In October Letting Space spoke at Where Art Belongs? a symposium at Massey University. It was a great opportunity for us to mull on where we’re at and where we’re going, ahead of diving into new projects. Thanks to Gradon Diprose (whose PhD in train is on art and social activism) we have a transcript. We provide an edited record here of us: Letting Space, late 2011. This was the first part of our presentation.
I often have a phrase from a pop song in my head, riffing constantly - as probably many of us do. Last night it was that line at the end of Guns and Roses’ ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ which goes: ‘Where do we go? Where do we go?’. It popped into my head after last night’s opening talks. But what I then learned - Facebook grazing through some website about the genesis of “songs that were never meant to be songs” – that it was never meant to be. Jamming the new song, the band got to the end of what they had devised and Axl Rose literally didn’t know where they should go next. Vocalising this predicament, ‘where do we go’ became a spoken refrain.
After Chris Kraus’s presentation last night - about the 18 month life of famed LA artist-run space Tiny Creatures - it reminded me that, when you start something you often don’t really know where you’re going. You don’t have a strategic plan. We’re trying to be business minded and all that, but Sophie and I initially really just came together and started working. Beyond some initial clear mandates, our way of doing things evolved through doing projects - over the last 18 months.
It’s really lovely that Caterina, the new Artspace Director is here because Sophie and I were both involved in Artspace in the early ‘90s. Artspace was a very different organisation to what it is now. In a sense it was a bit like Tiny Creatures and the current Artspace having a bit of a fight: it was a community space, and it was a space where curators were coming in and trying to assert what was going on. That period was very interesting. Teststrip started in Vulcan Lane, and the artists-run space model went one way, Artspace the other.
Sophie and I were both really interested in intermedia, both engaged in the performing arts as well, and we were involved in setting up a programme outside of the gallery space called Letting Space - about half a dozen arts projects around town in vacant property which responded to that current recession. It was alot more hands off - in fact we basically left town during that programme, independent of each other moving to Wellington.
It was only really only a couple of years ago that we turned around to each other and said “the recession is happening again”. We re-connected personally and professionally and Letting Space as it is today was born.
Thinking about talking today we were both rather provoked by the title of this symposium: ‘where art belongs’. If you were to ask a lot of people how they would describe Letting Space, they’d probably say “Oh those are those guys that do things in vacant commercial properties”. That gets our backs up a little bit - even though its absolutely understandable - because we’re more interested in how art is sited, not where. Art not as exhibition in an exhibition space, but how art can integrate as part of the social fabric. How it can play a part in life, as a way of testing ideas and provoking and enabling change. The gallery model is a really important laboratory - but we’re really interested in how we can activate the potential of artists and empower them to work very much as part of the whole fabric of things.
I’m entirely with Mark on that. We have come together as curators who want to help make the best of an artist’s practice and to frame that work for the best for an audience. We’re constantly thinking about the audience and about the public, and in New Zealand the art audience can be kind of small. We’ve felt it’s even more important to be reaching into the public with this series.
Originally back in 1993 it was part of our agenda that we wanted to put art on the streets. We sensed that art had slid towards a kind of a clique. So I was interested in this talk about ‘where art belongs’ too, because although obviously the title of today’s symposium came from the title of Chris Kraus’ great new book, the idea of using this as a symposium title was really interesting.
Where does art belong? Well, I don’t think art comes knocking at the door to ask permission. Art doesn’t say, ‘excuse me, can I sit here?’ I feel like the question is maybe ‘where do I belong?’ or ‘where I as an artist or a curator belong?’ I think it belongs within the framework in which we live.
We’ll talk later about the likes of Creative Time, which is a movement in New York which has been running since 1974. Their latest symposium was called ‘living as form’. It wasn’t art as form, it was living as form because living is the framework art should be sitting within.
I suppose I’d like to invert - in the well-honed tradition of a symposium - the question, and ask not where does art belong but ‘what belongs in art?’ For me that’s everything. For us the utility of art and the importance of pushing boundaries is really important. To keep going outwards to the society. We’re facing some huge crisis in terms of economics and the environment. We know that. We see that artists have the edge and that’s a framework Letting Space still works from.
The word ‘independent’ comes up with Letting Space. I remember being in a discussion at Enjoy gallery and Ann Shelton was asking whether we’re an ‘institution’ or not. That’s a really interesting question. We’ve both worked in public galleries and we know the university environment, but essentially we’re not from either. We’re not on salaries. We’ve largely stayed as people outside of it and independent of it - I mean I’ve worked a lot as an art critic. We’ve relished the fact that we are independent. We don’t have any boxes to fight against.
When Heather Galbraith suggested for this talk we think about work in New Zealand that inspired us, most of it was in the gallery. Most of it was talking to the gallery, hammering against the walls. And we were kind of going, “well, we’re not actually in the gallery and don’t want to be, nor see that artists necessarily always want to work in this frame.” Our freedom and our joy is the belief that we can work with artists who are interested not just in their ideas being in an artist run space or just in a gallery. They too are engaged with the idea that their art can be just as complex and rich and not lost out in the world.
I think we often have a great tension working as two people between the works political intent and its artistic efficacy. That it has to be about social change, but also be good art. Which is to say, the shape of it. It’s not just about the placard or the banner and how loud you can be. It’s recognising that really great art historical moments have had a political charge. They have been relevant. They’re not just about aesthetics. So for us its a marriage between political intent and a project’s strength aesthetically, or whatever that’s going on there. That’s a really interesting tension for us in the development of projects.