This Must Be The Place
The alternative art space has come to play a fundamental role in contemporary art and the ways in which it is shared with the world. Often constructed and operating under unlikely circumstances and in contingent structures alternative art spaces offer a venue for emerging artists that subverts institutional and monetary power and in doing so nurtures institutional care and venues of the ephemeral as opposed to the enduring and bureaucratic personality of the museum and academic institution. These spaces emerge under trying circumstances, with little resources available, and often take a long period of time to come to fruition. To undertake such an an endeavor is to say and show that you care with relentless enthusiasm. The act of organizing these spaces, and engaging with them, is a performance towards new roles as organizers, artists, or visitors, agitating its community by opening alternatives.
The following text is, if you will, an alternative to a more traditional interview. An imagined conversation about how to make an alternative art space inspired by real conversations and contributions from Joshua Byron (they/them) of SALON, a monthly pop-up art show that occurred from May 2016 – March 2017 in Byron’s apartment in Bloomington, IN; Bill Bass (him/his) and Raph Cornford (him/his) of NOISE, currently based in a garage and a space adjacent to an insurance agency in Bloomington, IN; and Charlotte Caldwell (she/her) and Mike Calway-Fagen (him/his), director and curator respectively of Stove Works in Chattanooga, TN which will break ground on November 1st of this year. All dialogue is taken from direct quotes given by each contributor and reframed by the author. Though each space exists in its own unique structure and at different points in time – SALON in the past, NOISE in the present, and Stove Works in the future – they all aim at something similar: bring more contemporary art to a community that doesn’t know it needs it. From our hearth to yours here is an impractical guide to making an alternative art space.
The other night I dreamt that I was sitting at a table. I was at a dinner party, turning my fork over in my fingers and listening to them talk, their voices trading moments in time and sometimes a loud chorus of laughter or spike of enthusiasm at some common interest or other punctures the babbling conversation. I’m reminded of when I once saw a television program about frog songs and calls. When we, humans, stand in a forest we hear a cacophony of voices, often tumultuous in volume. When a frog is in the same forest it can only hear the call of its own kind, it is looking for those it knows. One friend turns to me and croaks loudly, in this dream we can all hear what the other is thinking, the entire table, myself included, giggle in unison.
I raise my glass for a sip of water and as I start to take a drink we are transported first to an apartment, then to a garage, and finally to a repurposed factory. All sites of alternative art spaces in the past, present, and near future. We return to the dinner table as I put my water glass back down, I’m left wondering how one comes to find these spaces, how do they transition from spaces with potential into actualized dreams?
Charlotte answers my thought: Just do it! Figure it out and let your resources work with you and not against you.
Mike: Yes, you have to remain steadfast in your determination! You find these places by working with the resources you have and nurturing the organism that is your artist network, find your people and you will find your place.
Bill and Raph in unison: Remember, necessity is the mother of invention. Look around and see what’s available, you can do a lot with a little just by scouring your local recycling center, ReStores, craigslist, to get stuff as cheaply as you can. A lot of it is working as hard as you need to in order to get the job done. That can turn the space that you have available into the space you want it to be.
Joshua: No space is perfect so just pick one. Remember that nothing has to be perfect in the world of DIY, thank God, and it shouldn’t be. Also, it won’t ever be! So go with the flow.
I begin to eat, thinking how difficult and even impossible it is to undertake such a project when so much is dependent upon waiting for opportunities to arise and the unknown future. I start to chew my food.
Charlotte: The not knowing is definitely a roadblock but also you can have no doubt that it will work.
Joshua: Schedule it out! Do a little bit at a time and forget the rest. It’s hard, but you can’t get mad when people don’t have the time to help you, especially because so many of them are your friends.
Bill and Raph: Plus that’s only the beginning, some of the biggest struggles are sourcing materials affordably given the limited resources you have to start, and in an ongoing way, managing the time investment effectively. Each of us has a full-time job, cat(s), a significant other, ongoing art practice, ongoing writing, ongoing research, and side projects from podcasts to art handling to bicycle building to a love of board games. Keeping an extremely tight schedule is very important in order to work well within compressed parameters. It will be rough and you will lose sleep.
