This is the first time I’ve been to Rumpus Room when the sun is still shining. It’s daylight savings in Melbourne, and there’s lots of light and nowhere to hide. This is probably a good thing for Bryan Spier‘s show, Actual Painting, (Saturday, 25th Oct. 6pm-8pm)“an improvised wall painting and installation composed from scraps, offcuts and various objects found onsite at Rumpus Room.” It’s a site-specific painting, if you will. But it’s also a collage and an installation.
When I open the garage door, I experience a real jolt of pleasure as I step into a whole other magical space of colour and angles and lines. The colours sing. And the tune is lighthearted almost euphoric. I stand and enjoy. That’s when I notice the complex play with space. The forms, which at first appear to me as abstract, on closer viewing I realise are full of hints and touches of the non-abstract, even figurative.
The picture plane itself is not flat, with drawings of plank-like objects criss-crossing each other, creating a complex sense of depth. And later Bryan explains that these line drawings are actually tracings of wooden pieces he found in the backyard of Rumpus Room, or nearby. And there’s lots of other suggestions of the figurative and the ‘real’ with suggestive drawings, things, found objects, collaged images from prints as well as the detritus of making, left where they landed at the base of the wall – giving a real sense of the actual performance of this painting. ( there’s that word ‘actual’ again)
Abstract painting is said to have three separate but simultaneous champions: Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Malevich. Spiers manages to reference all three at the same time, in the same work. The clear and flat primary colours recall Mondrian’s neo-plasticism; the constant sense of movement across the composition summons up the spiritual and painterly dimensions of Kandinsky; and as for the third of this triumvirate of pioneers, Malevich, he is cleverly referenced through a canvas bag hanging in front of one wall with the words MALEVICH printed on it in black. The very humble and material form of the canvas bag, hanging almost forlornly from the ceiling, seems to both pay homage to this Suprematist innovator and to quietly disagree.
Under Suprematism I understand the primacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist, the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling, as such, quite apart from the environment in which it is called forth. (Malevich)
It is almost one hundred years, since Malevich wrote his Suprematist manifesto and hung Black Square (1915), the work that would be so influential to following generations throughout the 20th century, in the top corner of the room, in the 0.10 Exhibition. A lot has happened since. If ‘pure feeling’ and the denial of the visual, objective world was the advanced ideas for 1915, in 2014, it is the very materiality of our world and it’s connections, it’s flows and spaces that are of interest to today’s artists and theorists. Although like Malevich we too have turned away from the optical, the purely visual to embrace all of our senses, including the troubled relations between the virtual and the material. Given the current interest in materialism driven by the several theories circulating under different names like post-humanism, post-materialism and Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), I can’t help experiencing Spiers abstract/figurative material and performative painting as part of that conversation.
But if the initial impression of a painter deeply engaged with abstraction and its ongoing relevance is one resonance, on closer inspection this too opens out to a broader engagement across 20th century modernism with its many twists and turns. The title “Actual Painting” suggests a clever pun on the very material, and actual found objects that make up the painting – the offcuts lying on the floor, the bits of things incorporated into the composition, a stool, a stop sign, even a broom. I’m suddenly aware of Duchamp and the snow shovel, ‘in advance of a broken arm’. Perhaps the broom is ‘in advance of a sore arm, soon’. The play with the words “actual” and “action” encapsulates in one near-slippage the difference, the time differential between the performance of historical “action” painting and the performance of Spier’s “actual” painting. The latter’s concern with the material objects of the world, right now in the present, in this case in the artist’s present – push against the play with the virtual, the space of the painting which is always more, an excess. With all these rich associations, drawing upon a broad and generous vocabulary of modernist painting, Spier seems to remind us that we live in a world that is both material and virtual – and in this composition, as in our ‘actual’ everyday mediated experience, these two disparate worlds are held in tension, together.
