Interview with Steven GRAINGER
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.
Thanks for the questions Paul. My answers became all jumbled together into what follows. I was born in 1963. My first Australian forbear was sentenced to Botany Bay in 1823 for resisting the English taking over Irish farms . My grandfather died in WWII aged just 22, shot down over France before my father was born. My father, served in Malaya and Vietnam fighting communism. My father’s upbringing in the aftermath of WWII and his experiences in Vietnam left him deeply troubled which affected my childhood in turn. My mothers’ people were farmers from rural Victoria of Irish and English descent. My family life was very traumatic due to the legacy of much war. In the 70’s we still very much lived in the aftermath of those wars, whereas they seem quite remote today.
To balance my family’s trauma, I developed a strong inner world. I read lots. I had powerful dreams, that seemed more like visions that helped me get through some difficult times. Once after my father threw me down a flight a stairs twice, I had a recurring dream of seeing a star in the night sky and knowing it was my star and it was coming towards me. This took an eternity. The last 30cm as I had my hand outstretched, took at least a 1000 years.
I gained a sense of something more through such dreams. Time was fluid and there where sources of great strength and vision within us. I think this deepened my fascination with the power of images. Another epiphany occurred In Grade 9 my art teacher showed a slide of El Greco’s ‘View of Toledo’ which opened something in me. Slides in a darkened room were so powerful back then. This was like my dreams. There was more to the world. I wanted to part of it. I belonged more in El Greco’s world than in suburban Toowoomba with an alcoholic war-torn father.
I also lived for music. In 1978, in Toowoomba, aged 14, I became aware, through reading the New Musical Express, of the ‘punk’ movement. This was so fascinating. It’s catharsis and questioning were what I needed. Reading the New Musical Express then and over the next few years, introduced me to so much, especially the section where artists wrote what music, books and films they liked. The NME writers were quite literary so I had to use a dictionary to understand some the words. I really liked the articles by Paul Morley and Julie Burchill. In 1979, when I was fifteen, my family moved to Brisbane. I got further into the underground music scene. I attended gigs by iconic Brisbane bands such The Leftovers, Razar, The Gobetweens, Xero, Mute 44, etc. I arranged to do work experience at 4ZZZ, which was the epicentre of underground music in Brisbane, for a week in June 1979. Now this was educational. The post-punk scene was very exciting, creative and inspirational. Also in 1979, in our school art text book, ‘The Handbook of Art’, we had arrived at the moderns: Dada, Klee, The Surrealists, The Expressionists, The Fauves, The Cubists which really lit my fire. I revelled in how they questioned everything and developed new ways of looking at the world. I couldn’t get enough of this and ‘borrowed’ books on Dada on from the State Library, which was not a lending library and ‘returned’ them a week or so later.
I knew my family wasn’t right, I wasn’t interested in school and the Queensland Police at the time were at war with my sub-culture, but was there a better world? There was a real sense of not having a future and living hard and dying young seemed like the most honourable and authentic way to live. The music scene of this time really had this ethos about it, none more so than my friends at the time such as Peter McGrath with whom I had many misadventures and near-death experiences. Yet I was also reading widely, Kafka, Hesse, anything in Picador at the time such as Knut Hamsun, Calvino and Russel Hoban’s early books. These writers and the modernist artist movements helped me understand my world and showed me some glimpses of the utopia I sought. (insert ‘Two Dogs Communicating’, 1980)
At the time the Queensland Police were out of control and trying to intimidate kids from the youth subculture: a mixed bag of idealists and nihilists, geniuses, dreamers, crazies, saints and sinners, but mostly good and honest, if uniformly irreverent. Police would pull you over walking down the street and hassle you. Many young people were arrested at gigs such as the Great Brain Robbery which I attended but was not one of the 26 people arrested. Share houses were raided. Some people were even framed with drugs. I wonder what the Special Branch policy and objective actually was. But they more they hassled us, the stronger we got and ultimately the musicians, artists, activists, leftist academics etc did become a tide that washed them away.
When 15, the Juvenile Aid Bureau put me into the Belmont Private Hospital which had a wing for ‘juvenile delinquents’. I had done nothing wrong in terms of being arrested and had not been sentenced by a court. As things were deteriorating at home, my mother signed the papers. She told me later as a way of protecting me from my father. People talk about how bad the Special Branch were, but the Juvenile Aid Bureau also operated outside the judicial system. This was why Qld at the time was called a police state. The police operated completely outside the judicial system, had their own agenda and directives from the National Party. I escaped after two weeks of incarceration. I was 15 and living pretty much in squats and ‘party houses’. I lived in Brisbane till mid 81 and then moved to Sydney till mid 83, so I missed much of the Brisbane ARI scene of the early 80’s. These were very wild times with enough misadventures for ten Tarintino films and I was lucky to have survived them, many did not. Here is a song I made in 1981 when I was seventeen. At the time I loved Edvard Munch, his paintings ‘The Scream’ and ‘The Sick Room’ really conveyed something to me. This song was called Edvard’s Scream and was very DIY, but I think conveys some of the feelings of the time.
