A Brief Account of Two Artist-Run Spaces
There is a contradiction implicit in the idea of the alternative or artist-run space as a phenomenon specific to developed countries or contexts in which a highly organized, sophisticated cultural infrastructure is clearly not lacking.1 One might argue that the very modus operandi of this kind of space—rejection or critique of both the institutional structure and the art market with their respective (often overlapping) processes of legitimation, a spontaneous manner of operating based on immediate material conditions along with a desire to adapt to (and make the most of) limited resources, and perhaps most importantly the mapping out of a self-defined position or space of marginality (in the positive sense of the term)—would find its natural habitat in a “marginal” context characterized by the presence of dysfunctional institutions and the absence of a real art market. In other words, what is an alternative way of working in one context might be a necessary manner of operating in another. Yet, the history of alternative spaces in Latin America is a very short one and difficult to research because it is a history that is fragmented, largely undocumented, and too often forgotten as many of these initiatives have fallen victim to a selective amnesia resulting from territorial alliances and interests typical to cultural contexts in which there are so few opportunities. This text treats two specific cases from the 1990s: La Panadería, an artist-run space in Mexico that is often looked to as the model for alternative spaces in Latin America, and Galería Chilena, a lesser-known, artist-run, nomadic commercial gallery that moved around Santiago over the course of several years, organizing exhibitions in borrowed spaces.
To have a discussion about alternative spaces in Latin America, it is useful to situate them within a broader history of the formation of artist-run initiatives on an international scope and to point to congruencies in other, sometimes radically different contexts. AA Bronson has written a very telling history of the emergence of artist-run centres in Canada during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Overshadowed by the massive influence of American media culture, Canadian artists found themselves in a position subservient to the dominance of a centralized, New York–based art circuit. Coupled with the absence of venues in which to show their work and thereby gain exposure even on a solely national level, this situation often forced artists to take matters into their own hands, forming small, overlapping circuits working around precariously funded publications, workshops, and spaces. As Bronson points out, perhaps most significant to this phenomena was how it contributed to the self-projection of the artists themselves—in other words, to what extent these activities would be productive of a visible space that would move their practices beyond the isolation of individual artist studios. To the present day, so much of how we think about art is influenced by a romanticized image of the artist removed from his/her context, engaged in an elite activity that is misunderstood or simply ignored. If we can point to one unifying feature of contemporary art, it is the desire to break with this myth, to reinsert artistic practices into our everyday lives, to demonstrate that the making of art is a job like any other. To do this it is necessary that artists have access to media channels because media culture—TV, radio, magazines, etc.—is perhaps the most important and far-reaching element of contemporary life. As Bronson describes it, “we forgot that we ourselves were real artists, because we had not seen ourselves in the media.”2
La Panadería has often been written about as something that burst upon the Mexican art scene in a highly spontaneous manner, created by artists frustrated by the lack of any space in which to show their work. In 1993, local artists Yoshua Okon and Miguel Calderón appropriated a defunct bakery and, along with a group of friends, set about creating a self-sufficient structure that would support work based on their own criteria, which, to a great extent, responded to the limitations of more conventional institutions. This sort of space, unprecedented in its context, was then initially bound to a rebellious, independent attitude that actively sought confrontation with an established system of exhibiting art that had turned a blind eye to the multiple and eclectic subcultures specific to Mexico City. La Panadería became noted for its willingness to embrace such marginalized practices by exhibiting the works of extremely young artists showing primarily video, photography, and installation, organizing concerts and parties—reflecting and producing more of a social dynamic than merely adhering to a static, rigid set of paradigms dictating what art should be. One might argue that already inscribed into the formation of an artist-run space is a critique of the institutional apparatus of art, which tends to flatten out even the most critical, polemical sort of practices, domesticating them into objects of consumption. In its spontaneous manner of operating (often too precarious in economic terms), La Panadería actively sought to offer a generation of young artists an alternative to what its organizers believed to be the stagnant museum culture of Mexico City.
Yet, as is often pointed out in Mexico (and not well known outside of it), the Panadería group possessed a certain set of characteristics that made them alternative but at the same time more exclusionary than some accounts of this story would admit. This particular account is based on my own experience as director of the space from 2000 to 2001. For the most part, the organizers of the space were men—upper middle class, self-assured, and bright, whose transgressive, fuck-you attitude was effective in challenging art establishment values but equally effective in alienating those individuals who might have collaborated in the project but simply could not fit in with the “cool” crowd. Perhaps most significant, and more problematic, was the fact that this desire to break with a dominant value system associated with traditional Catholic morality, present at every level of Mexican society, became translated into a highly masculinist, even misogynistic subject position whose visual repertoire consisted of titty shots, guns, monster trucks, and other “bad boy” and “bad taste” instances of cultural slumming. In their obsession with and appropriation of low culture, the Panadería group sought to break with accepted norms of behaviour associated with their social class by appropriating and making visible an entire subculture of extreme machismo that evidently exists in Mexico but had never really been treated on the level of “high” culture. While the satirical nature of this “making visible” does indicate the presence of at least some level of criticality, the end result in so many cases was the reinforcement of the worst kind of traditional gender roles that proved to be damaging to a space that prided itself on being so inclusive—but damaging perhaps only within its immediate context.
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About the Author
Michèle Faguet has published essays on contemporary Latin Ameican art in Arts Atlantic, Parachute, and Luna Córnea and has written and lectured about artist-run spaces in both Latin American and international context.