Interview with Russell LAKE
the ephemera interviews
In this series of interviews artists directly involved in ARIs and artist-run culture 1980- 2000 speak about the social context for their art making and provide insights into the ephemera they produced or collaborated on during this period. Artist ephemera includes artworks, photocopies, photographs, videos, films, audio, mail art, posters, exhibition invites, flyers, buttons and badges, exhibition catalogues, didactics, room sheets, artist publications, analogue to digital resources and artist files.
Born. Melbourne, 1960
Artist Russell Lake was an active participant in the 1980-1990 artist-run scene. Russel was involved in numerous artist-runs, collectives and the formation of the Artworker’s Union Queensland and the Queensland Artworker’s Alliance.
Russell hi and thanks tell me about the Queensland contemporary art scene when you arrived in Brisbane?
I guess from my point of view when arrived in Brisbane in late 1978 I did not really consider myself an artist as such. Sure I had aspirations in that area, but since leaving school I had worked in a variety of jobs not art related at all. Art was something I pursued in my spare time and with friends.
Before enrolling at the Queensland College of Art QCA in 1980 my Brisbane experience of art was based around visiting the old Queensland Art Gallery site in the MIM building, Ann St. and attending some life drawing classes at the original Institute of Modern Art site in Market Streetalong with the exhibitions there.
I went to some smaller galleries in suburbs like Paddington and the Littleboy’s Cafe in the city rings bells, but my memory of that is not particularly strong.
When I began at the Queensland College of Art Seven Hills, this all began to change. Something people always talked about was the gallery system. If you were part of that you were fine, had exhibitions on a regular basis, made some money perhaps, maybe even had your work purchased by some of the bigger institutions.
This all seemed pretty straightforward, and very much the status quo for the way of things at that time. Some of the lecturers at the college were part of that system, they were generally older and had been around for a while with histories of art production and exhibition. And besides I/we were just first or second years, what did we expect?
Art school departmental showings within the college were common enough, if you could get the cash together with a group you could take a punt and rent a space at say the Brisbane Community Arts Centre and see how that went, and many did especially final year students keen to strut their stuff.
Cask wine, diced cheese, carrot sticks and some dips if you arrived early enough made for some really enjoyable social events and some fairly rigorous conversations on art, life, politics, the politics of art, you name it.
However it was this thing about the gallery system and all that it entailed which seemed to invade the thinking of more and more people.
If you were producing art that was pretty much within the frame, could be hung or placed without contradicting the established order of the gallery, people had an understanding of at some level compliant to the basics of art education and appreciation and above all they ‘liked’, and this was pretty crucial, you may possibly get a berth at one of the few commercial spaces.
And to a large point commerce was at core of it. If you were making work that didn’t readily become a commodity and not just that but a commodity people desired, why would a commercial system take you on?
Sure some gallery owners gambled that their ‘at the moment’ not so popular artists would, in the not too distant future become popular, but this too relied on many assumptions. Not to give the commercial gallery owners too much power, there were various ‘societies’ of this and that operating but they tended to be pretty insular, often only showing a public face around festivals such as the now long departed ‘Warana’.
Besides which, they appeared somewhat staid and ‘geriatric’ to young art students keen also to infuse a fair amount of loud music and partying into their daily existence.
And the focus was largely on object based art ?
I think it was becoming pretty clear to all those art students, artists and others who were making stuff that didn’t fit in whatever way to existing systems, that alternatives to those for the display of work, dissemination of ideas and the terms and conditions under which that could occur, were needed.
Well, that’s the kind of commentary that fits quite well now to describe change, but I don’t think it was really quite like that but more of that later. I think lots of people were pissed off and frankly didn’t see much alternative to the way things were.
Some, as has been quite well documented over the years, left town and headed to Sydney, (mostly) or Melbourne where there were collectives established, lots of studio spaces and a vibrant art and music scene to sustain them.
And some, for whatever reasons decided to stay in Brisbane. I was one of those, but my reasons for staying probably don’t tally with those born here.
For a start I had ‘escaped’ Melbourne only a few years earlier. Determined to shake a life shaped in the cream brick of the outer suburbs. Queensland had an almost mythical status amongst many young from the south.
It certainly represented an idea of freedom which really is more than a little ironic, and to be fair was rooted in cliche’s around the tropics, beach combing, nature’s abundant larder, plentiful weed and so on.
I had also grown up on stories of an uncle who had ‘gone north’ after WW2 and cut cane, harvested bananas and had all types of adventures. I’m pretty sure none of this happened any here near Brisbane, but the distinction between that kind of adventure and Brisbane was not clear to me then. The adventure that existed in Brisbane was often of another kind altogether.
And your experience of the Bjelke-Petersen Police State?
As far as the ‘police state’ and the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen government were concerned, initially I was a bit clueless. It wasn’t part of my history.
People told you stories and these made increasing sense over time, but for me growing up, strikes, street marches, moratoriums, protests, fights for minority groups were commonplace in Melbourne especially during the 60’s and 70’s.
With the election of the Whitlam government federally and the aftermath, I felt, probably naively, that most social issues were on the table at least. Brisbane was another capital city in Australia so surely we were on the same page at least?
Apart from a couple of police drug raids on flats in which I lived , questioning by Police “special branch” after a group performance on Australia Day in New Farm Park, which was called Rogues and Liars, I really had little contact with the regime.
Others of course were not so fortunate, and while I am aware of the stories, I feel it is up to them to elaborate if they wish. I did work in hospitality for a number of years of and on while studying and I remember the fear older gay men had especially of being exposed and outed by police, not to mention the real potential for violence either from the authorities or Joe Homophobe.
Your higher education at QCA?
