As Part 2 of our ongoing blog series on the ecologies of Australian Artist Run Initiatives, we’re hoping to stimulate further conversation, reflection and debate. We’ve asked all the contributors from Part 1 to create a response to the contributions of their peers. This week we conclude the series with Madeleine Stack’s assertion on the importance of risk, community and letting things come to an end. You can read Madeleine’s first post here.

I’d like to take this opportunity to revisit the collected responses from various ARI’s around Australia in light of what they can offer as an enclosed microcosm of what is being experienced by self-organised community groups and political collectives around the country, and indeed around the world.

In the West, to varying degrees, rapid gentrification and the systematic dismantling of social security have led to an increased precaritisation of the workforce and state of anxiety – ok, I know this, you know it, we feel it in any case. But what has this got to do with artist-run initiatives? Aside from the fact that they didn’t ever get that much money and now, probably, it’s even less.

Realbad Music, 2013, photo by Madeleine Stack

I like the idea of singling out the ARI format – what is technically just a community organization that exists within the ecosystem of the arts – as a case study for how groups of people with different aims and beliefs, but one shared goal, can create a fertile and sustainable breeding ground for larger, more ambitious political undertakings.

I’m a nice person; if I’m stuck in party conversation with an accountant or banker with whom I have nothing in common I’ll do my best to find some common ground. Usually this ends up with me in a heated discussion with said accountant or banker on how compelling the art world is from a business perspective. It’s arbitrary, completely unregulated, and impossible to quantify, despite constant attempts by funding bodies. It’s completely built upon genius-myths, ungraspable Coolness and fantasy and yet replicates exactly capitalism at large, in which the very few make obscene sums of money and the rest toil in obscurity.

It’s not a problem specific to ARI’s or arts workers: the simultaneous impossibility of working within institutions and of creating spaces outside of the institutions that can be sustainable and functioning on a shoestring. The only solution, as generations of political organisers and activists can attest, is building alliances across communities, not simply within them. Who is coming to your openings? Do you know everyone there? If so, do you consider that a problem? How many of the people seeing your shows actually come from the neighbourhood it’s based in? The only response to constant pressure to diversify, appeal, allocate, legitimise, define, archive in order to receive funding is to build something that floats outside of the whims of whoever is writing the budget that year. Turning flimsiness into an asset is key, working with opacity, constant movement, and a shared commitment to sliding under the radar.

Realbad Music, 2013, photo by Madeleine Stack

There’s no point in calling something a community (or an ‘ecosystem’, to use Runway’s tagline for this series) if that community is homogenous in age, race, class and belief system. That’s not a community – that’s an arty clique. It is evident, given the probable dearth of alternative options in your home city, that what an ARI offers is not only a space for career advancement, somewhere to meet your friends for a drink on a Thursday night, but a continued openness to the unexpected and strange, a space for experimentation and the working through of ideas too weird to ever really be worked through.

Like going to a punk show or a demonstration, the desired effect is not to literally change the prevailing system in one day, but to cram a wedge in the forever-closing door of possibility for how we could imagine living and working together. I remember with extreme clarity going to certain shows, certain venues – the now sadly defunct Real Bad Music in Moorooka springs immediately to mind – naïve and straight out of high-school, and feeling for the first time that there was a world that existed outside of the possible.

This may seem like a grand claim for what often amounts to a few objects arranged prettily in a room, but the existence of these spaces or collectives – particularly the ephemeral or unprofessional – is what allows new ideas and imaginaries to form and circulate. A number of the other posts in this series came to a similar conclusion: that the point of these spaces or groups is their eventual disbanding, and that new spaces would be expected to form in a process of constant renewal. This process can only function in an environment where connections have been made across generations and levels of experience, in order that the same mistakes aren’t being remade in each iteration.

I’d like to second Lucy Hawthorne’s question: why do so many new ARI’s feel the need to emulate professional white-cube spaces, at the expense of a genuine discussion between participants about what could be possible from a space or community? It feels a little like the now-hollow designator ‘emerging’ artist: how far can one emerge before they’re no longer emerging? How much can an ARI look like a commercial gallery space before it becomes one? A hint: if it feels like all work for no pay, you’re probably not doing it right. The options for how these spaces can be imagined are limitless when you’re not bound by external funding and are instead held together by community and shared passion. In other words, why don’t we expect more out of projects that we have built communally from the ground up?

A good start would be a wider commitment to forging alliances across and outside of the ‘art scene’; most of the artists I know do this (formally or informally) anyway, whether or not they consider it part of their practice. There are a wealth of activists and collectives with a vested interest in new ways of imagining politics, and civic life.

In its most basic form, an artist-run initiative allows for a carving out of space that is designed to end, a ritual break where people come together before participating in collective dismantling once the gathering has served its purpose.

Witchmeat ARI, 2013, photo by Madeleine Stack

Madeline Stack

This series on the state of artist-run initiatives by writers around Australia was originally commissioned for Runway issue #30 [ECOLOGIES] 2016. Read Part 1:

“Balancing on the Edge: A Melbourne Perspective”, by Maria Miranda (Melbourne)

“One Year in an ARI”, by Serena Wong (Adelaide)

“The Lifecycle and Deathcycle of ARIs”, by Lucy Hawthorne (Hobart)

“The party becomes the site of knowing: on the Brisbane sharehouse ARI”, by Madeleine Stack (Brisbane)

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