Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

From the Hip
Joseph del Pesco

Following the California launch of Fillip 6 in the summer of 2007, we had the opportunity to tour the Collective Foundation exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and meet with Joseph del Pesco to discuss some of his recent projects, including the exhibition and Shotgun Review.

Fillip: The Collective Foundation originally began with a single project, the Shotgun Review, which enabled artists, critics, and the general public to record their experiences, observations, and analyses of art shows and events in the Bay Area within the space of a 300–600 word review. _Shotgun Review_ has since grown to include other cities while the Collective Foundation has expanded its number and range of activities during the same period. Could you explain how the initial project got started and how it has developed over time?

Joseph del Pesco: Shotgun Review was the result of a series of conversations with artist Scott Oliver (who gave Shotgun Review its name). I had heard about a group of five artists and critics in London who, in 2002, made a project of writing one hundred reviews (twenty each) in a week and publishing the results. Shotgun Review translated this semi-performative gesture into a mission; that it might be possible to review every exhibition and event in the San Francisco Bay Area—that every artist might receive a response—if only there were enough writers. Around the same time, I had been tinkering with content management systems used to make weblogs, which allowed us to work with a Web interface that was easy to use and was self-archiving. It took shape as a more sophisticated version of a multi-author blog where individual contributions feed into a modular design, significantly reducing the need for administration.

Shotgun Review now includes more than 150 reviews written by over sixty individuals in the past two years. These contributors include artists, curators, other art-workers from local institutions, and a few non-art-world folk as well.

From the very beginning, Shotgun Review has remained committed to its specificity in publishing only reviews, which are all short-form and limited geographically to the greater Bay Area. The project continues to expand into all corners of the local art community, with the number of contributions peaking in the spring and fall, the busiest months in terms of exhibitions. About a year ago we added commenting, which allows readers to respond to reviews. Unfortunately, we still have to preview everything because of the incredible amount of junk that comes through, so it’s not immediate.

Because Shotgun Review is a relatively self-contained and a low overhead system, it is fairly portable, which has led us to consider setting it up in other “second cities”—loosely defined as those without a widely distributed art magazine. We’ve been in conversation with two writer/curators in Calgary and an artist/educator in Pittsburgh. We also recently decided to make print-on-demand books available periodically for anyone who might prefer to read a printed copy or wants a copy of a review in a format other than a consumer grade printout.

Ultimately, the major development was identifying the systems thinking behind Shotgun Review, which informed the five subsequent Collective Foundation programs.

Fillip: Shotgun Review supports the notion that “everyone is a critic” by bringing together a diverse and non-hierarchical array of voices as demonstrated in the print-on-demand book 100 Shotgun Reviews, which publishes writing from the first 100 reviews submitted. The publication features writing from established critics like Lars Bang Larsen alongside the words of lesser-known authors. The situation necessarily leaves discussions on contemporary art wide open. Could you talk about your interests and intentions in facilitating such broad conversations? What do you see as the benefits and limitations of this structure?

del Pesco: When we started Shotgun Review, I was idealistically interested in involving the perspectives of people outside the art field. Inspired by the first person journalism of radio shows like This American Life, I thought that an account of a plumber or a janitor experiencing an exhibition might illuminate what “the rest of the world” thinks about art and also facilitate the kind of close-reading-as-personal-investment that writing about something suggests. While we were able to involve a few individuals at the fringe of the art field—often partners or friends of artists or art-interested people with other careers—the fact is that most of the people who care enough about cultural production to want to write about it are those who are already invested. Shotgun Review has provided a space for young writers to develop their practice, a forum for artists to acknowledge one another’s output, and a way for important Bay Area exhibitions to be registered. It can also occasionally be a polemical space where ideas are contested, conversations started, and the echo of art’s multiplicity recorded.

Jerry Saltz wrote an essay, “The Rhetoric of Presence” that responds to what Frieze magazine called the “de-skilling of art criticism” by arguing against “narrow, academic or ‘objective’ ways” of reading art and for “engaging uncertainty and contingency, suspending disbelief, and trying to create a space for doubt, unpredictability, curiosity, and openness.” I think this applies nicely to the idiosyncratic array of voices in Shotgun Review. Its diversity is perhaps its greatest strength, and its unevenness its greatest weakness. We recently received a grant through Southern Exposure to pay the featured review author $100 once per month for the next year. The featured review is either drawn from the existing pool of contributions or by our invitation. We hope that by highlighting some of the best writing, there can be layers of readership.

As Jean Paul Sartre noted, the most challenging and productive exercise is to write for (or speak to) two widely different audiences simultaneously. It’s a voice that one of the great Bay Area curators and regular Shotgun Review contributor, Renny Pritikin, exemplifies. And it’s my hope for the future of Shotgun Review.

