Self-Organise: Educate, Agitate, Organise


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This lecture considers how both artists and culture function in society and in particular in relation to institutions.

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  • This lecture series has come about as part of a growing interest in self-organisation as a curatorial and artistic practice. Self-organisation has played a significant role in the development of contemporary art. The Self-Organise Option has also arisen from a need to address the fact that many of artists are either oblivious to the institutional contexts and social conditions that make art practices possible or are dissatisfied with them to some extent.The concept of self-organisingsignifies a self-starting mind-set, which refuses to wait for recognition or external validation from the established cultural gatekeepers. Shifting the emphasis from only considering yourart-making towards seriously considering how both artists and culture function in society and in particular in relation to institutions.
  • In recent years the impact of social networks upon self-organising has been phenomenal.For instance, anyone interested in emergent self organising processes that occur when diverse individuals assemble for a common cause, cannot fail to be impressed by how the Occupy movement has demonstrated a capacity for well structured engagement through combining the use of online platforms.The Occupy movement, to refresh your memory is an international protest movement against social and economic inequality, and its primary goal is to make the economic and political relations in all societies less vertically hierarchical and more flatly distributed. Whilst the philospher and cultural critic SlavojZizek has Occupy’s idea of self-organisation and non-hierarchical governance as being naïve, it cannot be denied that revolutions, mass demonstrations and political protests of various types have been forged through networks that protesters themselves have created with the help of digital technology.From our perspective we are interested of course in the self-organised aspect of these social movements not merely as political activities, but perhaps more importantly because they provide spaces for cultural and artistic growth and experimentation.
  • In the late 1990s, theorist Fredric Jameson argued that the social space was completely saturated with the image of culture. This is because in our professional and daily activities, as well as in the various forms of entertainment we enjoy, society consumes cultural products all the time. This characterizes the postmodern “cultural turn” diagnosed by Jameson…the uses of culture had undergone an unprecedented expansion not just in the marketplace but also along social, political, and economic linesIn contemporary society artists are thought to be important in giving shape to society. In a context where art, politics and the media are all intrinsically linked we can identify that contemporary cultural practices point towards what we might call a new social order, in which art has merged with life.For much of the visual arts community, self-organised, artist-run initiatives are a paradigm of creative independence.Independence is not to be taken lightly or taken for granted; it is hard to conceive, hard to establish and even harder to hold onto.
  • So before I go on it is probably a good idea to drill down into the etymology of self-organisation and ask what it means Shifting definition…Historically, in terms of art practice self-organisation was often deployed as a rallying call for anti-institutional projects. The underpinning ideology of self-organisation has traditionally denoted an oppositional and revolutionary position, one that challenges institutional hegemony. When we use the term hegemony we are talking about the dominant order comprised of various institutions, traditions and conventions that make up the cultural establishment.This was most explicitly addressed through the work of artists who engage in Institutional Critique, and I will return to this in a little while.Self-organised art practice has always offered a means of challenging the dominant order and continually finding new ways of doing things without the overarching support of an institution, public funding body or private patron. However, as self-organised practices have developed so too has the term. There has been a shift from it merely posing alternatives to the hegemonic order and this has created a need for a critical re-evaluation of the term.One reason for this is the recognition that, as the American artist and critic Andrea Fraser points out, it is no longer possible to be anti-institutional, as the art institution is essentially everything and everyone who recognises art as art. In her recent essay "From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique", Fraser claims that a movement between an inside and an outside of the institution is no longer possible, since the structures of the institution have become totally internalized, in other words, "We are the institution”.
