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No Soul For Sale: Independents’ Day

Marking the anniversary of a contemporary art museum can be tricky. It requires a delicate balance between past and future, between the writing of a serious, compelling history and the drama of a blockbuster event that proves one still has what it takes to break new ground.

For Tate Modern, an institution that instantly became a landmark in London’s cultural cityscape, the stakes seemed to be even higher when it came to celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

So it was a bit of a surprise when the gallery decided on “No Soul For Sale”—an enormous, bustling “festival of independents” that actually launched with a 2009 event at X Initiative in New York—as its main anniversary program. For it, curators Cecilia Alemani, Maurizio Cattelan and Massimiliano Gioni invited more than 70 independent art spaces, collectives and organizations to take over Tate’s enormous Turbine Hall this past weekend.

The aspirations of this Tate edition of “No Soul for Sale” were (as many noted of the fest’s original New York outing) rather Olympian, claiming to bring together “the most exciting non-profit centres, alternative institutions, artists’ collectives and underground enterprises from around the world” in an “exercise in coexistence.” Indeed, their exhibition spaces were only separated by strips of red electrical tape in a neat checkerboard pattern along the floor of the hall, while a couple of stages were shared for performances, screenings and talks.

Though space on the main floor was tighter, there was still plenty of room for audience participation and collaboration. The New York– and Berlin-based e-flux used their space to install a photocopier where visitors could make their own copies of the organization’s journal, for instance, while down the hallway PSL (Project Space Leeds) created The Drawing Shed, a small cabin covered in blackboard paint that became an outlet for viewers’ expressions in chalk throughout the weekend. Nearby, Leeds artist collective Black Dogs took their invitation to exhibit at the fair as an opportunity to explore their complicated and sometimes fraught relationship with large institutions like the Tate, hosting a discussion, How to Not Sell Your Soul at No Soul for Sale, in a miniature bar complete with foosball table, backgammon and an upright piano.

Western Front, one of the three Vancouver-based invitees (along with Artspeak and Or Gallery) which constituted the fair’s Canadian representatives, took a subtler approach, showcasing videos and catalogues by some of their past exhibitors at a table beneath a kraft-paper reproduction of the building’s famous façade. Staff from the gallery, working on their laptops, answered visitors’ questions and chatted with other ARC representatives, but by Friday afternoon executive director Caitlin Jones was already bracing for a long weekend, wondering how they would battle through jet lag and manage to stay awake until midnight (the extended hours for the fair) over the next two days.

The gesture of a large-scale institution giving over its massive 3,400-square-metre exhibition space to nonprofit groups for three days is a generous, self-reflexive one that seems to acknowledge, however briefly, that many of the artists to show at Tate Modern over the past decade initially found support for their work in the artist-run centres of Kyoto, Tangier and Marfa (among many others). The problem, of course, is that this rare opportunity also carries with it a tremendous amount of pressure. Not only was each space jostling for viewers’ time and patience (increasingly scarce commodities as the crowds grew on Saturday afternoon), but the very premise of the fair–to bring together the “most exciting” and “most innovative independent” art groups–seemed to force many of the exhibitors into the uncomfortable position of proving just how hip, “with-it” or avant-garde they were, especially in comparison to their neighbours.

At its best, this spirit of competition resulted in some playful and remarkably innovative programming. Liverpool’s The Royal Standard, for instance, constructed a multi-step “interactive ideas hub” where hundreds of participants recorded and explained their ideas for the organization, only to have them summarily judged “good” (to resounding applause) or “bad” (cue groaning) and filed on their blog for future use. Istanbul’s PiST, working in a similarly cheeky vein, displayed a plywood seesaw which bobbed between its “dependent” and “independent” ends, seemingly throwing the fair’s assertion of independence into question, while Jeremy Deller’s Local Artist bumper stickers, distributed by New York’s Artists Space, ended up appropriating every available surface, from other artworks to the Tate’s own architecture.

At its worst, however, the struggle for recognition devolved into a competition to see who could be the loudest, showiest or most esoteric, as was the case with the Milan-based Le Dictateur’s aggravating miniature punk concerts, New York’s Not An Alternative’s flashy reconstruction of the front of a foreclosed house and the Paris group Le commissariat’s densely conceptual sculpture, stanchioned off from the crowds and constantly on the verge of collapsing.

At the end of the weekend, it was those projects that took on the broader context of the now-ubiquitous international art fair and biennial that held up best, both physically and thematically. The New Museum-affiliated Rhizome used their space to exhibit a growing pile of empty envelopes, tubes and boxes, sent to Tate and declared to contain “nothing” on their customs forms. The parcels were mailed by participants around the world as part of David Horvitz’s Mail Nothing to the Tate Modern project, which aimed to trace the effects of international shipping infrastructures on the contemporary art world, but also provided wry commentary on the seemingly arbitrary monetary value attached to intangible goods such as works of art. Or Gallery featured another more overtly political take on the effects of globalization with Vancouver-based artist Kristina Lee Podesva’s Brown Globe, a massive, inflatable globe whose flat, uniform mud tone troubled any clear-cut distinctions between North and South, East and West. But the simplest, and most potent, comment on the disparities caused by our global interconnectedness came, rather unexpectedly, from the Reykjavik-based gallery Kling and Bang. Hekla Dögg Jónsdóttir and Sirra Sigrun Sigurdardottir’s Tower of Now, a five-storey sculpture constructed from hundreds of unfurled heat-sensitive cash-register rolls weighted down by Icelandic coins, formed a quiet but persistent anti-monument to the inconsistencies wrought by global markets and global warming; it served as a potent reminder that not all “independence” is achieved by choice.

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