This text is by Cedric Tai in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the author's employer and/or other author affiliations.
|The three best exhibitions of 2013 took place in artist-run spaces
And by "best exhibitions," I specifically mean the shows that I saw in person while in Detroit from August until January.1
So, sure, that throws some of my credibility out the window, but I'm going to work with what I got to see. I chose this title because it frames a discussion before any arguments have been made: that there's a correlation between quality shows and artists supporting artists. Another reason I chose this title is that I can take advantage of how information transfers and creates value (if people like the writing, the title spreads itself far and wide along social media feeds and deep as well, possibly embedding its ideology into people's CVs).
Did the title bring to mind a particular artist-run space and your relationship to it? Is it a positive connotation? Or, has the artist-run space become invisible or expected, something we take for granted?
When I decided I wanted to write about three local Detroit exhibitions, I will admit that I already knew that there would be something important that would connect them all, no matter how different they may be aesthetically or in their approach, and it would be something that would also reflect onto infinite mile. Rather than simply talk about the art scene at large, there are specific venues, exhibition spaces, outlets for opinions (including infinite mile), that are bringing people together to do something on a volunteer basis (for which they are not getting paid) in constant negotiation, while supposedly producing a space for non-market or non-trend centered discussions. Our own involvement demonstrates an investment in forming a collective network or forming parallel systems. On the other hand, amidst good intentions, a balancing act is required (usually learned the hard way) between doing things "for free" and the calculated risk it represents as an "opportunity." I think this is one of the factors that determines the sustainability of a project that is akin to Hakim Bey's description of the "temporary autonomous zone."2
Here's an incomplete list of local, artist-run spaces that are not about to be highlighted, but are nonetheless important to name as spaces to see contemporary art in Detroit: Butter Projects, Library Street Collective, Museum of New Art, North End Studios, Paul Kotula Projects, Popps Packing, Public Pool, Re:View Contemporary and Wake.
And, in the same number and incompleteness, here is a list of defunct, artist-run spaces that were at one time real "must-see" spaces for contemporary art: Detroit Industrial Projects, Johanson Charles, ORG Gallery, Primary Space, Revolution Gallery, The Lot, This Week in Art at Motor City Brewing Works and Willis Gallery.
Highlighting artist-run spaces in another post-industrial city, veteran Glaswegian painter Merlin James published an article called "Artist-Run Glasgow" (James, Merlin. “Artist-Run in Glasgow.” http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/artist-run-glasgow/). His article features many young artists and spaces in the city. It is interesting to note that he decides to contextualize all this new activity within the history of the rise of Glasgow's art scene to perhaps show how embedded this foundation is in the past, present and future of any city's art scene. Artist-run spaces are proving one of the most accessible (or accepted?) forms of communal practices towards art-career sustainability while unions and co-ops are not necessarily on the rise. Although it would be hard to substantiate this statement, it would seem, at the moment, that most of the connections that Detroit artists make with other cities are taking place between artist-run spaces rather than through channels that already deal on international levels such as residencies, museums or other public or state funded institutions.
Besides sidestepping the bureaucracy and expectations inherent in being an extension of a public institution, artist-run spaces function in the realm of favors and communal responsibility. They don't automatically or accidentally adopt the logic of austerity because, in many ways, they are their own audience.3 Artist-run spaces don't expect to fill in for public or funded institutions, which are on the decline, but ultimately do. They are the embodiment of the same kind of obsession that artists have for their own work. When artists form relationships with other artists, there is an implicit understanding about helping each other to build a meaningful practice over a kind of "brand identity."
Of course, artist-run spaces are not without their faults as well. To start with an example, infinite mile (although it is not a "space," per se) is loosely a journal as it does not have formal editors (although they offer editing and copyediting help), nor regular writers and it does not have funding (yet). This means that rather than creating sustainability based on subscribers and advertising, it is based on the willingness of people to devote their time and energy to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What's more tenuous is that it all rests on the shoulders of two people to keep it afloat. I recall at one point trying to convince Aaron Timlin to delegate more so that he could focus on his own creative projects and not get spread too thin (which he has!), a similar issue that plagued the founders of the Yes Farm. And, as I wrote, who has the privilege to read this? And, for whom is the writing?4 Artist-run spaces can easily become insular or parochial unless they have a plan (and a mechanism to evaluate itself) as inclusive as possible. What compensates for most of these shortcomings is the relative freedom to do whatever you want and to also run under the radar if need be, slipping between gaps and forming connections with other dissidents.
