Location Production: the urban politics of contemporary art space

(Presented as a Keynote paper in DETOURS IV: Modus Locandi – modes of production/modes of exhibition, reciprocal influences. European Capital of Culture – Curator’s Lab. November 1-3 2012 Fábrica ASA, Guimarães, Portugal.)

Location Production: the urban politics of contemporary art space

Jonathan Vickery

In this paper I am going to be concerned with the professional forte of curatorship – setting up critical relationships between theory and practice.[i] Too often we tend to conceive ‘practice’ in terms of a theoretically-adjudicated decision-making process, or an empirical expression of (or worse, an illustration of) theoretical truth (or what we take to be theoretical truth). The most unfortunate kind of curatorship configures art as a point in an ‘argument’, or an exemplar of a particular theory, where the visual practice of spatially arranging an art situation is (merely) an iteration, citation or pictorial expression of abstract conceptual frameworks. Theory (for this realm of curatorial practice) does not maintain a symbiotic relation with practice, but is at once an epistemic template and its philosophical validation. The task for the viewer therefore is translation or interpretation – not an active involvement in research and knowledge formation. For it is with the latter that the ‘politics’ of curation become explicit.

My ‘take’ on curatorship and contemporary art spaces thus emphasizes the ways in which theory is also a mode of practice, and how practice can become theoretically productive. My rationale for this focus is that I am broadly concerned with the formation of cultural policy, which in turn is the formation of public culture – where public is made public not through its institutionalization or endorsement by the State, but by its openness to contestation and the multiple applications of various tropes of democracy, such as access or participation. I am concerned with defining a culture that has the facility to mediate the profound complexities of public politics, such as the changing constitution of autonomy, citizenship and social community. I believe that curators, and artists, have a role – or could have a role – in forming socio-cultural situations that ‘speak’ to cultural policy complexes and critical issues (particularly in urban contexts). How could creative production direct policy, (and not the other way around)? [ii]Such generative, iterative and experimental patterns of thought and framework-construction do not exist within established policy making processes (at least in the UK).

At the outset, I will set down what I mean by ‘policy’ or policy-context, at least, as basic concepts. By ‘cultural policy’ we are talking about the political administration of culture, cultural funding, assets, institutions and spaces of cultural production.[iii] The form of this administration may be direct, as in cultural bureaucracies (state funded cultural management), or indirect, in terms of the policy directives, strategy templates, and funding-dependent objectives that are impressed upon all organizations in receipt of public funds. Cultural policy (on the European continent and the UK) was principally the public funding and administration of the categorically separate heritage, cultural-historical institutions, and the arts.[iv] It now encompasses the urban cultural economy, which of course can extend to the spaces of the creative industries and new media or technology-based enterprises. This is manifest in the popularity of ‘creative quarters’ or ‘cultural centres’, where publically subsidized facilities are used, perhaps as ‘incubator’ or ‘Lab’ space, perhaps as permanent office-studio facilities.[v] As for the term ‘policy making’ – and this will become important later – for policy, only certain aspects of cultural production are ‘recognised’. These aspects are the aspects that become the ‘objects’ of policy, and policy appropriation. Hence in Figure 1, the ‘objectification’ of policy stands at the centre of three political functions of public policy per se: these are authority (representations of government and governmentality, and the exercise of its power), legitimacy (validation, with reference to political mandate, law, and/or justice), and value (its production and exchange in relation ascriptions of meaning, quality and significance). Of course, authority, legitimacy and value are not hermetic, but each defined in relation to each other, as I will later make clear.


Fig. 1: the objectification of policy


The title of my address is Location Production. It seems to me that questions concerning the public cultural role of the curator, artists, cultural management, cultural policy and the city, all converge on the question of ‘art space’. What is an ‘art space’ – a space for art, or given the potentially expansive and non-directive meaning of the term ‘art’, a space for culture?[vi] This question only seems compelling against the backdrop of the new hybrid art spaces that have emerged in the last two decades, many of which are not equivalent to, or based on, older style art galleries, studios or museums, and their organisational formations and regimes of management. So how does a contemporary ‘art space’ – given the heterogeneity and multivalency of art itself – achieve a substantive agency, capable of addressing public policy issues, or confronting the agency of public policy itself? How do new art spaces construct an identity and public profile as a particular and valuable species of institution, or perhaps social enterprise. Is it ‘institutional’ in nature, or ‘social’ in content? What is the logic of its institutionalisation, and how does this construct agency?

Well these questions are perhaps a little random, and indicative of a broader research project; which is to say, I can’t respond to them all here as particular questions. My task is to generate a framework within which they could be taken forward, in a theoretical framework that is as pragmatic as it is critical. ‘Leveraging’ art spaces is now central to a given city’s development of its so-called creative economy. This is a major public policy development all across Europe.[vii]

For someone working in a cultural policy studies context, two immediate issues emerge, relevant to the contexts many art curators find themselves working in today: First, as the European Capital of Culture itself testifies, contemporary art (both public and gallery-based art) are minor players in city urban development strategies, where location is a central device in neoliberal economic development.[viii] Few art institutions in Europe (even the large, historic, or culturally active ones) maintain much of a public role in urban policy formation, and are usually on the receiving end of policy directives rather than acting as instigators or innovators. The city has become a vital asset to be reconstructed, branded, traded, leveraged (or whatever) in the strategic marketing of culture that is now normative in every major city. Whether city brand or other city identity scheme, destination marketing communications, design and architecture-managed place-making strategy, event-driven regeneration, the ‘location’ of art is not stable, but dynamic, and often appropriated in the cause of economic development.[ix] The ‘space’ of art is therefore a space animated by discursive forces from outside of artistic production, which appropriate the space in a broader policy effort of cultural-economic development. As a location, an art space is therefore not just physically determined by art producers or forms of production, but subject to the policy appropriation of its ‘location’ – where the location (historical, social) becomes itself subject to overwhelming determinations, converting it into a ‘place’. This ‘place’ is all too often a market construct, and a significant part of the political imaginary of the neoliberal city.[x]

