Artist Run Multiverse Summit

Artist Run Multiverse Summit, Eastside Projects. Photos: Zunaira Muzaffar 2019.

I only arrived at the Artist Run Multiverse Summit half way through the first day due to now routine issues with public transport, having travelled from Hull in East Yorkshire to Birmingham in the Midlands. My late arrival wasn’t as detrimental as I had assumed it would be, and this initial impression is symptomatic of what was to come. Artist-run events that mimic academic forms tend to be unwieldy and awkward, because in staging a summit, or conference, or symposium that hasn’t germinated from within the pressurised bowels of a university we have to be conscious of and decide on what we will and won’t replicate. This process of either adaptation to or rejection of dominant, conservative organisational forms was picked at and teased out over this two-day event, and for me epitomises what is at stake in implementing, reproducing and discussing the artist-run. As a whole, the summit was geared towards finding solutions and ways forward in an environment that is in many ways hostile to many people. In reconsidering what went on I turned to three texts to try and work out how we might foment solidarity, and in turn find a way towards action: these were Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (which is free to read online), A codex for con artists? Or: an ethics of disappointment’ by Jan Verwoert (who I was put on to a few years ago when a friend went to study in Rotterdam), and Judith Butler’s Adorno Prize Lecture from 2012, thinking around the question ‘Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life’, which again is freely available online.

The intermittent interruptions that had been planned throughout the day meant that my arrival didn’t attract everyone’s attention with a slamming door, or a scraping chair in a deathly quiet room. Surveying the event literature I noticed it explicitly stated that participants could and should take some time out if they found themselves feeling overwhelmed. This put me at ease and was a heartening acknowledgment of accessibility concerns that are often overlooked; the needs of some to move around, or to take breaks during long spells of concentration and constant socialising, and to be able to do this without drawing disapproval.

The first speaker I caught in full was Aaron Solman, a philosopher and researcher in artificial intelligence and cognitive science, outlining ways that humans and other creatures have solved problems ‘on the fly’ offering the example of squirrels gaining access to ‘squirrel-proof’ bird feeders (look it up on Youtube, he tells us). On top of being an interesting interlude this short talk served to remind that while policies, guidelines and manifestos are useful, there will always be a certain amount of ‘on the fly’ firefighting to be done no matter how much we try to coordinate. Commonly, part of the reasoning for setting up artist-led spaces and organisations at all is to try and do things ‘un-institutionally’, to some extent rejecting professionalisation and the bureaucratic structures that institutions cultivate. But, despite the unglamorous nature of administration and bureaucracy, it is necessary if we want to keep records and hold people to account for their actions.

In her lecture Butler draws attention to how Adorno valued a critical engagement with the self in attempting to navigate ‘the bad life’; ‘Adorno remarks that we need to hold fast to moral norms, to self-criticism, to the question of right and wrong, and at the same time a sense of the fallibility of the authority that has the confidence to undertake such self-criticism’.[1] I take this to mean, in the context of this event, that we need to be able to critique ourselves and our organisations, and also critique what it is we’re measuring ourselves against, and the criteria we’re using for critique in the first place. Admittedly this is a pretty intense philosophical stance to have to take when you’re trying to run a venue, or a print studio, or a website on top of gainful employment and numerous other pressures.

Over the first afternoon, as if in acknowledgment of this fact, a diverse range of organisations — from collectives offering community services, to those whose output is purely digital, to those whose entire identity has grown around the building they inhabit presented themselves, their structures, their internal conflicts, and the specific issues that they are trying to address. With three short introductions that followed each other in quick succession from The White Pube, Rabbits Road Press and Kunsthalle Ghent I found myself increasingly taking issue with how artist led organisations often describe, or sell themselves as ‘filling a gap in the market’, and providing a previously unavailable service to consumers. In the spirit of self-critique it’s important to question the impulse to promote newness, growth, production, and doing for doing’s sake. This is also something that The White Pube highlighted in their talk, pointing to the phenomenon of ‘failing upwards’ in the cultural industries by continuing with the same project or work despite valid criticism and setbacks. It’s often been said that the way to forge a career in the arts is to simply hang on for as long as you can, without acknowledging what ‘hanging on’ requires or questioning whether it is a good thing to do.

