Annuale text 2015

Avant Garde security

I’ve been dreaming in DIY for ten years now.

Networks! Horizontals! Right-on kids with 20p Zines, enraptured in circles of skill sharing, cutting keys for their open access arts spaces, fondly de-tuning each other’s guitars in dimly lit communal basements.

DIY, self-organising, Artist Led Arts; these are important fibres of utopianism for many of us so called millennials, determined to rebel against a ‘big state’ governmentality that most of us are still unable to decisively think of as either baby or bathwater.

Fed up on tales of the DC Punks, Riot Grrrls, Free Parties, Berlin/Glasgow Warehouse spaces, Radical Arts Collectives and Free Jazz Squats, we – in true homage to the warm glowing photocopier at the heart of so many of these scenes –have ended up with a blury copy of a copy; imbued with the nostalgia that glues so much of our fractured world together. The ideas – non-profit, inclusivity, affordability, self-empowerment – still glow with a worthy importance, connected to the moments when it all seemed to fall in place, but the means of their application seems to be slipping through our fingers.

An appraisal is needed. A reminder that ‘DIY’ in arts has often peaked historically in reaction to the kinds of stifling conformity, boredom and suburban security (Avantgarde indeed!) that seems vaguely enticing compared to the clusterfuck of precarious work, hot-desks, zero-hours and forced voluntarism we now face. This is a joint task, and obviously not an easy one, but here are some loose ideas for reframing ‘self-organising’ in art today (!).


If, as argued by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness, the pervading atmosphere of our time is ‘anxiety’, rather than the ‘boredom’ that characterised youth attitudes in post-1968 social democracy, we need to recognise this shift and react to its implications of Do It Yourself. Our ‘selves’ our increasingly informed by cultivated online personas, Avatar CVs, that we are entreated to make available and employable at all times. This affective state of precarity where “the necessities of life are not simply absent. They are available, but withheld conditionally” entails an internalization of neoliberal ‘success’ in an “infinitely watched perpetual performance” (IPC). We should be honest with eachother, in conversations and in art, about the anxiety of micromanagement, erratic labour patterns, and collective social surveillance. Many of us now juggle work in both the service, care and cultural industries, and can relate to the affects and narratives (“I’m lucky I have a job at all”, “this work is valuable, despite what the government say”, “who would do it if I didn’t”) that seep across these fields, easily slipping into competitive kinds of self-comparison. Instead, finding commonalities and creating spaces where the pretence of active, efficient, empowered ‘selves’ can be dropped and dissected may be a first step turning our anxieties against those who seek to exploit them.


DIY nostalgia hides many flaws, not least in the often macho, ableist rhetoric of the DC Hardcore scene that many see as the ethos’ musical roots. ‘Get in the van’, may have been the rallying call for a generation of pumped up noise and punk bands, personified by dudes like Ian Mackaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag), but they echo loudly what Kathi Weeks calls “the normalizing and moralizing ethic of work”, democratizing access to a musical world dominated by commercial shit-rock, but internalizing its demands for speed, loudness, and unrelenting labour for the cause. Similarly, we should questions the ‘professionalised’ language of much cultural work today, -‘practitioners’, ‘outcomes’ , ‘creatives’ – and remind ourselves of Benjamin’s vision of an art that can ‘transcend the specialisation in the process of production’, refusing to see accessibility/inclusivity as an attack on the small forms of cultural capital we might otherwise accrue. The key is to straddle demands for improved work conditions and an expansion of ‘work’ to include erased forms of cultural and caring labour, whilst also fighting against the evangelising ethic of work itself; as Weeks puts it, “a refusal to subordinate all life to work”, to value the art and artist that ‘doesn’t work’.


Artist run spaces and have for a long time been places where folks meet regularly, look after each other, and engage in creative processes that involve all kinds of conviviality and friendship, often with a healthy disregard for artistic ‘outcome’. This is a form of what DIY champion Andy Abott calls the ‘a-market’ value of self-organising, but one that must adapt to a consistent Right-wing attack on a ‘safety net’ that, for many DIY scenes, acted as a form of inculcation. As Mark Fisher articulates, “the decline of social housing, the attacks on squatting, and the delirious rise in property prices have meant that the amount of time and energy available for cultural production has massively diminished,” with tricky implications for finding ‘art spaces’, especially for gatherings like Annuale. Here, we need widen our idea of what that space could be and how long it should last; looking to use it to engage with those beyond ‘art’, reclaiming the maligned ideas of ‘community art’ and ‘well-being’, and providing reliable forms of everyday activity rather than one off festivals and huge temporary projects that suck up resources and energy for momentary gain. Many artists and spaces are already incorporating reading groups, libraries, choirs, safe-space policies, access plans, and regular workshops into their projects; enacting forms of care and collective education (beyond the increasingly unaffordable, marketised art colleges) that are not only imbued with all kinds of of radical political resistance, but also help contribute to our material capacities to engage and act in the first place.

These are not meant as easy answers, more friendly questions to an ethos I’ve felt affinity with since the first time I booked a some bands to play at Bradford’s 1in12 Anarchist club, aged 13, and forgot to ask anyone to bring a drum kit*. For all its seeming strength, the system we live under can crack slightly when we look at the anxieties instilled by its impositions of relentless ‘flexibility’, the “internal instabilities” (Weeks) of a work ethic that demands so much and gives so little, and the snowballing way the vast inequalities around us leave increasing numbers of vulnerable people with ever less available to support them. Often too temporary to provide lasting care, or just permanent enough to become a co-opted attitude, rather than active process, DIY art is eminently salvageable: not as a didactic instruction, or a symbolically impassible hoarding full of intent, but as an invitation and a question.

*We found one.

Text by Joel White