Fillip: Besides Shotgun Review, the Collective Foundation has created a number of $500 grants that it awards to artists for projects. Like the Shotgun Review, these projects address problems of distribution. Where the Shotgun Review engages with the problem of a limited distribution of ideas (i.e. arts criticism) by broadening its audience and authors, the grants projects attempt to diversify the number of funds available to artists who are increasingly unable to obtain foundation money. Although the Collective Foundation grants are not very large, what is striking about them is that they do not depend on one private donor or funding body, which makes them less susceptible to the whims of a single gatekeeper. Can you talk about why the Collective Foundation was interested in these projects and what grants have been awarded?  Do you intend to continue the grants projects moving forward?

del Pesco: As included in the Collective Foundation statements, Georges Bataille notes that it’s how a society uses its surplus that defines its culture. There’s plenty of surplus available, so it’s just a matter of figuring out how to transform it into a useful resource as quickly and painlessly as possible. We chose to start out by looking at the surplus of the art community. For example, the first grant we awarded leveraged the surplus server space of a web hosting account. Most new accounts come with several gigs more space than any one artist needs for a website, even if it includes large audio or video files. So we hosted five artists on the Collective Foundation server (where they retain their previous domain names) and instead of paying their yearly fee directly to an Internet company, we asked them to pay it into a fund. These artists then became the jurors for a $500 grant. The artist who won the grant, Amy Balkin, typically visualizes and contextualizes her practice on the Web, so it ended up having a topical reciprocity. She actually used the grant to support her trip to the Arctic in September of this year, where she developed research for projects around climate change.

Our most recent grant was formed by collecting surplus publications from Bay Area art spaces to form a library of over one hundred art books and exhibition catalogues—effectively comprising a capsule history of the Bay Area. The San Jose ICA purchased the library for their new reading room for $500, and that money is now available from us as a grant. Collective Foundation was recently invited to present Collective Playlist at the MCA San Diego La Jolla during an exhibition called Soundwaves. As a result, we decided to support the development of this program by directing the grant toward the production of a new featured playlist—a scale of production that better suits a small grant. The same logic used to organize/categorize a collection of books can be used to contextualize a collection of digital files—in this case the content of MP3s.

Stepping back to look at the mechanisms involved in these grants, it’s apparent that they involve several kinds of distribution. And, as you mentioned, their structure uses neither of the default ways of raising capital in the art world: grants received from foundations (or other granting bodies) by non-profits and the sale of art objects within the existing market. In addition to opening up a conversation to a third funding option, the grants are also intended to produce mutual benefit rather than loss and gain (i.e., artists pay into a fund, but they receive Web-hosting services in exchange; galleries donate books but they also directly support artists and distribute their history, both part of their general mission).

Given that the Collective Foundation is a research and development organization, the mandate of its grants is to never repeat the same approach. Each grant is intended as a model that could be potentially useful to artists or arts organizations. Moving forward, I’d like to see a new grant accompany each public presentation of the Collective Foundation program(s). We’ll see.

Fillip: Back to the topic of distribution, the Collective ICA project represents another way of working around the problem of limited or restricted channels of exhibition for artists. In this instance, the Collective Foundation provides a free software program that presents seven images (one for each day of the week) featuring art works curated by a Bay Area arts organization. At the end of a week, the images are replaced by a different group of images. In one respect, these works are given life outside the gallery, but if they were not originally intended by the artists to be shown in this format, how does the software change the works?  Moreover, could this software be a marketing and advertising tool for participating organizations?  

del Pesco: There are never enough ways of supporting and distributing the practice of artists. Particularly in the market dominant climate of the US, where international fairs are one of the only places that an artist’s work is seen outside its city of origin, the dissemination of cultural production that the Internet offers has great potential. While the Collective ICA worked successfully during the run of the exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (where Collective Foundation launched its programs), the social infrastructure necessary to run it on an ongoing basis will take a second round of investment, and, probably, funding, to realize its full potential. As easy as it is to e-mail or upload JPEG files, putting all this together is still a lot of work.

The Collective ICA was originally conceived in relation to the formative history of YBCA. During the conversation around its inception almost twenty years ago, YBCA was envisioned as a platform for all the existing non-profits in town to realize large-scale exhibitions and events. This utopian structure was left behind for a more conventional ICA/Kunsthalle approach. We wanted to recoup this approach, which meant inviting various area organizations to participate.

Fillip: Who belongs to the Collective Foundation today? How does one become a member? What does a collective signify in the sense you are using it, and how does it compare to other artist collectives historically?  Ultimately, what does it mean to form, work in, or support a collective today?

del Pesco: The Collective Foundation has no membership. By contributing in any form to any program one is instantly implicated in the larger structure. Okwui Enwezor identifies two types of collectives in his essay “The Production of Social Space as Artwork”:

The first type can be summarized as possessing...permanent, fixed groupings of practitioners working over a sustained period. In such collectives, authorship represents the expression of the group rather than that of the individual artist. The second type of collective tends to emphasize a flexible, nonpermanent course of affiliation, privileging collaboration on a project basis rather than on a permanent alliance. This type of collective formation can be designated networked collectives. Such networks are far more prevalent today due to radical advances in communication technologies.

The Collective Foundation is ostensibly closer to the second. However, I understand the Collective Foundation as operating closer to a framing device than a creative project. The programmatic structure of Collective Foundation is loosely modelled on the approach of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, which might be understood as both a space for production and display and a research institution that involves the creative deployment of its own lines of thinking. Collective Foundation was also partially inspired by the para-institutional thinking of the Art Workers’ Coalition in New York during the 1970s. This was also the moment that led to the birth of alternatives spaces in the US. Ultimately, Collective Foundation is asking the question: If the alternative space (or the artist-run centre in Canada) was invented in 2007, how would it be different when compared to the model that exists today?


About the Author

Joseph del Pesco is an artist, designer, and curator. He has recently curated On Being an Exhibition at Artists Space, New York, and has curated exhibitions and projects for the Rooseum, Malmö; The Soap Factory, Minneapolis; the de Young Art Center, San Francisco; the Nelson Gallery, University of California, Davis; and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

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