The Rich Compost of Before
‘The Rich Compost of Before’ is an archival excavation into the past 20 years of Artist-Run Activity at EMBASSY gallery, featuring fragments from the EMBASSY archive, and responding commissions by Lorenzo Rangoni Robertson and Sarah Phelan.The exhibition is accompanied by texts from current committee members, formed from research and conversations held during the process of working on this show.”
Text written by Georgia Holman for the exhibitions catalogue:
15:01, 12th of January 2023
Sitting at a desk in Glasgow, I start to write into a shared google doc. In the drive, updates flicker, allowing us to concurrently see one another's move. We are a hive mind, we joke. A conglomerate of an ARI, working and weaving together in a way that is deeply intimate, personal & impossible to conceptualise as strictly work. Typing straight from a zoom call the day before, Maria has written- 'it takes a lot of shit for good things to grow’. Reformatting it into large pink text, in the font ‘princess sofia’ the phrase shines at the bottom of the document filled with disparate copies of the definition of ‘lodes’, the term ‘amorphous’. ‘Non-hierarchical working <3’ and the questions - What does it mean to inherit a collective history?
Who was able to have access to do the work? This is a warm up attempt to write The text, for The archive exhibition, for The Embassy. It takes a lot of shit for good things to grow. Writing to the collective, a space not mine, but ours. One nurtured and held and incarnated by many, in which its ownership, conception, and preservation is tied irrevocably to many people's hearts, energy and labour. Writing here, I break from our usual monolithic voice, and instead write from this day, from my own perspective. In this publication, holding a capsule of our current form, one that will shapeshift again soon, falling back into the thick amnesia of rolling committees, for which institutional memory loss is inevitable.
As one of the caretakers of the show- ‘The Rich Compost of Before’, these are the words I want to leave behind.
Fairyness & Compost
To start from the beginning, I am pulled back to ‘The Governance Of The Possible’ , a work that was built from the bottom up and collaboratively informed by artists’ and arts worker’s practice through a sensitive co-writing process. Co-authored by Helga Baert, Martin Schick and Sam Trotman, in the text, they write;
“To start making this work/prototype/change we first need to break with the harmful relationships, practices, and structures that choke our ability to imagine anew.”
A text I have read many times throughout being on the committee, it is a work I have returned to often as a guiding force. The text attempts to imagine, propose, and experiment with alternative structures and governance as a means to truly make change happen. Whilst the cultural sector often uses these reimaginings as thematic concerns for public programmes, less often are institutions able to use these considerations, as propulsive action to reformat their very own organisational structure. Faced with the responsibility of being the committee to re-write the constitution for EMBASSY, these questions have remained prominent and visible throughout my tenure. Seeking to dissect the ways these structures dictate the conditions of work and the art we show. It is these conversations of power and access that have driven my interest in artist-led organising.
Joining a committee of an artist-run space is often described as an assault course, in which you are thrown in the deep end. Often desperate for new energy & support, new committee members immediately inherit responsibility that is not only expansive in the range of tasks required, but heavy in legacy. A role still dripping with the saturation of feeling from those who have come before, and a commitment larger than its able to articulate. Though this turn over of non hierarchical activity, ARI’s remain a precarious and structurally fragile setting. Whilst seemingly affording space to tear down structures and build your own, like any organisation, EMBASSY comes with existing methods, practises and protocols. What does it mean to inherit collectivity? To take the baton of pre-existing relationships, connections and often unexecuted or delayed programming. To have conditional funders, and a members base for which you are responsible.
Running on a model taken from Transmission & GENERATOR Projects, EMBASSY was founded in 2003 by a group of graduates from Edinburgh College of Art. Knowing they wouldn’t be able to sustain their energy forever, EMBASSY was always to have a two year tenure, with the plan always to pass it on. With 66 people having been on the committee in the past 20 years, the organisation has fed off fresh voices, perspectives and maybe most importantly - fresh energy. Setting up a system that hands over ownership, the turnover of people involved has been necessary to its survival. Operating solely on unpaid labour for over 18 years, the role has been untenable for many, which has to be acknowledged in the account of who had access or capacity to do this work. This also plays into the experience you have on the committee, and is heavily linked to the rises and falls in the precarity of EMBASSY over its lifespan. Having changed the constitution in 2022 (for the first time since its conception) EMBASSY is now able to renumerate its operational committee members for their working time. Working under a tight budget however, this still only equates to 48 paid hours of workers time per week, still vastly different to galleries managed by regular staff teams.
