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Extended Essay – Fire Station Artists’ Studios, May 2015

May 12, 2015

PDF News Views, Issue 5, Spring 2015

Internationalism: Reflections of a Solo Traveler

It is quite often the case that even on the shortest journeys, strangers will disappear and periodically resurface, meaning you unwittingly become accustomed to their faces. Leaving ARRIVALS, the vague collectivity that bound you dissipates, as people scatter in the directions of their individual pursuits: Business or leisure?

You notice everything. The self-consciousness and indifference of people. The fact that many of the homeless old men around Kings Cross have Irish accents. Facing into the waft of warm air that ushers your passage into the subterranean nexus, you are reminded that the already speedy automated descent has an unspoken ‘fast lane’. With stinging eyes, you read up on the following day’s proceedings.

A lack of information in the Irish context had brought me to the one day conference, in search of emerging international research. Public Assets: small-scale arts organisations and the production of value [i]. What transpired was a.  The language we use to describe the work we do is paramount; b. The notion of ‘care’ is both an intangible asset and an overriding strength of small artist led organisations; and c. One of the most militant things we can do, in the face of crippling bureaucracy, is to ‘keep talking about art’. I wrote these points in my sons’ notebook, which I had borrowed on the basis that it would fit into my hand luggage.

During a short break-out session in the afternoon, I joined a themed discussion on ‘How to balance and measure the values of localism vs. internationalism’, which was facilitated by Kwong Lee, Director of Castlefield Gallery, Manchester[ii] and Alessio Antoniolli, Director of Gasworks, London[iii]. As well as art workers from the Greater London area, other participants assembled around the table came from Tehran, Bogotá, Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow and Ballater, Aberdeenshire – anecdotally the birthplace of pioneering urban planner and social activist Patrick Geddes, who is attributed with coining the phrase ‘think global, act local’ in the early 20th century. The irony of travelling from far-flung ‘peripheries’ to this metropolitan centre, to discuss the implications of ‘internationalism’, was not lost on us.



In addressing these oppositional yet nested terms, different methods of managing local and international ecologies were addressed, with the first point of debate centring on the prescribed terminology. What is implied through the use of ‘ism’ as a suffix? Is ‘international-ism’ a trend in the visual arts? A tendency? A movement? A given? Does it denote an ideology, doctrine or system of principles within the trajectory of artists’ careers? I listened with interest as Glaswegian and Columbian-Spanish accents expressed the same grievance that I often hear articulated in an Irish accent: ‘We have to go somewhere else in order to be recognised or perceived as successful back home’.


It was acknowledged during the discussion that international residency programmes offer viable channels for artists to attain certain levels of ‘international credibility’, perceived as forming part of prescribed routes to success. Optimistically, residencies are valuable support structures for artists[iv], yet they are fraught with the logistics of planning in the need to constantly justify their value to funders. Arguably, an ‘ambivalent vocabulary’ now surrounds contemporary artist residency programmes, as they try to find ways of maintaining both local relevance and consolidated internationalism.   Furthermore, 19th century notions of artistic ‘solitude’ and ‘retreat’ appear incompatible with modern-day emphasis on ‘career-networking’ and object-orientated ‘productivity’[v]. Amidst this new ‘hybrid status’ the importance of residencies in creating a space for meaningful (yet ‘invisible’) reflection and dialogue, must be safe-guarded[vi].


In keeping with Common Practice’s agenda, small-scale non-profit organisations in particular, are grappling with ways to articulate their value beyond economic metrics, to incorporate artistic merit and public benefit. On the subject of how complex programmes of support and ‘care’ can be translated into homogenised funding parameters, Charlotte Higgins, chief culture writer for the Guardian, conceded that she often views herself as a  ‘smuggler of information into narrow templates’.  This notion of concealment permeated our discussion, with accounts from the Iranian context relaying a necessity to operate apolitically and without visibility or an online presence. The idea of artists working ‘elsewhere’ (i.e in residencies abroad) was described by Alessio as somewhat of a cultural cache[vii], in that these processes are largely hidden or not immediately accessible.


Deferred Value

Linking with previous Common Practice research and publications, the term ‘deferred value’ was raised during our discussion as being significant in the discourse surrounding international artist residencies. Sarah Thelwall utilised the term in her 2011 report ‘Size Matters’[viii] for Common Practice, as a vehicle to ‘articulate the value of the small-scale visual arts sector within the wider arts ecology’. For Thelwall, deferred value conveys the value accumulated over time by artworks originally commissioned by artist led organisations. It also denotes the durational relationships small-scale organisations have with emerging artists, and the part these organisations play in any future ‘success’ (such as winning the Turner Prize, for example). For the purposes of our discussion, ‘deferred value’ was raised conceptually in relation to the type of artistic research that occurs during international residencies.  Given that such research will inform future work, residencies were described as instigating a form of ‘deferred value in the professional development of artists’.

On the subject of cultural exchange, the question was raised: why fund foreign residencies? Why not just give artists money to make work in their own country? Artistic dialogue with new contexts was identified as an important process, and one that yields long-term discussions between places, engaging not just art world professionals, but local audiences and communities. One contributor described the conversations that took place in rural England between a visiting New York-based artist and passengers on local bus journeys. These encounters altered the trajectory of the artist’s practice, since he would not have been able to have those conversations in New York, but they also impacted on the local community’s perceptions of the work artists do.  In this way, the export/import value of artistic exchange is shared, while also providing artists with experiential spaces to expand their artistic processes beyond the contexts in which they were originally conceived. ‘Project-based narrative’[ix] was identified as a useful tool to relay the complexity of such experiences. This could be implemented through better documentation and the wider circulation of texts relating to artworks or projects, which would create memorable accounts while advocating for more qualitative forms of ‘measurement’.