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My picks for the best exhibitions of 2013 in no particular order are:
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Tsz Yan Ng created a large-scale woven image for her exhibition at 2739 Edwin called Factor Setting: the space of labor, 2013 (fig. 1). If you came into the gallery before the closing, you may have witnessed thin arms and nimble fingers combing, flattening and pulling at thousands of strands of machine-sliced paper laid wide across four tables. When the large, woven paper image completes at the time of the closing, when positioned correctly, the viewer can realize that the tables that once held the jig fit perfectly into the background and exist in the same pictorial space. It is an illusion not dissimilar to seeing a stuffed buffalo in the context of a painted natural history exhibition and, in this case, it is a real factory in China where workers are also busy at work with their hands.
Because it is two images woven together, a visual wall disrupts the ability to see one image at a time, but there are other aspects of the show where Tsz Ng puts information that may take some time to make out. For example, there is a photo of her mother in a textile factory that is unattributed, but it is the personalization of seeing her and others create the weaving that keep this project from becoming a spectacle of sheer craftsmanship. The paper she weaves undergoes an unseen amount of tension and becomes another interesting metaphor for what happens to labor when the production scale increases as well as the product. Greatness is risk, measured along the ability to bring everything just to its breaking point.
Another crucial bit of information is that the show takes you into a very particular factory in China that takes better care of its people than what we normally imagine for the "exploited chinese worker." The labor of artists has also been explored by exhibitions such as "Work Ethic" (2003 – 2004 at The Baltimore Museum of Art) put together by Helen Molesworth and in Liam Gillick's E-flux article "The Good of Work" (Gillick, Liam. “The Good of Work.” http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-good-of-work/). The level of craftsmanship necessary in the "jig" alone (which would have gone unnoticed had curator Steve Panton not suggested that she leave it out for the audience to see) proves that artists do innovative work just to be able to do the expected work. Although this show draws attention to the hidden labor within textile factories such as these, conversely, we are normally unaware of all of the ways that artist careers, too, can have labor issues. In every field we are witnessing an unequal reciprocation for the total output that people create in the wake of their efforts.5
The postcards for Ng's show do not feature the "jig" (even though it would create a clearer message about the efforts going into the project, an instant draw) and, instead, show photographs taken by a friend of hers of a building where she was proud to participate in an architectural team. The tone of her overall show is one of subdued appreciation of others. It is present in how she brings design from the invisible realm to the realm of consequence and in how she engaged with friends, visitors and the curator while embracing the openness and flexibility of 2739 Edwin.
Steve Panton, the curator, is active in making Detroit an increasingly critical place, which is reflected in his use of his own time and money to run 2739 Edwin since 2008 (with Kathy Rashid). This dedication becomes absurd when I compare it to when I first overheard some artists in Glasgow lamenting that their programming budget for shows at their own flat was going to be reduced by 30%. Tsz Yan Ng also got much of the funding for her show from the University of Michigan, which shows the level of state or national funding for ambitious projects, and how omnipresent private funding from institutions has replaced this. It is a striking choice to have either chosen or been chosen to exhibit at 2739 Edwin as the exhibitions around this exhibition include a comprehensive look at alternative schools and one on the juvenile justice system. Panton has also expanded these conversations far beyond the show closing dates by actively participating in co-organizing both a Hamtramck art walk and the Hamtramck Free School to be able to engage with the topics and people on a longer and deeper level. Beyond the care and commitment of artist-run spaces to the community that it resides within there is something perhaps so important that we really don't want to think about. Considering what flexibility can offer, if it didn't happen here, would it have existed at all?
