Trust No-one Under 30: Mercer Union's birthday party
What seems like not that long ago, a scrappy breed of art space rose up in defiance to the staid institutional culture of its day. They were called a number of things -- parallel galleries being the one that always made the most sense to me -- but over time the label "artist-run centre" stuck, if only for purely pragmatic reasons: These were spaces -- I hesitate to call them "institutions," as would they, I think -- free of the stodgy institutional politics that plagued the big museums, and unconcerned with market forces that dictated what kind of art should be made. They were willfully political, defiant and engaged -- free spaces meant to facilitate unfettered expression.
That lofty ideal has played out to varying degrees of success over the years, and many of the original artist-run centres are undergoing identity crises as their original, anti-institutional raison d'etre seems to have morphed into an establishment mindset of its own (they worried as much at a recent conference on ARC's in Ottawa last year, put on, in an indication of just that, by its national governing body, ARCCO). Some have held fast to a political agenda, like Toronto's
YYZ A Space, the city's oldest; while others have more readily embraced the contemporary currents in art, political or no.
The flagship, perhaps, of that latter group is Mercer Union, which celebrates its 30th birthday on Friday. There's a lot to celebrate: Some strong new video work by Sarah Gregg Millman (a still from her piece, Interview, is above) and Johanna Billing; and, of course, a spectacular new building that gives Mercer's programming a, well, official-seeming vibe. Institutional? Maybe a little. But if more institutions could behave like this, maybe we wouldn't need parallel systems to defy them.
The party, called Saturn Return (Saturn orbits the sun once every 30 years), starts at 8 and goes to whenever. If you've been to a Mercer party before, you don't need to be told that they're deadly. If you haven't, now you know.