[NetBehaviour] Crisis_at_the_ICA:_Ekow_Eshun¹s_Experiment_in_Deinstitutionalisation

Emma Quinn emma.quinn at gmail.com
Fri Feb 12 12:18:35 CET 2010

As an ex employee of the ICA I have to say that many of the increased
staffing levels came about under Eshun's leadership (I use the term in it's
loosest possible sense). Many of these posts were support roles as outlined
in the article, Marketing and Developement were given high level
appointments and came from non art backgrounds, but hey, they now had a
chance to run their own programmes, and it didn't matter that the curatorial
teams were struggling to find money and marketing support for the artists
they were promoting/supporting, because the agenda was 'fun' and 'youth' so
popular music events to raise the profile of the ICA (a profile that was
being created independently of the art that was being shown in the galleries
etc.) were taking up all the time of these two departments and were the only
thing that Eshun really showed any interest in, until recently.

Now he's had to take stock of the situation. The MD left late last year and
Eshun has had to actually take an interest in the place. I've heard from
former colleagues that he was calling meetings last autumn (nearly five
years after taking over?) with different departments (non curatorial) to
find out what they did.

He's shown no interest in the place, avoiding any films, events,
performances, etc unless it's related to a star studded invite list until
the proverbial shit has hit the fan.

He is out of his depth and has been since he started, but instead of
surrounding himself with experts (i.e. the curators of the different genres)
and engaging with his teams he brought in magazine people and cut himself
off from the fundamental role of the ICA - supporting new artists creating
high quality art work of whatever art form. The programmers were on a
rudderless ship and frankly did a bloody good job keeping things going
inspite of the people at the top (marketing and development, who have
subsequently left), who were antagonistic towards the programme and frankly
didn't really care about it unless it was an easy sell to sponsors or had
marketing potential.

Of course I'd say that Media Arts was *the* way to differentiate the ICA
from other galleries in the arena - such as the Serpentine, Whitechapel,
Tate but Grayson Perry never came to any of my events so it obviously wasn't
high profile enough. Eshun never got it and finances were a good excuse to
close the department once and for all even though my department brought in
money and was eminently sponsorable. I'm more than a little surprised that
he's now engaging with the whole IT thing and the ambITion programme that
ACE have instigated.

I may well regret posting this but frankly JJ Charlesworth has hit the nail
on the head with this article and I only hope that the powers that be (the
ICA board, who frankly don't know what on earth is going on at the ICA and
are equally distant from the programme, and ACE) pay attention and
investigate what's been going on.

Best wishes

2010/2/12 Simon Biggs <s.biggs at eca.ac.uk>

>  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 galleries).
> 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.
> Best
> Simon
> Simon Biggs
> s.biggs at eca.ac.uk  simon at littlepig.org.uk  Skype: simonbiggsuk  http://
> www.littlepig.org.uk/
> Research Professor  edinburgh college of art  http://www.eca.ac.uk/
> *C*reative *I*nterdisciplinary *R*esearch into *C*o*L*laborative *E*nvironments
>  http://www.eca.ac.uk/circle/
> *E*lectronic *L*iterature as a *M*odel of *C*reativity and *I*nnovation in
> *P*ractice  http://www.elmcip.net/
> ------------------------------
> *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]
> Crisis_at_the_ICA:_Ekow_Eshun¹s_Experiment_in_Deinstitutionalisation
> 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:
> [NetBehaviour]Crisis_at_the_ICA:_Ekow_Eshun¹s_Experiment_in_Deinstitutionalisation
> >> 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 - >>>
> >>>
> http://www.metamute.org/en/content/crisis_at_the_ica_ekow_eshun_s_experiment_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. >>
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Emma Quinn
45 Tunbridge House
Spa Green Estate
St. John Street
London EC1R 4TT
t. 020 7833 2778
m. 07799003153
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