Reflecting on Ephemeral Traces, DIY Change Agents & Region-Specific Artist-Run Social & Cultural History | Fitzroy Melbourne Naarm | Conversation with Peter Anderson 28 July 2017
This extended and informal interview took place at Peter Anderson’s home studio in Fitzroy, Melbourne Narrm in July 2017. It was undertaken largely as a reflective commentary on the Ephemeral Traces exhibition and public program curated by Peter and staged for the University of Queensland Art Museum in 2016. It was hoped that it would be the first of three conversations for a podcast series for the ARI Remix Project. Sadly Peter passed away suddenly, prematurely in October 2020. Peter’s memory lives on. His important contribution to knowledge is ongoing. It will continue to make an impact to updated understanding and thinking about region-specific contemporary art, art policy, artist-run culture and communities of practice in decades to come.
24 September 2021
About Peter Anderson
Peter Anderson | Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy
I have worked in the Australian arts and cultural sector for almost 40 years. Most of my working life has been spent as an independent researcher and cultural worker with a portfolio practice that includes self-directed projects, as well as employment in a range of cultural, educational and media contexts.
My published writing ranges from poetry and prose fiction, to art criticism and feature articles, art exhibition catalogues, self-paced teaching materials and academic papers (for detail see my CV).
My current practice involves a mix of writing, research and curatorial projects, including a PhD in creative writing at Swinburne University curatorial projects, including a PhD in creative writing at Swinburne University.
What is an artist-run space, or as it more commonly known now since the late 1980s, an artist-run initiative (ARI)
Paul : What is an artist-run, what is not?
Peter : An artist-run space is what you’re talking about, or are you talking about an artist-run initiative. I think one of the things that I think it’s really important to do is distinguish between what we now see as an artist-run initiative and what the artist-run space used to be and what the alternative space was. I think we actually have to position these things historically in a three layered structure.
The first thing I will do is say that the alternative space is the first thing we think about and its galleries which somehow were not museums, not commercial spaces and they had a history going back to the 60’s and beyond that but really came into its own in the 60’s and into the 70’s, mainly overseas although in the Australian context I would think of things like perhaps art projects is an alternative, was an alternative space. Certainly Inhibodress, in Sydney was an alternative space. And to begin with spaces like the Institute of Modern Art were considered to be alternative spaces. And maybe even in the early days of the artist-run space people would still use that term a little bit in terms of what they were talking about.
The artist-run space is something which comes about probably in the 80’s as a much more formally structured, with a more structured model where it’s actually not a formal organizational structure like the IMA which was an alternative space but an artist-run space and that came about because of the sort of division within the kind of policy framework as much as anything else. Up until the late 80’s the artist-run space was the term that everyone used for galleries initiated by collectives of artists to work in a sense more organically in a non-commercial and non-institutional manner and a lot of the earlier artist-run spaces were not formally structured organisations, they were kind of collective things that were very ad hoc.
The artist-run initiative (ARI) is something which kind of emerges as a term from the late 80’s and that’s pretty much what we’ve got now as a kind of category…well, I think it’s, I think what it is and what it has been are not always the same thing and the artist-run initiative as its sort of seen today has its origins in alternative spaces more generally. Tracking that history is a long a complicated process and I’m not going to go into now but I think what’s fundamental about an artist-run space is that its initiated by artists and run by artists. I think the policy framework that we have now probably means that the formal structures that are put in place for artist-run initiatives are much tighter than they used to be and that’s partly as a result of the availability of funding for artist-run initiatives and people actually structure things to fit a model. It’s a territory that I don’t just, you know the history is kind of funny in a way.
When we first got involved in these things they were called artist-run spaces rather than artist-run initiatives and I think it’s, you know people come to understand what they are but they’re not rental galleries even though in the main the artist-run sector runs through the voluntary subsidy of artists rather than government funding or commercial enterprises.
Paul : Yes perhaps because invariably artist-runs are run by groups, collectives, people who are like minded who are renting real estate…
Peter : So in a sense the economic model of the artist-run that dominates is that the rent gets paid by the artists that exhibit and often that’s a result of collective kind of decision making where, you know, the artists involved in the collective kind of share the rent and sometimes extra people kind of buy in, they decide that the collective has an individual show each and then they have another bunch of people who show as well But I think the artist-run initiative now is starting to look a little bit more like, at times, a little bit more like a mini institution you know with funding from government and so on and a much more tightly structured organization model than used to be the case. So the artist-run looks more like the kind of government funded contemporary art space at times, at the edges of it. So there’s a blurring across the whole thing.
Spaces like West Space have moved from being artist-run spaces to essentially public funded spaces and their transition has been to move away from artist subsidy or cross subsidy by artists.
Paul : Yes West Space in Melbourne was one I was thinking of and more recently Boxcopy ARI in Brisbane too. You know its ten years of ongoing activity this year for Boxcopy.
Peter : I think the longer the spaces actually operate the more they move away from the original kind of ad hoc collectivist kind of model and the more they become formal in their structures but I also think that over the last twenty or thirty years there’s been a massive shift in the way that formal structures function within the art world.
For example, since the introduction of the new tax system in 2000 artists themselves now function more formally as businesses with ABN’s, invoicing, all of those other kinds of things. So the notion of the artist as business sits underneath all of this as well and artist-run spaces have done the same kind of thing. So there’s a kind of shift in the models I think that’s partly driven by the change in the art world generally but also a change in the way that the art world intersects with the government side of things
Paul : Yes, and Din Heagney; from memory among others have made comments that the models and methodologies of artist-runs in Australia are largely determined by funding modelling in particular, by state-based or state-sanctioned imperatives around arts funding and art policies.
Peter : Well, as you know, back in the 80’s there was a whole sort of separation of the alternative spaces sector through a kind of complicated policy process initiated by the Australia Council which separated a kind of cluster of contemporary spaces which included the IMA and Artspace and ACCA and pitched that contemporary art space network (or CAOS as it was known) against an artist-run space sector if you like, suggesting at one point that there was something common amongst the contemporary art spaces and something diverse amongst the kind of artist-run spaces which included everything from studio collectives to gallery spaces to other kinds of arts organisations as well or collective organisations as well. The Women’s Arts Register W.A.R here in Melbourne I think was actually included within that kind of context.
The policy really shifted how this feels and kind of works but what’s also really fundamental to grasp is that during the same period that we’ve gone from an alternative spaces scene if you like to the sector that we’ve got now which these days sometimes gets called the small to medium sector which brings everything together from regional galleries to contemporary art spaces to artist-run spaces.
This is what the NAVA report on the small to medium sector (S2M) did last year, actually bring all of these very diverse kinds of parts of the art world together, the exhibition infrastructure mainly. Commercials are out there, they’re separate. Major institutions are separated out. But one of things that’s happened during this period of time has been a massive expansion. Not just of the sector and the number of spaces, but also the number of producers the number of artists out there. So the education sector has expanded massively, the number of artists graduating has expanded massively, the number of gallery spaces expanded massively. Whether the market has expanded massively is difficult to say.
Certainly the public gallery infrastructure has expanded. If you look at the kind of expansion of regional galleries from the 70’s, the 80’s and into the 90’s for example, and different states function differently but, overall perhaps that sector has expanded, they’ve got bigger.
A gallery that gets cited frequently in the regional galleries context is the Bendigo Regional Gallery for example, has gone through something like four major building redevelopments in the last 20 years and at my last count when I was looking at the size of the small to medium sector, I counted at the moment in the regional gallery sector there’s some $100 million worth of capital works going on in regional galleries around Australia.
Which contrast quite dramatically with the artist-run sector which is also part of the sort of small to medium sector. So regional galleries in the small to medium there’s $100 million plus of capital works going on. In the artist-run sector people are still sort of talking about whether or not they’ve got security of tenure because they’re renting spaces that are kind of, you know, marginal borderline. So it’s a kind of really weird small to medium sector.
Paul : Yes, the Australian GLAM sector as it’s generally known today, I was just thinking the other day how, you know, when we were involved in the artist-run ecology in Brisbane in the 1980’s we’d talk largely about the three-tiered system. So, there was the alternative spaces like the Experimental Art Foundation EAF in Adelaide, like Praxis in Perth, like Chameleon in Tasmania, like the IMA in Brisbane, ACCA in Melbourne, Artspace in Sydney and then there was the state galleries and then the National Gallery of Australia as the top of the hierarchy.
And somewhere at the bottom advocating for a bottom-up model and/or approach approach to the exchange and distribution of contemporary art there was the artist-run space. I remember in 1986 when First Draft in Sydney got funding for, it might have been, I don’t quite remember, it was certainly one of the first art run spaces that received funding from the Australia Council and then it was like, for us folk in Brisbane and for me as a young artist working the artist-run scene in Brisbane, it was like an immense feeling of joy and rapture, oh the artist-run space has actually arrived, finally we are on the radar. It was that idea that it had been recognized, valorised by the expanding art policy reach, by funding agencies and this was starting to build momentum. This type of homogenization process that’s been going on and so we might talk about the GLAM sector and now it’s not just the art spaces that are thrown into this sort of tiering, it’s the galleries, it’s the libraries, it’s the archives and museums that are in this sort of entity, or modelling.
Peter : I think we can tease out the differences between the various elements within it more clearly, more precisely, but what we also had is internally within the kind of operations within this sector we’ve had a kind of another educational layer introduced so that what you now get is far more specific position training if you like. So, what we didn’t have at an earlier cultural moment was a clear and specialized training path for curators for example.
