47 Canal Street Wants to Share “Lee” with You

Text by Christabel Stewart

Photography by Margaret Lee with Josh Kline

On the website for June's forthcoming dOCUMENTA (13), there is a list of participants - each cross-referenced according to the different roles they play in the world, and reflecting their participation in the upcoming biennale in Kassel, Germany. You can look up participants according to 32 different options at present, ranging from the scientific - zoologist, practitioner, hypnotherapist - to the ideological (eg feminist). For her part,  Julie Ault, an artist and co-founder of the activist artists collaborative Group Material (1979-96) has four categories: artist, curator, writer and editor.

When Ault began Group Material in 1979, it was about a turning a loose association of artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians into a working group, extending the camaraderie, community and critical dialogues they enjoyed when studying together. Their initial strategy was to acquire not-for-profit status in order to be eligible for funding, and to find a space in which to exhibit and work (a store front on East 14th Street in New York). Group Material's formative aims were to unite DIY culture, feminist discourse, the civil rights movement and Marxist theory, and provide a focal point for the network of collectives, alternative spaces and journals in New York's non-profit art environment of the early 1980s. The group continued working until 1996, with their seminal project, AIDS Timeline (1989), proving a key project, while their ethos remains a role model for many of today's artists.

The wearing of several hats is on the rise again, and it is becoming more playful than ever. Margaret Lee, an artist, gallerist and curator, set up her initial artist-run project 179 Canal in Manhattan's Chinatown in March 2009. Here, she established a role as "facilitator" to a group of artists with whom she felt an affinity. Time Out New York published an interview with Lee at the time in which she stated: "I knew that NY needed a space where artists were in full control and felt some kind of ownership and connection to the space while participating, without having to be under a collective's rhetoric or overbearing curatorial intent."

Key to the nature of her role is her willingness to collaborate with other artists, resulting in  projects as varied as websites and one-night events. Among them are her "Betteraves Club" - a procession, a performance night and party run with fellow artist Emily Sundblad (who also co-directs her own artist-run gallery, Reena Spaulings, which shares a similar desire to combine and disrupt the roles of gallery worker, critic and artist) -  and the web-published critique, November 5, 2011 = Bank Transfer Day.

Due to leasing issues in June 2010, Lee had to relocate. She summarised her position as, "179 Canal was spurred by an ongoing communication with friends - it wasn't about finding something but making sure the conversation remained open and continuous - friend to friend, peer to peer - amongst a group of artists who were tired of art about art, business as usual, and the heavy history of a past that wasn't necessarily ours to reference" Lee's gallery moved to its current address 47 Canal, and adopted a slightly new focus. These days it presents a number of Lee's collaborators as a list, or "roster", of artists, as many mainstream galleries do, yet Lee continues to work in an individual manner with each one.

For this issue's curatorial pages, Tank invited Lee to use the section as she wishes, and she in turn invited artist friend Josh Kline, a longtime collaborator, to contribute. Understandably, perhaps, Kline's text warns that their vision of this year is particularly bleak, and that the "creative landscape" will need to negotiate extreme economic circumstances.

This continuing role fluidity and collaboration is encouraging. A generation of artists are eschewing the peripherals - curators, institutions, collectors, administrators, history - to define whom they are and what they do by assuming control themselves. It is heartening to see these artists ensuring the credibility of their own positions. It offers them the freedom to bypass the dominance of heavily retrospective twentieth century cultural and intellectual "styling", and to assume more control of their own positions.

Thank you both, Margaret and Josh. §


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