Emergent Projects essay

‘New Ways of Working’ – Emergent Projects by Simon Maidment; NAVA Quarterly, March 2008.

In the past eighteen months I have been closely involved with the development of two large-scale visual arts projects in Australia, which have proven the potential of what I have termed the Emergent Project model. Each project resembled a festival, allowing multiple organisations to come together to present a coherent program of exhibitions, events and talks, to a much wider audience than each engages with in the normal course of their business. Yet each did so without any ongoing staff, infrastructure or budget, with short lead times, and whilst maintaining the identity and integrity of the participating organisations.

Rapt: 20 Contemporary Artists from Japan was initiated by the Japan Foundation in Tokyo, who formed a curatorium of three Japanese curators and nine Australian curatorial advisors. Twenty organisations in Australia were identified by this group, who between July and September 2006 hosted residencies, exhibitions, new commissions, public projects, talks, and screenings involving twenty Japanese artists and architects, and a symposium involving Japanese and Australian critics, academics, curators and artists. Remarkably, the network of Rapt! organisations included University Museums and faculties, Contemporary Art Spaces, Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs), local councils, funding agencies and commercial galleries in Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, Brisbane, and Sydney.

Making Space: artist run initiatives in Victoria was held between April and June 2007, and involved twenty one ARIs around Victoria, presenting a simultaneous program of exhibitions, forums, performances and workshops. Making Space was designed to celebrate the diversity of this network and their contribution to Australian contemporary art. The project was developed collaboratively by the ARIs under the banner of the Victoria Initiatives of Artists Network (VIA-n), and was initiated by the Australia Council and Arts Victoria. An extensive publication included documentation, historical overviews, theoretical essays and accessible texts that contextualised the project.

Both projects were unique in their ability to provide a platform for organisations to simultaneously work together yet present or tease out their differences through the specificity of their programming. They could pool resources, experience and enthusiasm in a timely fashion, yet didn’t require adding to an already cluttered organisational landscape. Additionally, because most of the the expertise and infrastructure was already in place within each organisation, a far higher slice of the finances tagged to each project went towards artist and program costs, in comparison to many other festivals or large programs.

The term Emergent Project should not to be confused with a program consisting of emerging artists (like the Next Wave Festival or many ARIs) or emerging practices (like West Space). In this case I am referring to the concept of emergence as coined by the philosopher George Henry Lewes, and used in disciplines such as systems theory and epistemology. This concept refers to the way complex systems can arise out of a multiplicity of simple interactions or relationships. The underlying structure of an Emergent Project like Rapt! or Making Space is further revealed as self-organising entities come together to present a complex shared event, while retaining multiplicity, individuality and their unique natures (and avoiding convergence in both artistic programming and ongoing infrastructure). Further, an Emergent Project is one that can’t be reduced to the sum (or difference) of its participating organisations.

I believe this model offers a glimpse of the future of presenting and promoting contemporary practice to a wider audience, using collegiality in our industry as both a glue and a fuel. Rapt! and Making Space are both great examples of a new kind of generative activity that can bring out the best between grass-roots, institutional and government partners.

Official Rapt! website – rapt.jpf-sydney.org

Official Making Space website – www.via-n.org

Simon Maidment is a media-based artist, with a practice that foregrounds collaboration. He is Director of West Space, a prolific artist-led organisation, and of Satellite, a non-profit contemporary art agency founded in 2007.

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