The kind of artwork I was making during the early part of the 1980’s was a bit of a mixed bag. I had begun as a painter at the QCA but moved to the sculpture dept. mainly because they, the lecturers were far more open in their approach.
I could sculpt, draw, paint, make sound works, write poetry, create installations, make Super 8 films or whatever I thought was applicable. The painting lecturers only allowed painting and drawing pretty much. I didn’t see the point in being too fixed at that stage, multi or mixed media was very much the means of fusing different visual discourses at the time and it made good sense I felt.
Artists like Jeanelle Hurst, Frank Murray and Lyndall Milani were developing performance based work at that time often with live or taped music input and projections which was really exciting. ( and Barbara C too maybe?)
Having some freedom insofar as media and method also opened you up to collaborative engagement. For example, I was able to be involved in a performance piece Lyndall Milani presented at the Brisbane Community Arts Centre in 1982 because of the sound work I was concocting at the time called ‘4 Performances’.
Assessment pieces for college ranged from site specific work to installation and super eight film along with the more traditional forms. This approach however could cause problems, the college principal was not amused by my stacking of boulders on the college roof inspired after a workshop involving a British environmental artist.
The beauty of the higher education environment is that you should be working amid others who, hopefully, have views and ideas and ways of working that engage you in ways previously unknown or only partially realised. QCA, Seven Hills campus fortunately was that place for me, at least to begin with.
And your family story, your family’s migration story Russell?
My family history certainly didn’t indicate art as a career option.
Both my parents had lived through economic depression, world war, deprivation, economic uncertainty and an underlying sense that only hard work, family and social duty would see you through. Religion was there but for the most part only as a Sunday social ritual.
I did however have an Aunty who painted, upset family members because of her non-conformist opinions and fashion sense that read; track suits = comfort, therefore I will wear them at every opportunity and refuse to attend any function that rejects them. I have only one of her paintings and I treasure it. There was definitely something about her attitude to life I saw as transcending the prevailing middle class obedience I increasingly saw as stultifying.
Tell me a bit more about your earlier schooling Russell?
Art education in Victorian schools while I was a student was very dependent upon your teacher. Primary teachers who were expected to be across all the curriculum areas, and for the most part in my experience didn’t rate art highly. This was the 60’s and science was the buzz with men on the moon and satellites on the frontiers of space and men conquering the last frontiers of planet earth and men using all sorts of radio-active stuff and producing an oral vaccine for polio which we stood in long queues to receive and a cure for morning sickness that led to much sadness later on.
I began secondary school in 1970 and at the time you had teachers who were trained to teach specific subject areas.
By the time I reached the point of choosing senior subjects, art studies equalled Jim Parker. An accomplished ceramicist/potter with a thankfully sceptical take on the prevailing power structures, politics and gyrations within the education system.
Remembering, at this time art, dance, drama and music teachers were on a lower pay scale than maths/science teachers and others despite similar qualifications and employment history. Jim made it clear that art mattered a great deal historically, and for what it continued to contribute. Slides of Giotto and Raphael, mixed with Raku firing and red wine made it apparent that art was an evolving and compounding process.
I was talking about being a student at the QCA a bit earlier and how that experienced evolved for me over the period 1980 to 82. It was only a three year course and at the stage a diploma qualification was the highest level available in Queensland at least as far as a practical course was concerned.
The initial interview to obtain entry to the college was something I prepared for with some effort.
From late 1978 up until a month or so before the interview I worked variously as a groundsman and a trades assistant at the Anglican Grammar School in East Brisbane. It was a valuable experience as it turned out although it was definitely a challenge at times to be surrounded, as a twenty year old, by the sons of Brisbane’s more well-to-do families.
At that time I was living first in a shared house at Rochedale of all places, then Greenslopes and finally for some years at Annerley. Transport was my trusty motorcycle and I sported a kind-of punky very short haircut, smoked rollies and was very much in the throes of discovering various social scenes.
Bit more of that later.
Preparation for this QCA interview required me to get a folio of work together, in my case paintings and graphic work I had done since arriving in Brisbane. The interview came and I arrived at the Seven Hills campus with my bulky folio along with lots of other hopefuls.
I remember little of the actual interview really, there were a couple lecturers who interviewed me, I remember Nora Anson being very encouraging finding positive things to say about my work and happy that one of my influences was Paul Klee.
Once I found out my application had been successful I really had to get myself organised. There was TEAS, the Tertiary Education Allowance Scheme to apply for, along with paperwork to complete, never a strong point for me, and the constant problem of money.
I had left the job at ‘Churchie’ some weeks earlier and funds were running low. Until TEAS funds came through, well after the beginning of the college term, I would need to generate some income.
House-mates came in handy here, during the ‘O’ week there was a market day and I collected all the unwanted clothes I could from everyone and flogged them at the college.
I remember sometime later artist Barbara Campbell told me she didn’t like the way I energetically convinced passersby that this shirt, or that jacket was so cool for them that they simply must buy it. It was quite a performance, but I was a bit desperate and I did make enough money to get by thankfully.
I had a bit of luck regarding my TEAS also. Whilst in the government office in the city filling in my details a friend who worked there suggested I put as my permanent residential address that of my parents in Melbourne. This allowed me to obtain four travel vouchers per year for free air travel to and from Brisbane.
One from Melbourne to start the study year, a return fare between semesters and one back to Melbourne at Christmas time. For anyone who has ever caught the bus from Brisbane to Melbourne, this was an obvious windfall.
The first semester at QCA was a mix of what they termed liberal studies subjects, theory, and an introductory program into the main practical areas of study. I remember Ron Dunglinson, perhaps, the college principal making it very clear in an early address to new students that the college was there to train artists, not art teachers, and this did become something of a division within the student population.
