Making room for real alternatives
Anti-spaces, indie initiatives, and moving venues
by Brett Bloom

< Sprite Musketeer, a portable gallery,
operating in Manchester and Wales.



Many great exhibition spaces and initiatives have been started in apartments and lofts. Try it yourself: clear out a room in your apartment or house, invite a couple of people to launch projects, send out an announcement, and open your place to the public. It's easy, plus you'll get a good sense of the limits and of what's possible in the future.

Another exciting way to start a space is to break into a city-owned building and mount a guerilla exhibition. The folks who began ABC No Rio in New York did this with stunning success in the early 1980s (1). Their notorious Real Estate Show triggered a media storm and a lot of energy for radical exhibition practices. (Check out the book ABC No Rio Dinero for a good sense of the early history of radical "anti-spaces" and for more great exhibition ideas.) Squatting in a city building also worked for Smart Project Space in Amsterdam (2), who've successfully turned an old mental institution into an exhibition space and cultural center. Likewise, L'Usine in Geneva, Switzerland, is a "cultural center and social alternative" that was squatted in 1985. L'Usine houses an art space called Forde, a cinema, music venue, restaurant, theater, and more (3). Social centers like these can be found all over Europe.

The Experimental Station in Chicago is a great example of an organization rooted in one location that wasn't co-opted by squat to meet a need. Instead, it grew organically from a community with shared goals and needs. A related organization, the Resource Center, has been in the building for nearly three decades focusing on ecology, cultural production, and education. Building on this legacy, the Experimental Station continues to push the boundaries of what forms inclusive practices can take (4).

Art, politics, experimental social situations, and ideas are blended with compelling results in several newer exhibition initiatives (5) such as Pond in San Francisco, Rhizom in Aarhus, Denmark, The Stockyard Institute in Chicago, and Basekamp in Philadelphia. Public Life in London--a dynamic, "civil society organization" dedicated to cultivating new patterns of creativity outside of the "institutions of the Culture Industry"--is described by coordinator Siraj Izhar:

It seeks a merger with everything around in order to be part of a self-produced social ecosystem, not an ascribed one; a bearer of genuine social responsibility which only by being so can try to create a new mutant social ecosystem; such a system is defined by the relationships the space generates through all of its activities.

You don't need to feel compelled to sell artwork in order to support a space--Ringo Bunoan didn't fall back on this excuse. She runs the Big Sky Mind exhibition space in Manila, the Philippine capital, where most residents get by on little more than a dollar a day. An adjoining café, also run by Bunoan, produces enough money to support the non-commercial space (6). F Gallery in Osaka, Japan, has a similarly elaborate financial support system. The gallery occupies one floor of a three-story building, while the other two stories house successful noodle and coffee shops that allow F Gallery to present experimental and alternative art practices in an incredibly expensive city.

An exhibition space doesn't need to stay in one place, either. The MS Stubnitz, for example, is an enormous overhauled fishing vessel that houses a gallery space, dance floor, music club, metal shop, cafeteria, and cabins for residencies (7). The ship cruises from port to port in Europe, docking in harbors and opening to the public for a week or two at a time. Simon Blackmore has been driving around Wales with another portable gallery, Sprite Musketeer, since March 2001. It has been configured as a landscape "viewing station" and small theater space, but Blackmore can change the converted mobile home when the need arises. The gallery was conceived, he says, "to avoid the politics and funding pitfalls that face many art institutions. The project also explores ways of decentralizing the art experience and relocating it within more unfamiliar territories. Its aim is to attract a diverse and unsuspecting audience." (8)

In fact, the idea of a touring gallery is a strategy finding purchase at the moment. Though there are too many mobile exhibitions to list, a few worth checking out are Mobilivre-Bookmobile (a Montreal-based bookmobile with zines and artists' books) and those run by Klat (an art/curatorial group based in Geneva that operates a mobile zine library called Fanzinothéque and the neatly designed Mobile Porch) (9).

Don't let national borders deter your exhibition ideas, either. GUK, for example, is more of an exhibition strategy than a space. Located in three countries, GUK consists of "a garden in Selfoss, Iceland [Gardur], a yard house in Lejre, Denmark [Udhus], and a kitchen in Hannover, Germany [Küche]." Four artists run GUK. Although the unique set-up offers "an opportunity to exhibit outside the usual landscape of galleries," the organizers also point out that "the artist has to deal with the different spaces and different circumstances that they offer singularly and as a whole." (10)

The do-it-yourself exhibition ethos is expanding globally. There are at least 74 artist-run centers in Canada, while Australia has around 17 contemporary arts organizations (11), and The Netherlands at one point boasted over 100 artist-run spaces. Konstakuten, an artist-run space in Stockholm, Sweden, has been actively networking independent spaces since 1999. Sophie Sweger, a founding member, started a website to facilitate this work that contains a wealth of information for the novice (12).

Even as new strategies for exhibition-making are constantly being generated, the need to have real alternatives to mainstream art tedium will never be exhausted. Contact these people. Don't hesitate to ask them questions. Incorporate some of their exciting practices into your own. The mainstream art world is very conservative at the moment, so any practices operating independently and out of the spotlight--what's been called the "dark matter" of the art world--are a source of hope and innovation. It is there that careerist impulses and the need to makework that is "sellable" don't apply, leaving room for experimentation and risk-taking.

It doesn't take much to start your own exhibition space, and there are a number of interesting strategies you might borrow from. Find something you like and get going! Just don't force your audience to endure another boring white cube with a price list and call it alternative or independent. We don't need any more of this "avant-garde" retail store crap. Instead, excite and agitate people. Develop multiple audiences and truly challenge them. Look at it this way: pandering to the same 50 people each month will eventually bore you into quitting.


Click through Making Room.

(1) ABC No Rio Dinero

(2) Smart Project Space

(3) L'Usine

(4) The Experimental Station

(5) Pond

The Stockyard Institute


Public Life

(6) Big Sky Mind

(7) MS Stubnitz

(8) Sprite Musketeer

(9) Mobilivre-Bookmobile


(10) Guk

(11) Australia links

(12) Konstakuten

Brett Bloom's own link garden of spaces and initiatives can be found at