“Alternative” Art Spaces Essay

Originally published in Green Lantern Press’ Phonebook July 2007

Why Not Call It Infrastructure? : What Are Spaces and What Can They Become?

by Daniel Tucker

Space is a resource, plain and simple. We all need it sometimes and in most contexts it is contested who and for what it will be used. In contemporary art and cultural production it is generally one element needed to facilitate community development and building (space for gathering). It can also be a site of production and distribution of cultural work and products (space for making/showing/sharing). As this PHONEBOOK demonstrates, space is a resource now more than ever. Groups and individuals are constantly adapting and inventing in order to accommodate their new space needs. Below you will find a few questions and challenges that I have identified as facing this current constellation of space makers/inhibitors/initiators/users.

Challenges/Questions pt.1

In the era of real estate speculation (1), these kinds of spaces for art could be just a pit stop on the way to a more profitable usage. Is there a way that our spaces (and our often invisible and volunteer labor that sustain these spaces) can be critical about their role in neighborhood/urban transformation and also challenge real estate developers and local governments who knowingly put us at the frontlines of well planned long-term urban renewal processes? (2)

In the era of hyper mobility, these kinds of spaces for art could just be a flashing moment of youthful tinkering on a passageway to the next destination. The university system, the culture industry, and the service sector – these large industries of today are the economies that many artists are directly wrapped up in. They often urge people to move around a lot, to avoid being rooted, and to imagine community through a lens, which is about affinity and shared interest rather than geography. We can live anywhere at anytime. We can pick up and go freely. This can feel liberating at times. This dynamic can also present challenges for the creation of local culture, which needs to be cultivated and fostered over time. It needs to build upon itself (institutionalize a kind of memory) that helps others to know what has happened in the past, in order to carefully and critically forge a path for the future. So, how can we acknowledge our mobility and yet still find ways of creating dynamic and flexible institutions that can outlive our phases, fads, fashions and passing interests?

In the era where cultural capital has the ability to really make something (dollars) out of nothing (buzz/hype/cred), how can these kinds of spaces for art be more than a stepping-stone on to what people often dismiss as selling out (which can sometimes emotionally sometimes feel like abandonment)? Not that we shouldn’t get paid and take care of ourselves and our families, but if these spaces really are just a stepping stone for individuals who are ladder climbing out of sight, then why should community events form around their private endeavors/enterprise? How can we be honest within our communities that doing something “independent/alternative/DIY” does not imply any inherent commitment to any particular politics, place, art, or community? How can we achieve greater honesty, transparency and intentionality in our organizations and affiliations?

In an era of lots of crap and information overload combined with municipalities and private developers all over the world swooning the “creative class” to revitalize their shitty economies – how can these kinds of spaces be more critical in their ambitions, more cooperative with one another and less redundant? To be more specific, cities are now in an era of generally liking or tolerating artists. This means they like, tolerating and sometimes encouraging their habitation and proliferation by sponsoring festivals and promoting arts districts. This means that people might be in a position where it becomes easier, if only for a short time, to open these kinds of spaces for art – because of their value added function in the local economy. This might mean that these kinds of spaces for art will proliferate but might still operate on stretched budgets and limited resources and essentially compete with each other. This means more than likely that some of them will close. How can we recognize that sometimes, even though people say its okay and welcome our presence, our spaces and efforts are redundant and that our resources would be better spent making the actually existing spaces for culture more critical in their relationship to art and the world around them, and more stable?

And in a context in which the overwhelming logic (3) of capital dictates our social relations, our subjectivity and our entire environment, are we just kidding ourselves to think that somehow by calling these kinds of spaces for art “independent/alternative/DIY” (and because we don’t sell anything or the things we do sell are made by hand) that it/we is/are somehow possibly to be outside of capitalism…are we really being honest and thorough in our assessment of what our spaces are and what they can become?

