Closing Doors: Reflections on Contemporary Art, Social Space and the Domestic

Gabriel Saloman

The Strathcona Art Gallery (2011) The STAG, Shot of empty gallery space, Photo courtesy of the STAG

The Strathcona Art Gallery (2011) The STAG, Shot of empty gallery space, Photo courtesy of the STAG

In 2010 the Strathcona Art Gallery was created as the result of a straightforward question: “What resources do we have and how can those be shared with our various communities?” Aja Rose Bond [1] and I were living in a hundred-year-old house in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, a place that had been until recently a majority working-class immigrant community made up of settlers from numerous European and Asian diasporas [2]. Our housemate moved out, taking with her the majority of furniture, and, even after absorbing the newly opened spaces, we unexpectedly possessed something relatively improbable in Vancouver’s vicious housing market—an empty room. Having decided we wouldn’t make it available as housing, we felt an ethical demand to make this spatial aberration a thing of practical use instead of luxury. This initiated a four-year experiment in turning our domestic space into a semi-private, semi-public social space devoted to contemporary art, community building and radical hospitality.

The STAG Library (2012) The STAG, Photo courtesy of the STAG

The STAG Library (2012) The STAG, Photo courtesy of the STAG

The Strathcona Art Gallery (STAG) [3] began as a year-long experiment in running something along the model of an artist-run centre [4], making the 200 square foot white walled room with hardwood floors available for exhibitions, events and artist residencies. It was primarily through invitations that people made use of the space, but we encouraged and received inquiries from individuals we didn’t know, at times hosting artists and writers from throughout North America, Europe and Australia. We embraced the notion that other people besides ourselves knew what that space ought to be used for, and that our main responsibilities lay firstly in its aesthetic and political framing, and secondly in providing material everyday support to the artists and communities that chose to access it. From the outset we described the gallery as a feminist space, and our website articulated our desire to make contemporary art accessible, in part by flattening certain social hierarchies around class, identity and aesthetics that make many other Vancouver institutions unapproachable. The concept of a homogeneous and all inclusive “art world” disguises the actuality of a multitude of simultaneous and overlapping art worlds, as well as the “dark matter” undercommons inhabited by cultural producers non-aligned and disassociated with institutional and market based art [5]. We believed that by treating both artists with institutional training and professional experience on the one hand, and on the other self-taught artists, many without any exhibition experience, as equivalent, it would simply make it so.

After a year of programming exhibitions and residencies as a gallery, the STAG transformed into a reading and lending library, while continuing to host readings, screenings, dinners, artist talks and a residency, the latter now focused on publication [6]. The library maintained open hours nearly every Sunday for 3 years and boasted over 80 members who regularly borrowed books, CDs, zines and other printed matter. As a library, we extended the project’s existing challenge against our socialized relationships to private property even further, making publicly available modelling a type of radical openness that disavowed the extremes of asceticism and hoarding. The STAG Library became a point of connection and rest, celebration and exchange, maintaining a malleability that allowed it to be affirmatively what people experienced it as in that present moment. To some it was a legibly radical, anarchic project; to some, a socially engaged artwork; and to some, a practice of neighbourliness and social repair [7].

About A Bicycle Issue #4 Launch (2014) About A Bicycle, Photo courtesy of Megan Hepburn

About A Bicycle Issue #4 Launch (2014) About A Bicycle, Photo courtesy of Megan Hepburn

The STAG was without question a political project that functioned as both a social space and an artwork in-and-of itself. It was an experimental model for artistic production that sought a line of flight out of many of the burgeoning crises artists in Vancouver were facing. In the lead up to and aftermath of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, public space had become more and more highly surveilled, highly policed and overdetermined, privileging corporate and state control at the expense of the kind of “underground” cultural practices that thrive in more libertarian urban conditions [8]. This decimation of public space is itself embedded in the ongoing processes of gentrification and increased economic disparity that are nearly universal in global cities, and in Vancouver a direct outcome of the ongoing colonization and expropriation of Indigenous land that is the basis of the city’s existence. Within this context artists, activists and marginalized people continue to struggle to find cracks in the constant process of enclosure that confronts them. For the time being, domestic space had the potential to offer an interstitial and more autonomous opening that narrowly evaded the enclosures outside our front door.

