Surprise Me: On Artist-Led Activity in the UK in 1996

Recurring Zeitgeist: Artists are doing it for themselves
The phenomenon of artist-initiated projects is by no means novel or confined to the UK. It has been claimed that in 1964 John Latham ‘participated in the first manifestation of London’s alternative or underground culture which reached a climax in 1967-68’. (1) In 1966, the Artists’ Placement Group was formed in an attempt to change the position of the artist in society, which, in 1989 was reformed as O+I (Organisation + Imagination). This was complemented in 1974 by the ‘OHO’ investigations at Gallery House. (2) Meanwhile, David Medalla, founded the Centre for Advanced Creative Study in 1964, publishing Signals as its news bulletin until 1966 (3) and prior to this, in 1959, Gustav Metzger turned from painting to ‘auto-destructive art’. (4) By the late 1960s, SPACE Studios were established, comprising the Artists’ Information Registry (AIR) Gallery and in 1979, Matt’s Gallery was born at ACME Studios. The late Seventies saw the influx of conceptual art, parodied by artists at The Gallery, opposite the Lisson. During the Eighties, the focus continued in its shift towards the commercial galleries, creating a niche for a new wave of artists’ activity.

Fuelled by Julian Opie’s transition from Goldsmith’s College to Lisson Gallery, the ‘Class of ’88’ benefited from concurrent Docklands’ development for sponsorship of ‘Freeze’ and Michael Craig-Martin’s support as a bridge to the artworld. The momentum gained during this project provided the impetus for increasingly ambitious shows. Carl Freedman and Billee Sellman, initially with Damien Hirst, organised ‘Modern Medicine’ , ‘Gambler’ and ‘Market’ in Building One, a 28,000 sq. ft. former biscuit factory with a deliberate resemblance to the Saatchi Gallery. These projects were funded by leading dealers and collectors, convinced by the self-fulfilling prophecy that they could participate in the emergence of a new generation of young British artists. (5) A comment on this relationship was undertaken in the same location by Peter Lewis in ‘Candyman II’. (6)

There are currently over 100,000 artists practicing in Britain, (7) an increase of 71% over a ten year period, inevitably creating a proportional increase in the need for exhibiting space. Of these, the largest proportion are in the 25-34 age band, with the ratio of females to males peaking at 2:5. Around 1/3 are located in London, simple demographics showing that they tend to be clustered in certain areas. This is intended as an objective analysis of recent projects initiated by arts practitioners, without categorising the work shown. It takes Glasgow’s long-standing Transmission Gallery as a case study, discussing parallel histories outside the metropolis. (8)

‘Alternative’ – to what?
It is important to acknowledge that this Time Out classification (9) has largely been rejected, as a label loaded with dated anti-Establishment connotations. (10) Systems of patronage exist upon which almost all of the initiatives under consideration rely. A lineage of financial support from within the art establishment is discernible from ‘Freeze’ and its immediate successors (which would have continued had the art market not crashed) to the Independent Art Space (IAS), Cleveland (the project space adjacent to Lotta Hammer) and the Tracey Emin Museum. Indirectly, works exhibited in the type of projects under consideration will generally be for sale, with little or no (in the case of 30 Underwood Street and Cathy Wilkes’ project) commission taken. (11) The most sympathetic manifestation of this is the Invisible Museum. (12) It should be noted that Glasgow is devoid of commercial galleries prepared to deal with the political or conceptually-based art that Transmission has shown. Specialist Trusts are receptive to artists’ projects while other patrons from outside the artworld exist sponsoring organisations – as non-artist members of the IAS or Adam Gallery – or individual projects, most notably Beck’s.

Fundamentally, applying for public funding as an artists’ group is easier than as an individual artist, which has led to some tenuous ‘organisations’ being established. Such funding is allocated on either a revenue (continuing) or project (one-off) basis by Arts Councils and Regional Arts Boards. (13) Galleries in receipt of the former tend to be those with the longest history such as Transmission, Castlefield, Collective and Catalyst and they are obliged to extend their opening hours to cover most of the week, whereas other organisations cater for the Thursday – Sunday afternoon peak. Since Transmission was founded in 1983, Glasgow has progressed from a city with an historically poor infrastructure for contemporary visual arts to a dynamic centre upon which young artists converge, with similar migration towards Belfast and Manchester in evidence. Paradoxically, when the desirable position of financial stability is attained, the gallery has been subsumed by the system, the bureaucracy implied in achieving this status tending to overshadow artistic practice. Amongst others, however, Robin Klassnik regards time spent as Director of Matt’s Gallery as a series of collaborations with invited artists. (14)

