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Feeling Failure: On the Creative Destruction of Artlaab


From the launch of 'I’m sorry I can’t make it' (2017), Artlaab, UWA. Photographer: Graham Mathwin. Courtesy Brent Harrison and Artlaab.

Artlaab was a University of Western Australia (UWA) School of Design student-run gallery in the Nedlands Masonic Hall. For many of us, Artlaab was the site of early experiments in curation, installation, studio practice and performance. As a past facilitator of Artlaab, I have written this essay to question how its institutional conditions led to its evitable closure and erasure, and to explore the myriad messy feelings one can have in the face of new limitations and failure.

Looking back at something that has failed is often met with a wide spectrum of reticent feelings: from pleasant memories of humorous and awkward exchanges, a nostalgic celebration of what we managed to pull off, to a bitter reminder of the time spent and lost. This is a familiar sensation to many, particularly to those who can retrospectively turn back to an art space now closed, finished and terminated. ‘Art space’ is, of course, a functionally ambiguous term to point to a location once occupied for the sake of making art happen—housing it, producing and engaging with it. While there are many forms of occupation, each having its own political and emotionally embodied history, the contractual agreement of tenancy is one familiar to many art spaces, and it is tenancy that introduces some concrete measures into the functional ambiguity of an art-oriented occupation. A tenancy agreement is a mutual obligation, with each party (occupant, realty, owner, etc.) being obliged to certain commitments, whether they be financial, legal, production-based or otherwise. Broadly speaking, an art space that is arbitrated by a tenancy agreement can become a product of these obligations, drawn between mutually informing tensions like ‘success,’ ‘output,’ ‘activation,’ ‘community engagement’ and so on. Assessment of these obligations is a heady business in itself—for instance, the use of key performance indicators (KPIs) statistically model and project the success and survivability of a business or other form of occupancy. Of course, an art space or any other form of art-oriented occupation interacts with its obligations in a multitude of forms and attitudes. But given the bureaucratic nature of managing tenancy, it is unsurprising that many tend to experience that bitter, near vehement, distaste when looking back at an art space that has closed, particularly if its closure was moderated by a bureaucratic system haunting a tenancy agreement and its tenants alike.

Art spaces do not exist in a vacuum, despite the different forms and levels of representation and visibility that a space enjoys. Terry Smith, borrowing from sociologist Tony Bennett, employs the term ‘visual arts exhibitory complex’ (VAEC) to assemble the various institutions, collections, collectors, galleries, collectives and individual artists who make up the primary expanse of visual art operations in any location. This is not to say that such expanse is ‘primary’ due to some kind of justified importance or value; rather, it is this expanse that is anchored into the upper end of visibility and establishment. A VAEC is a primary system that, as Smith puts it, ‘depends for its creative and artistic vitality on quasi-institutional, alternative spaces of all kinds: kunsthallen, contemporary art spaces, artist-run initiatives.’1 This division between a primary expanse of activity undercut by an alternative secondary strata is a familiar mode. In a similarly familiar way, Smith positivises the secondary as the contingent and vital activity feeding forward into the primary expanse.

The fold of Smith’s argument is that, despite the positive framing that can be given between primary and secondary expanses within a VAEC, the infrastructural activity of the secondary suffers when it happens within neoliberally and conservatively governed society:

Mid-scale and alternative exhibitionary venues have been obliged to divert even more of their energies into grant-seeking and reporting to increasingly unresponsive patrons who seem intent on throwing them into the open market, thus compromising their role of incubators of innovation for the entire system.^2

As such, secondary or alternative art space infrastructure and its facilitators must inevitably engage the structurally bureaucratic and ideologically neoliberal haunt, yielding perpetually diminishing returns. This engagement happens and is endured on many levels (personal, organisational, communal, etc.), and can often be read directly from an occupant’s first document: the tenancy agreement. However, is the measure of persistence and endurance the only code that can value the life of an art space? Perhaps the reductive division that Smith models for VAECs—that is, between primary and secondary expanses—is unsatisfying for those who are looking back at what has failed. Liam Gillick, writing about art writing publications (arguably also art spaces), argues that models like the VAEC

cast a veil over the true complexity of the actions that surround and underscore art-like behaviour [...] we sense that there is a degree of polarisation, but we also sense there is a strange flow of something more confusing than that.

