The story, as we know it, goes something as follows: a group of young artists graduate from school and venture into the art world.
Heads crammed with theory and hearts beating for change, they discover the professional sphere to be not the mirror of their ideals, but a shiftless fiend, gorged on its commercial spoils. Our protagonists recoil and seek refuge in the camaraderie of the similarly inclined. So is born the artist collective; and so is born the artist-run space.
The artist-run space will always figure into our cultural mentality as one of the more compelling embodiments of a certain radical ethos. As The Centre of Attention's recent exhibition, "fast and loose (my dead gallery)," so importantly revealed, the "secret history of the London Art world" comprises dozens of these collectives. And while it would be erroneous to assume that all artist-run spaces operate on pointedly alternative, non-commercial agendas, there are nevertheless those occasional ventures that ignite our imagination by causing palpable, critical shifts in the field of art production.
Enter i-cabin. So-named by Ray and Neil Bailey, ex-naval merchants who run the North London bookbinding factory in which it is housed, i-cabin takes iteration as its very subject. In its inaugural year (2005), artists/directors Juliette Blightman and Sebastian Craig developed a series of parameters to defamiliarise the usual terms of gallery display. Running concurrent programmes of younger and more established artists (entitled "Year One" and "Year Two," respectively), the directors asked participants to produce site-specific work and restricted them from hanging anything on the cabin's walls. "I have a very deep adoration for the fabric of this space," Craig remarks, surveying the two cosy rooms the gallery calls its own. "It would be quite obvious to take a place like this that has tacky wood panelling and do a painting show. We wanted to dig in our
heels against doing that."
The parameters also proved to be unexpectedly liberating for many of i-cabin's artists. "People often liked having the limitations of those rules set for them," Blightman says. "Our first show was with Till Exit, who's quite well established. He makes full-scale gallery installations and, for us, he showed a couple of films. I don't think he would have ever shown those films other than in this space."
When a commercial gallery dropped out of the 2005 ZOO Art Fair in the eleventh hour, Blightman and Craig were given the opportunity to bring i-cabin's critical agenda to a broader public. Using their catalogue entry to do battle with "gallery agenda-speak," the directors delivered a "bolshy and forceful" declaration of their frustration with an art world predominantly determined by the commercial viability of artworks. Their installation for the fair, as if to deliberately belabour the point, featured a "layer-cake of artworks, from the floor going up," collectively priced at an exorbitant £45,000. One impressed ZOO-goer was curator Francesco Manacorda, who spun the gallery as an "art production hub" and nominated it for the 2005 Beck's Futures Prize. i-cabin as artist was born.
"Francesco's notorious for it - he has nominated and turned other people and galleries into artists," Craig laughs. "So in a split-second we had to propose an i-cabin artwork to the ICA and we'd never done anything like that. We were a gallery. We showed artists in our gallery
and that was what we did..." The directors found themselves at a well-trodden crossroads. In the forty years since Marcel Broodthaers first gained access to the museum's vaults and divulged his fondness for ornithology and mischief, institutional critique had all but canonized itself as critical art-making par excellence.
Having begun to gain a certain acclaim for their unique curatorial method, Blightman and Craig were well aware of the dangers of ossification. i-cabin's artistic career thus offered the directors a way of resisting complacency through the creative reappraisal of their practice.
"Mini-retrospectives" were among the strategies employed to great effect. For "Satellites," a group show this past September at NYC's Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Blightman and Craig commissioned a series of artist works that conformed to the size restrictions of airplane cabin baggage and which would then be carried aboard their flight to NYC. Among the miniatures and originals in their Duchampian boîte-en-valise was a particularly nervy piece from Chicago gallery artLedge; flying in the face of increasing airport security, the gallerists contributed a sealed, velvet box whose contents were solely meant be seen by the airport's X-Ray technician.
"They really pushed our conceptual buttons," Craig recalls. "There had been all of those terror alerts, so they restricted your cabin baggage allowance and liquids on airplanes," Blightman adds. "We asked artLedge if there was liquid in the box and they wouldn't even tell us."
"Direct Currency Exchange: Part One," a gallery-swap with artLedge at the end of i-cabin's inaugural year, also provided an occasion for Blightman and Craig to shake things up. For the London end of the festivities, the directors turned their gallery over to artLedge's posse of
sixty-odd artists, resulting in a frenzied installation that clogged the cabin's heretofore untouched walls with artworks. "It was a scary show," Craig shudders to recall, "and dense. Juliette and I had to share our hatred of it." "But it was important to have someone break our rules for us," Blightman adds.
Future "Currency Exchanges" are to be expected, playfully trading i-cabin's artistic worth on the creative economy for the services of equally valued curators and artists. For now, Blightman and Craig have yet another burgeoning project to contend with: i-cabin texts. Part publishing
venture and "essentially the same practice defined slightly differently," this upstart has already produced a limited edition publication for the 2006 ZOO Art Fair and a documentary for i-cabin's February and March 2007 exhibition at Cambridge's Wysing Arts Centre. "The film is a collection of interviews with friends, artists and other people somehow connected with us or i-cabin," Blightman explains. "It's basically a group show on film, without any work," Craig adds. "It's an answer to our question about if there's a way for us to have a
group show of ideas without asking artists to make anything." Given i-cabin's conceptually minded trajectory, it seemed only a matter of time before art-objects fell by the wayside.
"It's nice not having to rely on physical artworks and not having to curate on the basis of physical artworks," Craig remarks. "Especially after lugging bags of art around."
i-cabin: profile Tyler Coburn 31/1/2007 Plan B. 1079 words