Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F), Gulf Protest Illuminators, New York, 2016.

Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F), Gulf Protest Illuminators, New York, 2016.

Christina Battle


AS I GATHERED NOTES, considered my thoughts, and sat down to start writing this essay, a letter began to circulate across my Facebook feed. Written on behalf of the Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA)1 and addressed to Simon Brault, the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, the letter spoke to recent changes in how peer assessment juries are utilized by the Council. The peer assessment process, often lauded as a critical pillar of Canada’s artistic funding process, has always been a process in which members of the artistic community were critical to decision making and directly responsible for allocating funds to successful arts applications made from across the country.

IMAA’s letter cites a past version of the Council’s peer assessment strategy: “peer assessment is based on collective decision-making. No applicant to the Council is judged by a single person only, and funding decisions are made by the consensus of the committee members,” as well as mentioning the Council’s commitment to “the importance of increasing the arts community’s participation in its work.”2 The trepidation raised in the letter stems from the recently updated assessment process which shifts the power of decision making from the jury of peers to a single program officer employed by the Council: “In the new PDF document ‘The Application Assessment Process,’ under the section ‘The role of peers,’ it states that the program officer ‘is responsible for recommending grant amounts’ and clarifies the role of peer committees ‘to provide a qualitative assessment of grant applications, not make financial decisions.’”3 This slight shift in authority places more of the decision making process tied to arts funding into the hands of the Council and away from the greater arts community. It is a shift that runs counter to what Canada’s artist-run culture, foregrounded by a network of artist-run centres (ARCs) has always upheld as critical to the country’s funding structure.

One could easily argue that this belief in the “arms-length” structure of arts councils was naïve and overstated in the first place. Chin-tao Wu, when looking at the privatization of culture in the United Kingdom, points toward the larger structures making up the British Arts Council, not unlike those in Canada:

these institutions are generally run by a board of unpaid trustees, who thereby enter the social space of the public institutions. It goes without saying that these people are politically and socially privileged, but they are presumed and expected to act only in their private capacity for the public interest. The establishment bias of this arrangement is self-evident. This institutional system has added a whole level of complexity to the vexed question of the public and the private.4

Despite the often ignored reality of bias Wu highlights, this recent change in the adjudication process is clearly a shift in the power dynamics of artist-run culture with the power to have serious long-term effects on its future.

Now firmly rooted in Canada’s cultural landscape, artist-run centres operate more like mini-institutions than their designation might insinuate—albeit often with less funding and security— than their institutional counterparts and certainly than their larger council- based benefactors. In her 1994 essay documenting the early history of artist-run-centres in Canada, Diana Nemiroff attributes the shift in operating strategies to a period in the late 1970s when the establishment of the Association of National Non-Profit Artists’ Centres “began a process of rationalization or routinization, a process of self-definition that marked the moment of maturation or institutionalization.”5 That is, the act of formal organization began the process of institutionalization now seen in the many artist-run arts centres spanning the country. As funding for the arts became more solidified by public institutions like the Canada Council for the Arts and their counterparts at the provincial and municipal levels, ARCs began to adapt their own operations in order to have access to the funds allocated by the councils. We often think of artist-run centres as radical spaces challenging the hierarchies and bureaucracies of dominant culture, and in some cases, comparatively at least, they are. But as they quickly became formalized as artist-run centres,6 groups were quick to adapt to the organizational priorities handed down from the government agencies at the top, instilling an administrative imperative that continues to shape artist-run centres today.

Now I want to address the problem of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is one side of a two-sided coin. John A MacDonald on one side, and from the other side of reality, what voice of poetic aspiration calls? This is the curse of the artist-run space.7

Revisiting the history of bureaucracies as crucial formations8 of the information age, Neil Postman reminds that, although the history of bureaucracy goes back five thousand years, the word bureaucracy itself only appeared in English in the 19th century.9 Citing the German sociologist Max Weber, Postman notes that bureaucracy is “an attempt to rationalize the flow of information, to make its use efficient to the highest degree by eliminating information that diverts attention from the problem at hand.”10 That is, at its essence, bureaucracy controls the flow of information, and those who control the information hold the power.