With this in mind The White Pube’s unapologetic commitment to acknowledging their own subjectivity, and calling out the faux-objectivity of others is an interesting refutation of the managerial or editorial voice that most organisations and publications cultivate, and that functions both to protect the individuals involved, but also to obscure the workings. As TWP’s popularity and notoriety has grown this has become an issue for them, a trajectory that can be mapped on to many artist-led organisations, whereby it’s difficult to tell what resources someone has access to from the outside, and with a little digital skill it’s fairly easy to present as slick and stable whilst actually being incredibly precarious. TWP have stated emphatically that they refuse the authority that is conferred on them by virtue of having a large audience, and are not seeking to build a broadcasting empire but rather to continue publishing art criticism online as they always have.

However, I’m not sure whether authority is something that you can choose to refuse, no matter if it has been sought or not. In contrast to this approach, Rabbits Road Press are plainly providing a service and are partly funded through hire fees, leading to their asking the question; ‘what does the artist-led mean when the artist is doing the work of a manager or administrator’, and on top of this in the context of this reflection, I’d like to ask whether and how an administrator or duty manager could cultivate and exercise critical subjectivity? This was partially addressed by the delegations from Transmission in Glasgow and London-based 12Ø Collective, who asserted that there needs to be ethical accountability in artist led organisations, acknowledging that this requires labour and expertise beyond the creative and generative. This would mean artists having to adequately fulfill the roles of ‘human resources’, ‘office manager’ and the like, in the service of an ongoing practice of organisational critique.

Artist Run Multiverse Summit, Eastside Projects. Photos: Zunaira Muzaffar 2019.

The above focus on administration highlights a continual and much-documented issue within all self-organised culture, that the dull work of record-keeping, and the behind-the-scenes maintenance that keeps things going is often unconsciously and uncritically feminised. Without intentionally countering this tendency it’s easy to slip into patriarchal modes of organisation, and bringing this up in the context of the artist-run raises important questions about how we define the roles of artist, critic and curator. Much of contemporary art and the surrounding culture that we have inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries depends on misogynist and racist ideas about who an artist is and what they do, along with a patriarchal relationship between artists, critics and curators.

It’s tempting and comforting to imagine that we needn’t worry about all that anymore, but I think it’s a necessary framing for the dialogues that took place during the Artist Run Multiverse. For example, The White Pube noted how much of the backlash they attract is blatantly racialised and gendered, with prominent broadsheet art critics and editors seemingly choosing to reduce themselves to pathetic ‘reply guys’ on Twitter in an effort to maintain relevance on a playing-field that they feel is being levelled beneath them. Then, after the directors of Transmission chose in 2017 to postpone their annual members show, citing the organisational structure that includes unpaid directorships as unacceptable, the organisation lost its funding from Creative Scotland. While I can only speculate on how and why this decision was made by the funder, it certainly seems that by reacting to their unsustainable working conditions instead of ‘sucking it up’ and complaining in private, the Transmission directorship drew punishment. The stakes, then, are higher than many of us would like to admit and change can only be sought if we’re able to acknowledge this and behave accordingly, bringing to mind Lorde’s famous assertion that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change’.[2]

A consideration of how to facilitate resistance without undue harm to the individual, or individuals is evidently a much-needed conversation to keep up, however the presentations from Kunsthalle Ghent, East Leeds Project, Campbell Works and the Newbridge Project offered an appropriate recentering of buildings and geographic specificity. Organisations that exist either digitally or nomadically don’t have to worry about the upkeep of a physical space but in acknowledging material conditions and the realities of labour in the artist-run, issues around space and accommodation must be taken into account. Kunsthal Gent has grown around the organisation’s access to the Caermersklooster, a medieval structure that has been repeatedly repurposed over the centuries and now serves as a ‘provincial exhibition centre’ and also the home of Kunsthal Gent. A primary concern of this artist-run organisation is how buildings outlast context, and how organisations that seek autonomy can work around and under municipal bureaucracy. Whereas Campbell Works and the East Leeds Project are involved with serving the community within which they reside, as are Rabbits Road Press. The Newbridge Project, on the other hand, had to move buildings in 2017 and has dispersed, with a separate bookshop, gallery and studios, whilst also becoming an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation for the first time.

