Alternative Time and Instant Audience (2010)
Alternative Time and Instant Audience
(The Public Program as an Alternative Space)
Spaces hold objects; they also facilitate experiences. However, physical location is only one of the factors that play a role in the production of an experience. Experience—whether art-related or not—emerges in the conjunction of a location, an event—a temporal space—and a social context, or social space. The perhaps intuitive, and appropriate, rationale for the creation of the alternative space model in the sixties and seventies was that it was necessary to have a physical location from which to present and support emerging and alternative art practices, and the same may be true today. Nonetheless, as art and the art world have evolved and as alternative art spaces have struggled to redefine their identities, too much emphasis has been given to location and too little to other key components of their character. I believe that the clue to that redefinition lies not in the reinvention of their physical space, but in paying attention to those other two factors: temporal and social context, or, in other words, events and audiences. In its updated configuration, it is increasingly clear that if any component of the alternative space could be disposed of, it is precisely its physical location—but not the social or temporal context in which it roots itself. (The same is true, in fact, of more traditional spaces: a vernissage is so central to an exhibition because spaces have become event centered, points of encounter where a particular community interacts.)
There is an inherent contradiction in the original concept of an alternative space: while it promotes an experimental, ever-evolving type of art-making, its grounding in physical location is about permanence, more about continuity or longevity than change. Furthermore, as much as a physical space can be an asset, it can also be a liability. For most alternative spaces, the struggle for financial survival is a constant threat to their programming independence; real estate, maintenance, and overhead costs can be deciding factors in their existence and can limit their flexibility. This apparent contradiction exists, perhaps, because over the years we have become too used to thinking of an alternative space as an alternative location, instead of a location in which to show and think about art—which, I believe, was the original impulse.
As mentioned earlier, in the late sixties, seventies, early eighties, groups of artists in New York created alternative spaces to support experimental practices that at the time did not have a home. This was long before artists, curators, and dealers had to worry too much about real estate, but also before a number of events transformed the art world, including the global explosion of art fairs and biennials, the increasing youth of artists exhibiting at major museums, the emergence of an art market thirsty for innovation, and the aggressive and experimental nature of commercial but status-seeking galleries. Today, partially as a result of the impact of those events, a regular viewer would be hard-pressed to see the difference between an exhibition or the artists showing at an alternative space and one at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York or at a for-profit cutting-edge exhibition space in the city. Ironically, galleries, kunsthalles, and contemporary art museums find themselves in a race to become more alternative, constantly finding ways to emulate the sound and smells of alternativity; they usually have better funding and attract talented individuals who can help facilitate the institutionalization of alternativity. Alternative art spaces are generally not for profit and lack vast resources, and, if anything, in a city like New York, they struggle to compete, with fewer resources, at games for which others are better equipped.
So are alternative spaces today truly “alternative”? Contrary to what the name may imply, alternative spaces rarely offer a real alternative to art shown elsewhere. Instead, they are inextricably connected to the critical and economic fabric of the art world. By retaining their original name, alternative spaces create the semblance of mini-subcultures, but they actually function more like clearinghouses of emerging artistic talent, providing artists room to experiment in the early stages of their careers rather than representing countercultural or underground movements. The phenomenon is not limited to New York: alternative spaces all over the world generally function in that in-between place of experimenting at the fringes while remaining in dialogue with the art world at large. While this is a valid function, we should ask if it is enough to legitimize their claim of a role as a true conceptual and practical counterpoint in the art system. I believe it is not.
When we ask about the revision of the alternative space in order to reclaim its original purpose of free experimentation and infusion of new blood into the art system, we need to look at the potential of temporality and social space. When Marcel Broodthaers invented his itinerant Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, he was creating an alternative space, one that was both nomadic and temporal and which existed only in the time and place that the appropriate conditions allowed. The project would not have made sense if it had been created to last forever—that would have automatically erased its original critique of the institution.
