By Jason Foumberg
Networking used to be a dreaded activity. It was the thing you did awkwardly once a year in the carpeted halls and hotel bars of the College Art Association conference. Over the years, though, you gained more knowledge about the art world from hanging out in those hallways than from the academic papers being read behind the conference room doors. It turns out that you’re not alone in this realization. In fact, networking—socializing, chatting, partying, hanging out—has become the defining art form of this generation’s artists.
The freshest art ideas no longer germinate in the artist’s studio, but in the pub. The most relevant artists don’t make objects; they DJ an event or cook a large meal for other makers to attend. In any city with a high density of artists but little art market support, one-night-only, artist-run events can be more inspiring than a stroll through the gallery district.
Contemporary art’s social turn is at the heart of “what it means to be an active participant in the art world today,” writes Lane Relyea in his new book, “Your Everyday Art World.” Relyea’s main conceit is that social gatherings of like-minded makers are the driving force for the most important outlets of contemporary art, from local apartment galleries to international biennial exhibitions.
In both broad theoretical moves and several case studies (including Glasgow and Los Angeles’ scenes), Relyea promotes community capital over dollars and dealers. The book is a refreshing antidote to Holland Cotter’s recent New York Times editorial titled “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex,” which stated, “The current market system is shaping every aspect of art.” Neither Christie’s nor Gagosian, Hirst nor Saatchi are mentioned in Relyea’s book. Instead, Relyea locates the nexus of the art world’s power in temporary exhibitions, classrooms and living rooms.
Relyea is chair of Northwestern University’s art program and editor-in-chief of Art Journal. He takes a stab at one of the most difficult tasks facing academics of contemporary art: writing a history of our current moment as it unfolds. This is typically the purview of art critics, and Relyea’s years-long experience as a critic for various magazines and newspapers serves him well in making certain art scenes come alive on the page. A deep affinity for literary theory, however, bogs the text down in some pretty dense jargon. Must dead French theorists really couch surf through every apartment gallery show?
A critical essay published in this magazine last year, titled “Friends Curating Friends” by Pedro Velez, lambasted the local scene for its insularity and nepotism, especially among artist-curated exhibitions. While Relyea doesn’t touch the subject of Chicago art in his book (which is strange, considering that he has been here for the past dozen years, and that one of his main topics, apartment galleries, was basically invented here), “Your Everyday Art World” provides a much-needed framework to explain why the friends-curating-friends scenario variously succeeds and fails. If widely read, Relyea’s critique is likely to generate provocative discussions on so-called alternative art and curatorial practices.
Relyea views the DIY circuit as training wheels for conventional institutional roles. It’s why apartment galleries pretend to have white cube walls and hand out typed checklists at their opening receptions. What has the potential to be a radical exhibition format mimics the art world professional standard; and whatever was actually radical in the DIY scene has been usurped by the elite curators and artists who float from biennial to biennial so that an apartment gallery’s “microutopian” potential, as “the everyday’s poetic antitext,” becomes the premise for the next big international biennial. Alternative always gets folded back into the mainstream.
A key figure in Relyea’s book is the “free agent.” This may be an artist or curator or academic whose international mobility (“nothing signals success quite like it,” writes Relyea) is fueled by short-term contracts and opportunities to “lark about and concoct projects.” One example may be Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the Documenta13 curator who recently touched down at Northwestern for a semester-long teaching gig before taking off for other similar projects in Europe and New York. What starts to sound like an analysis of the VIP “art world” (as if it were homogenous and anonymous) is flattened and then inverted in Relyea’s book. He writes that artist-run initiatives operate with the same liberty as the superpower curators. Adjunct art instructors and volunteer curators are also “free agents,” in Relyea’s system—except, perhaps, their circles are smaller, and they are paid less. This inequality, but not its ethics, is discussed in the book.
Relyea mistrusts new electronic networks to forge real collaborations and “intimate feedback.” That perspective is idealistic but out of touch. Likewise, Relyea’s call for a “New Institutionalism” (because institutional critique has died) is hopeful but not convincing.
In the book’s first (and best) chapter, Relyea performs a brilliant linguistic takedown of the word “do” in do-it-yourself culture, proving that DIY is not as radical as it believes itself to be. If that seems cynical, Relyea buffers it with optimism: the old hierarchies are crumbling, local reigns over global, everyone is embedded, everyone participates, and artists always come first.
“Your Everyday Art World” is published by MIT Press.