BLINDSIDE | 10th Anniversary

BLINDSIDE is celebrating its 10th anniversary.  Founded in 2004 by four artists originally from Brisbane – Renai Grace, Pip Haydon, Simon Koger and Christine Morrow – the final exhibition for 2014, Curtain Call: the Rough End of the Pineapple, celebrates this primal and it seems ongoing connection with the Sunshine State. Celebrating and exploring these many connections between north and south, the exhibition includes the work of six former Queenslanders – now living in Melbourne – Xanthe Dobbie, Troy Emery, Simone Hine, Ted McKinlay, Melanie Upton and  Tim Woodward.

Ted McKinlay, Curtain Call 2014.
Ted McKinlay, Curtain Call 2014.

The curators, Robert Heather and Verity Hayward, themselves from Queensland, acknowledge that the original BLINDSIDE board would probably have thought the idea “parochial”. Perhaps this says something about our changing views of Queensland – once considered a cultural desert, “a city of exits” (as one of the panellists at the public forum quipped), or simply ‘the ‘deep north’ – today, it seems, such an exhibition could now be done with no wincing or dodging. On the contrary, with this special Curtain Call there is a sense of pride, humour and straightforwardness as both artists and curators openingly explore their own journeys south and their own experience of growing up in Queensland.

“…it is apparent that from the outset BLINDSIDE has created opportunities for artists from north of the Tweed River to showcase their work in the southern capital through its exhibition and projects. This special Curtain Call exhibition celebrates this tradition…It asks the question whether their upbringing and experience of Queensland has had any effect upon their identity and artistic practice.”

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Melanie Upton, Vague Terrain: Things Calling (detail from installation), 2014, timber, plaster

In conjunction with the exhibition, BLINDSIDE held a public forum last Saturday afternoon. The discussion focussed on the relations and cultural connections between Brisbane and Melbourne, with participants exchanging lots of stories about former ARIs and artists, both in Brisbane and Melbourne, as well as a general discussion about the role of ARIs over the last few decades. The main participants on the panel included Andrew Tetzlaff (Moderator), although not from Queensland,  Robert Heather (Co-Curator),  Peter Anderson (Independent Arts writer and curator) and Ted McKinlay, a participating artist.

Leaving your home, whether it’s exile from your country or simply moving to another State seeking opportunities, or to change your circumstances, always involves adjustment, excitement and anxiety. And feeling unfamiliar or outside of things, people gravitate to who they may know or recognise, perhaps through word of mouth, friends or family. Foreign migrants and refugees are well-known for gathering together in one suburb or area, creating coffee shops or other places to meet and exchange information. It’s rarely that we see so clearly an art space as a place where interstate ‘foreigners’ find each other and support each other. Yet this of course makes sense, as ARIs have the potential to be more than simply places of professional development. They can also be places where ‘communities’ of artists gather, and as Dan Rule puts it so succinctly in his contributing essay, Making Talking Doing: A Possible Archaeology of the Australian ARI, “the artist led organisation’s real potency and value comes down to something far less immediately tangible or quantifiable. Community may be something of a hackneyed term, but it’s also a notion that has been central to the history of art making…that being the simple act of artists hanging out and seeing one another’s shows.”

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Simone Hine, Curtain Call 2014

Accompanying the exhibition and public forum BLINDSIDE has produced a very smart and well-designed publication, To the Left and Back Some, with short essays from a number of current and former BLINDSIDE participants. It contains a wealth of information on BLINDSIDE’s history and many achievements, with lots of fascinating photos documenting the many art projects and events over the last decade. There’s also a sizeable part of the publication devoted to essays describing BLINDSIDE Projects. The Projects are an important and innovative part of BLINDSIDE’s programming, creating a unique approach which ensures experimental and marginal practices space and time within the overall programming. The Projects act as platforms for artists and curators to focus, and give BLINDSIDE its unique identity and place in Melbourne’s complex arts ecology. In broad strokes, the Projects include: Debut, which is intended to “provide a link for young artists between university and the ‘art world’; Curtain Call which is an encore performance by previously exhibited artists; Showstoppers is devoted to performance, in all its forms; Sound Series acts as a “creative lab” focused on sound, in all its permutations; Screen Series, is focused on film and video art; and SummerStudio transforms the gallery space into a studio residency; Play is the online website featuring single channel video, and lastly BLINDSIDE Festival, a biennial multi platform event.

