In Following Amie by Maria Miranda and Amie Anderson, Miranda followed Anderson to record fragments from her daily life. The impetus for this exercise was to document the multiple activities that artists and ARI members undertake in their everyday life. A routine that is characterised by a day job (or increasingly, a mix of casual jobs), a neurotic effort to sustain one’s practice and in some instances, running an artist run space.
Following Amie is a collaboration that extends Miranda’s research on the cultural economy of ARIs. Indeed, Maria Miranda, author of Unsitely Aesthetics: uncertain practices in contemporary art, has been interviewing, observing and engaging with Australian ARIs for several years now. In this artwork, she employs the act of following as a methodology to produce knowledge on her collaborator’s labour. Amie Anderson provides a good measure for what it means to be an artist and a board member given that she was co-director (along with Nico Reddaway) of the now defunct artist run space The Food Court. Anderson’s own practice also deals with social boundaries and systems of knowledge, which makes her perceptive to the nuances of what it means to work as an artist in Australia. For instance, her most recent exhibition at C3 Gallery, Hand Conversations, meditated on the role that she plays as an Arts mentor and facilitator in one of her day jobs at the non-profit disability organization Yoorolla. In Following Amie, she uses her own life and her involvement in The Food Court as a sample to deepen this line of enquiry in collaboration with Maria Miranda. The Food Court was an artist run space that presented unique challenges, as its premises were a disused food court in the Docklands that were handed over to Anderson and Nico Reddaway as part of an effort to reactivate the area. Unfortunately, The Food Court ceased to exist once this process of revivification was completed.
Following Amie is a video shot with an iPhone and a selfie stick by Maria Miranda as she literally followed Amie Anderson to document her everyday life. The first day of filming begins with a shot of Anderson commuting on the tram with a morning coffee in her hand. We can hear an exchange between the two artists which sets the tone for the rest of the video: it’s an early winter morning and Amie found it hard to get out of bed. This recognizable moment articulates a shared experience of Melbourne, where winter mornings would be better spent under the doona. The sound of the video increases this sense of commonality, as it was also captured utilising an iPhone and thus carries the aural texture of an everyday occurrence. Following Amie continues with a scene of the artist in one of her day jobs at the Art Circle at Yoorolla, an “initiative that creates opportunities for artists with or without a disability to work together”. This is a non-profit space where her labour translates into a living income, even though in essence the activities that she performs there are not so different from those of The Food Court. Perhaps to extend this commentary, we see Amie driving the artists from Art Circle to The Food Court, where Anderson workshops a series of projects with her group of Yoorolla artists.
Even though cinematic and televisual texts often represent the artist as a disconnected, tortured and glamorous figure, Following Amie provides a more accurate gaze: being an artist is about embracing an excess of labour.
I. Our Path
There are two things about artist run spaces in Melbourne that bewilder me: the first is the structure of their governance, or rather how well structured they appear to be, and the second is the chaotic nature of their management. The reasons for this paradoxical condition are manifold and usually tied to the devaluation of artist labour. This text deals with this topic, but it eschews idealistic notions of artist labour as a form of resistance and embraces the notion of worthlessness instead. We will depart from the idea that an arts practice is generally futile, unpaid and usually limited to a microscopic audience that is hyper judgemental. However, worthlessness does not feature here as part of a negative value system – meaning that this condition is not encoded as ‘bad’. As far as this paper is concerned, life is meaningless and labour is just a way to expend energy regardless of one’s profession or vocation. There is a self-conscious cynicism that permeates this text, which seeks to stay true to what artists often express when night falls and opening drinks devolve into an ill advised therapy session. Artist run spaces exhibit what artists do to endure the passage of life: art. And even though some ARIs unfortunately tend to pander to trends and institutions, they remain key to the circulation of art as a whole – particularly art that is lacking validation.
