ARC Digest Outro: on the matter of public vs private space

August 18, 2009

posted and written by Caroline Picard

It only just occured to me that probably one of the reasons I’ve been so negligent with blog posts is because I’ve been working on these longer pieces of writing. This one in particular, I toiled over a little. Here is the latest and almost-almost last draft. (there are a number of footnotes that didn’t translate in my copy/paste, so i’ll likely post them as their own posts over the next couple of days. the footnotes refer to private/personal experiences and examples that flesh out, albeit obliquely, the following essay)

on the matter of public vs private space

“ ‘Oh, you have a roommate?’
“ ‘Yeah, she’s actually here right now, but she’s sick….Don’t do that—she’s trying to sleep.’
“I heard them but pretended to remain asleep by keeping my eyes closed; [closing your eyes] is what passed for privacy then. My ‘room’ was in a corner of the kitchen on the other side of a folding screen. If you were tall enough, you could see me from either side at any time. The above exchange took place during the installation of a show when I happened to have a cold. I lived at the Green Lantern from 9/06 to 8/07. Recently out of college, I moved to Chicago to get my bearings. I had just spent two years living in the French countryside with no heat, no car, no Internet, no noise, no zines, no sushi, no shows, no jargon. When I moved in, I had never owned a computer. Suddenly I was in the middle of an art scene.”

“Any Chicagoan who’s hip to the jive knows that an apartment gallery poses a unique set of problems. Someone actually lives there—sleeps and cooks and poos there—and yet the obligatory neutral space of the gallery must remain white-walled, spacious, antiseptic. At the GL in the earlier days, the gallery was clean, airy, spare, while on just the other side of a makeshift wall was a seething and barely-controlled chaos. A visiting friend once described the living space as ‘under a great deal of pressure,’ like the lack of density in the gallery half had to be balanced by ultra-density in the living half. This density consisted of, among other things, a large mounted buck complete with antlers, a five foot plaster statue of a fat man with an umbrella, a bong made out of steak shellacked to a milk carton, a taxidermied rooster, two large Chinese screens, many works of art in various stages of undress, two living cats…enough plates and stemware to host a diplomatic gala, a sink doubling as a bookshelf, a home-made up-ended ‘bar,’ an enormous vintage fridge, a miniature vintage stove, an easel, double-stacked books, innumerable trinkets ranging from delicate Eastern figurines to an ancient can of spam, an old-fasioned sandwich press, two dictaphones, one enormous toaster (not in use) and a tiny one (in use). People liked throwing around comparisons to Alice in Wonderland, but that was legit. The fact that the two-foot high pepper-mill was three times as tall as the delicate tea-pot, for instance, made me wonder if I’d accidentally swallowed a pill. And keep in mind that I’ve listed perhaps a sixteenth of the contents of those two or three improvised rooms. I haven’t even mentioned the huge quantities of building supplies, the aluminium ladder, the planks and tools and cans of paint…”

