Directional Language

Off Printing: Situating Publishing Practices in Artist Run Centres,
Conference Proceedings, RCAAQ, Quebec, 2005.

In developing an editorial direction, it is as important to look back at the history of our centres, and broadly within that history, as it is to look ahead. This history is at least partly a written one. We are called upon to move nimbly between many written forms as we raise money, demonstrate our curatorial rationales, produce ad copy and articulate decisions. The changing identities of our centres can be found in these various texts — cover letters, databases, jottings on file folders — that form the unstated policy of the collective attitude and practice of our organizations. An ‘archival’ approach to development looks to these historical documents to learn what we already know and identify places from which to change. It considers the range of languages we use — legal, bureaucratic, corporate, academic, the email dispatch — and what these texts have to say about us. How might these forms, all necessary and important, relate to the writing we present as ‘publishing’? What assumptions do we make about ‘creative’ writing, ‘critical’ writing, ‘serious’ writing, ‘administrative’ writing? How does our language define us? How can we create an editorial focus that is mindful of our organization, as we have written it?

Perhaps the most one should wish for in an editorial policy is a loose framework (similar to a constitution) that allows enough flexibility for artists, writers, curators and editors to do their creative work. Artspeak does not have an editorial policy, per se, but rather our approach is better described as an editorial direction, one that has developed over the seventeen years of our history. While several policies pertain to our publications activity, such as appropriate fees for writers and designers, and signing letters of agreement with authors, the editorial direction of our publishing activities is the responsibility of the Director/Curator as she articulates our dual mandate. Briefly compressed, the origins of Artspeak’s mandate to present exhibitions of contemporary art and explore the relationship between art and writing, stems in part from our early association with Kootenay School of Writing, a writer’s collective that was formed when David Thompson University Centre in Nelson was closed by the Social Credit government in 1984. Students and some faculty of the Creative Writing Program at DTUC began KSW in Vancouver as a means to continue their practice and research. From the introduction to a recent anthology, “Writing Class”, Andrew Klobucar and Michael Barnholden characterize KSW in this way:

Descriptions of the Kootenay School of Writing call to mind Voltaire’s notorious summary of the Holy Roman Empire: ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.’ For, indeed few facts about this particular centre of avant-garde writing in Canada can be gleaned from its misleading name – it is not in the Kootenays, it is not a school, and it does not teach writing (at least in the ordinary sense).

And further:

…K.S.W.,.when pressed for a profile, usually defines itself as a writer-run centre. As both a workspace and a performance area, the school has traditionally organized itself at the point of production, i.e., at the point of writing, rather than according to some abstract social or aesthetic mandate.

KSW has maintained a program of readings and study groups, often international in focus, and maintains a strong presence in the international writing community despite its lean administrative structure and modest budget. There continue to be many points of connection between Artspeak and KSW, through co-productions of talks and readings, and through the involvement of writers from the school in our publishing programme and the Artspeak Board.

In the early eighties through to the early nineties, Artspeak shared a space with KSW, presenting visual art programs under the direction of Cate Rimmer, who remained in the role of Director/Curator until 1991. Following the concerns of visual art practice in the mid-eighties that included a focus on image/text production, influenced by semiotics, psychoanalytic theory, and the social movements of feminism and Marxism, early Artspeak exhibitions included artists’ bookworks, image text works and a presentation series called Artists/Writers/Talks, which sought participation from writers using visual means and artists using language. There was a cross over of interest in the resistance of expression-based writing, research into the nature of language and speech, and conceptually-driven visual art practice. In these projects, the implications of crossing the two disciplines were explored in relation to theory, formal convention and reception. As interdisciplinary activity grew in all areas of scholarship, within and beyond the arts, Artspeak’s mandate continued to engage with what can now be seen as a post-disciplinary environment.

While KSW remained collectivist and volunteer-based in its structure, Artspeak developed along a different path, giving curatorial autonomy to the Director/Curator. The Artspeak Board includes artists and writers, and those whose practice crosses over or hovers in between. The board operates using a consensus trust model, as many collectives do, and its members vary in age from artists in their early sixties to those in their late twenties.

