As un readers already know, Melbourne has an abundant supply of independent art initiatives. We have an illustrious history of non-profit, alternative spaces and projects, ranging from the slickest white cubes to the most ramshackle pop-up shows in back yards and demolition sites. Over the past three decades, independent initiatives in Melbourne have generated much of the necessary noise and activity that makes an art scene tick. While Melbourne is characterised by a particularly strong set of artist-run initiatives, national and international counterparts push contemporary art in their own communities around the world. Usually small-scale and highly localised, the intangible contribution of independent art initiatives can easily be overlooked or taken for granted — with limited profiles beyond their hometown and little interaction with the commercial art market. In May, as this issue goes to press, London’s Tate Modern aims to address this by shining a light on a selection of more than seventy, international and independent art initiatives in its three-day festival No Soul for Sale.
Held in the Tate’s iconic Turbine Hall, the so-called ‘festival of independents’ is designed to celebrate the non-profit organisations, individuals and groups that drive their own micro art communities globally. The project was conceived by artist Maurizio Cattelan and organised for the Tate by Cattelan with New York based curators Cecilia Alemani and Massimiliano Gioni. Of the seventy-plus independents involved, just two Australian initiatives, both based in Melbourne, were selected to participate — Hell Gallery, directed by Jess Johnson and Jordan Marani, and Y3K, initiated by James Deutsher and Christopher LG Hill. Other participants hail primarily, and predictably, from the major recognised art cities of North America and Europe, including nine from New York and eight from London.
No Soul for Sale is part of the Tate Modern’s tenth anniversary celebrations, however it is also the second -incarnation of the festival, which first took place at New York’s X-Initiative in June 2009. X was a twelve-month program devised by a consortium of art-world heavies spearheaded by the New York gallerist Elizabeth Dee, in one of the world’s most desirable pieces of art real estate — a four-floor exhibition building in the heart of the Chelsea gallery district, previously home to the Dia Art Foundation and, most importantly in the recent economic recession, available gratis for one year. X closed as planned in February 2010, having presented a cycle of major exhibitions with constant public programs, series of lectures, workshops and performances.
X-Initiative professed to be ‘a not-for-profit initiative of the global contemporary art community’. In keeping with this rather broad tagline, Director, and No Soul curator, Cecilia Alemani has commented that X did not begin with a stated mission or imperative, rather it was responsive to a set of circumstances and the opportunity to utilise the building — the whole organisation and program was launched with just a month’s notice.1 While X-Initiative spoke of being global and, accordingly, presented a program of international artists, it was plainly conceived for a New York audience. Alemani further explained that X was ‘trying to fill a gap or refresh a model of the kunsthalle that didn’t really exist in New York. Of course there are lots of galleries and institutions, but the in-between sector was badly affected by the financial crisis’.^2 Indeed, as one critic put it in the New York Times: ‘at a time when a whole lot of the art world is non-profit, whether it wants to be or not … for organisations dependent on handouts or their own resources, the recession has put the “eek” back into eking out an existence’.3 For the curators, gallerists and artists involved in conceiving X, this increased insecurity for the arts in New York begged for the rejuvenating injection of an ambitious art program focused on a sense of community rather than dollar signs. With a number of commercial gallerists and art collectors on its board, X was regarded in New York as the art world’s response to the recession.
The 2009 edition of No Soul was a flagship event for X-Initiative, epitomising much of the organisation’s apparent aims to bring international projects to New York, to create shared space for hospitality and conviviality in the art community, and to operate without commercial imperatives. The latter two of these motivations are familiar to many independent art initiatives in Melbourne and elsewhere. Since opening in Richmond in February 2008, Hell Gallery have certainly concentrated on creating a social setting for art. As Hell’s co-Director Jess Johnson has explained: ‘we knew the type of environment that we liked to hang out in and it had to involve food, music, film, footy and dancing. All those things you’re not supposed to do in an art gallery. But why not?’4 Along with this healthy dose of sociability, Hell was also concerned with creating an alternative economic model for local independent initiatives and, as such, does not charge exhibiting artists rental fees.
The non-profit nature of the international art organisations was a pre-requisite to their inclusion in No Soul for Sale. Asked about the curators’ concept of ‘independent’ in this context, -Alemani answered: ‘we were not obsessed with defining it. There is lots of range from institutions like White Columns to very young spaces, magazines [and] curatorial offices’.5 The only stipulation that applied was participants ‘have to be not-for-profit — some initiatives involved in 2009 can’t be in 2010 as they have become commercial. Although in reality there is lots of grey, these days there is not always a clear boundary between commercial and non-commercial’.^6 This acknowledgement is important at a time when individuals and groups are adapting and redefining the independent art initiative, drawing on both business models and traditional non-profit structures. For Melbourne’s Y3K, which opened in June 2009, there is no hierarchy between its modes of operation, which include retail, publishing and design projects, as well as exhibition space. Y3K is engaged with both ‘independent and represented praxis’.7 Y3K, Hell and a spate of other initiatives active in Melbourne in recent years (such as Utopian Slumps and The Narrows) have presented interesting programs by working somewhere between the art market and the established local concept of the Artist-Run Initiative.
