On Alternative Practices

“As I taught [at California College of the Arts], many students were coming to the end of their studies and were moving toward things that weren’t art. But they weren’t saying ‘fuck the art world’. It was the content of their work that led them into other field, to, say, becoming a doctor, as one of my students did. … So I realised that there’s a whole history of artists doing this, of leaving the artworld, but we don’t hear about it because history is written by those who survive and remain. So those who depart are not included in the stories. And that project [On becoming something else] was about me finding artists who left – permanently or briefly – and writing down their histories. I wanted to say to my students, ‘you’re not alone’. And I believe that the reasons those people left are informative. The artworld couldn’t contain them.”

Interview with artist Ben Kinmont by Ross Simonini (ArtReview, October 2018)

I wanted to write a little bit about my experience and understanding of ‘alternative arts practices’ as I’ve come to understand the idea since being in London. London has a very commercial, money-motivated art market that I’ve discussed before, but like you have the Michelin-starred restaurant you also have the street corner kebab shop: for every White Cube or Hauser & Wirth or Timothy Taylor or whatever, you also have, by necessity which London also forces you to do quite well, a gallery in a shipping container or in a pub basement etc.

We’ve been taken around a lot by former students who’ve just finished our course who are all seemingly trying to forge a way for themselves in this weird place and time, admirably attacking the financial and creative constraints that they face when trying to be some kind of young, emerging artist in London; or trying to do that while plotting their escape into a much more humane part of the world. While they’ve taken us out on our little Friday afternoon adventures we’ve been exposed to some interesting ‘alternative practices’ … i.e. being an artist while maybe making most of your money from something else but that something else still contributes and forms part of your art practice.

What is the difference between being an artist and being an artist who also has to work a full-time job to pay the bills? I know since I finished art school at 21 I’ve always had jobs to support my practice with varying success. And I’ve always known there are ways of supporting your practice by having jobs that maybe aren’t completely soul-destroying: tutoring in art school, curating, working for galleries or libraries or publicly funded arts centres, doing something in arts admin, working in frame-making or being a specialised technician. I have friends who do all of these things as well as maintaining their practice; and I know that sometimes their regular job influences their creative output, and sometimes it’s just something you forget about as soon as you leave your workplace. Sometimes experiences at work resonate, but depending on where you are with your career and options, sometimes it doesn’t.

DKUK, Peckham
DKUK, Peckham (2014 – present)

So what is this thing we call ‘alternative practices’? Well I guess, for me since I’ve been in London, it’s something that you do that provides you money which also forms part of your artwork in some way. For instance, if your art’s primary focus is about social engagement and public art and bodies and identity, and you happened to have been trained as a hairdresser, if you had a hair salon in Peckham where you hung art on the wall instead of mirrors and talked about the art while you cut people’s hair, this would be a good way of providing yourself with income and also form an intrinsic part of your practice. If your work was about female labour, gender performance, collaboration and the personal versus the public, and you happened to have a van, having a business as a lady with a van where you worked helping people move their shit subverting the man with van thing in a fun boilersuit, this would be a performative and lucrative experiment that would be part of your practice and also money. I’ve been starting to understand the differences between need and want, in these financial and creative terms, while I’ve been here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I don’t want to be a part of in my career, as well as trying to find what I do want. Having an ‘alternative practice’ basically means finding a way to be an artist which isn’t compromised by and doesn’t play the standard gallery games that honestly, I am scared of and also bad at. I’m not good at things like social media, networking, presentation, getting up early in the morning, branding … the things you kind of have to do to get in with the particular art world that can commodify and codify your output, to give you a particular kind of career. I don’t know if I want to be represented by a gallery, take part in art fairs, travel away from home all the time, have employees. What I really want to do is hole up in my flat with my cat and never go outside and make things I like in the living room (I’ve been fighting my hermit longing for a long time). So, if I want to be an artist, I have to think of an art world that I do want to be part of, and a way of living that suits my personality and practice.

A great example of an alternative practice that I love actually comes from some friends back home in Glasgow. Dave and Fionnuala are both master printmakers: printmaking makes up the majority of both of their practices. They started extending their practices into a collaborative project called Mobile Print Studio which consists of a portable, fully equipped print studio that they use to conduct workshops on linoprinting, bookbinding, woodcutting, drypoint etching and screenprinting amongst many others. MoPS has gone round schools, had collaborations with life-drawing classes, and had workshops in many cool arty Glasgow venues, and while the business may have been slow to turn a profit as the money paid for workshops go into more equipment for MoPs, it represents an educational, skill-sharing, social platform to celebrate contemporary printmaking with wider audiences, an organic extension of the artists’ practices and a source of income.

For me right now, thinking about having an ‘alternative practice’ of my own is tied up in ideas of freedom (both from commercial galleries and dead-end jobs); transience and change; the relationship between ‘artwork’ and ‘lifework’, and even ‘realworld’ and ‘artworld’; and what I want to (or can) develop and give to wider society to extend my practice and fulfil a useful purpose outside my self interests, if I decide I want to take a different route in my artistic career outside the established gallery system. As a self-interested, lazy person I definitely have a lot to think about.

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