An effective artist-run board works from an understanding of consensus and the thorough knowledge of the operations of the organization. It is the board’s responsibility as cultural trustees to ensure the viability of the organization as a whole. Since most programming is carried on with public funds the board oversees the financial accountability and monitors reporting policies. The board is also responsible for the advocacy of Artspeak’s mission and its artist-run philosophy by possessing full knowledge and understanding of Artspeak’s mission, goals and objectives; reporting to the membership of its activities and policies, developing community awareness, representing Artspeak to its constituents, government, foundations, corporations and other funding agencies, developing strategic planning, advising government bodies and agencies on the impact of current and proposed cultural policies and ensuring that legal and ethical requirements are fulfilled.

The board supports the Director/Curator in implementing her/his choice of cultural programs. The Director/Curator is recognized as the person principally responsible for designing and delivering the programs, exhibitions and publications. The board depends greatly upon this person’s artistic leadership and vitality. The artistic freedom and responsibility given to this position complements the responsibility of the Board at policy level.

So while, structurally, the Board is the legal employer of the staff, the relationship of the Board to the staff is primarily collegial or collaborative. This framework gives the board the responsibility for building a firm sense of the overall identity of the organization in a larger historical framework – in looking backward – and in anticipating what will be needed and relevant to generations of artists in the future, and planning toward that aim.

The editorial focus of Artspeak’s publishing program has developed from this structural context and history — relying on the creative vision of the staff — with firm nudges from the funding and economic opportunities and constraints that have arisen, and our ability to respond to both. Within the current funding structure, in which the publishing program is funded through operating grants, we have enjoyed much more editorial freedom in defining the publication program as an interdisciplinary activity.

In keeping with the history of our centre, and the continued shared interests of artists and writers in Vancouver, Artspeak’s editorial vision acknowledges a responsibility to both forms of practice. Writing is not considered to be a secondary practice to the primary object of the visual artwork. Rather, artists and writers with a shared set of concerns, methodologies, or research bases are paired, in collaboration with the designer, on a mobile artwork, the publication. The book, CD, videotape or website is understood as a site in which to investigate written and visual language, in which text is considered a material practice, where photographs are not ‘illustrations’. In this way, the publications program remains accountable and relevant to the writing community and provides designers with creative freedom not often found in their practice, while allowing visual artists to consider how best to represent their work. Diverse, varied and debased forms of ‘the book’ can be considered, we may rhetorically embrace the idea of the ‘vanity press’, we may employ ‘ghost’ writers. Chapbooks, screenplays, music videos and ‘demos’, product catalogues, or the corporate prospectus may all be gleefully appropriated. While they are modest interventions into the realm of visual art publishing, these publications can nevertheless retain artistic integrity, be strategically deployed, and maneuver deftly, compared with more ponderous enterprises.

An editorial direction or focus must consider distribution, and similarly to taking creative control of our production, distribution problems can be creatively addressed. The method of distribution is one of the formal considerations in their production. Rather than thinking about how many, it is perhaps better to think about who has access to them. Our primary objective is dissemination of the work to interested audiences. Exchange agreements with organizations nationally and internationally place the publications in research libraries and archives that are accessible to many readers. Post secondary instructors find them useful as course material. Board and staff members can use them as a valuable introduction to both the artwork and the organization for individuals and organizations. Artists and writers themselves are excellent distributors of their own publications, connected as they are to national and international artistic communities. National and international retail placement may be small, but it is strategically important. Sales of publications can be a significant source of earned revenue, since (at least in the case of Artspeak, where most orders originate outside of Vancouver) sales are also effective dissemination.

Traditionally, exhibition catalogues have had an educational or interpretive function, providing opportunities for scholars and critics to study and analyze art objects. They also function to promote the work of visual artists, providing legitimation through acting as a historical document for scholarly purposes. These valuable goals are rightly pursued by public galleries and museums, mandated to preserve and study their collections, provide broad-based education programmes and curate within the models provided by art history. I would question the appropriateness of these goals to artist run centres that place themselves closer to the point of production, centres “that are more about artists than objects”.

The role of publications in disseminating information about contemporary practice, building knowledge about contemporary art, and working towards more opportunities for artists and writers is certainly pertinent to the history of artist run centres and our place within the community. It is important in a national, and increasingly, an international context, to contribute to increased knowledge of contemporary Canadian production, from an artist run perspective. Our strengths have been in the development of new forms, of challenges to the commodity status of the artwork, in exploring collaborative practice, in challenging the false division between art and popular culture, and interdisciplinary experimentation — strengths that are now infusing the programming of more traditional institutions. Our publications should develop from these collective and individual strengths. Rather than publish documents of the study of objects, we should perhaps position our publications to be closer to the point of production — to be collected, to be preserved, to be the objects of study themselves.