Book Review: Institutions by Artists: Volume Two

Divya Raj

Published on 5.10.2023

Folio E: Institutions by Artists Volume 2

Edited by Jeff Khonsary and Antonia Pinter
Published by Fillip, 2021

Institutions by Artists: Volume Two is an anthology of essays, case studies, interviews, and debates that delve into the world of independent artist-run initiatives—primarily in North America, but also in other varied locations, including Scotland and Trinidad & Tobago. A follow-up to the first volume released in parallel with the 2012 Institutions by Artists convention in Vancouver, Canada, this collection presents wide-ranging perspectives, ideas, critiques, and examples—both historical and contemporary—of artists’ negotiations with the conditions that regulate the production, distribution, and consumption of art.

As artists and other practitioners in the field address key questions on alternative approaches to organizing in the arts, we are offered a plethora of critical insights, arguments, and recommendations. The two questions that were up for debate during the 2012 convention (transcripts of which appear in the collection) loom large on the horizon of most artists reflecting on their practice: “Is there space for art outside the market and the state?” and “Should artists professionalize?” These are large and challenging questions to answer and, as is fully to be expected, there isn’t a tidy consensus that emerges. Instead, the essays provoke reflection on our part—especially when considering artist movements from many decades ago, such as the London Regionalists or the Western Front in Canada from the 60s and 70s—on the frame of reference that contemporary initiatives fall back on, and how the need to escape the confines of institutionalized systems has been consistently experienced across the ages.

As most texts in the anthology are rooted in one specific collective or geographical location—city, state, or country—rich glimpses are offered into the historical and social contexts of that region or community. This helps us fully appreciate the role of art in people’s lives at the local and global level and reflect on the forces driving the establishment of independent initiatives and the circumstances that boost or hinder such alternative modes of coming together.

For instance, in ‘No More than a Backyard in a Small Island’, Claire Tancons’ interview with Christopher Cozier, the founder of Alice Yard—an artist collective morphed into a nonprofit organization in Trinidad & Tobago—we learn of the “institutional deficits in the arts in Trinidad” because of the mercantile-driven local community in this oil-rich state. Cozier describes how the local art market supports traditional art forms that haven’t necessarily evolved with the times, while ignoring or sidelining contemporary and more experimental art practices. In another essay, ‘Institutions of Regionalism: Artist Collectivism in London, Ontario’ by Christopher Regimbal, we get a peek into how the ideology of regionalism developed in this part of Canada to address and subvert the ‘provincialism problem’—the notion that art and artists from non-urban regions were somehow more provincial than those from say, New York, or other hegemonic cultural centers. Artists in London embraced their provincialism, so to speak, shifting the perspective of the tag being an insult to being a marker of their collectivistic spirit. The essay reveals how they were among the early artist groups in Canada to self-organize initiatives such as magazines, cooperative galleries, and a film distribution collective, among others.

Another factor that makes the anthology a thoroughly engaging read is the diversity of voices and narratives—a personal memoir-style piece by Julia Bryan-Wilson coexists with a thoroughly researched academic essay by Sarah Lowndes; an impassioned manifesto on artists’ rights by Tania Bruguera finds its place alongside a descriptive essay on the establishment of a data center in Sweden by Sean Dockery, to highlight but a few. Bryan-Wilson’s essay ’Implicated: Feminist Art Histories and Affective Pasts’ speaks of her involvement with feminist and queer alternative media production, turning the spotlight on the everyday connections forged between female content creators—their personal networks and their struggles in the endeavor to reach audiences not normally the target of many cultural creations. Sarah Lowndes’ deceptively light-hearted title ‘Learning to Get Along with People We Don’t Like’ conceals, in fact, a detailed academic essay on the philosophies underpinning the practice of DIY initiatives, in general, and certain artist-run organizations in Glasgow, in particular. The title harkens to sociologist Richard Sennet’s proposition that the continued success of artist-initiated projects will lie in identifying and applying “methods of negotiating differences through empathy”, in other words, learning to get along with people we don’t like.

Tania Bruguera explicates, in the form of a detailed list, her ‘Manifesto on Artists’ Rights’ in terms of respecting, promoting, and safeguarding the freedom of artistic expression. She squarely lays the responsibility of protecting art and artists on the government, reminding those in positions of power that they must “stop fearing ideas” and not presume that they can “define what art is”. Yet another offbeat inclusion in the anthology is Sean Dockray’s ‘A Note on Digital Infrastructure. The essay initially presents a seemingly tenuous connection between its core topic (the physicality and role of one of Facebook’s data centers in Sweden) and independent art initiatives, but eventually leads you to consider what this data-dependent ‘fourth paradigm’ in science and technology could mean for art and culture. Dockray’s insights into AI and digital infrastructure, from the point of view of an artist, stem from his abiding interest in the politics of technology and of access; his own initiatives such as The Public School and AAAARG.ORG speak of his commitment to open access to knowledge and resources on the internet for artists, researchers, and the public in general.

