Ours, and the Hands that Hold Us: Playing by the Rules: Alternative Thinking/Alternative Spaces
review by Suzanne Morrissette
Discussing alternative ideas and spaces seems just as much an exercise in locating the norm, as it is a matter of articulating possible alternatives. Ranging from articles that consider contemporary alternative spaces in art, to the normalization of alternative thinking, Playing by the Rules questions whether spaces can remain “alternative “over the long term. The collection contains 13 essays from artists, historians, curators, writers, poets, critics, philosophers, theoreticians, and professors, including a preface by Stephen Rand, an introduction by Heather Kouris, and essays by Pablo Helguera, Robert Atkins, Biljana Ciric, René Block, Irene Tsatsos, Raphael Rubenstein, Marina Grizinic, Julie Ault, Renaud Ego, Boris Groys, Naeem Mohaiemen, Winslow Burleson, and Sofija Grandakovska. Together the essays develop a theoretical and practical space for rethinking and assessing the continued relevance of alternative spaces.
Contributor Pablo Helguera calls contemporary alternative space into question in his article “Alternative Time and Instant Audience (The Public Program as an Alternative Space).” Helguera considers the significance of temporal and social contexts, arguing that it is the responsibility of the alternative space to respond appropriately to a changing world. Other contributors reconsider the limitations of having physical spaces. Julie Ault reflects on this in her essay “Of Several Minds Over Time.” Most alternative spaces are found housed within a fixed structure, and as Ault points out, “financial stability takes centre stage when salaries and rent are past due. Under these conditions it is difficult to be spontaneous or debate essential questions about philosophy or purpose.” Internet- based projects have in recent years become one alternative to this condition. Satellite locations offer another. Along these lines, temporary or nomadic exhibitions, according to contributor Raphael Rubenstein, can also provide a model for an alternative to the alternative space that can be more reflexive and better manage its own lifespan and project goals.
There are other elements to consider as well, like how structural, moral and monetary relationships impact on the ways in which alternative spaces operate. Various alliances and interdependencies can be useful sites for exchange, but they can also create conflict. Curator Biljana Ciric reminds her reader, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Alternatively, sticking to your guns, setting new priorities, modifying them, or changing them altogether, can be the kind of matching of mandate to practice that is achieved through a heightened awareness of social context, never allowing oneself to get too comfortable in one spot.
On the ground, it is apparent that things are changing, and that hybrid spaces are blurring boundaries where perhaps they had previously been more articulated. Spaces are not necessarily so separate. Partnerships, experimental projects, and the critical texts that many artist-run centres here in Canada now deliver, either as an integral or supplementary components of their programming, can attest to this idea. Reflexivity is the mechanism that drives alternative spaces, and when affected correspondingly by its social environment it can express those changes effectively through programming.
These actions are not as homogenous as their shared terminologies might suggest on the surface. They are informed by what is permissible on a local, national and global scale, just as the reception of this book will hold different applications depending on where or how it is accessed. As this text proves, the task is to consider many alternatives at once, entangling them in order to reinvent possibilities for exchange. Discussions about alternative practices provide a shared space for each contributor, ensuring a continuum (however tessellated) of viable critical dialogue that consciously returns to the site of unstable critical exchange as the surrounding social conditions change, endlessly.
Suzanne Morrissette is an artist, writer, and curator who divides her time between Winnipeg, Manitoba and Toronto, Ontario. She is in her final year of her MFA in Criticism and Curatorial Practices at the OCAD University.