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What Pipeline is a slick, white-cubed gallery lit evenly by fluorescent lights. Like a few other artist-run spaces in the city, it appears to be holding its own both from a geographical and conceptual standpoint. It's nearest neighbors are the parking lots for Mexican restaurants. The work featured here at What Pipeline does not represent the stereotypical identity of Southwest Detroit, but instead represents the particular interests of particular artists that live there. This is not to say that they show work that is only meant for art specialists, but compared to Whitdel Arts, (the only other space I can think of in that area) they provide a space for focused solo shows that can be appropriately minimal, subtle, obscure and, to be frank, contemporary. When walking into Isaac Richard's show "A Alternatives" (fig. 2), I couldn't help but think about how politically vague the term "Alternative" can be. I was almost admonished for sounding like I was referring to someone who is gay as living an "alternative" lifestyle (which would amount to being misinformed about how "being gay" is not a choice). In attempting to express a feeling of solidarity with those that don't believe in a "neutral" American Dream kind of reality, I relate easier with those who feel marginalized. I imagine that "A Alternatives" is a knock on those who do claim that alternatives do exist, whilst still attempting to do so in the least risky way possible.
There is quite a bit of risk in Isaac Pool's show and some of it is in how the objects are placed around the room. They are sculptures with dangling bits or painted fragments of furniture-parts, which are slightly propped with an unnerving angle. When going through to the back to see his film, there is a different kind of risk, an attempt to destabilize the concept of the lone artist-genius in his latest film featuring the character "Sally Johnson."
The way that Isaac Pool shifts from creating everything himself to relying on multiple artists' strengths (especially with the clothing and music in his video work) is a natural development. Again, it is appropriate that his projects took place within an artist-run space. He has some of his friends stand-in for a character he plays at different points in “A Alternatives.” All the extra characters appear as if they are brothers and sisters. Isaac Pool even got one of the gallery directors, Alivia Zivich to dance rigidly while looking cool and never daring to look at the camera. Although the first reference I would normally want to mention is Ryan Trecartin, I would argue that this film, in particular, has a vibe of a sincere, family home-video because there are such self-conscious monologues that are much less slick than other works in this genre and although the language can seem heavily coded, some of the overacting is reminiscent of a teen acting unamused as they're being filmed by their mother, but hamming it up nevertheless. The character, Sally, oozes a kind of super-academic ambivalence and contrasts with richly detailed video and commentary works. He and everyone else looks amazing in their clothes. The objects or locations in the video seem absurdly placid in comparison to what anyone is wearing and even to the background music.
When I say that his objects seem plain in comparison, this is not to say that the collages in the front of the gallery appear lackluster. They actually have a vastly different presence considering that each photo or surface is held together by divergent methods and materials. Sparse plastic tinges of color appear out of dark arrangements, like how rainbows from a prism can only be seen from creating particular angles. Every piece hung on the wall has its own separate form of playful logic, yet all of them are collages, that waver between being an altar, a talisman and a moodboard. There is a oneness to the show, and, at the same time, the somber mood of the works perhaps ties with how the video work is also about putting the character Sally Johnson to rest.
When I think about whether or not there is a strong audience for this kind of work, I think about the masculine aesthetic that Detroit's art scene exudes on the whole. Besides the stereotypes of the real artist as being one that can tough it out, some artists play up the post-industrial landscape into the physicality of their work. Craftsmanship becomes inseparable from a certain kind of industriousness and seriousness. I'm not being coy when avoiding describing that Isaac is obviously gay when you see him featured within his own work, but I don't know exactly how to address the lack of young gay energy that I once believed was a large part of the city's identity. What does it means that most of my good gay friends have left the city? It is obvious what the protocol is on the state level in terms of LGBT rights being low on the priority list, but is the city actually an inviting place for all kinds of diversity? Detroit may have hosted the premiere of his latest work, but its creation required getting out of this place.
The last interview with Kylie Lockwood is forthcoming, but her collaborative show with Rebecca Gilbert at CAVE gallery (fig. 3) was the starting point of our talks. It is worth mentioning that none of the original founding members of CAVE gallery have studios there now. The paradox of the Ship of Theseus comes to mind: once you replace every original piece of wood and nail is it the same ship? CAVE has exhibited the work of a number of CCS alumni with what were really great under-the-radar and, at times, baffling shows. Their exhibitions have contained more local contemporary video work than any other venue in the city (Michaela Moser will have the next opening on April 25th). With the Kresge including a larger dedication towards filmmakers and local screenings such as Mothlight Microcinema taking place, it is interesting that I can't think of a single review of any video work locally that wasn't about Matthew Barney.
