Art

Reimagining the Artist-Run Space

Artist Scott Mason in performance (All photos by author)
Artist Scott Mason in performance at Meter Room (All photos by author)

BRIGHTON, UK — “No one I know is selling any work,” says artist Scott Mason, who bolsters his income with teaching and the occasional performance, such as the one he is about to give tonight. And none of the dozen people in attendance at the space, Meter Room in Coventry, is waving a checkbook. But then again this is an artist-run space. Mason’s gig and the surrounding exhibition is an exploration of this very type of institution. Collectors, although no doubt welcome, are not really expected.

Let’s explore some more prejudiced impressions and stereotypes about artist-run spaces. Unlike galleries with regular funding, these venues do not attract the general public and often offer little in terms of interpretation. Unlike commercial galleries, where solid brands and high prices appear to guarantee the value of collectors’ investments, shabbier spaces offer little in the way of validation. They seem to exist for artists to show work to other artists.

Meter Room under renovation in 2011 (Image via meterroom.org)
Meter Room under renovation in 2011 (Image via meterroom.org)

Visitors to Coventry over the past five months will have had the chance to see five galleries for the (non-existent) price of one, so if ever there was a time to cross the Rubicon, it’s now. Meter Room has become a super-gallery, hosting presentations from similar spaces from around the U.K.’s West Midlands. Venues without commercial aims have clubbed together to explore what lacking economic ambition might mean. As luck would have it, there has been some funding from Arts Council England, and even the presence of their logo on the posters spins the event in the direction of public art. It’s amazing and a little bit distressing how powerful these contextual markers can be.

That collective exhibition, Floorplan for an Institution, has been running at Meter Room since October 2012. Participating galleries include Pitt Studio & Division of Labour, Vinyl Art Space, Movement, Down Stairs, and Grand Union. Month by month, in their respective turns, these West Midland galleries have installed each of the elements of a working gallery within Meter Room: the reception, the auditorium, the café and bookshop, the archive, and finally the gallery space. That final stage is where we’re at today — it’s been a day of sound art.

The reception desk at "Floorplan for an Institution"
The reception desk at “Floorplan for an Institution”

Meter Room Director Daniel Pryde-Jarman describes the unfolding of the show as “processional. The galleries have been passing the baton,” he says. Most of the previous four shows had been left intact on the day of my visit. If a viewer didn’t know better, they might think that this first floor gallery always looked this way, containing a cheap reception desk, a seating area, a refreshment trolley, bookshelves, and so on, although the disparate interior elements don’t really gel. This particular artist-run gallery is a chimera. Over the months of its installation, it has unfolded along a surrealist line, like a game of exquisite corpse.

The book shop and archive at "Floorplan for an Institution"
The book shop and archive at “Floorplan for an Institution”

“Artist-run spaces tend to try and mimic more moneyed, muscular institutions when they don’t have to,” says Pryde-Jarman. Floorplan, meanwhile, appears to satirize those rival spaces. The desk is fitted with a CCTV screen from which you can observe goings-on in the office. The archive is ramshackle, with a ton of random books saved from pulping and delivered to the Coventry gallery on a forklift pallet. The café is a refreshment trolley like one you might find on a train (and indeed, it is the work of Movement, whose space is a disused gents’ washroom on a train platform in not-too-distant Worcester). What remains of the auditorium are a mysterious series of taped markings on the floor.

Accumulated artwork at Meter Room
Accumulated artwork at Meter Room

The saleable art in this institution is piled in one corner. But close your eyes and listen to the sound broadcast by the fellow alternative art space Grand Union and you could be anywhere, even Tate Modern if you were feeling cheeky. (Quick note to artist run spaces everywhere: Sound art really levels the institutional playing field.) And yet, says Pryde-Jarman, “What’s ironic is that this entire project is an institution without permanence.” Ultimately, what Floorplan demonstrates is that artist-run spaces like those assembled here cannot compete with the big hitters.

It also telling that Grand Union is broadcasting into the artist-run conglomerate rather than outward. “You have a case of artist-curators, curating each other and themselves.” says Pryde-Jarman. “So the snake is eating its own tail.” Indeed, what is interesting about Floorplan is the way ideas seem to come full circle. One gallery brings a print of the Hindenburg, another responds with a paper missile filled with helium balloons. Look closely at that stack of unwanted books and you’ll find a directory of U.S. Navy weaponry. It’s a happy accident, but then again, so is most art.

Elsewhere you can find more traditional, even desirable objects. There are artist editions available at the reception area for artist-led prices ($3.80), and meanwhile, Movement has brought along a series of micro-paintings made of people on trains. Along with their red waiting room table and refreshment trolley, this unique gallery appears not just artist-led but conceived of as a total artwork. That is another facet of the artist-led space: It often comes from the same creative space as the work itself. This might explain the lack of interpretation boards, wall plaques, and price tags. All those are normally the work of art-world workers with agendas differing from those of the artists themselves.

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Movement’s waiting room and micro-paintings

Artist agendas can be perused in all their desperate seriousness via a brainstormed flow chart at one end of a breakout area designed by Down Stairs, a gallery based in a stately home in Herefordshire. Here we find such spontaneous maxims as: “Without vision comes cynicism” and headers like “creative tension” and “charting strategic dilemmas.” Sitting down in a beige chair covered in carpet to consider all this, I tip the whole structure on its end. Nothing breaks, but it is a salient reminder about another aspect of the artist-led space: a refreshing lack of health and safety, a lack of many insurance prerequisites, an easy-come-easy-go attitude towards art and visitor alike — in other words, near total freedom.

With a dozen occupants, the Meter Room is busier than it has been all day. It is time for a performance, another less expensive form of art. Scott Mason has been on assignment in alien territory, recording ambient noise in a range of empty established galleries in London and Birmingham. In his live mix, a compelling and surprisingly noisy aural jam, an essence of gallery-ness seeps into Meter Room and puts a final seal on all this earnest playfulness. We realize the artist-run space can transcend its four walls. But it is not clear how much Mason is being paid this evening and, given the system within which he works, there seems little chance it is enough.

Floorplan for an Institution ran at Meter Room (58-64 Corporation Street, Coventry) from October 2012 through March 10, 2013. 

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