With training wheels on

A facilitatorial

06.11.21 | Orissa Keane 

On the most basic and selfish level, Vernacular came out of a desire to know more about what new artists like me were doing in other cities within Aotearoa. At the end of 2020, I caught up with two friendsvisiting from Pōneke. We got each other up to speed on our respective art scenes and I had a lot to say because Ōtautahi was sitting pretty with the recent establishment of three artist-run spaces (ARIs). I also had a lot of questions about the galleries in the North Island. We discussed the accessibility of ARIs; the difficulty in engaging with some ARIs either remotely online or as visitors to the city, finding them closed. At the time, there was a concerning, and seemingly desperate, craving for critical discourse in Aotearoa that meant that malicious criticism was getting more praise and attention than it might otherwise have. We talked about the possibility of a new publication which would fill in some blanks and curb the craving, what it would look like, what we would call it.

How many times have you and your friends made a plan to start a gallery/studio/publication? This idea for a new platform for art criticism was just an idea until I realised it didn’t have to be. The 2020 lockdown had made clear to me that I don’t like to be idle and that I don’t like Instagram to be my primary source for information within the arts. So I got busy forming the foundations for Vernacular. (I was not at all idle this year but I have Instagram to thank to a degree for the dissemination of information about the Boosted campaign which made this project possible.)

Upon reaching the Boosted funding target for Vernacular, 2021, photo by Orissa Keane. 
ARIs are a valuable foundation for artists and for an arts ecosystem. It’s easy to think of them as organic—like mushrooms, simply popping up out of the ground, running their short course and then disappearing in the same manner as they came. Yet, the metaphor doesn’t acknowledge the people behind them and the labour hours, the money, and the commitment that ARIs require. They exist for the selection of people that they serve. They don’t owe anyone an internet presence or digital access to exhibitions.

As K. Emma Ng notes: “Mystery amplifies the aura surrounding the artist-run spaces that I never knew, and it still surprises me when I go to Google them and come up empty-handed.”2 While what Ng says here is in reference to the early ARIs of the 90s and 00s, and the fragmented archive which they are remembered by now, it’s a statement which lends itself to the current artist-runs who are perhaps emulating their antecedents. While some ARIs seem to enjoy their elusive status, maintaining a sparse and ‘edgy’ Instagram presence, others are visibly trying to be more comms-generous. In both cases it’s still hard to gauge the feel or ethos of the space they occupy especially when you’re unfamiliar with the exhibiting artists. 

I’ve been thinking in abstract ideals for so long now with this project that I’ve been unsure if what I want for Vernacular is still the same as what I’ve been copy/pasting into funding applications and pleas for donations. I think that the articulation and rearticulation of the idea overtook the idea itself, before even publishing an article. But for now, these are the desired outcomes for this platform:

To contribute to a culture of critical discourse, a network, and an archive.

While organising the swathes of downloads on my computer recently, I found a PDF of an article, ‘Against Competition’ by Marc Fischer, which discusses competition in the arts and advocates for the benefits of sharing and collaborating—against individualism.

“I strongly feel that artists who are doing similar work should make an effort to know each other, share knowledge and perhaps even work together.”3

Of course, if artists in Aotearoa were more aware of others’ practices around the country, noticing points of difference and similarities to their own, there would be opportunities for collaboration, discussion and, if so inclined, making your own work distinct from other artists you notice working similarly. Among new artists in particular, this kind of awareness could be the most beneficial to forming relationships.

