what do collectives mean for the future of the art world?

Amid the frenzy of Frieze London’s comeback to life, this year’s lecture program asks a question: how can today’s art market, so plagued by a winner mentality, evolve towards a model based on cooperation and attention, rather than competition and extraction?

Among the speakers trying to answer this question are the Jakarta-based art collective ruangrupa, the artistic directors of next year’s Documenta 15, the first group to hold the quinquennial exhibition. Their vision for Kassel’s 100-day show, which will include many other collectives, is based on the concept of ‘lumbung’, which means rice barn. This communal system is used in rural Indonesia to store crops produced by farmers as a community resource, distributing them according to jointly determined criteria.

“We want to propose how lumbung could redefine the shopping mall in a spirit of transparency and generosity”, explains Farid Rakun, member of ruangrupa. “This includes splitting the profits with less lucrative artists on the roster, and committing a significant percentage of every sale going to community projects. And, above all, commit to the political cost of a work when you buy it.

Whether the art world is ready for such a drastic change has been the subject of debate following the announcement of the shortlist for this year’s Turner Prize. For the first time in the history of the award, no solo artist has been nominated, with five collectives, chosen for their positive social impact, competing instead. The Turner Prize 2021 exhibition opened last month at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry.

Bands have been nominated for the award in previous years, like the Otolith Group in 2010, and even won, like Assemble did in 2015. Then came the ad hoc gang made up of the four 2019 nominees – Tai Shani, Oscar Murillo, Helen Cammock and Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who jointly accepted the award “in the name of community, multiplicity and solidarity”. But the complete absence of individual artists from this year’s shortlist is testament to the jury’s intention to underscore the urgency of a collective spirit in these troubled times, and to “reflect the solidarity and community manifested in response to pandemic, ”according to Chenine Bhathena, Creative Director of Coventry UK City of Culture 2021.

No sooner were the 2021 nominees announced than criticism of “signaling virtue” began to circulate. This was expressed in an open letter by one of the shortlisted groups, Black Obsidian Sound System, which called on Tate, the organizers of the award, for mass firing museum group staff in 2020 despite “collective action. of its workers “on strike protests.

London-based artist duo and Turner Prize Cooking Sections nominees have removed farmed salmon from dozens of UK restaurants with their Becoming CLIMAVORE project © Ruth Clark

Other Turner Prize nominees are more optimistic about the potential for change in the artistic establishment. London-based duo Cooking Sections believe that taking a collectivist approach can help the cultural industry “shift from extractive systems”. For the award show, they present a sound and light installation based on their Becoming CLIMAVORE project, which removed farmed salmon from dozens of British restaurant menus, including that of Tate Britain. “We understand collectivity in a much broader sense, that of a people inhabiting a planet. It prompts us to think about how to create collective responses to the current climate crisis, or how to collectively use art platforms to imagine other forms of culture, ”they say.

Collectives on the market

This year’s award shows a rarity in object-based artistic practice, with much of the exhibition devoted to data-driven installations and ephemeral documents related to community projects, such as the installation by Belfast Array Collective of a pub containing brochures and video documentary work. . The fact that none of the 2021 candidates have commercial representation seems to reinforce the perception that collectives are opposed to treating art as a commodity.

There are notable exceptions to this rule. Gelitin, a Vienna-based group founded in the 1990s by four members but incorporating up to 20 collaborators, is represented by Galerie Perrotin, which often sells its works to collectors for prices over £ 55,000. And the Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective trio sells its facilities with Frith Street Gallery. “There has been a change in the last few years, selling collective works has definitely gotten easier,” says gallery director Jane Hamlyn. However, overall, the market is turning away from collectives, says London merchant Niru Ratnam. “[They] are often formed in response to political reasons or as a conceptual gesture, which means that they are likely to produce more difficult work to sell.

For some artists, being part of a collective provides the opportunity to navigate their careers with a sword and shield approach, maintaining a purer art practice in one form while entering the fray of the market. Sung Tieu, recipient of this year’s Frieze Artist Award, works as a solo artist and a member of the East London Cable collective. While Tieu sells his work with Emalin in London (free-standing sculptures are on sale at the gallery’s Frieze stand for around £ 25,000), the collective allows him to see art in a different, non-commercial sense. “Working in a group pushes my work to new places, but there are a lot of compromises. It’s slower so I couldn’t survive on just one way, ”she said.

Not always the choice

Some collectives were formed out of necessity rather than choice. Ruangrupa met in 2000, towards the end of Indonesia’s more than 30-year military dictatorship that banned large public gatherings. They share elements of their founding history with another non-profit arts collective participating in Documenta 15, Britto Arts Trust. Britto was formed in Dhaka in 2002 amidst great civil unrest during Bangladesh’s transition to parliamentary democracy.

“We endured an art school for five years due to the dictatorship that continuously closed our classes, then we moved on to an art scene with virtually no exhibition space. We created Britto because there was nothing else for us, ”says Tayeba Begum Lipi, one of Britto’s founders. “In the early years, each Britto member donated half of their art sales to the collective. We had no choice, establishing a common platform was essential to our survival as artists.

“What is interesting about ruangrupa and the collectives of this larger region is that their notion of collectivity is more than a gesture”, declares the independent and critical curator Jeppe Ugelvig, who programmed the Frieze conferences of This year. “It’s about building an infrastructure in his absence and using a platform to ensure that more people have access to creative means of expression.”

Black Obsidian Sound System (BOSS) Photo: Theodorah Ndovlu, 2019

He adds: “We need to broaden our understanding of value systems, which in a salon are really limited to commerce, to incorporate the family, the interpersonal, the transdisciplinary and more. Too often the question of the market hangs over artistic production, and it dominates the discourse or is entirely ignored, but it is seldom criticized in a sensitive and holistic way. I think this program of talks is both confrontational and optimistic in this sense.

The balance between provocation and collaboration with the system corresponds to the philosophy of ruangrupa. “Antagonism has never been our style,” says Indra Ameng, another member of the group. “We prefer to play the system from the inside. We want to present something alternative to the bilateral relations that define art sales. Why can’t a sale become a dialogue, a policy engagement instead of a one-time purchase? “.

While the idea of ​​a lumbung-style gallery is still a theoretical debate at Frieze, an experiment in cooperation with the art market has recently been launched by Art Basel, which has created a “solidarity fund” of 1 , $ 6 million for galleries disappointed with sales at its Basel fair. last month. Galleries that choose to forgo the discount will leave more in the pot for others to take advantage of. This initiative, while until now a pandemic contingency, signals that the commercial art world may still learn to adapt.

• Frieze London Talks take place daily at 9 Cork Street, W1S 3LW and online

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