Charlotte: Yes definitely, balancing your time is so important and if you’re lucky enough to have a safety net that will provide the comforts needed to allow you to pursue a passion, make use of it. A lot of the process is about recognizing your faults and others strengths.
Mike: When it comes to navigating how you sustain a creative life I think it’s important to think about why you do what you do. You have to position your practice as a political gesture.
Joshua: Yes definitely, trying to attract folks to a project like SALON was difficult, even getting people to submit was a struggle. A common question I got was, “What the hell is this?”. Also I worked full-time via being a student and working at a movie theater, and so it was often weird. Many of the folks involved were busy with school too and of course we were competing with academic institutions and galleries. But I also think that gave folks an opportunity to participate in something less institutional and more reflexive. It allowed for art to be proliferated in a way that gives space for more diverse conversations, voices, and motives to be included.
Bill and Raph: These spaces are where artists have an opportunity to engage with the public, especially emerging artists. I think it’s also a chance for artist-run spaces to provide a platform for other likeminded folks willing to put in the work. They act as exhibition spaces and create networks for solidarity and support. Since they often require so much unpaid labor, they attract visionaries and opportunists alike; sometimes those people are the very same.
I stand up from the table and turn on the radio and “This Must Be The Place” by Talking Heads reverberates out of the speakers. All of us stand and start to dance as David Byrne sings us into motion.
Hi yo I got plenty of time
Hi yo you got light in your eyes
And you’re standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money
Always for love
We all sit back down to return to our meal. I try to balance my spoon on my nose, it falls repeatedly but every so often I succeed even for just a moment. One of the dinner guests demonstrates to me how breathing on the spoon will help it to stay put for a longer period of time. We all suspend our spoons on our noses.
Bill and Raph: On the other hand the impact that an alternative art space can have on its community very much depends on the community. There’s recent research in LA to suggest that contingent and alternative gallery spaces are the vanguard of gentrification, contributing to the dissolution and dispersion of past residents, especially low-income and/or minority residents. In other communities, alternative spaces can showcase the community they are a part of. They can be thriving, participatory and contributing members of their neighborhoods, communities, etc. It’s so situational that no abstraction really does it justice.
Joshua: Ideally, these spaces interact with the local landscape in a different way than the institutions of galleries. These spaces allow for a play with the community and offer it something instead of merely separating themselves off or consuming a locale’s resources. This may not always be the case and it is a difficult interaction to achieve. You have to keep asking, is it actually an alternative to the stagnant white cube or does it enforce a newer model less focused on gentrification?
Charlotte: Some long term goals I have for Stove Works are to give a discount to people living in the residential neighborhood adjacent to our property and even create a micro-loan that those residents can apply for. I’m hoping we can work with the community rather than around it.
Mike: Combating gentrification will always be an uphill struggle. We want to collaborate with local organizations so we are capable of activating the area around us and having a real conversation with the local community.
We return to our meal and I try to make my glass of water sing. The other guests does the same and eventually the table resonates with glow of each glass’s song.
Bill and Raph: Ultimately, we simply love working with artists and their work. We share a great deal of knowledge and interest, while offering each other a great deal of complementary skills. We’ve both learned a huge amount from each other and from the challenges presented along the way.
Joshua: SALON was held together by a desire to form community and make art accessible to those who might not love art. I found joy in that community and the ability to grant other’s work an audience, as well as my own. It was rewarding to be told later on that it was a needed and important part of some people’s experience.
Bill and Raph: Also that moment when a show is actually lit and hung and you see it as you envisioned it. The flaws of the space disappear, the scene is set, and the transformative and weird magic of the gallery is in full effect. As curators and the laborers who hang the work, we always get the pleasure of seeing it first.
Charlotte: Chattanooga is on the cusp of a cultural revolution and is a place that has a willingness to encourage exploration of this level. We need complex and challenging shows and I am looking forward to bringing them to the Southeastern United States.
I turn the radio back on and “Once In A Lifetime” by Talking Heads starts to play. I turn around and our table and chairs have vanished along with our meal. One of the dinner guests starts to dance, this time we all copy them, recreating David Byrne’s dance from the song’s music video.
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
As the song ends, we each swim away, and I wake up.