It’s not a model that matches the optimistic ideal many still hold and expect from artist- run spaces; they do, after all, work on the fringes, outside of the dominant capitalistic system. The impact of contemporary neoliberal capitalism expands beyond the economic; impacting those who are without the means to benefit from it in fundamental ways. These impacts include aggressive surveillance, mass incarceration, and shrinking civil liberties11 but also include less visible affects like labour expectations and conditions.

Artist-run culture is not immune from this capitalistic reach. For contemporary artists, here defined as those “involved in the politics of one’s own time,”12 the links between artistic practice and radicalness, progressiveness and change, are apposite.

The neoliberal idea of community doesn’t seek to build social relations, but rather to erode them; as the sociologist Ulrich Beck has noted, social problems are experienced as individual rather than collective, and we feel compelled to seek ‘biographic solutions to systemic contradictions.’13

Considering the institutionalization seen by many artist-run centres over the years (many ARCs have had over 30 years to undergo the process), and given the concerns raised in IMAA’s letter to the Canada Council, how can we still consider it possible for artist-run centres to challenge hierarchical structures when so much of their foundation is dictated by funding bodies? And, how can this model align with contemporary artistic practice, especially by those artists dedicated to social justice and challenging the status quo? How can artists— especially Black, Indigenous and artists of colour—those who are necessarily dedicated to organizing and operating with active, progressive, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist strategies, begin to navigate, let alone thrive, in such a system?

The performance artist Andrea Fraser, whose practice is rooted within institutional critique, follows the corporatization of museums in the United States in her essay “A Museum is Not a Business.”14 Comparing smaller organizations to those that have a larger cultural footprint primarily through access to more resources, she notes that, small alternative spaces tend to be short lived thus avoiding the corporatization seen in larger, more established institutions. This linking of administrative bureaucracy to longevity is critical to consider: the longer a group exists, the more likely it is that they follow the expectations set out by larger, more bureaucratic institutions. Time is essential in paving the way toward institutionalization, and with longevity can come a squelching of new ideas, risk taking, and experimentation, all of which are critical for remaining radical and progressive. The ability to mobilize and act quickly is an essential strategy for responding to the world around us in productive and progressive ways, and, as we have seen since the rise of social media, the speed with which the world changes now is undeniably fast.

As Wu points out, we’ve seen how this adaptation to larger systems alters arts groups who might have begun as challenging to the status quo: “paradoxically, some of them reproduced the very system of institutions and values that they had set out to challenge.”15 It’s not cynical to assume that attempting to maintain a radical perspective from the inside of institutionalization is a naïve concept; bureaucracies are incongruent with radical politics and activist ideals. What needs to shift is our ready acceptance that artistic spaces are radical and progressive merely because they are artist-run.

The statistics detailing the demographic makeup of Canadian arts organizations illuminates a lack of overall diversity, which is a clear indicator of a lack of progressive tendencies. If arts organizations aren’t promoting issues related to inclusivity, equity, and diversity within the very structures of their organizations how can they hope to do so through their programming and overall output? How can the Canadian arts sector remain progressive and challenging to the public if the organizations don’t reflect the diversity of that public? How can the artistic community find methods of existing that fight the staid old tenants of colonialism and white supremacy, if the very institutions meant to pave the way don’t enact and support inclusivity? If our artistic sector isn’t leading the fight against the dominating stronghold of capitalism and neoliberalism, how will we survive it?

A study by Michael Maranda published by Canadian Art in April 2017, examined the numbers and revealed the lack of diversity in arts organizations across Canada. Maranda looked specifically at the staff makeup of galleries who receive their core funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, noting that such galleries “have been deemed worthy of ongoing public support as determined by a robust peer-review process.”16 His summary, presented in the form of a number of key findings, is revealing. The following two findings warrant further examination:

Key Finding: Gallery management is whiter than Canadian artists in particular, and the Canadian public in general.

