Chambres d’Amis Revisited

Slavka Sverakova

Slavka Sverakova is a writer on art.

See Quicktime movie of images (4.1Mb)
In 1986, the Ghent Museum of Contemporary Art (Jan Hoet) organized the international exhibition Chambres d’amis with fifty national and international artists invited to create original works for as many private homes in Ghent.1 There is a separate long tradition of artists forming groups, working together, as well as using available spaces to exhibit, which are neither galleries nor homes, e.g. AVAGO, a window in a warehouse, approximately 18 cubic feet, illuminated at night, thus open 24/7.2 These two examples rendered alternative spaces desirable both to the art world and the public, for both were patronized by well known artists, those who took part in significant international blockbusters, like the Venice Biennale and Kassel Documenta.
According to recent reports, some two thirds of British people oppose public funding of the arts. Private money works better for the communal strata of culture (e.g. pop music), while most arts depend on public funding. Will enough money circulate to keep the artists alive and productive? It is doubtful. To forge a meeting point between audience and contemporary art, when funding is not on offer, artists search for dysfunctional, complementary, slack, alternative, collaborative, and hybrid spaces. At present, even restaurants are popping up in private homes.3 Belfast recently hosted three different takes on “getting the art out and audiences in”: a discourse , a kind of a wake, and a pop up gallery.
1. A Discourse
Creating Alternative Spaces (12 August 2010) was organized by Ciara Hickey, who curated the Arrivals exhibition for the Ormeau Baths Gallery (which opened in July 2010).

  • Daniel Hancox spoke of complementary spaces in London: pubs, disused public conveniences, or factories. The juxtaposition of sophisticated art on the neglected walls and in vandalised interiors forges its own visual force - capable of overwhelming the exhibits.

  • Labelled ‘art-squats’, an initiative of Bobby Dowler and Shaun McDowell in London provided a platform for dedicated students from the Camberwell College of Art. It changed the reputation of the previously dysfunctional house. “What I am learning here is far more valuable than any MA.”4

  • Brown and Bri use the site of Belfast Exposed in a “collaborative entrepreneurship”. That is not an alternative space. They market art and support it by informal methods: a café on a barge at Waterfront Hall.

  • The Joinery in Dublin is run differently and for a new audience.5

  • The Guesthouse in Cork has developed a particularly stable mix of various parts of culture, e.g., the Quiet Club alongside social-club functions.

  • The Good Hatchery in Co. Offaly is a gift to the arts from the owner. So far 97 graduates from Dublin have used its workshops and mounted exhibitions.6

  • When two sisters, Sinéad and Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell decided to play house party with art making,7 they invited almost a dozen artists / friends to their home. The first three-day event developed into regular events. I sensed a huge learning value in these Shac Residencies, through a chain of well planned actions.

  • In September 2008 Keith Winter, Ciara Hickey and Claire Hall founded Delawab and ended it on 23 July 2010.8


2. The Death of Delawab
Keith Winter stated:

Our aspirations for making our house public and showing art inside it began as a meagre venture, using a spare room as an extension of a studio... a white cube.... We also began to open up the house to artists to live in during their installation and period of work so it became a residency. This mixture of public and private, of opening nights and introverted domestic uses became addictive ... James Golden has described the reconstruction of the Church of Ireland around the 1760s as having a curiously similar feel to Delawab... The church met in small groups around dinner tables, in homes where business and debate were carried out hand in hand with eating, drinking and hospitality.

