2.13 / Talking Shop

Notes on Alternative Autonomy

By Christian L. Frock March 9, 2011

Image: Jon Rubin. The Waffle Shop, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist.

This article is presented in conjunction with "Shop Talk," a three-part series of conversations beginning on March 24 to be held at SFMOMA and organized collaboratively with SFMOMA's Open Space blog. The series will focus on survival strategies artists develop and adopt to gain recognition and financial viability.

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We want to maintain control over our work, directing our energies to the demands of social conditions, as opposed to those of the art market.1

—Group Material (1980)

Note to self—If maintaining control over the work equates with creative freedom, then creative freedom means freedom from the market, art or otherwise. While creative autonomy within my work can be established through an indifference to the art market, real autonomy and independence in the world at large is predicated on financial independence. This does not mean amassing a fortune—living standards are variable—but rather that independence is achieved when my financial obligations are within my means. So a job that is unrelated to my primary objectives and drains me of all creative impulse compromises my autonomy. Establishing fiscal stability on my own terms and maintaining creative production are the key components of an alternative autonomy.

Directive—Strategize this one of two ways:

1. Work in direct opposition to capitalism and cultivate an alternative economy based on the exchange of goods rather than money. Do not participate in consumer culture, live close to the ground, and develop a taste for Dumpster diving.

2. Cultivate an alternative autonomous model within the existing capitalist system, developed in keeping with the integrity of my work and ideas. Develop a multipronged approach to financial independence through a range of tactics and a broad application of skill set.

The first strategy could occupy all free time. Expect work to be compromised by absence of electricity and all other bourgeois comforts. Pursue second strategy.

Question—What are the active models of creative autonomy that work within the existing limitations of the system? How can I make the work that I want to make and still make a living?

It isn’t enough to “demand payment for making the world more interesting,” as asserted by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), a group of artists, art workers, performers, and independent curators who “recognize that art is work and therefore should be monetarily compensated.”2 While I strongly agree with the overall mission, the lack of strategic activity behind the declaration is off-putting. Negotiations are based on value. In business, the demand for payment would include a valuation for “making the world more interesting.” So how does one establish value as a cultural producer? There is an important distinction to be made here, too: In the art world, there is “social currency” and “actual monetary value.” Social currency is the oft-traded remuneration that tantalizingly offers the future promise of financial payoff alongside the immediate benefits of “social cache” and “notoriety.” My local grocer, however, remains unimpressed by social cache and still wants to be paid in U.S. dollars.

Question—How does one balance immediate need and the long view?

It is an accepted norm that one has to work for little to no pay early in one’s career—almost all business is predicated on this shitty premise. It’s a Catch-22: I can refuse to be complicit, but not if I want to get where I am going. And as the character Yossarian noted in that famed novel about negotiating bureaucracy: “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” (Joseph Heller, Catch-22, 1955) In the novel, which is about the military but whose lessons correlate seamlessly with business, Catch-22 is a policy that circuitously states that a soldier can only be discharged from combat duty if he is insane but he can’t be insane if he is sane enough to recognize that combat is insane. We see the efforts of two soldiers, Yossarian and Orr, as they attempt to circumvent this conundrum. Yossarian repeatedly fails to recognize that making strong-armed demands are futile, while Orr succeeds through subversive tactics.

In just about everything, but especially in business, I identify with Yossarian, but I endeavor to be as wily as Orr.

When funding for the arts is taken away or reduced so severely that it alters the cultural and economic landscape, hurting many people by limiting their ability to make and present art how they want, there are two choices of action to take to counter this situation. The first is to start a grassroots effort to identify the ideological shifts in funding and to fight for political change. This could take many years, a lot of energy, and won’t necessarily guarantee funding for the kinds of art you want to make and support right away. The power structures that have made it possible to defund the arts are not isolated. They are part of a larger social and ideological program. The other option you have is to build something that is independent of the abusive power that has caused the funding to diminish. This can start immediately, without any waste of time.3

—Brett Bloom, Temporary Services

Question—How to negotiate a living within a power structure that offers little to no pay for labor and scant opportunities for funding in general? How to follow Orr’s lead and think strategically?

The abusive power Bloom refers to could be the trickle-down effect of Reaganomics, the strong-arm tactics of the Republican Party or, as I am inclined to think, all government in general. As he says, the power structures that have made it possible to defund the arts are not isolated.

