Making it Work / All Ecologies Have Predators

By Maiko Tanaka

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Making it Work

A column on the political economies of discursive events in the contemporary art world.

Anthony Huberman
Be Maladjusted
Lecture & workshop

Co-presented by The Power Plant and TPW R&D, Toronto

07 & 08 March 2013

“What does it mean for arts institutions to be small, withdrawn, repetitive, vulnerable and maladjusted?” At first, I thought the answer might be demonstrated by the workings of any number of Toronto’s artist-run centres. The question evoked a condition common to local artist-run spaces: tongue-in-cheek submission and resistance to bureaucratic demands and financial precarity. The question was also the opening line of a press release for Anthony Huberman’s two-part presentation on the Artist’s Institute, a model for an experimental arts organization located in New York City. Founded in 2010, the Institute purposely takes on this temperamental profile both as a critique of the working conditions found in larger institutions and as a way to offer an alternative.

The first event took place at the Harbourfront’s Brigantine Room as part of the Power Plant’s International Lecture Series, the second at Gallery TPW’s R&D space. Huberman, director of the Artist’s Institute, formerly held positions at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Palais de Tokyo and MoMA PS1. He countered his position to the logic of “conveyor belt” art exhibitions, criticizing the competitive drive that underlies their production, and the efforts to draw larger crowds and grow international recognition. Huberman introduced a different prescription: slow down, take time to look and think and, most importantly, change your behaviour.

The Institute performs this maladjustment by operating according to an open and generative curatorial model, concentrating their research time and resources on exhibiting the work of a single artist at a time, and inviting other artists and thinkers from around the world to respond to the work throughout a six-month season. Recent programming has consisted of, for instance, hanging a photograph by Rosemarie Trockel and inviting people to simply sit and look at it together. They have paid tribute to Jo Baer, Jimmie Durham, Haim Steinbach, and others, creating sensitive conditions of viewing, inviting guests to creatively respond to the works durationally and with others. By extension, the Institute’s website communicates almost nothing about the exhibitions, except, for example, that “today, we should be thinking about Thomas Bayrle” (the current exhibition at press time). Huberman’s type of curator takes on a disposition that says, “I don’t know,” thus cultivating a more vulnerable relationship to the objects being presented instead of posing as an arbiter of specialized knowledge. By writing press releases that poetically respond to the artwork and the artists as a form of tribute (as opposed to the formulaic art PR that explains the work to a general public), the Institute attempts a shift from effective communication to affective invitation.

I imagined many of the artists, writers, students and curators attending the lecture that night thinking, “Now, just what is so maladjusted about that?” Who in the field wouldn’t want to spend more quality time with art and its conditions of presentation? In fact, since it’s no surprise that prioritizing money, power and celebrity tends to generate alienating conditions for viewing and engaging with art, wouldn’t any institution that doesn’t honour the values he proposes appear to be the maladjusted one? Midway through the lecture, Huberman surprisingly let those same institutions he critiques off the hook, admitting that their existence is justified in an art ecology insofar as they have the capacity, capital and scale to present certain artworks that smaller spaces could not support, making his initial critique seem to lose its charge. But if one argues for an alternative to the alienating conditions of working with art, shouldn’t that require a more sustained commitment to thinking more thoroughly through the economic implications?

There was a sense of scepticism growing amongst the audience, too. One attendee asked Huberman about his high profile — not everyone can get artists like Rosemarie Trockel to exhibit, implying that not everybody has the status, connections and resources to step off the belt and build up viable alternatives. I wondered about funding and public reach beyond the logic of the “self-selecting audiences” that Huberman identified as his core public (people who might welcome the vague suggestion to think about Thomas Baryle for the day, or those enticed by the peculiarity of the invitation, dropping in out of curiosity). In general, the audience’s questions seemed to underline the differences between New York City and Toronto, differences that seemed productive in bringing out some of the interesting points and subtle contradictions in Huberman’s mixed position. The audience was evidently intrigued. Buzzing clusters of conversations continued after the talk. Good thing we had the following night to engage a bit further.