So, when back in 1982 the Institute of Modern Art IMA introduced a guest curator program, and one of the reasons for that was because there were really very few avenues that people who were looking at independent curatorial activity within an alternative space context could actually build and develop a framework. You went into a job in a state gallery as a curator and that was about it. If you go back to that period of time you find that many of the people that took on jobs as directors of regional galleries for example were graduates of either art history departments or tertiary art colleges and some of the state gallery directors have had that kind of a career path, going from art college to running a regional gallery to running another regional gallery to running a state gallery and so on.
Whereas now what happens is that the artist-run sector is seen as kind of part of the training ground for people, by playing an educative role, for people moving into curatorial positions in regional galleries and then in university galleries and then in state institutions.
There’s a different kind of career structure to the whole thing as well and people kind of move between the different layers. So there’s actually positions, and jobs, that people move around in a way that there wasn’t once before. I don’t think there were clear and defined career paths in the visual arts in the way that there are now.
Paul : Well that was my experience as an artist curator and activist in Brisbane’s artist-run culture then getting a job as an assistant curator at The Australian Centre for Photography based largely on my then extensive work in the ARI ecology since 1984 in Sydney in 1989. And today, perhaps more so than ever before maybe, there’s a higher percentage of artists who actually undertake and/ or complete higher degrees like Masters or Doctorates.
Peter : Well the high, the rise of the, well up until the 1980’s the dominant qualification in the visual arts was a diploma and the number of institutions offering degrees in visual art has expanded, that’s the first thing to say. The level of the degrees has expanded. So, from the 80’s when the Queensland College of Art [QCA] first began offering a Bachelor’s Degree in 1985, so people graduated in about 1987, 88, in a sense that period within the Brisbane artist-run sector, people were starting to graduate with BA’s at the end of the 80’s from QCA and people earlier had graduated with Diplomas.
Then you go through a period of time where there’s an MFA sort of starting to happen and now in the last decade or more we’ve had a sort of shift to a PhD as a kind of terminal degree in the visual arts and a great many more people are actually completing all of those stages.
You know, for example a few years back I sat on a panel in Brisbane to do with artist-run spaces, or artist-run initiatives and I was chairing the panel and I was like the history person in that context, the person who could talk about Brisbane’s artist-run history, and the people who were sitting on that panel were all directors of spaces that had, were either continuing or had ceased to function.
So, it was partly about the so-called bubble of ARI, the ARI Bubble, and “had it burst?” whether there had been a big burst of ARI activity or whether the bubble had burst or whatever, that was the sort of schtick of the kind of talk. The bizarre think for me was that I’d taught some of the people that were sitting on the panel when they were in second year at QUT but subsequently they had graduated, got their MFA’s and got PhD’s and the only person on the panel who didn’t have a PhD was me.
I was sitting on a panel with people who had been running artist-run initiatives almost all of which had got some kind of state government funding during their period of time and every single one of them had a PhD in visual art. So the difference when you go back to say the 80’s artist-runs and the people who started those 80’s artist-runs in Brisbane for example was that not all of the people who started those spaces had graduated with an Art Degree.
Some of them were still undertaking higher degree study. Yourself for example when you were running That Space you were also doing an art history degree at the University of Queensland in what was then known as the Fine Arts Department, so you were studying as well as running an artist-run. So the idea that you would, you know, graduate or be close to graduating for your PhD and starting an artist-run was almost kind of like par for the course.
So, there’s been a bit of discussion in the last couple of months over, in relation to a space in Toowoomba called made. Creative ARI and when I look at that, that’s a space which seems to have developed in Toowoomba in part because the two people who are running it were undertaking higher degrees at the University of Southern Queensland.
An institution that’s offering PhD’s also needs to have that kind of external space so artist-runs become the kind of avenue through which people actually engage in the practice outside their post graduate work. What also becomes important in that is that the artist-run becomes a kind of research arm of the university sector, the higher education process where people who are actually doing PhD’s within an art practice as research model and the artist-run which is noncommercial becomes this kind of experimental space, so where practice can get reconstituted as research.
Now it’s not that the idea of art training as a form of research or art education as a form of research or even art practice as a form of research is anything new, but if you go right back to the 1960’s you find Donald Brook who was one of the founding members of the group who started the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide and he was in Sydney writing in the Sydney Morning Herald.
I think it was about the lack of fit between the art college and its current position within the technical training institution arguing that art is a form of research and that artists need to be working in art colleges and that the kind of way that art colleges should function is different from the way you should train people to be plumbers or brick layers.
It’s like a shift from the kind of vocational in a sense. So that sort of debate in higher education has been there for a very long period of time and it’s interesting to see how all of these different things kind of come together.
Paul : Yeah, in fact I sort of predicated that question with a sense that there’s a higher percentage of students with a higher degrees. In fact, in terms of statistics this is one of the challenges that we’ve got in this country is that there aren’t any detailed statistics and the actual data collection that exist around creative industries, around the layers of the arts and cultures scene is so broad. I mean there are some statistics but it’s not like we can point to a figure and say this is the number of artists working in Australia, this is the number of artists in Australia who have got higher degrees, the number of artist-runs, past present or, reforming or re- iterating in some way.
Like we are basing this on different types of research and often anecdotal evidence that’s been done. There are many artist-runs who have not accessed funding and don’t exist in institutional archives in Australia. They remain unarchived.
So where I’m going with this is to say, so we’ve talked a bit about the academy, the impact on the artist-run as potentially a research arm to use that expression you used.
What about all the artists who are self-directed, who’ve come through self-directed learning, are self-taught, through other courses and/or have no interest in or have access to the cultural privilege often afforded by formal and higher education, whether its due to income, location, limited connectivity, a ridiculous HECS burden, disinterest and so on…
Peter : This is something I think is actually really, really interesting. A lot more artists in the past used to identify as self-taught and were not coming through traditional educational institutions. Recently I went through the list of artists who showed in The Field exhibition in 1968 at the NGV for one reason or another, just thinking of other things and it turns out that I think it’s about 2/3 of them were within ten years of graduating from an art institution of some sort with their diplomas or whatever it was at the time.
Some of them had studied overseas, some of them hadn’t. But anyway, we’re talking about a group of hard edge colour field painters predominantly and even then not that many of them are billed as self-taught but I do recall people at various points in time in the 80’s actually in a sense wanting to actively deny the role that their art college training had actually provided and not seeing the necessity of having the diploma and seeing self-taughtness being a kind of virtue rather than anything else.
Whereas I don’t seem to see that quite so frequently now. It’s almost like artist status is almost understood or assumed as a product of having gone to art college and if you actually look around at CV’s for example you find very few people who simply say I didn’t go to art college. Sometimes people went through other avenues. They studied other things, architecture or whatever.
Perhaps not even creative things but they’d studied at some point and have a university degree and the artist population according to the ongoing Throsby studies about artist’s working lives indicate that the visual artist population is actually incredibly highly qualified, in fact it’s massively highly qualified. It’s one of the most highly qualified sectors in the workforce as a kind of class of workers But what’s interesting is the correlation between qualification and income is where the kind of disparity is. It’s also kind of one of the sectors that earns the least. So there’s a kind of mix. So the sort of studies on artist populations are really complex because they’re mostly sample based. It’s very difficult to do anything other than that.
Paul : We might make a segue there. It’s interesting talking about the highly qualified artists in Australia and the professional status of the artist in Australia, and the changing social and cultural role of the artist and it just brings me back to the Ephemeral Traces exhibition you curated last year, 2016 at the University of Queensland Art Museum.
I’m reminded when you were speaking just now about, the Queensland Artworkers Alliance which was an interesting and perhaps paradigmatic shift in terms of the status of an artist, artist status as you say, in Australian art history and the canon if you like. Where there was a shift from the Artworkers Union of Queensland which where it’s primordial arts workers grassroots base, if you like and there was definitely an idea, and artist activist Brian Doherty who was key, was instrumental in this shift in thinking around the status of an artist as a professional, indeed intellectual person, much like an architect, an engineer, a politician, and that an arts advocacy and lobby group, a professional association needed to be formed that was much more up to date I tenor. And representative of the truer status of an artist at the time, as someone that has actually professional status, that is highly qualified, has an incredibly diverse range of skills, transferrable skills that are so necessary living and working with precarity, and at a time when the social role of the artist was changing very rapidly in ever expanding ways. Which in the mid to late 80s was an emerging but highly networked pre-digital era.
Peter : I think one of the things that comes into this is that if you go back and look at art training you find that perhaps what’s also sitting underneath some of the kind of medium specific skill sets that were part of art training before was actually occupational categories that were not strictly art production categories. So many of the people who went to art college and learnt print making, painting, ceramics, photography, studied drawing, all of these kinds of things, they weren’t necessarily going into careers as the makers of artworks for exhibition and the sort of 60’s, 70’s shift in what art is, could be, and how it’s made has had a big impact here.
But if you go back even to that period of time what you find is that outside the art world there are many occupations for art skills. So you get, for example, many artists who work in commercial art as well as making paintings for exhibition and you find that again if you look through the CV’s of people in the field you see that kind of mix. When you take a figure that everyone kind of disparages, like someone like Ken Done right. Ken Done went to art college and many of the people he went through art college with did what he did which is actually begin working in advertising. Some of them were successful at working in advertising, some weren’t. Some were very successful at showing paintings, some weren’t. But at that point in time if you went to art college you could do both.
That would be a kind of avenue that you would move in and I think that probably still holds to some extent in the current art training environment. But the kind of jobs people go into are not so clear any more. They’re not in sort of you know illustration or magazine layout or something along those lines. Even back in the 80’s if you look at the kind of jobs, the other jobs that people have had, well known artists, they were in those kind of industries but those industries have changed and kind of almost disappeared.