My second point is that curators today, as never before, work within one of the many ‘contradictions’ of globalization. I don’t need to quote David Harvey or UN-Habitat to remind us just how huge the phenomenon (literally, unimaginable and un-representable) that is globalization.[xi] And globalization is not one single process but manifests itself in multivalent shifting demands, often moving in opposing directions. The so-called ‘glocal’ conundrum is generated by the overwhelming demand on major cities to locate, or construct, points of interconnection and mutual interest between the global and local economy.[xii] Curators find themselves continually under similar pressure to engage with local and global: they must locate a ‘local’ public (even if that just requires constructing a provisional local public by attracting visitors, or maintaining professional networks of validation supporting their enterprise). At the same time, the aims, values, operational management and curatorial strategy itself ‘inhabits’ (both is inspired by and derived from) the global discourse that is international contemporary art. Where are the points of interconnection and mutual interest? How does local and global economy interact in a given art space? Many curators take a pragmatic view – the exhibitions are the space for global art discourse; the programs are the space for local engagement. While this dual-track approach is beneficial for many a good gallery, there often remains little intellectual synergy between the two, and little actual engagement with the gallery’s socio-urban environment.[xiii]

On entering an art space, it is often immediately obvious the extent to which the curatorial management of the space has capitulated wholly to the local, or to the global, or how the global discourse of contemporary art animates the ‘local’ space. How so often the immediate social community of a gallery or art space is detached, indifferent or disenfranchised. Between the immediate urban context of the local everyday, and the global discourse of art, curators daily face very different frameworks of action and validation, and two quite distinct intellectual trajectories. Given the discursive complexity of the local (usually replete with the politics of urban development), the tendency of aspirational curators is to favour the global. Yet, we also face the consequence of a European ‘art world’ that is detached, self-referential and hermetic, with little facility for impacting on the politics of culture itself, local urban, national or international. In the local urban sphere, the creative consciousness of artistic culture is not positioned critically within its own material conditions of production (i.e. its own urban spaces, its own cities, its processes of institutionalization as contemporary culture). So-called ‘nomadism’ in contemporary art, while generating important dimensions of art discourse and a dissemination of ideas and practices, can also contribute to an evasion of art’s need to engage with specific contexts of cultural production, its embedded urban politics and concomitant policy processes.[xiv]

Globalism and space

My observation on the ‘contradiction of globalization’ – where contradiction is nowhere so vividly manifest than in major cities, whose urban economy is actively reconstructed not for inhabitants, local production or even national markets, but for the ‘unrepresentable’ global confluence of capital, FDI (foreign direct investment), and visitors – was the subject of a recent discussion in which I participated at an inner city art space. The space is called Eastside Projects, is in Birmingham in the UK (and is an ‘artist-run gallery’, managed by artist Gavin Wade, another director and five assistants).[xv]

I regularly visited Eastside Projects, writing exhibitions reviews, before I was invited to participate in a ‘public evaluation’. The occasion was a two day symposium, that was, in effect, an evaluation exercise. As an Arts Council England national portfolio organisation (NPO), Eastside is obliged to conduct various forms of monitoring, evaluation and assessment, and in this case, they used the concept of a ‘public evaluation’ as a subject of theoretical inquiry, reflection, and opportunity to construct a provisional epistemic framework. The epistemic function of the evaluation would be to determine the criteria through which Eastside could define both ‘public’ and ‘value’ within the context of its current activities (and engage in advocacy, among other things). Chaired by artist and theorist Mick Wilson, the evaluation took some interesting twists and turns. I refer to it here, as its subject was symptomatic of the current dilemma of the contemporary art space in Europe today. Throughout the discussions around the evaluation, two general issues started to emerge in my mind:

(i) Around the world, the rise of so-called ‘warehouse style art’ (new arts organizations using post-industrial facilities as art space – Tate Modern, of course, being an early example)[xvi] have indeed shifted the contexts of contemporary art, out of the symbolic order of national patrimony and nineteenth century historic institutions, into the world of everyday labour and production. It has not, however, shifted its position as an ‘object’ of (not subject, or agent within) public policy discourse, with all the concomitant constraints of cultural bureaucratization. Contemporary art’s positioning in the matrix of public policy interests has, in fact, become further entrenched.[xvii] In short, where the social spheres of leisure and popular culture were once public policy-free terrain for contemporary art, they are now prime realms for the new urban service economy within which contemporary art inserts public culture. This, in turn, makes possible the political administration of place identity, as a part of ‘operationalizing’ cultural policy (‘operationalizing’ in the sense that UK public policy does not use the term cultural policy, but employs specialist and non-cultural categories through which ‘cultural policy’ becomes actual or a coherent reality). Through the last fifteen years (largely with the advent and decline of the UK’s New Labour Government (1997-2010)) a range of policy initiatives have been involved in making certain ‘agency’ options available for new art spaces.[xviii] The options concern only ‘contributory’ roles to the urban economy (usually by providing a resource as a cultural service provider for community, education or neighbourhood cohesion projects, the civic brand effort, cultural tourism, place-making or landmarking).[xix] In Figure 2, I indicate how this is configured in the policy imaginary: an art space is defined through is (i) organizational formation (its institutional composition as a legal entity and regime of management and enterprise); (ii) it finds legitimacy through its provision of cultural resources for the urban economy, as briefly described above; and (iii) it operates with the ‘capital’ of value, whose products and outputs find a value simply by virtue of residing within its institutional orbit, and in turn, the organisation mediates value through its membership of the closed professional networks of the global art world.


