Does New York Exist? + AXIS Art Projects 1987-1989 ( social memory draft in progress )
By Paul Andrew
Q. What does AXIS mean?
AXIS is an acronym: Art X-tremists International Syndicate. The group AXIS Art Projects was formed in Brisbane in April 1987 by artists Jay Younger, Lehan Ramsay and myself. We intended to produce a series of collaborative projects motivated by arts based guerrilla artist-tactics at the time.
After much brainstorming in early 1987 about what moniker to actually use for the project in Los Angeles, New York, London and Tokyo we decided on the word AXIS because of its variable meanings: an imaginary line around which a body rotates, and given our shared interest in inclusive terms like multiplicities and pluralism popular at the time, we imagined our iteration of axis as an imaginary line or lines around which many bodies rotate, walk, dance, make art, shoot super 8, contest and play. We also liked that AXIS was a play on the word access.
Q. Tactical, Guerrilla in what ways?
If there was/is one “keyword” for us in forming the AXIS group it is/was the word playful. We were alert to and mindful of a postmodern tendency at the time to contest, critique and (in theatrical ways ) to deconstruct the “grand narratives” that were prevailing in the 1980’s ; state-sanctioned corruption, mainstream media, high consumerism, excess, object based art, capitalism, patriarchy and warmongery, institutions, heteronormativity, homophobia, racism, nepotism in what we considered an old white boys entrenched arts and culture sector, private school, inaccessible and so on. That only male artists were privileged, entitled to speak, to receive or to have exhibition, patronage or professional development opportunities.
And guerrilla in that we were motivated by making art for public places, and by a number of earlier art historical tendencies, Fluxus and its interdisciplinary nature; especially at the time after the then recent death of Joseph Beuys on 23 January 1986, Pop Art’s playfulness – certainly in a big way for me- after the recent death by Andy Warhol on February 22, 1987 ( Dali was ailing then too by the way) – The Situationists, the street art and graffiti movement that was democratising or aligning with and or contesting the long held white cube ethos, with the inclusion of popular culture inspired art, with postering, with stenciling and collectively reclaiming the streets and earlier art guerrilla groups like S.C.U.M and more recently the masked and anonymous GUERRILLAGIRLS who formed in 1985 in New York, in part, to address and contest the hubris of institutions, collections, acquisitions, collections, power relations and white male dominated curatorial practices.
We particularly liked their focus on the gap of inclusion of diverse women artists in major US art events, exhibitions and archives for instance.
Perhaps most of all, given our shared interest in art photography, collaboration and feminist practice in the 1970’s and in the early to mid-1980s, artists like Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Anne Zahalka, Tracey Moffatt, Ann Ferran, Jacky Redgate to name a few we too wanted to use theatricality and humour with photo media, text, tech and image as a form of tactical criticality, we wanted to construct different settings for photographs and for super eight film, the super eight films we made were parodies of home movies. Be they theatrical, by they street art or interior contexts, parodies of advertising and so on, we liked that it was artists like us who were constructing the mis-en-scene and messages of photography, not the mainstream media.
With this impulse in mind and given the nature of our recent artist-run practices, we decided it best that we pitched ourselves for this trip (with the intention in mind to continue what we considered a global conversation that had begun earlier with the Outside Art exhibition in 1986 at That Space curated by Malcolm Enright and Toyo Tsuchiya from NO Se No in NYC), rather playfully in a mock corporate way for this new iteration of the collaborative artist-run work we had been long involved with; with ironic business cards based iconic media figures ( for instance Jays was a parody of the monstrous Joan Crawford, mine was the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz, I’ve since forgotten Lehan’s and don’t seem to have a copy in the archives I carry) and publicity shots ( like the Mephisto photo reproduced here, we pretended we had commandeered the old WW1 tank from outside the Queensland Art Gallery where it was located at the time, setting-up an image of us having a smoko break moments after we were had wreaked havoc on the old boys in charge of the arts and culture scene with the Mephisto tank, we loved the Faustian aspect to this parody, and the photos we produced for the project were all performative in intent) , and there in addition there were Jay’s wonderful series of photomontages , faux media passes and media releases and publicity pack we generated , a parody of a corporate logo that was a bit 1950s in design thanks to long term collaborator artist and designer Malcolm Enright, who in fact curated the Outside Art exhibition with artists Toyo Tsuchiya from the NO SE NO gallery in NYC as I mentioned earlier and Brisbane-NYC artist Kate White ( a.k.a Kate-Tastrophe, nicknames were a popular way to avoid arrest for guerrilla street art at the time, it wasn’t mainstream like it is now).