II. Labour and artists
If one were to search for a figure that best represents what it means to make art, Sisyphus would quickly emerge as an appropriate icon. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is a fallen king who is punished by the gods and condemned to bring a large rock to the top of a hill only to see it roll down again for eternity. Albert Camus employs this myth to make a statement about the futility of human existence in the Myth of Sisyphus (1942). For Camus, all human labour shares this sense of absurdity and meaninglessness. However, what turns Sisyphus’s inexhaustible consignment into a torturous act is his ability to recognise futility. Camus puts forth that when Sisyphus sees the stone falling down the hill, he experiences a moment of consciousness in which he becomes aware of his doom. Without this instance of recognition, the act of carrying the same stone for a lifetime would be indistinguishable from other forms of labour.
The artist’s studio is certainly reminiscent of Sisyphus’s task, as the end of a show marks the beginning of the next – both of which are likely to be met with silence and quickly forgotten by an indifferent public. The period that takes place ‘in between’ shows is comparable to Sisyphus’s moment of consciousness, as it is a space of intense reflection in which colleagues, friends and oneself are often found swirling in a downward spiral of self-doubt, drunkenness, self-loathing, guilt and regret. The logic of this form of labour is, in my view, a bottomless abyss, a black hole that sucks and disintegrates anything that attempts to redeem the loss that takes place in the shadowy space of an artist studio. Some commentators on artist labour may appeal to Marxist theory to narrativize it with a sense of resistance and redemption, but this strikes me as insufficient. As artists are at the forefront of neoliberalism, feeding the casualization of the workforce and gentrifying every suburb they inhabit like vermin. It appears more accurate to state that to be an artist, one must either be crazy, stupid or nihilistic.
Still, one may ask how artist labor interacts with the market economy. The answer is simple: badly. The combination of those two words (‘artist’ and ‘economy’) are a tenebrous spell, as the former is continually expelled by the latter in a curse of financial hardship. A sharp take on this topic is provided by Hito Steyerl in her article Politics of Art, where she writes that contemporary art serves the function of aestheticizing the financial holes and social disasters that characterize capitalism. It also operates as a signifier of power that grants prestige to the countries that host its most excessive manifestations, such as biennales and international art fairs. Furthermore, it is sustained by volunteer labor (manure) that fertilizes the soil that breeds institutional staff and (dark) art stars. In other words, the field of contemporary art seems to be structured to ensure that the everyday artist is crushed down to a state of total insignificance and subjugated to the richer and more privileged. ARIs promise a remedy to this scenario, as they are platforms that multiply the role of the artist to form a circle jerk, where the function of the artist expands to also encompass that of the staff, audience, critic, curator or even collector. An artist run initiative ideally provides a more accessible or ‘experimental’ opportunity to exhibit. This is open to debate, however, as their programming is identified as much by what they exclude as to what they include. Nevertheless, it remains a marvel to see how these spaces endure.
One may even say that artist run spaces will exhibitions into reality in a currency of nothingness. In the words of New York critic Jerry Saltz, “this is an all-volunteer army”. Even though the picture of a young clueless artist managing a fatal non-business (that must report taxes, hire public liability insurance and pay rent regardless) has become somewhat banal in Melbourne, it remains a remarkable enterprise. More peculiar is the way in which they tend to aspire to institutionalisation in a manner that is essentially entrepreneurial and often signalled by the assemblage of a board that becomes increasingly complex as the space ages. For instance, a wise ARI that has been running for over 10 years lists on their website a board with a Gallery Coordinator, Chair, Secretary, Treasurer, Vice Chair, Social Media Coordinator, Public Program Coordinator, Curator, Vice Treasurer, Media and Marketing coordinator, Volunteer Coordinator, Development Coordinator and Chair.
