Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
Albano Afonso, Antistrot, Anna Boyle, Rhona Byrne, Mark Cullen, Brian Duggan, John Dummet, Brendan Earley, Andreas Gefeller, Niamh McCann, Alex McCullagh, Nina McGowan, Nathaniel Mellors, Clive Murphy, Adriette Myburgh, Cris Neumann, Paul O’Neill, Garrett Phelan, Abigail Reynolds, Mark Titchner, Rich Streitmatter-Tran
Curated by Mark Cullen & Brian Duggan, Pallas Studios.
On Being Offside and Interfering with Play – Dave Beech
“Art will live on only as long as it has the power to resist society” Adorno
Cynics, including those critics who see around them nothing but cynicism, have already written up the obituary of art’s self-determination. Art has become so utterly and irrevocably incorporated into business, tourism, public relations, entertainment, social regeneration and so on that the artist, it is said, has become nothing but a functionary of society’s dominant – and therefore narrowed – aspirations. Faced with the globally powerful and infinitesimally adaptive social totality, individual artists don’t seem to have much of a chance. Incorporation and regulation stalk artists at every turn with glamorous invitations. The most deadly threat against art’s self-determination today, it seems, is that the world has learned to welcome art and has put it to good use. The best proof against the cynical view that art cannot escape society’s grip is artists who not only practice independently but fashion their own infrastructure in the process.
Pallas Studios, which was formed in 1996 by artists Mark Cullen and Brian Duggan in Dublin’s inner city, flies in the face of the cynical cancellation of art’s self-determination. Artists without an infrastructure established exactly what they needed with whatever they could get. Crucially, though, this experience of finding and fighting for a space to work – and to act collectively with other artists in the same situation – seems to have left a lasting impression on Pallas Studios. One thing follows form another, and when the infrastructure for studios was successfully set up, Cullen and Duggan were not satisfied. Sometimes people only realise what they want when they discover what they can achieve. Infrastructure leads to infrastructure. Pallas Studios did not remain merely studios forever. Other infrastructural needs were addressed and Pallas Studios was supplemented with Pallas Heights, an artist-run gallery with studio facilities and an occasional artist-residency. Maybe Pallas Studios was established as nothing more than a response to a lack of commercial or state funded alternatives, but it has developed into a genuine, effective and inspiring oasis of art’s self-determination.
Opportunities for self-determination, of course, cannot be laid out on a plate for artists. The first condition of art’s self-determination is that artists do it off their own bat. Artist-run ventures, therefore, are the lifeblood of art’s self-determination. However, it is not inevitable that all ventures run by artists will promote art’s self-determination. It is clear that a number of artist-run spaces are set up for no other reason than to catch the attention of the market and art’s large public institutions in the spirit of entrepreneurial enterprise. It is fair to describe such ventures as led by the market despite the fact that the agents of the market in these instances are artists themselves. Such ventures may be funded and run as independent concerns, but they are in no way ideologically or culturally independent. Market-led art ventures undermine art’s self-determination. A stronger brand of independence would entail some substantial divergence from business-as-usual. Art’s self-determination requires artists to interfere with play. With this in mind we could even go so far as to say that spaces which fail to promote a strong brand of independence are not artist-run spaces at all; the artists involved do the bidding of those that they address. Self-determination in art requires artists to address their own ambitions and aspirations.
Independence in art is not given, but has to be won by distinguishing between contesting the cultural field on the one hand and practices of adapting oneself to the existing culture and its institutions on the other. What Pallas Studios’ collaboration with the Hugh Lane gallery, ‘Offside’, demonstrates, however, is that establishing a physical distance from the existing institutions is not to be confused with self-determination. Certainly, steering clear of art’s institutions cannot be considered a sure-fire strategy for attaining independence. Physical distance often turns out to be a red-herring, failing to guarantee that the venture will be independent in the fuller sense. Art’s existing institutions can be re-used independently. Being offside means advancing further into the opposition’s territory. If art’s institutions are treated as contested spaces, then artists and curators can gain independence by virtue of doing something else in the art’s established spaces. ‘Offside’, which has an anarchic, informal and home spun atmosphere, might be thought of as not at home in the Classical Victorian temple to art that is the Hugh Lane gallery. It is too do-it-yourself, perhaps, too punk. And yet, if art’s self-determination is not to be frittered away and lost, then it must learn to occupy art’s temples – and art’s temples need to adapt to the new art if they are not going to be an obstacle to its self-determination. And this points to something important: art’s major institutions, including its markets, can contribute to art’s self-determination only by adapting to what artists ask of them, especially those artists who seem like trouble.
The first condition of art’s independence, then, is not art’s isolation but its re-occupation of the cultural field, whether in setting up alternative spaces or by doing alternative things in existing spaces. Re-occupation means reconfiguration. And doing something else means being something else. Independence in art, therefore, means contesting art. If artists are to contest art, one of the key aspects that they must contest is the category of the artist. Artist-run ventures contest the established role of the artist as well as clearing intellectual and physical space for occupying culture differently. This is self-determination. It is the exact opposite of entrepreneurialism, which always shores up the existing social structures by attempting to profit from them. William Morris exemplified the anti-entrepreneurial spirit in his pamphlet “The Factory as it Might Be”. One of the first things that Morris says about work under Socialist conditions in his essay is that industry takes place in a building surrounded by vast, beautiful gardens: vast because “there is no need of stinting it of ground, profit rents being a thing of the past”; beautiful because labour will be “light in duration, and not oppressive in kind”. Hence, “the labour on such gardens is like enough to be purely voluntary”.
As a Socialist, Morris is vividly aware of the social necessity of labour, not least in keeping the garden beautiful. His argument is not against labour but to replace the Capitalist factory, “temples of over-crowding and adulteration and over-work”, with the merging of creativity and pleasure, primarily in labour but also in daily life. In capitalism factories are wasteful – anarchic production gone to seed – and its gardens are too efficient – managed, rationalised, cost-effective. In short, capitalism lets its factories run wild and trims its gardens according to the logic of the market. Socialism will not do away with unappealing work, he says, but it will prevent the social situation of Victorian Capitalism in which one class of people lives in constant drudgery while another lives idly, managing boredom with leisure. With the abolition of private property and profit, Morris says, Socialism will invert the formula and make factories into beautiful gardens of natural bounty and mutuality. In a word, the garden in Morris’ text, including the amateur gardeners who tend it, is an image of universal human flourishing. When artists like Cullen and Duggan work voluntarily on projects like Pallas Studios, Pallas Heights and ‘Offside’ they are, then, pointing towards a different kind of society and a different kind of culture. Pallas Studios is a blip on the ocean of cultural history but it is a bright star. There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of people struggling collectively against unpromising social and historical circumstances. Like all local acts of emancipation, Pallas Studios is a glimpse of Utopia.
Dave Beech, 2005