Using the power given to private property against itself, we were able to make our home into a temporary commons, a practice that has multiple precedents ranging from punk rock’s transformation of houses into music venues to the use of apartments by Eastern European artists and activists as social spaces for the production of samizdat materials under communist dictatorships [9]. Even in Vancouver there is a long history of micro-galleries operated out of people’s homes, from the Fluxus-era demi-communes that gave birth to the Western Front, VIVO, grunt and other artist-run centres [10] to concurrent artist-initiated spaces such as the Hammock Residency, the Apartment and Will Abelle Art Projects [11]. Yet, far from wanting to reproduce or function as a traditional gallery coincidentally embedded within a house, we sought to emphasize the characteristics of domestic space and domestic labor as a move to alter the social relations which circulate within contemporary art worlds. Entering into a home (potentially that of a stranger’s) affectively transforms the relationship between the viewer (now a guest) and the gallerist (now a host). While not without its own hierarchy, this relationship enfolds qualities of reciprocity and even “debt”—the sort of indebtedness that is the fabric of sociality and produces relationships of what David Graeber calls “baseline communism” [12]. This indebtedness encouraged an open-ended cycle of mutual generosity where guests and hosts enacted a circulation of resources: food, beer, books, art, care and labor.

FREE ART! (2012) the STAG, Limited edition silkscreen and ink jet print announcing FREE ART! event where art was exchanged freely in the gallery over 8 hours during the East Side Culture Crawl, Photo courtesy of the STAG

FREE ART! (2012) the STAG, Limited edition silkscreen and ink jet print announcing FREE ART! event where art was exchanged freely in the gallery over 8 hours during the East Side Culture Crawl, Photo courtesy of the STAG

Both the Strathcona Art Gallery and STAG Library were experiments that were meant to test how culture and community might be created through other (more meagre) means, while asking a number of questions:

  • What does contemporary art have to offer at the scale of the neighbourhood?
  • What besides money do artists need to make work?
  • How can we make visible domestic labor as a means of challenging the often gendered roles that inhabit the art world at other scales?
  • Can a project still be meaningfully radical or anarchic in practice without having to explicitly identify as such?
  • How can art premised on generosity be sustainable?

These questions were not intended to hover in the realm of speculation and critique; they were intended to be tested and, at its best, the STAG became a prefiguration of another art world that is possible. Below is a brief list of lessons that we learned in the course of these projects that we would encourage others to attempt to apply.

 

Embrace Scale

Brew Pub #4: Art’s Birthday (2015) The STAG, eds., 4th edition of irregular journal published by the STAG that takes the form of a beer, where the contents of the label, the contents of the bottle, and any additional materials are considered the contents of the journal, Photo courtesy of the STAG

Brew Pub #4: Art’s Birthday (2015) The STAG, eds., 4th edition of irregular journal published by the STAG that takes the form of a beer, where the contents of the label, the contents of the bottle, and any additional materials are considered the contents of the journal, Photo courtesy of the STAG

Not everything needs to be bigger to be good. 5–12 people is ideal for an event where everyone is encouraged to share a conversation; 20 people in a small room is exciting; any more than that and the event maybe just needs to happen somewhere else. Embrace the scale of your space and don’t feel compelled to function at the capacity of a larger institution. Small is beautiful and there’s lots of other places to be big and beautiful.

