Institutions by Artists gathered over 400 artists, curators, academics, critics and so called ‘bureaucrats’ for a three-day conference in Vancouver, Canada. The aim was to “evaluate and activate the performance and promise of contemporary artist-run centres and initiatives” in Canada and across the world.

It seemed apt, then, that the first stop on my itinerary was an exhibition opening at Or Gallery, an artist-run centre hosting ‘Science Fiction 18: The Future From Memory’, billed as the 18th installment of ‘roughly 88 science-fiction related exhibitions produced by the Or Gallery over a 260-year period’ (Or was founded in 1983). This was just the beginning of a strong thematic trajectory that underpinned the framing of the gathering: what is, should be and needs to be the future of artist self-organisation.

The convention included panels, debates, screenings, a keynote presentation by the inimitable AA Bronson (artist, educator, director of Printed Matter, New York, and founder and director of the New York Art Book Fair) and was peppered with lunchtime and evening events, such as publication launches and exhibition openings. The composition of each day meant that panel discussions ran simultaneously, making it impossible to attend all of the speakers presentations (although the whole conference is available to view at The broad framing of each panel – including Institutional Time: Facts & Fictions, Intimate Institutions and States and Markets – provided space for presentations that were discursively and formally expansive.

The personal is political

Eva Weinmayr’s opening presentation on UK-based radical artist-activist duo Art In Ruins (Hannah Vowles and Glyn Banks) set the tone for a weekend that would be punctuated by performative gestures, injecting humour, fiction and passion into the critical discussions. Weinmayr’s ficto-critical approach to research was sparked by the artists in question, who when asked for an interview exploring their abrupt exit from the art world in 2001, refused, and suggested “perhaps speculation is more interesting than clarification”.

What began as an academic paper transformed into theatre – where excerpts from Weinmayr’s play, ‘(pause) 21 scenes concerning the silence of Art in Ruins’, were interjected by actors situated in the audience. Further addressing critical history-making, Montreal-based curator and writer Marie-Josee Jean reminded the audience that the history of art has largely (if not entirely) been written by academics and art historians – not artists. The idea of writing and rewriting history was also addressed in the film ‘2084’, directed by sociologist Pelin Tan and artist Anton Vidokle. Based on a vision of art, society and artist-run culture set in the future, it was commissioned by Or Gallery for the convention.

In his keynote address, AA Bronson presented an abbreviated history of his own practice, from the collective General Idea, to his current interest in shamanism and practice as a healer. His moving account of the AIDS-related deaths of General Idea collaborators Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, and subsequent interest in healing practices, highlighted a sentiment brought up a number of times across divergent discussions – that the personal is political. While the relationship between art and activism is well-worn territory in contemporary art discourse, Slavs and Tatars’ Payam Sharifi suggested that questions of faith, spirituality and religion are comparatively taboo.

Capitalism subsumes everything

A pervasive issue that underscored many of the discussions was the global economic context. The first of two debates traversed this issue by positing the question “Is there space for art outside the market and the state?” The debate was aptly referred to later in the proceedings as “remarkably amicable”, with the negative team admitting agreement with their opponents (although Gregory Sholette’s opening remarks were unequivocal, arguing “capitalism subsumes everything – that’s what it does”).

The effects of government austerity measures on arts and higher education in North America and Europe, and post-Fordist labour conditions, are being broadly felt across the globe. Free market capitalism was continually asserted as a collapsing system, however it is extreme neoliberalism that Sholette argued had “laid bare our predicament”, as we are no longer afforded a ”false sense of protection from the marketplace”. Jaleh Mansoor, whose initially academic presentation ended up as a ‘call to arms’, spoke more passionately than one might expect from a self-declared armchair activist. She declared that “we are forced to be responsible for problems we didn’t create, we should create new problems!”

Artist-self organisation

It was obvious that artists do, and will always search for modes of living and working that subvert the power structures in which they operate. Innumerable models of artist-self organisation were cited across the three days, in which artists uniquely reimagine the boundaries between the economy, art and life, whether through Dirk Fleischmann’s corporate conglomerate as art-practice, or Deirdre Logue’s conception of a space outside the market and the state as “embodied”.

Fleischmann later suggested (in his presentation during the ‘States & Markets’ panel) that “space, as an idea, is expanding”, citing online architecture as an example. It seemed to be agreed that artist-run-centres have a reciprocal relationship with art itself, becoming impactive on the practices of artists in surrounding communities. This could be due to architectural idiosyncrasies, as in the enigmatic space of Vancouver’s oldest ARC (Artist Run Centre), Western Front, as well as the political climate of the location – as Istanbul-based curator and academic Pelin Tan suggested was the case in Greece and Japan, where artists are operating in a climate of ongoing economic and ecological issues.

So what is the future of artist-self organisation? Warren Arcand, in his poetic stream-of-conscious responses to Claire Fontaine, Jaleh Mansoor and Pelin Tan, reminded us that the future is unknowable “because the thing desired will never fully arrive”, and that we should “accept and be resolute in the inevitability of our own death”. Tan also suggested that “if you can not sustain [an artist-space or collective] in an autonomous way – you can just stop”.

By citing these cessations and deaths, the end of art (or artists, or artist spaces) is in no way heralded – quite the opposite. At the heart of artist self-organisation is dynamism and independence, and a requisite to this is constant rebirth, remaking and reconfiguration. At the conclusion of a discussion as broad ranging and critically rigorous as that sparked by Institutions by Artists, any kind of summation will seem reductive.

Artist self-organisation is, and will always be as modular and as fragile as the relationships between individuals. It is clear that the future of artist self-organisation, and naturally, art itself, lies in the hands of those actively engaging with it, and the space of art lies not just in individuals but in the spaces between them. Perhaps then, it is less useful to take the crystal ball approach, but rather answer the question with another question, posed by Vancouver-based artist and founder of Or Gallery, Laiwan – “what is imprisoning, and how can we liberate what needs liberating?”

Institutions by Artists was organised by PAARC, Fillip and ARCA and was presented at the Goldcorp Centre, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, 12-14 October, 2012. Biographies of all the speakers are available at