Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill: visual cultures in Argentina and Scotland

On Thursday I attended an event organised by my colleagues, Sarah Wilson and Scott Hames. Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill addressed the topic of visual cultures in Scotland and Argentina.

Sarah Wilson introducing the seminar, and Syd Krochmalny

Sarah Wilson introducing the seminar, and Syd Krochmalny

Syd is a sociologist and artist based in Argentina; he mostly works on video installations addressing social issues. In Argentina it is very unusual to work in both art and sociology. Simon Yuill is an artist and writer based in Scotland, who has been heavily involved in The Strickland Distribution and Variant magazine. I thought it might be of interest to publish my notes on their two presentations – I make no guarantees regarding absolute accuracy, but I hope to have recorded some key elements of their talks.

Argentina

Syd gave a presentation entitled The Crisis of Success: Visual Arts in Argentina 2001-2011, describing a move from an art utopia to a market utopia. There are three distinct periods in a chronological account of this period: 1) a social crisis related to the financial crisis of 1997-2003, that came to a head in 2001; 2) an expansion of the art world from 2003-2007, in part as economic recovery happened; 3) from 2005, however, there was a severe fragmentation of the art world. Although the current situation is often seen as beginning with the 2001 economic crisis, the root of this crisis in turn lies in the implementation of neoliberal policies from 1975 onwards that led to the total collapse of the economy in 2001.

Social relationships during the 2001 crisis became critically important. Different forms of art appeared; so, for example, street art that critiqued the social order played a key role in helping a better understanding of what was happening in the country. This was an artist-led movement, and the artists – through mutual recognition and cooperation – were the ones who legitimated their work, indeed, the creativity of their work in itself legitimated what they were doing. This meant there was no need, no call for, no desire for, external and/or institutional legitimation. This is not to say that there were no problems in this period (for example, there were many long debates about the distinction between art and politics, between creativity and social action), but it was a tremendously creative time for a wide range of artists who produced all kinds of interesting visual work that helped to change the way people understood their situation.

Syd Krochmalny (with Sarah Wilson)

Syd Krochmalny (with Sarah Wilson)

As the economy improved (2003-2007), a more formal art market and parallel institutions began to develop. These appeared to increase artists’ opportunities to create. Galleries rapidly made international connections to the global art world and consequently began to direct work to make it ‘fit’ into what was perceived to be an international artistic community, culminating in a 2011 pavilion being bought by the Argentinian government at the Viennese Biennale. However, as artists began to participate in the global art market, it was noticeable that they began to fall into line with the market-led art institutions. Disagreements emerged over how to react to the marketisation: is this art or political action? is it ‘inside’ or ‘outside’? is the creator an artist or a social agent? what has primacy: a love of art or professionalisation? are people (still) working for themselves? Many artists felt themselves to be caught up in a series of contradictions, and struggled to reconcile these divergent positions.

These changes in the Argentinian art world, brought about directly by the commodification of an artistic practice – street art – that had emerged in a context of social action, did not just impact upon the artists of the time, but also impacted upon the new generation of artists. This new generation, however, do not feel the same contradictions about their work as their elders. In part this comes because their work integrates social and political issues from the beginning: in their understanding, activism itself can be a commodity, with artists working with disadvantaged groups in favelas (urban shanty towns), for example. Furthermore, many of the younger artists come from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds whose parents already have some kind of established connection to the art world, perhaps as gallery owners, art editors etc. This essentially makes this younger group of artists an ‘aristocracy’ utilising privileged family connections to further their work. A lack of social movement is the result, heralding a less equal society. Syd termed this ‘social closure’, pointing to the success of the art world in the post-economic crisis period: “The simultaneous qualitative and quantitive growth of institutions, of the market and in the number of artists has produced a ‘social closure'” – of course, this also mirrors wider stratification of society.

Therefore, although there might appear to be a vibrant new art scene that has emerged in recent years, Argentinian art, Syd argued, is actually facing a ‘crisis of success’ as a result of the commodification of what had previously been a means of critiquing neoliberalism. The problem now, he argued, is that neoliberalism appears in many instances to have taken over the critical nature of art, and thereby neutered the critical edge.

