc, yet in practice the objectives of some ARIs seem to work in direct contrast to the ideological criteria, acting instead as a complicit feeder-system to the symbolic Academy the commercial art sector or old guard establishment galleries.
It is particularly pressing at this juncture then, to consider and analyse the ways in which ARIs have changed and adapted. While some ARIs remain well-intentioned and critically engaged, and retain a fierce independence and integrity, others are today set up for entirely different reasons to the political and ideological motivations of the predecessors they cite as role models. It could easily be argued that the ironic popularity of alternative spaces and ARIs today stems not from the left-leaning, staunchly political young turks of 1970s and early 1980s Scotland, but from the explicitly entrepreneurial spirit of late 1980s yBa blockbusters such as Freeze in 1988 (which went from shoestring to Saatchi in the flick of a chequebook). Similarly, where at one time the very term ARI suggested a left-of-centre political positioning, it now simply means run by artists, and even in its aesthetic, the artist-run space often resembles the traditional white cube or so-called alternative spaces such as domestic spaces or run-down warehouses are so numerous that they are almost generic in their form. Even organisations that have only the most tenuous or peripheral relationship to visual art (cafes, for example) are cited in the press as ARIs purely because they have been established by art graduates (who have often long since ceased to be practitioners).
In some respects, ARIs have become victims of their own success, so that rather than having the freedom to operate outside of the funding system (despite the other restrictions and difficulties this may cause) ARIs are often now competing with one another for funding from organisations such as the Scottish Arts Council or private trusts, or for opportunities such as Extension at the Glasgow Art Fair (a publicly-funded addition to the art fair devoted to ARIs and younger galleries). The very notion, therefore, of being self-sufficient or DIY has altered. The huge rise in the sheer number of ARIs will (and has already) ensure that the number of breakthrough artists who emerge from an early career involved in ARI activity will inevitably decrease. As discussed earlier, the career paths of many of the most successful artists and curators in Scotland have come out of ARI participation, but their involvement and subsequent successes have generally been rooted in commitment and integrity rather than bare-faced opportunism. The danger for younger artists is that the CVs of their role models seem to be being naively read as a formulaic how to succeed checklist, with the establishment of an ARI as a particular coup. This gauche optimism amongst younger artists, along with more general misconceptions regarding the historical impetus for the founding of ARIs will surely lead to a level of dissatisfaction and resentment that the possibilities and opportunities they imagined would be afforded by participation in ARIs (in terms of direct personal gain) will not come to fruition. In some cases, competition, rather than cooperation is the key word. It also comes as no surprise to discover that ARIs can be just as snobbish, elitist and exclusive as any other arts organisation, yet even the most recent accounts of such activities continues to couch the history of ARIs in superlative, nostalgic and sentimental terms, perpetuating the confused identity of contemporary ARIs. The usually excellent Michael Bracewells recent Tate article Scotland Rocks is a case in point, in its description of Scotlands art scene as an enchanting, neo-Victorian philanthropic village5.
A cherished folklore, verging on the mythological, has built up around the role and function of ARIs in Scotland and such selective histories (for instance, the virtual lack of recognition for anything pre-1983) is particularly hotwired into civic pride in Glasgow. As John Beagles has noted: Scottish artists returning from abroad frequently complain of the romantic, idealistic picture many seem to have of artistic life in Scotland (Glasgow specifically) as the home of egalitarian, socialist cooperatives where everyone supports and nurtures in a pseudo-cultural wonderland. The reality of course, is infinitely more complicated and contradictory.6
Despite this grim prognosis, the rise of ARIs seems to have continued unabated rather than declining into the moribund state predicted by Dickson and Hunter a few years ago, and many of these projects are admirable in their endeavours. It is essential, however, that if any real sense of independence, integrity or self-reflection is to be maintained, the remaining critically-engaged and ideologically motivated ARIs resist exploitation by the powers that be by challenging misrepresentation and by taking to task celebratory accounts of ARIs that present all ARIs as embodying a particular socialist ethos.
Perhaps it is time for critical discourse itself, on the subject of artist-run initiatives, to show some initiative.
Susannah Thompson has written regularly on contemporary visual art and is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Historical and Critical Studies, Glasgow School of Art.
1 Neil Mulholland, Going for Bronze, The Future, Issue 1, Manchester, 2004.
2 ibid, p15.
3 Malcolm Dickson, Another year of alienation: On the mythology of the artist-run initiative in Duncan McCorquodale (ed), Occupational hazard, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2001.
4 Ian Hunter, (ed. Susan Jones), Roles and reasons: The scope and value of artist-led organisations, 1997.
5 Michael Bracewell, Scotland Rocks, Tate magazine, Issue 6, July/August 2003.
6 John Beagles, Under the Central Belt, Variant Vol 2, Issue 2, Spring 1997, Glasgow, pp12-13.
First published: a-n Collections July 2005
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