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Ashlee Conery is a contemporary art curator living in London. Originally from Vancouver she has worked with Austrian, Canadian, French and Hungarian artists producing exhibitions in large and small galleries, institutions and off-spaces.

Artistic Autonomy: Production + Reception . KAPSULA Magazine Issue 11.14

Articles in Full

Artistic Autonomy: Production + Reception . KAPSULA Magazine Issue 11.14

Ashlee Conery

Marcel Duchamp’s Rotary Glass Plates (1920), Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Pictures (1922) and Roy Ascott’s Change Paintings (1959-61), each match points obscuring the division between artist and audience; performance and production; craft and creation. Artistic autonomy has been defined with terms such as ‘mass-production’ and ‘immaterial labour.’ Accelerating through the 21st century, the transformation or reversion of artists to the role of ‘conceiver’ has expanded the atelier to include teams of anonymous artists, factories and crematoriums (Jeff Koons, Zhang Huan, Takashi Murakami). Artistic autonomy appears in this climate as the result of artists’ division from labour. Beyond employing designers and production lines, they are utilizing computers and the Internet to create art that exists outside of the physical world. The ease with which we can share, edit and add to information online has made it a platform for those who believe the creative process benefits from collaboration. This collaboration, however, goes beyond the production of ideas. Using an example from “YOU ARE BEING TIMED” at Zan Gallery in Paris, artist St Jean used an online locator to e-mail his drawing of a sculpture to an anonymous ‘neighbour’ with an at-home 3D printer. The ‘neighbour’ printed the piece, making certain alterations to the surface that they deemed ‘necessary’ and met St Jean in a coffee shop who paid them for their work. The artist then collaborated with photojournalist Dwulit who appropriated the sculpture using projection mapping, which he captured in video and placed back on the Internet as documentation of the collaboration. Hybrid artistic practices such as this may be understood (simplistically) as the artistic response to collective online social behavior. The ‘spectacle’ (as defined by Guy Debord) is the exchange between people, artists and ideas from on to off-line. Artistic autonomy, in this environment, is therefore defined by its relaxed authorship; where value no longer resides in the attribution of a work to a single genius.

Though the dematerialization of art has been occurring for decades, evolving technology has extended this process to a realm beyond that of homogenous ready-mades. This realm encompasses the production of digital objects, online environments and altered documentation. Art viewed online may cease to exist, if it ever did outside of the digital realm. Artistic autonomy may have been ushered in by the division of artists from labour, but its definition is not to be simplified to the creation of fiction or the dematerialization of art. While technology has confused the relationship between artist and materials, the online space facilitates the process by which art becomes art through cultural recognition of it as such. Therefore the Internet, and its vast audience (as I will discuss further), offers art autonomy from the academic and institutional realm.  

One of the most profound shifts to occur in art is with regards to its documentation. Exhibiting documentation (video and photography) of performative, often interactive art exchanges (between artists’ audience and/or objects) occurs both in the East and West dating back to the 1960s. Examples include Joseph Beuys’ 1979 Filz TV, Marina Abramović’s 1977 recording of sixteen hours without audience of Relation in Time and Tibor Hajas' 1976 Self Fashion Show. Collecting and exhibiting these traces has long been accepted by the curatorial world. In the absence of a traditional art object, documentation of a performance or work may assume its permanent place within the confines of a collection. However, with the introduction of the World Wide Web, documentation became largely intangible and autonomous from institutions. This has affected the parameters for collecting works and re-defined ‘live’ performance and ‘attendance’ within exhibition making. Within certain artistic praxis this has resulted in autonomy from time and likewise the institution. Artists can now record their own actions, create their own online spaces in which to conduct exhibitions, tie them to Vimeo, SoundCloud, podcasts, image galleries and online chats. The uses of video, projection mapping and other forms of digital arts previously categorized into “multimedia arts” have been enveloped into (and accepted as common) artistic practice. Everyone with a phone now has the ability to record and edit sound and motion picture. This has allowed the public’s interaction and recognition of art to include YouTube’s of artistic process, performances and interactions with artists. By way of this exposure artistic production becomes integrated into its reception. These actions often occur outside of institutions, which are ­­racing to catch up. They exist for all, not only the privileged few invited to or in town for the event. Funneled through the colloquialisms of online communication—art reaches audiences not only through the contrived format of ‘curatorial speak’ but in the language of social media.