As Randal Breen, Festival Founder notes, the festival gives people a chance to experience the community of artists, rather than the single artist, “The concept of BARI is about celebrating the coming together of artists and the community they’ve developed more so than one specific artist…”
I’m only here for two days: Looking at the online BARI program I plan my nights. Clicking through the 12 different ARIs featured on the BARI programme website, I notice a singular feature of Brisbane ARIs and one that I discuss briefly with different artists during my visit, and that is their approach to “space”. It seems that a high percentage don’t have a dedicated physical space, rather they are nomadic or virtual, creating spaces temporarily or in alliances with other fixed spaces. And there’s a high incidence of showing/exhibiting/performing in people’s own homes. For instance, inHouse ARI usually shows in one of the collaborator’s own home. (Although for BARI they have secured a grand office space right in the centre of the city.) The Wandering Room co-curated the Brisbane chapter of Justin Jade Morgan’s travelling project titled Tools of the Trade, which was then installed at Juggler’s Art Space. Fake Estate made a collaborative work titled ‘I’m Sorry The Letter Is Late’ with Romii Fulton-Smith, Zoe Knight, Madeleine Stack and Jarrod Van Der Ryken and installed it at Aggregate Projects. And DM ARI (Dhana Merritt Artist Run Initiative) which Dhana describes on the BARI video as “me as the gallery”. In the last few months DM has exhibited in the front window of Ryan Renshaw’s Gallery.
In brief chats with some artists I mentioned my observation about Brisbane ARIs and nomadic spaces, wondering if Real Estate, an important factor for most ARIs, was a consideration…yet real estate doesn’t seem to dominate Brisbane artists’ thinking when imagining an ARI. I think this is an interesting difference between the capital cities. One of the artists suggested that perhaps the tradition of artists showing in their own houses – like the well known Accidentally Annie Street ARI or the longer tradition going back to the 1980s and 1990s, where artists had to make their own spaces, with little financial support from the State – could have something to do with the creative, lateral and innovative approach to space. I make a note to investigate further. Thursday night: Scribble Slam 19
Scribble Slam is a live art battle between two artists held at Kerbside — a sort of indoor/outdoor pub in an alleyway — with a theme announced at the start of a 90 minute timer. Winners are chosen by two judges and a crowd vote. My visit to Brisbane, and BARI, was too brief to see all, but I was lucky to catch some of the turbo-charged energy of Scribble Slam 19. It was a great event with lots of noise and cheering as the two artists attacked the wall-sized canvas tackling the theme of Darkness and Light. The ‘slam’ set-up owed much to the outrageous antics of TV wrestling shows like WWE, with their colourful monikers, Cherie Buttons and Bambi Wants Revenge – complete with online taunts and provocations. It’s a battle. Here’s the final pictures. Darkness.
Friday night: A travelling exhibition titled Tools of the Trade opened at Jugglers Art Space. The project was initiated by Justin Jade Morgan and began life in New Zealand. The project seeks to create a global archive, both physical and digital, of artists’ tools by way of artists donating their own tools.
“Tools of the Trade is a snowballing project where willing creatives are invited to present their tool of choice from the studio in a physical and or digital form towards a global archive. Through this ongoing project Justin seeks to address the disparity between artworks and the tools that create them by elevating and re-contextualising selected tools within an online and exhibition context.”
The resulting ‘tools’ donated by artists were displayed on long wooden trestle tables in the gallery. They showed a witty yet serious engagement, with artists donating objects as simple as a ‘multicoloured biro’. Or the humorous “conceptual depth analyser” ( a strange ruler-like instrument), or the essential but overlooked humble ‘jar for medium’. The archive of tools shows the vast range of ways and means that artist’s utilise to create their work. And as Justin alludes to in his artist statement, this archive creates a nice reversal of roles for these objects/tools which are no longer in the background, but are shown as objects in their own right, objects fit for our attention. For a list of the contributors see the The Wandering Room website.
