Self-Organisation as a Way of Being

A personal Example
When I returned to Dublin in the late 1990s from living and working outside of Ireland, I realised that there were limited opportunities for me to show my work, to curate exhibitions and to activate the network of people I had established whilst away. There was limited infrastructure available for operating on a continual basis as an artist working on a curatorial basis and making-exhibitions with other practitioners. I felt restricted in what I could do on a daily basis and in what I could offer as a host for potential moments of exchange with others.

As a means of widening my existing network and creating a space for these moments to happen, I founded MultiplesX in 1997 with fellow artist Ronan McCrea. MultiplesX was initially meant to be an intermediary solution to having our own gallery space. After numerous formal and informal conversations seeking support by means of funds or exhibition space, eventually Temple Bar Gallery, with the support of its curator at the time Vaari Claffey, and the design firm Language became the central components in the organisational structure of our initiative. MultiplesX facilitated a space in which I could extend invitations to a large number of artists and curators over a relatively short time-span. MultiplesX eventually became a vehicle through which I could mobilise my thinking and speaking beyond the limitations of the subjective, and often isolationist, “I” towards a more empowered position of the “we”.

As a non-for-profit organisation we commissioned, organised and curated exhibitions of Irish and international artist’s editions at regular intervals in the foyer at TBGS and the works were distributed widely through catalogues designed by Language. We also had regular touring exhibitions of the works in Ireland, the UK and Europe, which further extended our network of artists, curators and critics. As a self-organised initiative, it began as a way of dealing with a lack of exhibition space, limited opportunities and a restrictive critical space around what I was interested in doing as an artist whose practice was shifting towards the curatorial. It also helped me to self-generate a network of curators, artists and practitioners with whom I have remained in contact with and continue to collaborate with on a regular basis. Rather than waiting around for invitations from others to take part in projects, I was able to do the inviting myself in the knowledge that such relationships could facilitate further moments of exchange in the future. MultiplesX also helped me to learn a wide range of administrational and organisational skills such as writing funding applications, handling artworks, writing press releases, consigning works, insuring works, packing and transporting works, dealing with artists, gallerists, collectors, curators, and critics and generally introducing a greater level of professionalism into my overall artistic and curatorial practice. It was my earlier self-initiated projects in the early 1990s that also enabled me to consider MultiplesX as a possibility.

Although many of MultiplesX objectives, such as establishing a market for emerging Irish art alongside an Irish market for established international artists who were not represented by Irish galleries was not to happen, and may have been badly timed, but many of the skills, experiences and the network I emerged with after MultiplesX I carried with me into my first institutional post as gallery curator in London Print Studio between 2001-03 and I have been able to continually call upon the artist, curator and critic contacts I established during this time and I continue to work with and share an expanding cultural network with many of the participants.  Like any self-initiated project either before or subsequently, all have continued to provide a space of learning and development, often in some unexpected ways, but it is it at the stage of self-organisation that such projects become more expansive when they are more than just self-enterprise by initiating and supporting the involvement of others in what one does.

Self-initiated Projects: The First Stage of Self-Organisation
Self-initiated projects are the first stage in configuring a world through which we wish to be read. By making connections between what we do and what others do, we can begin to enable pluralist forms of exchange. Initiators start with and from a position of desire for a space of readership, as well as production, that is temporarily unavailable to them. There is recognition of an absence, which the initiator wishes to make visible.  By bringing this appearance into the present an organisation begins to be formed beyond the individual position. As Mika Hannula has argued:

Self-organisation is a so-called third space. It is a peculiar concentration of time and energy in a particular place where the interests of the participants in that context are debated, constituted, defined, clarified and defended. It does not belong to either A or B, but is constructed spontaneously through the interaction between A and B. It is a meeting point at which both sides have found the capacity to listen to each other on the others terms. It is based on acknowledging interaction that seeks to negotiate a sustainable compromise for existing alongside one another, not as a unity, but in a plurality.

Self-initiated projects are the life-blood of culture, i.e. culture as understood in both material production and as a symbolic system of that production. Self-organisation is about making things happen on one’s own terms alongside like-minded positions. An artist, curator or writer who initiates projects with others is self-directing notions of both “commonality” and “connectivity” in relation to how they wish to position what it is that they do and how they wish it to exist in the world. These two central terms begin to function as inherent qualities within one’s own work: common to the general idea of practice as a form of self-positioning alongside other like minded positions and connected to the belief in the potentiality of these other like-forms of practice as part of the same critical discourse. As Anthony Davies, Stephan Dillemuth and Jakob Jakobsen have claimed in their co-penned essay There is no Alternative: The Future is Self Organised , self-organisation is, amongst other things, “ a social process of communication and commonality based in exchange; sharing of similar problems, knowledge and available resources.”

