1.4 / Situations

Visible Alternatives, Part 1

By Christian L. Frock December 2, 2009

What is the Visible Alternative? and Other Infrequently Explored Possibilities.

The following combines the discursive format of a self-directed Q&A with the declarative tone of a manifesto to speak to the visible alternative to the institution in contemporary art. The ideas below provide a fragmented and constantly evolving statement of purpose for my ongoing explorations. Since conversation is the foundation of my work, it was critical to lay the groundwork here for an exchange of ideas, rather than a one-way monologue.  You are encouraged to respond, if you want, to submit@artpractical.com  

The narrative arch of this column will examine alternative curatorial models and artist projects that take place in the public realm, outside of the institutional settings of galleries and museums.  Principally, my writing here will examine these subjects through the lens of my own practice as the curator, producer, and commissioner—among other possible job titles—of Invisible Venue.

Ø. What is the visible alternative? 

If we agree opportunities are limited within the contemporary art establishment, i.e. galleries and/or museums, then the visible alternative exists as unlimited opportunities elsewhere, often generated in direct response to the limitations of established models. 

“Dear Applicant, Thank you for your interest but we aren’t reviewing portfolios right now/we don’t have any openings at this time/we don’t fund work of this nature/we’ve never heard of you/you aren’t well connected/the Old Boys Network does not include women/the Ladies Who Lunch don’t like women like you/you’ve missed the deadline/we didn’t bother to read your materials/your ideas are too (political/personal/fucking complicated)/your work is not immediately commercially viable/we filled the slot with someone we already knew/we gave the gig to your friend/you never had a chance.  We wish you luck finding something somewhere else.  Kind regards/Best wishes/Drop dead.” 

Contrary to this, the visible alternative does not require an invitation and we never ask for permission.  It is an invisible venue, an alternative space, an intervention, an event, a performance. It is an avant-garde publication, mail art and/or web-based. It is public art or art in public spaces, rather.  It is all of these things and ideas yet to be had. All creative production that takes place outside of conventional pedagogical, institutional, and/or commercial models is the visible alternative.

1.  Where is the alternative?

If we agree art is whatever the artist makes, then every conceivable site or invisible non-site is potentially a venue for the visible alternative. Here ‘site’ infers actual physical space—an abandoned lot or a telephone booth. ‘Invisible non-site’ encompasses airwaves and the Internet—sound and/or pixels taking the shape of artwork.  Whereas the visible alternative encompasses every alternative method of presentation, an invisible venue is every unconventional site for creative production.

Invisible Venue is an itinerant conceptual “space” for contemporary art: It exists everywhere—private and public venues—and nowhere—the Internet—to present something (art) that can also be nothing (ideas: digital, audio, performance, ephemeral, conceptual).  This includes a website on the world wide web, an installation in an empty room in a Victorian flat, sound sculpture on the telephone line, an intervention on a billboard, an envelope in the mail, the view from a platform, a displaced memo on a bulletin board. Everywhere is open for intervention. If art is whatever the artist makes, it goes to follow that it can also exist anywhere and/or everywhere.

2. Why pursue the alternative?

If we agree the visible alternative exists as an opportunity, sometimes generated in response to exclusion, then we pursue the alternative to create self-directed autonomy, to experiment with and realize ideas, to disregard the demands of the market, the concerns of the institution, the rhetoric of criticism or theory. We pursue the alternative to test the limits of failure, to create something from nothing.  Also, it can’t be denied that the alternative frequently leverages unforeseen opportunities that sometimes circle back to established models. In order to maintain currency, those who circulate within the establishment must remain aware of, poach from, and, whenever possible, emulate the alternative; therein lies previously nonexistent opportunity for practitioners of the alternative. Pursuit of the alternative does not mean a complete disavowal of the institution or disengagement with commerce—there is no such thing, actually—but rather it provides the creative freedom to establish our own terms for engagement.

Jonn Herschend. Untitled from (Meant to be) Lost and Found, 2009; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Christian L. Frock presents Invisible Venue. 3. How sustainable is the alternative? 

If we agree the alternative operates outside of conventional models, then there is no established source of sustainability, per se.1 Projects are produced within one’s means and personal economy, within the surplus, with the help of friends, and outside of business hours. (Day jobs, and sometimes night jobs, preclude regular business hours.)  Experiments are finite by nature, as are experimental models and alternatives, and exist as a course towards sustainability; they are not financially sustainable, in and of themselves, without an injection of cash or revenue. Sometimes alternatives evolve into conventional business models—there are only two:  commercial and non-profit—in order to achieve sustainability. Sometimes they are gone overnight.  Change is a necessary constant. Alternatives last as long as they last—their relevance is not linked to physical longevity, but rather to the ambition of the investigation and to the quality of the discourse that circulates in the wake of the alternative. Alternatives have been known to be experimental platforms to launch long careers.  In this sense, they are sustained as narratives within these legacies.

4. Who perpetuates the alternative?

If we agree the participants, artist and curator, are mutually collaborative and non-hierarchical, then equal partnership perpetuates the alternative.  Each works toward a shared vision of intervention, disruption, displacement, reorganization, and/or reconsideration.  Each is creative and works towards cultural production.  Agency is not mutually exclusive to either party and roles within the alternative are mutually dependent.  This relationship is commonly achieved by conversations constituted with “What if _________?”  If we agree, after this exchange, that the visible alternative is valid and critical to the work, we start with Ø.


  1. The Alternative Exposure Grant, awarded by San Francisco non-profit Southern Exposure in conjunction with The Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, is a rare and singular example of non-recurring grants specifically for the alternative. Invisible Venue was awarded an Alternative Exposure grant in 2008—these funds provided encouragement, validation, and project budgets for several collaborations with artists.

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