For better or worse

Written by
Dallas Athent
The Disorganization of indie art in Europe


Contemporary Art Museum of Macedonia

Contemporary Art Museum of Macedonia. Photo courtesy Dallas Athent


There’s a gallery space in London that doubles as a bookstore and café. A month and a half prior to my arriving in London I email the owner to see if she’d like for the press I work with to host a literary event with them. She said she’d love to. Weeks go by and I follow up with her numerous times. I either get no response or bounced around to someone else to help coordinate. Then she tells me she’d like to just talk on the phone. On the phone we plan a date. I do an outline of what work will be read and an event description. Then she emails me. I forgot, she writes. She’s actually already booked another literary reading that night. We will have to merge the two events. Still, people attend the reading, stay for the whole thing and engage with the writers at the end.

I’m headed to Kinsale in Ireland. I adore Irish poetry. I email the Poets Cafe about events coming up to see if there would be a good one for me to possibly perform at. They say they don’t book people. Instead, writers just show up and start reading randomly. There is never a plan. Still, people in the café sit and listen as I perform on a whim.

I’m going to Europe for a couple of weeks. I remember my friend telling me I’m welcome to perform in his bookstore whenever I’m in Paris. I message him to say I’ll be in the continent and give him the dates I could take the Eurostar over to France. He says he may not be in town but he’s not really sure. I follow up again with additional dates, just to be flexible. He says there’s nothing happening and it’s too hard to coordinate. Still, he invites me to drop by anytime I’m in Paris.

I’m in Skopje, Macedonia at a gallery/wine bar for artists. The owner hears I’m a writer and asks if I want to do a reading. Appreciative of the opportunity, I tell him absolutely. He asks me to put together a flier. In the meantime he promises to call local people in the press that he knows. He’s also going to invite an ambassador. I make the flier that night and get it to him at two in the morning. I follow up over the next couple of days and he just keeps saying it will be good. I show up at 6:50 as the reading is meant to start at 7. At 7, a group of people are there for a lecture. “I’m so sorry,” he tells me, “We booked something at the same time and I forgot. You will read at 8. Don’t worry.” People come and hang outside smoking and drinking until it’s my turn to have my reading. They listen and enjoy their evening out.

I considered my newsfeed, which was full of art and literature events, sure, but that means during those events, the people I followed had to be taking pictures instead of being present.

During every one of these experiences I thought you’d drown if you tried to make it in New York. In New York, artists make fliers weeks in advance. In New York, they create Facebook events before they even really know what they’re selling. In New York, they have email lists full of addresses of people they’ve barely even said hello to. In New York, they have an online calendar on the off chance someone actually visits their website and not just their social media page. In New York, they email blogs to get the event listed for people to come to. In New York, the venue lists your bio with all the names and links of places you’ve been published.

But then I thought, is that better, or worse?

Seriously. When was the last time you went to an art event in a major metropolitan area in the United States without everyone taking out their phones and documenting the whole thing for their social media pages? How often have people just come for the free wine? When there’s an open mic or show, how many people stay for the whole thing, or just for their friends before they leave in a group?

Art in the U.S. is often about being seen, not seeing. It’s about being in the coolest place you can be in that moment. People are organized not out of discipline, but necessity. They must get enough people amped up about their event to make them believe it will outshine others. They need to advertise it so you actually get off of the couch and go.

I remembered going to gallery openings in Bushwick where people would stay at each show for ten minutes and talk to people without even looking at the art. Or putting together readings and emailing everyone I knew at blogs knowing if I didn’t get it listed nobody would show up. I considered my newsfeed, which was full of art and literature events, sure, but that means during those events, the people I followed had to be taking pictures instead of being present.

As I closed out my readings in London, Kinsale, and Skopje, I looked up. At one reading there was 4 people. At another there was 40. It didn’t matter, because every one of those souls was present, listening and it didn’t matter that none of the venues made fliers, or if anyone present knew who was reading.

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