After the alternative is another alternative: A Radicalization of the Artist-Run
i. Radicalization of the local
Since the beginning of the recession, and in the shadow of art’s spectacular market ascendency, artist-centric action has again taken root as a dominant mode of working. For all the attention given to biennials, fairs, and all the rest, the rapid expansion of an artist-centered ethos into how we live and work has been equally dramatic. We’ve founded alternative spaces, schools, publications, and other platforms, we’ve started convening as peers, we’ve continued circulating through informal networks, but can we now do so as a community, as an emergent body able to act as a true alternate? We speak of multiple art worlds, but are we a world? Can we become one?
Seven years into this recessionary paradigm, it is perhaps time to move beyond considering the form a reaction towards economic conditions and evolving it into a model for them. To move from an alternate form to a shared one. The conditions for this shift are ones of community and connection across space, considering how to merge our conceptual context into a geographic, embodied one. Art’s fluidity is a privilege, with inbuilt distribution, circulation, public platforms, and support structures that enable an alternate voice to emerge. We vibrate across space, we circulate, we connect. We distribute ideas in order to travel ourselves as sites, carrying a potential community within us.
Eyal Danon has proposed that a “radicalization of the local can be accomplished by establishing a network of localities,” taking this conceptual community and collapsing it into localized space and specific acts. The form of our work, in each of its instances and across all geographies, is the force we contain. However, without formalizing these connections between localities, without viewing our work alongside thousands of others, the community we carry with us is always a coming community, a horizon, a theoretical community. How can we collapse a theory of community into shared space and time? This text is one way, and the platform that carries it, the community that receives it, the voices, texts and tools that distribute it. Can we reflect on our position and connect, and by doing so, become a community at present? In this act, we not only imagine alternate modes, but embody them.
ii. A language of the telephone itself
In her essay A Language of Things, Hito Steyerl, herself referencing Walter Benjamin, states that “there exists, besides a language communicated by telephone a language of the telephone itself.” We inherently know this seemingly simple statement – form and content, medium and message – yet, we often lose sight that we are responsible for the language of our platforms, not simply the ideas and projects that we present. The form – and the force behind the form – shapes everything after.
Speaking about negotiating global differences in ‘artist-centered’ practices, Sarrita Hunn, co-founder of Temporary Art Review, remarked that European projects in particular foreground their social and political contexts as essential to their practice, but that their relationships to state funding makes them far less likely to act outside or independent of traditional forms of support. In contrast, in the United States, we are far more likely to make a project happen regardless of funding or support structures, particularly in relation to state funding. However, we don’t seem to have a fully articulated political consciousness for our work.
Engaging in this field of artist-centric practices, the questions I have heard most often from emerging organizers are how we sustain this work: what are the platforms, what are the means, where are the models? We instrumentalize it, wondering what works in brute terms without asking why the model operates how it does. Why do we engage in this work in an originary conceptual and communal sense? Why connect, for whom, with what end goal? Why ‘artist-run,’ in what way ‘alternative?’ What is the language of the form itself? Once answered, then we can again arrive at – how?
We neglect the implications of what it means to create an artist-run space and how the form itself runs counter to a capital-centric logic. Our energy is present, and, I would argue, our work is prescient. At times, however, this prescience remains on an unconscious level, dissipating when a new opportunity arrives because we weren’t aware of (or committed to) the implications of our work. Without reflecting on the social and political contexts we are engaged with, we enable our work to be co-opted, commercialized, and instrumentalized into forms we would otherwise say we disagree with. After all, when the market or museum calls, we always accept the telephone and the language that comes with it.
Can we articulate our end goals of why we make the work, the space, the platform, the project? What does it mean to found a DIY residency or an artist-run radio station? What are the lasting implications of making space for other artists within your apartment or studio? Why did you drive your art across the country to present it in a friend’s garage? Why did you start a publication in St. Louis, or Chicago, or Baltimore? Why did you buy a building or squat a house? Why did you write an essay for PHONEBOOK? Why did you publish it?
Our work isn’t just about acting from a posture of scarcity. Starting a space because there wasn’t one, showing your friend’s work because no one else would, and so on, are valid sparks to action, but to remain there is to stop short. To extend Jacqueline Cook’s assessment in her thesis Ephemeral traces of ‘alternative space’, we are “using the idea without its radicality.” We aren’t working this hard to be a bridge between bull markets, or attempting to rebuild the ladder as we try to climb it.
The act of founding, sustaining, and supporting this work is deeply radical. Its form carries weight and the accumulation of this through networks, convenings, publications, organizing and all the rest represents a formidable presence not just in the art world, but in the world at large. Consider the sheer scale we are discussing: there are now thousands of artist-run spaces, experimental publishers, apartment galleries, socially-engaged artists, alternative schools. What is the sum of these radical acts over time? Can we claim them for what they are? We aren’t anticipating alternatives: we are creating them. The proposed horizon of a post-capitalist community is already present in the unexamined connections between us.
iii. After the alternative is another alternative until there is nothing else to oppose
What is the language we can use to claim our position? How can we be more precise with our terms? The phrases we use to define us cycle through a series of phases – alternative, independent, artist-centered, artist-run – each contested and incomplete. At present, the field has most commonly adopted ‘artist-run’ or ‘artist-centered’ as defining categories. These terms imply a needed re-centering of the artist’s role in sustaining the art world, as well as the obvious reason for its existence. However, in this, we stop short of articulating our actual terms in its far-reaching socio-political implications.
