Decentre copy

decentre: concerning artist-run culture

By Elaine Chang, Andrea Lalonde, Chris Lloyd, Steve Loft, Jonathan Middleton, Daniel Roy, Haema Sivanesan, eds.
YYZ Books, November 30, 2007, $29.95

The editors of decentre make a concerted effort to explore artist-run centres (ARCs) in their current form, inviting artists and organizers to reflect on where "the real strength of artist-run culture" lies and whether the concept of ARCs has in fact "outlived its usefulness." The book is timely because the tensions and possibilities in artist-led projects, closely linked to forces that mark our historical moment, need to be collectively addressed. They have resulted, as Sadira Rodrigues writes, in an identity crisis in ARCs. Will it become, or should it be pushed into, a full-blown crisis beyond the usual miasma?

The book is comprised of 103 different assessments, a large and deliberately arbitrary number. It has the feel of a Conceptual printed matter work in that its intention lies in an organizing process, where the content is left to play out its particularities. In this way, decentre, presents itself as inclusionary rather than imposing. But how meaningful is this plurality, and does it mask editorial intention and implicit consensus on the part of its contributors? Is it an egalitarian gesture, coming out of a tradition of co-ordinating a community of respondents? Or does the editorial approach obscure structural pressures and disperse what might otherwise focus a critical response to the formidable questions now facing artist-run networks. The real question for decentre is whether the circumstances and interests that determine what art is, and for whom it is made and shown, are still contested and publicly debated, or whether they have been replaced by the pragmatics of how to excel within existing terms. The book is successful in that it invokes these fundamental tensions. But it does so because they are endemic, and with the exception of a few astute contributions, it fails to assess the consequences of this reorientation and propose a way forward.

decentre is comprised of short contributions that draw primarily on writers’ personal experiences with particular ARCs rather than theoretical or historical analysis. Most of it is Canadian, but with a significant number of texts from around the world — enough of a mix to make it explicitly about Canada (purposefully diverse and nationally representative), yet with enough global dimension that the book takes on a more general reflection of artist spaces. The book intentionally cruises the generations, though it is weighted towards veterans such as Vera Frenkel, Bruce Barber, Jeanne Randolph and Clive Robertson and Gen-Xers (Kathleen Ritter, Jonathan Middleton, Tobias c. van Veen); it also mixes true believers in ARCs (Lori Millan and Shawna Dempsy, SKOL) with some sceptics (Andrew James Paterson) and self-styled ARC heretic (Tommy Lacroix).

The book is organized alphabetically. Correspondingly and cleverly, Hans Abbing’s entry, excerpted from his book Why Are Artists Poor? functions as an editorial preface that examines the denial of economics in art. The editors understandably see this as underscoring artist-run culture; however, the inclusion of Abbing is unusual because the prescription of his book, not mentioned in decentre, is to end all public funding. Is this unmentioned conclusion decentre‘s guilty conscience and/or fatalism?

decentre can sometimes feel like a blog, despite its austere, elemental design. From the apparent multitude of entries, certain groupings of familiar perspectives emerge. One group (that includes writers such as Heather Anderson, Patrice Loubier and Anne-Marie Ninacs) subscribes to the classic belief in ARCs as locations for "social/critically-engaged practice," risk-taking and experimentation. If there is an overt consensus in the book, this is it. The question of what is meant by "risk" remains, especially as this emphasis seems to contradict another common position in the book (upheld by writers such as Barr Gilmore, Michelle Jacques and Geoffrey James) that the purpose of ARCs is to export personnel, either as a training facility/minor league, or more subversively, by infiltrating larger institutions. There are also various calls for a fusion of artist-run culture with the market, such as those by Sylvie Cotton and Paul Butler, who argue for ARCs to take on a direct "artist-agent-of-artists" role; or Jean-Pierre Caissie’s call for a more deferred market integration in order to more effectively develop careers.

With a few exceptions, namely Paul Wong’s untitled contribution and Brett Bloom’s "Radical Spaces for Art in a Time of Forced Privatization," collectivity and self-organization are rarely championed. The call for artistic experimentation is more common, distinct from self-determination. Non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian aspirations don’t appear to be a serious concern for artist-run culture in decentre. Robert Labossière broaches the topic and identifies an ambient and ambivalent notion of non-hierarchy that floats around ARCs, but, desiring the kind of leadership of hospital administrators and men of the cloth, finds it counterproductive.

Ian Carr-Harris and AA Bronson, two old ARC heavies, act as opposing exterminating angels, staking out more or less pro- and anti-institutional positions. Bronson’s "bite the hand that feeds" stance is expressed in cautionary, portentous observations such as "watch for collaborations that remain unfunded" and "ARC culture that smells squeaky clean is shit." Elaine Chang’s text, "Poking the Eye that Sees Us," looks that institutional ambivalence from the perspective of artists of colour who seek mainstream recognition (in which case ARCs are merely marginal and compensatory) while working with ARCs as a place to question the terms of recognition. Jens Hoffmann’s "Unleash the Beast" moves beyond ambivalence to a full-fledged "fuck you museums" anti-institutionalism that comes close to reinventing an avant-gardism defined by what it opposes. Hoffmann makes the case that the greatest challenge facing ARCs is not funding cuts but the redefinition of the relation between art and the public. The intensification of commercial and bureaucratic pressures on art has created a considerable void, and Hoffman thinks that ARCs should seize this as an opportunity to develop radical alternatives and mount a "full frontal attack on the art establishment."

Carr-Harris points out the supposedly fatal contradiction of artists questioning their own institutionalization. "As artists, in their role as artists, they must work — whether they like it or not — only through the institution." This little turn flattens many questions and necessary contradictions, including the paradox that the institutionalized artist (in the material, artworld sense) is at odds with the overall social role of the artist (to question the norms and predetermination of institutionalized culture).

But maybe these contradictions are no longer generative, and the real questioning of one’s institutionalization is tied to moving beyond the art field as such. However, this needn’t result in an idealist paralysis, but means shifting from art to culture and to hybrid forms of organization. Aside from Clive Robertson and a few others, this seems against the grain of decentre. The idea of culture in Canadian ARCs is generally assumed to be visual art, especially as it is stipulated by funding criteria. A vital inter- or non-disciplinarity was certainly part of the beginnings of ARC cultures, and its present and future would seem to lie in transversal methods, to use Félix Guattari’s term that refers to not only crossing disciplinary and institutional boundaries, but disrupting hierarchical structures and enclosing logics of all kinds.

As the book begins with an acknowledgement, verging on supplication, to the Canada Council of the Arts’ leadership, it is hard to imagine it becoming a ringing testament to self-organization. ARC culture is not sustained by the air and light of political freedom and autonomous collectivity, but by a supportive external presence. The book’s title evokes an orientation towards centralized power, while attempting to destabilize the very categories of centre and periphery in favour of infiltration and implicatedness, forgetting that corporations and neoliberal states are similarly decentred; thus decentre is closer to reproducing a logic than challenging it, and relies overly on the critical potential of a vague poststructural politics at a time when this theory is losing relevance.–Peter Conlin

Peter Conlin is a PhD candidate in the Humanities Doctoral Program at Concordia University. He currently resides in London (U.K.), where he is researching how self-organization relates to dissent and success. This review was first published in Fuse magazine.