Almost without exception, the artist-curators, art historians and exhibiting artists are unpaid, relying on State benefits and part-time work. As Ross Sinclair noted ‘when salaries come in, the vitality and urgency inherent in artist-run spaces usually sneaks out the back door. … There is freedom to experiment with different forms, different approaches ~ installation for example. Fundamentally, though, a context is created where market pressures need only intrude if desired.’ (15) This ostensibly inextricable link may be circumvented by investing a separate income into projects, which formed the basis of Cultural Instructions and Hales (the café). However, attendance at art school or seeking advertisements and reviews in art publications provide ineluctable inroads into the infrastructure. The primary site for this in Scotland was Variant, (16) while in London the genesis of frieze, successor to Artscribe paralleled much of this activity. Significantly, Poster Studio have never sought this kind of attention, refusing to advertise their activities or be interviewed.

Whilst acknowledging that this phenomenon is increasingly accepted practice, many of the groups under discussion are united by their perception of occurring outside of, but not counter to, (17) extant culture and the freedom this entails. Relative to, say, Adam Gallery, The Tannery places itself within the London art scene and ‘address specifically a London context’, while the Gallerette takes an interventionist stance. There will inevitably be overlaps with artists exhibiting in the more accessible public (18) and private (19) galleries. Symbiotic relationships may be fostered, such as the recent collaboration of the ICA with artists at last order(s) and 50 Caledonian Road. Transmission benefited from the influx of international curators to Glasgow who, made aware of their activities by public gallerists, could view members’ slides (a similar slide bank is now available at Castlefield). That the publication of this historical document coincides with a museum exhibition is testament to this relationship and it is by no means unconscious, hence City Racing’s desire to usurp the museum’s territory by erecting their sign and Cubitt’s chosen artists investigating various aspects of museology.

Motivation and Influences
Early in 1982, the ‘Committee for the Visual Arts’ was established at WASPS (20) studios in Glasgow and, motivated by the (common) lack of exhibiting space for young artists, Transmission was conceived and a venue sought. That a gallery should emerge from studios is nothing new, with Adam Gallery, Castlefield, Cubitt, Curtain Road Arts, Gasworks, Milch, Open Space and 30 Underwood Street remaining connected to studios from which they may derive income.

The closest Scottish equivalent to Transmission was the Edinburgh Collective Gallery, established almost concurrently without Arts Council funding, yet the structural differences meant that the opportunity to exhibit there was not freely available to young artists. An attempt was made to circumvent London and find an international field and later, despite a mediated awareness of the ‘Goldsmith’s phenomenon’, activities such as ‘Freeze’ were simply perceived in Glasgow (and to some extent in London) as part of a growing awareness that artists’ initiatives were happening elsewhere.

Funding and Constitution
In 1983, a street-level property with 800 square feet of exhibiting space and an approximate rental value of £2,000 was allocated for six months, rent-free, by Glasgow District Council. This was matched by a grant from the Scottish Arts Council and, in 1987, an auction of donated works was held to raise capital. Those initiatives predominantly bound, albeit temporarily – The Three Month Gallery attests to this – to a fixed location, usually apply for charitable status which confers massive rates concessions on an already low rent property but this seemingly idyllic situation is complicated by the often idiosyncratic nature of the allocated spaces. In some cases, Annexed for example, mobility encourages a strong, almost corporate, identity. To guarantee an income, non-profit making Transmission continues to be based on an egalitarian short-term membership scheme involving around 300 members. Similarly consistent is the policy that the honorary committee of artists should change after two years and membership should last no longer than five years. An alternative strategy has been employed by City Racing, with the same committee in place for 7 years, both organisations tending to invite occasional external curators. In increasing order, so too do Beaconsfield and Cubitt (although over 40 studio holders are expected to actively contribute to one of 8 committees, whose heads change annually), while responsibility for curatorship rests wholly with the invited artist at Adam Gallery or an external curator at IAS.(21)

Transmission decisions were reached entirely through discussion, whereby committee members in a distinct minority could realise exhibitions that they felt to be worthwhile. Conversely, the Collective Gallery membership proposed and voted for exhibitions at biannual meetings rather than actively seeking artists or considering anonymous proposals. In 1992 they changed the gallery structure to follow an Arts Council model, with a paid administrator, like Cubitt and Curtain Road.

