One proposal too far? The artist, the application and the art festival

One proposal too far? The artist, the application and the art festival EAF Associate Programme, Alexander Storey Gordon

For the fourth commission of our Writing Scotland programme, Alexander Storey Gordon examines why artists might be put off from applying to events such as the Edinburgh Art Festival

In February a friend of mine unwittingly posed a mundane but revealing question. Why, they asked, had there been a marked downturn in the number of applications submitted to the Edinburgh Art Festival (EAF) in 2014? My initial impulse was to reply with the usual beige political retort and say that it was simply poor timing, the advertising wasn't quite right, it was the time of year, the people, Edinburgh. Besides, did it really matter?

But as I typed my limp response, I began to think about the problem further. The issues surrounding artists’ participation in EAF and other arts festivals in general seemed to be more fundamental than a simple question about submission trends amongst artists in any given year.

When Edinburgh Art Festival was launched in 2004 it was on the back of a campaign by the Scotland on Sunday newspaper in 2001. This journalistic pressure brought together a group of esteemed gallery directors to create a joint platform for promoting art in Edinburgh to the large influx of international visitors who circle the city's cultural scene every August.

It was through this politically populist rhetoric that over 20 spaces were brought together under a singular brand and vision one summer in 2004. From the outset, although the EAF looked to include the best of Scottish art, it has always been geared towards an international art and art-world audience, so adopted many of the international, civic and commercial aims and interests of its elder sister, the Edinburgh International Festival.

EAF sign
Sign for the Edinburgh Art Festival. Credit: Lesley Guy

This positioning thus reinforced a set of biases that could, to a degree, also include the aims and objectives of the ungainly coupling of museums, independent spaces, commercial and publicly funded galleries contained within EAF’s purview.

These spaces and their cultural remits (i.e. what and who they choose to display) have remained remarkably unchanged ten incarnations on, a state of affairs which becomes uncannily apparent in the light of this year’s inclusion in the festival of much of the GENERATION programme, a celebration of the past 25 years of Scottish art. On the surface GENERATION seems to counter the charge of excessive internationalism often levelled against the EAF. But its clandestine agenda is all too familiar.

It would, after all, be much more audacious if the same amount of time, funding and energy went into celebrating a new 'generation' of Scottish art and artists. But apparently this is not seen to be culturally or economically viable. Instead GENERATION resuscitates the art of the late 80s, 90s and early 2000s, without looking to capitalise on the advantages of cultural reflection, languishing in the indulgence and excesses of nostalgia and hagiography.

The socio-economic backdrop to the success of a ‘generation’ of art and artists over the past 25 years has changed comprehensively. Whilst for some things may have stayed roughly the same, the way of life for the majority has changed irrevocably. Those towards the bottom of the would-be art ecology, the often time-poor, cash-poor, emerging artists, bear the brunt of this rapidly changing economy and the rampant exploitative capitalist system that drives it. They occupy a world where zero hours contracts, volunteer intern opportunities and free labour have become the norm, and participate in the competitive and aspiration-driven artist's career trajectory.

GENERATION at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Sign for GENERATION at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art displayed on the Scottish National Gallery. Credit: Lesley Guy

It is perhaps understandable, then, that emerging artists are put off applying to EAF and similar opportunities. They may find it hard to reconcile the world it, and other art organisations, represent with the realities of their everyday life. There are a number of political reasons and practical concerns behind this rejection of participation in an art world élite.

These evolve from feelings of social and economic alienation - a situation in which time’s equation to money is increasingly apparent, as professional employment and support become more complex, transient and hard to come by.

This is not to denigrate the idea of proposal structures per se, as they can provide a certain democracy. But, equally, they can’t stand in for deeper curatorial understanding of the local or for a genuine familiarity with its emerging artists. That is to say that there is a gulf of difference between a curator selecting an artist on the basis of knowing their ideas and practice and a panel taking a calculated risk on proposals that depend on the artist's ability to convince and sell.

This tentative rejection by the artist of the proposal as a structure is part of a deeper malaise resulting from the encroachment of the bureaucracy of art: the paperwork, admin, proposal and funding applications which have in recent years become an unwanted and bloated bedfellow to artistic practice.

Conspicuously relocated from the remits and workloads of governments, galleries and art institutions, the continuous requirement to write applications for funding and the increase of proposal-based applications for exhibitions means that the artist's studio practice is, more often than not, based not on creating work, but on chasing opportunities to work, and the ancillary production of ‘projects’ and ‘research’, all of which creates both a professionalisation and an academicism which are often incompatible with artists' creative practices. 

This bureaucracy and the artist's submission to it in a sense also neutralises artistic practice, keeping it in line with government policy administered through a trickle-down network from Creative Scotland to galleries and independent curators and finally to artists themselves.

It is the artist’s response to this inequality in the art system, typified by EAF and other initiatives, which is perhaps of greatest interest to us here. It is where we started with my friend's question and it's where we will end with another: can a critical response to opportunity structures in art itself resist and disrupt an exploitative system of fetishised opportunity and aspiration? Can the artist say no, be silent, be productively obsolete and refuse to submit that next proposal?

Contributed by Alexander Storey Gordon, July 2014 

Alexander Storey Gordon is an artist based in Glasgow. He graduated in Printmaking from Gray's School of Art in 2010 and is currently working towards an exhibition at Project Rooms in November. He recently took part in Axisweb’s Writing Scotland programme.

Further reading

Edinburgh Art Festival, 31 July - 31 August 2014

GENERATION - 25 years of contemporary art in Scotland


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