Paul : That’s a really useful perspective…
Peter : So the Artworkers’ Union of Queensland thing in a sense is actually about, is not about being a kind of, not like a union for people doing arts-based activities within the newspaper and magazine production world, or the advertising world, it’s actually about people making art and the history of that kind of organization, which has, obviously there’s a whole lot of stuff that went on in the States in the 60’s and 70’s around this and within the Australian cultures we had in about 1979 we had the kind of formation of an Artworkers Union state by state and part of the reason for the state by stateness of it as well was actually to do with how trade unions function and they tended to be state by state rather than national unions.
When the Artworkers Union was first established in Sydney in around 1978/9, if my memory serves me, there was an Artworkers Union in Sydney, NSW Artworkers Union. There was an Artworkers Union in I think South Australia there was a branch. There was a branch in Melbourne. There were in fact attempts to establish one in 1979 in Brisbane.
There was at least one meeting held at the IMA and there’s some records of that meeting but it never really got off the ground. So the Artworkers Union in Queensland comes about a little bit later, in about 2/3 it starts to kind of form up and you get an Artworkers Union Queensland branch. I think part of the problem with that is that the economic foundation of art practice is simply it doesn’t have the slack.
It’s not like, you know, like one of the things that keeps unions going is people being able to afford to pay union dues and actually function as trade unions so there was a lot of, there was actually a lot of debate in Brisbane around how that kind of unionization could work and for a period of time there was a possibility that one of the unions that might actually take on that role was not the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance for example, which to some extent at a national level has maybe been the most logical kind of choice to take on things like the Artworkers Union style role because it had Actors Equity in it and the Australian Journalists Union and the Musicians Union have all come together in that sort of bigger omnibus union.
Back in the 80’s the debate was around the Operative Painters and Decorators Union taking it on and that’s partly because artists were working on, you know, almost like static art and doing finishes in domestic environments, those kinds of things, and so there was, and public art, and so there was a possible link there between artists working in a public art kind of way and kind of the building trades union stuff. That didn’t really sit comfortably within the exhibition context nor in relation to the rest of the infrastructure and I think in the Brisbane context, Queensland context, one of the things that made it very difficult to sustain an Artworkers Union was, one – the economics of it, two – the fact that everybody who was trying to keep that organization going was doing so voluntarily and that the people involved were already involved in everything else and that many of the people involved were getting exasperated by the Queensland situation and were leaving, and I think Brian’s kind of letter about the kind of need to do something to change the way the Artworkers Union was functioning, which was put together in 85, so end of 85 the Artworkers Union is kind of going well can we sustain this.
One of the fundamental points of tension was the fact that the vast majority of the people who had been serving on the committees of the Artworkers Union had actually left town. So, the people who had been doing the ground work were leaving and it was a really question of, can we keep the momentum going.
One of the solutions which the Queensland Artworkers Alliance became in 1986 was to shift the focus. One of the things that’s really important to recognize is the Artworkers Union was a union for artists, so the objective was that if you were a member you were an artist and that’s what it was and people working peripherally around that were not members. One of the things about the Artworkers Alliance was that its membership base was more open.
It wasn’t strictly seeing itself as a trade union and it was certainly one of the things that dropped from its objectives was the objective of becoming a registered trade union and I think that was always going to be incredibly difficult, particularly in the climate of Queensland at that time, which was, if I recall correctly, a political situation in which we had an attempt to deunionise all sorts of other industries, like this is when we had the SEQEG for example, the South East Queensland Electricity Generating Board strike where the electrical workers went on strike.
So, we were actively dealing with that kind of situation and it seemed impossible, almost crazy to be trying to set up a union that had no resources in a political climate where unions that had resources were under severe political attack. And an Artworkers Alliance I think seemed like a much more strategic direction to take with the objective of building a more sustainable visual arts environment for people to stay in Queensland, to actually try and build the environment.
A key objective was to kind of build some sort of sense of ongoing continuity by publishing for example and Eyeline was one of the things that was very early identified as an objective of the Artworkers Alliance and it’s probably now the only thing left as an ongoing kind of venture from the Artworkers Alliance itself, given that the Artworkers Alliance ceased to operate in about, I think it was about 2011 or 2012 or something along those lines.
Effectively, the Artworkers Alliance actually expanded its membership base and brought people from art history people who were working in curatorial jobs, even people within the commercial sector. So, that said, this notion of actually building the arts infrastructure or building the arts environment to make it kind of more viable for people to have a practice in Queensland, one of the really core elements of the Artworkers Alliance’s objectives was that in any dispute over conditions, circumstances, you know, if there was ever a dispute between artists and any other part of the art world and the art sector the Artworkers Alliance would always act on behalf of the artist, always act on behalf of primary producers, and that was fundamental to its purpose.
It’s like saying well as a whole sector we can kind of grow but if there’s any problem, like a disagreement between an Artworkers Alliance member and a commercial gallery we’re not going to side with the commercial gallery. If it was an art museum, we’re not going to side with the art museum. We’re going to side with the artist. So that was fundamental to the way that it actually emerged and developed. It was trying to foreground the significance of the artist that changed the way that it functioned within the kind of union model.
Paul : So one of the interesting things about the Ephemeral Traces exhibition and DIY Change Agents pubic program last year was, and certainly from my point of view as someone that was actually involved actively within that scene and foundational work of the QAA , was to look at the way in which participation in these sorts of artist-run groups, cooperatives, groups, collectives, alliances, well there was a very fluid idea and liberatory feeling of what a group of artists could actually do together, the impossible work that is made possible through collaboration, and it wasn’t just about exhibition programming and scheduling, it was about a whole range of things all at once and so going back to this idea about the social role of artists changing, what we saw in the Brisbane context was a measure of participation and activism that perhaps had never happened before in Queensland certainly and I just wonder, the Ephemeral Traces exhibition, where I’m going with this question is, I’m really interested in how you saw that exhibition could be at the very outset in terms of what you’d imagined an exhibition to be and then how it ended up being this incredible sort of cluster of different spaces organized around a region-specific timeline that perhaps hadn’t existed before and that identified this sort of fluid form of political and cultural activity.
You know we talk about models, modelling, approaches and methodologies for an artist-run but what that exhibition did is to identify how fluid things were at the time, informal, friendly, safe, open-ended and how organic things were at the time as they were building momentum.
Peter : I think one of the things that’s really fundamental to say about the Ephemeral Traces is that its subtitle. Its subtitle was actually to describe it as Brisbane’s artist-run scene and I actually think that one of the things I was trying to do with the show was to demonstrate that there was a scene around a number of artist-runs at a particular moment and that people who were key players in running those spaces were also key players in doing a lot of other things like Artworkers Union, Artworkers Alliance, and the kind of overlapping of personnel seemed to me to be really kind of fundamental, essential. So, if you were to look carefully at what was happening you would find that it was well not a huge scene.
I think you and I actually did a kind of calculation based on exhibition records that there was somewhere in the vicinity of 300 artists involved in shows in five spaces over a period of four or five years, five or six years. But what’s also important is that it wasn’t just the shows that were important, it was all the other things that went on around it. The artist-run environment seemed to me to provide a kind of context for processes, bringing together a whole range of kind of cultural activities, it gave some solidity to cultural practice in Brisbane during that period of time that, let’s say in the late 70’s was probably much more concentrated around the punk music scene and fan culture. Similar kinds of kind of overlaps.
And while the music scene in Brisbane has been well and truly documented and people are very familiar with the sort of key bands and a sense that this is a place, that Brisbane was a place which actually had generated a whole lot activity, around the visual arts and around the artist-run in particular the sense that I was hearing, after I moved down to Victoria in particular, was that nothing much had happened and even people who were in Brisbane in the present involved in ARI scene kind of now or let’s say in the, you know, 2000 teens, didn’t have a sense that this scene had actually ever existed.
There was a sort of a gap, a big gap in the record. Part of that I think was a problem that people had shifted in the way that they actually looked for records, looked for historical information, so there was nothing online. There was a sense that Queensland was beyond the pale and was very conservative, therefore the sense that anything radical, experimental or innovative could have happened was, from people who were living externally, was simply not there. The idea that anything decent creatively could happen in Queensland was kind of pushed to one side and to some extent people who lived in Brisbane as well had such a negative attitude to their own place that they in some ways denied that whatever was going on was of any significance. So it’s really kind of fascinating in a way that there was sort of like a double amnesia, a forgetfulness on the part of people who weren’t there but also the people who were there had tended to kind of overlook what had been there.
The whole environment was one populated mainly by people leaving. So the exodus of people from Brisbane during that period of time meant that there was no kind of collective memory.
Paul : Well speaking of collectives. I mean we talked about this idea of people leaving, you know, and these artist emigres. There’s a Brisbane Queensland artistic diaspora here, a diaspora there, you know. I just, well maybe based on my own traumas and experiences I think it in terms of a type of collective post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes. Let’s talk about the political backdrop because whilst I don’t think that, you know I think that contemporary art as you said earlier, the post object stuff that was happening in the 60’s and 70’s, Fluxus, instruction-based art, conceptual art, the dematerialization of the art object that Lucy Lippard identified, there was definitely a shift away, the dematerialization of the art object, and I feel sometimes that this dematerialization was embodied and embedded into artist-run activities and approaches as all of that sort of stuff was going on simultaneously.
