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We Are Here. But who are we, really?


<em>*We Are Here*</em> symposium, Day 2, 2 September 2011, Photo credit: Micaela Giffney

We Are Here (WAH) was an international symposium for artist-run initiatives, developed by the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), in collaboration with Firstdraft. It was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts, ArtsNSW, the Copyright Agency Ltd, the City of Sydney and the Freedman Foundation. Held in Sydney from September 1–4 in various locations, the symposium included talks, workshops, events, an exhibition and a live art performance program. The following report focuses on the two-day symposium at Fraser St Studios held on 3–4 September.

The Artist-Run Initiative (ARI): programmed to die out, or destined to amalgamate into the bio-political machinery that is the contemporary post-industrial art world? After a weekend gathering of ARIs from across Australia as part of the inaugural symposium We Are Here, it would seem to me the proverbial ARI could well be on the way to accomplishing both.

We Are Here was developed by NAVA and Firstdraft, with an advisory committee of five additional artists from around the country. The gathering was intended to spark conversation about all the things ARIs never get time to think about: to ask the big questions, to collectively imagine the future and to make big plans. No doubt elements of this manifested over dinner and between sessions, organically falling in between the cracks in the program. However, the weekend felt a little like hanging out at your best friend’s place with their parents in the room.

Leaving aside Richard Bell’s (ProppaNOW) provocative definition of the ARI as ‘welfare for the privileged middle class white kid’, there was much about the subject of ARIs that remained caught in an inertia-like grip for most of the symposium. Like the ‘emerging artist’ tag, the term ‘ARI’ is a funding category that emerged in response to market research and government policy directions around 1998. However, there was very little focused discussion about the shift in terminology, or indeed about the dramatically changed landscape in which the ARI now operates. There was next to no robust debate about what the emerging differences mean for a fast growing sector of artist-led projects, particularly in terms of the urban political economy or the rapid rise of ‘creative industries’.

This was an important gathering, no doubt. And the effort put in by the co-conveners Georgie Meagher and Brianna Munting and the supporting organisations is to be highly commended. And such a gathering was well overdue. But is it the future of ARI gatherings? For starters, it wasn’t entirely administered by artists involved in the daily grind of running an initiative.

Rather than using the platform for ARIs throughout the country to nut out their practices and tactics, the structure of the panels focused on a fragmented and impractical discourse on contemporary art by a handful of select people — many of whom do not manage ARIs. The result was an awkward and at times misdirected conversation with too many competing agendas.

I participated in two roundtable discussions: ‘How do we really engage communities?’ and ‘Space/Not Space’. The discussion question in the first roundtable set up a false dichotomy between ‘artist’ and ‘community’ — artists running a space already constitute a community. Furthermore, it asked what artists involved in ARIs were doing to make themselves more accessible. This assumed that ARIs run by artists for artists need to be validated by an ‘outside’ community. For those working outside the daily operation of an ARI, the suggestion that artists engage with ‘community’ (a weirdly amorphous homogenous entity) entirely misses what it is that ARIs actually do. In particular, the material limitations and precarious circumstances of most ARIs were ignored. Not only do ARIs have limited resources and time, but the assumption that they might service other ‘communities’ was, at best, a little misguided. ARIs could benefit from ‘servicing’ their own community — learning how to better support each other and developing strategies to adapt and survive — before engaging with other communities.

The structure of the symposium could have worked: the mix of themed panels with breakaway roundtable discussions seemed like a good idea. But a deeper, more genuine engagement with ARIs in the design and implementation of the symposium would have ensured a more directed and authentic discussion. Some of the speakers didn’t seem to know why they were there, turning up just for their spot on a panel, with one international speaker admitting she knew nothing about ARIs because, to her knowledge, they didn’t exist in the UK.

While the opening panel ‘History/Future’ seemed promising, it lacked perspective on the ongoing ramifications of the specific political context that ARIs emerged from and the discussion remained locked in a rather dry art history overview. It also failed to make any provocative statements about possible future directions for the ARI — a topic I thought of utmost importance to this inaugural gathering. This was unfortunate given the diversification of artforms now claiming the artist-run platform and the complexities of purpose evidenced by practices located outside of conventional visual art disciplines. From the audience, Kelli McClusky (from pvi collective in Perth) pointedly questioned the impact of interdisciplinary practice on the future of ARIs, but the response from the panel lacked any real insight: they seemed not to know what was going on in the diverse spaces of artist-run endeavours across the country, or didn’t seem to care.

For all intents and purposes, the symposium was designed as a neatly cut and dried package of specific interest groups trying to gain leverage over the future directions of a niche market. The question of the market informed the dynamic of the symposium, but without much in the way of adventurous or heated debate. Various ARIs were divided along rather confused and tired dichotomies of art versus commerce, business versus non-profit, and artist-run initiative versus artist-run non-space. Ultimately it seemed a missed opportunity to expand beyond these old-fashioned divides and explore a more current, international debate on alternative economic models and modes of spatial praxis.

What really needed deeper discussion was the place of the ARI in the emerging political economy and the role of the artist-run initiative in a larger debate about the future. Yes, artists are capable of talking about these big things. Especially if one considers the epistemology of the term ‘artist-run’.

The final session was perfectly framed as a playful but deliberately antagonistic debate. Pitching a panel of ‘senior arts professionals’ against a team of ‘emerging artists’, the obvious generation gap was palpable as the speakers responded to the statement: ‘[i]t is the role of the emerging artist to be innovative, ground breaking, experimental and blah blah blah’. Frances Barrett ignited the room when she opened her spiel with ‘Comrades and Bureaucrats!’. The crowd of young artists erupted with indignation as she shredded the integrity of the term ‘emerging artist’, their youthful fists pumping the air.

I couldn’t help but wonder how different the whole event could have been had the entire operation been initiated and directed by a genuine network of ARIs. This would have ensured the representation of a more diverse field and encouraged a much deeper, less formal and more provocative interrogation of ARI terrain. If ARIs are ready to stand up and be counted, then they need to do it on their own feet. And perhaps before they tell the world ‘We Are Here’, they might want to work out who they really are.

Rebecca Conroy is a trouble-maker and doer on the fringes of the art world. She holds a PhD in Performance Theory and runs an artist-run space in Redfern called Bill + George

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