Fig. 2: art space objectification

If we consider some of the new ‘warehouse style art’ museums of late (the ShanghArt Taopu gallery is my personal favourite – a genuinely impressive space, and equally adventurous curatorial strategy), we find an array of professional activities, from retail to hospitality, from education to event-management, from research to commissioning and project management, and on it goes.[xx] As a general observation, many art spaces in this model have been pushed into a cycle of overproduction and overconsumption as has characterized the compulsive ‘growth’ tendencies of contemporary capital. The space without doubt becomes a significant cultural resource, but the aims to which this resource is directed is all too often not culturally determined by the space itself (it is, rather, ultimately hostile to the space’s capacity to generate the conditions for forms of social autonomy and intellectual community).[xxi]

(ii) Over the past decade, we have witnessed the consolidation of the professional identity of the curator as a theorist, not just exhibition or events organiser. Curatorial practice has become a theorised field of new thought, reflection and professional reinvention. New communication-based and socially-oriented approaches to curating have used terms like ‘relational’, participation, community and dialogue, post-colonial third space, digital urbanism, along with more complex ideas like ‘cultural public sphere’. The IT-generated terms ‘interactive’, ‘co-creative’ and ‘user-experience’ have become normative for curatorial practice. Yet, on the level of policy, there remain few intellectual developments. There are sparse intellectual resources on strategy, critical management, alternative organisation, the art theory of cultural institutions, or the spatial politics of urban art organizations. Of course, from the work of SKOR in Holland, with the Open: Cahier on Art and the Public Domain, and IXIA in the UK, and many others; intellectual resources do indeed exist.[xxii] However, I would argue that substantive research-grounded strategic work on the relation between contemporary art, public culture and urban politics, has not been a major feature of our central city-based contemporary European art spaces.

There are perhaps reasons for this: first, the anti-globalisation rhetoric of the European Left puts contemporary art galleries in a position of self-conscious compromise with regard their role in perpetuating the absurdities of artist celebrity and the international art markets. Second, urban theory and public sphere theory (the two central fields addressing these issues) by and large take a post-Frankfurt School disdain for the Florida-Creative Class approach to urban development that has been adopted by most major European cities (and in which contemporary galleries are obliged to participate).[xxiii] And thirdly, where independent artists can indulge in the critical approaches of intervention, resistance and other practices of negation, these practices become problematic for arts organizations that are ‘partnered’ or otherwise wedded to the organs of public policy (or indeed corporate patronage). Hence, art world celebrity, and the ‘safe’ radicalism of global contemporary art discourse, is the preferred option for most contemporary art galleries today.

Public evaluation
During the Eastside public evaluation, the art activist group FREEE, made a significant claim (and I paraphrase): the economic production and reproduction of art is now symbiotic with mainstream retail economic production in its management, organisation, and marketing; art production plays a role in the construction of the flexible, imaginative and hyper-mobile subjectivities demanded by the neoliberal global order.[xxiv] Their claim indicates an homology between the consumer economy of luxury goods, celebrity and brand, and the global economy of art. Our theoretical challenge is therefore twofold: how do we conceive of ‘art space’ as something other than a mechanism of civic ‘place’ forming strategies; and second, as a platform for the creation of global cultural capital (via international art celebrity and global art discourse). This last point is not to denigrate global art discourse wholesale, which has maintained its own orbit of impact and value. On balance I would say, however, that global art discourse has not found a means to empower and engagement with the specific urban contexts of cultural production.

I find Eastside Projects are developing an interesting, if not convincing, orientation within this conundrum. They publish a User’s Manual, in which they set down the epistemic framework for their curatorial strategy.[xxv] The significance of this framework is that it is shared in practice by both workers at the gallery as well as visitors, or collaborators. It provides the basic epistemic criteria by which all negotiate their overlapping activity in the space. The User’s Manual expresses the intention to ‘incorporate the methodologies of art making at all levels of the functioning of the organisation’. The management, organisation, marketing, retail, PR, becomes part of (or the subject of) art – or, rather, becomes subject to the same questioning and interrogation as curatorial questions about art. In other words, the invisible, routine, administrative or bureaucratic dimension of cultural production becomes a curatorial issue. (On this subject I cannot help but think of the work of Pierre Guillet de Monthoux at the Copenhagen Business School, demonstrating the aesthetic bases of management and marketing, and doing so through a critical historicisation of the European art world).[xxvi]

Furthermore, at Eastside, the gallery is called a ‘project’, not a gallery. One of the consistent curatorial tasks is to maintain what they refer to as the ‘narrative’ of the space, and how this narrative emerges in everything they do. Independent publications as well as exhibitions are the main outputs at Eastside, and every successive exhibition is an episode in this narrative, and each exhibited artist makes a contribution, leaving behind one work of art. Each exhibition is governed by a central purpose, articulated in the Manual – how does the art explore the ontology of the space. This ‘ontology’ (their term) is explored precisely within the terms of our debate: a global art space that is also a would-be actor in urban place, subject to extensive policy objectification.

During the evaluation event I attempted to frame this exploring of spatial ontology in terms of ‘anti-space’, a term I adapted from Robert Morris’s well-known essay of 1968, ‘Anti-form’.[xxvii] Anti-space was not a variation on a theme of negation, and in reality would probably be the opposite of ‘site-specificity’. The ’ante’ (in the Latin sense of surrogate or a provisional stand-in), is meant to suggest that the art space should have no substantive permanent presence, or even visibly relate to its so-called social or urban ‘context’. That is to say, its ‘active’ agency does not exhibit the usual processes of civic institutionalism.[xxviii]

For me, anti-space helps thematise an art space’s curatorial strategy primarily in terms of space, not in terms of art’s display, exhibition design, or purely discursive global art world themes. The space is (in Foucault’s terms) a heterotopic urban space (purposively non-hegemonic, and hybrid space, wanting its tensions and contradictions exposed, not effaced).[xxix] Inhabiting a degraded, but still functioning, post-industrial urban expanse, anti-space needs to admit to its contradictions. In so doing, we perhaps can develop a spatial politics of this space (where the artist and curator was not separate at the level of strategy, and where strategy is reflexive enough to explore the contradiction of globalisation).