So the option is, as Bloom says, to build something independent, but not simply independent of the power that caused funding to diminish. Instead, the challenge is to cultivate agency to build something independent period. Beyond extrication from the demands of the market, it is essential to reduce dependence on traditional funding models, such as elusive and competitive grants. 

Directive—Focus on newer models of self-determined autonomy; look at ways to work entrepreneurially. If conventional opportunities are limited, focus instead on creating something from nothing.

Question—What strategic actions cultivate autonomy?  

1. Day Job

A day job drains away creative impulses and leaves no time for artistic production, right? No, it is possible for a day job to feed back into creative practice. Here the term “day job” refers to income-generating employment—often considered a responsibility separate and apart from creative practice, necessary for survival but contrary to one’s “real” objectives. And yet, it is possible for a day job to function as a strategic action. In its most essential form, a day job unburdens the need to make money from artistic production. Beyond that, it provides the potential for creative fodder.

Example:

Day Job

Artist Nina Katchadourian, who by day is also the Viewing Program curator at the Drawing Center, in New York, recently organized Day Job, an exhibition that examines the potential for symbiosis between one’s job and one’s work. It is possible to find what Katchadourian terms a “generative and productive relationship…between work and ‘work.’”4 So the challenge then, among many challenges, is to find work that feels productive beyond fiscal solvency—finding work that balances financial independence with the needs of one’s artistic practice (ideas, resources, materials, and so on) is the beginning of independence.

In the exhibition, participating artists held day jobs from a wide range of fields, within and removed from the art world. Artists who worked within the art world by day focused on the benefits of the immersive experience in terms of constant exposure to the ideas and personalities relative to the field. Those who worked further afield focused on access to material resources and inspiration that fed back into their creative practices. The key, I suppose, is to find work that allows for a sense of balance; like one’s standard of living, this is variable.

JR. 28 Millimetres: Women, 2008; installation view, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of the Artist.

2. Self-organization:

If I am an enterprise—shouldn’t I think of my work and ideas as all being part of my enterprise? Every effort should then feed back into my objectives. What’s Jay-Z's line? I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.5

Examples:

JR

All of the public projects engineered by this (relatively) anonymous French street artist are self-funded through the sale of his photography—through galleries, at auction, and from the studio. JR is a cult of personality in his own right, and his anonymity, though intriguing, foregrounds the quality of his ideas and his projects. “The finance is a key part,” he said in an interview with the Guardian last year. “You wouldn’t take it in the same way if I did it with L'Oréal.” (Don’t let his recent $100,000 TEDPrize confuse things—he was working this way before winning prizes like this.)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude

The multi-million-dollar public art projects of Christo and Jean-Claude were entirely self-funded through the sale of artwork from their studio—they did not accept money from the sale of souvenirs relative to their work. They did not accept grants, sponsorship, or donated labor. Though established artists within the blue chip market, they still prized autonomy and creative control over the potential for exponential fortune.

Scott Sona Snibbe: Interactive Art

Snibbe is exploring uncharted territory with the release of digital artworks–cum-apps for smart phones—available for less than two bucks each. “Gravilux,” a combination of painting, animation, art, science, and gaming, was billed as the #1 Entertainment App sold by Mac worldwide. On his website, Snibbe has posted: “In 2002 I stopped creating abstract screen-based interactivity after a dozen years of showing in galleries and museums without sales or wider distribution. Now, after two months in the app store, I have an audience of hundreds of thousands that grows daily.” If micropatronage is changing the way that art projects are funded, perhaps “microacquisitions” will also change the landscape for creative autonomy in contemporary art.

3. Collaboration:

Directive—Brainstorm with like-minded others to realize projects—don’t let the best ideas stall for fearing of losing control. Worse yet, don’t hoard ideas out of the fear that someone else will take ’em and run. Giving away ideas can lead to realizing them. 

Examples:

Mess Hall

An experimental cultural center based in a suburban Chicago storefront and run by a changing collective of “keyholders,” or collaborators who share organizational responsibilities. Originally founded by a group of eight like-minded individuals, including Temporary Services members Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin, and Marc Fischer, this organization is an ongoing experiment in radical collaboration, community building, and creative politics. In addition to various public events, Mess Hall presents free workshops and a free publications library on-site.

