[NetBehaviour] Crisis_at_the_ICA:_Ekow_Eshun¹s_Experiment_in_Deinstitutionalisation

Simon Biggs s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
Fri Feb 12 11:38:53 CET 2010

The problems at the ICA pre-date Eshun. They are about values but the bigger
picture is that they are about an invariable inward looking culture, lack of
vision and a gradual loss of relevance within a changing context. A decade
or more ago similar things were going wrong. Massive losses, staffing
crises, opportunities missed. Eshun was meant to address that, but hasn’t.
Is that due to his inability or the immensity of the task?

60 years ago the ICA’s original mission was relatively simpler than it is
today ­ to nurture and promote contemporary art in a larger cultural
environment that was at best ignorant of it and more often hostile. Both
contemporary art and the environment it and the ICA exist in have changed
out of recognition. Contemporary art doesn’t really exist anymore in the
sense it did in the 1950’s and 60’s. There are experimental streams of arts
practice, often hybrid, media based, socially oriented and thus hard to even
understand as art within the sort of parameters contemporary art employed
then. Then there is the (London) art world, which has embraced contemporary
art as a marketing bonanza. This has certainly changed the appearance of the
art world but it hasn’t changed its values. Many of the same people still
run it and the new ones seek to replicate the business strategies of prior
generations. Some new marketing strategies have succeeded (the Frieze
strategy, for example) but they are still marketing strategies. First and
foremost the art world remains a business.

The ICA was meant to stand separate to this. Up until the 1970’s it arguably
did. Cork Street and The Mall are only a few hundred metres apart but at
that time they were culturally distant. Throughout the 1980’s, which is when
I started to go to the ICA, and even be shown there, there was still a sense
of mission about the place, seeking to engage emergent practices, often from
the ground up. This was particularly the case with the Talks and Cinema
programmes. Simon Field and others were the key characters whose personal
stories ensured they were well connected to what experimental artists at the
time were doing (none of which was being presented in the commercial

Things were changing though. Commercial galleries were getting interested in
more experimental practices, many of the artists involved were getting older
and more generous (less ideological) about how their practice might be
pursued and presented, a new generation of art dealers were more open to
this work and in many cases emerged from the same scenes as the artists. The
market started to motor and then Brit Art happened.

In this context the ICA’s mission had to change. Contemporary art had not
only been assimilated, it had become hegemonic. The ICA needed to start
looking for and be responsive to emergent threads within a complex
multi-cultural environment, whereas previously the interesting artists stood
out by being so distinct against the background of a prevailing grey
monoculture. The ICA tried lots of different things, some that worked and
some that didn’t. Many emerging artists couldn’t see how the ICA might
relate to their interests and therefore didn’t bother to find out if it
could.  At the same time the siren calls of celebrity and money that now
underpinned the art world became ever more attractive to an institution that
was struggling with its identity and finances. Charlesworth identifies the
impact of this on the ICA. The appointment of Eshun was no doubt the moment
when the ICA board succumbed to that powerful song.

Eshun was an interesting appointment. Left-field, even. I suspect many hoped
he would connect the ICA up with new cultural streams and attendant
audiences but that didn’t happen. We can see what has been the outcome.
Perhaps that was clear back when he was appointed, perhaps not. However, he
was meant to represent the change the ICA needed. Perhaps it was just the
wrong change or, alternatively, as Eshun would have us believe, the change
hasn’t yet happened.

Charlesworth’s article is in large part about de-institutionalisation. In it
he laments staff losing their jobs and remits being left in the dust. This
is not pretty and real people are losing their jobs at a time when other
jobs are going to be hard to get. That is disturbing. However, the ICA has
been significantly over-staffed for at least 20 years. I remember Phil Dodds
banging his head against the wall trying to achieve cultural change and
balance the books and failing, not because he had bad ideas (although
perhaps he did) but due to institutional inertia and the self-interest that
prevails amongst staff when they have been in the same place for so long. In
that sense I can see a lot of value in de-institutionalisation. Perhaps the
principle of what Eshun is trying to do is correct, in that the ICA needs to
be radically re-shaped with a new mission, even de-institutionalised to the
point of becoming some sort of cultural caravanserai wandering through
London and beyond.

I am not convinced that Eshun’s vision is the appropriate one but there is
little doubt that some radical change would be good for the ICA and the
people it is mean to serve. Otherwise, given its inward looking and
self-interested culture, it might as well be closed down.