Key Finding: Visible-minority and Indigenous gallery administrative staff is severely underrepresented.17

Maranda’s study is thorough, and his conclusions are evidence of larger issues within the public arts sector: “the quick conclusion: as a sector, we aren’t doing all that well in reflecting the population at large, on either ethnic or gender lines.”18

An earlier study, also published by Canadian Art, might be useful to examine along- side Maranda’s as indicative of repercussions of this lack of diversity within institutions. Analyzed and compiled in 2015, Alison Cooley, Amy Luo, and Caoimhe Morgan-Feir, looked specifically at exhibition demographics of public art galleries across the country. Their findings weren’t surprising:

More than one institution failed to present a solo exhibition by a living non- white artist since 2013 … As we were sorting through exhibition histories to collate these statistics, it became apparent that Indigenous artists and artists of colour are much more frequently included in group exhibitions, which are, in turn, often focused on the contemporary art production of these demographic groups, an approach that could risk siloing these artists.19

One thing especially interesting from Maranda’s exhaustive study into the lack of diversity in art galleries across Canada are his cited reasons for enacting the study in the first place:

the Canada Council for the Arts recently revamped its funding policies with an emphasis on diversity. Both press coverage and official program guidelines indicate that ‘commitment to reflecting—through artistic programming, organizational make-up and development of your publics— the diversity of your geographic community or region’ are funding criteria that have new weight.”20

It is the council itself that is demanding that arts organizations do better and focus on diversity within their ranks. This top down policing, while critical in this case, is indicative of the power councils hold over the arts organizations that rely on them for support.

It’s good that arts councils are demanding that organizations accessing public funds do better to represent the publics that they serve, because clearly, the organizations themselves aren’t particularly motivated to be more inclusive. If they were, they would have adjusted their numbers long ago. It is pertinent to remember that when most ARCs were founded, many nearly four decades ago, they didn’t reflect the diversity of their greater communities either, that requirement was slowly adapted once more formalized government funding was implemented.

I think the main problem with issues of diversity is that it’s a lot of talk. I think art communities and spaces, established or otherwise, need to see themselves less as a host that encourages ‘inclusion’ and just allow themselves to really be changed and used. Nuance comes from this.21

The push to ‘be better’ imposed by arts councils can further be seen in the implementation of the ‘checkboxes’ that artists need to account for when filling out grant applications. Highlighting a series of priorities which councils expect to be balanced by organizations22, this imposition isn’t without merit. Without them, it seems far too easy to conclude that many organizations would make little effort to incorporate the priorities on their own.

If organizations with no motivation, understanding, or desire to have a more diverse makeup have become so institutionalized that they are forced into doing so because their government bureaucracies insist on it, what hope is there that these same institutions will ever lead the way toward a better, more inclusive or progressive sector?

The inclusion of government-required, diversity-based, checks and balances helps the distribution of public funds reflect larger societal values. But, if we rely solely on bureaucracies at the top of the hierarchy to foster the social change we so desperately need now, we will never get there. Bureaucracies, by their very nature are too slow to respond. Acceptance and compliance might come from institutionalism, sure, but progressiveness? In a sector whose funding is competitive and not easy to access (especially for new groups without the years long history of activity often required by councils), why are we privileging organizations that need to be told that this inclusivity is necessary?

Insisting that groups and organizations do better is critical, however, the issue arises when we rely on the output of those groups to be the leading example of progressive programming and initiative. Forcing organizations to check boxes encourages programming that does the bare minimum required in the checking off of those boxes. It also creates a scenario where Black, Indigenous and artists of colour are brought in to do the programming necessary to help check those boxes off for them. These often short term contracts serve a singular, one-time purpose often without greater integration into an organization’s overall programming or institutional framework. As a strategy, this essentially reinforces a system, and in turn a society, that has already been proven problematic. If we hope to create a society that is better, one that does better, one that reflects the concerns of the people better, and one that hopes for more, we need to invert the current system. Artist-run culture was founded on this notion—on challenging public norms reinforced by the dominant art institutions. The reality though, is that through the slow process of institutionalization, they have become more and more like those dominant systems they initially set out to challenge.

In his 1983 essay, “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat,” AA Bronson describes artist- run centres as “a network of communities”23 evoking the image of a multitude of groups representing a number of communities with a range of priorities, loosely connected across the country. Assuming his account accurate, through the formalizing of these communities into centres, councils essentially transformed this network into a decentralized group of hubs—each responsible for representing and speaking on behalf of a now much more expanded community.