There were those who headed toward the education sector and those who focused on their chosen major subject area.
So off around the campus we trundled experiencing the various delights of painting, printmaking, sculpture, super 8 film and TV, ceramics, gold and silver-smithing and photography along with the compulsory drawing units and art history subjects. I loved it. I loved meeting the students, a mix of ‘straight from school’, country kids and the more mature age types.
And I clearly remember spending most of a weekend desperately trying to get a colour wheel right mixing from the primaries. It would be fair to say I took all areas of study with a necessary degree of seriousness while wondering if my initial preference for painting was the right one.
One aspect concerning these college years that did puzzle me as I know it did others was, why Seven Hills? Why build a college so far from anywhere really.
There were two main theories on this that I was aware of and one at least may have been linked to the National Party government. The first concerned floors of all things.
It was widely thought that the preference for parquetry flooring in the design, and present pretty much throughout had bumped construction costs up. Someone had made the choice of floors over a more expensive site closer to the city.
The second theory was that Bjelke-Peterson had made it very clear that he wanted as much space as possible between any potential rat-bag art students and the already well known rat-bags at University of Queensland.
Being part of the TAFE sector too may have had some impact on location at that time. It would be fair to say that once inside the college you could have been anywhere really, but being so far out of town was frustrating insofar as it made quick gallery, shopping or pub trips difficult.
It did make for some colourful moments at the Morningside hotel however where many of the regulars worked at the thriving Canon Hills meat works. What remains of the original buildings I knew are today little more than sad derelict shells awaiting final obliteration.
As I mentioned earlier, after beginning my major in the painting department, I shifted focus. Once students made the choice of one major study area or another, they generally spent almost all their time in that department maybe only visiting other departments to see friends or borrow something.
The photographers when you saw them looked suitably pale having spent many hours in the dark pitch f the darkroom. The print makers often looked pale and ill given the pervasive odour of turps and solvents despite the roar of exhaust fans while the painting majors were upstairs suitably above, in airy, light filled studios.
I was glad to have friends in all areas of the college pretty much but I was always glad to get back to the enormous standalone barn of a structure that was the sculpture block. It just had so much stuff.
And it even had an overhead crane designed to move big heavy things, but also used remarkably by Jeanelle Hurst and Frank Murray in one of their performances.
It carried them and a large piece of circular stone with a central aperture and a rather long pole like a ships mast. All this happened in various states of elevation and back and forth motion with a sound track that may have been live or taped, I can’t remember.
There were other large bit of machinery, all sorts of tools, welders and lots of raw materials as well as odds and ends brought in by people. It was here I was able to turn some of the skills learnt as a trades assistant to good use, metalworking and welding for instance and not just for art purposes.
Several student vehicles received running repairs to bodywork behind the sculpture block.
As I alluded to a moment ago, the sculpture department had a freedom, not just with regard to the materials and methods open to the students but also with regard to the possibilities of how and when art making could occur. I can’t remember much that was off limits as far as locating work inside or outside studio or in the grounds of the college was concerned.
Apart from the ‘rocks on the roof’ episode which was clearly not well thought out. I remember lecturer John Rigby making the comment that painters could go into the studio half full and still end up with something. Sculptors on the other hand he said could not because they would have something very heavy fall on them and end up dead.
I am sure it was this openness, the kind of thinking that occurred in the sculpture area mostly, along with a certain sense of ‘do it yourself’ which carried over into aspects of the artist run spaces I was concerned with in the years following.
Adam Boyd, Zelico Maric, Jeanelle Hurst and myself all spent some serious time there along with of course many others like Lyndall Milani who I believe was involved in post-graduate work.
Coe Oliver was another, Linda Wilson and many I can picture in my mind’s eye but not give a name to just now. We had some good and some very good lecturers. Les Melton, Ron Moss and John Elliot who had the keen ability to ask the very difficult questions about what you were doing and how did you propose to realise it.
John’s european background and training along with astonishing technical ability and theoretical knowledge kept people on their toes in the studio, during tutorials and critiques.
By 1982 I was in my final year at QCA although I was to return in 1988 to take care of some unfinished business. I had been spending increasing amounts of time at Jeanelle’s flat over at 19 Edmonstone South Brisbane during the past eighteen months or so. Barbara Campbell lived upstairs, Viv Howie in the front flat I believe, there may have been others.
We would all stay up late smoking, drinking coffee burning bits of furniture in the tiny fireplace talking about everything. Absolutely everything. It wasn’t long before Jeanelle would receive an Exhibition Grant from the Visual Arts Board. It wasn’t long before everything would change, well pretty much everything.
Tell me a bit more about what you mentioned earlier about ‘the system” Russell?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier there was always a lot of discussion around the existence of the so called, ‘gallery system’. This had been operating in Brisbane as far as I knew for quite some time and was dominated by a few colourful and well known identities. The existing alternatives were also quite well known as I have mentioned.
While I felt we were never absolute in what One Flat was in 1982 and what it would offer, we knew what it wasn’t, and knew it’s still nascent opportunities didn’t already exist. The idea that thinking and practice could be in and remain in, a state of flux, would have a lasting significance.
The idea that artists would relinquish responsibility or control over the distribution and display of their work and pay a pretty substantial commission for the privilege of doing so, was becoming something of an absurd anachronism for many.
Apart from the fact there were probably far more artists wanting to show their work than there were venues available, there were also the issues regarding media and materials and the form of the work.
The types of work being produced?
Installation, performance, ephemera, sound, super 8 film and slide projections, the experience of art outside the ‘frame’ and which wasn’t necessarily an obvious commodity to purchase and take away, had few options aside from the IMA and some tertiary institutions.