The term anti-space summons to mind Marc Augé’s term (probably originating with Henri Lefebvre) ‘non-place’ [non-lieux].[xxx] Augé, as an anthropologist was fascinated by the new forms of space in what he called ‘supermodernity’ (interconnected and advanced service industry economies), and the new forms of social behaviour they generated. These new spaces included airports, superstores, international hotel chains, all characterised, of course, by an impressive sense of order, uniformity, regularity and a profound integration of service management and consumption.

Non-places, however impressive they were as spaces, lacked the substantive identity, actual material production and social community that made for actual ‘places’. We may identify them as silos, oases, or islands of activity, which are clearly formed and visibly harmonious in their functioning and mediation of hyperactivity. Yet, non-places seem to be defined more through temporality than space, as such. They could be described as spatialised processes, continuously animated (and, in reality, mobile) routeways through which dynamic global capital was active. Non-places often created their own locale, their own transitory community, a community of super-consciousness forged in the nexus of a global passageway where supply and demand merged in the most sophisticated ways. Non-places were not ‘places’, but were not open social spaces either: they are ‘ante’ spaces, or substitute places, where social reproduction is entirely by-passed and corporate production find a moment of pure integration with state power or state-like power and its forms of security and surveillance.

It is tempting to add the new ‘warehouse style’ art galleries to Augé’s list of generic place-less spaces, or at least add them as a category of space. They are often large, solid works of industrial architecture, and yet they separate themselves from their urban environment, de-historicised, whose materiality becomes a resource for brand strategy, where the space does not create the conditions for social autonomy and intellectual community, but are routeways or processes through which global cultural capital travels, and accumulates. Walking through the transient globalised art from the same global market, even nearby residents experience the spaces as aliens, or cultural tourists.

What interested me about Eastside Projects, was that it was indeed a conduit of a globalised art world, and does create a sense of separation from its immediate urban context, dissolving a sense of place. Still scattered with metal workshops and small industrial units, the area of Digbeth is the opposite of high art culture. Stepping off Heath Mill Lane into the Eastside gallery can feel like entering a non-space. And yet, Eastside seems to invert the logic of the non-place, or the spatial logic of globalism that seems to pervade a fashionable contemporary gallery with such ease. In Eastside, the global is made local and not vice versa. They use their global art world network to gather a local cultural public, and use each art exhibitions as an event for convening a series of collective thoughts concerning the ontology of the space. Eastside are still a very young gallery, barely five years old. Their basic orientation, however, is generating a critical opportunity to think through the contradiction of globalisation in urban art spaces – towards constructing a substantive sense of agency for new art space located in ‘places’ that have become replete with the political discourses of urban policy.

The spatial ontology of art
Robert Morris’s ‘Anti Form’ essay – first published in ArtForum in April 1968 – registered an originary moment for contemporary art. This is a point of ‘dematerialisation’ (to use the famous term by Lucy Lippard), where the identity of art as an object (a work of art) dissolved into indefinable and unpredictable space of art action and spectatorship.[xxxi] It is the point where the cultural economy of art shifted on its axis (at least by implication, as in 1968 the minimalism-postminimalism movement was small and largely New York-based).[xxxii] Art was no longer the hermetic orbit of physically delimited meaning, whose behaviour mimicked other luxury commodities in the cycle of capital creation – of production, distribution and consumption. The ‘work of art’ became one term in an ‘art situation’.[xxxiii] The consumption of art itself became a form of production; the product was not easily relocated, or distributed; and the object was never more valuable than the discursive fields of largely non-commodifiable ideas, theories, writing, it generated (think of conceptual art, performance, land art and so on).[xxxiv]

In ‘Anti Form’, Morris identifies the two historical forces that, in effect, engendered dematerialisation in art. The first was what he calls ‘unitary form’ and the second ‘process’. The unitary forms were, of course, minimal art’s blank geometric objects. Process became ‘process art’, along with a lot of other things besides (all included under the generic term postminimalism). For process was about ‘….recovering process and hold[ing] onto it as part of the work’, (which Morris traced back to Jackson Pollock).[xxxv]

The significance of the unitary form, for Morris, was that it served to make us aware of what he called ’the cultural infrastructure of forming’. This, he observed, ‘… is an order so basic to culture that its obviousness makes it nearly invisible’.[xxxvi] Unitary form, which seemed little more than a blank, uninflected object, was in fact a literal negation of everything that evoked the usual cognitive responses that we have to objects. As an art situation, it facilitated a peculiar genre of reflection on the shape of one’s perception, of one’s own subjective orientation within the material world around us. The ‘cultural infrastructure’ is, we may infer, the deep ‘culture’ of our cognition – not just (phenomenology style) how my body thinks its way around the world, but how my faculties of sense perception are already enculturated by routine task-driven relations to the material world (something exposed only through objects that have no markers of utility, like unitary forms).

