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the butter factory: an essay of recollections in three stages

First there was a move in 1992, from the city – a central city upper floor, rented as this open, collective art studio, with a French window and balcony over George Street, an acre of wooden floorboards, a disorderly kitchen, and a hanging tent for a bedroom. When people came by – other artists, writers, curators, the curious and the lost – they would pound on the big doors at street level. Then you would hear their voices as they were given entry, familiar and strange voices amplifying up the stair well. The place had its own rough charm and energy; it was a work in progress. We all played a part in its invention. Michael Milburn Gallery was more or less across the road. Others were not far. Every Friday night we would lock the gate and heavy doors, and wander off to an opening. That was BAF Studio. 




Then the day came: a borrowed vehicle, a disappointing assessment of all-my-effects, and there in Dayboro – small town, dairy country, forty-six kilometres north-west of Brisbane, one hotel, one small shop – I cut the rope, and took stock of this strange new realm of the Butter Factory, and my first island. Not an island surrounded by water, like the one I would settle on years later, but as I had no means to come and go it was an island of sorts. I did not know at the time how completely I would fall under its spell and that eighteen years would pass before I could dislodge myself, and not look back.




At the time, Scott Whitaker was living there, and two red cats. The towering roof was hung with his enormous sculptural vessels pieced together from locally sourced rust. Light poured in from the open shutters high up in the atrium and cobwebs braced the corners like gothic vaults. Over the ensuing years these cobwebs, abandoned, would fill with dust and from time to time, flop to earth like discarded stockings. In time I would come to store my own container-like constructions by suspending them from the iron beams above, flinging ropes like a seasoned mariner, and hoisting them up, tying them off on some lower beam or hook.




Some years later, as I sat one night alone at the kitchen table in this cavernous space, cicadas piercing the air with their electric persistence, I heard first an unfamiliar creaking sound, then in an instant, one of these large wooden assemblages came crashing down and landed opposite me at the table. How many things were only just hanging on by inadequate means? What did I really know about this place? I recall sitting there stupefied, regarding this object, an object I had made, as if it had fallen to earth from the heavens. The ensuing years would produce further evidence of a playful will on the part of our Butter Factory to startle and unsettle by means of its tremendous altitude: giant Bunya nut cones would plunge into gas cylinders, causing non-igniting explosions; a tree would cleave a shed, a carpet snake would crash down from a high shelf, shattering a glass-top bench with impressive finality. And, on the brinks of our departure, we would hurl furniture from the mezzanine onto the concrete below, because we were accelerating toward an ending, and the furniture was not worth the trouble to be carried down twenty-five stairs. But between these falls, these reminders that the price for a dwelling in the enchantment between earth and sky was to be the recipient and the cause of plunging catastrophe, were months and years of keen creative energy.




At the time I moved there, the bright, white front room was a gallery, The Butterfactory Contemporary Art Space, snaring the contradictory, hybrid claim of the place in a single title. The rest of the building was divided into studios and bedrooms and these bedrooms were thick walled caves, ten degrees cooler than the outdoor temperature, slightly musty and almost entirely without light. The kitchen and communal space was the site of endless shared meals, and lively conversation. It was nominally divided from the work spaces adjoining, and when Hollie came to live there in 1994, to fulfill her enormous commission for the new Brisbane airport – a series of twelve half-tonne tree sections, painted, gouged and appended – sawdust and steel waste, like nail filings from the metal nibbler, would show up around the food preparation and get walked into other rooms and make their way through shoes and into the furniture. I contributed in no small way to this merging of work and domestic life through my own vigorous use of dust making tools, and lost all sense of a respectable partitioning.




Attachment to the place grew, not so much despite this unhealthy mingling of things, but very likely because of it. And the lofty cavern that we inhabited, and into which we greeted such a stream of visitors and temporary residents – sometimes people would come not for the gallery but to get a look at this strange hearsay place – was an ark adrift, an entire world. Along with the abundant, sweeping green all about, the towering Bunya nut trees, and the cool, deep creek where we swam between bamboo banks and beneath the arching camphor laurels, it produced an enchantment that consumed us, such that for some time I believe we all derived something of our identity from the place. That was what made it hard to leave. But each of these enchantments was in constant tussle with a more shadowy side: there was an eel that inhabited the creek, the dust was epic, the power supply archaic, the solid beams termite ridden, the pythons shameless, the creek prone to flood…




