This paper is a personal narrative in two parts woven into a braid. The first of which is my engagement with None or None Gallery/Project Space, an artist run initiative here in Dunedin. The second part of the narrative is personal reflection on methods or modalities of artist run initiatives, be they spaces or collectives, through the lens of the precarious economic situation of late capitalism. I am not attempting to speak on behalf of any organisation nor am I attempting to ascribe any particular ideology to anyone else or to any group.
In our initial meetings discussing how we, as a collective, wanted to make the best use of the resource of this building a deliberate decision was made to keep the space and our activities as undefined as possible. This decision is made explicit in the name that was chosen for the space, "None". A refusal of identification in one short word.
Although eschewing specific definition as a method of maintaining fluidity of operation there were two points that drove the impetus of this project:
1. To be a place where things can happen that may not fit in other spaces.
2. To keep the processes of the space as far removed from money as possible.
This refusal of definition and engagement with monetary concerns, however, should not be seen as a denial of something as much as it is the pursuit of an Other. It is an attempt to find a different method of operation in terms of art production and consumption than that of established modes of the political economy of the arts.
It is in this pursuit of the Other way, a self determination of artistic endeavours in the face of the seeming immutable dominance of global capital that this paper is primarily concerned.
Artist Run Initiatives, particularly those anchored to specific physical spaces, on the whole tend to be rather temporary affairs, lasting for a couple of years at most. None is something of an anomaly here, in that the space has been operating for just over ten years now, although with a constantly changing roster of personnel moving through shifting levels of engagement and activity.
I believe a major contributing factor to this longevity is that the rent on the space is covered by the residents of the building. This means that the gallery is under no demands to pay for itself. Generally it seems to be making the rent, which is a primary interface with the machinery of capitalism, or the failure to do so that is the downfall of many of these independent spaces. It is perhaps also worth noting that 24 Stafford Street is also a slightly dodgy old building and to a certain extent the longevity of None can be attributed to the fact that for the landlord to develop the property into a more lucrative venture would cost more that it is worth. However, this may also apply to earthquake strengthening, making the Sword of Damocles loom ever closer for None, giving us a couple more years at most.
This notion of the Artist Run Initiative as a short-lived entity, to my mind, places it within the realm of what Peter Lamborn Wilson identifies as the Temporary Autonomous Zone. Simply put the zone, or place, where one expresses autonomy is by its nature a temporary one.
I believe this to be a salient point in discussing the economy of the arts and the relationship between art and money in terms of our contemporary situation. Since the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of European Communism we have found ourselves in the arena of globally dominant capitalist economics. This is the realm of Fukuyama's 'End of History' and Negri and Hardt's 'Empire' which has gone largely unchecked by mainstream narratives until the last five years or so and the economic crisis of 2008. There is still no 'outside' of this system, only spaces within the margins and stolen moments in the shadows, not where money is resisted but when it can be at best effectively ignored for however short a time.
The byword of capitalism is excess. It is the need for more; more commodities, more profit, to receive back more than what it puts out. It is constantly overextending itself and although it may seem to be an inescapable mode of being it is in this overextension that we find these evanescent spaces for fleeting moments of self-determination. So while we may not at this point be able to step completely outside of the system nor find autonomy through the symbiosis with it we are able to carve out spaces now and then, here and there, where creative practices can thrive on their own merits. It is a righteous form of parasitism, if you will.
(Some images of None from Erehwon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand published last year by The Audio Foundation).
This temporality maybe somewhat telling in the kinds of art and creative practices that flourish in these spaces. None, for the majority of its existence has been a hub of the experimental music scene in Dunedin. This is relevant in that music is a time-based art form. Exhibitions in the space tend to be short duration, typically only lasting three days to a week and mainly focussed around the event of the opening which quite often also tends to involve a performance element.
It is in the ephemeral that we find our freedom.
(In the centre here is a document of an attempt to describe the function of None. I'm not too sure when this dates from as it is an artefact from a time when I was not involved in the space. It shows something of the difficulty in defining the actives of the space. Also somewhat telling is that None is represented in Erewhon Calling by a photo essay, where these images from, and a page listing those who have been involved in the spaces for its first nine years or so. I believe this paper may be the first time the function of the space has been put into so many words.)
Returning to the loosely defined impetus for the space: To be a place where things can happen that may not fit in other spaces and to keep the processes of the space as far removed from money as possible. A major part of allowing things to happen that cannot happen in other places is to remove practice as much as possible from financial constraints, not in terms being able to activate a vast array of resources but in terms of allowing creative practices to not have to be financially accountable or commercially viable.
So here we start getting into something of the existentialist agenda of why do we make art? I'm fairly sure that almost everyone who has chosen to spend their short time on the face of this planet engaged in creative practices has been told at some point, "Well that's great but what are you going to do to make money?" Certainly there are much easier ways to make a living but for some reason we still seem to keep doing this stuff. So what happens if we, as much as we can, take money out of the equation?