Whilst positive and transformatory developments to the sustainability and accessibility of the position, being on the committee still holds difficulties. It takes time to build confidence to tear structures down, but also considerations must be held of what is important or necessary to keep. What would abolition of the governing structure entail, and what knowledge or power can be taken from history? The newly written constitution offers better possibilities for fair work, yet still holds limitations. Through the development of a board of trustees, there are further considerations to be had of how a non-hierarchical work setting can be preserved. We have sought to embed a politics of shared accountability, in which we are responsive to one another, however working to resist typical power dynamics and a consideration of how the labour of tasks are divided will be ongoing. Whilst a legal document, I would like to hope that the constitution can still provide a malleable space for experimentation. In which committees can weave through formalities. As creatives collectively imagining different ways to be, beyond the binaries necessary to formalised structures. This is the wealth of the artist led.
No longer running at speed, I want us to use this moment of the celebration of 20 years of EMBASSY to be that of a pause. A reflective moment to imagine anew. To be forward facing through the retrospection. To ask, what structures do we wish to build?
It is therefore through this exhibition, that we wish to facilitate a discursive space to publicly hold these internal conversations. To invite our members, colleagues and peers to speak with us.
The material in the gallery itself is a rich ground of history from which we can pull, pluck, prune and compost. A stream of evidence of artists' social conditions & the symbiotic relationships between ARI’s & institutions in Scotland. Responsive to our current conditions and not reverent to the past, we invite you to collectively consider how we can tend to our history, and nourish our future.
In the exhibition, we have noted gaps in material. This is due to certain material holding harm, offence or prejudice in its content. There is no space for this in a gallery any longer, and there shouldn’t have been space at the time. To not comment on this would be an act of ‘willful inattention’ a decision that preserves the current state of affairs. As Morgan Quaintance has said -
“Compromise and complicity are the new original sins, I suspect silence, resignation or apathy are fuelled by something far more basic, comfort. Put simply, people are adverse to personal risk and lifestyle change.”
To push this under the rug would be an act of silence, in which we as a current committee would be presenting an apathetic account of a history that has caused harm to others. We believe artist led spaces should exist in order to hold a level of criticality, autonomy and integrity. We couldn’t present in good faith, these gaps glossed over, whilst claiming a commitment to supporting minority groups. It is for this reason, we must acknowledge the content of our organisation's history in this archival exploration. Not seeking to continue to provide a platform for such language or imagery, these works are not available to view in the exhibition themselves. Our full archive can however be viewed upon request by anyone wishing to access the material, as their inclusion in past exhibitions is important in contextualising the progression of the organisation and the ways in which EMBASSY has interacted with communities.
As a current committee, we have found unity in our belief that organisations of any level are political bodies. Impossible to disentangle our own identities from the work enacted for EMBASSY, this space is political. We stand firmly for the advocacy of better labour conditions, for fair pay. For minority voices to hold positions in which their voices are heard and can effectively contribute and shape the direction of the organisations in which they participate. For our values to be overt and clear. To state with assertion, that the gallery is for all, and to commit to removing the barriers to achieve this.
Finally, in conducting our interviews, we have repeatedly asked the question ‘What do you hope for the future of EMBASSY?’ Often turned back to us, I have since answered the question many times. My answers shift with each interaction.
For my last answer, I want to look back to my committee bio from almost two years ago. In June 2021, wrote ‘I am excited by the prospect of co-constructed knowledge development and artistic exchange that has the power to be vitalising as opposed to exhaustive.’
I now realise that these two words aren’t antithesis to one another. I have been exhausted, often pushed to the point of feeling I was unable to continue the work, but I have also been vitalised, and maybe this process is one that will remain cyclical. It is through the beauty of the working relationships that I have held, that I have been supported to stay. Artist run spaces can’t function without extraction. But I would like to propose that nourishment, composting and growing, can be the antidote to this, in knowing you are giving to something larger, in which your work can live a life beyond its immediate effect.
My hope would be that there can be solidarity across organisations. That this can feed into discussions of conversations about labour conditions, institutional dominance, accessibility and collective structures, and these conversations are able to be articulated both locally, nationally and internationally with minority voices at the forefront.
I hope that EMBASSY continues to provide a space for experimentation, for honesty. For failure and risk. To stay an amorphous, whimsical creature that schemes and dances in DIY. I hope EMBASSY can burn slow and low. For passion to be at the heart of everything it does, and its compost remains rich. I want the gallery to have chairs with backs, and human voices. To not chisel, but to hold. To flourish, not survive, and know when to pause. I wish for all committees to trust themselves, to prioritise interpersonal care & to hold joy. For if it is hurting to stop.
I hope that future committees find collective power, and shared trust, that enables them to try to build the structures that they wish to inhabit. That they don’t necessarily always get it right, but that they have the support to try to do so. I hope we can compost and collapse and lay down and have enough nourishment around us to grow again.
For a basement without windows, In EMBASSY I have found a lot of light and I hope others get to experience this too.
In love & solidarity