Conversations about how artist led organisations can access space, or buildings, often demonstrate a resigned sense that the whims of councils and developers are unassailable and must be placated or manoeuvred around. In a day to day sense this is true, but here it was useful to get an insight into some current research from an attendee and PhD candidate writing on the artist-led, who noted that the cycle of relative abundance and unavailability of space for co-option by artists clearly follows the boom and bust cycles of capitalism. This point leads neatly on to a consideration of politics, and how whilst a generally left-liberal position is assumed in the arts, unless our politics are made explicit it is difficult, and hollow to speak about our shared interests.

Artist Run Multiverse Summit, Eastside Projects. Photos: Zunaira Muzaffar 2019.

After this series of presentations came break-out groups, optional discussion circles focussing on a few earlier-submitted questions. Due to the temporal and cooperative nature of conversations like these, it seemed foolish to attempt an equivalent overview of each, and so I let myself instinctively drift towards the discussion most pertinent to my life and work; ‘Is it inevitable that a successful artist-run space grows up to be an institution’. Each participant necessarily had a different understanding of what an artist-run space is or could be, and so a large part of the discussion had to be taken up with definitions. This can be a silencing tactic, a way of closing off avenues of thought through a preoccupation with grammar and etymology, but here it was necessary due to how many terms pertaining to art are either ill-defined to start with, or depend on unacknowledged privilege and implicit understandings. For example it was useful to think through, as a group, the meanings of ‘artist-led’, versus ‘artist-run’, and how the initial aims of an organisation effect how it might develop. In some cases, the point of running a space as artists is to attempt artistic methodology as organisation. Whereas in others, an organisation is established along traditional organisational principles in order to address a lack of artistic infrastructure, or access to art. Having participants present from outside of the UK was useful here, as without their input it would have been easy to fall into discussing the minutiae of Arts Council policy without acknowledging how different material conditions can be, and how quickly they can change.

Once time was called for the break-outs, each group shared their findings, pressured by mediator Gavin Wade to give an actual answer to the question posed. In terms of ‘is it inevitable that a successful artist-run space grows up to be an institution’ the answer was ‘no’ with an added appeal to try and decouple the idea of longevity from success. One of the other breakout groups discussed the question ‘How do we make “care” central to our institutional praxis as an artist-led organisation’, culminating in weary despair, stating that ‘nobody outside the artist-led will institute any policy changes and nobody outside the arts gives a fuck about care and criticality’. Throughout this feedback session with the mediator, more direct and pointed questions emerged, honing in on power relations that exist whether an organisation is artist-led, artist-run or not.

In the ‘grows up to be an institution’ group it was ‘where is the agency?’ pointing to how overworked, underpaid and inexperienced people are ripe for manipulation, whether by funders, developers or even colleagues. In another of the panels asking ‘do all art scenes have the same problems?’ in terms of criticism the question of where the responsibility for policy lies was posed. The need to address deeper dynamics before solutions can be found was also evident in considering the question of ‘whether an artist run city is possible’. Without first defining the power-relations inherent in the structure of a city, or cities in general, the idea of sharing resources or defining artist-led spaces as ‘power stations’ seems toothless. After partaking in discussions, listening in and speaking out, I was left thinking that for there to be answers to these questions, and solutions to these problems, we have to define either a common position, or engender some sort solidarity around the multiplicity of identities and positions that we inhabit, as Lorde puts it; ‘difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic’.[3]

Artist Run Multiverse Summit, Eastside Projects. Photos: Zunaira Muzaffar 2019.

