ARTIST-RUN CULTURE = UTOPIA?

brokencity_civic-space

Review by Amber Berson

Homework II: Long Forms / Short Utopias
Conference hosted by Broken City Lab
Art Gallery of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario
8­­–10 November 2013

The Homework II: Long Forms / Short Utopias conference was hosted by Broken City Lab at the Art Gallery of Windsor. The primary goal of the conference was to discuss the subject of utopic dreaming within artist-run culture as manifested through collaboration, friendship and long-term social engagement. As hosts, Broken City Lab invited the participants and arranged for an accompanying exhibit to be held at the CIVIC Space gallery on the subject of debt. They also organized a follow-up documentation project, which will collect reflections on the conference (including photos and tweets) as a means of continuing the discussions that emerged over the three days of Homework II.

When one of the keynote speakers, Steve Lambert—who is best known for making international news in 2008 after publishing a fake “special edition” of the New York Times announcing the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with other good news—began his talk, he called our attention to the words of Eduardo Galeano, the celebrated Uruguayan author: “Utopia lies at the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it. What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance.” [1]

Utopia literally means no place. If it is not a place, or at least a place that currently exists, then what is it? We can attempt to unpack the term as the future perfect, our imagined dream lives, or the possibility of the ideal or perfect society. Utopian-Marxist theorist Ernst Bloch suggests that art not only carries a utopian desire but also provides an account of what is missing in reaching said utopia. [2] If art has the potential to be both the question—in this case, what do we want from the future?—and the answer, then it would be a short jump in logic to assume that a system built by artists to support their individual and collective needs (such as the artist-run centre) would at least attempt to be utopic in nature. Lambert’s own work, itself a sort of utopian dream project, neither explicitly critiques nor offers a possible blueprint for advancing towards utopia. Rather, it presents a space to imagine a new and separate reality, with the underlying implication that this would be better than the present. What Lambert offers us is a space for utopian dreaming, as well as a set of questions to begin pondering, as we set out to imagine our futures as emancipatory spaces for flourishing cultures.

Erik Olin Wright’s book Envisioning Real Utopias is a crucial text for understanding the social, historical and political context of capitalism as an economic system, and the role of liberalism in maintaining capitalism as the dominant economic system in today’s world. Wright, an American scholar who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a Marxist sociologist specializing in alternatives to capitalism. This is especially obvious in Envisioning Real Utopias, where he presents eleven arguments against capitalism, systematically breaking each down, and then sets up a series of plausible alternatives to the capitalist system. Wright demonstrates that while the issues created, perpetrated or aggravated by capitalism can easily be transferred onto other economic systems, unlike capitalism, systems such as socialism offer us options capitalism can’t. Instead of putting forth a series of solutions, Wright argues that we can work with the capitalist exoskeleton to find alternatives that are at once utopian and practical, which point us beyond capitalism.

Transferring Wright’s theories onto artist-run culture, we can begin to investigate the current (utopian) tactics that artist-run centres use in the face of neoliberal funding (read contemporary capitalism). I believe that artist-run centres are utopian models of an earlier, more socialist vision of artist-run centres in Canada that is out of sync with the vision promulgated by the current administration’s increasingly neoliberal administration of culture. Shifts in funding—from earlier, more socialist models to a more conservative one—directly result in changes to administrative policy and, consequently, in programming. When the system that supports artist-run centres becomes more capitalist in nature, artist-run centres themselves follow suit. Wright proposes options for avoiding this, and for finding emancipatory alternatives to the existing model.

Homework II brought to mind a 2011 article written by Tatiana Mellema for C Magazine titled “New Experiments in Communal Living.” [3] Mellema’s article describes a new crop of artist-led residencies in Canada, all working “to bring focus to our contemporary social and economic conditions that are unique from the histories that earlier communes criticized.” [4] Mellema points out that these new artist-initiated activities actually run in opposition to artist-run centres and grant programs, and are motivated by sharing amongst artists due to a “widespread opinion in Canada today that artist-run centres have since become part of the mainstream art world, functioning on a bureaucratic model of selection and producing exhibitions almost identical to those of museums.” [5] For Mellema, this speaks to the loss of the social aspects of artist-run culture. This is particularly interesting because it posits these new artist-initiated activities as specifically utopic and places artist-run centres in the sphere of failed utopias.

