Interview with Artist Caitlin Franzmann – Level ARI – War is Over, Self-Organising and the Artist-Run Impulse
LEVEL is an artist-run-initiative and feminist collective, co-founded in 2010 by Courtney Coombs, Rachael Haynes and Alice Lang, and joined by Caitlin Franzmann, Anita Holtsclaw and Courtney Pedersen in 2013. LEVEL is focused on generating dialogue around gender, feminism and contemporary art through projects in different locations and contexts, manifesting as exhibitions, discussions, workshops and participatory artworks.
PHOTO: (Above) War is Over – The current LEVEL ARI collective (from left: Anita Holtsclaw, Caitlin Franzmann, Courtney Pedersen, Courtney Coombs, Rachel Haynes at MCA Sydney, War Is Over! (if you want it): Yoko Ono. Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). Duration. 15 Nov 2013 to 23 Feb 2014 )
What, who, when, why and where is Level?
LEVEL is a feminist collective, currently involving five artists, Courtney Coombs, Rachel Haynes, Caitlin Franzmann, Anita Holtsclaw and Courtney Pedersen. The emergence of LEVEL as a collective is unique in that the three co-founders, Courtney Coombs, Alice Lang and Rachel Haynes were not longstanding friends before they began the collective. They found each other through being connected by mutual friends and colleagues based on their shared frustration in the lack of representation of female artists in Brisbane at the time, as well as a passion and drive for doing something about it. LEVEL began as an all-women gallery space with artist studios in a Teneriffe warehouse, Brisbane.
It was here that they curated exhibitions, workshops and discussions and built a strong support network for women artists locally and nationally. Since the closure of the gallery space in 2012, LEVEL has evolved in to a collective of individuals based in Brisbane that continue to converse, curate and create together, with a focused attention on gender and feminism, which of course includes anyone (not only ‘women’) oppressed by the patriarchy. Alice Lang moved to Los Angeles in 2012 to study at Cal Arts, at the same time, Courtney Pedersen, Anita Holtsclaw and I joined the collective.
Tell me about the name of your group/collective, the story behind the fabulous name Level? (reminds me of the phrase a level playing field?)
There is a very definite play on the phrase ‘Leveling the playing field’ and LEVEL is also a Palindrome. It reads the same from front and back. To accentuate the balanced nature of the word itself, it is written in all upper case. Playing with regime of language has always been an important tool for LEVEL in terms of challenging embedded patriarchal constructs.
For me, the idea of ‘leveling the playing field’ also brings through some of the humour that we employ in our projects. We are using a term often used in commerce and originating from male dominated sports, to describe the core intent of the feminist collective – the fight to eradicate privilege and oppression.
Why, in a wee bit more detail, did you start an artist-run group/collective, and what type of group/collective is it? There are so many artist-runs in Brisbane, what makes yours unique, different, complementary, critical?
It is difficult for me to provide more detail on why Courtney, Rachel and Alice started the collective as I wasn’t a part of the group at this time. In 2010 I was studying visual art at Queensland College of Art and was only just beginning to go to all the exhibitions and art events around town. I went to quite a few exhibitions at the LEVEL space and recall there being a really positive energy of action and support for female artists in the local community and a growing discourse around gender, feminism and contemporary art. Whilst I wasn’t necessarily aware of the gender disparities in the contemporary art world, I had been working for 10 years as a town planner and like in most professions, gender inequalities are present.
I became particularly interested in feminism and contemporary art, through the consciousness raising activities of LEVEL and through my studies at QCA, particularly studying under such strong and supportive women as Debra Porch and Maura Reilly.
When I joined the group, LEVEL did not have a gallery space and our projects involved collaborating with other collectives and institutions nationally to create exhibitions, programs and artworks. Rather than LEVEL being a collective with a static, concrete vision, LEVEL is a continual open-ended conversation. As discussions around feminism are constantly evolving and we, as individuals, continue to learn and grow, LEVEL naturally also changes. I think this porous way of operating enables us to listen and collaborate within the collective and with others well.
Tell me about one or two of your most memorable Level artist-run projects so far, what you truly loved about them, and in all honesty what was challenging and groundbreaking about them from your point of view, how did you meet/solve the challenges?
LEVEL has instigated many projects in the past 7 years, including exhibitions, artist residencies, workshops, dinners, public picnics and participating in public protests. We have even infiltrated the Sydney Art Fair with tote bags printed with slogans like ‘Dude, Where’s my Art’. Each one that I have been involved in has been made rewarding through the simple fact of keeping important conversations alive.