It should be said though, these were the some of the forms preferred more and more by practitioners, especially those now emerging from the college cocoon along with those from interstate.
Early exhibition flyers indicate for example that during the months of June through August, One Flat saw exhibitions of paintings by Hollie, graphics, sound loops and assorted ephemera from the independent Sydney record label M SQUARED, photographs from Anne Raven McKenzie Kaye, paintings by the DGRASKNE group, Polaroids from Gary Warner and a performance from the New York based artist Ellen Zweig, a lecture by Lucy Lippard.
It was a particularly busy period.
And there was a sense that everything was happening at once and it wasn’t just getting exhibitions up and happening. The white cube(s) had to be first renovated then maintained.
Many hours spent with ladders, filler and paint loaded rollers transformed previously cosy living areas into suitably spare spaces ready for anything. A fairly rudimentary office was equipped with amongst other things, a table topped with typewriter and gorgeous new red Ericofon. Perhaps most importantly however was a brand new and equally red four-drawer filing cabinet that really became a nerve centre and repository for just about everything. Contacts, accounts, correspondence, documentation of all kinds lived within this sheet-metal team member.
It was really the equivalent of a rudimentary computer and you went to it for information and answers and occasionally it traveled, but not with the convenience of a laptop.
I remember on one performance outing our red friend stood majestically atop the old government helipad that used to be moored under the freeway along the river. I’m sure that the Helipad 1 performance did little more than reflect aspects of portability associated with the One Flat experience and given what was to come, that was probably sufficient.
The pontoon was a beautiful spot to conduct ‘business’ for several hours though, but sadly access was later denied with fencing, signage and spikes.
Openings to events were often quite boisterous affairs depending upon the artist’s catering budget and the numbers invited and just who turned up.
And while we had a growing contact list and did a regular mail out, it was expected that the artist(s) would accept the responsibility of invitations along with being around to open and mind the space whenever possible.
To be honest I can’t remember what the fee was for taking either the front or back room or both, but I think it was a pretty modest covering-costs type. No money was collected in any form of commission from sales, (if any) as this was most definitely the accepted commercial model we were moving away from.
Given Jeanelle was still living in a what amounted to a cubby-hole in the rear of the building, she was there for much of the time. I was living in Annerley which was only ten minutes away and spent lots of time in the office often plunking away on the typewriter, some days wondering if anyone would come in at all.
Adam Boyd who had helped with some of the rennos was spending increasing amounts of time there and used the space as a staging point involving a particularly daring event involving a crane, a flag and a construction site. I will let him tell that tale.
Adam Wolter is someone I remember as a strong presence at this time adding an often provocative dialogue to events. One person who did a great deal to help from an advertising perspective was a fellow called James Milne. James ran the photocopying rooms at what was still then I think QIT.
During quiet moments we would take whatever flyer or copy we had to James and he would make as many copies as we needed for a never to be repeated price. He also made the most astounding guacamole.
One thing that was begun here and continued with due diligence always was the documentation of things.
At this time the idea of documentation was considered, for obvious reasons, very important practice and while the college experience encouraged it, we really learned it at 19 Edmonstone Street. Or at least I did, and it wasn’t just snaps.
Film was exposed and sent away to return as proper slides then labelled and filed in hanging folders and entrusted to our red friend. I have not seen many of these for the best part of thirty years and it would make for a wonderful slide night.
Despite having been at the QCA for over two years at this stage, (I was actually in my final year and not, given all that was happening, spending sufficient time at Seven Hills) I still felt like something of a ring-in in Brisbane in some ways.
So many of the people who came through One Flat seemed to have existing connections with others based on shared time at places like QIT, UQ, 4ZZZ, various bands or projects or in some cases even schools.
I’m thinking of people like Gary Warner, Mark Ross, John Willsteed, Tim Gruchy, Terry Murphy, Matt Mawson, Linda Sproull, Brian Doherty and Adam Wolter who I mentioned earlier. There were existing networks other than the QCA I was really unaware of.
When I went along to music events at an even earlier period, ’78-’80 at somewhere like the old Queens Hotel or the Curry Shop in George St., apart from those I went with, if I went with anyone, I generally didn’t know a soul.
Initially I used to go to a small venue below the Twelfth Night Theatre in Bowen Hills called the Journalists Club. I don’t remember meeting any journalists but occasionally bands played there and the crowd was generally friendly. The big live music venues were either Festival Hall or Cloudland which had a slightly faded glamour, a fairly small stage but a magnificent sprung dance floor.
Along with everything else I was also working a couple of nights a week in a well known and somewhat influential, (in food circles) restaurant up on Petrie Terrace. And nearly everyone who worked there was gay and ages ranged from early twenties to late sixties and the social scene generated from that workplace was unlike any I had experienced before.
Necessarily guarded in some ways given some of the social attitudes, the nature of the politics of the time and behaviour of sections of the police service. But also a window into clubs in places like Rowes Arcade, fashion and parties.
And as anyone who has worked in hospitality, knows, if you are lucky work can resemble a kind of theatre. The dining room is the main stage where hopefully most of the important action follows the script, more or less. The kitchen, backstage, doing everything it can to make the action happen as it should.
Often it was great theatre and after a good good night many of the players and production crew would sit, have a couple of drinks, talk and reflect. I heard lots of stories often of a previous Brisbane, one that sort of still existed but didn’t really. A bit like reading Malouf’s Johnno, bits were still there, bits were in the mind’s eye and bits were just gone.
Apart from One Flat opening, 1982 saw the Commonwealth Games come to town and the opening of the first part of the South Bank cultural centre. I remember that because I attended the opening with a flyer stuck to the back of my jacket advertising events at One Flat.