But the political backdrop in Queensland was simply not like anywhere else in Australia
Peter : No. I think that’s partly why people sort of see this as a kind of unbelievable, you know. The other thing that’s really important is that the people who were involved in the scene at that time in the 80’s were very aware of the pressures of that so, for example, it was bizarrely coincidental that when the show opened at the University of Queensland in 2016 it was almost exactly the 30th anniversary of the Demolition Show and the Demolition Show was an exhibition curated by John Stafford for the final show at the Observatory Gallery which was a very short lived space and the show itself was about the demolition of space and the kind of way public space in Brisbane, even private space, the way space in Brisbane was being used in the service of a kind of top down development kind of model which was, as we have seen retrospectively, run through with bizarre political and social kind of corruption, the whole kind of white shoe brigade moments and all of those kind of things where the policing of space, the policing of public space, access to space.
We had this kind of weird moment where to some extent the kind of demise of older space in the city, particularly in the CBD, was an opportunity that artists were able to pick up and I think most of the spaces that function at some point or other were only able to function because the rents for buildings were relatively cheap. There was a sense that the buildings were between purposes and that the city was going to actually consume them and during the 80’s you know like you could barely turn from one week to the next without buildings being pulled down and great gaping holes being dug in the middle of the city and all of that. So the transformation of the CBD of Brisbane was phenomenal and artists actually in a sense filling the gap between buildings being emptied of their original purpose and being demolished and then repurposed.
When the Demolition Show happened, it was for a demolition of a block of buildings, older buildings, which had previously been adjacent to what was the Brisbane Markets which had long gone out to Rocklea. So in a sense was kind of warehouse space and multi-use bank buildings. There were boarding houses in the block. But it was a big triangular block bounded by George Street, Turbot Street and Roma Street. It had been the site for the Observatory. It had been the site for other artist, design, dance studio complexes. It had been the site for a sound recording studio.
It had been the site for the inner city’s community youth support scheme, and art classes for things like screen printing. It had been the site for the one flat exhibit George Street branch. It was the location of a number of kind of inner city boarding houses. There’d been a kind of hardware store and numerous kinds of other things
Paul : The Little Roma Street Festival…
Peter : Yeah, all sorts of stuff. Little Roma Street Festival was kind of a product of things like the inner city CYSS being there so it was a kind of cultural heartland. The Curry Shop had been there, the famous Curry Shop on George Street. If you read Brisbane’s music history stuff the Curry Shop features. But upstairs from that had then been a ZZZ venue called Amyls Night Space. So like it had been a sort of place where a whole lot of cultural activity in Brisbane had been going on. So cultural activity was centered on the city and it basically went in early 1986 in one big go.
The crazy plans for the site, having gone back and looked at some of the archive material, at one stage were a gigantic huge taller than anything radio and communications tower, a bit like Sydney Tower or the tower that is in Auckland. One of those kind of big modernist things with radio masts and things. To make the mobile phone what has become the kind of gigantic mobile phone tower really, which never eventuated and would have actually dwarfed the tallest building in the world practically which was planned for somewhere else in the city. But what’s interesting is after the buildings were demolished, and this is perhaps the thing which was most galling was that the site was left vacant other than to be converted to an outdoor car park and it sat as what was an outdoor car park right the way through into the early 2000’s.
For over 20 years it was an outdoor car park and nothing else. I think that was a sort of sign that something was planned. We’ll demolish all this stuff and then that didn’t go ahead. So we had that kind of thing. I mean that space as a space kind of sat for a period of time uncertain, month by month.
I recall reading your That Space zine newsletters from that period of time. We may have to move out. We don’t know when. So it’s like sitting there and not quite sure and now when you look down the laneway to where that space was what you see is a vast piece of, your know, cast concrete. The concrete base of a multi storey tower. And Brisbane is run through and through with that. Massive kinds of transformation of space in a very short space in time and it’s still going on.
We were dealing at that point with a massive transformation of the inner part of Brisbane and the whole Southbank transformation with the gallery and the cultural centre and all of those things. Then with the add on, so that’s 1982 that all, so that’s the end of the 70’s into the 80’s they’re going to pull these dockish kind of spaces down and pubs and other things that had been there from what was a kind of dock trade area if you like. And then when you get the Southbank area, which is what the Southbank Parklands is now, that was the Expo site in 1988 and so the Expo itself became the excuse for actually buying up, demolishing and so on and the original plans for the Expo site were not Southbank Parklands, not public space but in fact the handing over of that space to commercial developers so a lot of the time what was going on was a kind of cozy relationship between fly by night developers with the maddest schemes in the world, some of them are completely crazy and if you go through the papers from that period of time you see these politicians, Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Russ Hinze and someone else kind of there with some crazy developer with a model of some mad high rise thing.
And in fact it’s feasible that Joh’s demise in part came about because of a kind of refusal to back down on some of these kinds of developments and the sort of opposition that began to build even within the Liberal Party circles, because Joh was National Party not Liberal Party, but within Liberal Party circles to this kind of stuff and in fact that Sally Anne Atkinson as the Mayor who organized a public rally over some proposals that were kind of bypassing Cabinet approval at around this time and you start to get opposition to the kind of imposition of State Government objectives over local government objectives and building planning permits and all that kind of stuff going on. It was a really kind of fraud environment and it’s like people had gone too far
Paul : Yeah, and you just reminded me. I think one of the key things about the exhibition that helped us, you know, be reminded of was that, and a word that you have used before, a key word I think, was the word access. So here was this very very exclusivist region specific climate that we were living and working in as artists and as creative people and we wanted to not be a part of the cultural elitism problem but part of a solution, we had these opportunities to be in these liminal spaces that happened to be available for a short period of time and that we had access, we had a 4000 postcode basically, and we were able to occupy really big spaces that today just seems impossible to imagine and at a time when rents were quite nominal compared with rental prices today.
We had access to the CBD and an opportunity to re-write it, to re-imagine it. We had access to creating networks, social networks, cultural networks, galleries, exhibition programs, publications, newsletters, zines, artist books, artists’ ephemera, all these things, events projects, all sorts of things. We occupied too, you know, Jeanelle’s important project, one of many, the wonderful and unruly Outdoor Drive-In, that’s an example of where a drive-in as art project was able to you know contest the idea of a car park, and a drive in, where cinema happens. So that let culture happens in one of these big gaping holes. Knock it down. Hey, ok, knock it down we’re going to actually do something in the car park and that’s something that Jeanelle worked on with the outdoor car park right next to the IMA when it was in Edward Street.
Where I’m going with this question is the idea of access, that, you know, at the same time we had the Queensland Art Gallery that was very conservative, very conventional and stuck in the 1950’s. The art that was going on seemed to be sort of intersected with the political climate in so far as there was this idea that we weren’t just going to be painting you know purple jacaranda trees, and that there was all this other stuff going on.
This is not unlike the climate of creative self-reliance for the Barjai and Miya Studio groups almost forty years earlier. The IMA was like an oasis in a cultural desert for many many years from the mid 1970’s but we didn’t have access to that either because that was still very much, you know, we there was closed access to the IMA. It was very very negative in the way that it was running, it wasn’t inclusive largely and we used to call it the Institute of Melbourne Art, and today it often feels like the Institute of Milani Art. And so, we had this, and the commercial gallery scene which was of course the other part, how I see artist-runs is a sort of a counter-perspective around what the commercial gallery was offering at the time and we had access to these spaces, we were included in commercial galleries programming more than IMA programming for example.
There were a whole number of levels of access, and inaccessibility going on all at the same time and I think that some of that access we were very conscious of and it was very intentional in the way that we were contesting systems of access and operation if you like and I think that timeline and the Ephemeral Traces exhibition mapped some of those stories of access and I’m curious about why the timeline for you as a curator, which is now a standard in museum and gallery practices, as an activist curator if you like, was such an important part of that exhibition.
Peter : Well I think one of the things that was really obvious to me was that the timeline was needed so that people would have a sense of the whole changing environment. I didn’t want the artist-run spaces that I was focusing on in the show to simply be in the art world. They had to actually be seen more widely. So the timeline actually positioned a whole bunch of things.
There was information on the timeline which actually was to do, for example there was a thread there which was to do with the development of computing technology for example, changing technology and it’s actually really interesting the kind of, the transition within the show’s timeframe from everything being analog and some things being done by computing and personal computers was within that time period.
Because I’d narrowed the period of time I was looking at from the 80’s overall to a period between 1982 and 1988 which coincided with the Commonwealth Games happening in Brisbane and Expo 88 happening.
And these are the two things which are generally treated as the fundamental game changes in the local environment, even culturally. Also in 1982 you had the opening of the new Queensland Art Gallery. Later on, the timeline continues on and then you get 1993 you get the Asia Pacific Triennale.
I wanted to go on that far to show how these things happened and I also wanted to go on and add to the very end of that timeline a long list of over 70 artist-run spaces/projects which had occurred in Brisbane from 1975 onwards, a time of post-object art and many cultural trends. So the timeline was essential for positioning things, not least because it’s a long time ago. It is historical and it’s important to place things in an historical context. So I was trying to do that. So the timeline ran from 75 to 95 and the exhibition kind of sat in the middle of it. So, it was all about contextualization.
But what faced the timeline within the exhibition space was a poster wall which actually was from 82 to 88 and it’s kind of mirrored some of those things that were going on in the timeline. So, it was very much about positioning the cultural activity that was going on and its residue in the posters because what was really fundamental to the show was this.
My research for the show did not begin by looking through the holdings of the Queensland Art Gallery. I did do that and in a moment I’ll say something about that. It began by working through the archival material in an ephemera collection in the State Library of Queensland which was in a sense a confirmation of my own holdings of ephemeral material.
