Perhaps due to my parents nearing retirement age, I’ve recently started wondering how the concerns of artists of that generation might differ from my own. How will artists care for their work as they age? Are their assets significantly different from younger generations? Can a strong knowledge of digital technology be helpful? I got in touch with seasoned activist and A.I.R. co-founder Daria Dorosh to discuss a few these concerns. We talked about her history at A.I.R., digital technology, and means of preserving art that does not make its way into a museum or a collector’s home.
PJ: Can you talk about your history with A.I.R. Gallery?
DD: Yes. Back in 1972 I was out of school about four years, out of Cooper Union, and I was asked whether I would like to join this start-up group of women artists forming a gallery. It's an abbreviation of Artists in Residence, which was a safety designation on loft buildings in lower Manhattan for the Fire Department to know that people were living in these commercial buildings. We were feminists, but I think we decided on that name because we were a self-selected group of women artists whose main criteria was to show good work by women artists in any medium or style while defining our feminism through the programs and structure of the gallery. I was one of the twenty original founding members who started the institution. My experience in that whole [collective] of women artists was both scary and exciting. At first it felt uncomfortable to stand out as women artists because it brought the rampant sexism in the art world out into the open and risked permanent rejection by the system. But the artwork was so exciting and experimental, and our collective skills were applied in a horizontal collective decision-making process, which allowed for a lot of flexibility and independence. When I look back on it, I think of it as an early DIY model; artists and others intuitively saw that somehow if they could take things in their own hands they could and try to shape the world in a way that would allow them to have a life.
Now that DIY model is really exciting to me, and that's one reason that I've never left, because over the years, A.I.R. has become my research space. I say that because I didn't know that at first, but I've been able to watch my work evolve and change, go in whatever direction it had to go and respond to whatever historic moment I’m plugged into. What does it look like, and how can I compare it to other activities — professional activities in my life, to understand it better. By not just looking at the art, but looking at the society that it was a part of.
So this whole start-up model, once use of the digital grew more prevalent, became even more solid and important to me, and I have a huge amount of confidence in that DIY movement as it's evolving now, in all different genres.
PJ: It seems to me that the DIY model you're talking about with A.I.R. is now particularly prevalent with the artists working today, and I wondered if you could talk a little about how technology has affected your thinking and your art practice, and the extent to which that early work with A.I.R. has really informed what you do now.
DD: Well, it was interesting. I think technology came into my life in the early 1990s, with the first computer I ever touched, and I was smitten by the whole experience. Unfortunately, in some odd way it crashed my painting life. I no longer could paint once I hit Photoshop. For some reason, seeing that color wheel, where I could navigate the colors with the click of a mouse, that just spun my work into something else: mainly sculpture, video, and digital prints, and lately more into objects and textiles, and questioning the zone between art and craft, really. But I think that in the early years at A.I.R., I experienced the power of groups, and how exciting it was to be with all these artists who happened to be women, who had different skills of all kinds, and that we as an organism were an aggregation of those skills.
We learned from each other. We experimented with things that we each, I suppose, wanted to do in our lives. Everybody was quite different. Some people moved on into the commercial world. Some didn't, but my own trail sort of dovetailed nicely with the digital age. Digital technology is very empowering. I think that my generation of artists, who straddled the analog and the digital formative years, have a huge amount of information and reflection to pass on to the younger generations who actually were born into that the computer age and never really had to look back or feel what it was like to believe in originality, to believe in that blue chip art model.
PJ: You know, I remember seeing this image maybe a couple of weeks ago. It was a picture of a cassette tape and a pencil and underneath it, it said, “Our children will never understand the relationship between these two objects.” That seems very emblematic of what you're talking about.
You've talked about the relationship between property and cell phones before, I wonder if you could discuss this a little here.
DD: At the invitation of Lizbeth Goodman, who is the Director of SMARTlab, a PhD program in Dublin, I went and did a PhD with a whole bunch of people in technology, performance, and all kinds of other practice-based media. I wrote about some of the patterns I was seeing [emerging out of digital culture in and art making] in my thesis on patterns, to understand them better.
