The aim of this paper is to provide a commentary on the ongoing PhD research work by Iberia Perez Gonzalez entitled, “The Role of Artist-Run Initiatives in the Practice and Discourse of Contemporary Art in Latin America”. This essay looks at the various issues taken up by the researcher and delves into how far she has been successful in approaching her desired objective.
To begin with artist run initiatives, its history goes back to the late nineteenth centuries and continues to this day as platforms for artists beyond the mainstream. As an example, we can look at the New English Art Club formed in 1886, in London, one of whose founding members was John Singer Sargent. This club developed as an alternative platform to share ideas of the impressionist era which were not readily approved of the Academy. Although, there were factions in this club, they were united in their views against the Academy. However, as this club gained mainstream acceptance it slowly came to be regarded as a stepping stone to the academy itself.(Dunlop, 1972) This journey, from the alternative to the mainstream or the periphery to the centre has been a mark of all artist run initiatives ever since. The example that the researcher points out of an artist run initiative, La Panaderia in Mexico also shows this trend. It started out as an alternative space but slowly gravitated towards the mainstream before finally shutting down.
The proliferation of artist run initiatives all around the world followed its emergence in the USA and UK in the 60’s and 70’s. Most artist run initiatives in Europe, America and Canada started as a rebellion against the mainstream ethos of the institutionalized art spaces then. Such initiatives can usually be divided into two groups a) established artists moving away from mainstream art practice and b) emerging artists’ right out of college who are not usually given a chance by main stream art organizations.
In USA in the early 1970s artist run initiatives came up as a response to a void in the art world that was not being fulfilled by the museums or commercial galleries. These emerging alternative spaces were artist-centered rather than object-based or market-based, thus, decentralizing the New York centric contemporary art world and providing opportunities to emerging communities of artists throughout the country. (Hertz, Betti-Sue)
In Canada, the emergence of artist-run centers during the late 1960s and early 1970s occurred as a reaction to the massive influence of American media culture, which overshadowing the Canadian artists had put them in a position subservient to the dominance of a centralized, New York-based art circuit. This situation often forced artists to take matters into their own hands, forming small, overlapping circuits working around precariously funded publications, workshops, and spaces to show their work and gain exposure even on a solely national level. The significance of this phenomenon being that it contributed to the self-projection of the artists themselves. (Faguet, Michele)
If we look at the UK, the increase in the number of artist run initiatives started mainly in the late 80s and early 90s. The general trend at that time was what an author calls “an unpaid group of people, surviving on unemployment benefit and part-time work, using every means possible to produce exhibitions.” They did not in most cases receive funding and the spaces used by them were unsuitable for any other use. Although the spaces were open mostly during weekends they had a strong network with other such spaces which lead to exchange of artists internationally.
In the Latin American countries however the artist run initiatives developed mainly in a politically charged atmosphere. More recently organizations such as RAIN (Rain Artist initiative Network) have collaborated with local institutions trying to respond to the needs of the artists in countries such as Mexico, Brazil & Argentina. Other such approaches are pushing aesthetic spaces into disappearance and are thus encouraging artists to develop practices so that participation and interaction between the artists and the intellectuals in the core of social conflict are promoted. (Kostianovsky, T ;“What is Latin American art”)
Some characteristic similarities can be found between all the alternative initiatives. The internal organizational structure of these groups often changes from a loose collective to a small not-for-profit business model. In general their goal is to democratize and decentralize the contemporary art market. They use their funds to generate other forms of economic support from private foundations, individuals, and fundraising events. Each alternative space develops a unique identity over time. Today, these initiatives have adopted new attitudes towards the concept of alternative, creating hybrid models with not-for-profit and for-profit components.
We have so far, been able to create a general idea about artist run initiatives by an overall discussion on them and looking at major countries where such initiatives have taken root. We will now take a look at the presentation by the researcher and identify and comment on key components from it.