This strange or ‘critical’ flow exists within a complex matrix of signification, embodiment, politics and friendship, often being expressed ‘in smaller asides—little gestures, little notes, little addenda, little footnotes.’4 As such, it is difficult to locate and positivise this secondary strata in a reductive feed-forward model. How can we represent the temporary moments and feelings embedded in the history of a failed art space: its critical flow rather than its infrastructural veneer? For instance, we can frustratingly point to the neoliberal ideology and bureaucratic structure that comes down harder on less represented and resourced art spaces. But in doing so, we may be forgetting certain qualities of our failure. For instance, we forget, to use Lauren Berlant’s term, the ‘cruel optimism’ we felt at the beginning of a space. Cruel optimism is the feeling of ‘something ineloquently promising, a something that reveals, at the same time, a trenchant nothing.’5 Attending to the history of our cruel optimism lets us understand the present bitter feelings we have about a failed art space with a more complex grasp than what is presented in models such as Smith’s primary and secondary division. Even using a term like ‘neoliberalism’ posits

a singularity so radical that, if persons are not fully sovereign, they are nonetheless caught up in navigating and reconstruing the world that cannot fully saturate them. This dialectical description does not describe well the messy dynamics of attachment, self- continuity and the reproduction of life that are the material scenes of living on in the present, and this is where conceptualizing affectivity works illuminatingly.6

Our messy bitter feelings about a failure like a closed art space make way for a complex and valuable understanding of what it is to participate in neoliberal and bureaucratic institutions beyond what strictly dualistic models like Smith’s may provide. It is with this template that failure can be learnt from and celebrated; not through a sense of hope that future endeavours will be legitimated through visibility from established art institutions and artists, but through a more attached and affective revelling in our failure and its resistance of establishment, packaging and market. Is it so strange to remember the critical flow and cruel optimism, the perhaps naïve but defiantly irregular history and event that an art space can embody and perpetuate?

In 2018, the Nedlands Masonic Hall, owned by the University of Western Australia (UWA) since 1997, underwent significant renovation and institutional restructuring. The building is now occupied by UWA IQX, an ‘an innovation, co-working and event space to help grow Western Australian small-to-medium- sized enterprises.’7 The media releases surrounding this new occupation were littered with copy reminiscent of many neoliberal business ventures—quotes from the UWA news release include ‘staying ahead of competitors,’ ‘providing access to cutting-edge research, global networks’ and ‘the heart of the biggest discoveries, the newest ideas.’^8 Aside from its fashioning, it appears that UWA IQX is basically a collection of conference venues and IQX member working spaces, oriented towards a recent catchword of UWA’s marketing—innovation. It can be read as an expression of what Jamie Peck, Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore refer to as ‘actually existing neoliberalism,’ which is a critical effort to differentiate between the general concept of neoliberalism, and its concrete expressions. One way to identify ‘actually existing neoliberalism’ is through its ‘strong discourse’ or signifying strategies, which often have ‘generative and constitutive effects.’9 These function to normalise the given expression, while also signalling ‘the creep of policymaking contagion and the colonisation of commonsense understandings.’^10 As such, to identify neoliberalism in concrete situations, Peck et al. argue that we must deal with the ‘dialectics of creative destruction’:

On the one hand, the reactionary moment of neoliberalisation entails the (partial) destruction or dissolution of extant institutional arrangements and social compromises through market-oriented reform initiatives; on the other hand, its proactive face involves the (tendential) formation of new regulatory infrastructures and norms for market-oriented development and capital-centric rule.11

In other words, neoliberalism is marked by a process of creative destruction which at once dismantles and closes an occupation — usually justified by words like ‘renewal’—and produces seemingly novel infrastructures that take the place of the removed occupant and appear to go beyond their activity with evidenced ‘innovation’. Creatively destructive initiatives appease the bureaucratic haunt more so than other institutions that had occupied a space with a contrary ideological and productive bent.