One of the things I did early on was to look back at some earlier writings, starting with Walter Benjamin, the very famous The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. What struck me was what he said about the property system; that it will be the last thing that will change. And today I see a shift in value occurring between product and process in many fields. In art for instance, painting has had to make room for installation, performance, and video. These newer, time-based forms change art as a product and its delivery, and issues of ownership and sharing in the digital arts are being debated. In the last few years, in particular, we see that economics and ownership is at the heart of any issue we're trying to solve, as we look for new economic models to sustain the arts community.
If I look at technology, what fascinates me is that it's all landing on our body; perhaps because the body is often our most valuable property. That's the arena that women and all other disenfranchised groups were allowed to play in, and that's what we played in. Luckily, the most powerful tool I can think of, the computer, has migrated from a room to a desktop to a smartphone — that lives on the body. So that could level the playing field for us.
You can see it in the fact that our cell phone is our most important contact item. That's our gateway to the world now; no one's going to give up their cell phone. I think we all know that our communication, our community, our networks, are the prize that we want. And yet there is no way to monetize that and distribute the wealth among all the users and contributors.
We're being forced to look at how we fit into the system. My generation, who are now maybe in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, we were raised in believing in the first economy, so to speak, which was the blue chip gallery system, that's the examples we saw. That's what you aspired to, and that was the only thing that was out there. But as it happens the number of art practitioners has exploded, and there's no room for all the good work that's being done in that system.
PJ: Speaking to this, I’ve heard you talk about the second art economy — a term that describes artists who aren’t selling their work at blue chip galleries, but produce a lot and are active in art communities be it through teaching or writing — is this an economy you are happy to be a part of?
DD: I first heard the term at a lecture in Princeton by the philosopher and art critic John Roberts, who gave a talk about the second economy and groups of artists who are working together now who have no desire to even get into the first economy. They are recreating their own rationale for why they're doing what they're doing and how they're doing it, and how they're surviving.
I don't know if he's published it, but I mean to ask him. Many of us have to give up that first economy dream, but the truth is we have moved into whatever is the opposite of scarcity, an abundance model. You can just make endless copies of almost anything. I think that's the model with a future and one to be active in.
PJ: So how do we create an economic model that works for the second economy, and how do artists in your generation begin to think of things like caring of for their own work?
DD: Well, I've been thinking about that for about ten years on and off, talking to people, and you know one thing is I don't have to care. It's not my problem anymore. I got to make the work, and if nobody wants it, all right. That's it. On the other hand, I would love to leave a legacy for study, like a trail, a little path of peas in the forest, for anybody that might come back in a hundred years and look at what we went through at this moment.
So for many artists, what they can do depends on their financial situation: they could, if they have the energy and thinking ability, figure out how to create a public collection of their work, using their own assets, and set it up in a way that it'll at least have legs for the beginning after they pass on, and then whatever happens to it happens.
To this end, I've been thinking about forming an artists' foundation, like a study collection, either with a small group of artists, like a 'cooperative of dead artists' , or some kind of grouping that's based on the resources we have, which can then be changed over into the money needed to have this collection of art work and documents together. There's a lot of good art made by those in my generation. It may not be in all the museums or in the best collections, but it's damn good work that will tell a story some day, so it should not go in the dumpster.
PJ: Also, a lot of artists in your generation own property, an asset that can be utilized that artists of, say, my generation typically don't have. They might have a SoHo loft that's now worth millions even though they may have only had gallery representation for parts of their career; the average resources of artists can very significantly between generations.
DD: It's true. We were in the real estate moment in the 1970s when SoHo turned from nothing to unaffordable, and so quite a lot of artists ended up with a good financial investment, but they're living inside it and they can't do a thing about it, a lot of them. They can't get any comparable space, but they have to have the guts to actually turn that into a foundation, and not be afraid of that question. It's a very scary question because it means looking at the fact that we're not going to be here forever and that there is no exit plan for our work.
Money's just a medium, so you know, it would be really exciting to have one last art project like that, and that's what I think about. And different generations will have different options. We were in your position early on too, when we were young, but each historic moment gives you different things to work with. You get what you get. [SoHo's] what we got. You've got the Internet and your cell phone.