Criticism Free From Future: Post-Office Arts Journal and Baltimore, MD, Apr 2016

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"[Some students] study without an end, plan without a pause, rebel without a policy, conserve without a patrimony." -Stefano Harney and Fred Moten

[Published in To Make A Public: Temporary Art Review 2011-2016 in conjunction with the exhibition Document V]

In post-industrial cities, using neglected space is a tradition, that is, a basic necessity for supporting everything from underground to just low-brow cultural output.

When I moved to Baltimore in 2010, that tradition supported one of the strongest music communities in the country. As the scene has shifted since then in shut down venues, projects broken up, bands sucked into cultural capitals, the inertia that art spaces have managed to salvage from that energy is wild and rare. A music economy is generally more sustainable than art when it comes to a creative community supporting itself; that economy is funded by crowds while art still relies on the gatekeepers: patrons, grants, or collectors. Despite that, 2014 in Baltimore ended with something like 15 different artist-run, alternative, and/or temporary arts venues in a 20-block radius, a brief wave in an ebb and flow.

Post-Office Arts Journal came at that time after many precursors and balanced out a local critical landscape shared with the Baltimore City Paper, BmoreArt, and the annually published ACRES. Post-Office operates specifically to offer critical discourse to the many alternative spaces in the city. The mission statement it started with took cues from various publications from other regions including Pool, WOWHUH, regionalist activity in New London, Ontario, and Chicago Artist Writers. When starting Post-Office, I spoke with Sofia Leiby of Chicago Artist Writers early on to figure out what trial and error had revealed for her and partner Jason Lazarus in their project.

In developing Post-Office, I've learned that artist-writers want to contribute writing pro bono when the platform is appropriate. For us, about 18 have done so in the last year and a half, and we have an open door submission policy to build on this. Sofia described this as the writer-sponsor model. I think Temporary has described something similar as an "anti-profit" model. By operating within these sorts of models, Post-Office has been able to offer slow, careful editing and a platform for criticism free from publication schedules, free from advertising, free from a tyranny of content. That said, of course, the project would ideally be able to offer all that while simultaneously paying writers' bills.

In 2013, local curator and writer Max Guy wrote a piece in a (now defunct) local arts column titled The Baltimore House Gallery Phenomenon, "Perhaps something needs to change in a small city with little to no art market. As a young and perhaps naïve artist, I am eager to find some utopian alternative to the increasingly closed-off commercial art world and the predominant amateurism of the house gallery." In the Fall of 2013, Max went on to start a bookstore/project space with his friends Chloe Maratta and Flannery Silva called Rock512Devil.

In the course of that space's 12 month run on West Franklin Street, they hosted maybe six gallery shows, many screenings and poetry readings, book group discussions, and were open every weekend as a bookstore selling mostly low-distribution editions and local productions (zines and VHS videos). Pretty casual stuff. A few pieces of local arts writing sort of acknowledged the existence of the space, but perhaps the best writing that touched on this curatorial work covered Nick Vyssotsky's exhibition (a really nice show that highlighted the role of police lights as emotional triggers) titled Control Module #1 and was written by Liam Dunaway in December 2014. The piece was mailed to the artist as a typed essay and was written while Liam was incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Complex in Mississippi, part of an ongoing correspondence the two maintained. The piece is concise and quickly drafts an image of how art can operate at its best: in subjective terms and as an ongoing conversation.

I feel incredibly optimistic towards the potential for writing now and for creating platforms that can support this sort of exchange, of peers criticizing peers in a way that catalyzes production. That can attempt contribution to a paradigm shift that doesn't swap out one zero-sum game for another while maintaining real criticality.

It took me the entirety of Rock512Devil's run for the weight of its ambition to settle in on me. Like some of the events it hosted, the project was a violent burst of energy, incredibly personal and delicate. Brevity has been a theme in what might be considered that space between amateurist house galleries and the exclusive (and increasingly problematic) commercial realm. This space offers a kind of fast and loose and simultaneously sincere programming venue for working artists where hard work is met with respect, community and space for growth.
Since starting Post-Office, several spaces in Baltimore have had turnover and entirely new spaces have been activated; we've been able to act as much as an archive as a voice of peer criticism in that regard. We've had the chance to make our process a little more streamlined. I've had an associate editor, Bailey Sheehan, come on board to help with the day to day management, and in the Fall, we entered into a cross-publishing partnership with Temporary (which has offered intermittent monetary support for our writers). We recently used Kickstarter to fund the physical publication of issues one and two of the project, as well.

It is easy to superimpose that same anti-growth attitude on this project's future when it is the project's area of study. "Grow or die": some sort of unbreakable binary, but maybe there's a middle way. In the meantime, Post-Office uses its place to act as a resource. Perhaps it can preserve inertia for those that might not find it elsewhere.