No Studio, No Privilege

by Jacobo Zambrano

Jaco spare room

222 East Georgia Street. Image: Jacobo Zambrano

Jacobo Zambrano is an artist from Caracas, Venezuela living in Vancouver, Canada. Zambrano is interested in historical cultural narratives that are often considered as defining milestones in current socio-political and economic contexts, mostly in relation to the global peripheries. The North- South Divide constitutes one of the primary subjects of research in his conceptual practice, as this particular paradigm defines how identities have been constructed due to modernity, the artist focuses on the potential for new discourses that challenge the dynamic between the Old World and the New World within his own immediate context. Zambrano often adopts sculpture in conjunction with installation as formal tools in his explorations.

Located in Vancouver’s political Chinatown, (“political” because it is the only part of the city that has managed to maintain a cultural vanguard on the verge of rapid gentrification), Spare Room doesn’t have a proper street entrance nor presents itself as a place that ambitiously needs a more centric or mainstream location. On the second floor of 222 E Georgia St, amongst artist studios, artist-run centers and publishing offices, Sungpil Yoon has partitioned and repurposed his studio to facilitate projects and collaborations. Yoon, a curator and artist, has allowed Spare Room to let artists with very diverse practices participate and exhibit their material with no institutional pressures. It is a literal spare room, a utilitarian space, the result of an individual’s need to share and invite others to be within. A significant gesture in response to privilege and how conceding something economically valuable transforms both the meaning of inclusion and the notion of pluralism.

For the course of 1 year, Spare Room has hosted 6 projects, numerous podcasts, a film room and an audio room and many undocumented conversations about what collective consciousness is and how does one develop it in our community. Not to mention that limited resources have never thwarted the realization of projects at Spare Room.

Its inaugural exhibition 86, Nigel Dembicki, Genta Ishimura and Ian Lowrie presented an ambitious transformation of Spare Room into a rock garden informed by the spatial and philosophical teaching of wabi-sabi as a critique of West Coast “isms”. As stated in the accompanying text, “...the space will be transformed into an archive of soil samples, a glimpse into multi-dimensional diorama inserts within a floating wall (a “reveal”), and deliberate assignments of rocks in odd-number based systems... Dembicki, Ishimura and Lowrie present a synthesis of space-efficient hybridity in the nature, composition and architecture of its urbanized setting through the lens of Vancouver and its noted imagery of an exaggerated West-Coast life”. Also, Gabi Dao’s fictional treatment of cultural sites through her installation “Open Sesame” also considered the potential of space and history that Spare Room grants. The structure of the installation quoted the concentric rectangles of the Cambodian temple at Angkor Wat with 2x4s. Dao invited James Linton Murphy, an artist with a sensibility for humorous appropriations, to collaborate on a soundscape to layer on a lens of colonial tourism characterized by a David Attenborough-esque voice-over. “Through this externalization of relics, artifacts and monuments, [Open Sesame] attempts to devise a parallel discourse indulging in the colourful mythology and its surviving rhetoric of old-world aesthetics”. These two exhibitions are emphatic of the aspects that make Spare Room’s collaborative impulse resonate outside formal narratives.

It’s been a year already. The name Spare Room should at least be slightly familiar by now. What incites my reflection on Spare Room is how it consistently programs work that subverts institutional etiquette, and allocates space for emerging practices in an urgent, and arguably efficient way. It’s exciting. Yes, there are other spaces in Vancouver that share some structural characteristics that I identify with Spare Room, but few of those pre-existing spaces challenge or present themselves as a contrasting force against history or conventional modes of exhibition making (1).

Spare Room is not publicly funded nor does it stipulate demanding career prerequisites to the individuals who are interested in collaborating within it. Conceived as a direct critique to the notion of “the white cube”, it examines institutionalized modes of exhibition making and also challenges key concepts such as collaboration, environment, situation and space.

The dynamic of artist/curator surpasses that of a power-relation and, to empower artists and their work, encouragement towards pushing the boundaries is always present. Each event aims at the room’s reconstitution through music, film, sculptural interventions and site-specific installations, or as Robert Irwin describes as “site conditioned/determined” which is the condition that “...the sculptural response draws all its cues (reason for being) from its surroundings”.(2) This translates into urgency for total awareness of the specific situation as part of the process of making the work. Additionally, “This requires the process to begin with an intimate, hands-on reading of the site. This means sitting, watching, and walking through the site, the surrounding areas (where you will enter from and exit to), the city at large or the countryside” (Irwin 1985, 27). Arguably, in most cases, it is this complete sense of independence and freedom and the opportunity to think, critique, construct, write and make, which drives artist and curators to start projects like Spare Room.