When installed bureaucratically and hierarchically, systems shape in their own image, and discourage the creation of alterity. Alternative systems and fringe structures can and do pop up along the margins, this is how artist-run culture began. But the overall structure of publically supported arts needs to shift in order to better support spaces and projects within the margins; those that might challenge and present alternative modes and strategies to the now dominant artist-run system. The inevitability of institutionalization has fundamentally altered the once alternative spirit behind artist-run centres and, if the goal of a contemporary arts scene is to provide alternatives to the status quo, and new solutions for progressive social change, we need to ensure we maintain a system that allows for that.

All of this is not to say that we should do away with the current system created and facilitated by the Canadian public arts sector. To the contrary, it fosters important conversations and creativity. But it is ambitious to expect the sector, as it stands, to produce progressive change. For example, organizations who exist and operate within the current administrative system (not to mention who lack a diversity of voices at the staff level as Maranda’s research has shown), will no doubt tackle those check boxes imposed by council differently than a group of Indigenous-led artists working on the fringes of that system. And, if there is to be any hope for us to survive the humanity-shattering neoliberal system that we find ourselves in, we need to support these other groups to organize and experiment and to find new ways forward. If artist-run centres are simply mirrors of the larger institutions that support them, and in fact strive to be them, how will real progressive change ever truly take place?

With my involvement with ARC boards and working within an academic institution in partnership with many ARC-type organizations, there’s a sense of detachment—that we have to make time and space for ‘meta-board’ talk, my least favourite, in which we talk about how we ought to be talking/functioning as a constructed structure. Where the stories (or what we call ‘mandate, or strategic plan’) proceed the doing, and suck up all the energy, dictating confines and rules to observe rather than feel empowered by. Often the energy just goes into trying to understand these rules/dictums and make a stab at redefining them. It’s hard to act on anything after an energy drain like that!24

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe, centres her philosophy around the concept of agonism, or “struggle between adversaries,” and discusses the need to work within our current systems differently if we hope to find strategies to escape them. For Mouffe, a democratic society requires that multiple perspectives be continually challenged and debated in order to create hegemonic principles that better reflect the diversity of the masses.25 We shouldn’t expect artist-run centres to do all the things, to speak from all of the perspectives or to take up all of the issues. But the system as it currently stands encourages such centralization. How can we expect art organizations to provide alternative ways of thinking and producing, when they themselves are so intricately embedded within and dependent upon a hierarchical administrative system?

It seems to me that capitalism—or late capitalism, if you like, or perhaps finance capital is a better way of naming it, or globalization—at any rate, it seems to me that everyone has had to come to terms with the omnipresence of this far more wholly subsumed kind of social and economic structure. And that, I think, leaves its traces on or in art, much of which wants to be oppositional; but do we know any longer what oppositional means in this total system, or what might “subvert” it, or even function as its critique?26

In his book Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Gregory Sholette takes the challenge even further, asking us to look closer to the different perspectives within the arts community itself in our current neoliberal enterprise culture:

what then to make of the fact that an increasing number of individuals now identify themselves as ‘artists’ in such an entrepreneurial environment? Is it possible that this enterprise culture has so de-radicalized artists that something approaching an historic compromise or détante is taking shape whereby artists gain improved social legitimacy within the neoliberal economy while capital gains a profitable cultural paradigm in which to promote a new work ethic of creativity and personal risk-taking?27

We can’t expect groups, organizations, or artists, to all come at ideas of progressiveness, or diversity, or radicalness in the same way, if even at all. To rely so heavily on those organizations so deeply embedded within the larger system that is directly controlled and determined by the state is an inactive approach.

We need more readily available funding to those who demonstrate a desire to implement and engage with new and radical forms. In a sense, this calls for an inversion of the current system’s check boxes by putting things back in the hands of the artists instead of the administrators. It is likely, that if left on their own, many institutions wouldn’t make the cut when it comes to those very priorities set forth by the government agencies funding them, so why do we continue to privilege them? Shouldn’t we be privileging the radical? The new? Is that not how progressive societies are forged?

What if more funding was made available to ad hoc groups and collectives, those who come together in response to the contemporary moment, at a more frequent rate, allowing them to better enact new strategies and new ways forward? This could foster a rapid and ever changing cycle of new ideas from a wide range of voices and perspectives, those that are new to the sector and perhaps even unexpected.

