Blank

This essay introduced a catalogue celebrating blank projects’ 4 year anniversary

Project spaces occupy a strange position in contemporary art practice. They are not galleries though they may look like a traditional white cube, with clean walls and open space. They are not studios, though they often display the same openness and experimentation that marks a working space. They are run by artists, but they are not art. The role of a project space changes with the need of each show, which can make them hard to define. Sometimes they are clean, sometimes messy. Sometimes they are rigid, sometimes fluid. Sometimes they are fraught with complexity, sometimes they are just an empty space. The essence of a project space, however, is simply defined by its name. It is a space where artists can produce a project.

The nature of projects is what makes these spaces unique. A project is in the purest sense a realization of an artistic idea. These ideas are vastly varied, as can be seen by perusing these pages, but are marked by a freedom of thought. To accommodate this, the mechanism of a project space is markedly different from that of a commercial or public space. It is not directed by the market’s needs or the public’s need, but rather by the artist’s need. A project space tries to attract external funding so it can be a free space and not depend on the selling of art to make it viable or on the government to make it legitimate.

blank projects is a project space that defines the genre. It is led by a desire to test art’s purpose outside the market place and push the boundaries of public acceptability. In South Africa these are important and rare ambitions. The market in contemporary art is slow, and galleries have to charge artists to use their spaces. This results in both the artists and the galleries having to rely on more commercially orientated work in order to survive. The outcome of this is twofold. Firstly, experimental practice gets abandoned and sidelined, and without this injection of fresh genes, the practice of contemporary art stagnates and the market remains depressed. I have heard on several occasions that in international opinion, South African art has had its 15 minutes and little of significance is emerging. This, while obviously stupidly generalized, is a sad state of affairs. Secondly, previously disadvantaged artists who wish to engage with culture on their own terms have little space to move. This means that many artists are presenting formulaic and conceptually similar work in order to make it, or owing to financial constraints not doing anything at all. The status quo of South African art being the domain of white rich people remains.

In contrast, the role of public art institutions is not to develop art, but to reflect and study what has happened. This is a necessary function, archiving and recording, but it does little to drive changes in the art world.

blank has over time lived up to its name, a blank platform in which each artist has been able to inscribe their mark. The significance of this role in South Africa, bearing in mind the challenges above, is hard to put a measure on.

With the Great Crash of 2008 still rippling through the world’s economy, and the international art market obsessed with diamond skulls and moneyed art following suit, the role of a project space free of the taint of money has become a talking point. The question being asked is whether artist-run spaces can start to produce art that has value instead of worth. After the previous crash of the Eighties, as one example, artist-led initiatives in England led to a whole movement being born. The YBAs (Young British Artists) were a loose movement whose roots can be found in the market crash and a desire to make it outside of the normal mechanisms of art (Later, this movement too became bloated, replicating those mechanisms but that is another story). Here in South Africa, where the effects of the crash on the already depressed art market is only starting to be felt the role of artist-run spaces will become more significant. While the South African art world is too small to produce anything resembling a movement, blank has over the last four years produced something of a community of like-minded people. In this tougher economic climate, this community could grow to become a dominant force and really change the focus of contemporary South African art, something a little less rigid, a little more fluid, a little less closed, a little more challenging. In time the market will follow, and perhaps this community could become self-sustaining. Not too stable, but viable.

One of the aspects of blank which has made it a success is that it is a small affair run by a small amount of people. This has made it a space approachable by young artists, and informal for more established artists. In the 60 plus shows that blank has produced, some of which this book serves to commemorate, this intimacy is apparent. The friendships and networks that build up around blank are second only to the high quality of production. It can be seen in the variety of projects that make up blank’s long-term curatorial vision, each of these a discussion and a negotiation.  And it can be seen in the growing audience which attend the shows.

blank is also a remarkable achievement. It is distinctive in South Africa in terms of its longevity and totally unique in Cape Town. The tenacity with which blank has held on, through financial woes and crisis of self-confidence is an example to all artists and gallerists. The result of this dedication is that blank’s calendar has never been empty of interesting and engaging art and with blank set to continue for many more years its calendar will remain stuffed.