  • Self –organising in the arts: the process of self-determined organising (as opposed to being organised by someone else, and an entity: an organisation of individuals created by them on their own terms. The main reason for self-organising in this context would appear to be the imbalance in the relationship between the majority of artists and the exhibition mainstream.Art Institutions:Art institutions generally refers to the socio-economic conglomerate of galleries, foundations, museums, institutes, educational facilities, magazines and councils that constitute the basis of the dominating understanding of art in a society (Jakobsen, J. 2006). Practically, the term institution describes an organisation that participates in the discourse of contemporary art. Larger museums and galleries are typically described this way, though smaller organisations, such as artist-run initiatives, can also be described as institutions. The term is a means of describing the whole of the organisation, rather than a single component (e.g. a building, the organisation's personnel, or the organisation's governance structure). On a conceptual basis, the term institution refers to the organisation as it is inscribed by structures of power. The concept of institutional critique is of particular relevance in terms of this definition. The central conceit of institutional critique is that established institutions are motivated by political, social, economic, and aesthetic hierarchies. …the distinction between established institutions and artist-run initiativesIn broad terms, the term ARIencompasses a myriad of activities that exist outside the perceived remit of commercial galleries, public museums, and established institutions. Self Organisation is a means to negotiate established institutional, economic and structural obstacles that were historically perceived as barriers to creative and professional development. For example ARIs, unlike established institutions, provide opportunities for artists to exhibit irrespective of whether they are validated by funding bodies, gallery representation or an extensive C.V. In that sense, ARIs are an extremely effective way for artists to develop both creatively and professionally, whilst exercising a high degree of autonomy, debate, exhibition and promotion within a peer group context
  • “The function of artist-led spaces is pragmatically grounded in the psychology of self-assertion and self-improvement – attributes commonly acquired after the de-education of art school”. Malcolm Dickson, Variant magazine, Transmission and Photoworks in GlasgowThe synthetic environment of art schools cannot fully expose students to the mechanics of the art world, it would be unreasonable to expect so, as is the expectation that students will transform into professional artists over the duration of their degree. Artist-run indicates that these organizations were developed and managed by artists, rather than administrators, and could consequently reflect their needs and desires. Notably, it is not exclusively artists that are included under the idiom artist-run; the term has expanded to include a host of cultural practitioners, including writers and curators. This is because artists are increasingly multi-taskers who balance a number of pursuits, gaining transferable skills and in doing so construct what the cultural theorist Angela McRobbie calls “portfolio careers”. Short-term contracts, part-time, working, freelancing, and self-employment characterises how the majority artists survive and function. Portfolio careers are not generally chosen and are neither are they necessarily a positive because of the precarious labour conditions.
  • Self-organisation is related to practices of institutional critique and also to the legacies of anti-establishment and counter-cultural practices. Institutional CritiqueThe first wave of institutional critique from the late 1960s and early 1970s includes figures like Michael Asher, Robert Smithson, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke and Marcel Broodthaers. Their critical method was an artistic practice, and the institution in question was the art institution, mainly the art museum, but also galleries and collections.This was a response to artists’ dissatisfaction with public museums and commercial galleries, in terms of access and lack of control over their work.They examined the conditioning of their own activity by the ideological and economic frames of the museum, with the goal of breaking out. They had a strong relation to the anti-institutional revolts of the 1960s and 70s, and to the accompanying philosophical critiques, including the writings of Benjamin Buchloh.Institutional critique thus took on many forms, such as artistic works and interventions, critical writings or (art‑)political activism.