The Butter Factory enterprise, as artist studios, residence, gallery, evolved without a board of directors, without a management committee, official policy document, five-year plan or tenancy agreement. When I moved there, nobody asked how long I would stay, what I hoped to achieve. Nobody asked for an artist statement. It was frontier country: stake your claim, do what you will, see what happens. Scott gave me considerable training, in his uncomplicated, laconic style, in this pioneering spirit. I recall sitting, late one afternoon on the old couch planted out the front of the gallery where it faced north onto the Mount Mee Road and all the lush greenery that thickened around the banks and canopied the creek where platypus made their burrows. We sat there sipping on something, and Scott slowly began to unfold a vision, whose whereabouts and details he did not currently know, but he could see this thing coming clearly into focus: to purchase land, build something – he even sketched a diagram – that would be a collective studio, like the Butter Factory, but autonomous. He was reaching for this image, bringing it into the world, and seemed bewildered by its obvious feasibility, as if it were begging to be realised. Not one year later, this emergent, insistent image would become not another colonial outpost in some remote landscape, but Doggett Street Studios, back in the urban centre.




The Butter Factory gallery eventually became Mark Weiss’s pottery outlet, where he would appear before customers, coming in from his workshop, covered in a pale coat of white clay. But for a spell, before that, it was an occasionally used exhibition space. Living there, you needn’t make an application then wait for another year to bring your idea to fruition, but act when the time was ripe. There was great advantage in this immediacy that is difficult to get from the formal processes of proposal through to funding application and fulfillment, however necessary these formalities have become. Then, in 1998, Hollie raised the idea of opening the gallery as an installation space, where artists could come and stay, and do just this: build their installation over time, grow it into the space, enter into the enchantment.




We agreed to offer the whole thing at no cost. We were paying a nominal rent and we stood to benefit by having these connections with other artists, and by opposing an unwritten assumption that equated the contemporary and experimental with centralisation. The fact that this was the prevailing assumption, would surely make our gesture experimental from the first move.




In her essay for the XB monograph (2000), Pat Hoffie drew attention to the contribution of artist run initiatives to the broadening of federally funded art institutions, reminding us that it was their dynamic momentum in the 1980s that encouraged the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council to negotiate with a number of ARI representatives, the terms for a federally funded contemporary art space, based on the general vision of independence and experimentation. This annexation, as Hoffie describes it, ensured liquidity but also made for new performance demands that arguably brought these new spaces more in line with commercial and state galleries (Hoffie, Pat, 2000. XB, p.5).




I have often felt ambivalent about funding for this reason. It is, of course, not free money, but part of a contract to do what you say you will do, attract the audience you say you will attract. Despite this we were fortunate to receive financial assistance through Arts Queensland in 2000 to continue the program we had funded from our own pockets the previous year – we were now able to pay an artist’s fee – but the thing that ensured our freedom was that we had no intention to prolong the initiative. We would program for the year and then, that would be that. I am not saying there is a given lifespan for such an initiative, but that endings do not equate with redundancies.




Over its two years XB Installation – eX-Butter factory, though it’s ironic, because when the project ended XB disappeared and The Butter Factory endured – saw no fewer than twelve highly ambitious and immersive installation projects, and twelve artists embrace the opportunity to connect, over time, with the place. Many of them took up the opportunity to reside there for the developmental period of the installation. Gallery became studio, and meal times beckoned conversations that often fed into new possibilities. It was a simple, effective and abundantly broad platform.




However, the absence of organisational structure has meant that documents of the Butter Factory – both during XB and beyond – are scattered. They reside largely in the memories of those who came, who partook in one or more of the many Epicurean extravagances, for shared meals and a sense of simple abundance were hallmarks of the ways of the Butter Factory; they reside with those who got lost in the labyrinth of rooms or swam in the creek, picnicked on swaths of coloured fabric beneath the Bunya nut trees, cut bamboo, made pottery, painted, stitched, built boats, cast in bronze, forged, carved, cooked, made kimchi, witnessed a wedding, made a film, grew up, grew older, grew out. Was it an ARI, or was it a life?




This was how we exited the Butter Factory, with a desire to re-establish the outrageous wonder of it on another island. Yet when I drove away, with the last load choking up my tiny car, I could feel no emotion at the parting. Four weeks after we departed, vacating the place of every last vestige – a feat whose immensity it is hard to exaggerate – the relentless rains of 2010 brought the creek to its banks and beyond. The water crept across the lawns, into the neighbouring shack that cowered a few metres closer to the rage, and into the Butter Factory. It continued to rise, flooding all the ground level rooms, thickening with the prodigious dust that coated the floors, and when I went there the following day, offering a hand with the clean-up, the tide had retreated, but the floor was a thick layer of mud, and the water mark was one metre up the walls.




Sharon Jewell

XB Installation Catalogue -special thanks to artist Hollie for this resource