ANNE: So going back to the previous question, are you currently thinking of wanting to return to System inhabiting a space or having a closer relationship with a particular space again, or are those days gone?
DG: Not that long ago, I was offered a space, the Reading Room [in Sunderland]. I could’ve had that indefinitely.
ANNE: Ah, I didn’t know that. I thought it came to an end naturally after a couple of shows.
DG: No, but for different reasons, really. Harley Kuyck-Cohen, who I co-ran the space with, and I didn’t have the energy to continue with it. Harley took a step back, and I decided to do the same a bit later to focus on my PhD. Having a space forces you to continue with the cycle of presenting shows, and it’s been quite nice to get off that hamster wheel.
My PhD has been a lot of work, but then it’s also about the thing that I’ve been doing. At times, I guess the whole thing was just quite all-encompassing, you know: what I was doing for fun, I was doing for work.
ANNE: So it’s a massive feedback loop for you?
DG: Yeah. Like, especially if you look at these things too closely, you can just focus on the negatives, and that’s rough.
ANNE: Especially when it’s grown out of the fact that you’re doing it because you love doing it, or you’ve come to it because it’s part of a constellation of different interests. I can imagine as well that you need points at which you have space away from that in order to focus on your research.
DG: I think so, yeah. And then I was also thinking, what was the value of this thing? It’s quite useful in terms of just thinking about things more flexibly.
ANNE: Leading on from that, I was going to ask you about your research. You describe it as an ‘auto-ethnographic study’, or at least that was the way it was described on your university research profile. Sometimes these things slip, don’t they, but is that still the way you frame the research?
DG: Yeah, it’s a practice-based study, centring on curatorial practice, but that has quite a lot of ethnography wrapped up in it. Elements of ethnography are integrated into the curation. And I guess part of that at various points has been about the exhibition product, alluding to the social and political, personal and interpersonal backdrop behind those things: why System might be different to the Hatton, for example: in both cases you’re putting stuff on display in a room, but the conditions, motivations, and context behind both are quite different. With institutional thinking, there is this division between the people that are doing the thing and that are doing something for the audience or audiences, whereas with System and other grassroots structures like the audience and the people doing are one and the same. At any point the person who’s in the audience might, the next month, be doing the thing. That boundary is far less fixed, and at times doesn’t really exist at all.
I’ve suggested something like that in my PhD to work towards an articulation of the forms of value generation that occur within structures like System. And so my reason for an ethnographic approach – on focusing on me as the subject – is not the direct opposite, but quite different to the conversations of value that occur through policy in institutions, where this definition of value is delivered in a way that’s top-down. There’s a huge disjuncture between how Arts Council England talks about the value of art compared to how artists talk about the value of what they do.
ANNE: It’s about an imagined or aspirational value, whereas yours, presumably, is more of a value that arises because of a need?
ANNE: I imagine it’s simultaneously taught you about the place of System and your work in the context of the wider world, but has the process of this auto-ethnographic study also taught you something about yourself as distinct from your practice? Because it must be difficult, it being a rather introspective activity.
DG: And a PhD is anyway! Yeah, it’s been intense. A lot of the written component reflects on how my perspective has shifted over the last four or five years.
It’s been interesting to see that journey. It definitely has been useful doing a PhD, to take that time, and that’s why I did it. I was running System without thinking about it too much. Then there was a moment of, like, ‘oh shit, something’s happening here… what is this?’ Part of that was quite naively just thinking that running System for artists is really good, and that because it’s good, the money will follow because that’s how funders operate.
I wasn’t that aware of it, but I came up against those institutional structures that just aren’t compatible with my way of working, which I do think is largely unfundable. Because I can’t tell you at the start what exactly is going to come out of it; I can’t tell you who it’s going to help; I can’t tell you how or when they’re going to benefit. But I do know that it is valuable. I think there’s a real difference between how funding works in terms of this cherry-picking of good people, good ideas and good projects as compared to how we actually work, in which any success is collective.
I think it seems to stem from this idea of the individual genius, and it ignores the fact that, actually, these so-called geniuses are born out of this sort of praxis of various social, cultural, personal, opportunistic factors.
ANNE: And we’ll have an economy that allows them to be this lone genius in the first place. I tend to reflect on the fact that, as opposed to theatre or music that in their nature, in their process, have to be collaborative most of the time, the visual arts, certainly studio-based practice doesn’t have to be — but I wonder if that’s not so true, actually; rather that we’ve been pushed towards this increasingly atomised way of working because it’s a neatly packageable idea of what being a visual artist constitutes. It sounds like you’re saying that this is inherently more collaborative, or it could be an inherently more collaborative process.