  • Institutional Critique was reflective of widespread discontentment across Europe in the 1960s with the forms of the transmission of knowledge. In particular this chimed with the dissatisfaction amongst students with the content of teaching and with the inequitable relations between teacher and student. This led to students across Europe challenging the once quiescent status quo with pro-situ happenings that attacked expertise and notably reached its peak in May 1968 with the Paris student uprising when 30,000 students clashed with police. French workers came out in support with a general strike that almost toppled the government. These events profoundly and irrevocably changed social attitudes resulting from a newfound scepticism of hierarchical structures of power. From a Marxist-Socialist position the events of 1968 signified a renaissance of culture coupled with the re-emergence of the working class, after a post-war period characterised by the rebirth and expansion of capitalism. In Britain art students were in the thick of events in that period, by June 1968 sixteen British colleges and universities were adding their contribution to the summer of discontent, as a direct result of the events in Paris. Hornsey College of Art, the bastion of British student radicalisation, was occupied by students issuing Situationist inspired manifestos, which demanded greater autonomy and an end to the paternalism of hierarchical regimes. Sharing the preoccupations of this tumultuous era with their French counterparts, the all-over aim of the students was to open up the art academies and education to a wider contemporary (art) world. Students rebelled against the authoritarianism of the institution and militated for the democratization of decision-making processes and for changes in the curricula and syllabuses (Piper, D.W. 1973). The Hornsey affair resulted in unprecedented reprisals with all students, part time staff and administrative workers implicated in the revolt being dismissed. Students at the Scottish Art Schools were by no means immune to the climate of changing opinions and ideas that were emerging. The shared dictum of the political and artistic avant-garde included the re-affirmation of the importance of art, greater public access to art, as well as greater involvement in art activities, and a belief in self-help and mutual aid to get things done, rather than passive dependence on experts and established authorities. The probing questions about the ethics of societal values and the legitimacy of political authority inevitably spread to scrutiny of the established rationales that governed the art world; casting doubt on the neutrality and ethical status of established cultural institutions. As a result, the political and artistic avant-garde mounted an open revolt against authoritarian complacency and were a catalyst for one of the most significant intellectual shifts, the destabilising of concepts such as authority and objectivity in traditional art historical methodologies. The events of 1968, compounded by the expansion in art school provision during the 1960s, resulted in artists questioning not only their position in society but also their possible means of making a living. Enmeshed in this anomalous situation artists were forced to reconsider their role and reacted by subverting the established institutional systems of knowledge and power. This had a profound effect on artist-run culture.The Situationists were an international, Paris-based group whose writings fuelled the political theory and graffiti of many political movements. As documented in their document Ten Days that Shook the University, the SI were involved in the student occupation of Sorbonne University in May 68.
  • in the so-called second wave, from the 1980s, the institutional framework became somewhat expanded to include the artist’s role (the subject performing the critique) as institutionalized, as well as an investigation into other institutional spaces (and practices) besides the art space.So if we think about institutions of art, organisations that contain, collect, present, preserve and consecrate artworks, then we are talking about an attack on these institutions. Institutional critique was a practice mainly, if not exclusively, conducted by artists, and directed against the (art) institutions, as a critique of their ideological and representative social function(s).However, as Andrea Frazer’s statement “We are the institution” suggests, the them and us position is no longer tenable and it is a false dichotomy to assume that contemporary artist-run culture is against mainstream art practice. Whilst the contemporary artists who self-organise may not be viewed as overt political and social dissidents, they do retain an air of the anti-establishment attitude that motivated their predecessors. One of the problems with past approaches to institutional critique, is that they set up a binary: on the one hand there is the establishedinstitution, a centralised system embedded in its own bureaucratic wants and needs; on the other hand, there is the "independent" curator or artist, heroically criticising and resisting, sometimes from the outside, sometimes from within. In essence what Fraser points out is that artists involved in Institutional Critique were working critically from within the institutions.A site of critiques and contestation.Established institutions are also broadly characterized by strong hierarchical relations and are built on the principles of sovereignty concerning who is in charge with chains of command delineating responsibilities within the organisation. This is a clear distinction with ARIs whose self-organisation shapes their artist-driven governance model.
  • Self-Organisation has become synonomous with anti-capitalist critique.In the 1990s SO gained an increasingly anti-capitalist and political dimension, which was propelled by anti-globalisation movements. Working in a self-organised way was increasingly seen as the only response to a new political reality, in which multinational companies had replaced national governments as the enemies. The collision of the financial economy with culture prompted a resistance to what the cultural commentator Michael Bracewell terms as “the sterilising grasp of cultural commodification” (Bracewell, M. 2003). Established institutions on the other hand increasingly compete in the leisure industry market with exhibitions that are competitively selected and directed to attract maximum visibility in the mediatised public realm. In the last two decades established institutions have been shifting towards an industrialisation of visual art exhibitions, akin to the Hollywood blockbuster or the musical box-office smashes. Their ambitions are set on broadening and growing their audiences through marketable and profitable exhibitions aimed at tourist that are prepared to pay substantial entry fees. The need for artists to evolve their ways of working has always been necessary. In light of the drastic changes to the structure of the art world over the last decade and the wider socio-political and economic challenges we are facing the need to reconsider our modes of operating to find alternatives seems more pressing than ever. How might we see beyond the current and develop institutional models that function in an unknown future?