At an ARCCO conference, Emily and Maiko gave an eloquent description of Gendai as operating like gut bacteria—nomadic, digestive, fertile.28

The advent of the Internet is above all a breakthrough in warfare that allows the people to spark a truly horizontal, permanent world revolution.29

The hierarchies inherent within bureaucratic systems operate against the horizontal shift White nods to in the above quote. Since bureaucracy is rooted in the control of information, and since we operate within the Information Age, intensified by the invention and proliferation of social media, I suggest we look closer to the structure of the internet itself as a potential model.

First, consider the various models and how they might relate to the current shape of the public arts in Canada. Alexander R. Galloway, a computer programmer working on issues in philosophy, technology, and theories of mediation has written extensively about the internet as it relates to systems of power. He defines centralized networks as those that are hierarchical, where “each radial node, or branch of the hierarchy, is subordinate to the central hub. All activity travels from centre to periphery.”30 Centralized models are indicative of the classical era. On the surface, the Canadian arts sector reflects elements of the more modern decentralized model of computing, one where individual computers maintain the resources to perform their own tasks. Peer-to-peer computing is an example of a decentralized system and in the case of artist-run culture, I am relating those ARCs receiving ongoing funding from councils as akin to the nodes in a decentralized network: maintaining their own programming and activities but still dependent on the government, which, in this metaphor operates as the central hub. One could argue though, that the institutionalization of ARCs and their dependence on councils to dictate their priorities, along with the recent shift in policy illuminated by IMAA as to how grants are adjudicated by the Canada Council for the Arts, results in a model that is overwhelmingly centralized. Organizations adapt to the requirements and priorities set forth by the council who ultimately approve or disapprove of the groups performance through the controlling of the purse strings.

With the rise of cloud computing, we have more recently seen the decentralized network model shift to a distributed one. The distributed network evokes the rhizome described in Deleuze and Guatarri’s, A Thousand Plateaus. It has no central hub, “instead each entity in the distributed network is an autonomous agent.”31 From Galloway:

Each point in a distributed network is neither a central hub nor a satellite node—there are neither trunks nor leaves. The network contains nothing but “intelligent end-point systems that are self-deterministic, allowing each end- point system to communicate with any host it chooses.” Like the rhizome, each node in a distributed network may establish direct communication with another node.32

Galloway sees distributed networks as indicative of larger shifts in our social lives, shifts that deprivilege central bureaucracies in favour of a broader network of autonomous social actors.33 I suggest we map Galloway’s theories about network systems onto the current public artistic sector by deprivileging the focus on established, institutionalized organizations in favour of a broadening of smaller groups and collectives that have the ability to remain autonomous.

In fact, the reason why the Internet would withstand nuclear attack is precisely because its internal protocols are the enemy of bureaucracy, of rigid hierarchy, and of centralization.34

When arts councils better support smaller, ad hoc groups or collectives they mirror the distributed model, making the artistic sector a more accurate reflection of contemporary society as a whole. Artist-run culture needs to better integrate the diversity and complexity of our communities, even the arts councils recognize this. A first and productive step would be to enact structural changes based on what we are witnessing happen in society overall.

By deprivileging, I’m not suggesting that we necessarily replace established centres with their long standing histories, rather that we foster another system that runs along with it, freeing up the expectations that institutionalized spaces ‘do all the things’ while simultaneously empowering a diversity of voices and strategies of organizing and doing.

I recognize the blind spots of this metaphor. These smaller collectives and groups will inevitably be dependent on arts councils for government funding and the shifts I’m imagining might not fit neatly within the current structure. But, imagine a network where the hierarchy can begin to diminish, where collectives, formal organizations and councils readily interact with, and alongside, one another. Where a smaller group coming together quickly for a one- time project can feed into the shaping of council’s overall structure at the same time that a more formalized organization can provide support to a smaller collective. I imagine a more fertile sector that has the ability to both be active and to activate and to readily adapt to larger societal changes.

The council currently funds collective projects, although less robustly than their institutional counterparts (often in programs that are in direct competition with them), and collectives and smaller groups are often encouraged toward the path of institutionalization by the councils after a number of successful applications. This inevitable path toward institutionalization not only discourages those who want to work with communities that might not embrace the formal institutional structures that are required by the state, but also squelches the very energy and activity that makes collectives so fertile in the first place.