Nearby, Aggregate Projects was showing ‘I’m Sorry The Letter Is Late’ with Romii Fulton-Smith, Zoe Knight, Madeleine Stack and Jarrod Van Der Ryken (a collaboration with Fake Estate) The project engaged with ‘mail’ – both online and offline forms, using postcards on the one hand and on the other, email/facebook communication. It seemed to play with our current over-communication behaviours, mixing and displacing the different forms that we all engage with daily, sometimes minute by minute. Mixing up the official with the intimate, the public with the private, and thus disturbing the usual borders of these communication lines. On entering the foyer, I found a wall of pigeon holes, the sort of structure that institutions like universities have to distribute mail amongst staff. If you work in a public institution like a university, you will be assigned a pigeon hole much like this one, with your name on it. The perfect symmetry of pigeon holes, with their narrow rows lined up one after the other, in a pleasing seriality, lends itself well to an art context. I walked over to find that these pigeon holes held lots of postcards. All of the postcards I picked up were free postcards announcing an event of some sort – but written or scribbled over with intimate messages. The other form of ‘communication’ that this project was concerned with entailed guests registering online (Facebook) that they were “attending”. On arrival at reception, after giving their name, they received their “mail”, a white envelope. As I didn’t register with Facebook, I didn’t have any mail waiting for me. Zoe later explained that the mail each registered guest received was an envelope which contained a single A5 page with a short typed phrase on them… ” Reluctantly explaining the mystery of the letters Zoe revealed that “The phrase on each letter was some kind of a soft apology (e.g. “sorry to pester you…”) taken from a list of “sorry” phrases we each collected from our email account history (sent and received).”
Lots of people gathered around the wooden pigeon holes reading the many postcards — I was struck with how people were intensely focused on the postcards, reading with quiet concentration. Zoe also explained, that “we asked fellow artists/people to write a postcard for us (we did some too) with an intimate message of some sort of emotion, be it longing, lust, anger, friendship or humour, as long as it was sincere. These were then collected and displayed in the pigeon holes…” and people interacted with them.
Aggregate Projects is itself a delightful and provocative use of space pointing to the endless possible forms/ways that an artist-run initiative could be. It’s situated in a commercial building, in the foyer, under the stairs . To have a space ‘under the stairs’ conjures all sorts of flights of fancy and imagination. I’m immediately back with the little people in The Borrowers. It’s something about the miniature, the small and the found. And I’m reminded of the artist who created an exhibition under his hat. “In 1962 the Fluxus artist Robert Filliou started walking around with a traveling miniature gallery in his hat, which he called La Galerie Légitime (“The Legitimate Gallery”) It was an exhibition under his hat.” There’s a fantastical dimension to the idea of ‘under the stairs’, a bit like under his hat – it’s an idea that can transport you. Aggregate Projects is directed and curated by Zoe Knight, who I was lucky enough to interview for my project. More on this later. The first day I visited Aggregate Projects the exhibition under the stairs was the work of Alrey Batol, titled Obso-tele. The artist has been collecting obsolete technologies, especially old analogue TVs that people simply abandon on streets and pavements. It’s a found object and a solid announcement that the owners have bought something new, something to replace it. They no longer value this old and useless thing. It’s hard to believe that analogue was so recent. Looking at this huge cumbersome monster of a set it’s like looking at another historical era, a ruin or a remnant from another civilisation. But hang on, I only got rid of my own analogue TV ten years ago. How quickly all is forgotten. How quickly we accustom ourselves and our bodies to these new technologies, with little thought to what it all means in terms of materials, energy, the real cost of labour to build these new technologies — and all done in ‘third world’ countries. This work, Obso-tele, creates a moment to pause, to contemplate our habits of consumption, to ponder the constant change that compulsory obsolescence brings. Yet it’s complex too. Even the magnet on the front of the TV giving it the distinctive pattern, is mysterious. As someone commented to me as I stood gazing at its mezmerising pull, the analogue frequency has been turned off. What is this old TV picking up? what does the invisible electromagnetic frequency vibrating on this screen, mean? Can such an old piece of technology still communicate with us? On Thursday I took a ferry down the river to the West End to visit The Hold Artspace, a gallery space above an art supply shop. The exhibition in the first gallery was The View From Here a show by two Brisbane painters, Kate McKay and Angelica Roache-Wilson. Their ways of painting are radically different. Although one commonality that ties the exhibition together visually is the size of the pictures. On the most part they are small jewell-like pictures. In the catalogue essay Eileen Abood writes that the exhibition “is about the process of slowing down and reflecting upon our experiences and reactions to the constructed, civilised world in which we live.” Kate McKay’s paintings are strange, otherworldly landscapes, painted in a pared down palette using just one or sometimes two colours with a perfect tonal facility. This monochromatic colour range created a very ethereal and dream-like feeling. The influence of the German Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich permeated each picture. Yet the monochromatic colours also created a break from that romantic tradition, as if something has been drained away from our world. The sense of beauty in these pictures teeters on the edge of something else.