Spare Room comes to existence under challenging circumstances: 1) our local need for exhibition spaces in times of capitalist supremacy and, 2) how independent curatorial projects became scarce due to this circumstance. The politics of the social atmosphere in which we find ourselves practicing as artists, also imposes many norms when it comes to where and how we should exhibit our work. This absurd fact of a nonsensical posture, contra-autonomy, should not exist. No institution or individual(s) should dictate nor manipulate the type of discourses that emerge from those who are no longer considering traditions and seek to redefine the establishment.

Install View

Installation View. “Open Sesame” Spare Room, Vancouver. Image: Jacobo Zambrano

We live in times of cultural complexity (for myself, the dichotomy of being a Marxist living within a heavily capitalist society), where the economy no longer only dictates the type of materials we use, but also forces us to reconsider our creative processes, hence the continued course of post-studio practices. With no more studio, it changes how we weigh the privilege to make art, against our survival due to our exorbitant cost of living. Where and what are we left with in order to connect with artists in our vicinity? Spaces which ask for the reconsideration of the very structures of art and exhibition making in place that determine our “professional” status.

In my experience, I have encountered situations where the proposed work/project is evaluated more quantitatively than qualitatively by the institutions in question, which so far has been the main barrier for the realization of a given project. The nature of the work and conceptual framework becomes suspiciously secondary as the evaluators/jury prioritize “emergent” or artists with higher career levels (minimum 5 years practicing and 2-3 page CVs).(3) Not to mention that opportunities for the young or emerging to present work within a commercial setting in Vancouver are virtually non-existent. Perhaps making and exhibiting the type of work that we want to look at and experience, as a community, is a good starting point when considering the function of spaces like Spare Room. But prior to considering spaces as such, we need the social and physical space for them and secondly, we will need the artists, and voices that will see the space as a surface for new discourse to exist and expand, potentially developing a collective voice that will resonate and have a significant impact outside the specific situation I’ve just described.

The topic of access and freedom to experiment in a professional context shifts from generation to generation, but for me, this is also currently a globalized situation that affects the vast majority of young emerging contemporary artists that today find themselves dealing with the politics of institutional hierarchy. To illustrate my position, take for example spaces like Biquini Wax, self described, whimsically, as “a Common Social Property Company devoted to contemporary art” operating in a house in Mexico City, 820plaza, a repurposed auto-body shop in Montreal, Observatorio, a reclaimed rooftop in downtown São Paulo, and Alaska Projects, an always-shifting parking lot in Sydney. This wave of artist-run sites, not galleries or centres, which aim for experimentation outside art world and market norms, have exponentially gained necessity and momentum in the last half decade. Their programming is cross-disciplinary ranging from exhibitions, installations and performances to film screenings, readings and symposiums. No institutional aspirations, but serving a restless art community. Art no longer feels contained by a neutral, professional space, but rather in dialogue to the peculiarities of the site that informs its presence.

Install View

Installation view. "Voragem da História" at Observatório, São Paulo, Brazil. August 8 – September 5, 2015

Having the opportunity to experience a space like Spare Room in Vancouver should not be dismissed as youthful enthusiasm. Though projects like these are itinerant, they are so because they usually are symptomatic of the current economic conditions that compel artists and curators to deviate from the white cube, currently understood more clearly as an arena of commerce rather than artistic livelihood. Furthermore to site-specificity and Spare Room’s commitment to it, what Robert Irwin describes in a consideration of our surroundings goes beyond physical nuances, but features socio-political and emotive forces:

“Here there are numerous things to consider; what is the site’s relation to applied and implied schemes of organization and systems of order, relation, architecture, uses, distances, sense of scale? What kinds of natural events affect the site – snow, wind, sun angles, sunrise, water, etc.? What is the physical and people density? What are the qualities of surface, sound, movement, light, etc.? What are the qualities of detail, levels of finish, craft? What are the histories of prior and current uses, present desires, etc.?” This apparent list of dry questions can be also taken up as a program towards attuning ourselves spatially in relation to the shifting means we have for sharing ourselves and supporting our work, subversively.

(1) Another local and artist-run initiative that may fall under a similar inquiry into visibility and maintains an experimental momentum akin to Spare Room is The Maillardville Cultural Appreciation Society in Coquitlam founded by artist Zebulon Zang, whose mandate simply states that it “is an exhibition space promoting cultural exchange and alternative forms of exhibition making.” One may contest my exclusion of CSA Space, which although operating independent of public funding for a decade, it has not explicitly positioned itself within non-traditional modes of exhibition making, whose website states that to receive an exhibition, one must solicit one of their curators for a studio visit and refuses open submissions.

(2)Robert Irwin, Being and Circumstance: Notes Toward a Conditional Art (California: Lapis Press,1985) 27.

(3) Since authoring this text, career level stipulations have changed across a number of ARCs nationally, shifting their emphasis from emergent to emerging practices, this subtle change in word choice seems to suggest more openness and inclusivity to young emerging prospects.

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