The collective model allows for smaller groups of individuals who have shared ideals to come together in a way that best suits them in order to respond to the issues they care about most. By strengthening the number of collectives that are part of the arts sector, we could see the influx of a multiplicity of voices more adaptable to the times. By supporting collectives in a way that better maintains and enhances their own agency, the groups would be able to react more spontaneously to societal changes as they happen. In turn, this new focus could offer a higher degree of stability to the entire system. Remember, from Galloway, the reason why the internet would survive a nuclear attack is precisely because it favours such heterogeneity and denies bureaucracy and centralization.

I see ARCs and institutional/community involvement as the work that needs to be done to make sure there’s a foundation for cultural activity. It’s not the kind of dynamism that I find with collective work. It has to be done, but I think there is an even more dire need to draw a line, to see the forest for the trees, to remind ourselves why the institutions are there to begin with—that they’re not inevitable. With collectives, there’s an immediate, shared energy—I like to think that collective practice rides on a sense of direct, shared personal integrity, rather than maintaining a reputation or legacy.35

A number of arts collectives have emerged in recent years often with radical and profound impacts. The Gulf Labor project, a coalition of international artists boycotting the construction of the Guggenheim, Louvre, and Sheikh Zayed museums on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi in an effort to ensure the protection of migrant worker rights, serves as an example of how a quickly organized collective might achieve tangible results on a global scale. Through the organizing of a large-scale boycott, Gulf Labor’s actions have seen real results: “efforts have produced concrete results, with the private institutions and businesses involved in Saadiyat Island agreeing to a minimum set of commitments to protect worker rights, including the right to change jobs, an end to passport confiscation, and the refunding of recruiting fees.”36

HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, an international collective of artists, writers, composers, academics, filmmakers, and performers of the African diaspora who came together for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, is an example of the ways in which collective structures can allow for a unique and marginal voice to emerge. Essentially a group brought together as a form of protest, HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? employed the strategy of refusal as a structural tactic for change:

One of the ways that we have discussed framing our participation—even before it started—was as a protest. Our participation inside of this white supremacist institution is a protest in itself. Of course we were aware of the politics of exclusion, the politics of white supremacy that make up the institution of the Whitney. I think a great way to consider this is that the entire participation was a protest, and the withdrawal was part of the protest.”37

This strategy of refusal is a tactic and a radical action, one that is only truly possible at the individual or collective level. Tina M. Campt further discusses the importance of refusal specifically in Black communities: “for blacks in the diaspora, both quiet and the quotidian are mobilized as everyday practices of refusal.”38 Throughout her text, Campt theorizes the practice of refusal as:

an extension of the range of creative responses black communities have marshaled in the face of racialized dispossession. In this context, refusal is not a response to a state of exception or extreme violence. I theorize it instead as practices honed in response to sustained, everyday encounters with exigency and duress that rupture a predictable trajectory of flight.39

Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F), May Day 2015: Occupation of Guggenheim in New York, 2015.

Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F), May Day 2015: Occupation of Guggenheim in New York, 2015.

It is an important and powerful tactic, especially against the inhumanity of neoliberalism so imbued in today’s bureaucracies, and one that is especially found in groups of individuals that share the common background and the specific experiences like those Campt outlines.

Although there is power and progressiveness in the collective model, it is important to remain cautious. Especially as the model has been, in many senses, taken up by the larger and more suffocating neoliberal model as seen through the so called “sharing economy” and the rise of independent contractors. In recent decades there has been an absorption of the neoliberal entrepreneurial drive into the collective art model and this replication of neoliberalism can only be deciphered via a diversity of collectives working alongside one another. There is also the ‘trend’ factor, especially magnified since the establishment of writing about participatory practice within art history. Collectives are often touted merely for the fact that they are collectives, not necessarily based on how they actually operate as collectives. The spontaneous nature of collectives allows for this scrutiny though; if your collective doesn’t align with your ideals—move on and either find or start another.