As a shared space for discussion, self-organisation enables a directed vocabulary to take place around what one does. Every exhibition becomes a contingent moment in an on-going evolution of one’s practice over a longer period, where such momentary events function as self-regulated research tools for establishing continuous links between one’s practice as a space of negotiation beyond the individual position, and hopefully adds to the flow of a more agile and self-empowering culture without the restraints of, or the necessity for, a more fixed institutional structure.

From Conversation to the Formation of a Position
The artist Douglas Gordon once said that “exhibitions are an excuse for a conversation”, but what Gordon’s casual remark implies is that any moment of public display can initiate a potential space of dialogue between interested parties that only the event can set in motion. What Gordon is highlighting is a necessity for dialogue to move things forward, without which artistic practice remains in a self-imposed vacuum. Self-organised projects are the difference between waiting for those moments of exchange to be initiated by outside forces instead of producing such moments one-self.

Conversational modes of exchange are not without their own formal restraints or limitations. In fact, exhibition-moments such as the private view or the after-opening pub session can end up as the most formal of all discursive exchanges – with or without the alcoholic lubricant. Conversations are the first stage of exchange in a necessary move towards more formalised critique and modes of participation through which the potentiality for engagement with different publics, divergent readerships, and diverse audiences can be widened beyond the mere convivial space of chatting. The transformation of the space of discourse into forms of exhibition, public events, publications, public discussions, reading groups etc., also enables the configuration of a useful social network for the initiator as well as activating a potential space for that network to be called upon again in the future and for it to continue to grow over time.

From Invitee to Initiator:
The invitation to take part in providing this text began with an email followed by a conversational form of exchange. It was my ambition to maintain this mode of exchange for as long as was possible during the writing process and instead of just saying yes to the invitation and following instructions, I wanted to initiate an organisational process through which I could involve other voices instead of mediating solely on my own behalf. Having been given the opportunity by Visual Artists Ireland to write a text about organising one’s own projects, this potential “exhibition moment” became a further opportunity for me to activate an exchange between myself, and a number of other potential contributors.

The primary space of discourse that was set in motion between Visual Artists Ireland as the inviter and me as the invitee became a secondary space of initiation, opened up by the invitee. In turn, I asked twenty practitioners whose work is often conditioned by self-organisational principles to respond to five rather oblique but loosely formulated questions:

* Why should we organise or initiate our own projects?
* What are the benefits of self-initiated projects?
* Is there a difference between taking part in self-organised projects and those that have been initiated by others?
* What is self-determinism?
* What is alternative cultural practice?

Their more than generous responses operated as the foundation for this text and wherever possible, their words are mediated here. Somewhat unsurprising, every respondent looked at self-initiated projects in a positive light, but perhaps a little less so was a certain sense of suspicion towards any fixed notion of what form these projects could take. In many ways what for some may be organised due to an urgent necessity, for others it may be in the guise of self-enterprise and an alternative conduit to the market, the establishment and so on. As Pavel Büchler put it:

They can (but by no means necessarily do) manifest that things can be done differently in the face of concrete social, cultural or material situations. It goes without saying, then, that self-organisation is particularly meaningful where it is conceptually integral to the work, project or practice, rather than being merely a strategy for the dissemination of autonomous artworks or an exercise of entrepreneurial enterprise.

There is Always an Alternative
In 2005, Dave Beech and Mark Hutchinson curated the exhibition and publication ‘There is Always an Alternative’ at temporarycontemporary gallery space in Deptford, South London, which then toured to International 3 in Manchester. The exhibition proposed an alternative story of the period of artistic activity in the UK during the early 1990s – an alternate history to both the dominant yBa story and its leading counter-narrative aligned to DIY artist-run spaces such as City Racing and Bank, of which both temporarycontemporary and International 3 are natural descendants. Instead of offering any grand narrative, Beech and Hutchinson were proposing that they are many number of personal alternatives to what passes as dominant cultural history, one of which was told through their hand scribbled notes on the walls next to each artist’s work exclaiming how they had met the artist, what they were doing at the time and how they ended up working together.