From memory we got a small mention in one newspaper along the lines; “after you have visited the monolith, pop around the corner and see what’s happening locally”.
Or words to that effect.
The cover of the white pages that year featured an image of hand clutching a handful of games medals. A politically astute artist who was visiting from Sydney, was it Anthony or Kevin Boyce, from memory, who seized on this and photocopied the cover of the telephone book and altered it to show the hand grasping not medals but the rights of aboriginal Australians.
Hand coloured copies of this altered book which looked at first glance like the original were pasted over many phone books in public places in the CBD like the GPO and hotel lobbies to make the point.
One Flat was directly across the road from Musgrave Park, and the ‘Games’ was not the first or the last time authorities would attempt a ‘state sanctioned clean up’ for the sake some event seen by outside eyes.
One Flat Exhibit continued on through 1982 at the 19 Edmonstone Street location but again change was not far away. I finished up at the college without actually finishing some parts of the course. That however seemed a minor matter compared with the challenges of shifting to a new location in Brisbane city proper.
One Flat Exhibit in Edmonstone street continued with the addition of Gallery Office Exhibit at 66 Turbot street.
We were situated above “All Sound” on the corner of George street, it was a bolt-hole in the city proper. Operating primarily as an office for, as the card indicated, r lake, j hurst, b doherty. (Lower case was making inroads at this time.)
The short lived publication ‘Art Walk’ had made its debut a short time previously and my memory is, I don’t have a copy of the magazine to verify this, that Brian Doherty was becoming more involved in the area of publishing along with Jeanelle.
My input was limited to designing the front cover, the mock-up of I still have.
I remember where Brisbane was at this time in regard to what it apparently saw as it’s future direction.
It was just after the opening of the first stage of the cultural centre, the Commonwealth Games had happened, plans were afoot transform the CBD. That behemoth the Myer centre was soon to begin construction in the Queen Street Mall which would decimate half of Elizabeth street down to Albert street.
What I had seen as a new arrival as delightfully original, all the particular department stores and individual traders, were about to be deleted. Not in one hit. But over a period.
This was the era that saw the demise of The Bellevue Hotel, Cloudland, almost the old museum and large numbers of old Queenslander houses were moved out of the inner suburbs. Demolitions.
George street, at least the last bit before it joined Roma street after Turbot Street was a joyful if somewhat rag-tag collection of stores and businesses. Rooms for older men a gun shop, butchers, offices helping disenfranchised youth, support networks for Indigenous people, Macdonnell and East were there.
Along with Bill Browns sports-store, a hardware store, hair dressers, The Plastic Shop and the like, much of it in the familiar terrace style, shop at street level, accommodation or office upstairs.
There was even Little Roma Street now subsumed into the bowels of the new law courts but which ran from the intersection of George and Roma back to Turbot.
This was where bands had practice rooms and later other artist run spaces would spring up. Red Comb house was soon to meet the wreckers ball to be replaced with the new police HQ further down Roma street. The final site for One Flat Exhibit was the old Commonwealth bank site at 355 George Street.
Elsewhere at the time the IMA had been forced out of its Market street location into the 4th floor, Edward street site.
My memories of Market street are limited. As I said on my arrival in Brisbane I attended some life drawing classes there, I remember meeting George Petelin on one occasion. Mike Parr did some performance there, could have even been his famous arm severing, and I think Luke Roberts showed some of his vast collection of kitsch and curiosities there.
It was the Edward street location that I remember as being such a presence for me in Brisbane but more of that later too.
The shift for One Flat into the old bank location was not a particularly easy one. Where the 19 Edmonstone Street premises lent themselves to exhibit space fairly easily in retrospect, the George street branch was a difficult fit in many ways. The street level area was as you would imagine set up as a bank with teller booths, office areas and just generally lots of stuff that was really just in the way. Upstairs was a little better with a wonderful mezzanine area that looked down to the ground level space.
The basement was kind of creepy with an enormous vault opened with two big keys and the rest of the space was pretty cold and a bit damp. It did function reasonably well as a band room and recording studio however, Tony Kniepp brother of one of the DGRASKNE boys, Shane ( and his colleague Darryl Graham who formed Dgraskne aka Dgraskne Fuckpig) , may have even recorded a version of ‘Pig City’ there.
Variously it was used by bands like the ‘Tape-loops’ , Pork and others. Another publication, ‘Art Wonder Stories’ grew from another room downstairs but I am not the one to tell that story.
We set to work making the street level area usable which involved a lot of deconstruction, dump trips and trips to the scrap metal merchant which thankfully provided some much needed cash. Rent on the whole building was $400 per month to LJ Hooker as I remember it and while that may seem small by today’s rents, it was generally quite tough to get that money, along with the phone and electricity accounts together.
There is a lot I could talk about regarding the running and management of that space, but anyone who had the shared house experience would most likely be familiar with most of them in a basic way. There were times however when running around tending to the nuts and bolts of keeping the space open impacted upon time that could have been spent on other work.
One exhibition that sticks in my mind from this period, perhaps because I have quite detailed diary entries from that time, is the work of an artist from Germany, Zyggy.
He and his partner Gaby booked the ground level space for two weeks in May 83 and produced an exhibition called FLAG. Subtitled;
It was an intellectual response to the idea of flags generally, and more particularly it used the Australian flag and painted representations of it to ask questions. It was not a show that generated a great deal of interest overall, but I remember having a long discussion with Ted Riggs who was quite taken with it.
It was very different also because the artists were outsiders looking in at something many of us were partly blind to.
Because of its location, the venue did catch a fair amount of passing traffic. The curious would often wander in sometimes staying and talking, sometimes turning in panic because of the shock that the space didn’t meet what was expected.