DG: I think it is. And I think what funders should be doing, or what they should be measured on or looking to pursue is creating the conditions for more people to be part of that, rather than trying to engineer what you want it to do. It will do the things that you want it to do or might do some better or might look a bit different. Because, you know, there’s no real science to what they’re doing anyway, or behind a lot of the data that they use to measure success, and I think they ignore that. The goalposts are moved so often that that data is virtually meaningless because it’s like comparing apples to oranges.
ANNE: To gloss Donald Rumsfeld, what you’re talking about is known unknowns: you don’t know exactly what the outputs will be but you know there will be outputs; you know that people will be affected in some positive way. Most funders tend to want to deal with known knowns, so yes, everything has to be in a box. But it’d need a seismic shift to change that, and it makes you wonder how you’d get to that point, influencing the way that policymakers and funders think because of course public funders are told what to do by government, effectively.
DG: I don’t necessarily feel like the fight has to be had with the policymaker, necessarily. They operate within set parameters that they’re given. I’d be pushing for more effective advocacy, to state what the value of artistic activity is – a firm but flexible idea of what that could be and the conditions that allow that to happen – to move and widen the parameters that policymakers operate in. A lot of the advocacy that does happen I actually find quite troubling, particularly the sort of things that try to align the artist with ‘worker’ working ‘for’ an institution. Contained in that is a complete subjugation of the artist within an explicitly neoliberal system. And I think there’s a better fight to make for better working conditions and better pay, whilst also maintaining a degree of independence and actually. I would actually argue for more independence and self-determination and better pay and working conditions.
ANNE: Because it’s a dead end, isn’t it, to get into talking about the artist as a producer? As always someone who’s necessarily going to produce something. It doesn’t follow that ideas always produce, or that they’re about production: sometimes they’re anti-production. So I can see that to force yourself into that dead end is not a great position to be in.
Maybe you’ve touched on this already, but I was wondering what if you could sum up what’s kept you committed to this artist-led model, despite everything — and by everything I mean despite a lack of funding, a lack of interest a lot of time from people who who could or should be more interested in supporting your model. What’s kept you committed to that as a way of working? Is it about a framework for resistance, or is it about the inherent equity and sense of collaboration that it makes possible? Or is it just needs-must? I mean, if you were offered a curator role at a massive institution tomorrow, would you take it?
DG: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s really quite a tricky one.
ANNE: Maybe it’s too much of a binary, as well.
DG: The first part, why do I work this way? I don’t know. That’s part of it, where it’s just become who I am — that’s just happened. A large part of that is how I self-identify and view myself and the community that I feel a sense of belonging to. And there’s some really great parts to it in terms of the level of solidarity. There’s a great level of support that I get, and I guess, you know, it’s not an explicitly political vehicle, but it’s building a version of the art world that I would like to see; something that’s led by self-determination and self-definition in terms of what value, purpose or meaning are. And that’s what the Arts Council claims one of its top priorities is, while operating in a way that undermines that, and I’m sure that that’s to do with political pressures, but there’s a lot of virtue-signalling towards this kind of thing, but then not really delivering on it.
What I’ve identified with the Arts Council, with institutions, is that there are two impulses: one for ‘excellence’, which is a way of talking about economic stuff. So it’s about developing this international soft power to attract tourism, or coming up with really innovative things that become commercially viable or whatever else. And there’s this other sort of emancipatory anybody-can-do-it impulse which is about the social aspect of people coming together — and those two things don’t work together.
The only way I can see how you can square that circle is if you prioritise the emancipatory bit: because in freeing people in some sense, the other shit happens. Whereas what they seem to have gone for is this other model where you kind of cherry-pick; this neoliberal idea in which we’re all competing as individuals and it’s just about just choosing these great projects. And if you can be inclusive as well, that’s a bonus.
That is definitely an oversimplification, but that’s how I see it. My project is about focusing on enabling people to be self-determined. Often the effect of this is limited to some extent, but it’s this that pushes and drives me.
ANNE: It sounds very much to me, that if you could boil it down to one thing, it’s about trust; about trusting people to know what they want to do, and trusting organisations or groups of people to achieve something good.
DG: Yeah, I guess you’d see that across various initiatives or projects that try and reach a particular group, based on some sort of protected characteristic. I think there’s certainly an incredible amount of value in that work, and obviously the spirit of it I completely agree with but there’s also an element of, what would be far more effective rather than trying to get people from a particular community to a large institution, maybe instead to just ask those people what they want and make changes based on those recommendations and needs. And maybe they don’t want to go to that institution, because in its present form and structure it doesn’t serve them. A lot of institutions don’t change because they are too stubborn, slow, or entrenched within institutional thinking.
And often it’s the people in outreach teams doing those jobs, delivering those projects for institutions, who are often the first people to get cut if savings need to be made. Often they’re precariously employed. I think there’s a real problem here, and I think it points to where institutions’ priorities really are.