And I think what’s important here is that if you look at the ephemera you can actually see that a lot was going on and you can see not just kind of tidy gallery model where, you know, all that’s happening is exhibitions, month by month exhibitions or whatever, you can actually see the talks, the other events, the social events, the kind of political events.
You can actually see a much wider array of activities going on and you can also see to some extent the artists who were involved in these different things So one part of what I wanted to do was to emphasize the natural aspect of the art practice that underpins artist-run practice so that I actually would say that there’s art practice and there’s artist-run practice and artist-run practice involves being an artist in that context.
And what I wanted to develop within the show was an argument which was that art practice is more than simply making work and putting it on show. It’s actually about an activist position and I wanted to highlight that so that the artist whose work were included in the show were predominantly those who were the people who were running the spaces, those who were doing a lot of the work and people who ended up appearing in different kind of places.
An artist would appear in the show with works, like concrete work, but they would also appear as someone who had made posters or made flyers, artists’ ephemera, ephemera made by artist for artists. They would actually be doing all of these different things. So I wanted it to develop an expanded notion of what art practice was and that was one thing that I was doing. When I went looking, and this is, if there was one sort of disappointment with the way the show worked it’s that I didn’t emphasise this aspect of it more, and that is that the show drew extensively on the collection of the Griffith University Art Museum collection and it drew extensively on the University of Queensland art collection.
I went through the State Gallery collection and there were a couple of pieces I could have borrowed but I already had editions, in a sense the same work, from an edition that was owned by one of the other institutions and nothing that really added to what I could already access from those other two collections. So, in the end I borrowed nothing for the show from the Queensland Art Gallery and there was almost nothing there that I could have borrowed and if I had attempted to tell the story of artist-run practice in Brisbane by using the Queensland Art Gallery collection I could not have done so.
This whole area of practice and sociality is almost completely absent from the holdings and collecting mandates of the Queensland Art Gallery. So it’s invisible. Still. In fact, what’s interesting is that even the program of the IMA, if you were to try and look to the Queensland Art Gallery for artworks that are linked to the exhibition program of the IMA you would find almost nothing there either. So very little from shows that have been held at the IMA over the 40 year period of its existence had actually filtered across into the state collection.
And for many of the artists in the 80’s artist-run context and those who were practicing around about the same time the works that were done in that period of time don’t appear either. So there’s more work from the 90’s by artists who were active in the 80’s and that’s partly to do with how institutions like state galleries collect. They collect when people have kind of moved on to a certain point.
One of the things I didn’t do was look as carefully at the provenance of the works that I was showing and in retrospect think I should have actually done a multi label system. I should have actually made it much clearer where everything came from so that when people were looking through the show the labels on the work would actually tell a story as well.
All of that information is on the labels but it’s so subtle. I really needed to do something more to emphasise that. The works from the University of Queensland collection, many of those works were donated to the University of Queensland collection rather than bought and it’s interesting how they came to be in that collection. I also borrowed extensively from the collection of Jane Richens and Brian Doherty and I think, and that was simply because they had actually gathered together a clear, coherent collection and were in a position where they were willing to lend significant portions of that.
They’d not only had the collection, they’d also managed to hang onto and preserve large slabs of the archives of different spaces. They’d taken on in a sense as a favour to the people who had run those spaces who in a sense wanted to abandon or hand-on those archives and that in itself is interesting.
I was kind of really interested in the layers.
I wanted to show archival material.
I wanted to show ephemeral material and I wanted to show art works.
I didn’t want there to be a clear demarcation between those things and I wasn’t making a case that somehow the best work, the best work had somehow been overlooked. That wasn’t what I was about. I wanted to make a show that said this is what happened, which is a very different thing from saying these are the most significant artworks to emerge from this period.
If I had wanted to do that I may have well included a number of artists who showed very little in the artist-run context during that period of time, but given that only about 10% of the artists who did show in the artist-run space context during that period of time had works included in the show, it seemed to me to be an unwise move to show works by people who did not show in that context in the same show, hence the absence of a few key people, say Luke Roberts for example or Scott Redford.
Those I could have used works but it was important in a sense not to go and present them because in the main neither Luke nor Scott showed in those spaces. They had in other spaces around but I wasn’t telling a story of Brisbane art in the 80’s right across the whole decade. I was telling a story about what I saw as an expanded field of practice for a core group of people working in an artist-run context, of spaces and of activist organisations and the people involved across the sector were all involved in Artworkers Union, Artworkers Alliance and artist-run spaces.
Almost everybody who was identified as a kind of key operator within one of those spaces had a role both in the spaces and also in the activist organizational activity around it. And you can see this from minutes of meetings and, you know, people taking on positions of secretary of the Artworkers Alliance or whatever, so if someone’s running artwork, you know it’s like now having the Artworkers Union, Artworkers Alliance actually, Artworkers Alliance based for a period of time in that space and looking at who was doing the work and who was looking after things, who was writing the minutes and it’s this core of people that I kind of wanted to focus on.
And then it kind of blurs out into the scene more widely. But it was really difficult to, you know, to make what is effectively a very complicated argument in an exhibition context and in some ways maybe it didn’t kind of, part of the problem I think was that what I was trying to do was to present this for many people for the first time and to bring the body of material together for the first time in a retrospective way because much, many people involved had done what they’d done and then had in a sense moved on, felt that they’d not achieved what they set out to achieve to some extent, that things hadn’t worked out how they’d hoped and they’d left town, you know they’d abandoned things.
The amount of work that people told me they had abandoned was phenomenal. It’s not just that archives of artist-runs are shoved under people’s beds, so were works, artworks. But what’s even more kind of interesting is that artwork itself is frequently abandoned.
The fate of most artwork that people produce is to actually disappear. What we get to see is very small and I think this was a show which was trying to show that there’d been a whole lot of things going on. But structurally the show tried to do three things and probably the dominant narrative that people have picked up on is the local scene thing. But what it was about was a kind of case study in both a global and a national kind of phenomenon.
I was really interested in the thread that I picked up from Terry Smith’s work in Thinking Contemporary Curating where he talks about infrastructural activism as a kind of global thing, where artists are involved in setting up organisations and institutions and that goes far back, the history of that is predominantly shown through the United States, predominantly driven by a kind of New York story which I think is fascinating but really the New York story dominates the kind of local story in a phenomenal kind of way.
And it was ironic for me that in the list of things that Terry Smith referred to, the list of work and articles that he referred to in the footnote attached to this in the book that has global circulation having been published by international, by Independent Curators International, he actually referred to an article by Peter Rake in the Canadian journal Filip. The article was concerned with the Brisbane scene in which she had asserted that there had been no artist-run space activity earlier on.
In a sense the only account of the Brisbane context which seemed to partake in this kind of account of infrastructural activism was an account which was completely ignorant of and didn’t refer to what I saw as the most fundamental block of foundational activity that fitted within that category.
I was interested in that kind of question of what infrastructural activism was. But it was also important to me that the 82 to 88 period coincided almost exactly with the policy transformation of what has become the artist-run context. It’s the transition from the alternative space to the artist-run initiative within a small body of contemporary art spaces is the policy framework that was developed by the Australia Council between 1983 and 1988.
And in fact the structure of the show and the galleries that it dealt with was based pretty much on the account of the scene provided by artist Virginia Barrett in a piece written for the Artworkers Alliance newsletter in advance of a forum called the Politics of Space which was at QCA in 1988 which I chaired, and which in a sense mapped out the preceding period of time and was written at a point in1988 when there were no artist-run spaces within that kind of framework operating within Brisbane. John Mills had just shut. That Space had just shut. There was a sense that Brisbane’s artist-run spaces then was in the doldrums.
What’s interesting is that many of the people who were involved in those spaces were kind of had either just left or were prepping to leave. Virginia included. So we were getting a moment when, at a Federal level you got a new policy framework around artist-run spaces and Brisbane didn’t have any, which is kind of ironic. But that’s the structure. So, the spaces that I focused on, One Flat, A Room, That Space, The Observatory and John Mills National were all the ones that were referred to in that piece by Virginia.
I was really using that as the kind of structuring device and that 82 to 88 period as a structuring device for exactly those reasons and you know, things like the Recomb House studios kind of come into it as well so there’s a whole lot of things that kind of come into it. But it was about being tightly constrained by how much you could present and by concentrating it in a way it made it possible to do a count of the local environment, an account of a kind of policy change, an account of an international direction of artists-initiated activism that’s both spaces based but also organizationally based and institutionally based. It’s like artists setting up their own institutions if you like, but activist institutions and thinking about what that means compared to now as well because the looseness of a lot of the spaces then compared to now is I think a really kind of interesting thing to look at.
Paul : Yeah, let’s jump cut a bit. You just reminded me, speaking about this now, an artist in Brisbane said to me recently and quite emphatically while speaking about local and current artist-run culture that they were much more interested in alternative artist-runs and I sort of was quite astonished by that term, that idea that an artist-run would be, you know it had to be called an alternative artist-run as opposed to an artist-run.
