A brief guided tour through eight projects that each reveal facets of political, cultural, pedagogical, and community focused practice compiled by Channon Goodwin.
Libraries are for everyone, everywhere. They provide safe spaces for public dialogue. They disseminate information so the public can participate in the processes of governance. They provide access to government information so that the public can monitor the work of its elected officials and benefit from the data collected and distributed by public policy makers. They serve as gathering places for the community to share interests and concerns. They provide opportunities for citizens to develop the skills needed to gain access to information of all kinds and to put information to effective use.
The formation of a library or archive by state and non-state actors is not a neutral act. The relationship between libraries and democracy is both deeper and more complex than mere information-seeking and retrieval. Those who create and maintain these repositories, regardless of scale, bring to it their own agendas, enthusiasms, biases, and ambitions for knowledge preservation and dissemination. It is these repositories that shape the dominant truth for a society and intergenerational knowledge values, and take up a role as cornerstones of democracy. In Australia, state sanctioned institutions represent a form of settler colonialism that supplants millennia of Indigenous knowledge, all the while asserting Western historical narratives and hierarchies of knowledge.
It should then come as no surprise that independent, radical, and experimental collections embedded within invested communities are vital forms of resistance to dominant power structures. These nodal databases, and community-built archives and libraries provide vital counterpoints to colonial and corporate narratives, as well as the contemporary commodification of information. When it comes to Australian art, the nation's pre-eminent collecting institutions define the canon and create art history shaped by international art markets and a donor class. In contrast, the collection policies adopted by independent or alternative types of collections amplify bespoke knowledge and make marginalised histories more accessible. In many ways, they are a form of industrial action, one that takes control of the means of history-production. Knowledge, its aggregation and free access, is a bulwark for decentralised forms of industrial action taken by employees, community organisers, and grassroots activists.
Industrial action encompasses a variety of acts that disrupt in order to bring change in working conditions. The Fair Work Commission in Australia characterises industrial action in terms of employees banning, limiting, or restricting their performance of work in order to settle a labour dispute. For the act to be considered ‘industrial’, it needs to be genuine in its efforts to bargain for conditions rather than superfluous or unconnected: ‘If action takes place outside the area of disputation and bargaining, that is relevant in determining whether the action is "industrial", but it is not determinative'. What makes industrial action effective is that it is essentially bargaining power that is garnered through collective action. From this perspective, alternative structures and initiatives of all kinds can affect political and social change precisely because of their collective power and presence.
Within the arts, however, the experience for many is one of solitary rather than collective work. As Kate MacNeill and Colleen Chen (2015) explain, artistic labour is a ‘particularly autonomous and precarious form of employment, characterised by low rates of industrial organising and low incomes.’ This is despite the empowering rhetoric that is typically adopted within the creative industries. They point out the fragmentation within the sector, where in fact the ‘named creatives are likely to have far greater negotiating power than those whose labour is anonymous.’ Yet, this belies the important role of artists in political and social movements since the nineteenth century. In her essay, Art Workers between Precarity and Resistance: A Genealogy, Corina L. Apostol highlights the historical examples that counter the ‘widespread belief that artists are far too independent and focused on their own work to self-organise and participate in social movements.’ Artists were in fact highly active in unions, communes, associations, and syndicates, so much so that in the Artists’ Union Paris Commune, the terms artist, art worker, and activist were interchangeable. Furthermore, artists recognised themselves as not only artists but also as workers, as Apostol explains: ‘What is also important is that these artists were not just seeking better pay, legal rights, life securities, but also aligned themselves with workers’ movements that challenged the dominant status quo.’
The 1970s was particularly significant to the shifting power dynamic between artists and established systems and institutions. Many independent, alternative, renegade, and worker-run strategies emerged around this time, alongside various institutional-critical practices. Artists worked outside or inside the expectations and structures set by the establishment, knowing that their visibility and success was dependent on their compliance to these systems. They developed strategies to challenge these systems and also questioned their own complicity; from external activist approaches, such as boycott exhibitions, public meetings and sit-ins, to working internally to exploit the very institutional mechanisms they attempted to subvert. German-born New-York based artist Hans Haacke garnered fame for exposing arts institutions for their complicity in corporate excess and state violence, such as with his information shows gathering sociological data in real-time from gallery visitors. For Haacke, these works were real-time systems rather than merely art: ‘they might run under the heading “art”, but this culturization does not prevent them from operating as normal.’ Through their institutional-criticism artists could begin distinguishing and defining their own histories, engaging in an artistic form of historiography and making archiving and documenting a creative act unto itself. Today, artists and cultural producers continue to find inventive ways to create repositories for their and others’ histories, ephemera, specialist writing, and hard to classify published material. They continue to reimagine and realise the possibilities for liberating ideas and information.