 

Refuse Publicity

In the age of constant self-aggrandizement and micro-celebrities, it’s easy to forget that we actually don’t need everyone’s attention all the time. Publicity is premised on the assumption that we need to be seen and desired by ever-greater numbers of people. That’s not only untrue, but in a small space it’s undesirable. Of course there are reasons to get the word out to people—why have a public space if you don’t want others to know about it? It’s also a justifiable desire to not be (or appear to be) exclusive. At the same time why wouldn’t the goal be for there to be a multiplicity of spaces that can support a multiplicity of desires, your space being only one? It’s important to interrogate the forces behind our assumption that our projects need to be seen and recognized beyond the scope of their immediate users. There is also the question of security culture and the extent to which any kind of publicity supports or disadvantages a possibly illegal, hopefully politically radical space.

 

Don’t Involve Money If You Don’t Have To

Think of your space as a non-profit that is subsidized by your rent [13]. You already pay rent, so enjoy the ability to do something gratis. Put out a donation jar if you want, but avoid making what happens in your home how you pay rent. It relieves a lot of pressure and allows your domestic space to be for pleasure first and foremost. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being paid for your labor, but when your subsistence depends on a project, it places demands and produces decisions that are meaningfully distinct from those that are freed (however tenuously) from the need to make profit off of your community. 

Sugar of Stones (2012) Eden Vaudry, A collaborative edible and non-edible sculpture dinner, Photo courtesy of the STAG

Sugar of Stones (2012) Eden Vaudry, A collaborative edible and non-edible sculpture dinner, Photo courtesy of the STAG

 

Host

Always have a little bit of food and drink available. We usually make a soup. It’s cheap, can be made ahead of time, and is easy to make vegan, gluten free, etc. We also get a box of wine and pour it into a carafe. No one has ever complained about this. Being a host is different than other affiliations that you could have with a space. How often have you walked into a gallery and been greeted at the door by the owner, told where the bathroom is and invited to eat and drink whatever is on the table? Have you ever insisted on meeting the gallery owner to thank them for having you as a guest before leaving? This happened on a regular basis at the STAG and it was one of the constant pleasures and rewards of the project.

 

Work Through Access

Domestic spaces inevitably exclude people—they can’t be as public as an artist-run centre or a business, but neither should they be... it’s your home! But what makes a space accessible? First ask yourself what you mean by that. Is it physical accessibility? Is it financial accessibility? What about social accessibility? Just because you say your door is open to anyone, you shouldn’t assume that everyone will feel empowered to come through the door. Or would even want to. There are many things that you can actively do to make your space more accessible, from making it free to building a ramp to posting agreements on the door to curating across a spectrum of experiences, but none of these things guarantee that people will make the choice to cross your threshold. It’s most likely that the people that will come to your space will have something in common with you. Sometimes it is better to acknowledge the ways in which your project excludes some people and do your best to account for that knowledge in how you work moving forward.

 

The STAG Library (2012) The STAG, Photo courtesy of the STAG

The STAG Library (2012) The STAG, Photo courtesy of the STAG

Plan an Ending

Give yourself a set limit for how long you plan to do this. Make it a project with an end point. This keeps you from having to transition into “how do I make this perpetuate” mode. You can always reassess and decide you want to keep it going, but what’s important is to build into it an out. The worst is when it becomes a drag or an obligation. The Strathcona Art Gallery was a 1-year project. We stopped, reassessed and changed it into the STAG Library. We never set an end date for the STAG Library and this made it a harder project to run. We took breaks, but it was harder to put in a consistent amount of energy. We finally decided to end the Library as a project on May 1, 2015 [14].