But the artist that mentioned this to me, who I have a great deal of respect for, I thought it was a real interesting idea and I thought it sort of tells a bit of a story about then and now and what’s in between. I feel that artist-runs are experimental, radical in a range of ways and still provide degrees of institutional critique, but the lens of artist-runs is being updated, becoming more precise perhaps…
Peter : Well I think back in the 90’s there was a period towards the end of the 90’s when I was, because I’d been looking at the field, the artist-run and the field of the art world if you like, the whole structure. I’d been looking at the field and thinking about the art field for a long time and it seemed to me at the end of the 90’s that the term artist-run space was starting to shift and if you used the ARS abbreviation what you were getting was a split and it wasn’t artist-run space but artists rent space or artist rental space or art rental space was becoming a kind of dominant and people were very, very, very confused between whether the artist-run space model that was functioning was simply a rental space or whether it was something else and I think perhaps what is referred now as alternative artist-run initiatives maybe a product of this kind of tension between an institutional structure that’s driven in part by city, state and federal funding models of what an ARI is and the need that’s developed for artist-run initiatives to have formal structures to obtain funding and to be long lived.
That is to say if you’re going to survive for ten years it’s very difficult to do so as an ad hoc collective. Then what you’re dealing with as an ad hoc collective or a collective which is the collective is the thing that survives, not the space and there’s a tendency to see these things in a kind of slightly different way and I think there’s kind of a difference between a collective that is not tied to a space, non exhibition kind of thing, it’s a practice collective in a way and that might be different, or partnerships.
A whole lot of things like that, models that you could use but I think the artist-run initiative has become much more formalized.
Going back to your kind of reference to me earlier on to the kind of way the Victorian Tourism site was actually presenting the Melbourne artist-run initiatives as a sort of series of destinations, you know as part of their kind of infrastructure and if you want to find out where, I think the term was something like the elite artists or whatever are going to be functioning you could look at these artist-run spaces. But it’s like a real misunderstanding of what the origins of the field were or that part of the field was, so alternative ARI’s is really like someone saying well alternative spaces.
And it’s a kind of interesting thing that now the ARI has become such a sort of standardized component of the visual art infrastructure that it’s slotted in, as I said before, to the small to medium sector, that’s just a kind of thing and within it there might be alternatives.
You know, there’s standard ARI’s and alternative ARI’s and that’s a kind of fascinating thing. Alternatives to what. And maybe some of those alternative ARI’s are actually hybrid ARI’s that are actually partly commercial. And we’re seeing that sort of thing happening more as well, where, you know, the model that’s being used is more aligned with the commercial gallery model than it is with the, you know, the funded institution model like in the contemporary art space model if you like, or the artist-run model.
And I mean it’s fascinating that within that small to medium sector report ACCA for example is classified outside the small to medium sector and it’s partly to do I think with its budget and number of staff or something like that, that might be it. But it’s also to do with the fact that it presents itself as a separate kind of thing from the CAOS Network. It’s not part of the CAOS Network, it was but it’s not anymore and it sees itself as Australia’s only kunst Halle at least it did for a period of time, that was how it modeled itself.
And when you look at all the different kind of infrastructural elements where the ARI sits is kind of very, very complex and I think it’s really only possible to really make sense of it all if you actually do almost like a total field mapping, if you like, looking at all the different things that go on from, you know, rental galleries, local government galleries, community gallery facilities where to some extent the gallery space is owned by a local government but it has a space in which local community people can rent. So it’s a rental gallery owned by local government. A rental gallery owned by some kind of private entity.
You’ve got, you know, access galleries attached to university galleries. So the structure is really kind of messy if you like but if you look at it historically you can actually see how it’s kind of changed and reemerged over a period of time and if you go back to what was the simple division between you know that was made in the 80’s between contemporary art spaces and alternative and artist-run spaces from the alternative spaces sector and start teasing it out some of it starts to make more sense.
Paul : It’s interesting. From my point of view, I mean one of the perspectives that I bring to the equation is that I still am astonished at how many people turn up en masse in a celebratory way at the opening nights at artist-runs. That’s not changed. An Australia Council term at the moment is public activation, artist-runs are publicly activated, public activation sites, you know, they’re a key place of public activation.
I mean we know that from past experience that, you know ARI’s are, they’re incredibly entangled, they’re friendship networks, they’re kinship networks, they’re cultural and social and activist networks, artist self-publishing places and so on, they’re you know networks for all sorts of levels of cultural and intellectual or social stuff and lots of people go along and enjoy them, perhaps more than some of the CAOS Galleries and you know where there is a little bit more sense of cultural elitism, privilege and entitlement, even snootiness and snobbery perhaps.
Whereas I think the artist-run, one of the continuities perhaps is that it’s still, that informal collective fun, political and playful space, its good humored, ongoing aspects I sense and experience that makes it so engaging and less formal or inaccessible to other types of spaces.
The APT is an essential element of a cultural shift in Queensland, and artist-runs have played, continue to play an important decolonizing role for artists who self-identify as queer, LGBTQI and BIPOC in the area. Artists like Lindy Lee, Hiram To, Jose Macalino and his family and Gordon Bennett at That Space are a few examples of BIPOC artists working with, inside and/or alongside artist-run activity. Maria Cruz, Felicia Khan and Robert Nery at First Draft and in collab with Steven Alderton from Space Plenitude and Hiram To in Brisbane and others at the IMA is another, the APT protest and counter-exhibition curated by Hiram To, 1993 at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane and Umbrella Studios an artist-run in Townsville…
Peter : What I think is really interesting is that in the broad pattern of accounts of curatorial history one of the things that’s really fundamental that starts to happen in the 1990’s which is different is an argument that there’s a globalization of the art world, that the global centres that have dominated things have ceased to be quite so significant and what starts to happen is you get art moving in a kind of global way and it’s the Biennale, it’s the rise of the Biennale that becomes really important.
And I think if you were to go and look at the 1990’s one thing that would be really interesting to do if you were looking particularly in the Brisbane context would be to actually try and contrast the role of something like the Asian Pacific Triennial and the way that reconstructed the position of Brisbane in the national art environment with what was going on in the artist-run context.
I don’t think that the relationship between the local art environment and what was going on in the Queensland Art Gallery was always that comfortable and I think what’s really interesting with the Biennale question is that the Biennale becomes the thing you go to look at and the place where the Biennale happens is not really that important because you never really look at what’s going on when the Biennale is not on. So, the thing that was interesting for me about the Asian Pacific Triennial when it started was that it was the first time I was seeing large numbers of people from interstate coming up to Brisbane and in a sense saying, oh something really important’s happening in Brisbane.
When I moved down to Victoria from Brisbane in the early 2000’s there were people down here who were planning to move to Brisbane but a lot of the time they were talking about was what had been happening in terms of the kind of repositioning of Brisbane via the APT and so the institution itself, the Queensland Art Gallery had actually changed its position in the hierarchy of state galleries as much as anything but I don’t think people were quite as aware of what had been going on in the artist-run context. There were probably better networks and some of those better networks were partly the result of the kind of communication tools that were around now so that people can see what’s going on by looking at websites and so on. As you start to move into the 2000’s that becomes very, very clear.
But I always thought there was a real mismatch between the APT and what went on on the ground and your reference to a range of people working in those kinds of contexts is really important. I mean the IMA, I think it was Hiram and Nick Tsoutas who actually curated Here Not There, which was a really significant show which made a kind of counter argument to the APT which was to say there are artists who you would see as Asian or Asian Australians, People of Colour who are working and living here and we are not in this APT event. So, it was this, you know the way that kind of dialogue moved.
But what’s also interesting I think in the beginning of the 90’s which produces a very dramatic shift is the position of indigenous, First Nations Australian art within this mix and I mean both the repositioning of what you might see as traditionally inflicted, that is the stuff that kind of seems to have its origins in traditional culture and the transformation of traditional culture through the rise of the western desert school and all of those kinds of things. But also what was happening in relation to an urban indigenous practice. Those things actually change in the 90’s.
So, what’s fascinating and what was really interesting to recognize in looking back at the 80’s and the artist-run spaces was there was actually very little explicit indigenous presence in those contexts. Very, very little. And I think if you take an artist like Gordon Bennett who becomes very significant and ends up like providing the kind of book ending image on the two cover images of the reprint of you know the Bernard Smith, Terry Smith book on Australian art that came out at the end of the 80’s, Gordon’s work ends up on the back of that and Gordon’s works emergence in around 88, you know, really changes the dynamics around things there.
What you also get post the 88 thing and this is one of the things that was included as a piece of ephemeral was the call out in 1988 like under the signatures of both Lin Onus and Michael Ether so it’s Michael and Lin in 1988 put out a kind of flyer trying to put together a show that eventually morphed into what became Balance 1990 which was curated by a much more kind of inclusive kind of process that would have been the norm, a kind of crazy process than would have been the norm for Queensland Art Gallery and one of the things that’s really interesting is that Balance 1990 sits as a show that brought together indigenous artists and non-indigenous artists in a kind of dialogue but also indigenous artists in dialogue with other indigenous artists. It really kind of tried to get a layering of what was going on there in a really kind of fascinating way.
What’s interesting is that in the context of the international environment one of the shows that’s also aligning with the Biennale kind of process that actually is seen to be kind of internationalizing the artwork of culturally diverse artists which happened in France which brought together artists of all sorts of kind of cultural, from all sorts of cultural origins in the one show and that’s seen as kind of really seminal. The thing that’s interesting is that is not an influence for balance because they happen at the same time, they’re going on at the same time. But within the Australian context we’ve actually got this kind of uncertain mismatch between different culture conditions in the contemporary art context that’s being resolved or brought into a new kind of alignment towards the end of the 80’s.