This book is filled with the evidence of relationships. It is a book of conversations, including conversations about conversations and, sometimes, conversations about conversations about conversations. Each perspective constitutes one piece of an artist-run community reflecting on its endeavors. While it is important to archive these conversations for the community to which it speaks, it is also important to examine the consequences of such a culture in the context of a larger world—a world unfamilar with the pattern of organizations described herein. Particularly if the conversations outlined here claim to cultivate new models for achievement, one must consider what the artist-run community looks like from the outside, from the vantage of a stranger.
What, indeed, is transgressive about artist-run exhibition spaces? Certainly those contained in this book will have their theories and while some of these organizations were constructed as political experiements, a number of them won’t characterize their activity as political at all, saying instead that running a space is done for personal/professional experience, or as an experiment, or a labor of love. And yet. Regardless of stated intentions, all action is political.  Such an opinion comes from within a community where the practice of running an apartment gallery is fairly common.  In order to categorize such activities as transgressive or political, one must label them somehow. In doing so, necessary comparisons must be made to the world at large. Generalizations must be made about what the world at large consists of, what expectations it places upon members of its society and, ultimately, how its constituents measure themselves.
When compared to the world we watch on television, the practice of apartment galleries seems absurd.  Compared to the stories told via sitcoms and commercials, all young women want to get married, everyone wants to be famous and all clothes look brand new. Obviously the average viewer is literate enough to know that television is a fictionalized hyper-reality. Nevertheless as a primary source of cultural consumption, the average viewer does not likely recognize the more subtle conventions that support the more prominent story lines. One does not watch typically watch television with a rigourous, critical appetite. A home, for instance, means something specific. As a cultural symbol it provides the framework for countless many sticoms—a framework based on common expectations of what a home should supply to its occupants. The viewer won’t likley concieve of their living room as a potentially public place, a place for cultural distribution. Building a public environment of cultural creativity in one’s home challenges traditional boundaries between public and private spheres just as it encourages intimacy between the art object and its epicyclic community. In such a community, relationships become as important as the work on display and validation occurs through the communal support of such spaces.
The collusion of public and private space, mixed with a living contemporary art and the communities that support it, is transgressive in and of itself. Such a recipe breaks down the societal expectations of public activity. Furthermore apartment galleries agitate common definitions of “home” and “domestic space.” The people who inhabit apartment galleries organize thier homes according to the possible descent of an unknown body of people: the public. Meanwhile the public modifies their expectation of public space such that they are sensitive to the generosity of their hosts. A code of behavior has manifested between the host and the public. That code, while organic in its inception, facilitates the relationship between the audience, the art and thier administrative hosts. While not readily apparent,  Sarah Stickney witnessed that code as a newcomer only to embrace it as a resident.
In Chicago, the public consumption of visual art is not allowed by law to exist in intimate settings, (the house, the apartment, the garage, etc.,). The apartment gallery is essentially illegal. The illegality of these spaces occurs when they struggle for some shred of sustainability (i.e. through the selling of goods),  attempt to operate legally (by way of purchasing the necessary licenses and tearing through the ensuant red tape of beurocacy), or when they attempt to avail themselves to a larger audience, one not restricted to facebook friends.
Obviously that isn’t to say apartment galleries don’t happen, or (even) that the city doesn’t in some blind-eye-manner endorse cultural DIY activity; the city of Chicago seems to enjoy identifying itself with those practices.  Nevertheless, said practices are not technically allowed. Thus, while a private party is acceptable, a publicized, public exhibition is not—especially when money changes hands. The city maintains its ability to control the watering holes this community frequents; the city can shut apartment galleries down.

In our day and age much of the cultural production that takes place within the art world has been tamed and funneled into pre-existing power structures that support the larger mainstream. Artists often seek gallery representation, striving to achieve standing in the commercial market, such that they might support and (thus) justify their art making practice through the pursuit of public acclaim and monetary compensation. It makes sense. It is almost impossible to expect anything else. After all, how does an artist justify spending hours reading, thinking, painting, and writing in a studio while his or her significant other goes to work sixty hours a week in order to support both of them? And what if the artist has a child? How does the artist explain his or her non-commercial and largely interior processes when a kid needs school clothes? It is perhaps impossible to strive through consumer culture, where legitimacy is typically measured by purchasable signs of success—cars, televisions, clothes etc., making objects that are neither compensated by monetary sums nor attributed with an inherent non-market value.  Indeed, on such a quest the consumer landscape becomes a veritable wilderness.
It is thus essential to creat new methods of public validation. Exhibitions are one way to take a potentially monkish studio practice and drop it into the public sphere in which an audience can respond. Apartment galleries, while affording meagre monetary relief, at least appeal to different values, values determined by the community in attendance. Within such a community an artist with little to no interest in (or access to), the commercial world can relate to an audience comprised of other artists, art enthusiasts and, sometimes, naives. Further, they can contextualize their efforts to their family, the same spouses or parents that might support them. The apartment gallery provides a different criteria for validation and empowers small groups of individuals to cultivate unique and potentially iconoclastic aesthetics.
Meanwhile, most cultural activity is distributed via mainstream arteries that reach millions of people at once. The same television is watched, the same movies, the same news sources owned by the same parent companies. Most people listen to the same music, read the same books and, therefore, refer to the same common body of knowledge. Contemporary America has a common vocabulary of cultural symbols which comprise the dreams of the invidual. It is possible, for instance, that Tom Cruise made over a million cameos in dreams across the country last night. While the peculiar context for his manifestation varied, he is nevertheless saddled with very similar assocations, associations that stem from the celebrity of his public persona. As the mechanism of such a society continues, as the material for our thoughts sets, it will be harder and harder to transcend ourselves and the ideas that we take for granted. It will be harder and harder, therefore, to have new ideas, moments of inspiration, and innovation.
I believe that small hubs like the apartment gallery, the small record label, the small press, the underground movie theater: such venues generate and sustain micro-cultures that encourage unpredictable thoughts, ideas and enthusiasms. If anything, they might simply encourage people to believe once more in the capacity of the individual to influence the world.
The exploration of that tension between public and private, commercial and non, commercial and non-commercial regulated and non-regulated business is good and valuable. It’s worth always carving out our own identities, our own terms and communities and means of support.

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