Angelica Roache-Wilson’s paintings on the other hand are abstract and expressive, the flattened surfaces giving a satisfying sense of the worked-in paint. Each small painting an intense and intimate moment of felt experience.
InHouse ARI is a collaboration between Jenna Baldock and Meagan Streader. They have a singular vision, which is to pair local artists and writers to create opportunities for dialogue and critical engagement. This sort of artist/writer collaboration is not about writing a catalogue essay or promoting an artist, rather it is a recognition of the contemporary situation where discourse and text are essential sites for art and its production. As yet InHouse ARI doesn’t have a dedicated space, but uses either their own house or other temporary spaces and opportunities. On Saturday night, October 18, InHouse ARI opened their show CTRL + SHIFT + SPACE’ — unfortunately I was already back in Melbourne, so I can’t report on the show itself. But before I left I did get a glimpse of the enormous space they were working with – an empty office space, right in the centre of Brisbane.
CTRL + SHIFT + SPACE is the outcome of a collaborative curatorial project with three local writers – Lisa Bryan-Brown, Nicola Scott, Tara Heffernan – who were invited “to generate a shared critical discussion surrounding relevant issues present within local artistic and cultural life. From this dialogue, each writer was asked to curate two artists that reflected the overarching conversation.” The minute-type notes of this conversation and process, which begins with the very first meeting between the writers and InHouse ARI (Jenna and Meagan) can be viewed on their website. Here. It’s a fascinating read, and takes you through the whole process of how they first identified the theme of ‘control of space’ within the context of the G20 Summit that is being held in Brisbane this year, to the discussion and choice of artists. It was also really wonderful to read the amicable, sophisticated and lively discussion and watch it unfold, and to get an inside view of the process of making an exhibition. For more info on InHouse ARI and specifically on their current show CTRL + SHIFT + SPACE, you can visit their website, here. (http://www.inhouseari.com.au)
At a recent conference on art in the academy, the artist Lucas Ihlein provocatively asked a panel of “experts” – “Are artists producing better art since the introduction of the PhD practice-based research degree?”
This seemed like an intriguing question to ask of the panel of artists, curators and critics that sat in a semi-circle on the stage. It was the last session of the conference – the annual Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools (ACUADS) Conference held in Melbourne from 2- 3 October, 2014 and was jointly hosted by the VCA and RMIT University. The theme, The Future of the Discipline sought “to report, discuss, disagree, collaborate… and to consider the future of what we do in all its forms and in all its potential scenarios”. The final roundtable panel addressed the question: “What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art?”