Yet, no sooner than unitary forms caught the imagination of artists and curators, something else was happening, something seemingly the opposite but at the same time philosophically co-extensive. In ‘Anti Form’ (and in several other essays that followed), Morris tried to explain why he, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson and others, were compelled to disperse the physical object of art entirely, and create what they started calling ‘visual fields’, or open and only partially delimited spaces where matter, air, gravity, and all the other material components of our object-world were part of the same realm of art experience.[xxxvii] Morris used the term ‘dedifferentiation’ to describe how, when faced with a spatial field of complete heterogeneity and indeterminacy, something in the viewer’s sense of agency was activated – or could be activated. (It was, of course, Anton Ehrenzweig, who first appropriated the term dedifferentiation earlier in the decade, attempting to theorise how a viewer of art possessed the inner capacity to create meaning structures, without meaning being ‘latent’ in the object world around).[xxxviii] For Morris, art was beginning to locate some great potential in human agency, how human agency generates, by necessity, frames of meaning-production out of the very process of navigating meaninglessness. In this, we literally develop new modes of perception through the experience of lack, or and absence of, inherent meaning in our local material conditions of life.

It was Robert Smithson who developed this train of thought (and perhaps was its origin).[xxxix] Smithson’s premise was that the world, reality, life itself, was being schematised (to use Adorno’s term) by historical Western scientific and philosophical traditions.[xl] Our world, our minds, had become so mediated by abstract thought-forms of scientific empiricism (positivism, functionalism and so on), nature itself had become inherently meaningful, detrimentally so. Its difference to the human had been utterly obliterated. It was no longer a space for a provisional construction and reconstruction of meaningful social life. It became a place, an expanse of pre-defined and ever more established structures, whose very origins became obscured. While the mastery of nature had hitherto been the mark of human progress and welfare, the loss of nature’s difference, or material non-identity from the human, was re-appearing within nature’s own entropy. This entropy for Smithson was in one sense part of nature’s own independent cycle of reproduction (its symbiosis of life and death), but this had also been both exacerbated and distorted by the exhaustion of a planet suffering from human expropriation.

In his seminal essay, ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’ of the same year (1968), he used the idea of dedifferentiation to hold out the possibility of artists creating new cultural spaces that returned human consciousness to the difference of material nature.[xli] As both human and material nature was corroding through industrialisation and ecological exploitation, the entropy of the earth was an existential phenomena that demanded attention. By ‘earth’, Smithson was not talking in abstraction. The ‘earth’ was the earth uncovered and discovered by the art project in the process of establishing for itself a site or location. He envisaged spaces where we could recover our innate sense of finitude (the integrity of our limited existence, in and against the integrity of the earth’s unlimited expanse). The new landscape of post-industrial ruination was Smithson’s backdrop – for ‘entropy’ was visible all around, and Smithson used the term repeatedly. The situation was not some environmentalist clarion call, or at least not simply that. It was a call for an art that had the facility to create new spaces that, in turn, allowed us to explore the contradiction and non-alignment of our own limits and the limits of our environment. Our social and cultural limits could not be ascertained without uncovering our existential limits, and the crossing of social, cultural and existential, within specific material places, was only something art was equipped to do.

One of his most enduring terms of reference, beautifully explored by Jane Rendell, was ‘non-sites’.[xlii] They were literal extractions of parts or debris from physical places, piled or placed in box-like containers, then positioned in a certain location. The non-site created a literal expanse between itself an its site of origin, where this expanse become for Smithson a metaphoric space of representations and discourse on the sites’ meaning, or the condition of its (the) ‘earth’. Non-sites, he stated, ‘…gather[ed] in the fragments that are experienced in the physical abyss of raw matter’, returning a (necessary) ‘sense of death to our culture’.[xliii] In an Heideggerian moment, we are told that we have lost our sense of horizon, and with it the conditions of our existential purpose. The non-site, remarked Smithson, ’…contains the disruption of the site….a three-dimensional map…a fragmentation of a greater fragmentation…containing the lack of its own containment…no traces of an end or a beginning’.[xliv] Rather, it was itself a marker and stand-in for a sense of ending and beginning, in which we had to make decisions on limits: the ‘limits’ Smithson kept referring to were the plots that define a space – exposing, using metaphor, the limit points or liminal space between place and space, our knowledge and our experience, matter and earth, and our physical presence and the physical presence of material nature. Limits were always arbitrary, and emerged from a provisional act of navigation of meaninglessness, and a need to reinsert meaninglessness back into modern consciousness.

Incidentally, the now fashionable term ‘relational art’ was first used by Smithson with regard his famous work Spiral Jetty (1970), on the Great Salt Lake in Utah.[xlv] It was ‘relational’ for Smithson, not just because any representation of it was as much an expression of the subject’s own position and media (their relation to it) as was the visible mutable earthwork itself. It was relational in the sense that our dynamic relation to it – its limit-less expanse and endless cycle of natural entropy – overreached any fixity of identity or property as a place. It became a space and not place, a space of experience, where the limits of own relation to our very material and corporeal natures were exposed.

As I indicated, I refer to the historical moment of postminimalism as it is a moment where art ceased to be fixated on objects and set about thinking on constructing a different kind of space. The objective, in my parlance, was a ‘location production’, and as you see from my admittedly pedantic Figure 3, it had three components. Moving through Morris and Smithson’s writings against the backdrop of evolving minimalist and postminimalism art, one can find a certain pattern in terminology that is useful for us here. They make reference to the agency, materiality and temporality of space, where the ‘space’ is not given but constructed as a project for art itself. Art does not assume a space, or use a place as a plinth. These three ‘components’ of space were not embedded in the work of art. They emerge through art practice.


Fig. 3: the ontology of art

The cultural infrastructure of our embodied intelligence of physical sensibility was exposed for what it was, an instrumental appropriation of inherited theoretical schema, to be disarmed by the unitary form, exposing our facility for perception without such schema. Dedifferentiation in the visual field identified an active form of sensible intelligence, that did not ‘instrumentalise’, or activate a task-driven compulsion for appropriation. It opened a sensible facility for navigating a series of provisional events and encounters, locating meaning in the process and not the physical structure of the place and fixed arrangement of its objects. The entropy, perpetual death, or radical otherness of material nature exposes the limits that govern our familiarity and cognisance of the world we live in. Fixed knowledge of our world becomes obsolete in the liminal space where our perception-conception ends and the abyss of disorder and meaninglessness begins. It is in this liminal space that we reconsider what a relationship with the ‘earth’ can mean. This means defining and redefining ‘earth’ for every act of establishing some kind of relationship (like the act of making art, if it is not more accurate to say the making of art is what in essence such a relationship should consist).

