Social Memory interview with Barbara Campbell
Barbara Campbell currently lives and works in Sydney, Australia.
Barbara Campbell has performed in Australia, Europe and the USA, in museums, galleries, public buildings, photographs, on film, video, radio, and the internet, in silence and with words, still and moving, since 1982.
Barbara has been actively engaged in the research and development of the Arts and Culture Sector during this time in a number of significant roles including as Gallery Co-ordinator of the Institute of Modern Art (1982-83) and as an office bearer of the Qld Artworkers Union which became the Artworkers Alliance.
During the 1980’s, Barbara instigated and worked with the A Room collective an influential six month Artist-Run Space located on the first floor of 446 George Street, Brisbane from June 18- December 18, 1984. In 2015 Barbara is due to complete her PhD at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney researching how migratory shorebirds direct human performance.
1980’s Queensland/ Brisbane Social History: By way of a detailed personal snapshot, the milieu you experienced during the early 1980s as a young artist living, working, collaborating in Brisbane, what sort of world was this Queensland for you Barbara?
For me, Brisbane was my youth. I was very art focused. I worked with art, studied it, read about it, made it, formed friendships and working relationships within it. I can’t remember doing anything that was ‘outside’ of it.
The Bjelke-Petersen Regime, “The Police State” – Political Backdrop during the 1980’s and how this impacted- or didn’t impact upon you and your art making?
My awareness of the Police State came vicariously through association with people who were more directly political – students at University of Qld or volunteer staff at 4ZZZ that broadcast from UQ campus. 4ZZZ did great journalism, exposing not just conditions in State-run institutions like Bogo Road Jail but national issues such as Australia-Indonesia relationships over Indonesian territories.
Really, I was very naïve. I was middle-class and straight. I’d grown up naturalized to a political reality ruled by Bjelke Petersen with a one-house parliament in a one newspaper town. I was unemployed but working as an artist; I’d received a free education; had access to birth control and other health benefits, most of these thanks to the Whitlam government.
Kinship, a brief biography of your immediate family background?
I grew up in the country (Lamington, SE Qld) but went to a private boarding school in Brisbane from age 12. Both my brothers also went to private boarding schools so we siblings did not see a lot of each other. My own conception of my parents’ lot is that my father was a farmer who should have been an engineer and my mother was a city girl who should have been living and working in the city as a lawyer.
I think of them both as emotionally displaced but also aspirational through their children. They both had imaginative lives through books. My parents actively supported me to go to art school although my mother worried from then on about how I was going to make a living.
There was a professional artist on my paternal grandmother’s side – a cartoonist for The Bulletin. All of this meant that I met with no resistance from the family to being an artist. It also meant that because I hadn’t really lived at home since 12 my emotional life and main influences came from friends and my partner during this time, Ted Riggs.
Art Education- Self-taught to Higher Education, memorable educators?
Well I recall now there was one particular visiting artist certainly left an impression on my first year at Morningside TAFE in 1979: Dragan Ilic from Sydney. Ilic had been invited onto campus by some of the painting staff who were themselves artists. It seemed just an amusing distraction during our lunchtime.
Ilic and later a couple of students stripped off and became canvases for audience members to draw on their bodies using coloured pens fitted into electric drills. The event had been videoed. We all went back to our classrooms in the afternoon. But that night, I guess word spread from students to (presumably outraged) parents, to media, to police.
Overnight Bjelke Petersen’s Vice Squad, the Special Task Force, raided the homes of some of the lecturers who’d been present, looking for the video recordings of the “nude” performance. The tabloid press had a field day. It would have been nasty for the staff and to make it worse, they were not supported by the head of school.
In the wash-up to that event, all the professional painters resigned their positions en masse and the head of school refused any further outside visitors onto campus. But rather than agitate or leave, I moved from the painting to the printmaking department and found an alternative education outside that institution through the activities at the IMA.
Pop Culture- Tell me about the popular culture that mattered to you most at this time?
I seemed to spend a lot of my life at the IMA or hanging out with other artists.