As I made my way to TPW the next evening, I wondered how the previous day’s spirit of maladjustment might continue to develop. The event description invited “interested curators, artists and thinkers” to “collectively consider productive misbehaviour for our present and future institutions.” This announcement demonstrated one way of drawing in Toronto’s version of a “self-selecting audience”; not just in the cheeky profile, but in naming the audience specifically as active and critical contributors to developing contemporary art. [1] The way the event was organized reflected another aspect of Huberman’s lecture: finding alternatives to competitive relations between institutions. The Power Plant and TPW leveraged particular strengths and resources by collaborating on Huberman’s visit, which is indicative of a typical working method within Canadian artist-run culture. In her introduction, Julia Paoli of the Power Plant explained the impulse to make the visiting speakers series more productive by opening up an opportunity for extended conversation. TPW curator Kim Simon contextualized the event as a way to reflect on TPW’s own itinerant model of “off-treadmill” exhibition programming through their R&D branded project space.

Like the Artist’s Institute, TPW R&D’s ethos lies in the conviction that “thinking takes time,” making it a particularly fitting venue for this discussion. TPW’s commitment to this approach has been demonstrated through their meticulously constructed discursive programs, including the This is Not a Blog event, started back in 2008. In one series, Simon chose to create semi-public conditions for viewing the controversial works of Artur Zmijewski over multiple working sessions, each moderated by different local thinkers. Those self-selecting audience members who got a spot at the event had the chance to view and discuss the films in a carefully crafted discursive environment. TPW’s temporary manifestation as R&D further articulates this process as doing research in public, which might resemble the vulnerability of the Institute’s “I don’t know” approach. For example, the series No Looking After the Internet opens up questions surrounding the politics of viewing, a critical process that normally takes place behind the scenes. By taking on the “I don’t know,” they get to know who cares to know.

Following the “I don’t know” disposition, Huberman introduced another concept: the “I Can’t, in the key of I Care.” He borrows this from art critic Jan Verwoert’s 2007 essay “Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform.” [2] In it Verwoert calls on creative workers to resist the temptation to constantly perform by saying, “I Can’t,” interrupting the demand to produce for the sake of it. Avoiding the nihilism of “I Can’t” as just a version of punk rock “fuck you,” it should rather be done for the sake of what one cares for, an obligation to something that is urgent and unconditional. He illustrates this with the anecdote of an artist who at the end of the day is exhausted, and is faced with the needs of her child —she encounters the “I Can.” In this case, it’s a question of welfare in the face of another. Huberman’s use of  “I Can’t, in the key of I Care” sums up both the Institute’s curatorial attitude as well as his desire to pay critical tribute and care for the artworks and artists. But isn’t there a difference between care for a person and an artwork’s welfare? Didn’t the “I Care” for an artwork or for an institutional job lend to the exhaustion in the first place?

A local artist attending the session pointed out that artist-run centres were historically founded on an “I Care” mandate. He cited organizations like SAVAC — the South Asian Visual Arts Centre — (which doesn’t carry as much influence or visibility as the Artist’s Institute), who are in a bind attending to regimes of legitimation in both economic terms and public profile, with minimal staff who indeed care very much. When the Artist’s Institute acts maladjustedly, it is protected from becoming too vulnerable because it is already legitimized, whereas other kinds of alternative spaces may not be in a position to take such risks. Conversely, if artist-run centres care too much about the legitimizing regimes of the bureaucracy of publically funded art, they also risk the danger of producing for the sake of it and never getting off the treadmill.

Near the end of the session it became clear that the Institute funds its activities through the support of Hunter College of the City University of New York, and is inextricably connected to a curatorial course at the school. This was something never made explicit in the talk the night before. I learned later that the Institute had in fact been conceived of at a graduate seminar Huberman was teaching, in which he assigned his curatorial students to be “research fellows” on the specific artists of his choice. [3] Hence the semestered shows, the pride in intellectual rigor and the flexible style of teaching that is promoted on the website of Hunter College: “We’re translating the learning- and research-based nature of an educational institution into an associative and open curatorial model.” [4] Assigning students to do institutional labour as part of their studies is nothing new—it’s part and parcel of the neoliberal flexibilization of university education, and it is pervasive in many industries beyond the arts.

I myself have taken part in these infrastructures, as both student and institutional supervisor, and there are many different fronts of agitation and resistance for intervening in this inherently exploitative activity (which includes practices such as the outsourcing of course credit through unpaid internships, and the precarization of low-waged, adjunct instructors). However, in his call to change our behaviours inside the institutions we work in, Huberman reveals a significant blind spot. The Institute’s experimental model, meshing creative curatorial research with educational structures, echoes what art critic and historian Sven Lütticken observes is a consistent aspect of recent experimental art spaces (known in Europe as “new institutional spaces”): These are “places of great hybridity… however, ultimately they represent a cheaper, more flexible, post-Fordist way of doing things.” [5] In this case, I can’t help but wonder if the pressure to perform that Huberman calls out against is instead imposed on his students, who, assuming voluntary participation in the class, don’t have many options but to perform. It recalled another question posed for Huberman the night before, asking if he might give an emerging artist who is fresh out of school and with no connection or visibility the same advice to be withdrawn. He paused with genuine consideration and then joked that his advice should not be taken.