The researcher begins by outlining a general overview of what is meant by an artist run initiative and why and how they were formed and the underlining context behind them. She, by using the term artist run initiative, has tried to define it by taking into account the diverse meanings, from being an artist led organizations to small temporary projects but has only focused here on La Panaderia in Mexico which is an organization. Will the researcher take into account all the diverse connotations of such initiative in the course of her research or will she only concentrate on artist run organizations is not very clear. It might as well be worthwhile to look into all of these types and draw examples from them to make a wholesome assessment.
She mentions at one point that artist run initiatives “seek to operate independently from government’s interference as well as from the demands and banality of the art market”. Here however, a little explanation on what she considers “demands and banalities of the art market” is expected. Moreover, a clarification on why these demands and banalities affect artists so much as to create an alternative domain for themselves is also necessary since she continues to elucidate on the inherent concepts of artist run initiatives.
Continuing on this theme she mentions that there has been a “notorious proliferation of artist-run initiatives at a global scale”. My contention here would be twofold. First, it is not clear why she considers the rise in number of artist run initiatives “notorious”? Secondly, it is also not clear at this point whether the researcher wants to focus on the notoriety of the proliferation or on such initiatives in general. Further down the same paragraph, the researcher mentions peripheral regions of the world where such initiatives have spread. However, the regions have been demarcated into whole chunks such as the Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean along with countries such as Iran, Bangladesh, and New Zealand. It is not clear to this reader that whether whole continents could be so generalized. The term Latin America is also quite debatable as most of the countries in that area are actively trying to create their own unique identity and thus are trying disengage themselves from this generalization. Therefore the question arises whether to consider Latin American artist run initiatives but to focus primarily on Mexico, Argentina and Columbia be a true representation. Similarly Iran, Bangladesh and New Zealand are countries facing their own unique geopolitical conditions and are trying to carve out separate political identities and thus cannot be looked at with the same perspective. As an example, if we consider the Indian subcontinent as a peripheral region, we fail to look at the micro level geopolitics which leads to India as a centre and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan being peripheries. Even in this framework all these peripheral countries are trying to carve out an international presence and get out of India’s shadow. This phenomenon also rubs off on artists and although part of the same artist run organizational framework i.e. (Khoj International Artist’s Association) artist run initiatives in these countries actively try and create separate identities. Further to this argument we believe that it will be worthwhile to look at where the fine line between mainstream and peripheral artist run initiatives exist and how she could classify such orgatisations?
The researcher then continues on to describe her main research interest which lies in her investigating the political potentials inherent in ‘artist-run-initiatives’. She points out that these initiatives give the artists a new way of emancipation in relation to art institutions. However, the general idea behind the creation of such artist run initiatives has also been the change in this relational nature between artist and art institutions and thus how a question of a new way arises is unclear to this reader. Furthermore, it is also not clear if, according to the researcher, such initiatives are free of political ideologies, what political potentials the researcher wants to investigate? If, it is do with the politics of cultural production then a clarification along with an example of how she wishes to do it would have been appropriate.
The researcher then goes on to provide us with the example of La Panaderia which as an artist run initiative had thoroughly influenced the Mexican contemporary art scene and had been an influence on other such initiatives across Latin America providing them with a model to work with. Here she raises the issue previously mentioned of artist run initiatives becoming institutionalized. Given the fact that all human beings have a political consciousness which leads to the development of their own political inclination, in collectives such as these, although the politics can be superficially the same, they can differ at any time giving rise to factionalism and division in group ethos. Further to this, there are several questions that arise while we take a look into the presentation. How many artist run initiatives are being looked into? Does looking into La Panaderia or two three other initiatives suffice for the whole of Latin America? Does the varied political conditions of the different countries in Latin America makes the artist run initiatives different?
On the whole, this is a very interesting topic, and also an area which has been not much researched upon, thus holding potential for plenty of original work. Although there could be several improvements made in the way the topic is being looked at by the researcher, she does very well to identify and investigate an important topic which has not been looked into in this manner. Her thoughts are well deliberated and she has planned her course of research well given a dearth of resource materials in this subject. In conclusion, I would like to mention that the researcher deserves credit for embarking on this hitherto untrodden path and I hope that she is successful in reaching her goal.