Alternative is to Commercial as Rock Collection is to Pet Rock

February 22, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

I’ve been working on a collaboration with incuBAte and Harold Arts – Harold Arts is putting out a series of interviews that take place between different arts organizations. I was kindly asked to interview inCUBATE; Abigail Satinsky ended up sending me an article that we used as a starting point. I thought I would include some of that article here. In it, Walter Robison of Colab (Collabarotative Projects in NYC) presents an argument for how alternative artspaces are like rock collections and commercial spaces are more like pet rocks….

so. Here goes it–



A text read at the “Profit vs. Nonprofit” panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of Artists Organizations, Houston


Walter Robinson

The subject at hand here today reminds me of rock, particularly two ways my father, who sold explosives for DuPont, commended rocks to me–in that way adults have, hoping to relive certain excitements vicariously via their kids. When I was litte, my dad tried to get me to start a rock collection’ he brough pieces of quartz and mica and doloite and sandstone home from the quarries, and tried to get me to label them and keep them on a set of shelves he built me and things like that. I remember being particularly interested in the way you could cut translucent shavings from the mica (I think it was mica), and the way you could grind the soft sandstone into ersatz into arrowheads on the concrete, but that’s about all that came of my preadolescent rock collection.

Anyway, I think having a rock collection if like having an alternative space, and what’s like having a commercial gallery is inventing a pet roxk, which for those of you with more important things to think of was a little rock that came in a box with instructions as to its care and keeping, that was phenomenal gift fad a few years ago, making its devisor rich, and amazing many people, my father included, because it showed how a clever person with a clever idea could hit that just-right cultural reflex and basically spin with gold out of thin air. Sort of like the American dream, in a postmodernist information age.

So bear with me here, while I spin out this metaphor. A pet rock and a rock collections are obviously very much the same, both being rocks–just as commercial galleries and alternative spaces are both places with stuff you come and look at. But of course they’re very much different, and the difference has not to do with what a thing is but how it’s approached, its cultural context, the kind of social organization it engenders, and of course its relationship to economics, scholarship and esthetics.

Your rock collection is an ensemble, a group whose individuals make sense, take on meaning, as part of a whole; it’s multidimensional, any kind of rock can fit in; it’s open-ended, int’s nonexclusive, and it appeals to the ineffable, one could say spiritual side of life, almost like esthetic appreciation. It’s not really worth anything (though this may not be strictly true, you don’t read about big rock collection sales in the papers much). It’s not worth anything, but you can spend money on it. Its pleasures are of a higher sort. But tis’ outside of any rock-market mechanism, and has an equivocal relationship with the avant-garde of the rock world. Doesn’t this sound like your typical alternative space?

I should stop here and talk a little about Collaborative Projects (New York City), the alternative space I was involved in a coupdl of years ago, to show what I’m thinking of when I talk abou alternative spaces and artists’ groups and things like that. I sued to call Colab an alternative alternative space on grant appliations and in press releeases (not to suggest the two are in any way similar). Colab was (and is still) an all-artists group, we had no administrators per se, we thought up projects and raised money (or should I say the other way around) and spent it the way we wanted, and basically positioned ourselves in opposition not only to the commercial gallery system of alternative art showcases too. This is nothing personal, this bias against administration, only a result of rhetoric and the kind of insightful analysis of society artists are known for.


if you would like to continue reading this article, you can download a pdf here.0754_001



One Response to “Alternative is to Commercial as Rock Collection is to Pet Rock”

  1. not gonna tell ya Says:

    lol luv pet rocks!!!

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