Artist-led Organizations

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Michelle Atherton, Artist and Co-Founder, Agency-Lab ●

TC McCormack, Artist and Co-Founder, Agency-Lab ●

Participants: The audience totaled around forty participants – including artists, educators and directors of artist organizations in Canada, China, UK, Taiwan, India, USA, France, Spain, Mexico and many others.


We initiated a discussion by using Agency-Lab (A-L) and the projects it has generated as a case study. A-L is an artist-led research organization founded by Michelle Atherton and TC McCormack. It is based at and funded by the Art and Design Research Centre at Sheffield Arts Institute, which is part of Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom. We gave an overview of how A-L was established, discussed its origins and original aims and outlined how A-L then developed over its first two years.

A-L was formed by a small group composed, variously, of artists, researchers and academics. Even though these professional activities, positions or identities overlap, we recognized there was a disconnect – a gap or blind spot between the group’s members – and it was this space that we were interested in opening up and occupying. This disconnect is real: it exists between the institutional structures we operate within, with the modus operandi necessitated by their policies and that unquantifiable something called creativity, with its speculative processes and curious, unpredictable journeys.

We set up A-Las a peer support group to establish a speculative space – a space where we could resist predetermined expectations and instead pursue open and unencumbered enquiry; where we could trust our instincts and react to and be inclusive of other creative researchers and makers. As a result, A-L became a way to fashion a speculative network; a space for speculative exchange. This meant exploring different structures and alternative systems of exchange as a way to foster a more diverse culture of research and practice.

The first challenge was to find a means of organizing the network and the exchanges without over-determining their structure; to give form to speculation. The obvious starting point was to travel beyond the UK. A-L travelled to Aarhus, Denmark, where one of our members, Lise Autogena, knows the city and its creative community and institutions. We wanted to take a position within that city that sat apart from the usual centers connected to the arts or the Academy, so we based A-L on a boat. The group wanted to invite engagement. We were visitors being welcomed in Denmark, but we wanted to welcome people in Aarhus ­– to host them in their own city. We wanted A-L to offer them a space that shifted their expectations of our position within their city – and ours. The aim was to bring together different people, disciplines and organizations from within the city and outside it and see what happened. The idea was to speculate on potential links, overlapping interests and new ideas our encounter might generate. For this we needed an event [and a space for it]. This would not have been possible without Professor Jette Gejl, an artist, academic and extraordinary chief resident in Aarhus, who also lent us her roof for the occasion.

As an organization, we recognized it was important to shift our position in the city, to turn the tables a little, and so we invited the creative community to a platform of our construction – we hosted a meal. It was very successful and brought together a really diverse group of people. From that first meal came a series of discursive, open-ended meetings with different organizations in Aarhus. This dialogue was extended a year later through a residency at Godsbanen Centre for Cultural Productionthat broadened the initial networks and established a new cluster of research projects instigated through A-L during our time in Denmark.

The hosting of an event in this manner has become an operational model for A-L, to be repeated both nationally and internationally. The next event is planned to take place on the Thames in London this Autumn. It has become clear that events like these offer a space for discussion between parties who might not otherwise come together and provide a forum for very different research agendas. The aim is to enable discussion between targeted but varied individuals and institutions through A-L, fostering connections that can lead to long-term partnerships.

The speculative space created by these networks and events has led to new art projects. One is Era of Dissolution, which started from a concept co-devised by McCormack and Atherton. Through A-L, this project has developed over the last two years and taken its own form: an interlinked set of questions that form a cohesive research project. Era of Dissolution has become an interdisciplinary curatorial project, investigating structures that are pertinent to our times and countering current tendencies to repeat and rehash past forms and styles. It tries to loosen some frames and engage in a realm of unstructured forms of knowledge. The research asks, “What is the visual language of our times?” It isconcerned with finding, formulating and testing possibilities; with recognizing forms and instances that do not adhere to or sit easily within known trajectories – forms that are, in their character, more impure in their askew glance towards futurity.