And as a part of this movable artist-run project, we curated a touring exhibition of photocopy art, a folio style artist book ( AXIS File – Sites of Dis-closure) complete with artist contact information and artist statements to assist with added professional development and networking opportunities for our peers and so on.
In some measure what all this was motivated by was the simple idea that each of us were livid, and many of our peers were livid too, were fed up with a shared feeling of being dismissed; by curators, by gallery directors, by magazines and the media, that Brisbane art scene didn’t exist, the conversation was always Melbourne and Sydney centric and so we decided it best that we took our business and our peers business elsewhere, and simply put, began afresh with a global conversation about what mattered to us and to colleagues overseas at the time and stepped outside and far away from the old paradigm of antipodean entrenchment that we had long considered toxic, inappropriate and outdated.
All this work was undertaken with a very considered, parodic and whimsical nod to Cindy Sherman, we all shared an obsession for cinema like many of our colleagues, so the visual style for AXIS; to borrow a marketing term, the branding, was intended to be theatrical, film still like, ironic, photographic/photomontage and imbued with hints of imaginary celebrity, we, AXIS were the faux celebrities.
And in some measure the related art works that we produced – we imagined that all of this interdisciplinary output and outpouring was the work- was also Shermanesque with big and small nods to the many bit players, creatives, observers and artists we collaborated with while living life to the full in the East Village for four months in 1988. A time when the Lower east Side was undergoing dramatic changes, artists leaving Manhattan for Queens, Williamsburg and so on.
Tactical and guerrilla largely because as I mentioned before, we were absolutely fed up with Brisbane and Queensland artists being so consistently surpassed, neglected, ignored, derided or dismissed by institutions, media, galleries, curators and so on. To this day there is a gaping great black hole in public collections of 1980s Queensland Art. Added to this discontent was a shared chagrin that we had had more than our fill of passe arts and culture, white male old boys supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, bullying, privilege, corruption and permission that had long preceded us in Queensland.
Looking back now perhaps we also felt these things were even more amplified during the lead up to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into Police Corruption in 1987, when the truth, the whole truth, seemed like it was about to be revealed, at long last. There was definitely a feeling of hope and aspiration at the time for us even if Brisbane was still being aneasthetised and razed to the ground in the lead up to Expo 88.
These things together with the shared view that Queensland was vastly out of step with the global post object contemporary art zeitgeist at the time, vexed and motivated us. And ironically, as we left home on the eve of EXPO 88 just as “the world” was coming into Brisbane we were heading outwards into the world to see, feel and be it for ourselves.
Q. And were there other reasons why you formed the group AXIS Art Projects?
Loads. In April 1987 the artist-run John Mills National was about to close down and THAT, also in the Charlotte Street precinct was also looking more and tenuous in terms of continuity and sustainability, this produced a measure of anxiety, disquiet and discontent for many of us. There was point in this Brisbane artist-run timeline in 1987 when for several surreal months after a long and vibrant period of artist-run activism when That Space was the only artist-run operating.
During the previous few years Jay, Lehan and I had become close friends, compadres and collaborators on many projects, exhibitions and events and so on and were looking at producing another artist-run model that might be more project based rather than space or collective based. A model that might be more viable to manage, run and to continue into the future when space and exhibition opportunities were becoming less tenable and inner city spaces less available, affordable as Expo 88 was santizing the city, destroying its heritage and the many artist and community networks it had harboured for years.
We had had a deluge of international visiting artists, scholars and exhibition projects at the artist-runs we were involved with in the 1982-1987 years and this peaked our curiousity about being elsewhere and doing satellite things overseas, satellite were a big thing for us at the time, we liked both the technological and cosmological references; Marcia Tucker who was then the director of the New Museum in NYC attended and talked at That in 1987, artist Joanne Todd from YYZ in Toronto earlier in 1986, the Outside Art exhibition from No Se No Gallery and its Rivington School collaborations ( curated by Malcolm Enright and Toyo Tsuchiya and a bunch of Rivingtonites), artist Ken Hiratsuka from NYC in 1986 who did a public artwork on the steps to John Mills National ( a big controversy at the time) , academics like Carol Duncan and Richard Read in 86/87 who were two of the many visiting scholars at UQ Art History and Lucy Lippard who had attended at One Flat in 1982 was then a big part of local legend and in particular an influence on the work of women artists, Fiona Templeton was in the mix there somewhere and Iwona Balzwick then Director at the ICA in London lectured at the IMA in 1987.