One project in particular that I personally found rewarding was collectively curating an exhibition titled ‘THIS IS NOT THE WORK’ at The Block, Creative Industries Precinct, QUT in September 2014. The exhibition surveyed a selection of community-engaged artist projects from different locations around the world, including artists working with women and community in challenging and unpredictable ways, demonstrating feminist sensibilities and a commitment to non-hierarchical and collective structures.
I particularly loved the idea of the gallery for this project as a conceptual base-camp or frontline rather than a just site of display. Work was displayed in and around canvas tents. Flags and banners occupied the walls and ceilings. During the course of the exhibition, we hosted workshops and lectures to reinforce the idea of the exhibition as a place of action and ongoing discourse.
The exhibition included participatory works such as Transgressive, a choir phone app created by UK based collective Gaggle, as well as documentation and/or ephemera from performances or interventions such as Arahmaiani Feisal’s flags from her ongoing Flag Project and documentation of protests through poetry and performance by the Women in Black group based in Japan.
A challenge of working as a collective, within a feminist framework, is that decision making is not hierarchical and therefore requires consensus and inevitably includes disagreement. Finding those intersecting points of our ideas and opinions requires lengthier dialogical processes.
Ultimately, we all need to be together in person to figure things out and it is not always easy to find time for this. Whilst it can be a challenge, I also see this a rewarding process. Especially when we remain committed to working through the process together and we can all look back on the project with pride.
Tell me about one or two of your current artist-run visions/ projects in the pipeline for 2017?
LEVEL have been in conversation with a couple of organisations and individuals to collaborate on delivering some projects in 2017. Unfortunately, I can’t give too much information on these unconfirmed projects at this stage. We are hoping to continue a conversation with PERIL magazine, following on from our discussions last year. A couple of the core ideas (perhaps visions?) I have taken from LEVEL conversations of late includes celebrating difference together and being more playful and radical.
The seems to be an abundance of new artist-runs unfolding/generating in Brisbane, particularly in the last eighteen months, what is happening, why and how and where? New graduates emerging from universities? Tell me about two or three ARIs you like heaps and why so? And the thing I have noticed this year and last is just how different these ARIs are and how supportive and nurturing the scene is right now why is this so do you think/feel?
My personal experience of artist-run initiatives in Brisbane only really goes back 7 years. I was living overseas for several years prior to returning and studying visual arts. From what I hear there was a great deal of ari activity during the time that I was not living in Brisbane.
To be honest, I think that artist-run-initiatives happen all the time and are not always connected with students ‘emerging’ from universities. While I was at university, I was attending events run by OtherFilm, Audiopollen and Real Bad Music – perhaps aligning with my growing interest in sound art and expanded cinema.
Brisbane has always had a pretty strong underground scene and I think that there are some creative collectives that are more visible than others in the contemporary art landscape. What I do enjoy about Brisbane are the crossovers that occur between the music, visual art, film and activist worlds.
What I particularly loved from my time at university was the sense of community and the critical discourse on tap. I think when students reach the end of their degree, ARI’s are one approach to maintaining community and keeping the conversation going in ‘the real world’.
Some of the newer ARIs that I became aware of over the past couple of years are Clutch collective, Cut-thumb ARI, Fake Estate, The Laundry Art Space, Oral and Mount ARI. Cut-thumb operated from an open timber shed in a west-end back yard and many of the others occupy the spaces within the artist’s homes.
These types of artist run spaces align with the history of many ARIs in Brisbane – for clear reasons that it is much more affordable to create an art space with what you already have and there is a sense of freedom with what you do in that space. They are also really interesting spaces architecturally and culturally to negotiate and create work within (I think).
Clutch collective offer a unique roving gallery space in the back of a truck, another alternative to addressing gallery costs. House Conspiracy ARI are doing pretty exciting things with a house in West End – particularly with the building’s ongoing transformation as an artwork and the collective’s multi-disciplinary and community focused activities.
PA: And so many different ARI models and methods being used today all around the world, tell me in a bit more detail to above about your ARI Collective artist-run model/methodology ( locations, artists, types of events/projects, networking/publicity/media etc) in relation to two or three other artist-runs happening in SE Qld, Brisbane Toowoomba, Gold Coast etc?
LEVEL’s model is predominantly based on being an ongoing, supportive and open conversation in which equality is sought and that manifests in many different forms. ProppaNOW is an incredibly important and longstanding collective of Aboriginal artists set up in Brisbane to give urban based Aboriginal artists a voice. I see some parallels with ProppaNOW in how the collective utilises contemporary art to challenge preconceived ideas and push for social change in relation to privilege and equality. Mentorship and support for each other seems to be an important part of their model also.