The official programme of the first day ended, and participants dispersed in groups to socialise before bedding down for a gallery sleepover. The ways in which cliques form and groups split off at this point brought the difficulties of fomenting solidarity into focus. Whilst it shouldn’t have to depend on everyone liking the same things or spending a certain amount of time together, the discussions that take place between people who’ve decided they identify with each other seems to be where the real shit gets worked out. On one hand it’s important to be able to discuss ideas and impressions in relative privacy, to talk about people and events in order to hone your thoughts without having to immediately justify them in public. However, when so much of what we (the attendees, that is) do is predicated upon informal networks of friendship and loose professional respect, perhaps at events like this it would be useful to insist on transparency, to use spending extended time as one big group as an experiment in forging empathy. In thinking back and forth around these issues of socialising and sociality I was brought back to the Jan Verwoert essay mentioned earlier, and an exchange on twitter between The White Pube and artist Jesse Darling, in response to TWP’s ‘How to Get an Exhibition’ guide for Shape Arts.[4]

At the start of his essay Verwoert states, ‘and here we are: cultural producers, writers, curators, con artists of all kinds, engineering the delicate frustrations that further belief in the simulacra of the unattainable. The ultimate act of resistance would be to disappoint this professional demand’.[5] Throughout their guide TWP repeatedly assert that they don’t advocate or cherish the trajectory that they’re describing; ‘I’ve written this based on who i see exhibiting and different things that have happened to me and my peers here in the UK. But a disclaimer, i think the current steps to get to be An Exhibiting Artist are weird and I *in no way* want to insinuate I approve of them by writing this’.[6]

Coming back to the idea of deceleration, both of the above quotes can be read as a call to do less, or to refuse, and there’ve been plenty of books and essays to that effect published recently. When art-work feels like the epitome of late-capitalist monetisation of free time, friends, and everything else that comes together to make a life, this is understandable. However, discussing the artist-run sector in isolation insinuated a belief that working in the arts should be somehow immune to the wider trends in work of all kinds, towards erosion of rights and casualisation. Perhaps it would be useful to make these claims about overwork and underpayment as part of an argument for wages that rise with inflation in general, contracts that protect the worker above the company, and the right to leisure time in order to actually take part in and perpetuate (or alter) culture.

As if to illustrate this, in order for us to sleep over in the gallery, a security guard had to be hired to stay up all night guarding the door. The idea of a gallery sleepover comes from Rosalie Schweiker and Maria Guggenbichler’s ‘Sleep with a curator’, described as a ‘one-of-a-kind opportunity for horizontal networking’,[7] and is clearly a humorous play on the idea of using socialising and intimate relationships to progress professionally. This is consistent with how throughout the two-days attendees have been constituted and reconstituted into groups of different sizes and intensities, experimenting with different forms of sociality. Yet, these temporary little utopias that we try to create in galleries can never be autonomous, and it is harmful and ignorant to pretend that they are. Although, that’s not to say that being able to continue the discussions from the day before straight away on waking wasn’t helpful, and exciting, if also exhausting.

After a classic conference breakfast of little pastries, toast and fruit the second day began with a tour around the other artist-run spaces in Digbeth – where Eastside Projects is based. Discussing the ‘artist-run’ without spending time in a different artist-run spaces makes it difficult not to focus on one organisation as the archetype, indeed maybe everyone has their own in mind, but that’s why we talk about things in groups, to challenge our habitual thinking. With this in mind, putting our bodies in other spaces was like a palate cleanser before returning to the talks, questions and activities at Eastside Projects. I arrived late back into another intervention that looked like some sort of mediation or ice breaking exercise. Somebody let know that I missed some group work examining how people organically fall into either leadership or follower roles, and I supposed the person who decided to fill me in is a leader, or is trying to be.

Artist Run Multiverse Summit, Eastside Projects. Photos: Zunaira Muzaffar 2019.

