This research is on “independently run spaces and initiatives”, but when questioned what I mean by this, I halt: what do I actually mean with this phrase?
I realize the requirements for my research are constantly expanding and therefore the description I introduce it with is becoming more and more general. Starting as a research on spaces that relate to my own space Plat-, the criteria of “running from an apartment” soon expanded when I realized there were many similarities between exhibition spaces in apartments and exhibition spaces in studios –both using spaces originally intended for another use. And it expanded once again at the realization that a reused active space has similar qualities to a reused abandoned space: that the space is often characterized by the space’s former activity just as the present use of a space characterizes the way an exhibition is held in an active studio or lived-in apartment. And so on, until the exact outline of the research seems to have entirely frayed, the research now orbiting around a core –a feeling– rather than existing within the boundaries of a certain framework or definition.
The places I visit define themselves as project spaces, independent spaces, artist-run spaces, off spaces, non-profit spaces, non-profit organizations, collectives, and I soon realize that the relation to space is no longer the determining filter. What I also realize is that the criteria of the research is no longer determined by myself – that the way these organizations refer to themselves – through this plethora of derivatives orbiting around a non-pinpoint able core - becomes the filter through which I search. Which means my definition of “independently run spaces and initiatives” is largely determined by those with whom I speak; and since each space has a slightly different definition and a slightly different term, my definition and field of research continues to expand.
But there continue to be common threads. Other than art being the constant subject throughout these spaces and initiatives, another constant topic that is discussed is money. The general rule is that these organizations run despite it, and that the acquisition of money does not affect the program. But here is where the line between independent, institutional, and commercial spaces begins to blur: one independently run space determines itself as different to an institute, but does receive government funding. Another independent space defines itself from a commercial gallery, but does use sales to fund the space. And it seems despite the fact that the name seems to negate the idea of money, defining a space or organization as “independently run” frames it first and fore mostly in relation to it, even though the emphasis is on avoiding that relation as such. So what exactly is it that makes them “independent?”
I guess its time to go back to the dictionary. Independent means free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority. It also means not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence. I don’t think independent spaces and initiatives can be defined purely as such, but they do perhaps negate it through their (inadvertent) fractioning. By refusing to have one definitive source of funds, independent spaces are most often scrambling for whatever support they can find – be that grant based, sales based or being privately funded. When I say privately funded, it can again split into two forms: privately funded by the founders themselves, or privately funded by some form of patron. In terms of money then, most spaces are far from "independent", but through the dispersed sourcing of their funds they remain in control – meaning their programs remain free from an externally exhorted authority. Or is it?
This constant battle against stagnation due to funds brings about its own boundaries: lack of funds leads to predominantly European based programs, because reaching further out is more than what an independently run initiative can generally afford. Lack of funds also leads to a lot of free-working artists and free-working coordinators, whose time and effort is given for experience and exposure – leading these spaces to be run part time (and leading artists to develop their practices part-time); turning independent art infrastructures (and practices) into something that could come dangerously close to being defined as a “hobby”.
As “for fun”, “artist-run” “side projects”, the first things to be left undone are organizational ones such as administration - leading to less organization, less funding, less time, leading to running out of energy and usually to the spaces’ demise. Because of the small scale of these endeavors, they often stay close to the founders’ wants and ideas – making them specific, subjective and personal projects that are then hard (or senseless) to pass on. These factors begin to play a big part in life span of an independently run space or initiative – their average running time in this form generally ending after about four or five years. Which is then again a form that is externally exhorted.
But Paris did show me something different. Talking to independently run spaces and initiatives here, the very first thing I noticed was that Paris hosts more than a handful of independent organizations that have lived for 8, 10, 20 years. And structural organization seemed to be at the core of their longevity. Rather than remaining personal initiatives, these older organizations and spaces are run by collectives (or a collection of people) and all of them have at least one dedicated staff member at any given time. It is also interesting to note that many younger organizations are adopting a similar organizational format.
When asking how full-time staff were paid, the answer came in a variety of forms, but one that reoccurred several times was the use of state-subsidized contracts. These contracts are actually intended to facilitate integration of individuals into the professional world, but were also a way that non-profit organizations found to hire staff. I say “were” because the funds for these contracts has been significantly cut in the last six months, with cultural organizations (and schools) being the first to be affected; and while this could easily now lead into a rant against budget cuts, I would prefer to bring focus back to the structure these contracts helped support – that is, full-time staff member(s) for non-profit, independently run (art) spaces - and how this in turn helped with their longevity.
The cut of these subsidized contracts does not mean these spaces in Paris will disappear. While it is posing substantial problems for some, those who I talked to are determined on finding new ways to survive, and others – as I said earlier – already have similar organizational structures without ever having had the governmental support. Which means that while some spaces are currently in a moment of precarity, others find themselves relatively unaffected. What I find interesting is how the existence, and use, of these contracts may have lead other independent spaces to organize themselves in a similar form without the intention of using the subsidy - tending to a way of organizing that then becomes specific to Paris (or France), which is formed by -but no longer reliant on- a particular governmental arrangement.
Perhaps this is how these spaces and initiatives are independent. As a group, characterized as much by their differences as their similarities, they take on forms made possible by particular situations and reform them in the context of another. It could almost be seen as taking the aesthetic of one ‘solution’ and recreating it in another context. In this way independent spaces and initiatives constantly evolve by learning from what works for others and perpetuating this by different means into new environments.
So yes, budget cuts, the rise of rent, the retraction of a space does often mean the loss of a particular initiative that relied on that subsidy; that space; that set up. But perhaps the silver lining is that other spaces will have already sampled parts of their organization and perpetuated it by other means. Which means that when the initiative that is dependent on one particular resource falls, its presence continues as an echo in the initiatives it inspired. I guess this is what I mean by “independently run spaces and initiatives”. As individual entities they are often quick-footed -able to maneuver around difficult situations- but in the end they will rely on a variety of external elements that determine their existence, making them dependent. And as a group they are also definitely interdependent. But perhaps it is through their interdependence that together they are independent: Where one space falls, the next picks up and together as a movement they continue to go on, no matter what struggles they encounter, and no matter how much ground is pulled out from underneath their feet.
Thank you to After 8 Books, Appartment, Atelier W, Caro Sposo, the Cheapest University, The Community, DOC!, Clément Gagliano, Glassbox, Gosswell Road, Julio, Pauline Perplexe, Leah Pires, Rinomina and Wonder/Liebert for meeting with me in Paris.