‘There is Always an Alternative’ was not an alternative exhibition history in itself, but a proposition for the endless alternative accounts that make up cultural history. Without their initiation, such a narrative would remain untold, but it also enabled Beech and Hutchinson to insert their own practice into some meaningful framework for themselves without waiting for it to happen elsewhere. This need for a self-production of a discourse around one’s own practice is, “vital to control some aspects of the manifestation and dissemination of the artwork in the loosest and widest possible sense,” and controlling this discourse at some level seems to be central to both Ele Carpenter and Ian Rawlinson position also, where they relate the ownership of one’s own ideas to the regulation of its reception where, “the artistic principles of the work are contextualised, but not compromised in the process,” or when artists “are able to control the context in which the work is received to a greater extent through self-initiated projects…[and] the absence of an over bearing institutional agenda can allow some room for forms of production and distribution unavailable elsewhere”.

This urge to speak on one’s own behalf in a self-generating manner is again mirrored in Pil and Galia Kollectiv’s experience:

The best motivation for self-initiated projects is the desire to contextualise one’s work. In the wake of the death of the author, we must ensure that viewers get the best reading conditions. By placing our work alongside not just related or similar work, but work from other disciplines altogether, we can create and more importantly dictate or at least influence the new meanings that emerge from the juxtaposition.

The Doing is of Fundamental Importance
Self-initiated projects express an urgency to replace a lack of discourse around certain issues as well as providing a less corralled version of the process of one’s own cultural operations. Likewise, by initiating organisational activities, an artist, curator or writer expresses what Annie Fletcher called a, “need to see and discuss artistic practices or to manifest an idea through art which is not being manifested elsewhere” which can open up the possibility for a multitude of short-lived alternative perspectives as well as facilitating a more horizontal critical space for a shared enquiry between participants. Self-initiated projects also deduct the effects of an over-reliant culture, dependant upon our existing fixed institutional structures and conventional critical frameworks – a dependency upon more bureaucratic organisations such as public governing bodies, state commissioners, public-funded museums or established commercial art galleries. As Pavel Büchler argues, such projects also “differ from those initiated by institutions to the extent that they are expressions of an individually perceived sense of necessity, urgency or responsibility.” These initiatives are all urgent and particular to each initiator, and can come in infinite guises, ranging from the artist who takes on a commission in order to fund a new body of work, to the curator who organises a show with a group of artists at a local market stall, to the writer who regularly writes letters to existing art magazines because of a lack of publishing outlets and eventually self-publishes them as a zine.

For each of the fore-mentioned artist, curator, or writer, they may only wish to continue this type of work for a limited period before they move toward their eventual goal. It is the doing that is of fundamental importance, within which certain previous unknown possibilities can open up. In many ways all cultural projects, regardless of their resistant origins, have an uneasy and habitually co-dependent relationship with established institutional structures and will often necessitate their support at a future stage in order to move things forward. It does not naturally apply that all self-organised projects are necessarily better than those initiated by institutions, but they do mediate some cultural discrepancy at a given moment in time for at least one member of that culture. This does not mean that such activities provide any concrete alternative to existing power structures, but they do propose that there is every possibility that the existing infrastructures are not to everyone’s satisfaction and that there is always another space in which things can be done differently. Alternatives can be expressed as a drive toward a more constantly shifting field of cultural production as was echoed in an earlier text by Büchler, when he proposed that being an artist means:

[…] Not doing different things than others do, but doing things differently [and] modern society needs creativity, critical imagination and resistance more than it needs works of art. It needs artists with their own ways of doing things more than it needs the things that they make. It needs the artists for what they are, rather than what they do, then it is in the sense in which artists are producers of culture rather than of discrete artefacts which characterise this culture.

An example of Büchler’s approach to thinking about artists for what they do rather than what they make, is apparent in an attitude of hospitality that often emerges in his projects, such as the book Conversation Pieces. This was produced to accompany his exhibition at Tampere in Finland, 2003, when he commissioned nine practitioners including John Stezaker, Simon Morris, Tim Brennan, Sharon Kivland and Will Bradley to produce a piece of writing that was in dialogue with his work but only to use it as a magnifying glass or optical lens for their own practice. The texts vary in style and approach, but central to each is how the writers use the provided context to produce extensions of their own practice and not merely respond to Buchler’s work. It is a non-prescriptive invitation that acts as a contemplative trigger for each of the contributors to reflect on their own work. The texts becoming a means of exploring their own ideas, and the invitation as an excuse do produce something new for themselves. There are infinite examples of such projects based on varying modes of the hospitality principle, where there is always a two-way exchange between host and guest.