Next was a ‘Who’s in the Room’ session, the previous day’s version of which I missed, where different organisations, collectives and representatives give short, timed introductions to who they are and what they do. It felt strange to swing from quite radical discussions about what organisations could do or be back to listening to what they already are, often in the form of pitches that may have previously been delivered to funders. Then again, it’s also another way of building accessibility into the form, by letting everyone know who each other are instead of depending on socialising for these introductions. This is at the crux of accessibility, especially in the arts, where what seems superfluous to one person might be absolutely essential to another, and this should be taken into account when we offer critique – you can decide you don’t care, but there’s no excuse for being unaware. On this point, all the different modes of engagement that were attempted, from anonymous questions to shared documents, demanded different kinds of attention. The aforementioned permission to leave, and intermittent ‘interruptions’ provide a welcome break in concentration that at least acknowledges how gruelling events like this can be. After the official, invited presentations, the questions that are asked anonymously and read out by organisers approached many of the issues I’d felt were missing, and it was heartening to know that other people were thinking the same things as I was.

I’m still troubled by the idea, often unthinkingly promoted, that you should only be able to do or start something if it’s sufficiently different from or more niche than whatever else is going on, but then it is vital to offer alternatives to the overwhelming whiteness and social homogeneity of the art world. Either way, I still find myself asking under my breath, why not reject these impoverished terms of engagement and demand everything? In this way it’s useful having the opportunity to discuss in different registers, to be broad and ideological in some groups, and specific, focusing on lived experience in others. Late on the second day somebody asked ‘Is success addressing issues to the point that they are solved and cease to exist?’ which brought me back to how many of the organisations present are addressing a social need or fulfilling a social function, that this is inherently political, and that perhaps this is a nexus around which solidarity can be formed. Here I’m thinking about the regional library staff who have been replaced with volunteers, devaluing their work and the social function of libraries, and how this mirrors the way that work in the cultural industries is devalued to the point where ‘nobody outside the arts gives a fuck about care and criticality’. My hope is that this can be a point around which to rally, that the social and economic punishment doled out to those who refuse the existing terms of engagement can be tempered with solidarity, that we can honestly say “I refuse to represent to you what you desire for yourself”[8] because “aspirational culture thrives on unfulfilled yearning[9]”. Back in the room, towards the end of the second day, as the sun set and everyone’s lack of sleep caught up with them, the structure disintegrated and people split into small groups, talking quietly.

Artist Run Multiverse Summit took place at Eastside Projects, Birmingham, on 9-10 November 2018.

Lauren Velvick is an artist, writer, assistant curator at Humber Street Gallery and a director of Corridor8.


[1] Butler, Judith ‘Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life’, Adorno Prize Lecture. Published in Radical Philosophy 176 (Nov/Dec 2012)

[2] Lorde, Audre ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, 1984, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press Feminist Series, 2007

[3] Lorde, Audre ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, 1984, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press Feminist Series, 2007

[4] https://www.shapearts.org.uk/news/how-to-get-an-exhibition

[5] Verwoert, Jan, A codex for Con Artists? Or: An Ethics of Disappointment, in Cookie! Ed. Rehberg, Vivian Sky & Slater, Marinie, Piet Zwart Institute & Sternberg Press, 2013

[6] http://www.thewhitepube.co.uk/how-to-get-an-exhibition

[7] http://flattimeho.org.uk/events/sleep-curator-hosted-rosalie-schweiker-and-maria-g/

[8] Verwoert, Jan, A codex for Con Artists? Or: An Ethics of Disappointment, in Cookie! Ed. Rehberg, Vivian Sky & Slater, Marinie, Piet Zwart Institute & Sternberg Press, 2013, p. 13

[9] Verwoert, Jan, A codex for Con Artists? Or: An Ethics of Disappointment, in Cookie! Ed. Rehberg, Vivian Sky & Slater, Marinie, Piet Zwart Institute & Sternberg Press, 2013, p. 14

Published 13.02.2019 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

4,226 words