The project has involved discussions with and been supported by Beate Rathmayr and Susanne Blaimschein (Curator and Director of Kunstraum, Linz, Austria); Jette Gejl (artist & professor, Aarhus, Denmark); Laura Eggleston (historian, Leeds, UK); Manolo and White (architects, London, UK); Holger Jagersberger  (Director of Atelierhaus Salzamt, Linz, Austria); and Sam Bunn (artist, Linz, Austria). Exhibitions to date include Always doing something, with somebody, somewhere, at Atelierhaus Salzamt, Linz, February 2015; a residency and talk at Bild Kunst Center, Godsbanen, Aarhus, September 2015; and an exhibition and accompanying publication, The Era of Dissolution (Chapter 01), at Kunstraum, Linz, September 2016.

Summary of discussions

Key points were raised around how artist-led organizations can offer a platform for being part of a collective intention and whether an individual artist can access the same opportunities, venues and connections without an organization. This conversation was broken down into three areas of ideas –  organization, freedom of invention and the collective network.

Organization: This discussion centered on how people respond to the idea of “an organization” rather than “an individual”; how we tend to respond differently to a some-thing rather than a some-one. There was a view that working within an artist-led organization offers a participant the opportunity to represent something different; something other than themselves; and that it affords another type of space for interaction by shifting the power dynamics of the roles that artists usually occupy.

Freedom of invention: This idea was discussed in terms of the freedom to decide what the aims of an organization are, focusing on what we might want to do and how we might do it and how we might, by working collectively, be able to foster a more ambitious collective culture. A collective is fraught with its own dynamics, and no one wanted to be naïve about that, as one questioner implied when asking how A-L stayed motivated. Participants felt that a more collective structure might inspire greater commitment to ways of working and projects, networks and collaborative frameworks, even when the outcomes are still unknown or tied to other institutional agendas. The primary aim was to nurture a more generative and ambitious artistic and (in the case of A-L) research culture. This model of organization has the potential to enable the assessment of risk and the identification of resultant opportunities to be shared across a community over a period of time, which is more like how artistic projects develop. The intention of a “freedom of invention” model is to find a way to structurally foster confidence and innovation that will generate projects. Such a model raises questions about securing funding and maintaining it over the long-term. Some discussions touched on the challenges of a group dynamic in terms of how artist-led organizations operate, develop and administrate effectively without the usual hierarchy of roles and understood tasks or the usual parity of endeavor and shared goals. One participant commented that “many artist-led organizations are allowing themselves to be led by the funding, being reactive to these structures. It raises the questions of how we secure and protect artist’s spaces within any institutional or funding framework.”

Collective network: Discussion focused on what can be accessed through an artist-led group – such as becoming an agency that allows for cross-fertilization between individuals and organizations. Inside A-L, this has entailed carving out an internal space (within research) to be more speculative and less quantifiable. Externally, it has involved committing to projects, networks and collaborative frameworks to foster new connections and ambitious art projects. Maintaining and expanding the network and keeping it speculative was vital, since ambitious artistic projects and the research culture grew out of a speculative network. The point was made that “a starting point might be to explore what we can do together that we can’t do apart. Many organizations have a formula of ‘together we are stronger than we are alone,’ but simply stating that is not the same as asking what we can accomplish together that we can’t accomplish alone.”

Other questions were raised about the specifics of the case study and the experiences of the audience. Participants discussed projects and residencies in Sicily, Montreal, New York and Latin America. A key area of interest was in the potential of “giving form to speculation.” One participant commented on “the importance of maintaining a speculative space when working in institutions – especially educational ones, where we aim to define things all the time – and of remembering that being an artist also has to do with not having definitions that are inflexible.” The group agreed that a “speculative form” for an organization could create a supportive, provocative and critical space free of specific agendas, and that this was a potentially exciting idea for artist-led groups both within and external to other organizations.