This is a jumble of thoughts, yet they add up to a direction for thinking about the composition of art spaces (as anti-spaces). And of course, the discursive emergence of postminimalism is complex and not something to which we can do justice here. It presents to us the necessity of locating the coordinates of an ontology of space, whereupon this ontology could help us expose both the fixity of an art space as a ‘place’, and also our own enculturated sense-perceptual responses to it (our own role in its perpetual and potential expropriation as cultural economy, or whatever). The place becomes an anti-space.

What I take from this is that the question of spatial ontology involves a triangulation of questions of agency, materiality and temporality. Of course, empirically, every space has these coordinates, but it is precisely the fact that the kinds of agency, materiality and temporality that makes for the ontology of new art spaces are not (arguably, as in the less appealing examples of ‘warehouse style art’) those constructed by art. That is to say, the ontology of an art space should be created by art itself (not imposed, or imported, or inherited). The project of creating an art space will be at once a dissolution and reconstruction of the agency, materiality and temporality of art.

In Figure 4, I configure these thoughts in a way that hopefully becomes useful in our ‘policy objectified’ urban art spaces. An anti-space project would be configured by a curatorial mediation of successive art works that developed around the limits of agency, materiality and temporality in that particular place. It would identify and occupy the liminal space (of the arbitrary limits of) agency (which are the lines of operation through which authority emerges and is activated in the organisational formation of art: these are the artist’s or curator’s actions of ‘authorising’ creativity, exercising professional identities, operationalising the institution of art, its brand positioning, and cultural politics of its relationship to its ‘public’ and so on).

Second, anti-space would identify and occupy the liminal space (of the limits of) its materiality (the operations of legitimacy in constructing the material conditions of art’s production – the symbiotic relation between form and content as it articulates its social function, finance and the institutions strategic relation to the social structures around it). Lastly, it would identify and occupy the liminal space of the limits of its temporality (the operations of value in the cycles of production, exchange, market development, schedules and event-driven activities that form art’s economy).


Fig. 4: anti-space

To conclude
: The immediate objective in the cultural production of such an anti-space art space is to render it meaningless, by exposing the impossible contradictions of its pretentions to objectivity (its role in the regimes of authority, its claims for legitimacy and attribution of value). Only on achieving meaninglessness we might uncover what the production of meaning through art itself might involve. This could be the same process as uncovering the actual material conditions for artistic production within a particular urban environment. The strategic ontology of an anti-space project will need to expose the limits and disable official agency, institutionalised materiality and authorising temporalities.

Rather than referring back to Eastside (in this paper they are a partner in a dialogue, not an exemplar), I will briefly reference two art further projects. By implication, I am finding examples of new art space creation within art itself (more often than not, art in the public realm), and not so often in art galleries or institutions of art. These two projects were enormous, involving over five years of work and hundreds of people. They involved the creation of a space for art out of an urban landscape replete with the policy discourse of place-making (urban regeneration, brand strategy, and so on). They were Jochen Gerz’s Public Authorship project in Coventry (1998-2004) and Charles Quick’s FLASH@Hebburn. I can only end with a few comments, inadvertently redirecting the reader to other documentary sources.[xlvi]

Neither Public Authorship nor FLASH began with a ready-made object, or fixed site. The artists did not arrive with studio-ready art work, or, conversely, a site-specific strategy; and they did not operate in the orbit of local museums or galleries. Over two years they travelled, talked, held meetings and set up a dialogue with policy-makers and local government on the one side and residents or citizens on the other. Both used publicity, writing and documentary materials in communicating with, and convening, a public for the work, a process that itself determined the work’s ‘content’. The content of the work was also its form. The gathered ‘public’ was not a select group of art-interested minorities, but a random and sizeable series of social participants. The art objects that emerged were not hermetic or actually ‘works of art’ – they were media and markers for a series of questions and responses that, given their intrinsic relation to the place, can never fade away. A space that was art…emerged in the process.




I wish to thank the organizers of the Curator’s Lab at the European Capital of Culture 2012 Guimarães, Portugal – Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro, Luís Firmo, Henrique Figueiredo and colleagues. This paper has its origins in a keynote delivered at the DETOURS IV: Modus Locandi – modes of production/modes of exhibition, reciprocal influences – November 1-3 2012 Fábrica ASA.


[i] For a few good reference points on current curatorial discourse see: Rand. S. and Kouris, H. (2007) Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating, New York: Apexart; Maria Lind (2010) Maria Lind: Selected Writing, Berlin: Sternberg Press; O’Neill, P. (2012) The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), Camb. Mass: MIT Press.
[ii] As a theoretical issue, this has been implicitly and explicitly broached in so-called participatory art: see Bourriaud, N. (1998) Relational Aesthetics, Paris: Les Presses du Reel; Kester, G. (2004) Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press; Bishop, C. ed. (2006) Participation, London: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press.
[iii] Cultural policy is a hybrid research field, cutting across global, regional and national government policy making as well as public-institutional policy research and advocacy, academic and critical writing. For a very recent overview of cultural policy’s aims, objectives and politics see Mirza, M. (2012) The Politics of Culture: the Case for Universalism, Palgrave Macmillan.