Near the end of the catalogue, Jane O’Neill reminds us that the term ‘blind side’ “refers to a hit or attack on someone without their realising – this is their ‘blind side’.  On my own visits to Blindside over the last couple of years, it has often delivered just such a ‘hit’ – with art projects that surprise, delight and engage the senses with provocative ideas and sometimes even attacking my blindside.

Re-structure 2014

The budget is a sore topic everywhere. The current Abbott government, driven by ideological imperatives to remake Australia into a total “free market” economy, is in the process of destroying our long-standing tradition of public institutions, in particular our public educational institutions. This is bad news for both students and staff. Most people working in universities today are already stretched to the limit, with huge workloads and more and more of their time wasted on meaningless filling-out-of-forms, and other crazy Kafkaesque requirements of our audit culture. Of course this is not new. The Gillard Labor govt also made severe cuts to uni funding. No-one, it seems, wants to fund universities. But the most severe attacks have come from the recent Abbott govt who unsuccessfully put forward a bill to deregulate university fees and cut university funding by 20 percent. Going so far as to make the education debt not limited by death. That means your children could inherit it. Lovely. The bill was stopped in the Senate. However, the fight goes on. (See the National Alliance for Public Universities)

With this ominous and threatening situation as its context, the recent Re-Structure Conference– held at La Trobe University’s city campus, November 20, and organised by Jan Hendrik Brueggemeier and Hugh Davies – addressed vital questions about the arts, culture and the creative sector. The conference underlined the strong links and interdependencies that occur across the creative arts sector and universities, noting that the proposed budget cuts by the Abbott government “will have far reaching impacts on culture and education.”

The strength and significance of the Conference was its critical and incisive approach to the situation. Rather than outlining yet again all that is problematic with neo-liberal policies the conference organisers sought to open up the discussion for participants to “seek alternatives” and in so doing they brought together a wide range of participants from artists, researchers and academics to gaming, media and community intervention to discuss alternative ways of thinking and doing, exploring “both broader sustainable strategies as well as “clever partial solutions” to cultural and knowledge production in a post-public sector environment.”

The keynote speaker, Dr. Stephen Healy, is a founding member of the Community Economies Collective, and co-author of Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities (2013). He gave a fascinating and dazzling presentation on the Community Economies project, which framed the key ideas and themes for the day’s events. His talk, titled Arts and Community in Uncertain Times: Co-operation and Commoning to Secure Other Futures outlined 3 key ideas that could take us beyond Capitalism as we know it – “co-operation, collective finance and commoning”. One of the very many useful ideas Healy outlined is the notion of a “thin definition of capitalism”. A thin definition enables a shift in our perception and vantage point to a “post-capitalist” position, allowing one to let go and re-imagine the world without the gigantic and all-encompassing idea of  “Capitalism” which looms large for theorists of both the Left and Right. For these theorists, Capitalism is most often conceived as all that there is, as if there is no way out. You know the drill – everything is co-opted, corrupted and enfolded back into Capitalism. However, for Healy and the Community Economies Collective, there is a way out, and they have already begun. The Community Economies Collective is an inspiring project that has developed out of the work of two feminist economic geographers, Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson. One of the key ideas of the project is to rethink and re-imagine “the economy”.

“We believe that other, more just and ecologically sustainable, economies are possible. Everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies.”