Historically the roots of artist-run culture position it as a direct response to the failure of the museum and gallery system to respond to the needs of the artist. It is artist-directed culture that is responsible for instituting a minimum fee schedule, for speaking about the specific barriers faced by women artists in relation to labour and childcare, for building experimental exhibition platforms and cross-country networks, for fighting for subsidies, and for building a myriad of other types of support systems, addressing needs ranging from affordable housing to healthcare. In developing answers within the artist-run centre community, the desire to create perfect solutions (or at the very least, working solutions) to social problems is especially visible. Yet, like any other enterprise, artist-run culture is susceptible to institutionalization. In the process, it can fall into the trap of being a culture that supports some and not others. The micro-utopias that it generates have often proved to be short-lived.

At Homework II the discussions that emerged between attendees mostly centred on the roles of social practice artwork and community engagement in developing possible (utopian) futures. The artists and invited speakers (as well as the audience) engaged in discussions on the difference between activists who become artists and activists who take up art as a tool for social change. While subtle, the difference in the origin of someone’s decision to get involved in rebuilding a community can result in radically different outcomes. In the group discussions, there was a real fear of “parachuting into” community, attempting to fix problems. It seemed that in cases where artists were looking to design solutions and become activists they often failed and that it would be easier to start with a desire for community engagement and problem solving. It seems that artist-run culture has in some way failed to achieve the utopic project it set out to accomplish and that we have work to do in respect to the sociopolitical issues within our own communities. Perhaps the problem, then, as Lambert and others spoke to, is no longer knowing where our collective utopia resides. In using art to help people define their own ideas of utopia, we can collectively engage in the social work required to effect real change. We must first envision “real” utopias to arrive at them. Part of the systemic problem that can result in failed utopias is the disconnect between short-term projects and long-term goals, which is partially affected by the funding crisis within artist-run centres.

Which leads back to the question of what utopia is. What can we imagine as an alternative to the reality we are currently engaged with? Conferences like Homework IIoffer the space to pose questions about our imagined futures, but they rarely operate over a long enough period of time to lay the foundations that would allow these hopes to become lived realities. At its most interesting and provocative, Homework II suggested that friendship and solidarity were the true methods of survival in working towards long-term change. Essentially, the backbone of artist-initiated culture is the friendships and allies we nurture in the process of building the types of spaces we need for our own personal growth. In short, in order to create realities out of our utopic dreams, we search for like-minded individuals to create with. Homework II: Long Forms / Short Utopias reminded us that in order to foster change, art workers must focus on the social structures that support them as much as they do on the art itself.

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Notes
[1] “Eduardo Galeano Quotes,” Goodreads Inc., (accessed 21 December 2013; online).
[2] Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays. Studies in contemporary German social thought. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988), 109.
[3] Tatiana Mellema, “New Experiments in Communal Living,” C Magazine, no. 112 (Winter 2011/12): 34–42.
[4] Ibid., 34.
[5] Ibid., 37.

Amber Berson’s current research focuses on artist-run culture and she is working on a PhD in Art History at Queen’s University. She works in and with artist-run centres and most recently curated TrailMix (2014) and *~._.:*jEnNiFeR X JeNniFeR*:.~(2013) at Eastern Bloc; the Annual Art Administrator’s Relay Race (2013); the Wild Bush Residency (2012–ongoing) in Val-David, Quebec, and Amden, Switzerland; The Magpies Nest (2009) at the Wenger Homestead in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and In Your Footsteps (2008) at the VAV Gallery. She is on the editorial committee of .dpi, a feminist journal of digital art and culture, and recently organized the Montreal edition of the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon.

Image credit Broken City Lab.

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