This is not unlike the organigram of a business administration, except that there is something very mystifying about ARIs: usually only about 3 people are active. The rest of the board members are ceaselessly evaporating and becoming increasingly elusive. Therefore, the governance of an ARI is usually chaotic. This is rather appropriate considering that the original purpose of these organizations is to sustain dissent and unofficial culture (even though a lot of them end up reinforcing institutional canons by succumbing to trends). In other terms, to facilitate disorder.
This ARI model is so pervasive in Melbourne, and perhaps in Australia, that one rarely considers that an artist run space might function otherwise. However, other spaces seem to operate outside this structure to varying degrees of success. In 2015, for instance, I met a now defunct artist run space by the name of TRAMA Centro located in Guadalajara, Mexico. This space was like an uncanny double of many ARIs in Melbourne as it had an exhibition space, artist studios, and a micro library. However, it had no opening hours, proposal call outs or a calendar of exhibitions. Shows lasted one day and they happened spontaneously – merging the model of a gallery with a robust overhead, such as Bus Projects, and more ad hoc initiatives like apartment shows. They also hosted a parasitical ARI called ‘Interior 2.1’ (which is still active at a different address) in a manner reminiscent of DUDSPACE (also defunct) at Kings ARI. The board at TRAMA Centro was minimal considering that it had been running for over 5 years, consisting of a Director, two Coordinators and two Designers. Unfortunately, the space perished that same year.
To make sense of ARIs degree of institutionalisation among this bedlam one may refer to the notion of pandemonium. The etymology of the word originates in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), where a chaotic council convenes in the capital city of Hell known as Pandemonium. Indeed, even though it is a word usually employed to connote a general sense of chaos, it was originally coined by Milton to describe the capital of Hell and it translates from Greek as “all the demons”. This is where Satan and his legion of devils meet to plot against God’s goodness and pervert humanity. A demonic council evokes intense disarray but Milton portrays a government body that remains functional. Even though it would be naive to assign an inverse entity to an ARI in the same way that Hell opposes Heaven, both ARIs and Hell share managements that are typified by a form of working disorder. In addition, their raison d'être is to disturb officialdom – whether that is capitalist production, the norms of contemporary art or God’s values.
The hardships of running an artist run space also resonate with John Milton’s vision of Hell as a territory where pain is continuous and overwhelmingly present (inflicted by never ending flames to be precise). For this reason, ARIs tend to exhaust their board members after 2 years of precarious intensity, a time in which they usually resign. This is where a well-structured board ensures the survival of the space, as it allows a successful ‘passing over’.
Seventh Gallery, for instance, is now coming of age. Like some of its seemingly immortal cousins – Kings ARI, Trocadero Art Space, and BLINDSIDE ARI – it has been running for over a decade. In fact, according to the publication Making Space: ARIs in Victoria, it was established in 2000 by John Butt (now Director at C3) and Heidi George: meaning that it is close to turning 20. Its name is such because it was the seventh gallery to open on Gertrude Street. Today, it is the only ARI on Gertrude – which stands as a testament to the impermanence of artist run spaces. One can conclude then, that in this deadly environment, a well-structured ARI ensures a higher survival rate. A proper board may also secure its capacity to mutate into an independent institution if required or even desired.
Revisiting the history of this gallery evidences the broader expansions, diversions and transitions that have occurred in the space since its inception. These obfuscated paths evoke the image of a corpse with decayed skin (think of ARI walls) that becomes reanimated with the presence of uncanny entities. We see this thing dragging its feet erratically, because its destination is continually remapped by every new Director that joins the board. While trying to figure out the mind of this ghoul, I remember a late night in my Seventh studio (I resided there from 2014-2015) when I heard violent noises, dreadful screams and police sirens near. This moment was my greatest insight into the life of artist run spaces, as I felt I was experiencing the event from within Seventh’s organism like a homunculus. This space, and most ARIs, are in a state of extreme activity indeed. Yet, they manage to retain a sense of slowness and marginality appropriate for the exhibition of art. Perhaps it is true that art, artists and the spaces that they occupy simply belong to the shadowy forces of chaos.