[iv] For an early overview see d’Angelo, M, and Vesperini, P. (1999) Cultural Policies in Europe (4 vols), Council of Europe Publishing, Strasbourg. For the UK, see Selwood, S. (2001) The UK Cultural Sector: profile and policy issues, London: PSI. See also Naess, H. E. (2009) New Agenda? The European Union and Cultural Policy, Alliance Publishing Trust; Fossum, J. E. and Schlesinger, P.R. (2007) The European Union and the Public Sphere: A Communicative Space in the Making? London: Routledge.
[v] For a recent series of important texts on the creative and cultural economy see Cooke, P. and Lazzeretti, L. eds. (2008) Creative Cities, Cultural Clusters and Local Economic Development, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar; Kong, L. and O’Connor, J. eds. (2009) Creative Economies, Creative Cities, London: Springer; Edensor, T., Leslie, D., Millington, S. and Rantisi, N.M. eds. (2010) Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: rethinking the cultural economy, London: Routledge. van Heur, B. (2010) Creative Networks and the City: Towards a Cultural Political Economy of Aesthetic Production, Transcript Verlag.

[vi] There is a lack of research on the contemporary art world. There is, of course, Bourdieu and followers: see Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production, New York, NY: Columbia University Press. For early studies of the ‘art world’ see Joy, A. (2000) ‘Art, works of art, and the discourse of fine art: Between art worlds and art markets’, Research in Consumer Behaviour, 9, 71–102; Joy, A., & Sherry, J.F. (2003) ‘Disentangling the paradoxical alliance between art market and art world’, Consumption, Markets and Culture, 6, 155–181. For an outstanding theoretical study, see Hans van Maanen (2011) How to Study Art Worlds: On the Societal Functioning of Aesthetic Values, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press. For the ‘artist-run’ phenomena, see Bronson, A.A. (1983) ‘The Humiliation of the Bureaucrat: Artist-Run Centres as Museums by Artists’, in A. A. Bronson and P. Gale, eds. Museums by Artists, Toronto: Art Metropole: 29-37; Tremblay, D.-G., & Pilati, T. (2007) ‘Tohu and artist-run centres in Montreal: Contributions to the creative city?’, Canadian Journal of Regional Science, 30, 337–356; Blessi, G.T., Sacco, P.L. & Pilati, T. (2011) ‘Independent artist-run centres: an empirical analysis of the Montreal non-profit visual arts field’, Cultural Trends, 20:2, 141-166.

[vii] For a broad assessment, see Florida, R. and Tingagli, I. (2004) Europe in the Creative Age, Pittsburgh and London: Carnegie Mellon and Demos.City of Amsterdam’s Bureau Broedplaatsen and its partners (2008) Building the basis for a creative Amsterdam Metropolitan Area: Art Factories Programme 2008-2012, City of Amsterdam.

[viii] The work of Charles Landry has attempted to insert art and culture as major actors within urban development and policy: C. Landry (2009) The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators, London: Comedia/Earthscan. For a critique of the creative city model and its sociological presuppositions, see Edensor, T., Leslie, D., Millington S., and Rantisi, N. M., eds. (2010) Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: rethinking the cultural economy, London: Routledge.

[ix] The ‘masterplan’ emerged in the 1990s throughout Europe as the primary mechanism for spatial ‘appropriation’. For a relevant example, see Birmingham Big City Plan: The City Centre Masterplan for Birmingham, Birmingham City Council; see also the related strategy document: Birmingham Cultural Partnership (2010) Big City Culture 2010-15: Birmingham’s Cultural Strategy, Birmingham City Council.

[x] See Moulaert, F., Demuynck, H., & Nussbaumer, J. (2004) ‘Urban renaissance: From physical beautification to social empowerment’, City (8): 229–235. Miles, M. (2005) ‘Interruptions: Testing the Rhetoric of Culturally Led Urban Development’, Urban Studies, 42:5/6: 889-911.

[xi] . Two notable pieces in the context of our study are: Harvey, D. (1989) ‘From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: the transformation of urban governance in late capitalism’, Geografiska Annaler, 71B(1): 3–17; Thrift N (1997) ‘The Rise of Soft Capitalism’ in Cultural Values, 1(1):29–57.

[xii] The ‘glocal’ emerged in the 1980s in the Harvard Business Review, and quickly taken up in cross-cultural marketing strategy. As a cultural force, it has become endemic to advanced societies in their attempt to compete in the ‘global marketplace’, from local business to university institutions, and glocalism has become a dominant ideology, entirely spurious in its assumptions about the capabilities inherent in local society and economy.

[xiii] See the following (authored by the owner of the building used by Eastside Projects): Grey, B. (2002) ‘Arts/Media led Regeneration’, M. Stratton ed. in Industrial Buildings: Conservation and Regeneration, [introduced by HRH The Prince of Wales], London: E & FN Spon.

[xiv] However: see Michael Haertder’s interesting and more positive paper, ‘NeMe: remarks on modernity, mobility, nomadism and the arts’, now found at: http://www.neme.org/137/nomadism (accessed 24/10/12).

[xv] Eastside Projects Public Evaluation Event, Thursday 27 to Saturday 29 October 2011, Birmingham: Eastside Projects. Eastside Projects website: http://www.eastsideprojects.org/.

[xvi] There is a complex history to ‘warehouse style art’, entwined with the history of postminimalism and later institutional critique: see Nuno Grande’s ‘Relational Critique’ in Vaz-Pinheiro, G. ed. (2012) Relational Spaces: a new expanded field for art and thought, Porto: ArtinSite: 35-39. On Tate Modern, see Costello, D. (2003) ‘Museum as Work in the age of Technological Display: reading Heidegger through Tate Modern, in Arnold, D. and Iversen, M. (2003) Art and Thought, Oxford: Blackwell: 174-196.

[xvii] For the range of contemporary art’s public appropriations, see Arts Council England (2006f) The Power of Art: visual arts: evidence of impact (parts 1, 2 & 3), London: Arts Council England.