Temporality is always part of the equation of alternativity. It is not just in a space but also at the conjunction of a particular place at a particular time that meaningful moments occur in art-making. This concept is today understood by many artists and curators, and we see more and more alternative spaces that set a temporal limit with an official date of death, which provides closure and, curiously, makes these spaces look more like large art projects. In New York, Orchard (2005-08) was an example, a temporary gallery in the Lower East Side, as was the X Initiative (2009-10), a year-long temporary space. Similarly, many spaces nowadays operate in terms of public programming and less in the terms of two-month exhibitions. Curators like Hans Ulrich Obrist have for some time explored the notion of duration-based exhibitions, such as Il Tempo del Postino, which Obrist presented with Philippe Parreno at Art Basel in 2009. Temporal limits provide artists, curators, and entrepreneurs with additional benefits, which include the possibility of conceiving the art space as a self-contained art project; of exploring the potential of aggressive and dynamic programming that could not be sustained in a permanent way; and of capturing the imagination and expectation of an audience who could witness the birth, climax, and death of the project. Finally, temporal limits artificially, but effectively, predetermine a historical arch for a project: alternative spaces, like every other organization, movement, or social group, experience periods of gestation, growth, climax, and decay, until their final dissolution or until they evolve into a different type of organization.
While the public program cannot replace a physical space, the fact that time is the modifier of the space and not the other way around demands a rethinking of how we produce an art experience for an audience. In cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, event-based spaces are the natural response to the awareness that, as our world moves faster and faster, alternativity is about instant communities, about the spontaneous encounter between people. Today, time is our real estate, and learning how to use it productively is as important, and perhaps even more important, than how we use the four walls of a gallery.
Public programming may be the realm in which alternativity can grow, but to simply offer public programs does not necessarily reflect, in itself, an experimental approach. The question to answer is, what sort of experimental qualities should these public programs have in order to make them most interesting or open new doors of discussion and experience? This is similar to asking what kind of experimental art will become successful, which is ultimately impossible to answer in an intelligent way. Nonetheless, based on my observations during many years of programming as educator and artist, I believe there are commonalities in experimental programming.
Content-based public programs generally fall within two distinctive genres: art-centered events, such as performances, and education-centered events, such as discussions, lectures, courses, and workshops. In my experience, the most recent innovative approaches to programming have emerged from an informed conjunction of the two, along with non-content components—such as food, drinks, and a party atmosphere—that emphasize a sense of communion. This has to do with the balance between program function and audience expectations. A public education program has the implicit function of providing a constructive experience by means of a discussion, an instructional dynamic such as the one of a workshop, or simple exposition (a straightforward lecture), and this is more or less the expectation of those who attend (“entertainment” is usually not the primary expectation among people attending a lecture, but “personal advancement” and “learning” are more likely to be). An art-based public program, in contrast, rarely offers such a structured delivery of information, growth, or learning, but it provides a direct experience that can result in all these but that is generally expected to be unmediated and direct.
An audience at an education lecture delivered by a poor speaker or a symposium in which the speakers veer off on a tangent that has nothing to do with the announced topic leave frustrated because their expectations of having a particular topic addressed in a new or informative or thoughtful way were not met.
Experimental public programs function somewhere between delivering and upsetting expectations—that is, between challenging and rewarding the viewer or the participant. Borrowing a page from performance art, these programs engage participants in entering situations with a greater degree of ambiguity, which may include things like role-playing, enacting certain social rituals (like singing in a church, wearing a costume, etc.), and sharing personal aspects of themselves (this has been often identified with the Bakhtin term, “carnivalesque”). At the same time, through pedagogical structures such as the universally understood constructs of “workshop” or “group retreat,” participants are given the possibility of framing their experiences within a constructive model that allows for reflection and discussion in the future.
