Artist Tobias De Maine Reflecting on Central Queensland, Artist-Run Spaces and Anarchism
Hi Tobias, thanks so much for your time today, it is truly exciting for me to be chatting to you and I am extremely grateful for sharing your thoughts about your art practice and feelings about ARI heritage…tell me a wee bit about you, about your distinctive role/approach as an artist , and a wee insight into an artwork or installation you are researching/ developing/considering now?
Tobias De Maine:
Hi Paul, thanks. I work full time as an artist/artisan/musician across many disciplines, drawing/painting, ceramics, video, music/audio, hardware/software.
My current projects include a group of site specific audio pieces delivered through mobile phones for Rockhampton City’s new Customs House Smart Hub, 2 Trees an instrumental music group based around live looping with generative video projections and Kaolin and Coal an artisan ceramic business focusing on wood fired and prospected materials.
In the pipeline I am developing a solo exhibition merging ceramic and digital technology and some more digital leaning public art projects. Underlying all of my different practices is a heavy use of technology as a tool or method of delivery.
Reflecting on your arts education, tell me about your arts training/education both “formal” and “self-directed” in some detail; where when who what how, the challenges you faced, how you organised around, resolved these challenges ….and is there a teacher or mentor who is particularly memorable/inspirational for as a young artist perhaps, why so, how so?
My art education started at an early age. I think I was eight years old when I asked my Dad to show me how to draw realistically, which prompted my parents to enroll me in adult drawing and painting classes on Saturday mornings.
I continued extra curricula art classes until university where I enrolled in a Bachelor of Fine Art at the Queensland College of Art. I found this new intellectualised version of “art” very confusing compared to drawing or painting what I see. Due to my prior art education I saw art as a science (this still reflects in my art practice today). This was not the view of the institution and this challenged me, putting me on path to rethink my medium and allowed me to integrate music and computers into my practice.
I was lucky enough to cross institutionalise my degree, to leverage each institutions limited multimedia facilities. It should be noted that technology based art degrees did not exist at this time, the internet was still 14.4k over modems, realtime 3d graphics computers cost $30 000+ (today a mid range modern smart phone has a higher screen resolutions and faster 3d capabilities).
While I was working as multimedia specialist / software architect mainly in the private sector, self-driven learning was an imperative to stay relevant in extremely fast changing landscape. Self-driven learning is now part of my habitual behavior. I don’t have one particular teacher/mentor that has stood out over the rest, but if there is one underling theme from my drawing, painting, music teachers/mentors it has been along the lines of good art is made with hard work and practice thus only a very very minute amount work out of your entire life time of art production is genius.
Terrific. Tell me the gritty details about your interest and extensive background in artist-run initiatives? How when why and where all this passion and enthusiasm for artist-run activism began, what motivated you at the time? What you cared about the most when you and your peers instigated these artist-runs? What types of events happened there, who was involved and why were they involved and participating in these ARIs? Talking about and reflecting in artist-runs often feels like serious business but so much funny, good humour, joy and jolity occurs while managing artist-runs tell me about this too? ?
I see a parallel to the artist-run space and anarchism. Its a little bit like the roots of punk rock. Being young and staunchly anti-authoritarian I saw artist-run spaces as a way, for both giving my peers and myself a platform for our art to be seen and as a way of “raging against” the institutionalised intellectualisation of visual mediums.
I ran two ARI spaces with my friend Niko Vuletic, the first Modus Studios, comprising two galleries with thirteen artist studios and Number 9, a gallery space. At Modus we held one or two exhibitions monthly about 25 percent where solo shows and the rest were group shows.
We would also sub lease our space to other gallery operators and organisations for events. Many of group shows had a comical edge poking fun at the art establishment which at times bit at the bait we where throwing.
Out of the emerging artists that participated with the galleries I can count maybe six people excluding myself that have genuine careers as professional artists.
Arguably artist-runs continue to operate largely as shared spaces and meeting places, for friendship and kinship, for audience activation and audience engagement, as adaptable sites for artist ecodiversity, for experimental practice for risk taking? What do you feel about this Tobias, what are your thoughts on what artist-runs are and are not, and is this range of approaches ones favoured by these artist-runs you were directly engaged in?
Artist run spaces are not commercial art galleries, nor are they public/private curatorial institutions, some pretend to be but never have the longevity of either. They are a layer within the art world unique to themselves.
During the late 90’s early 2000’s they where an avenue of exhibition of self expression, a sub cultural underground that was in a way bred from the plethora of young aspiring artists graduating and attending university.
Being that there was a large young activated crowd looking to live inner city artistic bohemian life style, the artist-run space gave them a place socialise and to build their ideas through peer interaction.