One old fellow would love to put his head in and proclaim loudly that we “were casting seed on stony ground, stony ground!” He may well have had a point. Another fellow constantly collecting watches and other things of value would pop in scrounging for anything that caught his eye.
It would be fair to say that George Street did often operate like one big installation/performance, a state of flux highly dependent for its operation on who were around at the time.
If that sounds messy, it very often was.
People came and went and the effects on the ambient chemistry would not always be easy to predict and the emphasis shifted to be much less on the physical artefacts of art production and more on the creative process.
This can be seen more easily in events like the Friday night cabarets where music and performance and the social interaction promoted by that was in full swing. I am sure there is lots of documentation of these events. Ian MacIntosh and Eugene Carchesio were a memorable performance duo during that period.
And a section of the Brisbane Anarchists adopted George Street as a kind of spiritual home for their musical activities.
While a prevailing structure for operations was fairly self-evident during One Flat’s first incarnation, anyone coming through the doors at George street expecting that may have been disappointed.
Think more of an organism like the ‘Blob!’ consuming, growing, evolving into an indeterminate thing with a healthy dash of the abject. Participants did really need to engage quite actively and it would be accurate to say that not everyone wanted to do that.
One Flat George Street Branch was never easy in the sense of, ‘well here’s the art, have a look around’. Here are a couple of quotes from the period;
“One Flat is the people not the building”
– Richard DeSouza.
“One Flat was illegitimate visual hysteria”
– Eugene Carchesio.
And a little something I wrote;
to hurst memo. june 14
crawl, crawl, crawl, stumble, ouch, hop, hop, hop, trip, crash, walk, walk, walk, dodge, weave, sidestep, walk, walk, walk, laugh, ha, run, run, run, cruise, zoom, zoom, zooommm, screech, whirr, clatter, thump, clunk, bang, boom, groan, crawl, crawl,……………………………………….
As I said, there was a lot of lower case happening.
There will be a good number of people who have strong recollections of activities in and around George street. Jeanelle of course. Adam Boyd, Zeliko Maric, Gary Warner, Michele Andringa, Adam Wolter, Brian Doherty, Peter Bellas and many others.
A last one for me is simply titled, “The night they burnt the paintings.”
Was Share housing an important way to network for you Russell?
I was still living in Annerley during this period in a shared house which was what pretty much what everyone did.
Housing availability was generally good then and there were lots of old Queenslander houses around the inner suburbs to rent unlike today. There were a couple of quite well known houses from that time I remember. One from college days was Alkoomi in Waminda Street Morningside a sprawling old colonial, home to many art students and the scene of many parties on a big block opposite the station. Gone now of course.
Another was in South Brisbane on the corner of Vulture and Browning Streets. It’s still there but restored within an inch of its life losing all the decaying gothic charm it had. Home not only to art students but also those studying architecture, medicine and law the parties there were the stuff of legend. Does anyone else remember the fluoro carrots hanging from the ceiling?
Parties were as I remember it very much the thing at that time, easy to organise sometimes with little invitations or word of mouth. I remember 4ZZZ had a spot which would advertise parties for those game enough to make it open house.
Live music was also popular with venues in and around the city and Valley usually with a 4ZZZ hookup of some kind. The refec at UQ had some memorable gigs and I remember Sunnyboys, Nick Cave. The Silver Dollar with Xero, Hacienda comes to mind and of course The Beat was always there after Lucky’s.
I did a couple of jobs at The Beat painting themed interiors on cloth upstairs which was then stapled to the walls during the day downstairs. It paid quite well as I remember, always in bundles of notes of small denominations and very well worn, and very preferential service at the bar for a night or two.
The slightly seedy underworld nature of many of the premises in the Valley was quite evident at that time but I didn’t think about it much. After all, Sydney had Kings Cross, Melbourne had St. Kilda so it seemed logical in some ways that Brisbane had the Valley.
It wasn’t until sometime later that all the dots joined up to reveal the role of the police and parts of the then state government in things. Some people I knew from the restaurant trade frequented the illegal casinos but that was not my thing. However some establishments were happy to serve you drinks and takeaways after hours having established you were a recently ‘knocked off’ waiter and that was handy.
While we certainly expect decent coffee from just about everywhere today, then you had to either make the pilgrimage to the Cosmopolitan in Brunswick street or buy your beans there, take it home and make it yourself. I can also remember when late night takeaway food could sometimes come down to a choice between the ‘Windmill’ on Petrie Terrace, or the delightfully named ‘Kadoos Belly Button’ on George street.
Deep fried cabana sausage, dim sims and some more cigarettes please!
And moving out of One Flat 355 George Street in 1984?
The move from George Street came sometime before it was decided that the whole block would come under the wreckers ball.
The building was used for a while by others and I can remember arranging several ‘sales’ to help cover some outstanding bills associated with tenancy. When demolition did eventually occur, the large triangular block bounded by Turbot, Roma and George Streets would remain barren for quite a few years, used predominately as a car park.
The car park would however be used by Jeanelle and myself as the site for a public art work in 1991 as part of the First Festival Fringe. Titled, POLYMEDIA CAR CONSTRUCTION, it involved the use of three car bodies, gas cutting equipment and various tools and a lot of physical labour to reconfigure the vehicles into a kind of grotesque creature.
Floodlit at night it looked fantastic and passersby were genuinely intrigued and conversational for the period of the week or so it remained. Art can so often be the portal for vocalising and extrapolating on inner meanderings.
The Queensland Artworkers Union began to take form in Brisbane in late 1982 early 1983. Some of the first meetings were held as I remember in the flat occupied by Barbara Campbell and Ted Riggs on Milton Road.