The value of compiling these multiple case studies is also perceived when one begins to recognize the patterns in the kinds of challenges faced by many of these artist-led initiatives. From being misunderstood or resented at the very local level, to dealing with underfunding and other financial challenges, or having to dilute or modify one’s original intention to survive, the inception and sustenance of these projects is often fraught with uncertainty. But it is from this shadowy space that bold experiments are orchestrated, and intentions crystallize into ideologies. In articulating these, the founders of each artist-led initiative featured here define (or reject) the label of “alternative” in different ways; the common thread is of seeking freedom from conformity and responding to local needs and gaps.

Ken Becker, for one, in his essay ‘Not just some Canadian Hippie Bullshit’ lauds the ability of alternative artist-run centers to remain in the “evolving present” and stay fully immersed in the everyday reality of living, breathing, and creating art, without being tied to the judgment of both the process and the final product. Jesi Khadivi, in ‘Artmoreorless’ analyzes the work of Asco, a Chicano art collective from the 1970s and 80s; their disruptive, body-centric street performance art, that sought visibility for a non-stereotypical representation of the Chicano identity, literally embodied the term ‘alternative’. On a different note, Christopher Cozier, mentioned earlier, speaks of Alice Yard as being a “critical space”, rather than an alternative one. His initiative, he argues, is alternative only insofar as offering a space to “access forgotten aspects of their living past”, the concept of a yard being a traditional Caribbean one of communal sharing.

Collectivism and community, in general, are broad themes that emerge across the anthology. As Christopher Regimbal traces the evolution of Regionalism in London, Ontario, he emphasizes that it was the spirit of collectivism animating the artists of London that led to their art movements becoming transformative spaces. He calls the early days of this “reordering of Canada’s cultural ecology in the 1970s” a “grassroots phenomenon […] as artists came up against rigid institutional structures that could not adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the visual arts”. Likewise, Sarah Lowndes, in ‘Learning to Get Along with People We Don’t Like’, expounds on the significance of community; following her in-depth exploration of the whys and wherefores of self-organization, she presents her argument that artists needn’t necessarily professionalize, but must engage with larger power structures to influence the change toward more social cooperation and collectivism, and less exploitation of workers, both in service and creative economies.

The debates presented at the end of the anthology offer us the most valuable insights into this, often-ill-defined, universe of contemporary artist-run activity; as multilayered viewpoints and counterpoints are exchanged, we are privy to many of the real concerns that artists, curators, and critics grapple with. The debate “Is There Space for Art Outside the Market and the State?” throws light on the somewhat murky nexus between culture and capital, while “Should Artists Professionalize?” presents the merits and demerits of imposing structure that is then subject to controls and regulations. Reaching a consensus on how ‘professionalization’ can be defined is tricky in itself—if it means that spaces become more professional, accountable, and ethical, a panelist argues, it must certainly be encouraged; on the other side of the divide, if it refers to a capitalist, corporative model and not self-discipline, as often happens, it becomes undesirable. Strong cases are made by both the aye- and nay-sayers: professionalization could make space for underrepresented communities, argue those in favor; those against feel that it often creates a niche for artists, an ‘otherness’ which we need to divest ourselves of. The difference between professionalism (doing one’s work) and professionalization (going beyond to mimic the structure of the world in which one is active) is repeatedly emphasized, which provokes reflection on how we personally perceive this distinction in the realm of art.

The anthology closes with the piece ‘Imperfect Compliance: A Trajectory of Transformation’, where Dana Claxton and Tania Willard subvert a typical essay format to communicate gleaned insights and ideas from, and present a summary of, the Institutions by Artists conference, using a report format with headings and subheadings such as ‘Minutes’, ‘Maintenance Reports’, and ‘Troubleshooting’. Their closing recommendation is a fitting way to draw together the various threads explored in the collection: as they put it, if institutions, i.e., logical, hierarchical organizations, are the ‘body’ and intuition is the ‘spirit’ that can alter the state of organizational consciousness, then it is a combination of the two that can lead to inspiration. It is the transformative potential of this inspiration that all artist-led institutions strive to harness—and Institutions by Artists: Volume Two effectively showcases the diverse paths that artists take on this journey.

Divya Raj is an educator in the language arts space. She is also a freelance editor and writer, with a keen interest in literature and different art forms like dance, photography and cinema.