Dark Matter Symposium:
The Unseen World of Artist Led Activity

As part of an events programme celebrating their tenth anniversary, on 3 September, The Royal Standard hosted a gathering of delegates from artist-led organizations across northern England and Scotland. Consisting of two panel discussions split between the morning and afternoon sessions, the discussions centered first on security and the future of artist-led organizations, and second, on the effects of space and location upon these organizations.

The symposium took its title from a text by American artist, writer and activist, Gregory Sholette. In ‘Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture’ (2011), Sholette deploys the astrophysical concept of dark matter – the invisible mass acting as gravitational glue holding the universe together – as a metaphor for the role of “informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices”. The high-capital, highly visible, institutional megaliths (e.g. Tate, The Royal Academy, Liverpool Biennial, The British Council, and major regional galleries), meanwhile, are figured as “visible, astronomical objects such as stars and galaxies”.

We are often told these stellar institutions form the pillars of the art world. But it is in the shadows of this vast pediment, between the bricks of the establishment, in a vital and supporting relationship, that Sholette claims (in chorus with many of Saturday’s attendees) artist-led organizations also stand. Yet, he adds, “While astrophysicists are eager to know what dark matter is, the denizens of the art world [i.e. “critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums”] largely ignore the unseen accretion of creativity they nevertheless remain dependent on.”

The philosophy of artist-led self-organization and independence from dominant institutions has been shaping art-practice and exhibition for some time. The year of 1884 is surely a major mark on this timeline. It witnessed the founding of the Salon des Indépendants in Paris as a response to the restrictive academic tastes and juries in the established salon system, providing in turn a new platform for the avant-garde. This strain of independent and practical artistic action also strikes closer to home. Marie-Anne McQuay, chairing the first panel discussion, stressed that the story of Liverpool’s own Bluecoat began in 1907 when artists took over the derelict building as a space for artistic communion and exhibition. With these two examples in mind, it is striking how little the fundamental characteristics of artist-led organizations have changed: they are still forced into, or seek out, the disused urban niche, and still firmly define themselves in opposition to the establishment. However, these examples also highlight a turbulent issue that bubbled under the symposium: namely, the possibly of an organization’s transference from a state of contingency and insecurity to a position as part of the establishment, from the role of artist-activist-agitant to that of an institutional authority.

The day’s discussion orbited the anxieties and problems surrounding this potential progression. Charlotte Gregory of The NewBridge Project in Newcastle spoke of building a public platform in order to better evidence the value of their projects. Several speakers refer to a constant striving toward greater levels of ‘professionalism’, a word that persistently punctuates the discussion. Yet fully-fledged institutional legitimacy also entails increased visibility, shedding light on the dark matter. So does this undermine the outsider edge that characterizes these projects?

The temptation to escape the precarious state that so commonly defines artist-led organizations is clear. Thankfully, this narrative of endless progress was swept aside by the question of whether growth is the only form of success available to them. Instead, might sustainability and continuity constitute a valid alternative to growth and to the market-led, neoliberal criteria of judgment it carries?

In addition to this consideration Sarah-Joy Ford from Leeds’s Seize Projects, referring to theorist Sara Ahmed’s 2006 text ‘Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others’, argued that precarity should not be so readily shed. Like the concentration and wariness of someone seated on a wonky chair (an image borrowed from Ahmed), artist-led organizations’ unstable existence is a valuable aspect of their operation. They are protean and dynamic due to their contingency. The realization of a fully ‘professional’ organization and collective art-practice may well risk trading transgressive and resistive potential for security, allowing the organization to become actively, explicitly, “usefully productive for capitalism”, in Gregory Sholette’s words, rather than being so passively or by default as dark matter. The potential Sholette sees in these organizations as a “seedbed of resistance to the system that dominates [them]” would be lost.

It appears that success for these organizations could be the successful navigation of the paradox which arises from the application Ahmed’s ‘wonky chair’ conceit: finding a way to maintain the productivity of the precariat while actively working against the system that demands such a state of operation.

These insightful arguments revealed a need to complicate the binary distinction between artist-led organizations and major institutions; to question what features they share in common, and to understand dangerously fluid boundary maintained by the practical and conceptual approaches that distinguish them. Due concern in this regard ought to help pinpoint fresh strategies of exhibition, publication, and (physical and human) structural organization. Such strategies were hinted at by Ford’s comments and the recognition of the value of sustainability above growth. It is these concepts that lingered in the minds and mouths gathered at Saturday’s symposium, and which are fit for a future defined by the rise co-op culture and self-organization set against the fall of neoliberalism and an art world dominated by market forces.

Sean Ketteringham is a writer and postgraduate student based in London and Liverpool.

Twitter / Instagram: @seeanate

Published 12.09.2016 by Georgina Wright in Reviews

918 words