And glocal influential mainstays, educators, mentors and collaborators like Urszula Szulakowska, Nicholas Zurbrugg, Graham Coulter Smith who had in recent years made Brisbane their home ground, and its cross pollinating educational matrix, GU, QCA, UQ, their alma mata, together made an immeasurable impact on opening up our collective awareness and alertness to what was happening elsewhere.
And it occurs to me now on a more personal note that I had been a long term reader and admirer throughout my early artist years of the editorials by art critic and arts advocate Dr Gertrude Langer who inspired me when I felt alienated as a gay youth and helped me understand much about the shifts occurring in modernism in post war Queensland, and I was enamoured by her turns of phrase, her sense of inclusiveness and what I used to term” Europeanness”.
We, as AXIS were also keen to be more professional and strategic in our approach to what an artist-run could be and equally to simplify things a bit too, having three co-ordinators/curators was easier than a big collective with less stakeholders, egos and so on. That said the projects we intended producing were all collaborations, like Does New York Exist ? and the related AXIS FILE; Sites of Dis-Closure project for instance, an artist book and an exhibition of photocopy art by 20 or so Queensland artists we “toured”. We wanted to build on all that Qld artist-run momentum and infrastructure we had worked so tirelessly to produce since October 1984.
The regionalism, provincialism debate that was raging through the 80’s seemed to be going nowhere, and despite all the much ado with words like centre, periphery and margins, it felt like it was ultimately just another hot air dialogue for authorizing the primacy of Sydney and Melbourne artists, art scenes, academia, intelligentsia, journals and publications that always had the lion’s share of attention, young Turks we were.
In Brisbane the Institute of Modern Art had carried the unofficial and derisory nickname The Institute of Melbourne Art since it opened in 1975 as it cargo culted art en masse from down south at the expense of local art practice and while curator artist Director Peter Cripps ( 1984-1987) – thanks Peter we are immensely grateful and acknowledge your immeasurable contribution to the development of artist-runs at the time – was an important driver in creating a cogent artist-run infrastructure from late 1984 until his departure in 1987, Brisbane and Queensland artists were ever eclipsed by artists and dialogues from interstate, and still are it seems, sadly, the persistent primacy of elsewhere over lcal that seems to still prevail, yes, then as now, perhaps, the most profound discontent for us as artists was that the only important and valued artists who were exhibited, written about, unpacked, marketed, distributed, collected were from somewhere else.
In a sense, AXIS was a way of saying F*** you to this raging ho hum debate and immersing us into a more global conversation. In the spirit of the DIY we wanted to be wearing the shoes and skins of other “marginalized” groups of artists in the shifting terrain of the Lower East Side in New York, in the newly revitalized areas like Surrey Docks in London and in Tokyo. Though the Tokyo “component” never really happened, at least for me, as I had stayed to work in London on an internship with Iwona Blazwick, James Lingwood and other curators ( The Independent Group show Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty and concrete poetry by Jiri Kolash (?) for instance) and interestingly Lehan did in turn relocate to Japan and has since largely forged her professional arts career there over the last three decades.
We were also quite deliberate and careful at taking the piss, at both ourselves and the omnipresent earnestness, terseness and melancholy that, rather ironically, seemed to pervade the arts and culture sector in the permissive age of “anything goes”.
And the title for the project, Does New York Exist? was itself a tongue in cheek inversion of our direct lived experiences, we were in a constant state of astonishment living and working professionally as artists, it felt so palpable to the three of us at least, ” as if” we or Queensland art didn’t exist, so we decide to apply this idea to the realm of the unquestionable, an inversion to the common shared view that New York was the centre of the art world, and so we posited the absurdist idea that it didn’t exist and the photodocumentary content that we set out to produce was based in absurdity and in the shared imagination while “being there”.
Q. Where and when did you form AXIS?
When? In February to May 1987, around the time that the IMA exhibition Lines of Force was being organised, an exhibition curated by Graham Coulter-Smith including nine Queensland artists working variously with ideas of pluralism.
Where exactly I don’t recall, at and around a cluster of meeting places in Brisbane we used to frequent I imagine, The Beat, Short Circuit, The Canberra Hotel Dance Bar, The Terminus, Aromas, Le Scoops, the Alliance, 4ZZZ gigs, the artist-runs and all the warehouse dance parties at the time. Jay recounts that in her memory we got rather merry and blithe one day, perhaps at Lehan’s place as we so often did as in the photograph below with artists Marrianne Behm and Sheridan Kennedy I took some time early in 1988.