Based in central London, the MayDay Rooms is an organising and educational space for activists, social movements, and radicals founded in 2011. They maintain an archive of historical material linked to social struggles, resistance campaigns, experimental culture, and the expression of marginalised and oppressed groups. In so doing, they challenge the widespread assault on collective memory and the tradition of the oppressed. Their archive proceeds from a belief that social change happens when marginalised and oppressed groups can get to know—and tell—their own histories. Their archive extends back to the 1960s and contains everything from recent feminist poetry to 1990s techno paraphernalia; from situationist magazines to histories of riots and industrial transformations; from 1970s educational experiments to prison writing. The core work of MayDay Rooms is to activate radical and experimental historical material, primarily through collaborative education, informal research, digitisation and online distribution. They foster real-world communality by sustaining a building with a reading room, a meeting and screening room, a large kitchen, and a roof terrace—which are used by a wide range of cultural, political, and activist groups.
In New York, another form of organising, advocacy and data-gathering initiative was formed in 2008: Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). It is an activist organisation with a mission is to establish sustainable economic relationships between artists and institutions. They seek to introduce mechanisms for self-regulation into the art field that collectively bring about a more equitable distribution of its economy. Since its founding, W.A.G.E. has been collecting data, writing texts and open letters, making speeches, videos and graphics, conducting research, teaching, paneling, and lecturing. Building on this data-gathering and high-profile advocacy for artists’ wages, they launched W.A.G.E. Certification in 2014. This initiative is an ongoing national program that publicly recognises those nonprofit arts organisations that demonstrate a commitment to voluntarily paying equitable artist fees.
The Koori History Website was established by renowned Gumbainggir activist, academic, and writer Dr Gary Foley. This complex, multifaceted online project provides a breadth of information on Black Australia's 240-year struggle for justice. This expansive archive includes texts and archival material assembled from journals, newspaper articles and Dr Foley’s many commissioned essays, as well as reading lists, resources for students, image collections, audio-visual recordings, and links to a growing youtube page. The critical mass of knowledge assembling by Dr Foley’s The Koori History Website continues to have an active life. In 2020, he published Goori Reader No.1 History, Memory and the Role of Cultural Organisations in Entrenching Colonisation in Australia and Beyond with Common Room (Melbourne), a radical imprint for publishing alternative, marginalised narratives and (hi)stories. Goori Reader No.1 is an introductory reader of republished texts by Dr. Foley, exploring our cultural institutions’ problematic relationship to owning how Indigenous artefacts and artworks are woven into local and global narratives. Essays republished in Goori Reader No.1 include: The Inevitable Collision between Politics and Indigenous Art (2005), Black Power and Aboriginal Arts (2013), Barks Bite the British Museum (2013), The Enlightenment, Imperialism, and the Evolution of Museums (2000). Common Room provides an example of an intermediary entity that is critically engaged with carefully assembled archival collections and provides bespoke pathways to their dissemination.
Another initiative that has grown out of the practices of an individual practitioner is The Community Reading Room (CRR). Founded by Fijian-Australian artist and academic Torika Bolatagici in 2013, the CRR is an experimental discursive project that invites people to consider the inclusivity of public spaces and contemplate how our institutions of knowledge privilege particular methodologies and ways of knowing. The CRR aspires to be a life-affirming space for BIPOC communities to encounter texts that acknowledge, validate, and place their lived experience and creative practice at the centre, rather than the margin. The CRR has appeared in various guises as a pop-up destination for research, community discussion, and engagement with ideas about art, culture, and identity. Their Conversation Series is an example of how this community project foregrounds the living nature of archival practice. For the next event in December 2020, the CRR founder Torika Bolatagici talks with Annalee Davis (Fresh Milk Barbados), Ema Tavola (Vunilagi Vou) about their practice, female-led art, and archive initiatives; the collapsing of public and private spaces; the intersections of creative practice, labour, and parenting and sustaining community-based art ecologies in the contexts of Barbados and South Auckland.
In London, not/nowhere is an artist workers’ cooperative that programs workshops, screenings, exhibitions, and other events. Their mission is to ensure that local artists who use new media in their work can access film and media equipment, and acquire the training to use these machines creatively. They are committed to Black and POC artists exploring new possibilities for owning the means of production of their work and finding sustainability in their practices. not/nowhere’s additional focus is to provide infrastructural support for artists working in all mediums, and enfranchise people living or working in London to take pleasure in expressing themselves creatively.
Skill and equipment sharing initiatives like not/nowhere have contemporary antecedents in no.w.here, a not-for-profit artist run organisation that ran from 2004–2018 and combined film production alongside critical dialogue about contemporary image making. But it could be better contextualised within a longer history stemming from the 1982 Workshop Declaration, which began a radical, defining era that brought diverse voices and perspectives into cinemas and onto British television. In 1981 the public-service television broadcaster Channel 4 began with a remit to provide innovative films from outside white, middle class, and cosmopolitan experience. Under the declaration the Channel agreed to fund and screen films from the ‘alternative’ film and video collectives—known as workshops. Working closely with trade unions, local authorities, political groups, women’s organisations, and ethnic minority communities, what followed was a decade of experimentation with politically progressive and aesthetically experimental documentaries and dramas screened on British television, which continued until 1990.