This is the moment where there perhaps has to be a moment of confession because None, for all our high-minded yet undefined ideals still, needs to interface with systems of capital. The rent on the building still needs to be paid somehow, we still need to pay the bills and feed ourselves. There is a consolidation of needs here, the rooms we live in also serve a studios so that in one weekly payment we get a place to sleep, eat, and work as well as maintaining a community arts venue. There is also a small fee charged to exhibiting or performing artists to help cover these costs, which there wasn't at the beginning but also the rent of the space has escalated somewhat over the last ten years.
Admittedly there is a sub-rosa reliance on the state here. The majority of people who have been through the space have been beneficiaries or on student allowances, working part-time jobs in the hospitality industry, or maybe some kind of freelance design gig. Although no one would identify primarily as unemployed, students, or baristas, or whatever. They identify primarily as artists. And this is something that is not emergent from the privilege of living in a welfare state, this making do with what is available. The Dole is no damn way to live but it is there and we'll take if we can. The point is: Art finds a way.
It should not be a surprising statement that no one does this for the money. Nor for adulation or praise. Although all these things help but what they help is simply the making of more art.
There is a joke that goes, "How many Anarchists does it take to change a light bulb? Well, it's not so much a matter of changing the lightbulb as it is a matter of rewiring the whole house." This is where I find myself. There are those that are driving for creative labour to be recognised and rewarded within the strictures and structures of our economic system as it is. This is a fine idea, a nobel sentiment indeed and I would be behind one hundred percent if I thought for a moment that our economic system as it is was in any way sustainable. But it is not.
The cracks have been showing for a long time and we find ourselves in an increasingly precarious global situation. It is seeming less and less the rhetoric of the conspiracy theorist to describe our global economic model as a giant Ponzi scheme. This idea of economic meritocracy where if you work hard enough you can rise to the top of the pile and we can all do it if we play the game and buy all the new toys just doesn't work. I recognise that this a pretty naive summation but for the purposes of this argument it will have to do and I trust this audience is intelligent enough to grasp the wider point I'm aiming at.
There is no denying that there is a growing resistance to this dominant Neoliberal model of global capital that goes beyond mere hegemonic negotiation. Describing our situation as 'The End of History' is the naive position. The 'Empire' is burning and building stadiums is going to do as much to save it as it did for Rome.
So where does this leave art? What are we doing in this world of riots, black blocs, and black dressed riot control cops? Well, we are planting the seeds of something better. If we look at the trajectory of art history in the Western narrative art has moved from something in the service of the Church which we can read at that time as also being the state to something that exists under the aegis of a plutocracy which has steadily, since the Renaissance , moved to surpass the state until we get to where we are now with our precarious situation of late capitalism and it's attendant cultural logic (with a nod to Frederic Jameson) that finds artists themselves immediately presenting their work to the public. Art has moved from an accessory of power to a mobilising presence amount the multitude.
So, I put it to you, with an air of hopeful speculation, that the power base of art has moved away from the hands of the patron and into that of the artists themselves. As we still find ourselves, while still approaching some kind of endgame, in place where hegemonic negotiation between the demands of capital and the needs of the individual permeates every arena of experience the number of Artist Run Initiatives is on the rise.
In this, Artist Run Initiatives allow and encourage creative practices that are not dependant on generating a saleable commodity. In many cases the art object, as such, is transient (performance/installation) or ephemeral (documentation) but in this weaves its way into the fabric of life. Art is not immutable other, precious objects to be traded amongst the elite but something to be experienced, taken on board, and then we move on to the next experience.
At the same time we see a increasing number of co-operative ventures, such things a community gardens, or at the very least more and more people growing their own vegetables in their backyards. And this is resistance to the dominating, dehumanising power of global capital. As over-riding power structures become destabilised the most effective response is that of self-determination. To reach for something that I believe is still a somewhat relevant example, and I have this from first hand reports, in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake neighbourhoods and communities began to organise themselves. People engaged with their neighbours to make sure everyone was accounted for. They collectivised resources of food, water, and first aid supplies, and self-organised neighbourhood watch patrols and so forth. Then when organised authority did arrive, in the form of police imported from Australia, they subverted the work these communities had done to take care of themselves.
In terms of getting things done at None, I for one have maintained that it is not a matter of someone having power over a particular area of operation as much as it is having responsibility for making sure something gets done. This may seem to be a petty semantic distinction but I believe it speaks volumes in terms of maintaining a collective endeavour. There is no absolute power residing anywhere, only a negotiable level of responsibility.
That is the idea, everything is transitory and up for negotiation. None has changed and mutated over it's life. Something that has been wonderful to witness from being there at the start then going away and coming back at the beginning of last year. This mercurial nature I also credit with giving the space some of its longevity.
Most certainly this model proposed by None is in no way perfect. It is a highly intense undertaking to have a group of creative individuals both living and working in such close proximity. All it takes is for one person to be in a foul mood to throw a dark cloud over the whole operation. I fully admit that I have been that black cloud more often than not. I take full responsibility for that because responsibility is the key to self-determination. Responsibility is the only price of liberty. If you want to do something, you take that on board and you step up and do it.
And that I believe is where we find ourselves now. As artists and as citizens of this planet. To look around ourselves, figure out what we want to do and to take the responsibility for doing it.
All bets are off. The shit is most indeed hitting the fan. Art will find a way.