These experimental public programs cannot, and should not, aspire to be art or education; rather, those are their mediums. More than a balance between informal and formal education, this type of experimental programming is closer to informal conceptual art and informal education with a formal social agenda.
How to achieve that balance is a site-specific question, one that directly relates to how the organizers understand their own audiences.
For some, to ask who the audience will be for a new and radical art or idea appears to be a contradiction: if the art or idea is radically new, isn’t it true that the audience for it doesn’t exist yet? Under this logic, new ideas—or new types of art—create their own audiences. I would argue that the truth however, is different. These ideas, and those new types of art, are built for an implicit audience.
In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, an Iowa farmer (played by Kevin Costner) walking through a cornfield suddenly hears the voice of God saying, “If you build it, he will come.” He envisions a baseball field, and is strongly compelled to build it.
The phrase (in the variation, “If you build it, they will come”) has entered the English language as if it were an old adage of ancient wisdom and not from the pen of a Hollywood screenwriter. The implied message is: Building comes first, audiences second. Yet the opposite is true. We build because audiences exist. We build because we seek to reach out to others, and others will come initially because they recognize themselves in what we have built. After that initial interaction, spaces start a process of self-identification, ownership, and evolution based on group interests and ideas. They are not static spaces at which static viewers arrive, but rather ever-evolving, growing, or decaying communities that self-build, develop, and eventually dismantle.
Various sociologists have argued—David Berreby, most notably—that in most of our actions as humans we are predisposed express a tribal mindset of “us and them,” and each statement we make reaches out with or against a set of pre-existing social codes that include or exclude sectors of people. Contemporary art practice, of all human endeavors, is most distinctively about exclusion, not about inclusion, because the structure of social interactions within its confines are based on a repertory of cultural codes, or “passwords,” that determine a certain status and role within a given conversation. And in a radical, countercultural, or alternative practice, preserving these exclusionary passwords is key in maintaining a distance from the mainstream.
Theoretically, alternative spaces are open to all kinds of people, but they tend to serve very specific types of audiences. Smaller and more informal spaces have the flexibility to be more direct about their constituency, and they generally operate within two registers: their immediate circle of participants and supporters, and the critical art world at large, toward which they usually look for validation. Larger alternative art spaces, because they usually are nonprofit organizations, are officially open to all, but in practice they serve a niche market within the art world: up-and-coming art professionals, individuals who are somewhat informed and interested in contemporary art, and, with lesser emphasis, more established artists and curators. Random visitors can walk into the space, but their presence or visitation is not crucial to the survival of the organization—it merely counts as foot traffic. What is key is the sustained supporter who may become a member or help raise the reputation of the space in the social fabric of the art world. Some spaces, such as Art in General in New York, have sought to diversify their audiences more aggressively, by creating neighborhood-oriented events and focusing on the ethnic groups that live near the space. In some cases, even successfully, visual artists are commissioned for residency projects working with these audiences. While these initiatives are valid and often result in interesting art projects, they run the risk of limiting the support they can provide to an artist by prescribing set parameters of audience and space and trying to fulfill quotas set by grant-making bureaucracies. Spaces in this situation often find themselves between a rock and a hard place, trying to sell a very hermetic product—very self-referential, cutting-edge art—to people in a working-class neighborhood with very different interests and concerns.
All this is to say that alternativity, when it comes to audiences, is an unhelpful adjective. Audiences are never “others”—they are always very concrete selves. In other words, it is impossible to create an alternative experience and take steps to make it public without also making an assumption about what kinds of people will eventually partake in it. Do they read Artforum? Do they watch CNN? Are they English speakers? Do they live in Idaho? Did they vote for Obama? When we organize and promote an exhibition or create a public program, we are already making decisions regarding its hypothetical audience or audiences, even if just intuitively. Sociolinguist Allan Bell coined the term “audience design” in 1984, referring to the ways in which the media address different types of audiences through “style shifts” in speech. Since that time, the discipline of sociolinguistics has defined structures by which we can recognize the patterns by which speakers engage with audiences in multiple social and linguistic environments through register and social dialect variations. This is to say that if an arts organization is to be thought of as a “speaker,” it is possible to conceive it operating—through its programs and activities—in multiple social registers that may or may not include an art “intelligentsia,” a more immediate contemporary art audience with its own codes and references, and the larger public.