I was doing a part-time art history degree at UQ during my final year at IMA (1983) and the year of A ROOM (1984). I spent some time at the Student Union’s Activities unit at UQ where Brian Doherty ran the screen-printing department. So the graphic arts aesthetic that ran through there was an important part of my cultural landscape. The “only gay in the village” I had significant contact with was Luke Roberts who was still running his vintage shop in the Brisbane Arcade. I wasn’t part of the live music scene.
The Red Comb House Precinct in 1981-1982?
My memory of the timelines is a bit shaky here. I don’t remember when Red Comb House started. Maybe it was the same year as A ROOM (1984). But in any case, although they were geographically close by in that Roma Street area of the CBD, I can’t remember showing work there (although the archival evidence suggests otherwise). I didn’t have a studio at Red Comb House because my studio was already set up in the A Room building.
ARIs elsewhere in the early 1980’s?
I was pretty aware of what artists were doing in Sydney, not just the work they made but the way they made it, the lives they led that created the circumstances for art practice. My perception of it was that shared studio complexes led to artist collectives which led to the ARIs. All of these things share an ethos of collectivity which appealed to me hugely. I think in Brisbane, where it was hard to get critical mass for any kind of alternate action, the model of the collective was essential. The only artist-run project I remember prior to Janelle’s One Flat Exhibit at 19 Edmonstone Street was John Nixon’s Art Projects run from his flat in Spring Hill. It wasn’t really an open space though. John invited whomever he liked to show there and visit.
One Flat in South Brisbane before relocating to 355 George Street when it became known as…?
Prior to Red Comb House, I’d been involved in One Flat Exhibit – Janelle Hurst’s first ARI in her flat at Edmonstone St, South Brisbane. During my last year at art school (1981), she and I both lived in flats in that terrace house. I did one or two performances there. One Flat Exhibit became OFlate when it moved into the shopfront space in the city. I was probably working at the IMA at that time.
I did a couple of performances with Ted Riggs at One Flat Exhibit. I’m not sure if I knew to call them performances. We called them actions. They were very simple. In one I made up my face using Ted’s highly reflective sunglasses as a mirror. We had to sit very close to each other.
In another, I think we were in underwear facing the audience, each of us alternately reciting “I have slept with [say a common given name]” and because we just kept going, pretty much everyone in the audience got named. Yes, it seemed to be about sex at that time – another reflection of my youthful state (disarmingly heteronormative too). Gay culture, let alone queer culture, was yet to make a claim on the Brisbane art scene…AIDS likewise.
IMA: This year marks the 40th year anniversary of the IMA, tell me about the role the IMA played in your personal experiences towards the development and promotion of an ARI scene in Queensland during the 1980’s?
In 1981 I’d graduated from a conservative art school (Morningside TAFE) in 1981 without any sense while I was there that there was any correlation between going to art school and becoming an artist.
That awakening—the idea of becoming an artist—only happened in the parallel education I sought out through my association with the Institute of Modern Art. At the time, the IMA was run by an artist, John Nixon, who used his own personal contacts with other artists to build a program of (mostly) solo exhibitions by contemporary artists from elsewhere (with the exceptions of Robert MacPherson and Hilary Boscott-Riggs). During John’s time, the IMA was a real precursor to the ARI model in the sense that it was artist-run.
It was only in about 1984 that the Visual Arts Board changed the model for spaces like the IMA by insisting that boards professionalise the position of Director and become VAB-funded “flagship” spaces in their respective states. It led to centralised homogenization and less scope for local responsiveness.
But between one model and the next there was the hybrid model that (my partner) Ted Riggs proposed as IMA board member. It was a program of guest-curated exhibitions in 1982 and 1983 which I oversaw as part-time gallery co-ordinator.
By not having an in-house director-as-curator, my role was broadened to institute or guide an ancillary program that would boost the level of critical dialogue amongst artists in Brisbane and between those artists and visiting artists.
That program included reading groups (using the IMA’s considerable art journal collection), film groups (initiated and run by Brian Doherty using the NLA’s film collection); artist lectures; performance and video workshops; Artworkers Union meetings, etc.
I think about that program now, the amount of (mostly unpaid) hours I put into it, how casualised the labour was (both the IMA secretary, Joan Sherriff, and I had to go on the dole during the two months of exhibition down-time each year) and I realize that it utterly depended on youthful energy.