The spirit of hospitality grounds all other issues, like insurance for third-party liability and health-and-safety rules. A small detour to philosophy should remove an instant suspicion that doses of oxytocin were generously distributed to remove insecurities, conflicts, competition, jealousy, etc. Aware of the eventual demise of hospitable spaces, shall we ask with Derrida: “Is not hospitality an interruption of the self?”9 Derrida defines hospitality as ethics and as “culture itself”10 and offers a detailed support for the proposition that absolute hospitality is not possible and that the interruption of self happens when the host opens the home to others. The guests become the masters of the house. Any critical dialogue that may develop becomes a private part of that exchange and thus not accessible to the public. Moreover, the ‘interrupted’ self functions both as the origin and the end, by reverting to the previous state.
What is a hospitable space an alternative of? Whatever else it is, it fulfills a need. Persistent lack of space to make their art visible can stunt artists at a crucial stage. Even more acute is the threat of “...losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut ...in fact of thinking in terms of images.”11 While Calvino’s concern is not limited to the hospitable alternatives, they offer gradual learning related to display, documentation and dissemination. Meandering from exhibit to exhibit,  viewers are likely to feel deflected, sidetracked and even stonewalled without the support habitually expected from the art world’s establishment, thus they must turn to their ability to think in images.
Describing “Art World 2.0,” Ted Moody listed preferences for secrecy, subversion, withholding, ephemerality, intimate interaction, and sub-visible presence, and dialogues between artists. 12 A brief duration of an exhibition made possible by good will and dialogue between artists touches on ephemerality of access.
3. Emerging vs Established
Alice Burns invited seventeen artists to submit work to be exhibited at St Anne Square in August 2010.13
SS: Why in those two unfinished rooms?
AB: I thought of the units in Saint Anne’s Square as I had no money to rent a proper gallery space, and had read about the Empty Shops Network in England. Those two rooms were not my first choice, another unit was, but as it was leased I was offered the two rooms.
The space seemed ideal to me, even though unfinished I thought it would make an interesting setting for an exhibition with the right work in it. I thought it might be difficult to have a good exhibition as the work was split between the two rooms, however I think I got the balance of the work right in the spaces.
SS: What motivated you to make this particular selection of emerging and established artists?
AB: I began with the graduates at the University, I chose work that I liked and felt would work well in that location. I had several established artists in mind and began to canvas them to take part in the exhibition. Overall my motivation was that I liked the work of the artists that I asked to exhibit.
In contrast, to identify individuals worthy of support, public funding applies rules derived from current policy.
This exhibition transformed the ‘found’ space inside and out. The rough concrete walls challenged the prints and photographs, the pillars competed with installations. On the evening of the opening, the young audience spilled out of the pop-up gallery with drinks in hand, to chat, to watch a fire eating performer, and to listen to some live music. The square lost briefly its usual vacuous character.
The Death of Delawab and Emerging vs Established became valuable platforms14 for adventurous, scrupulous and imaginative art.


1. The exhibition was in part inspired by the conclusion that the Ghent Museum for Contemporary Art, which was housed in the building of the Museum of Fine Arts, was too small to exhibit both its own collection and temporary shows. Chambres d’amis was held from 21 June to 21 September, 1986. See http://jefcornelis.janvaneyck.nl/bio_10.php; http://www.smak.be/tentoonstelling.php?Ia=nl&id=181; http://www.warp-artprojects.be/english/eng_news.html

2. Adrian Hall, when he was teaching in Belfast, exhibited in the smallest gallery in the Southern Hemisphere started by artists Marr Grounds and Tony Coleing in 1980 in Macdonald Street, Paddington, Sydney, and twenty years later recreated at an university, see: http://www.cofa.unsw.edu.au/galleries; They still invite proposals: threefootsquare@unsw.edu.au

3. Anna Tyzack, ‘Dine out with the in crowd’, Telegraph Weekend, 11 September, 2010, p. 8.

4. http://www.timeout.com/London/art/features/2885/Peckham_art_squats.html; 8 May 2007; the article covers another alternative space, WOWOW!, displaying photographs by Matthew Stone.

5. http://www.thejoinery.org

6. http://thegoodhatchery.wordpress.com

7. The residence’s weblog is on http://residenceni.wordpress.com

8. http://delawab.wordpress.com; artists: Sighle Breathnach-Cashell, Ch. Borland, Ch. Burns, Ch. Campbell, H. Casey, S. Doyle, D. Jewsbury, D. McKenna, T. McMullan, M. Martin, P. Mutschler, F, O’Malley, A. Quail, P. Richards, M. Rossi, D. Shipsides and N. Beggs.

9. Jacques Derrida, Adieu, transl. By P-A Brault and Michael Naas, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 51.

10. Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, transl. M. Dooley and R. Keaney, Routledge, 2005, p. 16; Derrida coined the term ‘Hostipitality’, a corruption of hostility and hospitality; its concept received recent application in Receiving Stranger in Lodz, Poland. Access: www.msl.org.pl; Jacques Derrida, ‘Hostipitality’, in Angelaki, Vol 5, Issue 3, 3 December 2000, pp. .3 - 18 (publ. by Routledge).

11. Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1996, p. 92.

12. ‘The Rise of Art World 2.0,’ accessed on Monday 26 April 2010 at http://artistorganizedart.org/commons/2010_04_01_artistorganizedart_archive.html

13. St Anne Square, Belfast, 20 – 31 August 2010; artists: D-L. Badger, B. Brown, A. Burns, D.Byrne, Ch. Davis, W. Heron, T. Hill, N. Jackson-Smyth, M.Martin,G. McBride, E. McGinn, G. Murphy, G. Owens, B. Penney, J. Preston, A.M. Savage, K. Winter.

14. A gallery in Sweden proposes: “Platform is a concept, a free body that intervenes and floats in and out of the fixed program..., appearing at any moment when there are exciting proposals and possibilities...Platform thus serves as a mapping tool... giving [artists] the floor and a chance to test their ideas.” See http://www.rodasten.com/program.asp?menuaction=8&dot=81&id=327