Artist-run and artist-led: London and non-London initiatives in the UK

Sean Rafferty


Roger Beebe, Last Light of a Dying Star, expanded film performance at Cafe Oto as part of Other Film and’s event Unconscious Archives



Not surprisingly the arts in the United Kingdom are well serviced by excellent galleries and museums on a bigger scale and variety compared to what can be experienced in Australia. Commercial galleries in London such as the new White Cube in Bermondsey or Hauser and Wirth’s spaces in London’s West End have grown towards institutional sizes. It seems while the rest of the economy is flat these top-end galleries are pushing into new territory, demonstrating that it is clearly getting better for some. This could be true for London in the context of the UK where evidence of the economic downturn is more apparent in regional cities. Birmingham is Great Britain’s second most populous city with just over 1 million people. By comparison, London’s population is over 8 million, representing a huge difference in scale, and giving some indication of the lure of the capital. This is perhaps one of the reasons that the linkages between non-London artist-run initiatives (ARIs) is strong, and one of the reasons that ARIs in places like Birmingham feel they have an important role to play in fostering local art production, discussion and exhibition.

Eastside Projects is located on the Eastern fringe of Birmingham’s city centre. The area is a former industrial estate that has been only partially gentrified, which is surprising given it is ten minutes on foot to the city centre. Like most artist-run initiatives in the UK, Eastside Projects is not a neutral space in which to present a project. Rather it plays an active role in the formation of projects, many of which are curated by the directors. There is a ‘user manual’ available in print or on the Eastside Projects website (in its fifth edition) that spells out what the project’s agenda is, and also explains the gallery’s other strategies including why there is residual work from previous shows existing in current shows. The gallery is housed in a warehouse building and is comprised of two spaces, one large frontal space and, adjacent to this, a smaller gallery space. Showing, when I visited, was a three-person exhibition in the main gallery space (Caroline Achaintre, Sara Barker, Alice Channer), and a group exhibition curated by London artist-run organisation FormContent. Having closed their bricks-and-mortar operation in 2011, FormContent are now a ‘nomadic’ artist- run organisation conducting a 15-month project in different spaces under the title It’s moving from I to It. Their inhabitation of Eastside Projects represents scene three, titled: Not surprisingly, he is wearing gloves, an exhibition of video, painting, objects and documents, presented as a series of ‘facts’ or pieces of evidence from which narrative threads are built towards varying degrees of completion. The New Zealand duo Fitts & Holderness presented their 2-channel video work The Disappearance of Garth Mayhew, previously shown at Artspace, Sydney in 2011. Douglas Gordon’s presence in the show is, from what I have noticed a not uncommon occurrence at UK ARIs, whereby established artists are shown alongside emerging artists. Interestingly, non-local artists make up much of the exhibition program, which is limited to 4-5 shows a year, and most of these push beyond the emerging category with previous exhibitors including Liam Gillick and Dan Graham.


Roger Beebe, Last Light of a Dying Star, expanded film performance at Cafe Oto as part of Other Film and’s event Unconscious Archives

Where Eastside is playing the role of bringing accomplished practitioners and organisations to the city, there are other artist-run spaces such as Grand Union and The Lombard Method that are acting as platforms for local artists. These and other artist-run and non-profit organisations have come together to form a network in Birmingham called We Are Eastside.[i] The network is an example of the connectedness between ARIs in the UK. This is particularly the case for non-London ARIs, where the sharing of spaces for projects, seminars and exhibitions happens regularly. This connectedness is made easier by good roads and rail networks and relatively short distances between big centres. In cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol there are artist-run organisations playing important roles for the art and non-art communities on a number of levels. Grizedale Arts, a former collaborator with Eastside Projects, is an organisation in Conistan in the Lake District which has worked extensively with its local community, and is gaining attention beyond the UK for projects that are part of a broader shift in art practices to socially ‘useful’ ends.[ii]

In London I attended Unconscious Archives at Café Oto in Dalston, an event co-curated by James Holcombe (, London) and Sally Golding (Other Film, Brisbane). is an organisation based out of Tower Hamlets in London’s east that, rather than having permanent exhibition spaces, has an office, studios, a screening space, and a lab for filmmakers to hire equipment and process 16mm film. Founded by Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, has operated since 2004 as an artist-run organisation that is very active in hosting events—seminars, workshops, curated projects, performances, screenings, exhibitions, residencies and publications—in other sites locally and internationally with individuals, communities and institutions. At the time of writing were in the middle of their summer school, called A Lecture from Behind the Screen, being held at Guest Projects, a space loaned by artist Yinka Shonibare on Regents Canal for projects and workshops. Lecturers in the school’s program are notable artists and groups including Thomas Hirschhorn, The Otolith Group, and Chto Delat? (What is to be done?).

At Unconscious Archives it was standing room only for much of the audience in Cafe Oto’s large space. Oto operates as a cafe during the day, but its central function is as a venue ‘with the aim of providing a home for creative new music that exists outside of the mainstream’.[iii] Many of the presentations and performances on the evening were light and/or sound-based using old and new modified equipment. Joel Stern, a Brisbane-based artist, created a complex sound piece using circuit boards fitted with photo-electric cells that responded to a range of light sources including LEDs, torches and bike lights. Similarly, Roger Beebe’s ‘expanded film performance’ used a series of light sources (four 16mm projectors operated simultaneously) to show a series of looped film sequences about the grandest cycle of them all—the earth’s movement around the sun. Set to a recorded musical work, the sound and images built to an impressive crescendo before returning to the quiet and abstract beginnings of the piece.