In the end, the STAG closed because it was exhausted of necessity. There was no shortage of good will and care for the STAG, but it’s regular use was quickly diminishing and our own commitment and enthusiasm was waning in proportion. We closed the project deliberately and it coincided with our own dislocation from that property. As low income renters in the midst of a housing crisis, we were ultimately driven out by the creeping annual rise in rent and the steadily disappearing community of artists, queers, radicals and low-income neighbours that have fled our neighbourhood in the face of rapid gentrification [15]. A domestic project is only as stable as the housing that enables it, whether that space is rented, squatted or owned privately. For this reason any domestic project should enfold into itself practices—potentially even pedagogy—that resist the capitalist priority of private property, land speculation, expropriation and the social consequences that these things reinforce. People need social spaces that aren’t overwritten with codes and norms of professionalism, that don’t place capitalist demands on them, that aren’t so public that they feel surveilled or vulnerable to the administration of the city and police. Opening the doors of domestic space and the labour of care and hospitality required can be a means without an end that produces a space of different social relations, different conversations and different art-making.



[1] Aja Rose Bond is an artist and community organizer who co-created the STAG and the STAG Library. http://www. ajarosebond.com/.

[2] Carol Itter & Daphne Marlatt, Opening Doors In Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona (Vancouver: Harbour Publishing, 2011)

[3] http://thestrathconaartgallery.tumblr.com/.

[4] Artist-run-centres are artist-run, non-profit spaces for performance, exhibition and production, developed in Canada beginning in the 1960’s. Extensive specific and general histories can be found at ArcPost: http://arcpost.ca/.

[5] Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto Press, 2009).

[6] http://thestaglibrary.tumblr.com/.

[7] This is epitomized for me in the instance when a neighbour and a friend, both dropping in during the Library’s open hours, realized that they had both been in Tahrir Square during the same confrontation with Mubarak’s police - the former while on Vacation, trapped in a hotel, and the latter having travelled there to participate in the revolution.

[8] Vancouver is following in the path of other major cities in installing public surveillance systems: http://www. cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-police-surveillance-cameras-criticized-as-orwellian-1.3204270; It also has a long history of surveilling political activists and protests: http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/fr/story/ enough-enough/10242; as well as surveillance of radical social spaces: http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/fr/blog/infil00p/9434.

[9] For an account of Apartment Galleries in Eastern Europe see Samizdat, Tamizdat, and Beyond: Transnational Media During and After Socialism; Friederike Kind-Kovács & Jessie Labov, eds. (New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012); and on the web: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/05/27/314961287/how-soviet-kitchens-became-hotbeds-of-dissent-and-culture. The website tranzit contains an archive of Eastern European Exhibitions that includes many specific examples of apartments being used as counter-public spaces: http://tranzit.org/exhibitionarchive/?s=apartment&lang=.

[10] Archival and oral accounts of early artist-run-centres can be found here: http://vancouverartinthesixties.com/.

[11] https://www.facebook.com/hammockresidency; http://theapt.ca/; http://www.waapart.com/info; Both the Apartment and WAAP have since moved into commercial spaces.

[12] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2011), pp. 94-102.

[13] This is a more common model than many realize, exemplified in Vancouver by the numerous art galleries subsidized in part or wholly by studio rental in the same building. This can range from less established projects (such as Index, Avenue, Sunset Terrace, etc.) to established ARC’s (221a, Unit/Pitt Projects, Access, etc.).

[14] My favourite day to quit a job. [15] There are a significant number of academic, political and mainstream articles about gentrification of the DTES and Strathcona. An example of each might be http://www.geog.uvic.ca/dept/wcag/macdonald_chai.pdf; http://themainlander.com/2015/01/20/new-strathcona-library-includes-social-housing-despite-visions-plan/; and https:// www.biv.com/article/2015/6/gentrification-knocking-strathconas-door/.


Gabriel Saloman is a Vancouver based artist working in sound, text, visual and time-based practices. He has participated in numerous collaborative projects including Red76, the STAG Library and the Lower Mainland Painting Co. As a musician he has performed internationally as both a soloist and one half of the group Yellow Swans, and currently composes music for contemporary dance. He received an MFA from Simon Fraser University in 2013 and his current work includes co-curating Neighborhood Time Exchange (Philadelphia) and as curator of public programs at Unit/ Pitt Projects (Vancouver). www.diademdiscos.com