The introduction of the practice-led PhD – a relatively recent phenomenon in Australia, although well established in Britain since the late 1970s (although not the USA) – is part of a larger phenomenon of growth and expansion of the arts, including the growth and merging of art schools with the university, thus creating an academic/art pathway. The explosion of art production across all fields of art began slowly in the post WWII period and then escalated during the political disturbances and rise of various liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s. In a recent article in Broadsheet Paul Gladston cites some fascinating figures which gives a hint of the numbers we are talking about. “…during the 1940s there were a mere handful of galleries exhibiting modern art across the whole of the USA with little more than twenty artists of any stature regularly showing work there.” Yes. TWENTY!
He goes on.
“By 1986…the USA had over two thousand modern art galleries with around six hundred and eighty of those galleries and one hundred and fifty thousand artists of non-amateur status producing modern works of art located in New York City alone. If one estimates a production rate of ten works of art by a single artist each year, […](an arguably conservative projection), then the number of modern artworks produced in NYC in 1986 would have been around 1.5 million compared with perhaps two hundred per annum in the early 1940s; a prodigious increase of well over seven thousand percent in less than half a century.” (Paul Gladstone, “in awe of the new: china’s entry into the global cultural-industrial complex,” Broadsheet 43_3 2014) (my italics)
These figures are sublime and could happily be applied and scaled to the Australian context, leaving no doubt that the “global cultural-industrial complex,” as Gladstone calls the contemporary artworld, is expanding, exponentially.
As a graduate of these programs myself, I have to say that contrary to the descriptions of the PhD process as “torture” and “agony” for artists, I thoroughly enjoyed my “journey.” For me it was a tremendous boon. For the first time in 20 years I could read without worry, anxiety and dread that I was wasting time and avoiding more important stuff, like making money, making work, and other essential duties that life as an artist entails without a secure income. Life had been precarious and full. There was never a spare minute to read quietly and deeply. With the time and money generously donated by the Govt/Academy I could read in peace and follow up on ideas and authors. I could relax, contemplate, think quietly about the world, even daydream! — all luxury pastimes that I couldn’t afford before, and I was surrounded by like-minded people. Surely these are all good things for an artist to be experiencing.
Rather than the older hierarchical Academy with its guild-style methods of training through copying and mimesis (thinking here of the French academy of the 18th and 19th century) today’s academy is not overtly rule-bound with disciplines loosened and untethered from their previous narrow parameters. In today’s art school, practices with ‘transdisciplinary’ methods and ‘open studio’ practices are encouraged. Research and the making of work is open-ended, criticality is encouraged, discussion is fulsome. And significantly there are a lot of people doing it. Art is no longer the sole preserve of the knighted (usually male) “genius” with its accompanying narrative of tragedy and mad creativity.
The upside of this expansion means that more people can engage with the artist’s work, rather than a few specialized connoisseurs, taste-makers, cognoscente, aesthetes. One could liken this moment of art’s expansion to the mass education policies of the 19th century when a whole lot more people were enabled to participate in the public sphere of democracy through mass education.
Of course the escalating numbers of arts graduates has created some anxieties for people worried that it will lower the standards, or create simply “zombie” automatons with students being churned out of a sausage factory. These may all be valid worries, yet call me a crazed optimist, I can’t help but see the other side of this growth of artists and art graduates, and that is that it may not create better art, but what it does create is a larger, more exciting environment for art and artists. The arts landscape has benefited and grown with this injection of artists who enter and leave the academy with a much broader exposure to art, with a more complex knowledge of the many issues, ideas, movements ways of knowing and doing.
As one of the artists on the panel said with clarity and force –- what is driving the uptake of artists into the academy is the PhD scholarship, that is, it’s the money! And this of course can suggest a cynical attitude towards these artists/students. “you’re only in it for the money” or other accusations of self-interest and gross materialism. However, the panelist went on to say that that may be the initial reason, the initial opportunism of the artist seeking time and money, (and why not!) but by the end of the candidacy period it is no longer what artists say about the experience. Rather than a cynical ‘take the money and run’ attitude, artists have taken up the challenge with great enthusiasm and most work hard, learn a lot, go on a precipitous journey and come out the other side, profoundly changed – and yes perhaps better artists. It is a wonderful opportunity for artists and it is a gift of the best sort.
