Colectivo cambalache (Colombia)FlyerVan, 2001
Organización Nelson Garrido, ONG, Caracas, Venezuela
Oficina # 1 / Caracas, Venezuela
La Rebeca, Bogotá, Colombia

The Strategic and the Consensual The ideal of autonomy –either in art, culture or other disciplinary fields– comes back from time to time. The claim is always the same: independence in this or that front in the face of control wielded by any alien entity, whether it’s a religious, ideological or State-run one. Either way, autonomy is considered a flawless antidote against threats –effective or imaginary– of a foreign power and, therefore contrary to the free expression of a certain practice or activity.

However, the issue is not that simple. Autonomy in art holds at least three meanings. The first and perhaps the most influential of all, refers to an ethical matter whereby art should not be submissive to any form of exterior control (Kant); the second focuses on the relative structural independence that distinguishes the real world (Morawsky); and the third deals with the social and professional aspects that rule sovereignty in the artistic realm (Bourdeau).

Indeed, art autonomy has to do with several aspects, such as economic, institutional and ideological ones. Whenever art wants to break free from economic control, self-management projects get cracking. When it just wants to remain on the sidelines as far as institutional policies are concerned, alternative spaces are fostered. When it finally intends to stay aloof from ideological precepts, freedom of expression is brandished. Whatever the case, art or artists attempt to break off from controlling mechanisms or those alien to the field. This triggers the emergence of some paradoxical combinations, like those in which some elements from the field demand the support of the State and the institutions without letting them drive a wedge into the freedom of expression. Others, for their part, prefer to run alongside the public policies and even act against them by turning to the economic might of the private institutions. The heart of the matter lies in the fact that sometimes they take the chance of breaking free from one form of submission only to fall into another one.

As a space self-regulated by its own values, the artistic field didn’t come into being “naturally”, nor by decree, but it rather came out by the hand of activity and of an increasingly synchronized share among different agents that built up an illusory wall between “the world of art” and daily life. It’s true that the exercise of this relative autonomy has always been painstaking and even hostile; yet it’s precisely that permanent conflict character what has turned the arts into a fenced-off territory. From our own viewpoint, autonomy is not to be merely presented as some kind of ideal or wishful thinking because it has always come out of confrontation –in the worst-case scenario– and the search for consensus in the best-case scenario.

Today, we can speak of three basic forms of autonomy: consensual, strategic and articulated. The first one is the result of the agreement and, as such, counts on juridical and institutional support. As a matter of fact, there are many “official” variants to that autonomy, like the State-run foundations and the autonomous institutions bestowed with the ability to outline their own action lines without any foreign interference. The second form is the strategy defined under situations and not on the basis of any ideal. It operates from the intrinsic “slacks” the institutional apparatus leaves behind and it’s independent to the protocols, guidelines and regulations established by means of self-management and alternativeness. In order to soothe its structural brittleness and beef up its effectiveness, many of these individuals or groups run through networks of exchange and mutual support. Articulated autonomy, for its part, is the result of the combination of the two other forms, a sort of hybrid that allows for simultaneous interaction between alternativeness and the institution in an effort to avoid the risk of self-ghettoization and attain fluent and nonsectarian operation.

Now, not only those who act on the fringes of official mechanisms voice their willingness for autonomy in certain moments or under certain circumstances; they can also be seen in secessionist trends or inclinations within the very power establishment –both state and private. For instance, when legislations or specific entities are proposed in a bid to favor or recognize the rights, prerogatives or benefits of the artistic sector from a conceptual, juridical and budgetary point of view. There are more precise cases in which the so-called “alternative,” “experimental” or “communitarian” spaces attached to traditional institutions can be seen, all that much in an effort to make room for more resilient artistic and cultural stances.

That is, the debate between art autonomy actually has several sides and comes from different parts. This explains the contradictory fact that sometimes both artists and public officials see eye to eye on the issue of art autonomy, though for some different reasons. The issue gets far more fascinating when you realize that self-management and alternative strategies do not operate completely on the margin of the instituted system, but rather they go in and out of it, depending on the circumstances or their own conveniences because those positions have eventually panned out to be values added to the activity they carry out.

