Can You Farm?: A Case Study
Posted: 5/13/12


As a comedian, I always get into situations where I’m auditioning for movies and sitcoms, you know? As a comedian, they want you to do things besides comedy. They say, ‘Alright you’re a comedian, can you write? Write us a script. Act in this sitcom.’ They want me to do shit that is related to comedy, but it’s not comedy, man. It’s not fair, you know? It’s as though if I was a cook, and I worked my ass off to become a really good cook, and they said ‘alright you’re a cook… can you farm?’ (1)
- Mitch Hedberg

I’m new to Philadelphia and I am still discovering the arts scene: its spaces and venues, the community formed here. Tiger Strikes Asteroid (TSA) is one of the most compelling spaces I have ever encountered--and as an artist who has contributed to artist-run spaces, I have a particular fondness and respect for the unique possibilities they provide.
I wanted to use TSA as a focal point to think about smaller non-commercial arts venues and consider the role these spaces play in a city like Philadelphia and the goals they have. I recently met with TSA’s current director Matt Sepielli, as well as their previous director and founding member Alex Paik to discuss the impetus for TSA and learn more about the project. Next issue, I will publish a follow-up article considering the lifespan and future of TSA and similar spaces.

The above joke by the late Mitch Hedberg always comes to mind when I think about artist run spaces. At its core, this foible is about applying oneself to a career and then being expected to fill another somewhat related role and does apply when thinking about TSA. An artist’s job is to make work and put efforts towards the creative act of producing something. The role of the artist has nothing to do with being involved in a gallery and being responsible for multiple exhibitions in a single year (…or a writer for an online journal). This is hardly a situation that only TSA faces. One need only look at the rest of the 11th street building to find a myriad of similar ventures that are run by artists. I’m not trying to suggest that these spaces are run in the same bitter tone Hedberg’s joke implies; he obviously wants to be a comedian, and nothing else. I do think it is important however, to consider how these spaces actually function in comparison with their initial goals. There were a few reasons why TSA started according to my conversations with the members and their mission posted on their website which I have delineated below.


  1. To maintain a community and conversation around art.
  2. To exhibit emerging work from with Philadelphia and across the country.
  3. To create opportunities to exhibit their own work.

The first goal, “maintain a community and conversation around art,” is relatively easily achieved. Conversations naturally arise when a group of people commit to working with each other on exhibitions presented on a monthly basis. The building, housing many artists, is already infused with an atmosphere of discussion around art. In a broader sense of conversation, TSA has been the focus on and in Philadelphia's 'City Paper' as well as other blogs and publications so this goal has been, effectively, accomplished.

TSA’s second goal is a little bit harder to achieve. In the gallery’s short history a range of artists have exhibited with various amounts of success. Some of the notables that have exhibited are award winning filmmaker Ross Mcelwee’s, Carolee Schneemann, and Andrew Masullo who is currently in the Whitney Biennial.

The third goal is perhaps the most crucial when considering TSA; that is the need to create opportunities. The reason why they and similar spaces exist is a combination of not having readily available opportunities to exhibit work and some sense of wanting to fill the void due to the lack of efficient galleries. If members had multiple gallery opportunities they probably wouldn’t be invested in creating a space to be considered seriously. This isn’t to suggest that TSA only exists to further individual careers (I think it’s the opposite actually.) It’s as though when one struggles you are more sensitive to the plights of others (that’s why it’s easier to be empathetic as opposed to sympathetic.) The reason why TSA exists is because a group of artists needed to create their own opportunities and while doing so decided to create opportunities for others.
Coincidently while putting together this essay to think about smaller venues The New Museum recently put together, “Art Spaces Directory” in conjunction with their triennial exhibition, The “Ungovernables.” “Art Spaces Directory” is a guide and resource of over 400 independent art spaces from across the world. For the release of this catalogue the New Museum held a day-long symposium where the political implications of independent artist spaces, the role that they play with artists, and what these spaces accomplish that institutions cannot were discussed. The talk was moderated by the curator of “The Ungovernables,” Eugine Joo, and included presentations by Lia Gangitano, Stefan Kalmar, Heejin Kim, and Tobias Ostrander. Gangitano had one of the final statements during the symposium where she spoke of financial restraint being a key feature that allows PARTICIPANT INC. to stay timely. Her assertion is that because there is always a focus on trying to keep the space open they can’t think too far into the future and this allows PARTICIPAN INC. to react to artists and exhibitions immediately. Kalmar, from Artist Space in New York, agreed with this sentiment by referencing the timelines of large museums stating, “MOMA probably knows what they are doing through 2015 where as we are working on the programming for next year.”(2)