When I left the IMA I transferred that same energy, local networking and economic precarity to being an artist and setting up A ROOM, a six month ARI.
A Room 1984 (the year of the George Orwell novel)?: – Tell me about how the short sharp and savvy A ROOM came about in a wee bit more detail?
The structure of it was pretty much my design. I wanted it to be as manageable which meant cutting down as much as possible on administrative tasks in order to have more time for art-making.
This meant that it wasn’t the open model of most ARIs at the time or since in which an ever-widening circle of artists were included in the program. It had a limited time frame of 6 months that matched the 6 month lease and during that time there would be one group show and one solo show for each of the seven members of the collective.
We all shared the minding of the space but the gallery was only open two days/week because again, no one wants to spend all their time in a rarely visited gallery not being paid.
We all shared in the rent and other associated costs and could even opt to pay those costs on a $5/wk basis. These were the days when parts of the CBD were pretty shabby and untenanted, when the cost-of-living was low and the dole was not heavily policed. It was pretty fabulous.
Infrastructural Support?: Tell me about the measure of support, patronage and interest from established Brisbane/Qld galleries, networks or institutions you witnessed during this time?
The networks that I’d brought with me from the IMA; from my time as a student in the Art History Department at UQ and through friendship circles all helped to sustain A ROOM. There were some very good institutional people around who understood contemporary art culture. I’m thinking particularly of Jenny Harper at QAG, Cassi Doyle at QSL, Nancy Underhill at UQ, Dr. Margriet Bonnin at Griffith Artworks and Nick Zurbrugg at Griffith Uni.
Exodus: During the 1970’s and 1980’s many artists across many arts platforms left Qld for interstate or overseas, for you and for Ted what did exodus mean at the time?
There were two main factors that led to Ted and my departure from Brisbane at the end of 1984. The first was that Ted was on a path to self-realisation. In a short period of about two years he’d gone from being on an invalid pension due to crippling dyslexia to being treated for that dyslexia and then receiving government assistance to enroll in an undergraduate degree at Sydney College of the Arts so Sydney was our trajectory. Coupled with that was a sense that we’d done all we could in Brisbane. We needed to be somewhere bigger.
If you have the time, I have always wanted to interview you about that vivid Black and White theatrical style self portrait of you reading a book Barbara, the one in Brian Doherty’s Art Collection?
That is funny, given what I said about the lack of gay/queer culture yet there was I queering myself back in 1983.
That photograph was taken by a young photographer named Laura McLeod for an exhibition at the IMA called No Names in which none of the exhibiting artists, all local, would be credited by name either in the show or in the catalogue.
I called the image “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” so the impetus was literary rather than gender-politics, although I think I was somewhat aware of all the codifications of power including gender, whiteness, Europeaness, bourgeois entitlement, higher education and so on.
At around the same time as the show, I noticed the Offset Print place near the IMA had a special offer on where they’d print any colour for the same price as black. So I had a series of postcards made, printed in ‘sepia’ and just distributed them freely to friends.
That 1983 postcard would be the first in a series of 25 annual portrait cards, each taken by a different female friend, the series ending with a group portrait of me with all the photographers on my 50th birthday.
This Red Comb House Exhibition Flyer 1982?
Yes, well, my name is there but I can’t think for the life of me what I contributed.
This A ROOM Poster 1985?
That has all the Brian Doherty aesthetic hallmarks on it. It was screen printed at UQ Activities where Brian worked as screen-printer. It was design-as-you-go: collage elements laid down quickly, with not much consideration of registration or colour separation. It was the only way to get any kind of colour ephemera “out” in those days. I imagine we did it in the lead up to A ROOM opening and we would have postered the usual Brisbane haunts with it. It’s funny really because all other A Room ephemera is very formal and professionally designed by Malcolm Enright.
Here’s one from my archives, a letter from Di Heenan to me about A Room, 1985?
The first typed page is the proposal of A ROOM’s structure that I presented to the seven members of A ROOM. The only person not mentioned there is Adam Walter who shared Bronwyn’s exhibition dates. I can’t remember if they collaborated or just co-exhibited.