Exit Art Founders Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberman at Exit Art, 578 Broadway, Manhattan, 1986. Courtesy of Exit Art
Exit Art’s Alternative Histories attempts to assess the inception and development of “alternative” art spaces in New York since the 1960s. The show presents various forms of documentary and archival material drawn from more than 130 organizations and collective experiences which have, from this establishment’s perspective, shaped the cultural topography of the city over the past 50 years, informing and inspiring generations of artists and practitioners.
All installation views courtesy Exit Art
Alternative Histories acts as research platform: a space in which the notion of alterity and the plurality of histories can be interrogated. Structured around two formal elements – a timeline that sketches the chronology of these spaces and a collection of boxes that include archival material representing each of them – the exhibition proposes different strategies to navigate this uneven terrain. A compilation of audiovisual material such as interviews and videos provides an additional layer to the excavation and reconstruction of these trajectories.
Exhibition posters, newspaper excerpts, and brief descriptions or press materials related to the activities hosted by each venue or group are presented as an archaeological record. The decade as a temporal unit is emphasized as a vehicle carrying specific urgency: the 1960s as the era of the artists’ struggles for civil rights and a more democratic art world, with groups such as the Art Worker’s Coalition (AWC) and Woman Artists in Revolution (WAR); the 1980s as the years of the epidemic AIDS crisis and the formation of activist groups such as ACT UP; the early present millennium as a moment of coping with post-9/11 events, and the proliferation of a new generation of spaces such as Orchard, Forever & Today and Participant Inc.
In contrast to the historical approach of the timeline, the archive boxes are displayed in alphabetical order, proposing interesting juxtapositions between the spaces in terms of exhibition strategy and forms of documentation. Within the same container, many different narratives can be perceived and the viewer is invited to contemplate his or her personal account of these histories.
Digging into the boxes, questions surrounding relations between past and present, and institutional models and alternative strategies are unavoidable. They suggest that spaces and practices that once provided an alternative to the institutional framework now sit comfortably within the mainstream art scene. Yet, these same spaces have productively complicated a system of artistic interaction, shifting perspectives and addressing the potential for pluralities in the writing of art history.
Storefront for Art and Architecture. Group photograph of artists from “ Homeless at Home”, 1985. Courtesy of Storefront for Art and Architecture. Photo credit: Jeffrey Schwarz
The need to contextualize these experiences is shared by parallel initiatives that are looking back at the same period – such as the recent show ACT UP NEW YORK: Activism, Art, and the AIDS Crisis, 1987 – 1993 at White Columns and the symposium at Artists Space around the publication Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material.
The weekly program of events and discussions at Exit Art provides a contemporary perspective to the debate, addressing some of the issues related to the contents of the show, such as the controversial definition of the term ‘alternative’. Although the selection of spaces included in the show accounts for Exit Art’s specific version of the term, the exhibition does not attempt to resolve this ambiguous task. The challenge presented is to acknowledge and work within the constraints and possibilities of a shifting art context, and address the plurality of perceived urgencies of the moment. Out of many lessons that can be drawn from these histories, the most valuable seems lay in the expediency of presenting the right question at the right time.
New Museum of Art. Early Staff at the New Museum, pictured, Marcia Tucker (Director), A. C. Bryson, Susan Logan, Michiko Miyamoto, Allan Schwartzman, 1977. Courtesy of the New Museum of Art. Photo credit: Warren Silverman
- G. Tedone