Within the Gallery
Conceived to show work neglected by mainstream galleries in Scotland, this initially involved Transmission supplying an absent forum for a finite number of indigenous artists and the first couple of years were perceived externally as being synonymous with the activities of a group of painters from Glasgow School of Art. Exempted from responsibility for sterile overviews by a lack of massive public or commercial obligation potentially enabled low cost but controversial work to be made. From 1985, there followed a series of projects which utilised time-based media and live art, involving well-known people working in the field. This deliberate circumvention of the commodifiable nature of mainstream activities acknowledged a certain ideology, that the self-empowering nature of artist-run spaces could be used to shape culture. Throughout its formative years, Transmission consistently demonstrated the ability to change in response to dominant vanguard tendencies and a broad overall artistic programme was achieved through the specialisation of individual committee members. As with many of the spaces under consideration, the tendency towards non-thematic group exhibitions persists, with occasional one-person shows being offered. Artists involved in ‘commissioning’ and producing new works demystify the rôle of independent curators, tending to maintain their autonomy of individual pieces in a move away from the ‘exhibition as entity’ approach, or re-working it in the case of Bank.

In 1990, the annual grant was increased to £12,000 leading to an increase in the scope of publicity and production, enabling a more ambitious programme that was to include Lawrence Weiner’s first solo exhibition in Glasgow. Transmission never suffered from being overly self-reflective yet its audience was considered, the membership alone, which accounts for a large proportion of visual artists in Glasgow, constituting a sizeable enough group to justify their activities, while in London, disparate groupings exist.

Coinciding with the mature incarnation of Transmission, in the last five years, is the emergence of an unwritten policy to avoid showing the work of committee members, except in massive group exhibitions. In London, Cubitt has taken similar steps away from the self promotion upon which many galleries are premised (a look at early histories will confirm this). This fact is explicitly acknowledged at the Tracey Emin Museum – that this activity is so obviously part of a greater whole renders it a genuine effort to commune with her multifarious audience. Meanwhile, Peter Lewis critiques the process of exhibition-making from within as his alter-ego Justine Daf, while Bank are indispensable in their own shows and Plummet have created a fictional artist.

The Social Factor
Regrettably, this account negates a sense of the energy involved in these activities. The events and discussions that made up the social and educational side of Transmission, for instance, were also an important focal point in consolidating the ideas of Art School graduates (Bund, last order(s) and 50 Caledonian Road are graduate projects). For example, it was used as a meeting space, to host poetry and prose readers’ events, for performances and artists’ talks. Other galleries are intended as the focal point for social interaction and discussion by studio members in particular buildings (at Cubitt this is increasingly prompted by artists’ talks) or in the wider community (Hales).

Concern that excessive administration and forethought can reduce the spontaneity and increase specialisation (22) of organisations was acknowledged when the London Arts Board set up its artist-run project grant. (23) This factor may partly inform the steady decrease in live events (the public events-based group formerly known as Nosepaint are now Beaconsfield and Projects UK have evolved into Locus+, while their antecedent The Basement hosted two exhibitions per week). Attempts are being made to redress the balance by Cathy Wilkes (working closely with Transmission artists), last order(s), Milch, NVA, PPQ, Institution of Rot and Imprint ’93 by hosting ‘Weekenders’.

Exchanges with similar organisations in Britain and abroad has long been a priority at Transmission and those with City Racing and some Belfast artists (crucial to the genesis of Catalyst on Transmission’s model) parallel the interconnections to be found within the London ‘scene’. Working outside the city, Cairn Gallery and the HMST Studio provide a place of contemplation for a local and international audience that may be seen to correspond with FRAC in France.

In 1988, Transmission moved to new premises necessitating the adoption of a ‘white cube’ aesthetic typical of its era and established counterparts, but rejecting the affiliated etiquette. The modernist obsession with context prohibits this from acting as a neutral backdrop – instead it is perceived as enhancing the estrangement of art from society. (24) Genuine interaction with the public desired by successive members of Transmission does not allow for such artistic reverence, circumvented by smoking, laughing and talking being a natural part of the overall dynamic atmosphere. Recent use of the imperfect basement creates a discrete space analogous to the Tannery Project Space, the bisection of Cubitt and the uninvigilated domestic spaces at City Racing, Cairn and Adam Galleries, further disarming the severity of the gallery while rooms in inhabited buildings like the high-rise projects of Cathy Wilkes and Plummet inevitably attract a neighbourhood audience.