Simon Biggs

s.biggs at eca.ac.uk  simon at littlepig.org.uk  Skype: simonbiggsuk
Research Professor  edinburgh college of art  http://www.eca.ac.uk/
Creative Interdisciplinary Research into CoLlaborative Environments
Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice

From: marc garrett <marc.garrett at furtherfield.org>
Reply-To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
<netbehaviour at netbehaviour.org>
Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 18:41:33 +0000
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
<netbehaviour at netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Re: [NetBehaviour]

Hello Stuart, I have probably said most of the stuff relevant to your
comments, on another post, earlier on. But, one individual ruling over
others does not necessarily equate to a quality decision. That the ICA's
problems are more an example of a wider issue, that 'values' are what's
needed at present, and how we work with each other comes into the mix. It
all seems rather old school and patriarchal to me, but others may think
differently... Looking forward to meeting you tomorrow and your friends,
didn't I meet you attend the open Disassembly Event at HTTP? wishing you
well. marc  s_home at canada.com wrote: > Hi everyone, > > Well, what an
amazing discussion. > > Can you feel it? > > The ground is shaking and
shifting underneath us as we all speak. > > I must admit, it does feel like
there is a big shift going on and it is related with how people view art
these days, using networks and not only the usual gateways once provided to
find out about art. > > May be there is a new breed of specialist now, and
media art (or whatever you call it) offers a different way of understanding
contemporary art which was not so known or appreciated before. Very
interesting. > > I have only been on this list since the DIWO project, and I
have certainly learnt much more already than at college or at normal art
galleries since joining. > > My friends, who study art and design who are my
age mid-twenties have been going to smaller galleries like HTTP and
Spacemedia much much more these days. It's strange, actually, hard for me to
explain but I will try without getting too caught up. For me and my friends,
the bigger institutions just do not offer us anything that feels as urgent
or as authentic. The meaning is so different. Don't want anyone to get me
wrong - it's just the way it is. The ideas are more exciting, the work is
more relevant to our lives, more connected. And yes, I have seen this word
used already on here, it feels more REAL. > > I wish I could say more but
I've got student things to do, but some of my chums are subscribed on the
list - lurking. I would love to hear from other students also. What do they
make of all this? So far we have only heard from those deeply involved in
art and culture. It would be great to know what student like myself think
about it all. > > Also - furtherfield crew at HTTP Gallery! I'm coming
tomorrow to see Annie's show. I would like to meet and have a drink with
yourself others from this list if any of you are there, I'll be wearing a
large crimson coat and a black baseball cap. Not sure what trousers, you
guess. > > We don't need another hero! > > all the best, > > stuart. > > > >
> >> ------- Original Message Follows ------- >> From: "james morris"
<james at jwm-art.net> >> To: <netbehaviour at netbehaviour.org> >> Subject: Re:
sation >> Date: Thu, 11 Feb 2010 15:26:31 +0000 (GMT) >> >> >> On 11/2/2010,
"Rob Myers" <rob at robmyers.org> wrote: >> >>> The ICA have asserted that JJ
[who I once had lunch with with a friend at >>> the ICA bar of all places]
was "unsubstantiated and subjective" in his >>> criticism. Mute have
responded. See the comments at the bottom of the page >>> containing the
article - >>> >>> 
_in_deinstitutionalisation >>> >>> (Via @MuteMagazine on Twitter, who you
really should be following, along >>> with @Furtherfield , until they all
move to identi.ca ;-) ) >> I don't use twitter on identi.ca - whatever... >>
>> I just looked through your identeets (or whatever identi.ca users call >>
them) and the link: >> >>
http://www.the-source.com/2010/02/matt-asay-joins-canonical/ >> >> seems to
tell a very similar/parallel story about Ubuntu as to the ICA, >> don't you
think? >> >> james. >> _______________________________________________ >>
NetBehaviour mailing list >> NetBehaviour at netbehaviour.org >>
http://www.netbehaviour.org/mailman/listinfo/netbehaviour >
_______________________________________________ > NetBehaviour mailing list
> NetBehaviour at netbehaviour.org >
_______________________________________________ NetBehaviour mailing list
NetBehaviour at netbehaviour.org

Edinburgh College of Art (eca) is a charity registered in Scotland, number SC009201

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <https://lists.netbehaviour.org/pipermail/netbehaviour/attachments/20100212/9d888de2/attachment.html>

More information about the NetBehaviour mailing list