Although there is something of value in what Huberman proposes with the Artist’s Institute, it doesn’t go far enough to include taboo topics of the contemporary art world, like labour relations and funding. He’s committed to the care of creating generative conditions for artworks, artists and his self-selecting community, but he’s apparently not committed to changing the alienating machinery of conveyor-belt exhibitions. Huberman also doesn’t do justice to all those still running, nor does he argue well enough as to why producing alternatives should be the responsibility primarily of small, experimental arts organizations. Furthermore, when Huberman undermines his own critique by subscribing to the ambivalent ecology of big and small art institutions, the status quo remains for the most part unchallenged. We can’t forget that all ecologies have predators.

Borrowing from the writing of London-based curator and artist Janna Graham, I want to think about how we could imagine other paths through the alienating experiences of the bureaucratization and commercialization of engagements with art. Beyond the valorisation of individual authorship and celebrity, Graham proposes the notion of “thinking with conditions, practices that are inseparable from action and from a commitment to living and working otherwise.” [6] Here, solidarity around being maladjusted would need to be more specific to the multiple and complex relations of labour within our art institutions and ideally extend further beyond the conditions of art workers.

Near the beginning of his lecture on the first night, Huberman played a video of a frequently cited speech made by Martin Luther King to help illustrate why he encourages us to be maladjusted. Given at Western Michigan University in 1963, King announces his pride in being maladjusted, that it would be preposterous for him to consider adjusting himself to any number of systemic injustices in society such as racism, segregation and economic conditions that reproduce the extreme wealth of a few and the impoverishment of many. The example appeared as a rather awkward appropriation of a hyper-politicized speech. But if we follow King’s logic, it reveals a fundamental flaw in Huberman’s argument: For the Artist’s Institute, the work is to sidestep mandates adjusted to market logic. But King was not refusing to adjust himself to mandates, he was fighting to overturn their underlying logic. In this sense, the Artist’s Institute might not be maladjusted enough.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution Huberman makes to not-for-profit artist-run culture is offering a framework that emphasizes spending more time on experimenting playfully and extensively with the means of engagement, rather than spending too much time working on the means of legitimization. Honouring the time and space to think is important, but to think also with material and economic conditions and relations in mind could be all the more powerful. About a month after the event, it was announced that Huberman had been appointed the director of San Francisco’s CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. If it’s fair to expect a commitment to the ideas he presented to us, it will be interesting to see where he goes with his approach in a larger institution.

NOTES:

[1] According to a report commissioned by the Canada Council for the Arts 2011 on the visual arts ecology in Canada, the majority of artist-run centres include the critical advancement of contemporary art as part of their mandate. Marilyn Burgess and Maria de Rosa, The Distinct Role of Artist-Run Centres in the Canadian Visual Arts Ecology, MDR Burgess Consultants (13 October 2011; online).

[2] Originally published in Dot Dot Dot 15 (Winter 2007).

[3]An interesting article bringing to light some of the nuances in the pedagogical structures and relationships with the Hunter College students can be found in Anthony Elms and Anthony Huberman, “Stop.Stop.Stop.Stop. ‘… time is always time/And place is …’” Artpapers (2011), 24–29.

[4] See “The Artist’s Institute,” Hunter College website.

[5] Sven Lütticken, “Once More on Publicness: A Postscript to Secret Publicity,” Fillip 12 (Fall 2010; online).

[6] Janna Graham, “Between a Pedagogical Turn and a Hard Place,” in Curating and the Educational Turn, eds. Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson (Amsterdam: Open Editions, 2010).

Maiko Tanaka collaborates on curatorial projects at the intersection of art, pedagogy, cultural politics and collective action. Since 2010 she has co-curated the ongoing research, exhibition and touring project “The Grand Domestic Revolution (GDR),” with Casco in Utrecht. Prior to that, Tanaka organized the international conference exhibition, “Extra-curricular: Between Art & Pedagogy,” as part of her curatorial residency at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery. She is an active member of the Read-in collective, participates in the Unlearning project group and serves on the Programming Committee and Board of Gendai Gallery. Tanaka is a candidate in the Masters in Visual Studies at the University of Toronto.

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