[xviii] See the double issue on New Labour’s Cultural Policy and its Post- Recession Legacy in Cultural Trends, 20 (3–4), September–December 2011.

[xix] These categories informed national arts funding strategy: See DCMS (2004a) Culture at the Heart of Regeneration, London: Department of Culture, Media and Sport/ Stationery Office. Relevant to the region of England wherein sits Eastside Projects, see: Arts Council England (2005) Arts and Regeneration: case studies from the West Midlands, London: Arts Council England/University of Birmingham. For an overview, see Paddison, D. and Miles, S. eds. (2009) Culture-Led Urban Regeneration, London: Routledge.

[xx] Shangh-Art Taopu gallery: http://www.shanghartgallery.com
[xxi] This cycle of overproduction and overconsumption was generated by, what came to be known as, ‘audit culture’. The art institution was ever more subject to capability assessments, meaning that the more extensive an institution’s capability, the more extensive their eligibility for funding and other forms of state patronage. Audit culture was promoted by some impressive policy documents, such as DCMS’s 2004 The White Book: DCMS Guidance on Appraisal and Evaluation of Projects, Programmes and Policies, London: DCMS. For a critical view, see Belfiore, E. (2004) ‘Auditing culture’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, (10/ 2): 183-202.

[xxii] . Ixia public art think tank: http://ixia-info.com/; SKOR (NE): http://www.skor.nl/set-actueel-nl.html; see also Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam http://www.dezwijger.nl/.

[xxiii] See my ‘After the Creative City’: http://www.labkultur.tv/en/blog/after-creative-city-part-15 (accessed 21/09/12)

[xxiv] This was related to their distributed pamphlet: The FREEE Art Collective (2011) ‘Economists Are Wrong! The Warsaw Manifesto’: http://www.freee.org.uk/
[xxv] Bloor, S. & T., Condorelli, C., Claxton, R., Wade, G. (2011) Eastside Projects User’s Manual (Draft Four), Birmingham: Eastside Projects.

[xxvi] Guillet de Monthoux, P. et al. (2007) Aesthetic Leadership: Managing Fields of Flow in Art and Business, Palgrave Macmillan; Guillet de Monthoux, P. (2004) The Art Firm Aesthetic Management and Metaphysical Marketing, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
[xxvii] Morris, R. (1968) ‘Anti Form’, in Robert Morris (1993) Continuous Project Altered Daily: the Writings of Robert Morris, Camb. Mass.: MIT Press: 41-51.

[xxviii] By this I mean the normal organisational institutionalism that comes with any establishment of a cultural venture, but also the particular character of institutionalism demanded of such ventures in urban contexts: for a theoretical overview see Powell, W.W. and DiMaggio, P. eds. (1991) The New Institutionalism in Organisational Analysis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; for a critical look at art spaces and institutionalism see Möntmann, N. ed. (2006) Art and its Institutions: current conflicts, critique and collaborations, London: Black Dog.

[xxix] Michel Foucault, M. (1984) ‘Of Other Spaces’ [‘Des Espace Autres’] Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, October: now available at http://www.foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html
See also Cooke, J. (2006) ‘Heterotopia: art ephemera, libraries and alternative space’, Art Documentation, 25(2), pp. 37-40.

[xxx] Augé, M. (1995) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso.

[xxxi] Lippard, L. ed. (1973) Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-1972, Berkeley, London: University of California Press.

[xxxii] For a good retrospective critique see Simon Dell’s (2008) On Location: Siting Robert Smithson and His Contemporaries, London: Black Dog.
[xxxiii] Morris, R. (1966) ‘Notes on Sculpture: part 2’, in Robert Morris (1993) Continuous Project Altered Daily: the Writings of Robert Morris, MIT Press: 11-21 (see p.15).
[xxxiv] A significant theoretical moment in this era is Joseph Kosuth’s assertion that the physical art work was a vehicle for a broader meta-philosophical investigation: Kosuth, J, (1991) Art After Philosophy and After, Collected Writings, 1966-1990, (ed. by G. Guercio), Camb. Mass.: MIT Press.

[xxxv] Morris, R. (1968) ‘Anti Form’: 43.

[xxxvi] Morris, R. (1967) ‘Notes on Sculpture: part 3’, in Robert Morris (1993) Continuous Project Altered Daily: the Writings of Robert Morris, MIT Press: 24-39 (quote, p.27).
[xxxvii] Morris, R. (1968) ‘Anti Form’: 43.

[xxxviii] . This began with Ehrenzweig’s research earlier in the 1960s, to be made famous by his influential (and posthumously published in 1967) The Hidden Order of Art, New York: Paladin.

[xxxix] Smithson was killed in a plane crash in 1973: his writings were collated by Jack Flam and remain as Smithson, R. (1996) Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press.

[xl] See T.W. Adorno’s famous essay ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’ in Bernstein, J. M. ed. The Culture Industry: selected essays on mass culture, London: Routledge: 53-84.

[xli] ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’, Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings: 100-113.

[xlii] Rendell’s project of ‘site-writing’ has developed through exhibitions, workshops, installations and events over the last decade or so. See: Rendell, J. (2006) Art and Architecture: A Place Between, London: IB Tauris: 23-40; Rendell, J. (2010) Site-Writing: the architecture of art criticism, London: IB Tauris.

[xliii] A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’: 104.

[xliv] ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’: 111.

[xlv] ‘Spiral Jetty’ in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings: 143-153.

[xlvi] See Vickery, J. (2011) ‘Art, Public Authorship and the Possibility of Redemocratization’, Visual Culture in Britain,12(2); Vickery, J. (2010) FLASH@Hebburn: Urban Art in the New Century, London: AAJ Press.