  • Clearly the interrelationship between contemporary art and politics is a timely one to explore.To paraphrase the avant-garde film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, it’s not a question of making political art or film; it’s about making art or film politically. This idea echos through the practices and debates of contemporary artists, radical cultural movements, artist-run organizations, independent curatorial projects and critical writing on art. reflect upon the potency of radical artistic practices which seek to challenge
  • the various complications and dependencies that arise between art institutions and the social, economic and political spheres.There is a correlation between economic decline and the increase of self-organised cultural activity.
  • The current economic situation and society’s low confidence in its institutions demands that artists become more imaginative in the way that they organise themselves. Here I am of course referring to the effects of austerity measures that have been imposed since the global financial collapse of 2008.Arts organisations are facing big challenges as a result of austerity measures from central and local governments.
  • For the 7th Berlin Biennale Forget Fear the curators invited members from Occupy Movements around the world to take over the ground floor of the Kunst-Werke. The framework was a difficult one: a contemporary art exhibition, probably the most famous one in Europe, the occupy movements  were invited, not because of their artistic skills but because of the political process they were living worldwide. There was quite a controversy around the occupy movement participating in an art event, the fear to be “exhibited”, the fear to be swallowed up by a “commercial” event, when art becomes a consumer article and forgets its function of questioning reality. What is interesting here is that this is an engagement with art that goes beyond the confines of studio practices to focus on being active in the social field. Artists working on this vein, follow an ethic of action and commitment outside of the artworld, seeking to intervene in urgent issues in the public sphere.In her 1968 essay “The Crisis in Culture,” Hannah Arendt argues that true art has no purpose and is useless and therefore not a part of political action. According to Arendt, art and politics are two separate spheres, since political action or “speaking out” necessarily implies means or ends, while art is autonomous and needs no justification. According to Arendt, when art has political aims, it becomes propaganda (for example, socialist realism under Stalin’s regime). For Arendt, what art and politics have in common is that both are “carried out”—to use a term posterior to Arendt—in the public sphere. With the advent of industrialized culture, however, once mass society became interested in cultural values and began to monopolize culture for its own ends, transforming cultural values into exchangeable values, a fusion between art and politics occurred in the greater cultural sphere.
  • However the political theorist Chantal Mouffe offers another perspective which suggests that contemporary artists are not released from the needs of activism, fromsetting up and maintaining alternative networks, and continually reconfiguring the political relations of culture. She writes…I do not see the relation between art and politics in terms of two separately constituted fields, art on one side and politics on the other, between which a relation would need to be established. There is an aesthetic dimension in the political and there is a political dimension in art. This is why I consider that it is not useful to make a distinction between political and non-political art… The real issue concerns the possible forms of critical art, the different ways in which artistic practices can contribute to questioning the dominant hegemony.
  • Self-Organise: Educate, Agitate, Organise

    1. 1. Self Organise Andrea Bowers Educate, Agitate, Organize (2011)
    2. 2. "We are the institution” Andrea Fraser From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique
    3. 3. Bob and Roberta Smith‘Hey, We’re closed’(2010)
    4. 4. Natascha Sadr Haghighian, I Can't Work Like This (2007)
    5. 5. Dave Sherry. Complaints (2009)
    6. 6. Claire Fontaine (James Thornhill and Fulvia Carnevale) Capitalism Kills Love (Red, White, Blue) (2009)
    7. 7. Freee Revolution is Sublime (2009)
    8. 8. I do not see the relation between art and politics in terms of two separately constituted fields, art on one side and politics on the other, between which a relation would need to be established. There is an aesthetic dimension in the political and there is a political dimension in art. This is why I consider that it is not useful to make a distinction between political and non-political art… The real issue concerns the possible forms of critical art, the different ways in which artistic practices can contribute to questioning the dominant hegemony. Chantal Mouffe (2007)