And according to Jay we were joking together about how uber cool it would be to pack up everyone and everything into a suitcase and transplant us all to the East Village scene lock stock and dress-up box, it seemed both absurd and logical, a place where all the artist-run stuff like we had been engaged in with mixed feelings, the climate of dead eyes and deaf ears for so long, was also a place that actually had some grab, clout and media attention. I believe Jay’s account.
And in turn in some measure this outlandish and impossible idea became a reality thanks to both the Peter Browne Memorial Travelling Fellowship ( VACB 1987) and a No Frills Fund grants (1987) we received. This jesting and jillfoolery also informed both the AXIS File Sites of Dis- Closure and photocopy exhibition of many Brisbane artists we curated and exhibited at places like 2B Garage and along the front wall of the Guggenheim Museum in April 1988.
The 2B Garage exhibition on Avenue B happened after we connected with this gaggle of like minded artists while they were busy making junk sculptures, installations, graffiti and public art works in the East Village. We were living nearby, firstly in a transient hotel on St Marks Place – a hotel frequented by sex workers and their clients – a wonderful enclave of flesh, sex, vice, depravity and desire kindly recommended to us by artists Malcolm Enright and Barbara Heath and eventually in Clinton Street were we had a sublet the size of a postage stamp for several months. And at the Guggenheim exhibition we simply pasted up the photocopy art exhibition one day of the many Brisbane artists we had collaborated with for so long and had no interference from security of police, hard to imagine something like this happening today. I recall being scared shitless that day we would end up in a paddywagon, Jay and Lehan were as cool as Mangoes.
The question of when, so, over a long period really, perhaps these many global collaborations, events, relationships and visits that happened in the preceding years truly galvinised for us in early 1987.
Q. And what happened while you were living and working in the Lower East Side?
The Does New York Exist? project was for the most part networking and photodocumentary in approach, comprising 35 mm photography, Super Eight film making, audio interviews with artists and creatives, distribution of AXIS File to galleries, artists and institutions to increase networking and professional development opportunities for the artists we “curated”, installing the related AXIS Photocopy exhibition into various spaces and places and documenting this.
Jay was busily working away with a new starlet wardrobe and accoutrements on her Art Starlet series, much to my consternation we did this on our rooftop and I managed to collaborate with Jay despite my immense feeling of vertigo. The view from the top of Clinton Street was extraordinary and I remember that if felt like the view of the city was an old view, at least in a certain direction and the canyons of skyscrapers were absent.
I was playing with gender bending as performance, I had become a regular at Boy Bar in St Marks Place, all contributing factors to what in turn became a decade long difficult coming out in the climate of HIV AIDS. I did a series of Polaroid self-portraits, Portrait of a Young Art X-tremist that I was planning to turn into a series of big glossy institutional art cibachromes, a medium I coveted then and could simply never afford , in fact, I was not paying homage to the dieity that was Cindy Sherman but to a humble black and white photowork I adored by A ROOM artist Barbara Campbell, Barbara was a man reading a book and this simple work had been slowly emboldening me to out as gay for years and hung at home in the ramshackle share house at Twine Street, Spring Hill where I lived with artists Brian Doherty , Jane Richens and the primordial new found professional ooze that was both the Queensland Artworker’s Alliance and Eyeline Magazine.
I remember collaborating with the guys who ran TERROR, Don Rock and his crew, pranksters who made cult tees about Butthole Surfers, Ginsberg, Burroughs, The Beat Generation, William Burroughs and so on, and they did markets each week, near The Bowery from memory, they gave me a bunch of “TERROR” tees, including one I wore for many years they made as a paean for the Butthole Surfers, and these designers, there a few photos in my archives, delightfully altered by mould, who did loads of street art, graf and stenciling also made fabulous t shirts with the guerrilla art inspired word terror emblazoned across the chest, at the time a tongue in cheek parody of the branding that had become so familiar and popular, corporate names like Benetton, Reebok and so on. The word terror then in the art world had a long history of art antecedents, it was imagined as a part of this global guerrilla art impulse, civil disobedience and anarchic like the literature, musicians, ratbags and artists they paid homage to.
