InCUBATE: 2nd Year Report

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

April 2009 marked the second anniversary of the Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and the EverydayInCUBATE is a research institute and artist residency program dedicated to exploring new approaches to arts administration and arts funding. We at InCUBATE act as curators, researchers and co-producers of artists’ projects. These activities have manifested in a series traveling exhibitions called Other Options, an artist residency program, and various other projects such as Sunday Soup (a monthly meal that generates funding for a creative project grant). We don’t have non-profit status, instead, we are interested in what kinds of organizational strategies could provide more direct support to critical and socially-engaged art and culture beyond for-profit or non-profit structures. Our core organizational principle is to treat art administration as a creative practice. By doing so, we hope to generate and share a new vocabulary of practical solutions to the everyday problems of producing under-the-radar culture.

We started InCUBATE with a few simple ideas and questions about money. How could we better understand the lack of funding for alternative and innovative cultural work? Is it possible to develop new infrastructures to qualitatively affect artists’ lives? At first we thought it was just necessary to share financial strategies with people who didn’t necessarily have access to those kinds of resources (our first project idea was to create a Radical Financial Handbook), but over the course of the last two years, we came to realize that we wanted to treat the organizational forms of the art-world as open to interpretation. Besides thinking just about practical ways of how to be more frugal or financially responsible, our work now also involves developing the kind of art world in which we want to operate. We see our approach as being additive rather than oppositional, by developing positive and productive frameworks that go past scheming up new ways to make more money or complaining about our general lack of it. We have limited resources, but find that operating at a micro-scale and being as honest as possible about our capacity actually makes the fundraising we do manageable and immediate.

Our work is a process of negotiation. After two years in operation, we have come to discover that in order to be of relevance to others, our practices and values must be articulated using a slow building process. To varying degrees, each of our projects can be considered slow. They are directly dependent on a gradually accumulating group of people who want to be involved in collectively pooling resources, sharing histories on what’s already been done, and imagining the conditions for an ethical and critical art world that would support its constituents. These people include those who take part in our monthly conversation at Sunday Soup, organize programming at our storefront space that we co-manage with AREA Chicago and the Chicago Underground Library, as well as the people around the country who have participated in the Other Options exhibition project, our ongoing research into artists operating outside the boundaries of institutional support.

Thus, at this point in our work, rather than attempting to organize or brand a coalition of like-minded constituents, we feel it may in fact be more productive to invoke a slow building process in the current field of artistic production. We think that a greater awareness of this need to be slow may mitigate the rhetoric that demands revolutionary change tomorrow without focusing on how invested people are opening the systems at work today for change. A slow building process may help to establish a sense of collectivity built organically and according to the specific wants and needs of the community itself. What follows are a few reflections upon what we have learned in the past two years and what we consider to be a few key components of a slow build.

The first holds that such a slow building process would naturally entail a more nuanced understanding of how both large cultural institutions function and what they strive to represent. Although in theory such places are often founded upon liberal principles, in practice their cultural effect tends to be conservative. Here it is important to distinguish a critical difference in the ways institutions often seek to present themselves to the public (as impervious well-organized machines) versus the way they exist in reality (permeable, changeable subjects rent with fissures). Large institutions are useful at times because they have a centralized visibility and resources. However, equally important is creating a different set of platforms alongside of, beside, near, and resembling the way institutions currently work yet equally depart from their conventions. Hopefully, in this way, we can look at engagement with large scale institutions outside of some sort of failure or co-optation, and instead interrogate ourselves at the same time as institutional forms. In order for us to explore what cultural democratic practice is and might be and whether and how it can continue to be relevant to everyday life, it is necessary to understand the way in which culture works within existing infrastructures and how it is constantly re-produced. Such a renewed and less oppositional, yet not necessarily less skeptical understanding of large institutions may help to alleviate some of the tensions stemming from the individualist spirit inherent to most forms of D.I.Y. cultural organizing. In terms of artistic production, re-thinking how the public can relate to large institutions may also entail registering a confluence between practices of institutional critique, an approach to art that really took on museums and their internal contradictions, and those of infrastructure building; a shift from “Doing It Yourself” to “Doing It Together”.

It is also important to understand some of the current inhibitions to the slow building process. Such a list of roadblocks would certainly include the general lack of essentials like time, money, and patience. Here, in terms of such scarcity, the idea of an independent or autonomous cultural infrastructure is itself a practical impossibility. In fact, most ‘alternative’ initiatives are forced to rely upon (or were founded as a result of) random and variable instances of generosity. Thus we raise the questions: How can we slowly build, if our building is predicated on conventional resources beyond our control? How can we make the most of our current situation?

This is where the importance of loose-knit and as-needed coalitions needs to be recognized. To start with our own local situation, there is an incredible network of experimental, decentralized cultural spaces like Mess Hall and Experimental Station, innovative art venues like He Said-She Said and threewalls, and hybrid business models such as Backstory that operate according to the needs of specific people and neighborhoods in the city. We don’t feel the need to join forces by operating out of the same space to amplify everyone’s activities, but rather to see ourselves as part of a functioning ecosystem in which we are one site among many in which a set of questions are debated and contextualized. By truly partaking in each other’s activities, beyond monetary investment, a healthy infrastructure evolves by virtue of our mutal support.

Finally, it is worth noting how various models such as a labor unions, community centers, block-clubs, or religious institutions seem to resolve some of the key problems facing our concept of the slow build. Consider how these institutions provide space and resources, exert political influence, and allow for the participation of wider demographics. Our task for the future is to produce these effects without instituting a rigid hierarchy or overtly moralizing and dogmatic system in order to affect a more equitable, participatory, and democratic future. ◊


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