So let’s say for example in 88 you have kind of forums on the appropriation in indigenous imagery so there’s a big dialogue between, around kind of cultural appropriateness, who should say what, what the dialogue should be, who speaks, how do they speak, people like Gordon Bennett are actually trying to negotiate their kind of dual position within in the politics of colonization, indigeneity and all of that sort of stuff is going on and I think that’s one of the things that really transforms the 90’s because it’s, you know, things like Fireworks, The Campfire Group and leading onto things like ProppaNow, they’re kind of what come out of that and I think if you look at the Brisbane scene say in comparison to say the Melbourne scene for example the presence of indigenous art in the Brisbane environment at the artist-run level, at the contemporary art space level, at the state gallery level, there’s much more of a dialogue there than you would imagine.
And if you go back even earlier and just look at in a sense how much of that kind of indigenous representation was excluded, you think about if people in punk bands felt they were getting a raw deal, they weren’t getting anywhere near of a raw deal as the kind of like, you know, indigenous population in Brisbane at the time.
And those are the kind of politics that kind of change as well once you come into the 1990’s. Maybe part of that’s to do with the fact that there was a change in government and there was a shift, so you get a kind of, the election of the Goss government and all of the kind of outcomes with that. When you look at art stuff sometimes you kind of pin these things down. I mean I know for example, thinking back recently watching a kind of Four Corners looking back at the Moonlight State in the Four Corners program on its viewing of Queensland. I know which week that happened. It happened at the beginning of the week before the launch of the first issue of Eyeline in 1987.
The Four Corners program ran on the Monday. The announcement of the Fitzgerald Enquiry and the Eyeline Art Magazine launch at the School of Arts in Ann Street, Brisbane. So there was this real sense that something had given, there was a new thing, in fact and the ongoingness of Eyeline is actually, like runs parallel with this beginning of the unpicking of all the things that had gone before it. So really lovely synergy. It’s like I know what I was doing in December 1989 when the Goss government got elected. I was working behind the bar at the second Livid Festival.
Again, it’s this kind of another environment. If you were going to be anywhere in Brisbane you might as well be there so the coincidence of cultural stuff and art stuff is kind of really kind of parallel. In fact when I look at my whole life it’s a bit like that. On my 17th birthday I skipped school and went to see Gough Whitlam speak in King George Square three days after the dismissal in November 75. And you just look at these kinds of moments of conjunction between what you do and one sense of the kind of cultural environment that you’re living in and the kind of political things and they stitch together unbelievably.
For me it’s been really fascinating to have the opportunity to do all of that reflection around Ephemeral Traces. Really fascinating.
I had to do my own kind of timeline, a personal timeline as well so I knew what I was doing when and what I saw and what I’ve researched as well because this is the other thing that’s really complex in doing a show like that, you actually have to negotiate a position, not only negotiate a position between the institution, the art museum and the once oppositional field that you’re presenting in the show, so the artist-run, anti-institutional kind of environment from 30 years earlier you’re trying to in a sense represent in a museum context which had all sorts of problems.
You’re also trying to negotiate your position with all your peers from that period of time as well. So it became really important to be both a participant but also kind of somehow, I wouldn’t say objective but where you have to actually disentangle your own practice if you like as you presented the practice of others. It wasn’t about telling my story, I mean making those kind of comments I just did about where I was and doing things. There could be things you could do in a kind of memoirish kind of catalogue essay but I didn’t do that.
So, for example, if I contrast a catalogue essay I ended up writing and a catalogue essay written by Ross Gibson in the earlier UQ art show on, you know the Return to Sender show which Ephemeral Traces bounced off and against, at one point I mean Ross’ piece is all about having been in Brisbane and being part of that group of people who left and Return to Sender was all about a bunch of artists who had left. My show, the show I curated was much more about the bunch of artists who stayed at least for a time and tried to build something and saw building something in that place as the thing to do rather than making an immediate move away.
And my decision to go back to Brisbane, to stay in Brisbane was always driven by part of, there were circumstances that kind of brought you back but the decision to stay and do things was also there, that one would not leave.
I mean you know you think back now, I think back now historically, it’s about 1975 I think that David Malouf publishes his work, Johnno and I recall reading it, it was kind of really fascinating. The things that you might write if you were writing a catalogue essay. There’s a moment in Johnno where one of the characters describes Brisbane as a place where poetry could never exist. And having read that, for someone who at the time was setting out to write poetry, first of all you knew that Malouf already knew that was bullshit because he’d actually published books of poetry and was writing poetry, and was colleagues with people who were writing poetry and subsequently you kind of work it out that, you know, that there are lots of poets who had been around for a long period of time and claiming it’s a city where poetry could not exist was just nonsense.
But it always had that sense of it, you know.
It’s a place where Judith Wright was writing poetry for example, in fact the bizarre thing as I discovered doing my research was that the house that Judith Wright lived in during, when she moved to Brisbane in the 40’s, in Sydney Street in New Farm was the house that was the share house that a large number of people involved in One Flat and Belltower actually lived in in the mid-1980s, so that whole group of people who had the vast studio above where the IMA is which is now called the Judith Wright Centre, that is one of those really early kind of moments of the use of that building which was then called the Empire Office Furniture building as a kind of art space.
They also happened to lived in a share house which had previously been occupied by poet Judith Wright. But the thing that’s really fascinating is that we don’t have a kind of blue plaque kind of sense of history in Brisbane, so I didn’t know that at the time.
Paul : Yes, Malouf, and one flat, in its earliest iteration was located in Edmondson Street and
Peter : Yeah, a bit further down
Paul : What was the number of Malouf’s
Peter : 12 Edmondson Street. So, you’ve got that but the other thing that was even more bizarre was the reference to Red comb House in Johnno. In fact it’s the sign on the wall of Redcomb House which the main character when he comes back to Brisbane after being away for a long time is talking about how you turn a corner and you see something familiar and one of the things he sees that’s familiar is the sign on Redcomb House and the assertion is that it throws you back, having been away overseas and thought you’d become part of a bigger wider world but coming back to Brisbane and seeing those familiar things throws you back into the kind of, it’s almost like it infantalises you.
Brisbane infantilizes you. It’s a place where if you were going to stay in Brisbane you wouldn’t grow up, you’d just grow old is the kind of comment he makes. You can’t become encultured. You can’t have that big world. Brisbane is not a place for that. That’s partly what the whole Johnno kind of argument is about and why what’s interesting is that he had to go away to actually write it as a reflective piece.
But it was fascinating doing the research for Ephemeral Traces and actually going back and picking Johnno up again and reading it and kind of going oh, here’s this reference, here’s that reference. So from my point of view having read it probably not in 1975 but in the 70’s and having read Malouf’s poetry when I was in high school and also various people who were part of that scene, UQP Paperback Poets for example and they were one of the biggest poetry publishers in the country, the University of Queensland Press and my early poetry career was linked up with Makar Press at UQ, which also published massive numbers of first poetry collections and my bizarrely titled volume of poetry that came out in 1979.
I was living in Tasmania and ‘Pretending to be Salvador Dali’ as the title with a kind of art reference there in the slim volume of work. Which is completely misplaced in retrospect, it was all about, the idea that you could have poetry in Brisbane almost seemed to be, the place itself seemed to want to deny, deny this as a possibility so the mere writing of poetry or making of art seemed to be a sort of affront to the place. It’s almost like it was a radical gesture to actually make art there, full stop. I think that was kind of really, really fundamental to the sort of sense and understanding that drove a lot of people in that artist-run scene, that also linked back into the kind of music scene, so many radical gestures happening all at once.
Paul : And the Barjai and Miya Studio artist cooperatives, I mean Laurence Collinson, you know, jump cutting to the 1940s was a gay poet who went to Brisbane State High who started a poetry publication who ended up in 1950 becoming, founding I have since forgotten, the gay law reform society in London in 1952 or thereabouts. Basically, another example of a wave of people, artists who actually left Brisbane and who were dealing with similar types of local issues and countered responses to cultural elitism that prevailed Peter.
He was part of a group of people who left Brisbane because of similar things and maybe Brisbane changed with the influx of US soldiers and increased cultural knowledge as a result of this social shifty as several commentators have suggested. It was a different climate but it was certainly the similar idea that if you were an artist and you wore a Hawaiian shirt and or coloured socks if you were gay, and to let others like you know you were gay and if you were interested in poetry and art and forming and running groups or cooperatives, we you didn’t stick around. So, you know.
The other thing iI wonder about is the Brisbane line narrative, I mean talking to my dad last year about the Brisbane line, that’s a really interesting part of the collective cultural memory around society during the war years about the Brisbane line. Basically, follow the Brisbane line. Anything above the Brisbane line you were going to forget about, it wasn’t worth thinking about. And so that Brisbane line actually had an impact on either side of the Brisbane line, and I think that’s also a part of the cultural memory and indeed cultural amnesia. Certainly, it’s almost outside of or beyond living memory now this stuff.
What we might do is we’ll pick up on part two later in the year, Brisbane Fluxus, Instruction-based art, poetry and post object, mail art, Arte Povera, or “recession art” etc. when we do this one because we’ll edit it Peter. And more about the ET timeline…
Peter : You’re going to have to because it’s gone on and on
Paul : It’s an important conversation and reflection a year after ET. And I’d like to chat more about the 1990’s stuff in more detail, but I also wanted to say to you, that I think those sorts of more philosophical things you’ve touched on, ideological/philosophical are really useful. I wanted to unpack others things we have spoke about on the phone and coffee etc, you know Gordon Bennett in one of his first shows, at That Space, he was in a QCA graduates group show and the Fireworks group, rather The Campfire Room was in a space That Annexe as the 210 Wickham Street iteration was known shared with Bell tower and Michael Eather. Malcolm Enright had suggested to Michael Ether to get out of, to get his stuff from the relative isolation of having his studio in the Teneriffe wool stores where he was doing private little salon type things in that space, and thanks to Bell tower 210 Wickham Street opened up as an art space, I remember sanding all those woodne floors and painting with Tim Gruchy, Fleur MacDonald, Margaux and others, and Michael’s show there was huge and well received and all his ongoing work with Managrida artists was a major talking point. That Annex, I found the insurance policy and public liability form just recently. From memory the work in the ET show by Michael, was shown both at The Campfire Room and at That Space in a group exhibition, maybe the second birthday exhibition we stage.