The Internet has also changed the context in which exhibitions are made. The documentation of an exhibition or an artistic exchange within a space (private, off-space, pop-up or institutional) now serves the long-term validation of an artist/curator or project. Images have in some cases circumvented attending the actual event, artist studio or fair. In 2014 Artsy partnered with Art Brussels inviting exhibitors to simultaneously show and sell work at the fair to viewers online. SAATCHI Online receives an estimated 73 000 hits per day, suggesting that both art collectors and amateur art lovers are interested in viewing work from the comfort of their own home.[1] Their page entitled “One to Watch” has become a tool for many international curators who use it to source (questionably) “assured” new talent. The Internet has also allowed a range of institutions to reach wider audiences then ever before: The Louvre’s collection is online for those unable to travel to Paris, “BP Spotlights” on both Tate’s collections and installation shots from White Cube and community galleries around the world bring artists directly into people’s homes, where they post, friend and share work, thereby enforcing its recognition as art and its value within their social networks.  

Duchamp's ready-mades certainly introduced the everyday into the art world, however, the Internet has increased the worth of peer validation, thereby increasing the potential for anyone or anything to be recognized as art. Paul O’Neill argues, curating, “by the 1980’s… had been established as an entity of critical reflection in its own right,”[2] capable of determining the canonical importance of a work. The question is: has the potential for exposure regardless of curatorial attention diminished the necessity of having its validation? The answer depends on the interests of the viewer. If the viewers expectations are market or academically driven, certainly there is an argument for the curator’s continued importance as a validator.  

Artists at every stage of recognition are not asking themselves if they should engage online, but rather to what extent they should utilize the web, as audiences have become the linchpin to art’s autonomy from the institution. Likewise, their attendance has become the bar by which the success of curators is institutionally measured. However, as artists propel away from representational art, the act of exchanging an object (physical or digital) between an artist and a curator or institution (online or otherwise) remains where its “official” transformation into art is recognized. This is perhaps why sites like SAATCHI Online and Artsy find themselves incorporated into the system of middlemen inherent to the art world, rather than as tools of validation.

Artists’ autonomy from the institution is tied to the autonomy of information online and available to audiences. When faced with art a viewer may reach into their pocket and use the technology available to them to interact, interpret and record art in whatever capacity suits them. This enables them as tastemakers, and empowers their collaboration in the artistic process, confusing authorship and displacing some of the validating power held by curators and institutions. Artists actually began exploring the impact of audience-controlled interaction with art long before the invention of the Internet. In 1924 Frederick Kiesler created the “International Exhibition of New Theatre Technique”[3] which used a series of T and L-shaped brackets to support a system of cantilevers that allowed the viewer to adjust paintings according to their own height. Roy Ascott believed that cybernetics created a continuum between audience and art in a mutually supportive system of communication. He saw this continuum as the way through institutional barriers between audiences and artists.

As audiences have moved online, so has art. This shift to virtual spaces coincides with the proliferation of apartment galleries, off-spaces and pop-up exhibitions, largely a response to the overhead expense of running a gallery. The potential for contemporary artists to create entirely outside of the institution is not inevitable, it is ongoing. Artistic autonomy is the result of the availability of technology, the freedom of information and platforms for limitless social engagement. Our acceptance of holistic culture, and collaborative forms of knowledge production has allowed art to explore autonomy from even the artist.

- Ashlee Conery. Published 11.14 in KAPSULA Magazine. Toronto, Ontario


[1] “Wikipedia, Saatchi Gallery”. Website last updated November 2013:

[2] Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 5

[3] Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 11