Both X-Initiative and No Soul for Sale can be seen to reflect and address two planes of shifting ground characterising the current moment in contemporary art. With the dual framework of (a) operating outside the market, and (b) seeking to map and foster global communities, these projects resonate with what curator and writer Okwui Enwezor has described as a double trajectory of endings in the wake of the world financial crisis. Enwezor sees the recession’s impact on contemporary art as two-fold: ‘the end of an excessive art market, and the end of tenets of globalisation as a means of understanding the field of contemporary art’.8 Although, as a believer in the potential of a globalised art world, Enwezor is quick to add that he hopes he is wrong on the second point. No Soul for Sale, as a bringing together of international examples of art networks, will seek to prove him wrong, albeit via an inevitably uneven mapping of the globe.
With very little curatorial design behind the project, the selection of participants for No Soul at the Tate has been a haphazard process of word-of-mouth and recommendations amongst networks rather than a systematic research or application process. As with the 2009 version at X-Initiative, Alemani and her co-organisers recruited potential participants for 2010’s No Soul by, in her words: ‘starting with New York we would ask a space and ask lots of people, and they would recommend others, and so the process mapped the networks’.9 This works only to the extent that independent art initiatives -happen to interact and connect or promote across geographic borders, even across continents and hemispheres, to generate some tiny ripple of awareness linking eventually to the organisers in New York. Hence similar events held closer to home — such as the Next Wave -Festival 2010 project Structural Integrity with its regional focus on the Asia-Pacific, or the 2006 Container Village featuring representatives from Commonwealth countries — will create very different maps of independent art initiatives and their networks.
Described as ‘an exercise in coexistence’, the No Soul format can sound shambolic — a non-curated expo of dozens of disparate groups presenting work in any form side by side — -allocated space is marked out by tape on the floor, but not partitioned as in an art fair. However, this open and democratic approach can work very well — Artforum described the 2009 event as ‘an ecstatically rudderless convocation’ and delighted in the ‘absence of an ante, unheard-of in New York’.10 Quite accustomed to working in free form and without much of a financial stake, both Hell and Y3K have planned to represent their programs in ways that reflect their respective priorities and styles, and speak a little of the art communities they are each a part of.
For Y3K, a simple and direct presentation of mobile works (a sculpture, a video, a rug, a performance and a publication) will reflect the gallery’s range of interests and ‘trans-global, trans-practice philosophies’.11 Meanwhile, Hell will bring transportable elements that can be used to build an installation on arrival, recreating aspects of their Melbourne courtyard and incorporating drawn portraits of individuals associated with the gallery.12 For both -Melbourne initiatives, despite presenting quite dissimilar programs, running an independent art project has had much to do with energising community networks and connections. It is a good moment for the New York art market and institutions like the Tate Modern to look more closely at the small and sometimes far away independent art initiatives to refresh their lust for contemporary art. Maybe this turn of attention is a means of moving closer to the idealised concept of a global contemporary art community.
Independent arts organisations in No Soul for Sale:
Alternative Space LOOP (Seoul) — Arrow Factory (Beijing) — Arthub Asia (Shanghai/Bangkok/Beijing) — Artis (New York/Tel Aviv) — Artspeak (Vancouver) — Artists Space (New York) — Auto Italia (London) — Ballroom (Marfa) — Black Dogs (Leeds) — Barbur (Jerusalem) — Capacete Entertainment (Rio de Janeiro) — casa tres patios (Medellín) — cneai= (Paris/Chatou) — Collective Parasol (Kyoto) — Dispatch (New York) — e-flux (Berlin) — 220 jours (Paris) — Embassy (Edinburgh) — Exyzt & Coloco (Paris) — Filipa Oliveira + Miguel Amado (Lisbon) — FLUXspace (Philadelphia) — FormContent (London) — Galerie im Regierungsviertel (Berlin) — Green Papaya Art Projects (Manila) — Hell Gallery (Melbourne) — Hermes und der Pfau (Stuttgart) — i-cabin (London) — Intoart (London) — K48 Kontinuum (New York) — Kling & Bang (Reykjavík) — L’appartement 22 (Rabat) — Latitudes (Barcelona) — Le Commissariat (Paris) — Le Dictateur (Milan) — Light Industry (New York) — Lucie Fontaine (Milan) — lugar a dudas (Cali) — Machine Project (Los Angeles) — Mousse (Milan) — Museum of Everything (London) — Next Visit (Berlin) — New Jerseyy (Basel) — Not An Alternative (New York) — no.w.here (London) — Oregon Painting Society (Portland) — Or Gallery (Vancouver) — P-10/Post Museum (Singapore) — Para/Site Art Space (Hong Kong) — Peep-Hole (Milan) — PiST (Istanbul) — PSL [Project Space Leeds] (Leeds) — Rhizome (New York) — Sala-Manca & Mamuta (Jerusalem) — San Art (Ho Chi Minh City) — Scrawl Collective (London) — Studio 1.1 (London) — Suburban (Chicago) — Swiss Institute (New York) — The Mountain School of Arts (Los Angeles) — The Royal Standard (Liverpool) — Thisisnotashop (Dublin) — Torpedo (Oslo) — Tranzit (Prague) — Viafarini DOCVA (Milan) — Vox Populi (Philadelphia) — Western Bridge (Seattle) — Western Front Society (Vancouver) — White Columns (New York) — Y3K (Melbourne) — 2nd Cannons Publications (Los Angeles) — 98 Weeks (Beirut)