It took as its model similar organisations in Sydney and Melbourne where it would be true to say the political edge was somewhat sharper. I can remember an early visit to the famous ‘tin sheds’ in Sydney and seeing the proliferation of poster work on all sorts of social issues.
Posters that proclaimed ideas like, ‘An artist without their politics is like a soldier without their sword’, for one. It seemed to be the case that these sentiments encouraged art-workers to take a stance, have a position on where art-workers fitted within the society. Something lacking a bit in Bris to be sure and worth pursuing.
Along with Ted and Barbara I can remember Brian Doherty, Clare Williamson, Lyndall Milani, Adam Boyd, Hollie, John Waller, Ruth Propsting, Luke Roberts, Bronwyn Clark-Coolee and Christine Henderson and others all being actively involved at times during this period.
A particular event that grew out of many meetings that sticks in my mind was a fund-raiser in the form of a cocktail party.
It had been decided that a preliminary to the main event would be arranged for members and happen at 100 Roma street, possibly Clare Williamson’s studio? Each member could bring three guests and it was held on the 14th February 1984 for the modest sum of $10 per head. The night was a big success, well sort of.
The cocktails were rather strong and everyone had a good time with music, talk and dancing and money was even raised I think, but unfortunately some opportunistic thieves managed to infiltrate and clear off with everything quite late into the evening.
The Union did organise a very successful conference in the Community Arts Centre Cinema later that year addressing issues associated with funding, galleries and education with speakers from across those areas. It also spearheaded a campaign for artists involved in the ‘Queensland Works’ show at UQ in 1985 to receive artist fees.
Artist fees were something of a simmering issue at the time as it was widely perceived that for some reason artists were happy to provide art-work or labour for little or no payment.
That attitude persisted for some time and I can remember people saying things like, “You love what you do, you’ll do it anyway, you don’t need to be paid for it”. Like payment, filthy capitalist lucre would somehow taint the integrity of the art?
I think that attitude really started to dissipate around the time of Expo, (1987-88) when Brisbane really had a period of strong, almost full employment for arts-based workers with decent remuneration.
Thanks Russell and the role of the IMA during this time?
I believe the IMA played a very important role in Brisbane during the period 1980-1990 as I said earlier. It provided access to contemporary art from all over Australia as well as providing a venue for talks, lectures and forums, film, performance and installation.
I remember Brian Doherty running a film program there over an extended period, lovely 16mm Jacques Tati, old Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.
The structure of the institute with its board, director, an advance program of events/exhibitions and newsletters along with a range of publications, all enabled by ongoing funding from government and other sources gave it a stability.
A stability that really was not what could not be offered by ARI’s in my experience at least, for any length of time.
Conversely, the importance of the ARI’s, (and I speak here primarily of One Flat George St. Branch) was therefore in part what the IMA wasn’t. A platform for a relatively anarchic and immediate approach to the developing, making and displaying of art practice.
I look upon the term ‘anarchy’ in this instance not as the absence of any kind of order, but more of a commitment to a form of collaborative self-determination.
And my experience of this ‘collaborative self-determination’ remembers that it required a certain amount of energy and continuous engagement from those wanting to be involved. It can be typified in some ways in the expression I mentioned earlier and popular at the time ‘as things being in a continual state of flux’.
Elements that may have been yesterday considered compatible, could today be dismissed as irreconcilable based upon a change in a relatively frequently re-considered collective view.
Difficulties arise in trying to illuminate the dynamics of the tangentially differently-organised for obvious reasons, and most people rightly fear and steer clear of it.
It can frequently be exhausting and coupled with often inspirational but unreliable illuminations of transcendent directional insight, it can become a highly complex and by its very nature, conflicted operational space.
The IMA on the other hand with its acknowledged structure was reliably able to offer a considered contemporary program, consistently. In a city like Brisbane in the process of experiencing a new round of commercial, architectural and cultural alignment, the IMA was a bit of a philosophical and mental bolt-hole for many I thought.
It was often however something of an ironic ritual before entering the foyer in Edward Street to confront the Scientology representatives, (ensconced I believe on the 3rd floor?) and deal with their formulaic attempts to engage you in affirmative ‘life and planet changing dialogues’.
The tenure of Barbara Campbell and Ted Riggs at the IMA as co-directors, guest-curators between ’84 and ’85 was a new direction for the Institute ( No Names exhibition in 1983 for example) I believe and I’m not sure if it has been repeated since.
The O’flate group had a kind of residency there in ’84 which culminated in a Christmas Performance which involved many around a banquet table playing, (our version) of early Christian drinking games.
The period leading up to this was perhaps best described as George Street visits the Institute and ends up staying over and inviting lots of friends, creating art and making a bit of a mess.
It is a long time since I have seen images of this but I do remember a large mobile scaffold playing a fairly major role along with an amount video equipment.
Moving into the downstairs, first floor area of the Belltower Studios located in 424 Brunswick street, Fortitude Valley was a good period for the One Flat now the O’Flate group. O’Flate was a position between inflate and deflate as well as having references to One Flat.
Jeanelle, Adam Boyd, Zel Maric and myself had a fantastic open, well lit and affordable walk up just out of the valley proper. This is of course where the Judith Wright complex is now but then Empire Office furniture had the street level, we were on first floor along with Maria Cleary and Mark Ross who had had a screen printing set-up that was also I think utilised by Chris Feld and John Boundy of Belltower design .
The period 1984-86 was a very productive period. I had moved from my long-time share house at Annerley to a shared flat set-up with Adam in Langshaw Street New Farm, just down the road from the studio.
New Farm was becoming the suburb of choice for many in the arts at this time with affordable rentals, easy proximity to pretty much everywhere and accessibility to the growing ambient/decadence of the Valley night-life.