Similarly to LEVEL and ProppaNOW, Dhana Meritt’s DM ARI is not tied to a concrete space. DM ARI collaborates with other institutions and ARI’s to deliver projects and has the philosophy that any space can host an exhibition, including Dhana’s own body. For me, Dhanamenta, in collaboration with The Walls Art Space, has been a highlight of the SEQ contemporary art offer in the past two years. Going for a walk around the Miami beach area to view art that is responsive to the environment demonstrates DMari’s focus on art as experience and and bringing together of community.
In addition to LEVEL, I am also a part of a collective called The Foundry Studios. We are based in an 19th century former Brass Foundry in the residential slopes of Red Hill. Our model is based more on individual businesses/practices occupying a making space together and building a culture of community, sustainability and ethical ways of working. There is an ARI based in Cooroy on the sunshine coast that I visited a little while back called the Cooroora Institute.
Their philosophy is about bringing together artists, writers, musicians, dancers, craftspeople, and intellectuals interested in place and environment. In a similar way to The Foundry, there is a melding of disciplines that manifests in residencies, performances, workshops and thinking.
Why do you feel artist-runs matter? What new knowledge do they bring to the knowledge base? And Level by way of example?
Space, opportunity and community. Perhaps I would like to talk more about the new experiences that ARIs offer. In a way, the domestic context that ARIs occupy offer more flexibility in experimentation and participation. A great example of this is Witchmeat ARI, which was located in a Highgate Hill residence.
As described in this article by Madeleine Stack, ‘Artists were encouraged by the space’s ethos of artwork outside of workplace health and safety regulations, staging projects that were often dangerous, precarious, spontaneous, or failed entirely…Spaces like this create a rich environment for a short period – an autonomous zone – before disappearing and being replaced by another.’
No matter how short-lived an ARI might be, each one remains in the memories of individuals and communities that experienced them. From the experiences offered, new knowledge of approaches to curating and creating art are disseminated.
Did you manage to visit the Ephemeral Traces: Brisbane Artist-Runs in the 1980s exhibition about 1980s Brisbane artist-runs at the University of Qld Art Museum April- July last year, about an era when artist-runs and diverse models proliferated in Brisbane and in some measure in regional Queensland as never before, what did you love or indeed not love about this exhibition? What was astonishing about the exhibition for you, what did you learn, did it inspire you or challenge you in some measure perhaps? Looking back now, what do you feel it’s impact of this exhibition has been, or indeed may be in time?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the Ephemeral Traces exhibition, however I did read the catalogue essay and have visited remix.org.au several times. I think it is helpful to look to the past to gain a better understanding of the present. I think many of the ARIs in the 80s would have been instigated for similar reasons as they are today – space and opportunity. Perhaps they were slightly more activist, which may have been a sign of the controversial politics and drastic changes to the urban landscape at the time.
When it comes to political activism in contemporary art, I am often challenged by who the audience is and whether it is a situation of preaching to the converted. I am interested in looking more in to Brisbane’s artist-run heritage to find examples of ARI’s that worked with local communities and in a socially engaged way. Perhaps you have some suggestions for me??
Brisbane has such a wellspring of artist-run heritage since the late 1970s, in a similar way, what are your enjoying about remix.org.au ARI Remix Living Archives Project, Stage One Queensland 1980-1990, or indeed not enjoying about the archive as it develops now, and do you feel it is useful today in some way(s), how so, why so ? Is this archive making an impact, if so how so, why so do you think?
ARI Remix is a really exciting and informative record of the artistic activity occurring in Brisbane since 1980. With the new addition of ARIs 2000-now, it seems to be a good resource for anyone wanting to know the who’s and what of contemporary art outside of the institutions in Brisbane.
What I am particularly enjoying is how the project is connecting artists from different generations. It can be a resource for emerging artists to learn from histories shared and to connect with, maybe even collaborate with, artists that were active in the 80s and still are today.
With any kind of archiving project, I am mindful that it is not possible to record every single ARI…partly because I also see an issue with who is determining what constitutes an Artist Run Initiative. How do you define an ARI in this context? How do you seek out information about ARI’s that a less visible in historic records?
Homeground at Boxcopy – the text reads, HOMEGROUND Brisbane Artist Run Activity, Today and Tomorrow – Project dates: 29 May – 2 July 2016 – HOMEGROUND addresses the local context of artist run culture in Brisbane. The gallery at Boxcopy will become a site for process-based and dialogic exchange between six local ARIs, emphasising collaborative and speculative methods of working. HOMEGROUND is an accumulative exhibition project, with each artist run initiative in residence at Boxcopy for one week in succession, with open days on Fridays and Saturdays 12-6pm – Caitlin did you manage to see this wonderful exhibition event too, and if so what did you love about it, or indeed not love about it, what do you feel it’s impact has been or may be in time?