This is going to be another one of those pompous "when I was in Glasgow" moments, but CAVE gallery for me transcends space and time and always seems to take me back to Glasgow. Of all of the exhibition spaces in Detroit, the audience that comes to CAVE's shows, as well as the art exhibited, reminds me the most of Glasgow's art scene. The artist-run space Transmission seems related in how they change their board every two years to keep things fresh, but the feel of the place is more akin to a gallery called SWG3. From the way that people stand around holding beers feigning comprehension of the art, to the careful consideration artists take in responding appropriately to the space, CAVE has become a venue to see consistently good exhibitions.
Upon entering the show "Rebecca Gilbert + Kylie Lockwood," one's eye traces a long shelf which sets the expectation that you are here to peruse. They also want the work to change in meaning when juxtaposed with each other. Pulling from their exhibition's statement: "It is a straight line that creates a sequence and places objects in time, like the words of a sentence" (CAVE gallery. http://www.cavedetroit.com/lockwood%20and%20gilbert/lockwoodandgilbert.html). Out of all the shows that I have seen at CAVE since 2008, this exhibition most effectively fits the space with just the right amount of stuff. And you know, stuff/things/objects are all the rage right now.6 It got to the point where I kept thinking I needed to re-look at everything again and again to know if I really saw it. All the objects and works could be rearranged and the end result would still be part cabinet of curiosities, part archive, and part table that one does not have enough time to examine.
Because Lockwood has her own studio behind the gallery, it may have aided the production of more fragile works which don't have to travel far. Gilbert came from New York, where both she and Lockwood received their MFA. Neither of them saw each other’s works until they came together in the space. Kylie Lockwood and Rebecca Gilbert created a show that involved a high level of trust between each other. This mutual trust resulted in a much more cohesive unit than a strict solo show either could have yielded.
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I just realized I don't really have a conclusion. If anything, I just have a really, really long introduction. If anyone would like me to review their show, I would like to just remind people that I am ASKING to be bribed. If you take me out to lunch and pay for my meal, I will write something just for you, and it will be thoughtful and honest, even though I have no shame when it comes to asking for things.
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1 You can assume that the only reason I didn't include your exhibition is because I didn't get a chance to see it. Lastly, I cannot really be considered a critic as I put my own art practice first and foremost. I consider all the different roles I play within this performance of "artiste."
2 You know what? I don't think I really have a great grasp of theory. If anyone thinks I have got this entirely wrong, please explain it to me and I'll be so grateful that I'll attempt to replace this footnote with your update.
3 There's a great quote from the March 2014 Art Monthly article that discusses the current phenomenon in the U.S.: "We need to recognize that the further retrenchment of state provision and deepening recession since 2008 have pushed frequently well-meaning socially engaged artists towards plugging the gap in providing social services where they risk endorsing the logic of austerity" (Gogarty. “Art & Gentrification: Larne Abse Gogarty on the uses and abuses of social practice.” Art Monthly. http://www.artmonthly.co.uk/magazine/site/issue/february-2014). E-mail me if you'd like get a copy, it's very important piece for people to read if you are suspicious of "social practice" art.
5 An interesting take on how our labor is easily extracted on a constant basis can be found in Vince Carducci's review of Jonathan Crary's book 24/7
6 One of the newest schools of thought being brought up in M.F.A. programs and the like is called Object-Oriented Ontology. It has plenty of fascinating lateral thinking towards climate change and other issues, but, like a TED talk or a RadioLab episode, it seems better suited as a starting place for research rather than a reliable foundation for solid arguments. Here's an introduction: http://www.bogost.com/blog/what_is_objectoriented_ontolog.shtml
James, Merlin. “Artist-Run in Glasgow.” Art in America. 30 Aprli 2013. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/artist-run-glasgow/