For starters:


[KEVIN KAVANAGH GALLERY, 8/9 – 8/10, 2016]

Let me explain...

I recently watched a documentary on Aaron Swartz that affected me greatly, The Internet's Own Boy. Those of you who don't know Aaron Swartz I'll keep it simple: he shaped the evolution of the Internet. But we have lots of them. What made Aaron Swartz special was his ideology of fairness and freedom that was the driving force behind this evolution. An ideology that tragically ended in his suicide after the American federal government hounded and pressured and isolated him after, of all things, the harmless hactivist heist of the digital library, JSTOR. He was 26.

Beyond the feelings stirred by this film, what got me thinking was the sacrifices Aaron Swartz made and the risks he took for what he perceived as a fair and free cyberspace. Further, he did this with an outspoken criticality and worn-on-the-sleeve sensitivity. Combined, however, criticality and sensitivity was the double-edged sword on which he fell upon.

In a sense the Internet was Aaron Swartz's baby, and he risked limb and ultimately life to protect how he personally envisioned it being used – as a Creative Commons. But in the end he underestimated real power and how real power can set things in crushing motion when it feels its authority and way of life is being threatened. 

So... where am I going with this? It's simple, really: what if you transferred Aaron Swartz's free and fair ideology onto our very own art scene? What if we all embraced a little more self-sacrifice and a little less self-preservation in our art scene? What if we looked at the art scene as something that should be protected like a white-faced goth from a herd of farmer tans? What if we thought of the art scene – in the strictest of terms – as a subculture?

I'll tell you a story...

My first experience of exhibiting in this art scene was when I went through a long submission process for selection for a solo show at an artist-led space in Dublin. To my delight I was selected out of hundreds, and better still I was fresh out of art college so I had momentum on my side. To my dismay I learnt in tandem that I would have to pay hundreds of euro to exhibit there. I was shocked. I was on the dole and I knew if I saved I could pay the fee with little sacrifice. But it was the principal of the thing – was this where I wanted to begin my life as an artist, by paying to show my art? I really didn't know that artist-led spaces worked in this way (FYI: I was a country bumpkin fresh off the bogger bus). 

I spoke to others about the situation, my family and art friends. The former thought it ridiculous; the latter thought it normal. I went with the former's opinion, rejecting the offer, even though I fought with my decision long afterwards. I was turning down a solo show in Dublin after all.

Luckily I got lots more opportunities – eight solo shows and numerous group shows over a four-year period. But I paid to be an artist during that time, like every other artist in the art scene. Normal, right!? Over those four years I forked out over 10k for materials and travel. Considering my work was easily recyclable – the materials from each installation broken down and recycled into the next crude take – my outlay was nothing compared to other artists. You could say my junk art was an evolutionary adaption to an unfair and unsustainable art environment. 

To my astonishment things didn't change when I exhibited at larger art institutions that, you would think, should have the means and morals to support artists fairly. I still ended up paying six times or more (relative to my fee) to produce every exhibition. And this is just the bare bones stuff, not considering time in the studio.

The same went for funded art projects, through which you envision a project, write it up, price it up, put everything into it as if it is going to be realised, and then, when you do get funded (if you do) you are awarded significantly less than you asked for. This is normal too. The not-so-secret hoax is, you price-up your proposal with the forecasted shortfall in mind so you end up getting what you realistically need to realise the project. But I have never been able to fudge the figures, to add imaginary things that are not relevant. 

The dumb thing is, those projects that are awarded funding become very different projects due to the shortfall in funding; or sacrifices are made on the part of the artist, which I believe is mostly the case. The times I have personally been awarded funding the resulting projects have always swallowed my fee and invariably more than my fee. Once again, it's a choice that most artists make for the sake of their art. No big thing, right!?

As an artist I swallowed these customs time and again until the day came when I couldn't anymore. Four years on I now look back on my last solo show at Dublin's The LAB – THELASTWORDSHOW – as an extinction burst of the disillusionment I felt for the accepted inequalities and censors in the art scene. Now, as an art critic, I'm not as accepting as I once was as an artist. Back then I knew there was an art game to play and if you didn't play it well you were out. But now I can allow myself to be critical of the art scene in my unmarried status or unnecessary flirtations with either artist, curator or institution. It’s fucking liberating. Being an artist should be fucking liberating too. The art scene should be fucking liberating, right!?