Founding an alternative (space, economy, anything) is itself a form of protest against the prevailing norm. So, what are our demands – for ourselves and for others? In this, we understand our work as oppositional as well as formational. Setting our own objectives informed by underlying principles is to invent the means to attain them.
A precise political formation is not at question so much as a methodology that, though primarily internalized, is actually quite specific. The qualities of being ‘artist-centered’ or ‘artist-run’ actually consist of an unspoken set of relations that apply far beyond artist-run spaces. We use the term to stand in for work that simultaneously seeks economic equity, sensitivity to context and community, mutual support, autonomy in idea, action and execution, willingness to sacrifice time and resources to support meaningful ideas regardless of individual benefit and that often incorporate decentered power structures, non-hierarchical decision making, experimental models of sustainability and so on. These ways of working are not unique to artists, though are often modeled best by artists at the moment. Our language, however, is limited by the construction of these practices being ‘artist-centered’ rather than working towards terminology that begins to connect beyond the idea of the artist into a set of social relations we can live with.
What could a return to the phrasing of alternative mean? The term ‘alternative’ has been posed as problematic in its dependence on an other to oppose. However, it is naive to not know that there is, in fact, an other and that this other is taken to be an unimaginable – and certainly unreached – horizon. An alternative that presumes a different vision of community, that persists past the dominant logic of capital is perennially, disappointingly relevant. After the alternative is a long line of alternatives until there is nothing left to oppose. Only the fashion of genres and an obsession with innovation undermines it as a framework.
The current resurgence of artist-centered spaces and projects inhabits a post-recession moment, developed from both market and cultural conditions that made allegiances, blindness and biases more clear. The market is in ascendance, yet so is debt; academic discourse is unable to separate itself from the dysfunction of academia more broadly; the political climate we are surrounded by requires polemics and the inequities in the art world are just a punchline in a long, riffing routine.
Our work is shaped by these forces, but we are also reshaping them. Protest is again present in America, but what about connecting in order to build alternatives? To some it seems as if it is just starting, but what if that is what we’ve been doing all along?
iv. A community past capital
In Cluster: Dialectionary, Binna Choi of Casco presents a compelling narrative of the network, considering “the problem of the avant-garde as an ‘alternative enclave’ that is doomed to fail in achieving utopia, because in order to achieve this, you need to multiply the passages linking individuals, groups, and different open places.” She goes on to ask, “Can leadership, or better ‘initiatives,’ center around creating passages that amount to more than just the sum of many small minorities? […] We shouldn’t see small spaces like ours as just a rung on the hierarchical ladder.” The implication here is that it is perhaps time to multiply the passages: to consider how to unhinge the enclaves we exist in as small-scale artist-centric initiatives, while not pouring the sum of our labor into perpetuating systems we oppose.
There is a narrative, perhaps explored most prominently in Size Matters: Notes towards a Better Understanding of the Value, Operation and Potential of Small Visual Arts Organisations, a research paper commissioned by Common Practice in London, that we should articulate the value of artist-run spaces as performing the role of offering early-stage investment in artists’ careers that find their full value in their acceptance into the market and widespread institutional support. This narrative of the angel investor to the IPO is deeply problematic, not simply in its instrumentalization of the work, but the co-option from the outset of the goals of both ourselves and artists to engage in the hierarchical structure of the art world.
The thing is, this is how it often works, because we allow it to; because it is still the goal of many artists and organizers who engage in the idea but not the radicality of this work. However, it cripples the radical imaginary at the center of the form – that perhaps another world is possible. Yet, we confirm its possibility daily by choosing to continue.
We are in search of ways of supporting artists and operating within the world that pose valid alternatives to economic and political structures, that attempt to create alternate forms of convening and community. We find it in a growing number of radical artist collectives, of socially engaged artists taking both their art and their politics seriously, of regranting and sharing of resources, of walkouts in MFA programs and protests of exploitative labor practices in the art world. More importantly, we also see it in the daily grain of our artist-run spaces and studio practices, our anti-profit publications, bootlegged radio stations and all the unremarkable moments where we chose to carry a community forward and take our form seriously as the work itself.
How can we forefront this latent force? We have already assembled an immense network – a distribution system, a circulated community – now what could we do with it? How could we charge it with meaning? We must seek out ways to multiply the passages between ourselves and others, between ourselves and an emerging public sphere. We must commit to the form in its radicality as its radicality.
This text lives alongside a history of accumulated practice. It strides alongside an increasing circulation of acts and events, spaces, speculations and publications that together start to stammer out an alternative, that start to embody the form we thought impossible: a community past capital.
This alternative form is an unanticipated articulation just past the shadow of the market, moving beyond artist-run into artist-led, expanding outward: a post-recessionary form, an occupied form, a protested, protesting form – a proposed post-capitalist form. There exists, besides the language we’ve learned to speak, a language of this form itself. Now we must learn to speak it.
This essay was originally published in PHONEBOOK 4, (Chicago, IL: Threewalls, 2015).