When I articulate this view, most curators and artists express weariness at the notion of a preconceived audience. To them, it sounds too restrictive and prone to mistakes. It is true that to pre-establish a demographic and a social group is to oversimplify its individuality and idiosyncrasies. At the same time, I usually turn the question the other way around—is it possible to not conceive of an audience, to create an experience that is intended to be public without the slightest bias toward a particular kind of interlocutor, be it a rice farmer in Laos or a professor of philosophy at Columbia University? The debate may boil down to art practice itself, and to the commonplace statement of many artists that they don’t have a viewer in mind while making their work—in other words, that they only produce for “themselves.” What is usually not questioned, however, is how that very notion of “ourselves” has come about. Our self is the construct of a vast collectivity of people who have influenced our thoughts and our values, and to speak “to our self” is more than a solipsistic exercise; it is a silent way of speaking to the portion of civilization that is summarized in our brain. It is true that no audience construct is absolute—they all are, in fact, fictional groupings that we make based on biased assumptions. Nonetheless, they are what we have to go by, and experience in a variety of fields has proven that, as inexact as audience constructs may be, it is more productive to work with them than blindly or obstinately act on ultimately subjective presuppositions.
The problem lies not with whether to reach for either larger or more selective audiences, but rather in understanding for ourselves our own definitions of those groups we wish to speak to, and in making conscious steps to reach out to them in a constructive and methodical way. In this regard, an alternative space that attempts to find alternative audiences doesn’t benefit by trying experimental methods—it could be better served by traditional marketing. And this would not be possible unless organizers are clear with themselves in articulating the audience to whom they wish to speak.
The conjunction of temporality, community, and space, and its creative combinations, are, of course, not enough. The larger question that lies within the foundation of most alternative spaces today is the why of their making, their raison d’être. Ultimately, what makes an organization, a group, or even a single artist become consequential and contribute to the greater cultural dialogue is not its structural effectiveness but the resonance of its artistic or philosophical message.
If the primary motivation for an experimental practice is status seeking, the transparency of such a search becomes quite evident. What makes these spaces alive is the vibrancy of the ideas, the idealism of their founders, and the underlying political, cultural, or social cause for which they fight through concrete actions—be it exhibitions, happenings, programs, or marketing or political campaigns. This underlying motivation is what fuels the innovation of formats. And it, again, brings us back to the notion of temporality, or rather, timeliness. The public program and the instant community as alternatives to the alternative space offer the advantage that within their brief lives they can embrace their raison d’être more emphatically; like performance art, they are not rooted in permanence. Spaces, on the other hand, have to evolve; many of them can’t, and some devolve and suffer painful deaths. A public program lives a short and happy life, affirming the integrity and individuality of art and ideas, without the need to multiply or be given an artificial, extended, afterlife.
. This text, with the exception of a few edits, was originally published in the anthology In Ours, and the Hands that Hold Us: Playing by the Rules: Alternative Thinking/Alternative Spaces (New York: apexart, 2010).
. I mentioned this phenomenon in a symposium I organized at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, titled Transpedagogy: Contemporary Art and the Vehicles of Education, May 15, 2009.
. On one occasion, for a project I was invited to create for a neighborhood museum, it was stipulated that I had to engage ten ESL adult students as collaborators in the making of the work, but the expectation was that the work would be museum quality.
. See Allan Bell, Language Style as Language Design, in Socioliguistics: A Reader and Coursebook. Nikolas Coupland and Adam Jaworski, ed. Houndmills, Basingtoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 1997) p. 232.