Some highlights and inspiring speakers of the day:
Dr Grace McQuilten from RMIT is founder of Social Studio. This very successful social enterprise project, based in Melbourne, brings together recent migrants and refugees who make and sell their fashion creations, while learning new skills. McQuilten’s talk engaged with the current discussions around the Creative Industries, often seen as the great hope by govt and funding bodies who promote the idea that art too is a business and can generate loads of money. However, McQuilten noted that the creative economy model has a significant downside with pressure on artists to produce art that is easy to consume, and which can impact the “jouissance” or pleasures for artists and makers. In this scenario ‘art’ becomes just another day at the office. She presented several examples of artists’ enterprises where artists have created new models of financial support and ways to become self-sustaining. e.g. Andrea Zittel’s Smock Shop. Significantly, one of these enterprises, the Pacific Women’s Weaving Circle, made a deliberate decision to scale back their successful enterprise as they felt they needed more time to make artwork and to return to the raison d’être of their project. And contra to neo-liberal cant, monetary success was not the central reason for their project. Rather, values of making and being together, time and space for sociality and creativity were valued more than scaling up and making more money.

Vic McEwan from The Cad Factory, an artist-run space based in regional NSW, spoke eloquently of his many projects and in particular A Night of Wonder, (2013) where he worked with visiting Japanese artists Iwai Shigeaki and Mayu Kanamori as well as SunRice, the company that mills and sells the rice, and the rice community in Colleambally. The result was an evening event and site specific performance and installation that led the audience (most of the town of Colleambally) through 10 different sites in the mill and storage facilities. The highlight for me was seeing the faces of the workers getting a facial – the relaxed faces of the men covered in a ‘soothing’ rice face-mask, blown up on the gigantic mill bins, with a woman’s voice describing how soft her husband’s face was after the ‘facial’, as the audience murmured contentedly in the darkness.

Katharine McKinnon, a geographer, based at La Trobe University, and a member of the Community Economies Collective, gave a wonderful and very poetic presentation, titled The Barking of Wild Dogs and Community Economies and the Arts, where she outlined the very real shift in thinking that the community economies allows. Rather than feeling hopeless in the face of  the neo-liberal “monster” with its “hegemony of calculation”, she suggested that “the community economies approach invites us to begin our search for a better future in the here and now, in the everyday, with a search for difference.” This very inspiring talk brought together artists’ thoughts on their role in society – “the barking of wild dogs” and a doctor’s lament that the importance of ‘love’ and ‘caring’ for a woman in labour, is not allowed in the clinical world of the hospital. Through a community economy  perspective, McKinnon suggests, these are examples of a ‘different’ world that “needs to be seen, valued and amplified.”

Jon Hawkes: co-founder of Circus Ozpolicy analyst & author of the seminal book Fourth Pillar of Sustainability – Culture’s essential role in public planning, gave a wonderful rambling and fascinating talk about his own extended experience across the arts and his own singular philosophy on arts and culture. For Hawkes, art is not about visiting galleries or buying art, rather “art is in the making and the doing.”

Other speakers included the artist Siying Zhou; Trent Kusters, independent game designer and co-director of League of Geeks; Rick Chen: co-founder of pozible.com; Fee Plumely, artist (reallybigroadtrip.com) and digital nomad; Dr. Joan Staples: academic, public commentator & vice-president of Environment Victoria; Angharad Wynne-Jones: creative producer at Arts House.  I also presented my own research on ARIs with a paper titled, Artist-run Initiatives in a diminished public sector.

At the end of the day there was a link up with Dr. Geert Lovink (via Skype): director of the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences & co-organsier of My.Creativity Sweatshop: A Reality Check on the Creative Industries. In their presentation Lovink, redefined the the ‘creative question’ for the 21st century by announcing a Manifesto with nine theses. Number 1. Goodbye to Creative Industry; Number 2. Welcome to the Creative Question; Number 3. Creativity without Abundance. And so it went… darkly provocative, sometimes startling, sometimes cynical with a sharp edged view of recent happenings in Europe, in particular The Netherlands. It was quite a contrast to the day’s more optimistic presentations. Nevertheless it was a great way to end a very productive and useful day of talks and presentations.