What does this all mean for artist-run initiatives? In a counter-intuitive consequence of the introduction of practice-based research programs, the PhD is part of a generally more democratic move, rather than a narrowing and specializing of knowledge that is often associated with ‘higher learning’ of past eras. The practice-based research degree has created a larger arena, altering the broader arts ecology through the sheer numbers of arts graduates that are out there. More people are becoming artists, more people are studying art, more people are visiting the official institutions of art, more people engage with ‘art’. Yet as Gregory Sholette reminds us in his 2010 book Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, the number of artists who attain success in terms of money and status is extremely small, minuscule. Rather, the majority of art graduates are destined to become ‘dark matter’ – invisible, unacknowledged and exploited, yet absolutely necessary for the whole apparatus of the artworld to exist. Like the actual celestial ‘dark matter’, which is 5% of the known universe, it is their existence that holds the thing together.
In this scenario art-run initiatives can have a vital role to play. They are spaces and places where artists can continue their work ‘outside’ the demands of the art market and art world museums and institutions. An artist-run has the possibility, (although not all may do so) to keep a small crack open for artists to take hold of their own work and futures; it can give artists an independence that is necessary for vital work and engagement. Artist-runs can create communities of artists, which in turn enable artists to continue making work, to continue to engage, they enable a sociality that is crucial to art practice. They are also the place where the most exciting, I think, and vital art production is occurring with artists dodging the bureaucracies and status oriented art market, they can be a refuge and a space of powerful creativity.
Over the last year I’ve visited many different sorts of artist-runs, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no single model. Artist-runs serve the needs of those who participate within them, they can be whatever the participants want of them, but there is one key factor that they all seem to share, and that is their size. The artist-run is usually a small operation. It is small in terms of numbers of people involved in its operation, in terms of the space and exhibitions or projects that it is involved with. This gives the artist-run a nimbleness and responsiveness to the world around them that is distinctive and vital.
 It was reported that one of the reasons for the resistance of the PhD model in the USA is the cost. Unlike in Australia where artists/students can apply for a scholarship to help defray costs, the added expense of 3 -4 more years of study, for an American student would be out of the question.
Behind Smith St, and down a small alleyway I found Rear View Gallery. The door was ajar, and sort of small – a harbinger that something else is happening here. Immediately on entering the space I encounteredSarah Byrne’sPoor Traits + Other Quantities, a multi-channel video installation. The video images showed lush portraits of figures half glimpsed through the decay of the digital image – accompanied by a similar sonic landscape. This is a wonderful sort of glitch aesthetics – suggestive, rich and poetic.
Walking around the corner I met Rex Veal, minding the gallery, and whose work was installed in another space, called Flake, at the far end of the building. Flake, initiated by Kate Meakin – it is her studio – is the name of the space that you reach after walking down a long corridor, past busy cluttered studios. It felt underground – maybe it is underground – I could hear the claketty clak of high heels above my head, in the Chemist shop, on Smith Street.
Flake is a long narrow space that you need to step up to, or, you could stick your head in and look. I wasn’t sure. Rex Veal and his art partner Rohan Whitely work together as Rare Candy. They are currently showing a work titled Squinting at Tiffany’s. At first I just look from the door, wondering if I can cross the threshold, I do. The tightness of the room creates a sense of immersion, I feel like I’m in the work, there’s an as if quality, as if I’ve entered a crime scene or perhaps a romantic movie with a sad end.There’s a nice spareness to the space except for some carefully placed vintage fashion accessories – careful yet with an air of abandon…There’s a teasing violence to these old and worn objects. The woman’s handbag dangles an excessive load of keys as well as locks, the chain is anything but Tiffanys… it’s a scene without the actors, suggestive of something more, a tantalising snippet in which an aged Holly Golightly is no longer so carefree. Perhaps.