Scotland

Simon noted that Scotland has not, of course, had to cope with the same kinds of crises as Argentina. But other crises in the art world have emerged, also centred around neoliberal marketisation. For example, the very idea of there being ‘creative industries‘ is inherently problematic as a means of valorising artists’ work. There is a contradiction in this statement: it appears to be something outside the ‘art world’, but is valorised within it. This leads to ‘organisation isomorphism’, a term that originated with analyses of the co-operative movement. It describes the ways in which the egalitarian and horizontal nature of co-ops began to change to meet the needs of external actors, resulting in hierarchies and more vertical structures (chief executives, spokespeople etc.). Regardless of how an organisation conceives of itself, it is forced to change in order to interact with external agencies. In the art world, this is especially manifested in artist-led groups’ relationships to funders, and there is clear evidence that artist-led groups begin to mirror the structures desired by funders. These market-driven imperatives also then impact upon the priorities of the groups concerned and even the areas deemed appropriate to work in. Jennifer Wolch’s work on ‘the shadow state’ discusses precisely this issue: she shows how governments co-opt critical and liberatory movements, thereby maintaining control over them.

Simon Yuill

Simon Yuill

Simon pointed to two key ways, amongst others, in which this manifested itself:

  • there is a general issue about the access to resources: artist-led groups need funding, and they often need space in which to work.
  • there are also constraints imposed upon artistic expression through the market or the state. Such constraints are often structural (how to organise in order to suit funders, for example, becoming charitable bodies etc.) or situational (relating to opportunities and threats) or operational (when regulatory norms determine a group’s behaviour).

Elaborating on these a little more, Simon pointed to some examples:

  • artist-led groups might, for instance, want to make use of collective spaces, but the allocation or continued use of these can be problematic. Long-standing arrangements that might exist (use of unwanted buildings for nominal rents etc.) are subject to sudden and unpredictable change. In Glasgow the city council has a long history of offering artist-led groups cheap rent for buildings they did not use but wanted to keep. However, in 2010 the council created a private property management company and many of these buildings were transferred to it. Two key things have now changed: high rents are being threatened (from a ‘peppercorn’ £1 to a ‘market-rate’ of £700 in one example that Simon gave), and new leases have been issued that include liability for maintaining the buildings, meaning much of the risk in using the buildings is being transferred to the artists. Evictions have become a real possibility.
  • the (former) Scottish Arts Council created a funding scheme to enable artists to be given opportunities to sell art commercially (using galleries and so on). This does not account for artists who may want or need to create art that is not for selling but that might have a different rationale behind it. The marketisation and commodification of art is a long way from the original raison d’être of some of these artist-led groups.
  • a key threat to artist-led groups is the constant worry about the possibility of funding that has been granted then being withdrawn (Simon’s Variant magazine is an example of this). Creative Scotland (the successor to the Arts Council), has been heavily criticised for cancelling a flexible funding scheme that enabled longer-term planning, as it could be used to cover a groups’ core costs. Now Creative Scotland focus only on project funding – and yet core costs still exist, of course. Furthermore, as this is all project-led, the funding is more easily withdrawn. Perhaps most seriously, project-led funding means that every single project needs to be vetted by Creative Scotland, resulting in hierarchical, top-down directing of what artists are doing.

In the wider context there is a suggestion that all of these funding and creative elements are part of an ‘art world ecology’. This kind of language suggests complex, self-sustaining, self-regulating structures – but it fails to recognise that ecology tends towards collapse as much as towards sustenance. This becomes visible in the hierarchy of art schools, through to artist-collectives, small galleries, and then larger (even national) galleries. The ‘industry’ of art managers, curators, funders and so on all play a part in the isomorphism of artistic creation.

In Scotland we have seen the emergence of a reactionary discourse that claims to protect, but actually reins in, artistic practice. The result is that artist-run practice can be seen as a kind of medieval guild system that includes a revival of a bourgeois structure, including hierarchisation and the construction of privileged networks. An increasing emphasis on philanthropy is a marker of this phenomenon. Subversion is claimed as if art is inherently subversive, without actually showing or declaring how this might be the case. The result is the establishment of an order, a bourgeoisie.

Of course, an artist-run space is not inherently subversive. It is more complex than that: subversion needs to be regained, not by invoking creativity per se, but by placing the artist as a worker, albeit a precarious worker (see the recent discussion around the widespread emergence of a ‘precariat’). In so far as possible, removing the effects of organisational isomorphism has the potential to enable the re-emergence of a more subversive art.

Concluding comments

In a week when the Tory Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, displayed breathtaking levels of ignorance and philistinism in discussing the place of the arts in society (see Tiffany Jenkins’ comment from a Scottish perspective on Miller’s speech), the presentations by Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill offered clear analyses of the malign influence of neoliberalism on artistic cultures. The discussion that ensued picked up a number of these themes, but I think it perhaps best to end with a memorable line from Syd that seemed to me to encompass a key point of what both he and Simon were describing:

“Art is the possibility to create, all the time, the definition of art.”

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2 thoughts on “Syd Krochmalny and Simon Yuill: visual cultures in Argentina and Scotland

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