See reports on the Conference at Artshub and a follow-up, again at Artshub, on my own presentation about ARIs, in particular Garage ARIs here.

The Soft Stuff at The Front

Deb Bain-King’s installation with performance, The Soft Stuff opened on Saturday evening, (22 November), at The Front. There’s a double edge to this title as the performance event entailed two people, Deb and her partner, sitting across from each other, blind-folded with a set of very sharp knives lying flat and tied up on the table between them. As if a game or perhaps a test, the performers proceeded to untie the knives, wrapped in ‘soft stuff’, and as you can imagine, they needed to be very, very careful. They then reconfigured – constantly aware, intuitively negotiating each other’s moves – to wrap the knives into a neat bundle, tied with some soft material. People watching held their breath, this event could end in tears, or blood. It’s fraught yet very moving as each knife is moved into place.

The Soft Stuff, Deb Bain-King Image source The Front website
The Soft Stuff, Deb Bain-King
Image source The Front website

What is remarkable and significant is that the performance proceeded with no words being uttered, and the performers blinded/ blindfolded and therefore not able to see each other or the object of the task somehow interact with enormous care, agility and intuition. As a performance of relationship and intersubjectivity the place of vision and words, usually our most relied upon senses to communicate with each other is downplayed, even left out, as the performers negotiate through intuition, touch, spatial awareness, experience and simply that strange unknowable magic that can enable two people to experience being together. Like dancers, the performers can simply sense each other’s next move.

The Soft Stuff, Deb Bain-King Image source The Front website
The Soft Stuff, Deb Bain-King
Image source The Front website

The performance event was staged within a larger installation of soft sculpture and videos. One video featured two women arm wrestling. The intensity of their gaze as they grasped each other’s hands powerfully suggested an ambiguity of purpose, an erotic intensity beyond the game-like set up. Are they wrestling or flirting? The images on the other video flashed and jumped between moments, suggesting the jumpy, uncertainty that can exist between people, and this was enacted through images of a hand reaching for a cup, as  two people stand on each edge of the picture frame, their bodies cut off so that only their hands or parts of their bodies are seen.

The Soft Stuff, Deb Bain-King Image source The Front website
The Soft Stuff, Deb Bain-King
Image source The Front website

The walls of the gallery held large soft sculptures, as if conjured in a dream. The seductive and luxurious softness of the sculptures offset the technological hardness of video monitors as the artist cleverly played across media and mediums. At a certain angle the sculptures read “I love you” where the word “love” was replaced by an image of a big heart made from soft white cushiony, cotton-wool like material punctured with colourful pointy party hats. These large soft objects evoked a joyfulness and playfulness, and created a context for the unpredictable interplay of relations played out in the video pieces

The world of people and things and even animals, is full of negotiation and uncertainty. There may be sharp objects and obstacles in our way, which can make each encounter a complex set of compromise, debate, agreement and disagreement. It’s push and pull. Yield and resist. Yet, as The Soft Stuff suggests each instance is intimate and intense, and the objects may be sharp but the feelings between the people are soft and vulnerable. As if performing a Greek myth this installation shows the bodily experience, the actual material presence of our experience of each other and “the fluid state of being that exists between people.”

The Soft Stuff performance and installation of video and sculpture was installed at The Front, a gallery/residence space at Docklands. The Front is one of the significant spaces currently operating under the Renew Australia program that has been running with some success at the Docklands now for over a year, along with D11@ Docklands, The Food Court and Inkling Workshop.

Docklands Spaces is a pilot initiative by Renew Australia to activate some of the currently under-utilised spaces in Docklands “through incubating short-term uses by creative enterprises and independent local initiatives on a rent-free basis.” Commissioned by the City of Melbourne, MAB Corporation, and Places Victoria, the program has successfully installed 7 creatives in empty spaces down at the Docklands. And in the process they have created an art destination which attracts a sizeable art audience, especially on opening nights, when all three spaces often open together.

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