“In order for critical and experimental art networks to become stronger, and for audiences to grow, artists need to expand the range of ways we operate. When artists work with others, they complicate their practice and these collaborations often enrich everything they do.”4

On criticism, Fischer notes that “The disposable, vague, or one-liner qualities in so much recent art reveals a lack of sufficient peer-to-peer ass-kicking.”5 I want to be part of a movement towards a culture which practises regular peer-to-peer ass-kicking! By understanding critical writing as an exploration of ideas and context, rather than judgement, the editorial ambition of Vernacular is to encourage communities of artists to peer review one another’s work. Though Fischer writes from a different time and place, I doubt many readers will be unfamiliar with the kind of work he describes. I support experimentation but I can’t imagine many artists want to think of their work as being disposable or vague. It’s possible that without necessary feedback, ‘experimental’ practice risks being a euphemism for these qualities in some cases. Being artist-led itself, even going so far as identifying as an ARI, Vernacular will make good use of the term ‘peer-to-peer’ and its application to ‘ass-kicking’. Growing a culture of critical discourse, one that is not divisive or destructive, happens best among friends and fellow artists, and not with some outside-in, top-down structure.

So many exhibitions just end without ceremony and are effectively lost and forgotten about. They occupy a written line on an artist CV and take up 2GB on an external hard drive as documentation. Critically, these exhibitions pass without feedback. Either that or they are remembered by a few who are unable, later on, to find any record or documentation of them to refer back to. It will take some time but Vernacular will be consciously contributing to an online archive.

By network, I refer to awareness and connection. The galleries of interest to Vernacular will, for the moment, be those with limited resources such as community galleries and artist-run initiatives. For these spaces, their commitment is primarily to their immediate community and relating the content of shows to a wider, national audience is simply not feasible. By hosting critical writing and documentation, Vernacular has the capacity to push some of this valuable content to an eager audience, acknowledging that the individuals making the exhibitions happen in the first place are already doing enough.

Aotearoa is top-heavy, with a disproportionate focus on Te Ika ā Maui and in particular Tāmaki Makaurau. Being led from Te Waipounamu, Vernacular aims to host a balanced (though not comprehensive) overview of emerging practice with a level of scrutiny which I personally expect to lose sleep over. An essay by Dr Léuli Eshrāghi inside the dust cover of Permanent Recession: A handbook on art, labour and circumstance includes a line, a question that stayed with me; “South of where, for whom?”6 Sometimes, for me, simply practising in Te Waipounamu feels like a decision perpetually being made—in the same way that standing still in a current takes more effort than floating down it. But the resistance against the pull of the water feels good for now.

In the spirit of other artist-run initiatives, I’ve named my role ‘facilitator’ rather than boss or chief editor although I like the idea of having a novelty mug with “BOSS” on it. Due to my inexperience, I feel more comfortable donning the cloak of facilitator instead. I’ve noticed, however, how a reluctance to take on a clear title is sometimes linked to a deferral of responsibility. I want to be clear that I will take responsibility for the direction and actions of Vernacular while I am in this role, no matter what title it takes.

I want Vernacular to be part of a collective movement to encourage criticism as an act of care. I want there to be a vernacular criticism, a culture around critical discourse which is comfortable and flowing. If a vernacular refers to language which is commonplace and ordinary, I want criticism to be understood as such.

Thank you to all the people who supported this initial phase of Vernacular through Boosted by either donating or sharing the link with others. I’m fondly referring to this period as launching with training wheels. I look forward to publishing the first exhibition responses in the coming weeks.

Article image by Chandra Macdonald.
    1.  Max Fleury and Bena Jackson are Pōneke-based artists and facilitators at play_station, they are also contributors for Vernacular. I’m pleased to say that they are back in Ōtautahi, coincidentally for the launch of Vernacular, representing play_station at Sutton House for TENT 2021.

    2.  K. Emma Ng, ‘gallery.net’, Assay/Essay, Gabrielle Amodeo, Wellington, 2016, p.14.

     3.  Marc Fischer, ‘Against Competition’, Blunt Art Text (B.A.T.) #2, April 2006, p.16.

     4.  Ibid, p.18

     5.  Ibid, p.17

     6.  Dr Léuli Eshrāghi, ‘Who Are We Beyond Imperfect, Imposed ‘Asia’?’, Permanent Recession: A handbook on art, labour and circumstance, Channon Goodwin, Onomatopee, Netherlands, 2019, p.iii. Originally published in Peril Magazine, issue 21: Marginasia.

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