Some Notable Initiatives
Closer to home, numerous initiatives such as Via, Four Gallery, Feint zine and Pallas have all taken hospitality as their central organising principle for accommodating local practice. Other variations on the theme of hosting have included Sarah Pierce’s The Metropolitan Complex, Dublin, where she holds informal meetings between local practitioner’s to discuss their concerns as a way of understanding her own and publishes the proceedings in a newspaper; Do Something For Floating IP at the artist-run space Floating IP in Manchester, 2004, where the artists Dave Beech and Graham Parker simply asked artists to do something for them as a way of kick-starting their programme, but without limitation and all responses were exhibited, in order to grasp the general direction of their own organisation or the first exhibition at The Colony Gallery space in Birmingham, when All at Once, 2006 was initiated by Paul McAree and Mona Casey, whereby all artworks proposed as part of an open submission where accepted regardless of merit, as a means of establishing an artist network for the organisation, and temporarycontemporary (Jen Wu and Anthony Gross, London) have always taken an open curatorial approach to their expansive exhibitions, without being tied down to an overarching or restrictive thematic and accommodating as many artists as is within their expanding local and now international network.

Self-organisation is about undoing certain historical preconceptions of any set notion of what roles an artist, critic or curator can take on. As Dave Beech claims, “it is about doing things on your own terms” and “taking control of the means of distribution” that have an impact on the work, which can provide a mode of resistance to art’s institutions and to resist the conventions that artists make, critics and curators display. Self-organisation also offers an alternative to art’s institutions from which they can learn and adopt, although at a different speed of engagement. If everyone waited for supportive assistance, the progress of culture would be at a relatively fixed rate, whereby the inherent distribution of power would be maintained as a certain level from the top down. As David Blamey states:

It is important that some artists and curators organise their own projects. The art world relies upon independent producers to challenge its power base just as democracy flourished with a measure of dissent. As new ideas and practices are assimilated into the mainstream the prevalent culture of agreement is protected and the power base maintained.

For James Hutchinson, the existing framework for cultural activity is always shifting around and it is up to the artist/ curator to recognise gaps in the existing cultural framework and to generate new conventions for operating, which in turn can be subverted further in a constantly shifting environment. Hutchinson describes these gaps in culture as “alternative space”, and he claims that “once the gap is filled, it becomes part of the existing framework for other artists/curators (i.e. institutionalised)… and the gaps change all the time and new gaps form” which can never be completely filled at any one time. Similarly, for Liam Gillick, the benefits of self-initiated projects is in the acknowledgement of culture as having certain gaps or can be expressed as having the “potential for absences; modes of refusal; excess or lack of mediation; use of new spaces, geographies and proximities; avoidances of the validating processes of official culture” and that self-organised projects can “question the established mediating structures that develop around cultural activity with specific instrumentalised aims that might run contrary to the critical potential of art now.”

As well as gaps in culture there are always gaps in one’s personal knowledge. By establishing a way of working in the world that employs knowledge producing attributes learnt through self-organised projects one can begin to think of those gaps in our culture as opportunities for, rather than obstacles to, our own self-education. As David Goldenberg described the effects of his first self-initiated projects on the whole development of his later and more established practice:

Later self-initiated projects were seen as a possibility for developing a project completely on my own terms. While I treated the construction and formulation of a project as an extension of my practice and thinking, where staging a project allowed the possibility for working through ideas for assembling and staging the different components of an exhibition – in other words, a project is a reflection of a complex understanding of how an exhibition is constructed and how one element is dependent on all the other elements. This led to a type of critical practice that tested out available positions and the limitations of the construction of the exhibition. This blurring of roles, where the artist and curator merge, and a meta-understanding of staging a project was developed, and corresponded [with an] understanding of [how] the methodology of a contemporary practice [could] provide the critical tools to dismantle and deconstruct the ideological construction of the traditions of modern art.

Many of the responses to my questions mirrored Homi Bhabha’s well worn statement, that “in every emergency, there is an emergence.”  What Goldenberg self-determining response demonstrates is not just how self-initiated projects are a necessary tool during periods of emergency in one’s career, but also how out of such self-organisations can emerge a more complete practice, which also benefits from being more skilled, networked and well-informed.

Self-initiated projects are about projecting onto a desirable future for yourself and others. From initial idea to eventual completion, self-organised projects increase one’s understanding of the complexities of the processes and stages of its development. Alongside the knowledge that is gained through these experiences, one can begin to configure in one’s mind how even the institution of culture itself is more of a long-term construction rather than a short-term fix.

By Paul O’Neill
Paul O’Neill is an artist and curator researching curatorial histories at Middlesex University. He writes regularly for Art Monthly, The Internationaler and Contemporary. De Appel and Open Editions published his edited anthology of new writing on curatorial practice, Curating Subjects, in November 2006.

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