The twelfth Runway Journal x All Conference Conversation comes from the disorganising project, a joint program initiated by current All Conference members Liquid Architecture, West Space and Bus Projects. disorganising was an expansive, collaborative project conducted over the course of 2021, in which the three organisations looked to experiment with divergent ways of organising and creating. Throughout the project, members from each organisation undertook a series of conversations with self-organised initiatives and individuals based in Australia and overseas. This conversation with Barry Esson and Bryony McIntyre of Arika is a part of that series.
Barry Esson: I didn't start from a position of having a specialist knowledge necessarily, you know, it started off quite ad hoc. With our early programs, we were getting very frustrated with being limited to art forms. At the time — I might have a broader, more forgiving analysis of it now — but at the time I was very frustrated with experimental music and its lack of political discourse, and the way in which certain things were valorised as politically progressive, but were often self-exploitative and invested in an idea of the self which I just really can't stand.
We wanted to move through deepening relationships that were going to involve a recurring cast of characters that you're in an ongoing relationship with. You work together once, and then the next time, it deepens and deepens again, and you move through friendship, you're moving through their friends who they introduce you to, moving very slowly and deliberately through personal connections, a relational way of working rather than a transactional one.
Bryony McIntyre: There's a set of actualities that underpin the curatorial organisation that we were trying to progress. And some of the organisational changes that we've gone through align with those curatorial changes, and some misalign for various reasons. We are currently a small arts organisation funded by an arms-length Scottish government body. But we started out just filling the gap, individually making stuff happen that wasn't there. So, you make it for yourself, and you do that technically as a freelancer, working with partner venues who allow you access to their resources, their buildings, to fill that gap, that desire. And that's how it started — Instal, Music Lovers Field Companion, Kill Your Timid Notion, and other projects. It was institutional partners seeing in us something that they didn't have, and contracting us to fill their curatorial gap, allowing us to do that with a transaction of resources and access, to then apply for more money from other funders. That was the model until 2006, six years.
And then we recognised the frustrations in that model. We weren't getting paid at all for our labour, and the reputational, creative capital that was being accrued by the partner institutions, and not the people who had originated and, in most cases, performed the labour of producing, setting the scene, and creating the ground.
Whether we continued individually or collectively, we had responsibilities to each other in our entanglement. What is the corporate body, how do you manifest it, and in what situation?
Barry: It is a siphoning of power from cultural producers into institutions in order to maintain themselves, rather than for us to put it back into the cultures that we were involved in.
Bryony: So, by structural necessity that we identified, we tried to move away from that relationship into a different one where we had more autonomy and agency. We would have to form an organisation. That happened in 2006, and it is interesting how the symbiosis of what you have to do to access funding does influence what you end up doing. I think that's the core of your questions here. At the time, I don't think we were questioning that, we just had to do it. And it's interesting to think how that one act has influenced how we've been structured, what we've done, and how we continued over the years. We were constituted in 2006, and that allowed us to apply for money on our own terms, and to have agency, and a name that could gain a reputation for the things we've done and therefore continue to receive funding. I'm being raw and cold about this, but I think that is what you want, the raw facts.
We managed then to pay ourselves eventually as employees of Arika, and as soon as that happened, these questions of organisational structure — the politics and responsibilities — became apparent, because up until that point we were founders, and it was just the two of us having to negotiate what we did between ourselves. It was an entity in itself, but as soon as other people were involved with responsibilities, then Arika became its own thing because Arika had a responsibility to those people as well. Whether we continued individually or collectively, we had responsibilities to each other in our entanglement. What is the corporate body, how do you manifest it, and in what situation?
We trundled along like that for a while with one other person working for us. And then incrementally a few other people began to work for us. And I think it was about 2012, moving through the transition away from artform-specific festivals to episodes, and through a political consciousness-raising that was going on both personally, but also within the research practice, expressed through the events, we were beginning to recognise that we should live our values and ethics, curatorially, for want of a better word, practically and organisationally. That actually is really hard, as we are still trying to get funding every three or four years. How do you navigate the responsibilities that you have to adhere to, to allow you to continue the possibility to access that funding?
“That is what we're negotiating organisationally at the moment, thinking about what different structures there might be, what co-operative models might be employed, or to just understand — what the limits are of Arika’s organisational structure that we are willing to bend, and which ones we aren't.”
What can you do with that? If you're having to do everything an organisation needs, there are some things that you can do, and there are some things you just can't do, even if you might have the desire to do them. That is what we're negotiating organisationally at the moment, thinking about what different structures there might be, what co-operative models might be employed, or to just understand — what the limits are of Arika’s organisational structure that we are willing to bend, and which ones we aren't.
Barry Esson and Bryony McIntyre are employees at Arika. Working since 2001, Arika is a political arts organisation concerned with supporting connections between artistic production and social change, based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Joel Stern is a post-doctoral fellow at the School of Media and Communication, RMIT. From 2013-22 he was Artistic Director of Liquid Architecture.
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