Challenges/Questions pt.2

It cannot be called infrastructure if it is not a coordinated system. In the case of spaces, it needs to be a cooperative system – a functional network. The idea of infrastructure of spaces was initially brought to my attention when I read the early-mid 1990s guidebook “Book Your Own Fucking Life” in the local anarchist infoshop in Louisville Kentucky where I grew up. The thick booklet provided a state-by-state and city-by-city guide to spaces for mostly punk culture, started by the magazine Maximum RockNRoll in 1992 (4).

More recently, in an article published by the LA based critical art resource Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, the organizer and curator Nato Thompson wrote about the need for more intentionally organized “Infrastructures of Resonance” that would network spaces, projects and people. He wrote:

“What a real infrastructure could do is provide a cohesive, real world system to assist radical projects. It could allow some autonomy from the ever so common problem of interpreting work in the mixed field of power. This could be as simple as venues circulating exhibitions, writers providing critical analysis of contemporary radical aesthetics and communities participating in radical politics for social justice. It is something that is desperately needed and would have real material consequences.” (5)

In 2005, when I started a print/web publication and organization dedicating to researching and networking the arts/education/activist practices in the city of Chicago (areachicago.org) with the Stockyard Institute and an advisory group of 15 amazing local cultural organizers, one of our first projects was to create an irregular lecture series called “The Infrastructure Series.” These programs would come to investigate a wide range of “self-organized infrastructures”, from the kinds that Nato Thompson described in his article and as the presenter in our inaugural lecture, to exploring networks of “hacklabs” in southern Europe that provide communications support to social movements, Community Land Trusts in the Bay Area that provide long term affordable housing that removes land from the speculative market, local urban agriculture networks and proposals for city wide food cooperatives, and meetings of local online event calendar makers to discuss sharing resources and producing shared calendars to coordinate all the critical cultural events in the city. Each of these lectures has helped us answer or see more clearly different challenges and possibilities of self-organized Infrastructure that can support and nourish ideas and projects that are close to people’s hearts or are generally identified as being integral and important to the quality of peoples lives. (6)

What would the questions then, be for an emergent network of independent, small and marginal non-profit, casual and experimental cultural venues in the US? Your guess is as good as mine, and we certainly will have to develop the criteria together. We’ll have to avoid simply seeing an infrastructure as an email list serv, cross promotion efforts, phonebooks, or other symbolic associations alone. We’ll have to imagine that a functional infrastructure will require challenging cooperation, clarity of individual and collective purpose for existence, and a commitment about what timeline, scale and goals can be reasonably shared across difference of geography, politics, aesthetics, desire and ambition.

Notes:

(1) When particularly urban land is one of the primary sites of investment, when the displacement of peoples because of economic restructuring of geographic areas (almost always called “gentrification”) and provides particular challenges to cultural producers because so much of the perceived transformation is about the changing culture of an area – despite the underlying and deeper challenge occurring almost entirely at the class level.

(2) With full knowledge of our need for cheap space with flexible usage. With full knowledge based on years of studies and anecdotal evidence that artists with their different usage of time and space, with their fashion and cultural capital, with their decorative aesthetics and need for community that is not based on conventional class/race/geographic boundaries – that artists can help transform the culture and economy of a neighborhood simply by existing there.

(3) Some fragmented examples of that logic: The entrepreneurial spirit of self promotion, the speculative potential of our spaces existence as a piece of real estate, the competitive process of outdoing each other or avoiding cooperation, the labor power that it takes to maintain space and its subsidies through people’s “real jobs”, the labor power it takes to create the world around our spaces and our art and the simple fact of exploitation on all levels of the food chain from bike messengers, food servers, day laborers, to freelancers all having a precarious status which is necessary for their industries to function.

(4) Now resurrected on the website http://www.byofl.org

(5) http://journalofaestheticsandprotest.org/3/thompson.htm

(6) See the Infrastructure Series blog on areachicago.org for additional details and reflections on these significant examples of Infrastructure.

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