Because when compared to almost every previous collective and many new ones, the recent crop of gallery sponsored art groupettes is unmistakably a product of enterprise culture. As put forward by historian Chin-tao Wu enterprise culture is the near total privatization of everything up to and including that which stood outside or against the reach of capitalism including avant-garde and radical art.40

Another potential problem, especially within art history’s assessment of the collective model, is the insistence of aligning the framework within the context of communism, which denies the possibility for alternative structures that refuse to operate from within a colonial lens. This perspective was raised most profoundly by Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist of the artist collective Post Commodity at the 2017 Creative Time Summit in Toronto. They challenged the suggestion that their collective working method was one that was influenced by a communist framework. Kade L. Twist:

Marxism is nothing more than another version of the Judeo Christian Western Scientific worldview, which hasn’t been so helpful thus far. So I don’t think we’ll find any, you know, beauty in it moving forward. It’s definitely not an Indigenous methodology or practice or worldview. And I think there’s a lot of mistaken and positioned, perspectives, that are trying to position Indigenous people within a Marxist lens because the Euro-Western scientific worldview gaze wants to recreate things in their own image. And that’s not us. And that’s not Indigenous people anywhere.41

The clash between artistic and social critiques recurs most visibly at certain historical moments, and the reappearance of participatory art is symptomatic of this clash. It tends to occur at moments of political transition and upheaval.42

Claire Bishop reminds us that artistic movements happen most rapidly and assuredly in times of crisis and we’d be hard pressed to define our current moment as one of anything other than the moment of upheaval. Now is the time for action. We don’t have time to wait. Contemporary artists know this and their drive and energy needs to be supported by the larger artistic sector. Ultimately, for a democratic society to remain progressive, a balance of forms is required that can operate alongside, and occasionally, in direct opposition to one another. Again from Chantal Mouffe: “according to the agonistic approach, critical art is art that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.”43

At issue within our current arts system is the reliance on a more controlled and centralized model that, through the institutionalization of artist-run centres and the hierarchical structure maintained by the arts councils, is ultimately shaped by very few voices, essentially, by one administrative voice. The ways in which councils support collectives, by encouraging their envelopment into the overall system, continues this. It creates a decentralized model that leans toward the centralized while the world is quickly shifting toward something else. I believe the arts sector needs to be at the forefront of society, so that it can lead the way toward societal change. If we can’t count on artists to aide in the creation of a society that is diverse, progressive, and caring, a society that is more reflective of the larger public, and more equipped to respond to societal concerns, what hope is there?

In the development of a new model that operates more like the distributed network we see quickly taking shape online, I don’t want to put forth one sure-fire solution. I don’t think any one tactic will do, and the power of an undefined and open strategy allows for the potential of new and otherwise unknown strategies to arise. I find it critical to look toward DIY strategies of engagement as a tactic going forward, for artists to come together and try and, perhaps even more importantly, to fail. Only through the encouragement of a number of working strategies and methods can a diverse and truly distributed artistic sector surface and continue to thrive. And these diverse methodologies need to come from artists themselves. By making funds available to ad hoc groups and collectives now, and with a broad application process that supports frameworks running alternative to the current expectations of the traditional institutional model, the possibility for tackling urgent issues within the arts is possible. Imagining future potentials is what artists do and I have no doubt about their ability to shape new, interesting and critical structures that can help propel the Canadian arts sector into a better future.

I end with a letter, recently sent to me by artist, writer, educator and friend, Lanny DeVuono. As she discussed conversations she was recently part of at two different arts focused events in Denver, one on “the spectacle and what it means today in art & politics” … and another “on artist run spaces,” she noted that: “in both ‘conversations’ diversity came up (along with capitalism and other issues) and it reminds me of how far away we are from being all right—being whole.”44 I have been thinking a lot about this idea of wholeness and how it might come together through a fracturing of sorts. I imagine wholeness as manifesting through the embrace of a vast number of groups and collectives, through a privileging of a wide number of voices and strategies, and most especially, a wholeness manifest through the deprivileging of the centralized model in favour of a more distributed one.


1 The Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA) is a national non-profit advocating on behalf of the media arts community in Canada. They represent “over 100 independent film, video, audio, and new media production, distribution, and exhibition organizations in all parts of the country, the IMAA serves over 16,000 independent media artists and cultural workers.” From their website:

2 Lisa Theriault, for IMAA, letter to Simon Brault of the Canada Council for the Arts. January 31, 2018.

3 Ibid.

4 Chin-Tao Wu, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s. (Verso, 2002), 21.

5 Diana Nemiroff, “Par-al-lel,” in SightLines, Reading Contemporary Canadian Art, ed. Jessica Bradley and Lesely Johnstone (Artextes Editions, 1994), 180.