In the US, Joseph Cuillier III and Shani Peters founded The Black School (TBS), an experimental art school teaching radical Black history. TBS teaches Black/PoC students and allies to become agents of change through art workshops on radical Black politics and public interventions that address local community needs. Based on their commitment to community-building and their core principles of Black love, wellness, and self-determination, TBS’s mission is to promote and extend the legacy of art in Black radical histories by providing innovative education alternatives centered on Black love. They do this work through youth art workshops, community-wide events/programming, and a student-staffed art and design studio. TBS uses art to transform social realities while celebrating Black people's history and the beauty and ingenuity of their ever evolving culture.
Rotterdam based artist and researcher Simon Browne has initiated The Bootleg Library, a travelling box of reprinted, handmade books and a digital library running on a self-hosted server. The library gives access to knowledge and produces sociability within its collection of texts and publishers/librarians. It demonstrates that publishing is making things public and also making publics; the texts and the readers are interdependent, producing each other. Simon hosts events for The Bootleg Library in which readers meet to edit the collection together and through doing so encourages readers to become writers. They produce texts by uploading files and writing metadata that determines how texts are described, classified, and catalogued, and by extension how they are encountered in the library. As a graduate from the Experimental Publishing course at the Piet Zwart Institute, Simon came to understand Librarianship as a negotiation process between readers who determine rules together. The Bootleg Library is an intimate bureaucracy in which administration is a shared privilege and responsibility. As such, in spite of the possibilities of wide dissemination of collections made possible by online platforms, The Bootleg Library is primarily intended to be kept small, personalised, collective, and local.
On the busy platform of Hackney Downs train station in London is Banner Repeater, an initiative that sets out to distribute art and artists publishing straight into the mainstream. On the platform they maintain a space which contains a public Archive of Artists’ Publishing. Growing out of this physical context is their collaborative project with Wikimedia UK, The Digital Archive of Artists Publishing (DAAP). DAAP is an interactive, user-driven, searchable database of Artists’ Books and publications that acts as a hub to engage with others, built by artists, publishers and a community of producers in contemporary Artists’ Publishing. Through a collaborative and consultative process, DAAP has drawn upon the working knowledge of users and archivists alike, to develop a database with sufficient complexity, while remaining searchable, that affords multiple histories to develop. They are committed to challenging the politics of traditional archives that come from issues regarding inclusion and accessibility, from a post-colonial, critical gender, and LGBTQI perspective. The project works to ensure an equitable and ethical design process occurs throughout the archive development.
Collectives, communities, and individual organisers actively complicate the concept of the archive and library to take control of these fundamental history making tools. They co-opt institutional structures for their own purposes, expanding their possibilities as both historical capture devices and living tools for contemporary change-making. This informs the necessary struggles occurring within our universities and art schools around whose histories and knowledge are represented, respected, and taught. In recent times new pedagogical alternatives have emerged locally and internationally that allow for specialist knowledge to be gathered into curriculums to address community needs directly. The internet has provided the tools for such vital knowledge-banks to proliferate around the world, enabling cross-border access to localised knowledge without the sanctioning of existing institutions. These initiatives are finding new ways to connect their ever-expanding collections with methods of real world community-building, creativity and tangible activism. As the bedrock of specialist discourse, they each encourage new groups to come together to reflect, learn, teach and remix.
 Nancy Kranich, 2001. Libraries and Democracy: The Cornerstones of Liberty. Chicago: American Library Association, p.84.
 John Buschman, ‘Column: The Politics of Academic Librarianship: Academic Libraries’, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 43, Iss. 6, 2017, pp. 548-549, viewed 30 November 2020.
 Fair Work Commission: Australia's national workplace relations tribunal, ‘What is industrial action?’, viewed 30 November 2020.
 Kate MacNeill and Colleen Chen. Visual artists and creative labour: intellectual property rights as a basis for individual and collective interventions, Asia Pacific Journal of Arts and Cultural Management, Vol. 12, Iss.1 October, 2015, pp. 14-24.
 Corina L. Apostol. Art Workers between Precarity and Resistance: A Genealogy, Art Production in Restriction. Possibilities of Transformative Art Production and Coalition-Building, viewed on 30 November 2020.
 Hans Haake, Working Conditions: The Writings of Hans Haacke, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 38.
Channon Goodwin is an artist and artworker based in Narrm/Melbourne. His work engages with collective, collaborative, and artist-run practice and forms of artist-led organisation building. Goodwin is the current Director of Bus Projects, and founding co-convener of All Conference, an organising network comprised of 15 artist-led, experimental and cross-disciplinary arts organisations from around Australia. He aggregates his various collaborative and independent work under Fellow Worker. Goodwin recently edited a new book for All Conference, Permanent Recession: a Handbook on Art, Labour and Circumstance. Published through Onomatopee Projects, this book is an enquiry into the capitals and currencies of experimental, radical, and artist-run initiatives in Australia and the labour conditions of working artists.