But liberation always comes at a price in the art scene. As an artist when you run out of hope and momentum and money you always end up at a decisive crossroads (unless independently bankrolled or barefaced lucky): you stop making art to make a living; continue making art on the breadline; get discovered by the art market; fuck off somewhere else; or have a local institutional art career blindly perpetuating the inequalities. 

My mistake years ago was I thought the art scene was an antidote to the mainstream status quo. I thought it was a subculture that was the centre of the world for those that were part of it and nobody else really mattered – I was wearing Nan Goldin's eyes. I have always viewed subcultures as exclusive; that rather than the subculture reaching out to the public continually to prove its worth, it was the public that had to prove their worth if they were to be invited into the subculture. I suppose I was ideological and green and thought commerce was a disease of the mainstream not relevant to things that people supposedly love.

More and more I hear of unbalanced wage packets (too high, too low) handed out in Irish art institutions that are a mirror of the inequalities that transpire in the real world. Don't get me wrong, this is not just about money. Granted, I have got a little sidetracked here, venturing into the monetary inequalities practised in the art scene. This was not my intention. Paradoxically, ironically, contradict-ally, I believe art and money don't mix. As an art critic I usually turn down catalogue commissions because the shift to passive tone rarely suits my critical writing. Those who invite me to write have to understand that their polite asking doesn't preclude criticism. It's laughable how many times art directors have invited me to write on their exhibitions promising me travel expenses and nothing more. Once again, normal. I wouldn't take anything anyway because it corrupts the critical writing process, but again, it's the principal of the thing that hurts. That they think that's normal. Not to mention it's disappointing but predictably petty when art directors email me defending themselves (not the exhibition) if my review is more critical than promotional. 

The problem as I see it is, those that are safe in the knowledge that the art scene serves them well as is, will not allow themselves to see a problem. They will like and share and shout at lunch breaks about the inequalities of the art scene but they won't sacrifice their status. (Before you get on your high horse, of course there are those of whom have sacrificed and are sacrificing more than you or me or there wouldn't be an art scene to give out about here. But it’s not enough.) Unfortunately, it is always up to the emerging and have nots to make sacrifices and form alternatives to the supposedly alternative free and fair space of the art scene proper.

Allow me to return to one of my first points: we need an antidote to the antidote to the mainstream. The crux, however, for change to go from a whispering ideology in the bar snug after the exhibition opening, to concrete implementation, we need the usual suspects, the real power, to sacrifice their lot for the sake of the art scene (Maybe underground is a better alternative!).

The thing is we are only forced to make sacrificial choices on-the-hop, not on two legs hog-tied to the institution. So the short of it is, those with the means, those in power, have to be convinced that there is a problem (I am talking about individuals here, not institutions). Then they have to sacrifice a lot more than their strategic pro bono stuff or promoting their own turf in the art scene.

We cannot depend on public funding anymore or the perennial emergence of art graduates to enliven the art scene with good but unsustainable intentions. We have to go to the personal well, the mattresses even. If we really care about the local art scene and see it as an alternative to the mainstream, then real sacrifices have to be made. Not just once in the rags-to-(relative)-riches of the established artist, curator, director, lecturer, but again and again and again, because that’s what it takes to shelter a subculture, if that’s what the art scene really is...

[James Merrigan] 


A continuation of this theme will be performed in the forthcoming audio issue of Critical Bastards in what is a satirical reflection on notions of value and worth, consensus and criticism, stagnation and change in the name of art. I work around Critical Bastard’s theme of 'Work' by reflecting on today's monetised society, and question how critical play is transformed into iconsensual work in the exchange. Besides that, references to Star Trek economics, the female Baroque painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, and country-music heartbreak are made explicit.

Also, if you want to see spitting verbs live, check this out>>>>>

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