ABSTRACT: I have an instinct to hold on to new things. To want to make them last at times way longer than they should. In an act of ultimate possession, I have been known to destroy, or let erode, the very thing I am holding on to so that by the time I can no longer hold on, the thing is no longer what I was gripping. Somewhere in my life I was taught that there was a heroism in this irrational demonstration of commitment. And, while I do think there is value in the sacrifice inherent to emotional labour, locating that worth in neoliberal values of endless persistence is useless and damaging. Instead, I remind myself that letting go, abandoning and quitting can be an equal act of care and commitment.
When It Started
Initiated by Patrick Lacasse and Alexis Bellavance, VIVA! Art Action was established in 2006 by six artist-run centres from Greater Montreal as a collaborative platform through which to foster and support action art in its most singular, difficult and surprising forms. This includes – but is not limited to – performance, public intervention, relational projects, body art, happenings and furtive action. Although initially conceived of as a punctual event, after the success of the first edition – which vividly demonstrated both an interest and a need for such a platform in Montreal –the founders agreed to continue the initiative in the form of an international biennial festival.
Over the years, VIVA!’s structure has evolved organically and slowly between the founding members, non-profit contemporary art centres who remained collectively responsible for all aspects of the event and organization until 2012, when I was hired as a part-time coordinator. This included grant writing and reporting, developing the artistic programming, hiring festival coordination staff and overseeing general organizational governance. Basically, everything. While this model met VIVA!’s primary needs, as time passed it became daunting to the partners, who were already responsible for their respective calendars of artistic activities. For a community operating with limited time, money and energy, a punctual commitment of this scale was feasible but its repetition, and consequent development, was increasingly challenging to oversee.
The motivation to hire permanent staff was logical, a natural response to our organisation’s growth that was made possible by a small operating grant from the municipal arts council. After being financed exclusively through project grants for more than 6 years – public funding programs that provide no guarantee to any or all of the requested monies – the arrival of modest funds renewed on a two-year cycle was a relief and a celebrated accomplishment. We had reached the first step in organisational sustainability.
However, hiring a general coordinator also marked VIVA!’s first major structural shift away from an entirely shared endeavour towards an autonomous one. While this was done to facilitate the increasingly labourious collaborative process, it also made visible the inherent unsustainability of the platform as it was originally conceived. For the initiative to persist, change was necessary.
When It Changes
It is evident that some adaptation is required as an initiative of any sort develops, particularly a collaborative one. To think otherwise would assume that all initiatives begin in their ideal form. This is rarely true. From limited funds to technical learning curves, the first iteration is the real version of the dream (manifest but likely compromised or scaled back). A second and third chance can allow for meaningful fine-tuning of both process and form. It is in this repetition that clarity takes shape and the learning provided by the previous experiences can be reintegrated to better align the dream with its reality. But at some point, inherently, these shifts stop refining and start expanding under the motto of bigger, better, more.
This type of expansion, which is currently at the heart of most organisational growth in Canada, is linked to a neoliberal pressure to demonstrate health and relevance through adaptability and consistent development. For fear of becoming complacent, homeostasis, a well-balanced context in which to reflexively and creatively execute our work, is not an option. We do not ask how to keep focus in a constantly shifting context, but rather how to thrive in it.
These capitalist values of perpetual growth have been internalized by many non-profits in the cultural sector. After years of constantly defending our value through an ability to do more with less (under the constant fear of funding cuts and fuelled by the belief that we will eventually be rewarded for our sacrifices), we reach a point at which we can no longer tell if we are privileging the sustainability of the organisation or the needs of the communities we are serving. And, because there is pain in admitting that we (organizations or initiatives) are no longer suited for a context – or that the context is not suited for us – we adapt to persist, regardless of whether we should or not.
When Will It End
Since I was hired, VIVA!, like most non-profit organizations (I will venture to claim), is constantly making decisions to not quit, to adapt for the sake of sustainability. While this can be commendable, the concern lies in adapting to the point at which we are no longer the thing we set out to be, or worse, we are no longer a thing that is truly needed.
My challenge over the years has been to ensure that the organization’s desire to persist does not distance us from our values, that our repetition does not privilege our own continuity over the collective interests and needs of our community. This is more difficult than I had expected. For a collaborative platform like VIVA!, there is temptation to opt for a more efficient, normative and autonomous structure while instituting administrative stability. However, by resisting equating our organizational success with independence, we ensure that the initiative remains an active collaboration characterized by co-dependence. This is important because I have come to see our mutual reliance on each other’s financial, material and artistic contributions as a strategy by which to gauge the continued relevance of the platform within our cultural landscape.
Our partners’ enduring willingness to support VIVA! demonstrates that we provide something that cannot be achieved individually. In addition to the more obvious and practical benefits such as pooling resources, multiplying publics, and dividing expenses, working together also allows us to offer artists the opportunity to work in challenging, unpredictable and risk-taking ways that would be impossible to support individually in any durational form.
Within this logic of purposeful co-dependence, I suspect that when VIVA!’s shared benefits cease to match the investment required of our partners (due to shifts in context or practice), they will no longer be willing to contribute to the platform’s existence. Having become parasitic, the initiative will be forced to dissolve.
This self-destruct logic was unconsciously built into the organization in 2006, but is actively preserved by me because it operates as a barometer measuring our pertinence amongst our peers. The collaborative structure keeps us in check. While it is admittedly uncertain, it ensures that we are responding to shared community interests and not just continuing our activities for the sake of singular longevity. As such, VIVA! has privileged remaining relevant over becoming sustainable.