Wild Building: After the Alternative Space
The second iteration of Hand in Glove, one of the few national convenings centered around artist-led projects, was a condensed moment of both exploration and introspection. Over four days in October, 2013, several hundred arts organizers gathered in New Orleans to talk about ways of being and working, paths to sustainability for artist-centered activity, and the future of independent art organizing.
As a field of practice, the ways of working highlighted at the conference are notoriously slippery: socially-engaged artists, for-profit social enterprises and consultancies, mid-sized nonprofits and long-standing institutions, theater collectives and more gathered with a close-enough conviviality united by a posture and point of view, if not a model. The weekend functioned like a meetup group for the mapless: When you work long enough on the margins, you need to be reminded of your collectivity. When you exist with few resources, you need to see others who have persisted long enough to enter some other state of sustained practice. The arcs of artist-led projects are often short-lived and undocumented. Gatherings are rare, amplifying Hand in Glove’s importance as a simple gesture towards defining a moment in the evolution of artist-led organizing in the 21st century.
This hazy phrasing – multiple hyphens, multiple strategies, multiple models – defined the discussions at the conference, as panelists and participants grasped at clarity. Personal anecdote was perhaps the primary form, as it is the means we have at providing definition of an evolving target. We know how we each work and hope that these narratives catch. For me, the focal point came in the first panel, Ways of Being, as Art of the Rural‘s Matthew Fluharty stated simply: “The field doesn’t understand itself.” We are in a moment in which artist-centered practices are continually expanding, both in numbers and in influence, as more people feel disconnected from the structures currently there to support creative practice, economic realities force new solutions, and the artistic and political desire for agency continue to intersect. Whether or not it dominates discourse or receives the same level of attention as biennials, fairs, and institutional exhibitions, this work occupies a central role in artistic practice and dissemination, arguably making up the largest percentage of actual artistic activity. For every museum, there are multiple apartment galleries circulating art and ideas with an alternate intensity. For every art fair, there are two artist-run spaces that can’t pay rent.
Yet, despite this widespread influence, we often don’t understand our own work, our aspirations, our strategies, our ideal effects. We recognize peers quickly. We dispute everything from the terms ‘alternative’ and ‘artist-run’ to the necessity of nonprofits versus the value of non-nonprofits, yet implicitly understand when a project is ‘artist-centered.’ It doesn’t need a definition if you are doing it right. Yet ‘artist-centered’ as a form does not come with a corresponding field guide. There is no documented model. We are left with an ethic only. How else can a for-profit consultancy and consensus-based collective come to stand in for the same way of working?
Also in the Ways of Being panel, Skyped-in speaker Regine Basha identified her position as being an “interdependent curator,” a phrase which subsequently filtered into the discourse of the remaining conference. Interdependence does not denote similarity as much as a complicated relationship between multiple forms. Placed at odds with terms like independent and alternative, interdependence starts to speak to an essential quality of this work. Practices that define this way of working are fragile and contingent, forced to organize out of necessity and sustained through connection in networks, convenings, and conversations. Perhaps it is because this work is so often reactionary and developed out of a lack of other options that plans unfold ahead of reflection. A certain shambling quality is perhaps necessary. Everything feels untested, even if it is well tread territory. This independence, this alternative, comes to represent the underlying limits of our work.
Eve Fowler of Artist Curated Projects stated in the Strategies of Sustainability panel, we “deal with the frustration of systems not working by doing our own thing.” Likewise, Josh Rios of Austin-based collective OK Mountain stated that in founding the collective they weren’t responding to a community but “conjuring a community.” Both of these projects, and many more represented at Hand in Glove, conjure a community, but the conversation seems to begin to unravel when we arrive at the question – the strategy – of sustainability. In Ben Davis’s book Art and Class (highlighted in our recent BOOK CLUB discussion), he notes that a full third of nonprofits are operating at a deficit, even while the number of nonprofits grew 45% over the last decade. How many more that were never incorporated went under this year/this month/this week? We do our own thing to a detriment. We do too many things, have too many hyphens in our titles – this can be taken personally or organizationally and still apply to most arts organizers I know.
Reflecting on her work with Threewalls and InCUBATE, Abigail Satinsky noted that as many nonprofits (and non-nonprofits) experiment with new modes of economic sustainability, at some point we hit a wall and start to circle back to commercial models. Perhaps this is the source of so many artist-run spaces’ underlying desire towards ephemerality. Strategies of sustainability always seem to lead us to the broken systems we attempt to avoid. We assume that only institutions last and all ideas that persist end up as institutions. But there is a web; these projects persist based on underlying networks, as all artists do. The challenge is conjuring a community that works.
Perhaps we need to start at an earlier point.
We are interested in a historical narrative that prefigures our work. We are interested in lifespans: how long should spaces last? How are we to build on spaces and collective knowledge in perpetuity? A lot of energy is spent inventing models that already exist. Is it amnesia? Arrogance? Attempted independence? Ignored interdependence? Because we don’t have a canon we can interpret and understand? Models are there: Vox Populi and Southern Exposure, Franklin Furnace and AS220, Art Rite and Aspen. Whatever we start, we aren’t starting from nothing. What in these projects are valuable? What is the narrative of sustainability of those that have lasted, evolved without stagnating, grown without embracing broken systems?
Or perhaps we need to start from an alternate point altogether.
Wild building is a practice in which families decamp to a marginal location just outside of a city and build a several storied structure, roughing in basic systems and using modular designs that can be expanded on over time. They build in fields between urban and rural, along the border of each, that aren’t regulated by any one entity. The structures are built of concrete and steel by the founding family members so that succeeding generations of the family move in as they mature, finishing their own floor of the home in the same way and building another level above them. Wild builders siphon off resources from the grid, build what they can on their own, and ultimately create a new community in the margins between others.
The metaphor is obvious – we are building without recognizing that someone already built us a floor. A community precedes us that we can live within in accordance with our values and priorities. Ignoring that, we build and rebuild and move and recycle, flushed with possibility and frustrated by failure. There is an energy of pioneering, of being the first, but there is power in being a second story that allows for a third and fourth, acknowledging that platforms move into the future and past at the same time, often in the same place. Enlarged encampments are perhaps the goal when the system has so thoroughly failed most of us, so if you build, build structures that can be filled later – assume a future you don’t see yet.
We come together in forums such as Hand in Glove in part to explore sustainability, to look for a spark of someone who has cracked the code of staying small and artist-centric, while paying the rent, artists and ourselves. In short, we hold a lingering hope to create something lasting, all the while aware that these projects typically don’t last past our own efforts. Working in precarious systems leads many of us to assume self-defeat. We don’t build a structure for others to live in; they are temporary encampments that we carry on our backs, taken up again each time we move on. As Charles Esche stated in an interview with Chto Delat, Living in pre-period conditions, “We need to build organizations slowly, even though they may collapse, and try to sustain each other.” Sustainability is not about one project lasting, but a way of working and being spreading.
Artist-centered practice as an ethic is more powerful if we understand it, what capacities it carries for us and others. In a time of expansion in its models and methods, its influence on the broader art world, its lack of definition can become crippling. After a cycle of closure, the model is abandoned for a time, losing coherence and connection with its history and its own reasons for existing. Wild building works because there is a belief that the marginal outpost is better than the city itself; or, alternately, that it is also a city, a system, that to sustain itself must extend its life into the future by building a floor for others. The model is always unfinished, but it can expand, sustaining each other in a time of collapse.