Artist-run initiatives and ‘gift labour’

For the last week or so I’ve trying to write about the relationship of Scottish ARIs (artist-run initiatives) and the broader spectrum of collective and collaborative practices in Scotland that have fostered the conditions of possibility for Live Art.

As Dan Brown, Deborah Jackson and Neil Mulholland have explored, Scottish ARIs in the visual arts have a lineage that stems from the New 57 Gallery, Edinburgh, whose work established the template of a volunteer committee of artists who would take an active role in administration and policy. Supported by an annual subscription fee, the committee’s work was accountable to the gallery’s collective membership; committee members also served for a maximum of two years, guaranteeing a continuous process of renewal and offering a form of resistance to the ossified, hierarchical patterns of curatorship thought to characterise Scotland’s existing and older art institutions such as the Royal Scottish Academy.

This model has since become the template for many other artist-run spaces across Scotland that include Transmission (Glasgow, founded 1983), Collective (Edinburgh, 1984), Generator (Dundee, 1997) and Embassy (Edinburgh, 2004). Given the widespread development of this structure – both in Scotland and internationally – it’s curious that there are few immediate parallels in communities of artists working from a background in movement and performance (or, at least, very few I’ve found so far). Despite a strong Scottish tradition of collective and politically-conscious theatre making, artists working in and through performance have more rarely sought to develop infrastructures that might support a wider community of practice – and the few exceptions may be revealing of a wider absence surrounding live art and interdisciplinary performance. 

One such significant exception is Glasgow’s The Work Room (TWR), an artist-led organisation co-founded in 2008 by Anna Krzystek, Diane Torr, Roanne Dodds, Kally Lloyd Jones, Linda Payne, Natasha Gilmore, Rosina Bonsu and Colette Sadler to foster a more sustainable environment for Scotland’s independent dance community. Currently funded as a Regularly Funded Organisation by Creative Scotland – and gifted the use of a studio space by Glasgow Life – TWR’s membership structure involves a ‘pay what you can’ sliding scale of annual fees that grant access to the organisation’s programme of events and advice sessions as well as eligibility to apply for a residency space. Applications for residencies and other projects are assessed through a structure of artist-led working groups, with the policies and futures plans of the organisation ratified through an annual general meeting.

The question of how – and if, and in what circumstances – artists might volunteer their labour is hugely significant. When Transmission’s committee postponed its annual member’s show in 2017 – in part citing a backlog of essential administrative work – they noted that the expectation of relative economic stability which might enable volunteerism assumed support structures that had been in place at the time of Transmission’s founding, but which largely no longer existed.

While an economy of ‘gift labour’ can operate as a powerful political and ethical commitment that can create and sustain a community of practice – and perhaps resists the exploitative commodification of art – that commitment does not exist in a vacuum. Being able to commit time ‘for free’ may be a register of relative economic and social privilege, or at least involve a highly conditional judgment about the exchange involved. Indeed, TWR takes particular care to remunerate artist members who take on work for the organisation.

In the weeks ahead, I want to try and put this history and body of practice into conversation with the larger history and economy of ‘free’ festivals and performance collectives – as well as the process of this project and what it hopes to achieve. What can the history of ARIs in the visual arts bring to an understanding of how experimental theatre makers and Live Artists have created structures to support their work?