I think the act of having a solo show as an aspiring artist in an artist-run space is one of the largest risks a young artist can take. The norm was for artists to pay to use the space, for gallery to print and mail out invitations and take no commission on sales of work.
With gallery space ranging from 800 to 1200 dollars for four weeks, the young artist would put a lot their savings on the line often to not sell any work.
In fact what was the arts and culture ecology like when you folks set out, the other institutions around at the time, commercial galleries and ARIS at the time, the ones you related to and didn’t relate too, the ones that supported and cared for you – or didn’t – was there a gap you perceived perhaps one that you felt you were addressing or contesting or tempering through your artist-run practice? How did these things change over time??
Firstly in a one kilometer radius of both our artist-run spaces there where about fifteen galleries and art institutions.
In the late 90’s just before we started up there there quite a few artist-run initiatives going, in the inner city/ Fortitude Valley area. Process, Carbon Based, Soapbox, Doggett Street Studios.
As with our space, much of these where feeding into and from the IMA (Institute of Modern Art) as an institution and the art presented in it.
Fortitude Valley was also rich with dot org art initiatives, Art Workers Alliance ( previously QAA Queensland Artworker’s Alliance), Craft Council is now Artisan, Fusions now Ceramics Queensland.
Commercial galleries where picking the cream from artist-run spaces, Gallery 482, Bellas and Jan Murphy galleries to an extent. Modus Studios opened after the close of both Carbon Based (studios and gallery) and Process (gallery), many of the artist involved in these spaces where involved with us.
Also to note Niko Vuletic, my business partner ran Process Gallery, with Painter/musician Paul Wrigley and Writer/Poet Adam Pettet.
Modus Studios was something of an evolution to the design of both Process and Carbon Based. I think the climate of emerging art world around the year 2000 was well supported by the .org institutions and commercial enterprise.
We definitely had a lot of support and flow from both the commercial and public institutions, However art critics/journals wrote and thought of our operation being juvenile and rambunctious. We probably were 🙂
Tell me in a little more detail about your artist colleagues and collaborators in these artist-runs, how you came together, how you came up with the names and spaces they occupied, how you set them up, how you ran them on a day to day basis, what the types of outlays were, what the boons, hurdles and anxieties of running an artist run initiative were for you at the time? How did the group operate, as a committee, collective, association and so on, how did you agree on/negotiate who was responsible for what? Historically curating exhibitions has been a profession whereas for artists instigating operating artist-runs since the 1970s curating has been understood as an aspect of art practice, what do you feel, what are the key elements of curating at an artist-run site/event from your own experience?rtist-runs unfolding/generating in Brisbane this year Gus, what is happening, why and how and where? Tell me a wee bit more about a few artist-runs/or artist-run events you like heaps and why so?
I ran both spaces with Nico Vuletic, who had previously run Process, a gallery space.
We had been friends for few years and both had an entrepreneurial leanings in our activities. Niko came up with Modus as name and I thought it fit what we trying to do.
No 9 gallery was easy at there was No 9 painted above the door, which required little signage to be added to front the building on start up. Being that Modus was a partnership the decision making process was relatively painless. With modus we traded % of studio space for work to upkeep and for people to sit the space. The biggest anxiety was meeting rental and running expense commitments. To curate shows was part and parcel with keeping art in the space and keeping it paid for.
Young artists could spare 50 – 100 dollars to be in a show. Its a different world curating a show where you have to ask people to pay to be in it rather than pay them to be it. The key elements :
– The space has to attract people / have a stigma about it or has to build one quickly as to attract enough artists to keep the expenses fed.
– You need have a diverse array of work/people that will draw a larger crowd of friends and acquaintances of the artists.
– As with any event, for Artist curated shows to be really successful, you need to bring many people together at the opening.
Tell me in some detail about two or three of the exhibition projects you worked on that you feel had a significant and vivid impact, how so why so?
Peep Show at Modus Studios an Adult leaning show, was run with an aggressive street campaign and drew large audiences and really allowed us to grow our space.
The artistic impact was so so, but the space’s impact on the Brisbane art landscape was extremely positive and ensured we had the gallery space booked.
Tell me about two or three of the projects you worked on that may not have realized their full potential but have in turn an important impact on you and your art career or indeed that of your friends and colleagues, or your world view and your practice today perhaps?
With No 9 gallery I tried to move ownership away from Niko and I and onto a community organisation. This however did not come to fruition due to everyone involved and a shortfall with commitment which in turn shut the space down.
The closure of our artist-run space led me to move away from the gallery circuit and focus my art exhibition in totally different world, music festivals.
There has been a few multimedia projects that have been very last minute, which in my eyes have been sub standard. This has lead me to focusing more on my skills acquisition than producing work for exhibition.