6 Diana Nemiroff elucidates the shift toward the name “artist-run centre” itself: “I feel that there may be another reason why “parallel” became unpopular. The current, more neutral term of “artist-run centre” reflects the pragmatism emerging in the later 1970s as the recession deepened and the government showed itself less committed than in the early 1970s to policies of economic stimulation. In 1978, for instance, the Canada Council announced a freeze in is funds for the coming year. Nemiroff, Par-al-lel, 181.

7 AA Bronson, “The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums by Artists,” in Museums by Artists, ed. AA Bronson and Peggy Gale (Art Metropole, 1983), 36.

8 I’m evoking Alexander Galloway here and his relating networks to social formation: “Following Deleuze, I consider the distributed network to be an important diagram for our current social formation.” Galloway, Protocol, 11.

9 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. (Knopf Books, 1992), 83.

10 Postman, Technopoly, 84.

11 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. (Vintage Canada, 2007), 18.

12 Boris Groys, “Towards a New Universalism,” e-Flux Journal 86. 2017,

13 Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. (Verso, 2012), 14.

14 Fraser, Andrea, “A museum is not a business. It is run in a businesslike fashion,” Art and Its Institutions:

Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations, ed. Nina Montmann (London, United Kingdom: Black Dog Publishing, 2006), 115.

15 Wu, Privatising Culture, 45.

16 Michael Maranda, “Hard Numbers: A Study on Diversity in Canada’s Galleries,” Canadian Art, April 5, 2017,

17 Maranda, Hard Numbers.

18 Maranda, Hard Numbers.

19 Alison Cooley, Amy Luo and Caoimhe Morgan-Feir, “Canada’s Galleries Fall Short: The Not-So Great White North,” Canadian Art, April 21, 2015,

20 Maranda, Hard Numbers.

21 Serena Lee, interview with the author via email, with permission, July 2018.

22 The Canada Council for the Arts’ current priorities include: the prioritizing of Aboriginal Peoples; culturally diverse groups; people who are Deaf or have disabilities; and official language minority communities. Priorities for the Ontario Arts Council currently include: prioritizing Artists of Colour; Deaf Artists and Artists with Disabilities; Francophone Artists; Indigenous Artists; New Generation Artists (18-30 year olds); and Artists Living in Regions Outside Toronto. From their respective websites: and

23 The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat, 29.

24 Lee, Interview.

25 Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically. (Verso, 2013).

26 Nico Baumbach, Damon R. Young, and Genevieve Yue, “Revisiting Post Modernism-An Interview With

Frederic Jameson,” Social Text, 34.2 (2016): 144.

27 Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter—Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. (Pluto Press, 2011), 117.

28 Lee, Interview (referencing Emily Fitzpatrick, Maiko Tanaka and Gendai Gallery).

29 Micah White, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution. (Knopf Canada, 2016), 183.

30 Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. (MIT Press, 2006), 30.

31 Galloway, Protocol, 33.

32 Galloway, Protocol, 11.

33 Galloway, Protocol, 32.

34 Galloway, Protocol, 29.

35 Lee, Interview.

36 Sarah Leah Whitson, “The Gulf—Forward,” in The Gulf, high Culture/Hard Labor, ed. Andrew Ross and the Gulf Labor Coalition (OR Books, 2015), 9.

37 Ben Davis, “The Yams, on the Whitney and White Supremacy,” Artnet news, May 30, 2014,

38 Tina M Campt, Listening to Images. (Duke University Press, 2017), 4-5.

39 Campt, Listening to Images, 10.

40 Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette. Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945.

(University Of Minnesota Press, 2007), xiv.

41 Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist. “Land—Postcommodity,” presentation, Creative Time Summit of Homelands and Revolution, September 28-30, 2017, Koerner Hall, Toronto, Canada, online video,

42 Claire Bishop, “Participation and Spectacle—Where are we Now?,” in Living as Form—Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, ed. Nato Thompson (The MIT Press, 2012), 39.

43 Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 1.2 (2007): 4.

44 DeVuono, Lanny. Letter to Christina Battle. 20 January, 2018.

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