An important exhibition outside the gallery was ‘Windfall’ in 1991, with artists from Glasgow and internationally being invited to participate. As a testament to the discursive atmosphere in and around Transmission the indigenous artists consolidated their rejection of a ‘site-specific’ working practice. (25) This is echoed in London through the work of Bank, when, despite their recurrent use of geometrical spaces, the context becomes the constructed tableaux with which artists are invited to interact. (26) Public Art projects (27) organised by Rear Window require the protagonists and the viewer to adjust to a changing context, while ‘the philosophical base of work..’ undertaken by Space Explorations ‘ that the space or environment for which the art is made becomes an inherent part of the artwork’. Venues chosen by Fine Rats International are politically and socially inflected and ‘two of the abiding concerns of Locus+ are communication and relevance’. (28) This activity is paralleled by the notion of sound-time as space offered at Audio Arts.

With the notable exceptions of IAS and Bank, budgets cannot guarantee production of a catalogue. Having shown work in a fixed location, Cultural Instructions will endeavour to collect and represent artists in ways that are not confined to a space – one solution being to publish collected works in printed format. This approach is quite distinct from the publication of artists’ books and multiples undertaken by workfortheeyetodo who identified a gap in Britain. There is an area of overlap with Imprint ’93 which facilitates the production of (not necessarily printed) works of individual artists for a tightly controlled audience; this is complemented by exhibitions of the participating artists, gradually increasing in number. Numerous self-published parallels exist, collated by Mark Pawson and John Skeet as ‘Counter Intelligence’ at the 121 Centre, home of the Archive of Autonomous Publications.

Sensory deprivation aside, the internet as a means of cross-cultural global communication within a private space provides an ideal platform for certain artists. Siraj Izhar states that ‘the link between virtual space on the internet and the space on the street that I work in is that they are both unclaimed spaces, outside of the prescribed frames (institutional etc.) – where the languages that we work with as artists can be the most subject to the unexpected’. This undoubtedly has implications for the future with interactivity as an ongoing concern in the third millennium. (29)