Reflecting again now what did you know and understand or indeed believe about the diversity of 1970s and 1980s historical backdrop of artist-run and oppositional culture in Bjelke Petersen’s Queensland when you set out with your artist-run events? And if so, how did this context, this artist-run impulse impact on you, influence/ challenge you and on your collaborators and on your artmaking?
I think we where in the first of the spaces to be post Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland, in that it did not directly have an effect on space and the political views of the artists associated with the space. I do see that the culture of Brisbane underground scene created during this period inclusive of both music and art had filtered through to us, driving us by proxy rather than through direct association.
How and why did these artist-runs fold and close, how did that feel at the time? And why do you feel artist-runs and a longer view of artist-run heritage matters?
The first spaced closed due to a tenant in the same building wanting to use our space as his business expanded (direct mail marketing). The second space due to changes in artist commitment and personal evolution closed our second space. At the end of the day capitalism wins. It becomes uneconomical to run a space to meet just rental and outgoings. Viability often means public funding which removes the very nature of the artist-run space independence.
Lobbying & advocacy for artists, for artist-runs continues to be an important issue, can you tell me something about how you support/ advocate/lobby on behalf of artist-runs?
Given that I live in regional Queensland, there are zero artist-run spaces in my local area. The closest are in Bundaberg Clinton Cross Gallery and in Gladstone Crow Street Creative.
I find that due to distance from such spaces my support has dwindled over the last few years.
I also think that is due to my life taking different paths it has reduced by association with such spaces. I always encourage people who talk to me about starting up a space to do it.
Chatting about arts/artist advocacy and lobby groups, professional associations like the long-term Sydney based NAVA and the recently folded Artworkers Alliance( previously QAA: Queensland Artworkers’ Alliance), do you feel there is a need now for a new dedicated and distinctive advocacy/lobby group for artists in Brisbane/Queensland one that might help with the development of distinctive local artist/arts and culture issues arts and culture policy? What might a group like this look like today, what would it do/address and develop? And how might it tap into a national organisations like NAVA for example?
I see that the world is moving towards a humungous mega culture through the mass global use of mega entities in cyberspace, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, News Corp etc.
I feel that this devalues localised culture and imports megaCulture (There is a museum of contemporary art in every major Australian city and soon to be in regional centres).
I see that making it hard for public organisations to exist bolstering local culture without the lens of the megaCulture inspecting and influencing it.
To me imagining such an institution in 2018 requires a radical new of thinking about how institution’s manage the localised and mega Culture crossover.
Tell me about the archives you have for these artist-runs mentioned above, how you archived your artist-run, where you imagined it would belong and be cared for in the future and indeed where it is today and in what form and format? Why you believe(d) that artist-run archives and heritage matter(ed) and perhaps, continues to matter?
I am terrible with archiving my life and my projects, I have always seen what I do as an act of doing/being at the present moment and have never really felt documentation was part of the journey. That said, I do have a few bits and pieces from the days of the artist-run spaces.
On the other hand I do see the importance of documentation/history as a learning tool and as a way of saving an important part of Australia’s localised cultural heritage.
What wisdom(s) would you share with artists passionate about starting and managing an artist-run initiative today?
Be generous only with what you are willing to lose.
However you imagine something will be in your mind, it will never be the same in physical reality.
Be prepared to have a day job to pay for the space when there is a lull period.
Reflecting in your ARI archives has helped with producing this interview today Tobias tell me about some of the key reflections you have experienced while sifting through the ephemera and documentation?
Firstly a smile, thinking about what we created and the good times had by all, made me think that these spaces really were worth while and realistically if I could turn back time I wouldn’t change anything about them.
I think the personal growth I gained through being responsible for managing ARI spaces in my early adult life, struck me as the key underlying theme in my reflections.
There are many artist stories, reflections and digital archives on the ARI Remix Project living archive now since we began in earnest in November 2012, tell me about how an artist’s artist-run story (or two) has helped you, or challenged you in a significant way in preparing for this interview ?
After perusing the archives it really struck me how many artist-run spaces there have been in Queensland and the vast differences in approaches by many of the artists running the spaces to organising around exhibitions and artist studios.
In away the Remix project as a whole challenges me as I continue to get drawn back to the a Utopian ideal that seems to carry through every artist- run space/initiative documented on the site.
I find reading how each ARI sythesised those ideals in to the “real” world of capitalism and left their mark on localised culture a way really understanding what I set out to do with the two ARI spaces I have been talking about.
Is there an added thought, insight or reflection (or more) you would dearly love to add here Tobias?
If you want to run an Artist-run space, don’t talk about it, do it!