It strikes me that the tale of artist-run culture in Canada, at least the visual arts chapter, is something of a myth and also something of a lamentation. In brief: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, young artists from across the country answered the absence of available gallery and museum spaces in the form of parallel galleries, or artist-run centres, which were operated by artists, for artists. That system, which flourished then quickly floundered under organizational and ideological strains, was buoyed—some might even argue, saved—by government largesse and the recently minted Canada Council for the Arts. With that support, early spaces like Intermedia and the Western Front in Vancouver; A Space, Art Metropole and the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication in Toronto; Véhicule in Montreal; and Eyelevel Gallery in Halifax, to name just a few, got the opportunity to re-determine art-world boundaries from artists’ perspectives.
Yet freedom, it seems, comes with a price. As artist-run centres spread across the country over the next four and a half decades, so too did an artist-run bureaucracy of boards of directors, budgets and grant-application survival. Despite the best intentions of many dedicated artists-cum-curators-cum-administrators, the ability of artist-run centres to be free radicals, as it were, has been persistently overwhelmed by status-quo practicalities. There is still a thriving network of more than 100 artist-run centres nationwide by last count. But as the art world at large moves from being a scene to a system to an industry dominated by commercial and corporate interests (while once-generous government grants tighten up or disappear) the question of the artist-run centre has become in many ways an exercise in existential rhetoric.
Here is where the debate on artist-run centres in Canada usually resides, looping and circling around a frustrated auto-critique of what was and what is, a collective commiseration and even, at worst, resignation. Some recent artist-run initiatives have bucked the trend—Gareth Moore and Jacob Gleeson’s corner-store project space St. George Marsh; Kristina Lee Podesva’s colourschool at UBC; the Don Blanche residency run by Christine Swintak and Don Miller; Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell’s garage-based Feminist Art Gallery; and many more that sit just below the radar—but overall the mood has long been less than optimistic.
From the opening session of Institutions By Artists, the latest national summit of artist-run centre professionals, held in Vancouver last weekend, however, you knew that this time the story was going to be different. Co-organized by the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres, the Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference and, most importantly, I think, Fillip magazine, the sold-out convention assembled an eclectic assortment of Canadian and international artists, curators and academics to shrug off the stranglehold of that past and collaboratively determine exactly what artist-run culture is, and very often what it isn’t, in the 21st century.
From panel discussions and debates to a special address by the reigning figurehead (and current shaman) of artist-led culture in Canada, AA Bronson, to a screening of 2084, a film by Anton Vidokle and Pelin Tan commissioned for the conference that dreams a possible future for the artist-run centre, the weekend ranged across “para-institutional” models and new-radical terms of engagement. With more than 60 presenters spread across the three-day conference, there were difficult choices to be made between one panel and another. But even if it’s impossible here to cover everything that was said and done, the entire proceedings were livestreamed and most are available in an online archive—another nod to the organizational feat that Kristina Lee Podesva (who chaired the conference) and her collaborators managed to pull off.
In one of two opening sessions on Friday morning titled “Institutional Time: Facts & Fictions,” UK-based German artist Eva Weinmayr, Vox director Marie-Josée Jean with the anonymous art group Walter Benjamin, and Payam Sharifi from the collective Slavs and Tatars offered varied takes on the disappearance of the “artist” from the artist-run equation. Weinmayr’s theatrical recap (complete with a performance read by IBA volunteers planted in the audience) of her investigations into the once well-known British art duo Art in Ruins, offered a somewhat cautionary tale of artists who refused to be consumed by the system, and paradoxically, perhaps, whose presence lingered here as an exemplar of the ideological dropout. Jean introduced a member of the mysterious Benjamin group, whose work in reproducing and re-presenting copies of iconic modernist painting in what it calls meta-museums reveals the radical potential for shifting or fabricating the contexts of historical meaning. Similarly, Sharifi reviewed Slavs and Tatars’ current installation Beyonsense at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a project that takes its basis in a linked study of the Menil Collection in Houston, Sufism and a now-defunct New York mosque designed by Dan Flavin and commissioned by the Menil family. The result sets up a complex if telling confusion between irrational mysticism and art world constructs that, as Sharifi put it, “battles the institution by indulging in it.”
Saturday morning focused on “States & Markets.” In one session, presentations by Romanian artist Matei Bejenaru, who traced the history of the Periferic Biennal from 1997 to 2006 in Iasi, Romania, New York–based Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who spoke about her work Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version) in the 2009 Havana Biennial, and New York artist and writer Gregory Sholette, who covered the work of collectives Political Art Documentation/Distribution and REPOhistory, offered clear evidence of the inherent risks but fruitful consequences for artists working without institutional structures or markets for art, and under volatile political and economic conditions. All pointed to the necessity of infiltration, then withdrawal, a fluid position that reacts to need and the necessity, as Bruguera said, “to be as real as possible and to function in other places outside of art.”
That observation by Bruguera was echoed, with some caution, in the other morning session which began with a collaborative study of cultural piracy by Weinmayr and London, UK–based artist Andrea Francke, from illegally produced and sometimes amended pirated books in Peru to the Chinese trade in knock-off smartphones (which, as Francke explained, have ironically become a research and development resource for companies like Nokia). Brazilian curator and critic Gabriel Menotti detailed the successes and pitfalls of Cine Falcatrua, a collective that began by staging free pop-up film screenings and developed (or perhaps, as Menotti hinted, devolved) into a government-funded network of independent film producers and festivals. German artist Dirk Fleischmann traced his journey from financially strapped painter to shirt designer and carbon-trading entrepreneur. And American artist Sean Dockray of media and culture organization Telic Arts Exchange and AAAARG.ORG revised the current understanding of institutional superstructures, documenting the industrial monumentality of a recently constructed Google mainframe hub in the northern reaches of Scandinavia.
Indeed, as the conference went on, it became increasingly clear just how much pressure was being applied to the very notion of an institution, including those conceived, designed and operated by artists, but not limited to them. And, as the brief rundown of just a few of the sessions above indicates, the focus of the majority of the presentations steered well clear of the expected predicament of artist-run culture. The usual suspects did surface from time to time: an art scene in crisis, dependency on state apparatus, the troubled dichotomy of being both inside and outside existing artist-run paradigms. But the atmosphere that dominated was one of collective empowerment, or as Toronto artist Deirdre Logue nailed it in the first night’s debate, “embodiment.”
What ultimately seemed to underlie this eclectic program of various and varied proposals for extra-institutional engagement from artists working across disciplines and around the world was a radical departure from what we, in Canada, think of as artist-run culture. That’s no small consideration, it must be noted, for a conference organized and paid for in large part by a provincial and a national artist-run centre organization. There was a sense of power in the finite nature of many of the projects presented that, by comparison, made the long-term historical ideal of Canadian artist-run centres, and in turn Canadian artist-run culture, seem very complacent and out of date.
Do we need to dispose of artist-run centres altogether? Like the answer to both of the evening debates at the conference—“Is there space for art outside the of market and the state?” and “Should artists professionalize?”—the answer is both yes and no. If this conference did anything, it charged artist-run centres and the artists, curators and administrators who run them to at the very least press the boundaries of what they do, how they do it and who they do it for—to push back against the encroachment of corporate, neo-liberal bureaucracy, to acknowledge history but not to be so beholden to it, and maybe even to, in the extreme case, let it end and start something completely different. The artist-run centre is dead; long live the artist-run centre.