It is at the hands of creative destruction that art spaces often fail, and this was exactly the case with UWA IQX and Artlaab, a student-run gallery space that inhabited the shopfront area of the Masonic Hall. Prior to its closure, Artlaab had been the subject of several closed-door discussions on how the gallery needed to be ‘more active,’ that it was ‘under-performing’ in its current arrangement. After it was closed, there was plenty of bureaucratic circularity over Artlaab’s outcome, most of which was dealt with by its last facilitator, Graham Mathwin. Aside from the significant gallery-making efforts, Mathwin had facilitated several events in the space, including the student organised curatorial series ‘Untitled’, curated by Liam Shanahan and featuring the work of several local artists; and Brent Harrison and Lisa Liebetrau’s collaborative installation I’m sorry I can’t make it, which featured ‘a staged exhibition opening with a series of catered food platters on plinths and makeshift bar,’ ironically prescient of the eventual and imminent fate of the gallery.12 There was an ongoing call-out, performance works and reading events occurring in the space. These efforts were undertaken with little to no information regarding the oncoming occupation and renovation of the Masonic Hall.

As of the writing of this article, the shopfront space that Artlaab occupied has remained completely vacant, only occasionally displaying for-lease signage. It is almost as if, per the process of creative destruction, vacancy gains more purchase with its availability to the market than it does being occupied by an art space that is contrary to the neoliberal structuring dominant in the University. Despite this, our bitter and reticent feelings regarding the closure of Artlaab, underscored by a more nuanced understanding of cruel optimisms and variegated critical flows, is actually a space of learning and celebration. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, quite unlike the infrastructural division that Smith posits above, celebrates ‘projects and utterances that resist summary [...] everything needs to be apprehended at the time that it is said or done, and not outside of its historical and cultural context.’13 Her curation of dOCUMENTA (13) was a practice of this mentality— resisting definition in exchange for ceaseless indefinite terms, resisting the compression of time in exchange for the activity of ‘transforming temporalities into space.’14 Artlaab and its dismissal by the bureaucratic reprogramming of the University as a failure was, in a sense, a practice in celebrating the resistance that is failure—resisting complicity in exchange for learning about what an art space can be and how it is valued by neoliberal institutions. Despite our bitterness, we can resist certain aspects of failure in exchange for a celebration of our lowness: to borrow from Jack Halberstam, the lowness of an art space actually makes it a ‘counterhegemonic’ zone, an alternative space ‘within an undisciplined zone of knowledge production.’15 Thinking about emerging art spaces, both active and failed, not as a secondary strata, and not entirely as defined by their tenancy obligation (or the failure of), but as a low form of institutionality may not heal the wounds of failure or of ongoing under-resourced effort. But it is a way of celebrating, learning from and having a new code to value our messy bitter feelings in the face of neoliberal ideology, conservative politics and bureaucracy.

Paul Boyé is a writer and artist in Boorloo (Perth). Their research investigates the interface between media and intelligence, new materialist philosophy and future-oriented queer constructivism. They are a PhD Candidate at the University of Western Australia, co-editor of art publication Cactus Journal and committee member of Cool Change Contemporary.

1. Terry Smith, ‘Infrastructural Activism,’ NAVA News & Opinion, October 2016..

3. Liam Gillick, ‘Claiming Contingent Space,’ in Liam Gillick and Maria Lind (eds.), Curating with Light Luggage: Reflections, Discussions and Revisions, Revolver, Germany, 2005, p. 79.
4. Ibid., p. 80.
5. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press, Durham, 2011, p. 36.
6. Ibid., p. 15.
7. University News, ‘UWA gets down to business with new innovation space IQX,’ UWA News, March 2019.

9. Jamie Peck, Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism,’ in Cahill et al. (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Neoliberalism, SAGE Publications, London, p. 5.

11. Ibid., p. 8.
12. Brent Harrison and Lisa Liebetrau, I’m sorry I can’t make it, artist statement, 2017.
13. Terry Smith, Talking Contemporary Curating, Independent Curators International, 2015, p. 38.
14. Ibid., p. 48.
15. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, Duke University Press, Durham, 2011, p. 18.