Project Space Survival Strategies

A web-based publication that functions as an organizational resource through the presentation of surveys regarding the survival strategies of currently fifty independent alternative project spaces internationally, organized by Elysa Lozano for Autonomous Organization and presented by Invisible Venue. (Full disclosure: Elysa Lozano is a contributor to Art Practical and the author is the founder and director of Invisible Venue.) Participants include FIT (Berlin), an organization that appropriates abandoned gas stations as art venues, and The Surburban (Chicago), an alternative space operated out of the household finances of artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam. Ongoing since 2010, PSSS posts surveys on a rolling basis and continues to invite feedback from all over the world.

 

4. Diversification:

Directive—Work across disciplines; apply ideas to different media and filter them through different tactics. 

Examples:

Waffle Shop

Initially organized as part of Professor Jon Rubin’s class “Contextual Practice” at Carnegie Mellon, the Waffle Shop is a Pittsburgh neighborhood restaurant that produces and broadcasts a live-streaming talk show, features a storytelling billboard on its roof, and runs Conflict Kitchen, a take-out window that sells food from countries engaged in conflict with the United States. Organized as a commercial endeavor—about 60 percent of the income covers expense, including the cost of employees and general overhead—with support from various sources, including fiscal sponsorship and donations, the Waffle Shop functions as a community-oriented business with the objectives of a relational art project.

Stamen Design

Once described as “web design that doesn’t suck,” Stamen Design, a design and technology studio, digitizes research as an aesthetic experience and creates dynamic visual representations of complex information. Recent projects include “Crimespotting,” an interactive website that charts criminal activity in urban communities such as Oakland and San Francisco and an interactive project to accompany the Museum of Modern Art’s recent Andy Warhol exhibition, Motion Pictures. Describing themselves as neither a research and development lab, nor as a straight-up design firm, Stamen Design’s work traverses technology, design, and art through a focused commitment on the real world applications of their research.

Scott Sona Snibbe. Bubble Harp, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist.

5. Innovation:

Directive—Explore alternative entrepreneurial methods for fiscal independence: micro-patronage, crowd funding, and fiscal sponsorship. Consider ways to apply business tactics to conceptual endeavors. Use all of the resources available including websites, social networks, and video publishing.

Examples:

Kickstarter

An online funding platform for creative projects that promotes self-organization through micropatronage. Who hasn’t received a solicitation by now? The ability to provide support through the donation of five bucks makes these campaigns less tiresome than conventional fundraising tactics.

time/bank

A project organized by Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle and presented by e-flux that allows for the creation of an alternative economic model where people can exchange their time and skills. Premised on innovative economic models such as Josiah Warren’s The Cincinnati Time Store (1827–1830) and Paul Glover’s Ithaca Hours (1991–ongoing)

OURGOODS

OurGoods facilitates the barter of skills, space, labor, and art objects within a growing community network of more than 1,400 artists, designers, and cultural producers. Not unlike Craigslist for a specifically creative community, OurGoods focuses on the realization of independent projects through collaboration.

The Present Prize

An intermittent artist grant funded by web-hosting fees and awarded by the community of hostees. Organized by Eleanor and Oliver Wise of The Present Group, an art subscription project that enables subscribers to fund contemporary artists’ projects and receive limited-edition artwork in return.

SUNDAY SOUP

An international network of meal-based micro-granting initiatives, including the five dollar dinners offered by SOUP (Detroit) and the sliding-scale cost of FEAST (Brooklyn), with twenty-eight participating groups to date.

Service-Works

An art work–cum-foundation in which artist Josh Greene created a monthly artist’s grant drawn from one night’s worth of tips from his night job as a waiter. 

Lawrence Weiner. Time/Bank Currency, 2010. Photo: Julieta Aranda.

Note to self—Remember what Goethe said:

Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: the moment one definitively commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising material assistance which no one man could have dreamed would come his way. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. 

Keep looking: this is a work in progress.



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NOTES:

1. Group Material flyer, Calendar of Events, 1980-1981.
2. http://www.wageforwork.com/wage.html, cited March 8, 2011.
3. Bloom, Brett, “Radical Space for Art in a Time of Forced Privatization and Market Dominance,” http://www.temporaryservices.org/reading_material.html, cited March 8, 2011.
4. Nina Katchadourian, Day Job (New York: The Drawing Center, 2010).
5. Lyrics from Jay-Z remix of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” (2005) by Kanye West.

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