I also became a regular in Christopher Street, the sense of freedom was palpable here was a city that was buzzing and alive 24/7, you could go to cafes, cinemas, events and books shops at 2am in the morning, nightclubs pulsating with theme nights, like Girlworld at the World just near where we were living, and in Christopher Street, lo and behold, a stream of proud gay men holding hands in public, being free gay and happy on the streets, bookshops with literature, zines, safe sex infomation, social groups, venue information and personals notices I knew existed but couldn’t find in Brisbane bookshops, cafes or libraries. I attended at a gay pride march in Christopher Street, took photos of the festivities and imagined and hoped for a day when Brisbane would have its own LGBTQI parades.
Lehan was documenting what we did and what was happening around us on 35 mm and Super Eight, it was an interesting time we attended at so much performance art, commerical and experimental galleries, theatre and film. The Mayor was cleaning up New York and the Times Square area in 1988, and not unlike Brisbane, the city was being rid of its libidinal feel. Which reminds me we experienced a phenomenonal migratory performnace around this once libidinal city, performed by Fiona Templeton and her collaborators, taxis here and there, peep holes, dark labyrinths and the distinct feeling we were about to be kidnapped.
The East Village and Lower East Side was becoming gentrified and rents began to soar. Artists at the time were relocating to Queens and Williamsburg. I did a series of photos and super eights on the Williamsburg Bridge as a way of documenting the flow of diaspora that was happening in New York much as it had been unfolding in Brisbane and Queensland in the preceding decade.
My attention was also focused on filming and photographing what was happening around us in the Lower East Side as the East Village phenomenon was slowly fading to beige, pink carpets and fake brass fittings but so much street art, junk sculpture, street art was unfolding and this was what what seized me and my photodocumentary gaze at the time.
We collaborated with many Australian and US artists in these interviews and photo documentary works, and like the collaborative nature of the project, we wanted to document the relationships forming while we lived and worked there. Poet and writer Peter Anderson joined us in New York for a few weeks, Artist Peter Burgess was living in New York and at the time was the co-ordinator of the Australia Council Greene Street Studio and played a major role in the networking that we did, we also went to see a football game together and delighted in the bucket size and watery Football beer they served at these spectacles.
Musician Peter Lightbody was living there too, see Peter in pics below and we knew Peter over many years as an artist-run aficionado and participant a band he played in, Dog Fish Cat Bird who were mainstays in the live music and performativity that had unfolded in Brisbane during the preceding years, at artist-runs like That Space. And ex-Brisbane artist, filmmaker and performance artist Polly Watkins ( pictured above) was performing in New York with her Even Orchestra collaboration. Polly had also been a long term friend and colleague and along with Lehan and artists like Frank Murray and Joanna Greenwood was instrumental in imbuing cafes like the Aromas chain of cafes; where they worked for years together, with many art exhibitions, installations, soirees and events, looking back now this culture of vego restaurants, ice creameries and cafes in Brisbane had played a key role in helping to build the momentum of artist-runs and the DIY impulse, and it paid many artists wages while they worked as baristas. Designer Deborah Long ( now Deborah Fisher) and writer Ingrid Periz were other friends and colleagues who helped us along the way, everything from negotiating door policies at interracial night clubs to knowing what openings and events were unfolding around the city including the amazing P.S. 122’s East Village World’s Fair Performance Festival that happened to be on, seemingly everywhere at the time, while we were living on Clinton Street. An amazing local and global event that took three years to organise, it was an astonishing time for us, and this trip changed our lives and our approaches to making contemporary art, performativity that was nascent in us, emerged and seized us all by the proverbial and shook the vernacular out of us.
We interviewed many artists, writers and creatives including Marcia Tucker and Willam Orlander who worked at the New Museum then located on Broadway, Liz and Val, Paul Taylor who I had met earlier in 1985 at the IMA an influential writing workshop that Paul led. I am truly grateful to this amazing man who cultivated in me the idea that writing about art for street press perhaps had more clout than writing for journals and zines, this fabulous workshop was attended by art writer colleagues including Bronwyn Clark Coolee, Graham Coulter- Smith, George Petelin, Sarah Follent and Peter Anderson.
There are others I can’t recall now, and sadly I don’t think any of these interviews exist now. I have a transcript of the interview with Marcia Tucker.
I was feeling inspired and emboldened by the Shared Camera experience we employed at That Space in the previous three years, and I purchased my own Pentax K 1000 and set about to explore photography, super eight film and polaroid with gusto. In a sense the AXIS Art Project was a game changer for me as an artist, I painted less and became more attentive to installation, media, photography and film as my primary interest in art making. In time video art and documentary production became an even great focus during the 1990’s as I engaged in Queer Activism after relocating to Sydney to work as a curator at The Australia Centre for Photography.