I bring this up because when considering the benefits and strengths of a space like TSA, it’s important to consider the circumstances for their existence. TSA doesn’t fund anyone, it doesn’t make money, and the project is operated by a collection of artists that are trying to provide themselves and others with opportunities. This isn’t an ideal situation because it ultimately demands artists to do something other then make art.

Despite this, members of TSA have put together a slew of exhibitions. The way that TSA is set up requires members to be wholly responsible for two shows every two years and to help with the remaining schedule. One show is an opportunity to exhibit their work and the second is a chance to curate an exhibition. This curatorial project is purely based on the individual member’s interests and it could be providing a solo opportunity to someone they feel is worthy or a dense group show.  When Gangitano alludes to the hardships of being an artist who curates and organizes a non-profit gallery space, I theorize, that this actually facilitates a diverse exhibition practice like the structure found at TSA.

The last three months have shown a decent amount of variety. In March, TSA exhibited Jaime Alvarez: Memento, which was a collection of 100 ominous photographs of second hand store souvenirs. The photographs covering the walls were dark and the items were photographed from behind. This gesture turns the tchotchke into a defamiliarized object and the entire exhibition held a melancholic relationship to a fleeting memory represented with an object that held some kind of significance then ended up in a second hand store. In contrast with Alvarez’s exhibition was Paik’s curatorial project twee abstraction held during the month of January. This show presented art that was invested in a conversation surrounding color, casual gestures, and abstraction as it related to either childish sensibilities or fragile flotsams. The pieces presented were generally likable and very playful in their execution.

Considering Paik’s curatorial project which was essentially an exploration of painting and formal ingenuity next to Alvarez’s semi-psychological photographs paints a picture of a gallery that seeks to transform month-to-month and not have a continuous conversation but a blatantly different one. This diverse set of exhibitions is a result of TSA’s flexibility, which is permitted because of the model they have put into motion. The reason the model was put into motion is a result of a group of artists who each wanted an opportunity to curate and to exhibit their own work… which is a result of struggle and lack of exhibition possibilities.
The mission statement of TSA reads simply, “connects Philadelphia to a global community” and this is vague for a reason. An artist’s space, like this, doesn’t have to be dogmatic about their curiosities. It is an opportunity to think about many different issues concerning art as it relates to this small group of artists turned curators with a multitude of differing interests. With no pressure to make money to keep the doors open, the only goal is to put together an exhibition to be considered. Here is my simplified list to sum up how TSA succeeds, essentially, because of financial restraints.
            1) Financial restraint causes exhibitions to be thought of only a few months into the future and as a result create relevant conversations now.
            2) Financial restraint causes a large collective to operate the space and this allows exhibitions to have many different conversations.
            3) Since the space doesn’t fund itself the only real goal is to put together a strong show.

Essentially everything they do is afforded to them because of their size and lack of resources. As mentioned before the situation isn’t ideal for being an artist because typically an artist wants to make art. With that being said, viewers benefit from a space that has a wide variety of cooks in the kitchen. To wrap this idea up I would like to recall the Hedberg’s joke one more time. People benefited, whether Hedberg’s liked it or not, from doing, as he so eloquently said, “shit that is related to comedy, but it’s not comedy.” Comparably because of the struggle associated with being an artist, an audience gets to benefit from having at least one more gallery to look at.

1. Hedberg Mitch. Strategic Grill Locations. 1999. cd. n.p. CD-ROM.
2. Kalmar, Stefan. “Independent Art Spaces Symposium.” New Museum, New York, March 2012. Unpublished symposium discussion.

Can You Farm?
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