One night last year at an opening at The Food Court in Melbourne Docklands I found myself in conversation with a stranger. He was standing alone dressed in a hooded yellow windcheater and wearing black stripy plastic boots. He was watching the large video screen showing Brody Xarhakos’ Passing Through animations. I can’t remember why we started chatting. He told me he lived alone in the house he grew up in. His parents, Polish immigrants, had both died. He was not young yet he lived cheaply with no electricity and often cycled to his favourite charity to eat. His life should have sounded difficult yet it didn’t. He exuded an air of exhilaration, free from mundane worries. He sounded smart. He said he followed all the Melbourne art openings, through an online directory, choosing which ones to attend and cycled in rain or heat. He made me feel elated too.
I mention this transient meeting as it captures something of the sociable feel and unexpected encounters of the spaces that operated in the Docklands beginning in 2013 under the auspices of Docklands Spaces. Commissioned by City of Melbourne and Places Victoria, Dockland Spaces is a pilot initiative by Renew Australia, the organization begun by Marcus Westbury in his home town of Newcastle. All three spaces were quite distinct. The Front, directed by Deb Bain-King focused on large scale installation and performative artworks; D11@ Docklands initiated by Michael Carolan and later run by Second Collective, featured curated exhibitions with an interdisciplinary approach and The Food Court, initiated by James Wright but now co-directed by Nico Reddaway and Amie Anderson, is an exhibition project space located in an abandoned Food Court and it has an unconventional and wide ranging list of events, performances and community exchanges. Today only The Food Court is still operating in their original space, and The Front has evolved into an ongoing floating entity.
But back then, on opening nights, all three spaces opened together, creating a large crowd of art-goers who rambled happily from one space to the next, usually ending the evening at The Food Court. I discovered through conversations with different artists that this was a deliberate intention, a way to attract a large audience for their work, and to offer several shows for the price of one tram ticket. The Docklands is seen as out-of-the way, but even though for me, formerly of Sydney, it seems very close to the CBD. And there’s a tram stop, for heaven’s sake, within spitting distance of these spaces. In fact, D11 is the name of the tram stop. Anyway, the strategy worked and opening nights were always full of chatter and people moving in and out of the spaces.
The closeness of the three spaces created friendships and working relationships, with ongoing collaborations being forged. People felt a real sense of community, fostering a spirit of camaraderie between the artists. In private conversation many expressed how much they loved working so close to the water in such a beautiful spot. Some felt being there helped them slow down a bit. Having a space to make work in and to use creatively felt like a real luxury in a city that no longer made room for non-commercial production.
I can’t remember when I first noticed the term “ecosystem” or “ecology” applied to the art world. Language is funny like that. One minute everyone is talking about THE art world, with its implied hierarchies, centrifugal impulses and the accompanying oppositions of inside and outside, and then like the twelfth monkey crossing over to the island, ecological-speak entered our thinking and understanding of art and art institutions, almost by stealth – haven’t we always understood that art and artists exist in a complex web of networks, connections, friendships and communities? Duh! Well, actually no.
This shift in language is highly significant. One of the things it does is to bring into view how artist-run spaces like The Front, D11 and The Food Court are spaces that share values such as diversity and process, relationships and even fragility. Words like “ecology” help us understand and value these spaces in themselves, authentic in their own right as part of a larger ecosystem of art that includes museums and state galleries as well as commercial galleries. It shifts any oppositional or binary thinking, where once “alternative” spaces were considered “outside” they are now considered as part of the ecosystem. Artist-run initiatives have much to gain from ecological thinking, which teaches us that relations between individual entities, large and small, can be complex, uncertain and generative with diversity being valued above all.
Along with “ecologies” and art as an “ecosystem”, “institutions by artists” is another shift in language; the eponymous Canadian Convention of 2012 caught this zeitgeist. “Institution” may seem contradictory twinned with “ecologies”, but only if one imagines “institution” to be a rigid hierarchical structure populated by bureaucratic and /or marketing types. However, as the artist Kristina Lee Podesva suggests, in her opening remarks at the convention, there is another way of looking at the institution through the work of the Portuguese anthropologist João de Pina-Cabral.
“Departing from de Pina-Cabral’s idea that institutions are not static organisations but representative of relational processes of sociality”, Podesva described the practice of ‘institutions by artists’ as “a discursive formation that wrests the institution of art from the gallery and museum, and relocates it in the field of relations among artists living and working in the world.” 1
Yet at the same time that this “ecological” and “relational” thinking has entered the public discourse, our government is trapped in a neo-liberal fantasy/nightmare that seeks to privatise everything. An ARI ecology is a fragile thing and there are inherent tensions that need to be approached with some care. Fragility is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be complex and double-edged. On the one hand it’s part of the vitality, liveliness and energy of ARIs, on the other it can break and crash if not handled with care. The question is: how can we maintain the fragile energy of ARI culture without succumbing to easy solutions that will inevitably result in a monoculture?
This is the first in a series of blog posts on the state of artist-run initiatives by writers around Australia, for Runway issue #30, Ecologies.