The Brunswick Street studio was the springboard for much activity for the group, and also remained a venue for exhibitions, performance and parties. Having people working in fashion in the same building was also an excellent source for the cross fertilisation of ideas, inspiration and opportunity.
Fashion and Art, very chi-chi!
I remember doing a series of small pictures on masonite, collage and painting, most of which I gifted to Mal Enright that captured, (I thought anyway) the slightly Warhol/Factory situation (with a decidedly Brisbane twang) we found ourselves in.
It was in this studio that work was created for the ‘Brisbane Hot’ show at the IMA in 1985, The ‘Queensland Works’ show at the UQ gallery, the opening exhibition at ‘That’ contemporary art space, the ‘Vision of O’Flission’ show, (O’Flate studios) and the ‘Hurst, Lake, Boyd’ show at That Space, and lots more.
I still have some work I completed in the studio there that didn’t sell, or more likely was not lost in transit or destroyed. Diary entries from the time indicate all the highs and lows of a hectic work, social and private life.
Gary Sangster the Director from Artspace in Sydney visited the studios during ’84 while looking at the development of artist run spaces in Brisbane. And I may be going out on a limb here but, on the invitation to the 1984 combined Xmas party at the studios the term ‘Forty-dude Valley’ was perhaps used for the first time? (Maria Cleary?)
That invitation perhaps most neatly encapsulates the joyousness of the art-fashion having a fun time going-large on occasion.
424 Brunswick Street was always only a short walk to the ‘Cosmo’, acknowledged by many as the only place to get a decent coffee at the time. Food was always a little trickier and a cycle into the Elizabeth Arcade to the ‘Source’ was a preferred option for many years.
The ‘Brisbane Hot’ show at the IMA was an interesting grouping of artists including Maria Cleary, Joe Furlonger, John Waller, Scott Redford, O’Flate, Paul Andrew and the Belltower group among others.
The new curator at the IMA, Peter Cripps envisioned it as platform to discuss contemporary art practice in Brisbane.
The ‘Hot’ was seen I believe in part as the ‘expressionist’ read ’emotional’ elements present in Brisbane art making and a contrast to what may be expected as the ‘cool’ perhaps ‘intellectual’ elements evident in the art practice of a city like Melbourne.
It was maybe my first experience of being ‘fitted’ into a pre-existing curatorial format and all that goes with that. The specifics of the Brisbane cultural condition were further explored by curator Ross Harley again at the IMA the following year in the ‘Know Your Product’ show.
This time the reach was far broader involving music, film, radio and all kinds of posters and ephemera. The ‘Queensland Works’ show at UQ was a massive undertaking given its extraordinary time frame of 1950-85.
I can remember there was a bit of a panic on at the time in the arts community about whether you were included or not. It seemed to have had a bit of the sense, (real or imagined) of well, “your in, but you are out”. Your art is part of this history but I’m sorry yours is not. Ironic in a way given what had happened and was happening regarding opening up arts practice in the city.
The sound of the canon firing a warning shot across the bow perhaps?
Our installation involving manipulated TV’s was a joy to work on and a striking contrast to a lot of the other work as I remember. One of my diary entries of the time remarks on how enjoyable it was to be in the studio working on a piece while still catching midday TV!
While 1982 saw the opening of the QAG, by 1985 the sister building, the Performing Arts Complex was ready to go.
Silver Harris from Adelaide had been engaged by the Trust to orchestrate the opening parade celebrations. The aim was for a ‘people powered parade’ meaning that all types of community groups from schools to sporting clubs would carry the parade elements from QUT at Gardens Point through the city and over the Victoria bridge to the new building on the south bank.
The old south bank area was another in Brisbane seeing big changes. Many of the businesses and were closing down and being moving out and it’s amazing to think now that the whole stretch of the river there was bordered by little more than a grassy verge.
Adam Wolter once flew a large box kite from the site so high that the police were alerted by air traffic control from the airport to track down the source of the UFO showing up on the radar!
With Silver at the helm, Mark Ross led the team of artist/constructors to design and build the parade elements. Adam Boyd, Maria Filippow, Maria Cleary and myself worked from a near derelict building on the river bank approximately where the large ‘wheel’ is now.
These kind of big one-off events became an important way not to just to make some much needed cash but also make connections into what was a broadening area of public and community art projects.
In the times before the internet it was often only word of mouth and sometimes even chance meetings on the street or at an event that led to such opportunities.
The period of the mid to late eighties was one of increasing activity in the arts sector generally in Brisbane and a diversity of artist run spaces opening up. That Space, The Observatory and John Mills National were all operating creating more opportunities for artists to exhibit in whatever form.
So many people involved in such a range of activities and I haven’t even mentioned La Bamba, Raw Roar and so much more.
The studio at 424 Brunswick street was not the final incarnation of O’Flate, but it is where I will leave my story for the present. The next bit is just too big and needs its own space.
Twenty or more years ago I started to jot down some recollections regarding the period 1980-1986 and chose to begin a rough draft on a Friday afternoon around a quarter to five in late ’85. And so it goes……..
“Two people charged down a flight of stairs and through a doorway that flushed them onto a busy footpath in the Valley. One clutching a large envelope they ran weaving through the pedestrian traffic along Brunswick street back toward Ann street not waiting for little green men to appear or cars to stop their crawl in and out of the city.
Turning right the GPO drew them like a tractor beam, then exchanged serious stamps for dollars and cents just before doors shut for the week. So they then popped the package marked to target a part of the Australia Council through the slot, Interstate and Overseas.
It was now no longer a writing game, but a waiting game. A wait to see if O’Flate could go national, could go on safari!
Read more about O’Flate and One Flat here with collaborators Jeanelle Hurst, Adam Boyd, Zeliko Maric and many other artists here: