Outside the Gallery: DIY Aesthetics and The Artist as Curator

A recently published study on artists working outside the gallery system reminded me of an article I once read which offered the opinion that the time of the formal exhibition was nearing a close. That, in terms of the art world, the gallery was no longer the only, or major, endgame for many artists, and that in this world of technology and instant access information, the physical exhibition is simply another event for people not to bother leaving the house for. My own paraphrasing, of course.

I can’t recall now where the article in question was published, but it certainly left a lingering thought in my mind.

Throughout college and university, the aim was always the exhibition. Every piece of research, every final product, was a move towards the same endgame. Frames, mirror plates, rules and guidelines. There was one project in three years which touched on the idea that there could be an alternative, which involved students planning and creating a professionally finished, bound book of work. But this was never elaborated upon, nor returned to at any later points. In fact, it was years after finishing my formal education that I began to find out about the possibilities of avenues like self publishing, and the potential for DIY projects. Of course, the advancement and affordability of home technology between 2002 and 2007 certainly helped, but during the 1970s and 80s, there were plenty of people involved in the self publishing scene. Fanzines – hand-compiled, photocopied booklets often themed around music, politics, or both – were small works of art in and of themselves, and the zine scene has evolved now to encompass everything from true-to-the-roots, grainy photocopies, lovingly stapled by hand, to polished booklets of art work rendered in full colour on heavy stock. The overarching message being: if you want something out there, put it out there yourself.

The main issue with the formal exhibition is, and has always been, accessibility. It’s reliant on somebody else, either one individual or a very small group, appreciating or understanding what you do. A tiny fraction of viewers, non-representative of the potential audience, making selection based on their own personal opinions, interests and tastes – no matter how subjective a person tries to be, they will always, to some extent, be swayed by their own bias and agenda.

One could argue that this is the point. That the exhibition filters through the elite, the best at what they do. That only the hardest workers and the most talented earn their space on those white walls. That may hold some element of accuracy, but it is far from the whole truth. And whilst a handful of those talented artists might well slip through, so do many more go completely unseen, unrecognised. And that’s a shame. Like many things, there are other factors at play. What is likely to sell comes high on the priorities of many venues, because as crass a sentiment as it might be, the fact is that for many galleries, sales mean revenue and revenue means continued business. Even in cases where sales are a lesser concern, the work still needs to draw an audience, and curators will look for artists who can fulfil that requirement. There’s no sense in exhibiting to an empty room.

On top of that, there’s location to consider, not to mention the ever-present ‘who you know’. For artists based outside of London and major southern cities, access to both opportunity and network has always been a problem. The crop of northern galleries in recent years has certainly helped, but it has a lot of catching up to do.

So, enter the DIY aesthetic, and this is nothing new, but it has certainly been gaining popularity over the past few years. From self-staged exhibitions in non-traditional venues such as coffee shops, warehouses and bars, to self-published art zines and books. Guerilla art, from the more permanent graffiti to projected displays on the side of buildings. Even online galleries, blogs, Tumblr and Instagram. These are reactions to the exclusivity and formality traditionally present within the art world. These are artists taking a step further in their own creativity, and getting their work out there. Pushing their individual messages, whatever they might be, rather than waiting for someone to deliver them.

Returning to the topic of technology, and its affect on creative lifestyles, one major possibility that has been drawn out of this is the potential for collaborative projects. For the art world, this means everything from easily organising small, local collectives – such as the group I participate in, which I would never have become aware of had it not been for social media – to international projects like Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project, which I’ve participated in on a number of occasions. Knowing that there is work I have created sitting in a venue thousands of miles away, being handled and viewed by people I will never meet, it feels like a small victory. Something that you have made is affecting a strangers life, even in the smallest way. For me, that’s the real endgame involved in publicising my work, however I choose to do that. It’s the reason I’m so open with my work, publishing it any way I can.

Many of these artists will never be famous, and they will never be rich. This self-staged output is unlikely to draw large crowds, nor pay the rent. But I think that anybody who wonders what, then, the point of it all is, is perhaps missing it entirely.

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Distance, Death and the Loss of Physical Possibility

Six years ago today, I lost a friend. 

That phrase seems so innocuous, so vague. Like I misplaced a glove on the way home. It took me a long time to say it to myself, that he died. Longer to really grasp that he had not only died, but that he had chosen to die. He had attempted repeatedly to end his life, and in the end, he succeeded. I can’t pretend to understand what that is like, because despite my own thoughts at times, and despite some mercifully half arsed efforts, I have never been in the place which would influence me to not only try, but try again and again, until one stuck. 

I never will. Not necessarily because I am certain that I will never feel like that – although I hope against hope that I do not – but because I have watched how it shatters the lives of the people nearby. It took me a long time to come to terms with my conflicting emotions; the guilt I felt at not having been there, the blame I felt towards the people who were there, the sorrow at knowing I would never see my friend again, and worst of all, the rage I felt that he had done it. Anger at someone you can’t speak to about it is unpleasant enough, but anger at someone who had been so low, so unhappy, so deeply finished that he considered suicide his only remaining option, that’s fucking unbearable. I withdrew from the group of friends I associated with him, I mourned him silently and at my own pace. In short, I pushed away anything which could link me to those feelings, but I couldn’t escape my own guilt, anger and shame. 

I can’t say when that went away, but it did. Other than knowing it was around this time, I didn’t even remember the date until a mutual friend mentioned it. It’s not etched into my conscious mind like it was the first couple of years. I’m not angry anymore. I don’t feel guilty anymore, either. I will never understand, but I have had to accept it, because my life has gone on, and the world keeps turning. I will always regret not saying goodbye, but I have never been great at goodbyes. I do remember the last thing I said to him: ‘laters’. Just a throwaway remark, a casual attempt at goodbye from a person who is uncomfortable with farewell. Later. I had meant it, in my own way. I had never imagined that it would be the last word I ever spoke to him. 

I read something yesterday which hit me pretty hard in the thought department, perhaps because all this was already on my mind. An excerpt from a social media post, quoting an author:
“I miss you”
“That’s stupid” she said. “I saw you this morning.”
“It’s not the time,” Levi said, and she could hear that he was smiling. “It’s the distance.”
       – Rainbow Rowell

In some ways, it put me in mind of a song I heard as a teenager. The last track on an album, it ended with a sampled recording of the error message you heard when a phone number was no longer in service. I remember it bringing a lump to my throat because of the insinuation. You can no longer connect with this person. This person is unavailable. The idea at the time was, to me, amongst the worst I could imagine, and even now in the age of constant connectivity, being able to find nearly anybody with just a few keystrokes, it still stings. 

It’s not the time spent away from someone but the distance placed between us, the physical impossibility of contact. Touching, talking, an exchange between two people. The response, the interaction, or at least the possibility of it. That’s what we miss. That’s what we mourn. 

Rest in peace, mate.