Din Heagney, The Art Life International’s roving good will ambassador, writes from New York on a show about shows…
Alternative Histories presents the entire independent NYC artist scene in a smorgasbord of pizza boxes. Well, they’re not really pizza boxes, but they look like it, only the contents are print archives from some of the hippest non- and neo-institutions in town. From raggedy troublemakers to curators in designer shoes, it’s all here, you just have to put on the gloves and give yourself a day or so.
Devised by Exit Art founders, the delightfully poetic Papo Colo, and the simply delightful Jeanette Ingberman, Alternative Histories includes more than 130 art organisations, some of which have gone onto become permanent highlights of the NYC landscape. (I’m thinking places like White Columns, The Kitchen, PS.1 and the New Museum.)
Running alongside the archival collection are framed prints from exhibitions and campaigns from the last three decades or so. It’s refreshing to see so much political activist work presented here, especially from the AIDS epidemic era in the early ’80s (which is probably needed again now given the rise in incidence around the world and the fact that religions are still teaching nonsense to people about sexual health). It makes me a little restless that the role of the political in contemporary art practice often seems obscured in the obsession with marketable aesthetics. Like certain neo-cons, they are starting to dominate debate once again, reducing the role of the artist, or more precisely the artwork, to a passive decorative function. Time to get your game on peeps.
There are also quite a number of recorded interviews with some of the makers and shakers from the featured art spaces. The video interviews and audio transcripts are embedded in an excellent interactive archive mapping program (which will hopefully be made online – it’s an invaluable document that really should exist beyond this show). What I found more interesting was the panel discussion that KM and I attended called ‘What is alternative?’ Moderated by Robert Storr, the panel had fairly differing views, which makes sense given their range of backgrounds and substantially differing practices. Those involved included Papo Colo (Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Exit Art), Martha Wilson (Founder and Director of Franklin Furnace which went virtual a few years ago),Peter Cramer and Jack Waters (former Directors of ABC No Rio) and Bridget Finn (from a relatively new ARI, Cleopatra’s in Brooklyn).
One of the things most memorable was something that Colo said about artists needing to diversify, to embrace the arts more broadly. He quoted someone (that I wish I had written down) with the gist being that if, as a visual artist, you only know visual art and not music or dance or film, then you are not a real artist at all. I applauded that – it’s something I’ve found increasingly problematic. Specialisation leads to a certain type of thinning in contemporary art, a kind of stringiness that I find hard to describe but which would infuriate me while I was Artistic Director at Platform and had to explain multimedia works or complex installation pieces that blatantly refused any kind of strict definition. In any case, you can download the podcast of the panel discussion and hear the actual quote yourself, spoken with much more eloquence that I am giving it here.
There weren’t any clear answers to the questions posed (‘what is alternative?’ and ‘what is the future of alternative spaces?’) and neither should there be – this is an important ongoing conversation and not just for NYC. I was surprised that many of the issues and perspectives being raised by the panel were the exact same type that we have attempted to address in Melbourne, with projects like Making Space (2007) and Pitch Your Own Tent (2005), etc. There are still more panel sessions coming up, so it should be worthwhile following online through the podcasts. I totally admire what Exit Art are doing; their attitude is one of openness, collaboration and clearly a genuine love of the new, the old, and the alternative bits in between that keep it all glued together. That’s where it’s at.
Alternative Histories, 24 November 2010
Exit Art, 475 Tenth Avenue, NYC