I completely left this wild Darlinghurst, Surrey Hills lifestyle behind me in 1982, when I discovered the music of Coltrane and Sun Ra and I was getting deeper into painting and reading more widely. This was a very liberating for me. I can literally say ‘art saved my life’: Klee, reading Buckminster Fuller and listening to the wilder John Coltrane showed me a better way. I needed this, being by nature more optimistic and idealist, than nihilist. In 1983-4 I worked part time at Rocking Horse records so I could get access to more experimental music. In 1984 I started up the Arcadia Jazz Club in Elizabeth St so that artists like Mark Simmonds, Musiiki Oy, The Charlie Owen Quartet and Jeff Usher had somewhere to play.
Eugene Carchesio came into Rocking Horse to order a Sun Ra album and I invited him over to my place to listen to some of my Sun Ra albums. He was about the first person I met who was also loved the wildest extremes of free jazz and also painitng. We began jamming and formed the band The Closesthing with Janet Foote and Ian Wadley. Eugene and I often painted together, sharing the same box of watercolours as we listened to music, such Olivier Messiean’s organ woks, Albert Ayler, Ornette Colman. The Closesthing (insert hyperlink to Closesthing Remix page) played a gigs for 4ZZZ and in artist run spaces around Brisbane.
Eugene introduced me to the contemporary art scene in Brisbane and to Joseph Beuys. I loved and identified with Joseph Beuys, with his own near-death experiences though in different circumstances, idealistic search for a better world and anti-consumerist aesthetic. This was art that mattered, not amusement for the bourgeoisie. Eugene was a big influence on me at the time. There was something so understated and modest about his art. It was beautiful, but also spiritual and intellectual without stating anything definitely, the qualities I felt lacking in the world around me.
Eugene organized a two person show for us at That Gallery in 1986. My second show was again with Eugene and also with Hollie at John Mills National: a show and performance called ‘Distillation’. Music, painting, performance all blended together. The Artist Run Scene at the time had a lot of vitality and was infused with the DIY attitude of the music scene which was really important for everyone at the time in one way or another.
Folks started galleries, magazines, made movies, took photos. The audience at gigs were mostly in bands themselves, and an ARI opening was attended mostly by other boho artists, though there would be a few academics, and the occasional derelict attending for the free wine. There was so much mingling and cross-pollination between everyone. Yet after this show at John Mills National, Hollie and I began exhibiting with Michael Milburn and Eugene with Peter Bellas. During these times I collaborated with Deena Georgetti, Jose Macilino, Nick Comino in exhibitions and performances and was friends with many other artists active in the ARI scene. I liked paintings by Shane kneipp and Brendan Smith.
I then exhibited with Michael Milburn until his passing. Michael was great and gave his artists every freedom just as we had in the artist run galleries. I never liked openings though and climbed out the window and sat in the roof of Michael’s gallery in George St, looking up at the stars until they were over. It was a different crowd at the commercial galleries, mostly middle-class, whom I felt extremely uncomfortable around.
I loved drawing and painting, but I did not have much time for the conceptual art of the time and the neo -dada. I felt that anything that looked like Dada in the 1980’s was not Dada. Sadly this was the start of the ‘experimental’ becoming the conventional. I had no time for the IMA, seeing it as controlled by reactionary academics very much part of the ‘system’, entrenched in the bourgeoisie, government funded and ultimately sterile, though I think I was pretty alone in this view of the IMA which was seen as pretty hip by most.
I mostly painted with watercolour on paper, which I never framed. I liked people seeing my paintings, but I hated collectors buying them for all the wrong reasons. I did not like making collectible objects. The art world was confusing. Most of the artists I knew were idealistic bohemian types, but there was this conservative layer to the world of commercial galleries and the IMA and QAG, that somehow insidiously sterilized artists, except in rarer cases. I have never reconciled the love of painting with not wanting to fill the world with more objects. Perhaps this is why I have become more focused on music which is intrinsically ephemeral. Perhaps Duchamp was right after all: there was no need to be an ‘artist’ who made objects anymore. Perhaps the silence of Marcel Duchamp should not be over-estimated.
In 1980’s there was much questioning of what was valid and interesting art. Many believed that ‘painting was dead’. Yet I believed and still believe in painting., Painting is only limited by the imagination of the artist and viscerally stimulates the imagination like nothing else. When I paint intensively, images just appear in my mind especially when waking in the morning. I am often completely surprised by these images and intrigued by the process of their appearance. Where do they come from? It seems that when painting, one is so visually stimulated that the dreaming part of the mind becomes active and presents these images to you. For me art is about accessing this source to find new ways of seeing the world and relationships with in it. Yet even a very good painting also requires the viewer to enter into an active meditation with the image, rather than being passively effected by some novel element that may be without lasting substance.
When Michael Milburn died in the early 90’s, I walked away from the contemporary art scene to immerse myself in nature as much as possible, to pursue Tai Chi, Feldenkrais so as to de-condition myself and return to some degree of animal grace and also to expand my sensorium through various processes I have developed. I also believe environmental issues as very important and pressing. I do not own a car, try to fly as little as possible, buy as little as possible and not use heating or air-conditioning etc etc. This pursuits I find very creatively satisfying. I have continued painting and making music and am currently studying Drupad singing which is one of the most ancient living traditions of music in the world.
Many thanks to all the people who were part of the Brisbane alternative music and ARI scene. Perhaps this Remix project is will be our best the group show of all.