Every so often, those practices that regulate themselves on the margin of the realm of art –either beyond the official policies or closer to the spaces of media legitimization– have informal ties with different levels or layers of the power game with which they maintain bureaucratically-unregulated exchanges that leave them timely gains in terms of their own operations. The point is alternativeness is an illusory, ambiguous space that some cash in on better than others.

Autonomy in Latin America: An Incomplete Balance In recent years, the debate about autonomy in Latin America has been leaning to the generation of alternative spaces and to resource self-management. One of the latest cases in point is the Meeting on Self-Managed Projects organized in Buenos Aires by the Proa Foundation in 2003. This gathering brought together a number of self-managed organizations whose activities occur on the margin or well beyond the forms of production, circulation, reception and consume of the dominant art within the cultural contexts they operate in.1

Under this general premise, several simultaneous experiences that have flourished in different cities of the continent from the 1990s to date line up. Nearly each and every one of them has been spearheaded by groups of creators interested in coming up with nontraditional operational models more flexible than those used by the institutional apparatus. In them, the artist stops being a simple maker of artworks to become a manager or facilitator of cultural processes.

O Torreão (The Tower) was opened in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1993, by artists Elida Tessler and Jailton Moreira. It’s home to both a workshop and meeting grounds for discussions about contemporary art. It provides pedagogical orientation in such fields as painting, sculpture and design. The top floor of the house is outfitted with some sort of a tower reserved for the making of fine art interventions. O Torreão is not an institutional space. Everything happening there is the result of the participants’ personal efforts.

The Espacio Aglutinador (Agglutinative Space), founded in Havana, Cuba in 1994:

is not a lucrative space, a museum or a foundation, but rather the house of a couple of Cuban fine artists who, in addition to having their personal artworks, keep the location’s cultural activities going at a good pace. […] our space does not have the intention –at least consciously– of doing politics or getting manipulated by some kind of sect, affiliation or party. That’s why the Agglutinative Space is a non-governmental cultural space.

The space has relied on its own resources, as well as on the support of several artists, the backing of Spain’s Ministry of Culture and the Prins Claus and Hivos foundations from Holland. “Agglutinative,” directors Sandra Ceballos and Rene Quintana explain, “is not a cultural space or boutique. It doesn’t intend to be elitist or avant-garde, nor populist or short-lived. It just wants to be –or grow to be– fair. Its sole commitment is with the arts.”

La Panaderia (The Bakery), founded by Mexican artists Yoshua Okon and Miguel Calderon, was a independent exhibition space consecrated to contemporary art that remained active from 1994 to 2002. During that span of time, exhibits, artistic residence programs and major cultural events for both Mexico and the world scene were held there. In 2006, Turner Ediciones S.A. and Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts (CNCA is the Spanish acronym) co-published a volume with testimonies, pictures and texts on that particular experience.

The Nelson Garrido Organization (NGO), founded in Caracas over a decade ago by Venezuelan photographer Nelson Garrido, is a space of “cultural and educative nature devoted to teaching, reflection and exhibition of photographs. It fosters and conducts photography courses as it sees itself as an alternative and representative space of counterculture.” Courses, lectures, artist residence programs and expositions that scour the different variants of the urban culture are held on a regular basis.

The Museo de la Calle (Street Museum) is a project of trading and informal redistribution promoted by the Cambalache group. It started out in 1998 in the streets of Colombia’s Bogota. That experience gathered a bunch of outstanding artists, including Carolina Caycedo, Federico Guzman and Raimond Chaves. Their actions usually rely on the support of El Veloz, a small cart that functions as the museum’s core conveyor and around which all material and symbolic shares take place.

The Laboratorio de Arte Contemporáneo (Contemporary Art Laboratory) (LAC), remained active through the late 1990s in an estate of La Florida, Caracas. Under the helm of artist Diana Lopez, the locale acted as a hall of exhibitions, concerts, performances, video presentations and lectures.

Hoffmann’s House is a cultural experience that popped up in Santiago de Chile back in 2001. Led by Rodrigo Vergara and Jose Pablo Diaz, this is a 193-square-foot wooden house that acts as a temporary art gallery with the sole objective of making room for the exhibition and promotion of Chile’s emerging art, especially the one created by those artists who have remained on the sidelines of the commercial circuits. According to its creators, “Hoffmann’s House is primarily defined as an independent art gallery, but at the same time is a work of art. Both aspects validate its independence.”

La Rebeca was founded in Bogota, Colombia, in August 2002 and remained open until 2005. Under the leadership of Michele Faguet, its goal was to “provide a space for local artists and their artworks to talk by crossing the social, fragmented and scattered borders that prevail today in Bogota. On the other hand, it invites foreign artists for a brief season of artistic creation. La Rebeca ran with limited resources coming from a scholarship by Switzerland’s Avina Foundation, as well as the support of the Daniel Langlois Foundation in Canada. Its payroll was small –a director, a gallery assistant and sometimes a mounting assistant- a reason why it has always preferred to work with people used to operating self-sufficiently.

Oficina # 1 was founded in Caracas in 2005. It’s currently led by artists Suwon Lee and Luis Romero and is located in the Los Galapones Art Center in the Venezuelan capital. This space is self-managed locale and is devoted to contemporary art expositions.

CANAL proyecto de producción cultural came into being in Caracas in 2006. It had a brief yet intense activity for little longer than a year. For its hosts Yucef Merhi, fine artist, writer and freelance curator, and Deborah Mizrahi, a psychologist with a Master degree in Creative Art Therapy, the place turned out to be “a device of sensitization, expansion and meeting of Venezuelan and universal culture. Unlike exhibition halls, it came to life as a humanistic proposal focused on the drive of avant-garde culture in all of its fields: visual arts, music, dancing, literature, cinema, philosophy, psychology and so forth, through the thematic hyper-linking of these disciplines and the proper use of urban spaces and mass media.” Located in Altamira, Caracas, the space pursued the following objectives: decentralize the monolithic character of cultural creation through the use of alternative and unconventional spaces, thus putting together a self-management system ready to meet the immediate needs of the project and equitably pay creators for their engagement.

Autonomy and Visual Approach As we have seen, those who act from alternative spaces or use self-management models are usually officiants or artistic managers of a certain intellectual solvency by virtue of which their actions are authorized and/or assessed inside –and even outside- the circles they belong to. Their competences and skills allow them to carry out the activities they set out to do, regardless of the voluntary –and sometimes temporary– breakaway from the instituted world. Such a behavior comes with a symbolic surplus that’s sooner or later recovered as a token of distinction and audacity by the field of the arts. Let’s bear in mind that the dregs of the avant-garde irreverence wound up in museums and that a considerable chunk of the public institutions’ ongoing agenda –genre, identity, migration and the like– were churned out of its boundaries by independent officiants who belonged to non-governmental organizations.

In times of “semiotic economics”,2 autonomy is no longer a problem of limits between those who belong to the arts and things that pertain to other walks of life, but rather an issue of representation. That is, it’s all about how individuals and groups project an image of themselves and of what they do. Indeed, those who base their performances on an autonomous program look for visibility rather than eccentric overexposure that usually exploited by the mass media industry. Those who do so by wisely taking advantage of their own resources and other that already exist, whether they are management models, symbols, circulation mechanisms or urban survival tactics, actually prevail. The exercise of alternativeness, therefore, does not hinge on innocence, but on the self-consciousness of the sidelines. Beyond that suicidal impulse or the arrogant iconoclastic behavior, the self-management of art configures a conflicting space that’s neither in the outskirts of society nor in the inside limits of it, but rather in a field of semiotic enunciation that stretches out over the vast surface of life.