Within walking distance from is Transition Gallery at Regent Studios. Balconies on each floor of this large tower block guide you past some of the many creative workspaces in the building. The window at the front of Transition allows a view of a small space dedicated to publications, and gives some indication of the emphasis the gallery puts on magazines and zines. Publications by the gallery include Garageland (available from Mag Nation Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland), Arty, and The Critical Friend. Transition’s exhibitions tend to have a focus on painting and drawing, and directors Cathy Lomax, Alex Michon and Alli Sharma ask exhibitors to think about describing their work in a printed format in addition to its gallery presentation. Transition accepts proposals but organises most of the exhibitions in the space itself, which run for 2-3 weeks. This model is a common one in the UK. Unlike many Australian ARIs that receive public funding and usually have one or two rounds of annual proposal submissions, many UK ARIs determine their own programs and rarely accept or show proposed work. There are fewer apparent or rigid structures in this regard, as is often the case in Australia. As programs are often determined by the initiative’s directors, it is probably more accurate to refer to the UK organisations as Artist-Led Initiatives (a term that is already widely used), as opposed to Artist-Run Initiatives, the distinction being that artist-run implies that the space acts primarily as an enabler in the presentation of a project, rather than as a catalyst, curator or active participant. Agency in programming of ARIs in Australia is limited by the number and scale of submissions, which is perhaps a result of the terms by which funding is received. It would be valuable to look in depth at the circumstances in which UK ARIs operate and what the prevailing aims and modus operandi of organisations are. In my brief time in London I have only scratched the surface of artist-led networks. In addition to the many organisations in England that I am yet to visit, there is a network of projects operating in mainland Europe and Ireland that are about an hour’s flight from London (similar to the distance artists regularly travel between Sydney and Melbourne, for instance). The interaction of ARIs in this context occurs regularly.[iv]


Garageland. Image courtesy of Transition Gallery


The most recognisable differences I have found between the ARIs that I have looked at in the UK and the predominant models that exist in Australia lies partly in the differences between ‘artist-run’ and ‘artist-led’ initiatives that I have outlined, and also in the activity of non-London ARIs to foster ties with local artist communities and with regional ARIs in similar predicaments. Organisations like Eastside Projects and FormContent operate as
a kind of ongoing curatorial project, and tend to place an emphasis on linkages—be they conceptual, professional, or educational—rather than on being platforms from which anyone can apply to exhibit. This approach privileges developing and fostering an audience over the provision of exhibition opportunities for emerging artists.[v] As the attraction of London for creative industries of any type is huge not only for producers but for audiences as well, the role of artist-led initiatives outside the capital is crucial. It also makes these places well worth a visit.


It’s moving from I to It
Scene 3: Not surprisingly, he is wearing gloves.

With Fitts & Holderness, Goldin + Senneby, Douglas Gordon, Martin Gustavsson, Marine Hugonnier
26 May – 7 July
Eastside Projects
86 Heath Mill Lane, Birmingham B9 4AR

Unconscious Archives #5
Sculpture, Joel Stern, Roger Beebe, Stephen Cornford, Simon Payne.
Co-curated by James Holcombe (, London) and Sally Golding (Other Film, Brisbane).
Tuesday 3rd July, £6/7

Cafe Oto
18 – 22 Ashwin Street,
Dalston, London, E8 3DL

If On A Lonely Night A Traveller
Darren Marshall, Helen Maurer, Dafna Talmor, Mimei Thompson
6-15 July 2012
Transition Gallery
Unit 25a Regent Studios
8 Andrews Road, London E8 4QN


[i] For more information visit:

[ii] Byrne, John, Grizedale Arts: Use Value and the Little Society, Afterall,
issue 30, 101.

[iii] As quoted on their website:

[iv] In Europe, FormContent have been invited to participate in Kunstlvaai —Festival of Independents in Amsterdam in November. They also have projects in Romania and Belgium, which are incarnations of their nomadic project It’s travelling from I to It. In September the Birmingham network We Are Eastside will be part of the Liverpool Biennial, in a collateral event called City States, which is a series of exhibitions on cities including Birmingham, Copenhagen, Gdansk, Hong Kong, Lisbon, Reykjavik and Wellington. Not only is the UK’s proximity to Europe an advantage. Flights between the US and UK are as little as 6 hours. Founding members of no.where, Karen Mirza and Brad Butler have been invited to Canada to speak at Institutions By Artists, a convention being held in Vancouver on artist-run centres (as they are often referred to in Canada). The event involves a large contingent of international and North American presenters, and runs from October 12-14.

[v] As an alternative to gallery exhibitions the studio is often used as a means of showing work by emerging artists in the UK. ACME Studios, for example, are a network of studio complexes in London that offer residencies, temporary project spaces and subsidised workspaces for artists.

Sean Rafferty is an artist and registrar living in Sydney. He uses a range of mediums and methodologies to make work that has roots in...


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