New Internationalism

If we interrogate the term ‘internationalism’ a little further, we find that it is has a vexed history, not least in its perpetual tension with the principles of ‘nationalism’. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the context of rising European militarism, imperialism and competing nationalism, those opposed to war called themselves ‘Internationalists’. Similarly, Proletarian Internationalism was a labour movement based on Marxist principles of international solidarity, aimed at globally uniting the working class in direct opposition to Bourgeois nationalism (which Marx perceived as the founding principles of Capitalism).  With the end of the Cold War and the unification of Europe, a new political and economic world order emerged, which altered understanding of the terms ‘international’ and ‘regional’.  Following the rise of the ‘entrepreneur’, amidst globalisation and technological advances of the late ‘80’s, a ‘new internationalism’ was embraced by the artworld, characterised by global biennials, mega-museums, and blockbuster exhibitions of the 1990’s. Amidst the commemorative landscapes of significant centenary dates in the new millennium, there has been a revived institutional curiosity about the preservation and circulation of history and the socio-spatial contribution internationalism makes to this debate. This has included the configuration of cross-cultural approaches to the History of Art, intensified scholarly research on cultural internationalism, and pioneering museological approaches regarding how history is organised and displayed for a contemporary spectatorship.

Despite this activity, uncertainty still persists where the term ‘internationalism’ is inserted into discourses on contemporary visual art, often perceived as disparaging commentary on cosmopolitanism lifestyles and the corporatisation of art. In the current context of perpetual economic crisis and precarious labour, a new phase of ‘extreme spatial and temporal compression’ necessitates ‘learning how not to fall apart while moving at warp speed’[x].  Many of the arts professionals I met at the Common Practice event seemed stretched, over-worked, and plagued by impending deadlines. It could be argued that these curators and cultural agents valiantly act as buffer-zones between artists and bureaucratic frameworks, demonstrating their fidelity to artistic practice.  Ultimately, the effort of travelling from far and wide was worthwhile, because it allowed time to be momentarily suspended. During post-conference conversations, many described the ruthless relationships they have with their own time. One fatigued cultural agent described the bemusing practice of providing disclaimers at the end of his emails: ‘Apologies if this message seems curt; I am perfecting the art of corresponding in 20 words or less’. The ability to talk in a detached way about the absurdity of multitasking (while trying to block out the realities of your own looming workload) was disconcerting but nonetheless cathartic, and it cleared the air so that finally and deservedly, we could talk about art. Doing one thing on the way doing another thing, I had reviewed several exhibitions in Dublin on the way to London. The components of my reviews still settled in my mind. In a chance encounter, I met the editor of the publication for which my reviews were destined. We laughed at the image of my semi-formed articles shuttling back and forth above the Irish Sea. I resolved to make my Monday morning deadline, and said my goodbyes, in the knowledge that I had nothing done, and would be writing all the way home.


Joanne Laws is an arts writer and researcher based in Leitrim. She has previously published reviews, reports and extended essays in: Afterimage Journal of Media, Arts and Cultural Criticism (U.S), Allotrope (N.I), Art Papers (U.S), Art Monthly (U.K), Axis (U.K), Cabinet (U.S), Enclave Review (IRL), Frieze (U.K), Variant (U.K), and Visual Artists News Sheet (IRL), as well as Irish online publications such as Paper Visual Art Journal  and Billion Online Art Review Journal.


[i] Common Practice, London, facilitated a one-day conference on 6th February 2015, to discuss the ways in which ‘small-scale arts organisations produce artistic value beyond measurability and quantification, provide spaces for public experience extra to the market, and in so doing contribute importantly to cultural wealth’. Speakers included: Jesús Carrillo, Kodwo Eshun, Charlotte Higgins, Maria Lind, Andrea Phillips and Lise Soskolne (W.A.G.E.).


[ii] Castlefield Gallery, Manchester:


[iii] Gasworks, London:


[iv] see Céline Condorelli (2009) Support Structures, New York: Sternberg Press.

[v] Laura Windhager & Lisa Mazza (2013) ‘Neither Working nor Unworking. On Residencies as Sites of Production’, Open Systems Online Journal, Issue 4.


[vi] These sentiments were echoed by Joanna Sandell (Director of Botkyrka Konsthall) and Dobrila Denegri (Director of CCA, Toruń) who spoke at the LOCIS Seminar, Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Manorhamilton, Leitrim, 15 November 2013.


[vii] Cache – a collection of items of the same type stored in a hidden or inaccessible place

[viii] Sarah Thelwall (2011) Size Matters: Notes towards a Better Understanding of the Value, Operation and Potential of Small Visual Arts Organisations, commissioned by Common Practice, London with support from Arts Council England.

[ix] See Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt (2012) Value, Measure, Sustainability. Ideas towards the future of small-scale visual arts sector, Seminar Report for Common Practice, UK: Common Practice.

[x] Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood & Anton Vidokle (eds.) Editorial – ‘The End of the End of History?’ Issue Two, e-flux journal, #57, September 2014Top of Form

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