What I took from this show was that it reflected on Boxcopy as an ARI that has grown from the basement of a Queenslander in New Farm to an incredibly important space that continues to provide opportunities to local emerging artists. This show also highlighted the philosophies of the artists and collectives operating ARIs in Brisbane today. I initially questioned the sense of competitiveness that seemed to be present in the evolving exhibition, but have since reflected on this as quite playful in intent.
As an aside to this, I am looking forward to the collaborative ARI in residence between Cut-Thumb ARI and Laundry Art Space at Metro Arts this year. Perhaps some conceptual bridging of what seems to be raised in discussions as a divide or comparison between QCA and QUT students/graduates.
Are you hopeful for the future of artist-runs, how so, why so, what value do you feel they bring (that certain something that is of value) to the knowledge base, to arts and culture heritage that institutional spaces like the IMA or GOMA don’t offer, imagine, create or provide? And an artist-run festival like the BARI Festival a festival that feels to be an important and vital part of today’s Brisbane arts and culture scene – I am imagining a BARI/ GOMA collaboration, that could be good?
I am hopeful for more collaboration between ARIs and larger institutions in the future. Not necessarily that ARIs will exhibit within these galleries, but that institutions might seek ways to better support the activities that are occurring outside of their own walls. Whilst I acknowledge the complexities of funding models and public liability, it would be great to see institutions challenge these regimes more to include off-site programming and residencies.
Lobbying & advocacy for artist-runs is an important issue, can you tell me something about how you advocate on behalf of artist-runs, and indeed for women working as artists and as volunteers in the artist-run sector?
My approach is to try and attend as many ARI events as I can and to keep up to date with the ever evolving ARI landscape. As a university tutor, I encourage students to also attend these events in the hope that they may be inspired to consider their own contribution to the sector in the future.
Chatting about arts advocacy and lobby groups, professional associations like NAVA and the recently folded QAA, Queensland Artworkers’ Alliance initiated in 1986, is there a need now for a new advocacy/lobby group for artists in Brisbane? And if so what might a group like this look like today, what would it do/address and develop? How might it tap into a national organisation like NAVA?
NAVA is an incredibly important body that advocates for Artists. The loss of Australia Council Funding for NAVA in 2016 is indicative of the challenges that the industry faces. My understanding is that, in addition to seeking alternative funding to continue their cause, NAVA are attempting to improve representation and activities specifically within QLD.
Caitlin I remember chatting to you early in your development for The Foundry project on recently at the IMA in Brisbane and those eeie fabulous and slightly gothic overgrown figures in the yards where your artist studio is, the connection to Expo 88 when so many artists made an impact on arts and culture in the popular imagination in Brisbane and Queensland, how does it feel retrieving; and re-imagining, some of these traces, fragments and works from neglect, from memory loss?
I have been fascinated in the period of history that unfolded around Expo 88. What I have been most intrigued by is the memories that aren’t as highly promoted as those involving fun in the sun and the growth of Brisbane as a ‘new world city’. The decaying sculptures are a constant reminder to me of forgotten or lesser heard stories. Perhaps this is where I can draw a connection back to what you are doing with this project here – documenting memories and experiences including some that haven’t previously made it into the contemporary art records of Brisbane.
DATE / 8pm – 12am, 11 March 2017
VENUE / The Basement,
Metro Arts – 109 Edward Street Brisbane
FREE EVENT – no bookings necessary
Take the shackles off your feet so you can dance because Oops!…we did it again, and FEMIOKE is back! For the third time Metro Arts presents FEMIOKE – a feminist karaoke event.
Are you going to tell us what you want, what you really, really want? Is it R-E-S-P-E-C-T and no scrubs? Will you survive, do it for yourself (standin’ on your own two feet) or do you just wanna have fun? Are you ***FLAWLESS and do you run the world?
The event is proposed as a safe space to celebrate International Women’s Day and Queensland Women’s Week, by both singing favourite feminist anthems and taking back misogynist songs. Emceed by local karaoke desperate and avid feminist, Amy-Clare.
Open to all feminist identifiers. This is a licensed event with a cash bar.
Hai Si Ja, hold tight!
Image by Ciana Wilson
Supported by YWCA Queensland and funded by the Queensland Government.