Commissioned by the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for the Anthology of Artist-Run Spaces published to coincide with the exhibition ‘Life/Live: The Artistic Scene in the UK in 1996’.
1. John A. Walker, John Latham: The incidental person – his art and ideas (London: Middlesex University Press, 1995). p. 76. This began with discussions around Alexander Trocchi’s ‘Sigma’ project followed by the ‘sTigma’ sculptural environment, in the basement of Better Books in 1965, in which Latham participated. From 1962-66, Barbara Steveni devised the idea of ‘placement’ – initially leading to artists placed in industry with no preconceptions. In these situations, they noted that ‘the context is half the work’. This ethos forms the teaching basis of the Environmental Art Department at Glasgow School of Art and (separately) informs the work of Space Explorations in ways that will be discussed.
2. This Goethe Institute building was lent to Sigi Krauss and Rosetta Brooks who used it to construct ‘A Survey of the Avant Garde in Britain’, inviting Latham, Stephen Willats and others. Latham, together with Andrew Dipper and Jeffrey Shaw devised the expression 01-10 (from which the 3 letters were taken) to represent the transition from the least event i.e. from nothingness into being and back, implicitly acknowledging Sartre.
3. See Guy Brett, Exploding Galaxies: The Art of David Medalla, (London: Kala Press, 1995)
4. See Andrew Wilson, ‘papa what did you do when the nazis built the concentration camps/ my dear, they never told us anything’, Gustav Metzger: ‘Damaged nature, auto-destructive art’ (London: coracle @ workfortheeyetodo, 1996). pp. 64-81.
5. ‘Freeze’, Summer 1988, ‘Modern Medicine’ March-May, 1990, ‘Gambler’ June-July, 1990 (both group shows), ‘Market’ September-October, 1990 (Michael Landy solo show). ‘East Country Yard Show’, curated by Sarah Lucas and Henry Bond in Surrey Quays, 31 May – 22 June, 1990. Graphic design was an important unifying feature at this time, with Tony Arefin designing invitations and catalogues for ‘Freeze’ and ‘Modern Medicine’ in London and ‘Self Conscious State’, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 1990, in addition to several public and private galleries; sharing an office with frieze, he designed their first issue.
6. See Julian Stallabrass ‘On the Margins’, Art Monthly, 182. pp. 3-6.
7. Jane O’Brien & Andy Feist, Employment in the Arts and Cultural Industries: an analysis of the 1991 Census, (London: Arts Council of England, 1995). This research shows that in 1991, 93,600 people were included in the category ‘artists, commercial artists and graphic designers’. (This is compared to 55,900 in 1981; we can assume that, five years on, the figure continues to increase). Most Regional Arts Boards account for 7% of this, as is Scotland.
8. For a more detailed chronology of recent history, see British Council, ‘Chronologies’ in General Release, (London: British Council, 1995). pp. 72-103.
9. Time Out magazine uses the heading ‘Alternative Spaces’ in their art listings.
10. See Simon Ford, ‘Myth Making: on the phenomenon of the young British artist’, Art Monthly, March 1996, no. 194. pp. 3-9. and Mark Harris ‘Peter Lewis’s Flag at Clink Street: Group Shows, Alternatives and Commodification’, unpublished catalogue essay.
11. Commercial ventures have been attempted by artists, such as William Ling’s Bipasha Ghosh and early incarnations of Milch and now Cabinet and Cut. See also Sarah Staton, ‘‘Art Market’ – A practice towards a theory’, Control, 15. pp. 28-29 which discusses the Supastore projects initiated in 1993 that question the mechanism of the art market.
12. Which ‘might stand in relation to the conventional museum in much the same way as Simon Patterson’s Great Bear stands in relation to the conventional map of the London Underground’. Matthew Collings, Independent on Sunday Magazine, 254 September, 1994.
13. ‘National Lottery’ have become the new buzzwords of all potential fund-raisers and the National Artists Association is considering the logistics of distributing the Exhibition Payment Right from a central fund derived from this source. Depending on the project, sponsorship in kind is sought for paint, administrative help, equipment etc.
14. Jeffrey Kastner ‘Matt’s Gallery’ in Art & Design: British Art Defining the 90s, Vol. 10, no. 3/4, March/April 1995. pp. 28-47.
15. Ross Sinclair, ‘How to Deal With Dinosaur Culture’, Art Monthly, November, 1992, 161. p. 2. This utopian situation, that greatly enriches the subculture of Glasgow, fails to acknowledge the often time-consuming effort by each artist to earn an external income and the distraction and anxiety that this causes.
16. A magazine subscribing to the cross-culturalism of Hugh MacDiarmid. See Malcolm Dickson, ‘Editorial: The Spirit of Resistance’, Variant, 3, Autumn, 1987. pp. 4-5. The emergence of frieze complemented the extant role of Art Monthly.
17. ‘The opposition in so far as it exists is now about survival and the possibility of setting up a new centre’ – William Shoebridge (Plummet) in Steve Rushton, ‘Take the lift up to the underground: William Shoebridge interviewed’, everything, 18. pp. 20-21.
18. Such as the CCA (formerly the Third Eye Centre) and Tramway in Glasgow – both of which had a period of closure in 1991 – and the ICA, Whitechapel, Matt’s Gallery, Showroom, Chisenhale and ‘Art Now’ room at the Tate in London (mainly solo exhibitions).
19. Those with an interest in the work of younger artists include the White Cube, the Lisson Gallery, Anthony d’Offay, Annely Juda, Laure Genillard, Frith Street Gallery, Lotta Hammer, Robert Prime, Anthony Reynolds, Victoria Miro, Interim Art.
20. Workshop and Artists Studio Provision Scotland (WASPS) subsidised by the Scottish Arts Council.
21. It seems apposite that Carl Freedman has been asked to curate something for the IAS, re-uniting three protagonists. See David Barrett, ‘Couldn’t Get Ahead: Independent Art Space, London’, Carl Freedman, ‘Take Me (I’m Yours): Serpentine Gallery, London’, James Roberts, ‘Minky Manky: South London Gallery, London’, all linked in frieze, 23, Summer 1995. pp. 71-2, pp. 73-4, p. 80 respectively.
22. Specialisation in the realm of film and video is undertaken by Black Audio Film Collective, London Film-makers Co-operative, Glasgow Film and Video Workshop and New Visions, with London Electronic Arts leading the field in digital technology and NVA/Test Dept. producing experimental music.
23. At a meeting of The London Arts Board on 22 March, 1996, with representatives from City Racing, Space Explorations, Beaconsfield, Bank and Cubitt in attendance.
24. Brian O’Doherty, ‘Notes on the Gallery Space’, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Santa Monica, SF: The Lapis Press, 1986). p. 15.
25. See Nathan Coley in Matthew Slotover, ‘Northern Lights’, frieze, issue 1. p. 40.
26. These organisations parallel the concerns of Artangel, a Co-Director of which is a Trustee of Cubitt.
27. John Roberts, ‘Mad for it!: Bank and the New British Art’, everything, 18. pp. 15-19.
28. Stuart Morgan in Samantha Wilkinson ed., Locus+: 1993-1996 (Newcastle: Locus+, 1996)
29. There is an exhibition space at Java Internet Café in Glasgow; in London mute offered a chance for works to be published.
See and respectively
Unless otherwise stated, all citations are derived from material supplied by respective organisations.