Peter : That was the campfire stuff. But then what actually happened, this is where the 1990’s is interesting, is that Fireworks itself as a gallery, as a physical gallery space actually built on, took over Space Plenitude which actually was already in the space that Michael Millburn had had. So it had been a space which had been occupied by a commercial gallery, then occupied by an artist-run which was run by Stephen Alderson and then Stephen took up a position I think with working at the IMA and then he moved on and began running the Bundaberg Regional Gallery, but in the immediate aftermath there was a show that was organized that Michael and I think Michael and Marshall Bell were involved in kind of setting up and at the point that the new kind of configurations for, you know, Plenitude post Stephen early 90’s it just kind of started to collapse and Michael just took it on and so Fireworks kind of came out of that and grew from that. So, it grew into something else but it actually had its origin in the Campfire stuff.
What was interesting to me was to actually see that there’s actually, that Michael’s work, the one work of Michael’s that was in Ephemeral Traces is a work that has actually got the campfire as a central kind of motif in it and it actually links to those things. I see them as really important so that in some ways those kinds of developments come out of the kind of sense of possibility that emerged around that artist-run and what Campfire did as a kind of group in the APT context and other things, you know the kind of in and out of and the kind of Balance 1990 stuff, that’s the really huge set of changes and they kind of connect to the artist-run and they kind of sit outside of it I think.
Towards the end of the 90’s and into the 2000’s you see art policy shifts happening across the board generally speaking with the state government changing. I remember once going to the launch of a policy for kind of contemporary music. It was a contemporary music policy and I think Matt Foley was launching it somewhere along the lines. At that time I was working mainly as an arts journalist so I went along to a lot of these things. I do remember quipping something along the following, congratulations, good to see a policy like this getting up. It’s great to see contemporary music, contemporary rock music and so on actually being supported by the government rather than, by the arts department effectively, rather than having music policy delivered by the Queensland Police Service. Of which I got a wry laugh.
Because essentially this is the difference between that period in the 90’s once you actually had changed when there was a review of cultural policy in Queensland through, a major review and a major restructuring of what Arts Queensland could do or the arts department could do, the development of a kind of stream of funding programs including individual artist programs, funding of organisations, developing, you know regional arts development, policy, a whole bunch of stuff that began in the 1990’s and kind or ran on from there to the point where, you know, many of the artist-runs in the mid 2000’s during that period where there was supposedly a kind of ARI bubble were actually funded. They’d got state government funding and this is really interesting. And that was just, like you wouldn’t have expected that in anything other than a kind of very small maybe state government grant here and there but done through a kind of weird process that wasn’t kind of a full grant process earlier on.
You know, how you got funding was much more complex than how you had an interaction with the arts department was much more complex. It wasn’t as tidy a structure. And in some senses people working in the cultural sector of government often had a kind of weird barrier between the politics going on and what the cultural affairs department might do. And that goes way back into the 70’s. So the foundation for the IMA are like that. If you look at how the IMA got support from the state government, it actually is through the department, not through the politician. So, it’s this guy called, I think it’s Arthur Clearly was the first appointee to a kind of cultural bureaucratic position in Queensland state government who was the real supporter of the IMA at that point in time.
It is actually, it’s the bureaucrats in the public sector and the arts world that are actually in dialogue, not necessarily the politicians and it’s almost like things get funded despite what the politicians’ viewpoints may be. So long as you don’t draw too much attention to what you’re doing that’s going to pose a problem for a politician then they just kind of let it keep on going. And there were moments when that sort of thing has seemed to happen.
But in terms of say the music scene and stuff, it was very different to that. It was like, you know, this is, the music scene actually presents music and youth activity as a kind of problem, a visible problem. As soon as you get a kind of, an identify, like a punk look, then people become targetable and you move people on and you shut things down and so on. Whereas the art world seemed to kind of move around that a little more carefully and certainly by the 80’s there was more of a canny way of managing what you could and couldn’t do in public.
I think it might have even been you that mentioned at some point that someone had said, well you know, if you want to do something do it, don’t ask because the probability is you’ll be told no. And if someone comes along and tells you to stop doing it just go, I didn’t know I couldn’t do this, and, you know, so it’s really about just do it because if you ask permission you’ll get rejected. And that sort of comes back to the kind of, the ongoing struggle of the rights of street marchers. If you apply for a street march permit it will be rejected. If, on the other hand, you simply do something it will happen.
Paul : Well that’s the thing, the artist-run experience for me is that, you know, and is still, this culture of dissent thing, contestation, it’s that you don’t ask, we’re from a time where it was very much a cultural, in Queensland that is, very much a cultural permission thing. The cultural permission still exists, you know, that it’s very much about that type of cultural privilege and entitlement. There is privilege, there is entitlement and we’re hearing these words bandied about on a political front a lot, you know the end of the age of entitlement is coming from the neo-liberals, funnily enough as you know.
You just reminded me of two things I want to pick up on and we’ll wrap this up. I guess, and I wasn’t very clear with you because I was just curious to see what you might offer and this is the way, when I do general questions I sort of just like to see where it goes, cause editing can happen, and I was curious what you were talking about with the 1990’s just now but one of the things I’m particularly curious about, there’s not just all the artist-run spaces and how they did things and the funding and the artists and all of that stuff. During the 1990s I made trips Brisbane to see my Dad, queer friends and I saw what Joseph did, at Boulder Lodge Concepts, Galerie Brutal with Rebekah and David, and then ISN’T with Christine Ploetz, Rod Bunter and many others, Space Plenitude and went to Tranceplant by Omniscient , loved it, that was a high point in artist-run activity in the 1990s in the same way that Jeanelle’s City as A Work of art was a highpoint in the 1980s.
The theatricality of tranceplant, and the queerness, the strangeness, well It was one of my most vivid memories of artist-run in Brisbane. Went to that one down in the Valley where you went up the stairs with Renai Grace, jeepers I can never remember the name of, up those long stairs down in Newstead House, can’t think of the name, it’s escaped me. One thing I did want to, need to ask ask you about was how you feel the QAA shifted and grew from your perspective. So can you hold that thought. For both of us there’s a sense that we’ve done a whole lot of stuff and I think the thing is, what was really interesting in terms of imagining the archive, imagine the exhibition, Ephemeral Traces exhibition, from your point of view was, we’ve never really actually collectively made sense of it all, we tried a bit last year at the AAANZ conference in Canberra.
Peter : No, no, no. It made a huge difference. One of the things that I was really disappointed in not being able to do, well two really big things. One was actually having the capacity to pull a full publication together out of Ephemeral Traces, that might happen at some point in the future. I think that was a real part of a problem of the fact that making sense of it overall was something that only happened with it.
And the other thing I was kind of a bit disappointed by was the way that I was able to use the UQAM archive in a more kind of raw state. I would have, and that’s really to do with exhibition design and me having more time to have really concentrated on that. Part of that I think was partly a problem of the museum sense of security of things and one of the problems you’ll recall, we included a ring binder with all the newsletters from That Space in the show and we had other bits like that but one of the problems of including all of the newsletters from That Space was the concern that if we included the originals that was a bit kind of, not exactly, a bit risky.
And then there was the problem that if we included all of the newsletters in some sort of duplicate we would actually have to get, there would be a problem because we would be copying them and that might present a copyright issue. So the museum itself is dealing with a kind of, it’s a, it often functions through risk management and a lot of things were like that. So at one point I had actually contemplated introducing into the show something like a kind of reading library. I wanted to use the alcove, which is the alcove where the website, the ARI Remix website art work ended up.
And, I was hoping to have built that more coherently as a kind of research space. If I were to do it again I would go down that route much, much more tightly.
For example, I would build a room inside that alcove, something which marked out a space a bit more carefully. I would make it less like a, because it ended up like being a couple of sort of bits of gallery lounge furniture and a low table. I would actually make it much more studious. I would have been more interested within that context to include not just a reading list but a set of publications.
At one point I actually suggested in the development of the thing that one way of dealing with this was to simply empty my own research library of books, that is the stuff that’s up there in the bookcase behind you, both the American stuff and the Australian stuff that I’ve got that links to artist-run spaces, and simply put a bookcase up there, a couple of shelves with those publications on them.
People could actually physically see that there’s a literature and here’s some of the American literature on alternative spaces in New York and so on. And that’s the kind of big chunky volumes.
And then the more, the bits of historical and related interview-based stuff that had been produced in Australia sort of spreading from, you know, kind of the Making Space publication by Din Heagney, the kind of books of interviews that had been put together, bits of stuff by West Space, the tiny volume that was put together as a history of, First Draft for example which is rare as hens’ teeth apparently.
All of that kind of stuff. What’s interesting is a lot of the kind of archival material has now moved from my, some of it from my archives but through gathering together of other things onto the library space on the All Conference website. So the All Conference website has an online digital library of archive material that runs to about 90 to 100 items now which presents online scanned elements for example of the Australia Council Artist-run Spaces report, essays that are buried back in ancient issues of Art Monthly from the 80’s, stuff from West Space, stuff from, like right the way through to some stuff from overseas so there are links and things to the 1978 conference on alternative space that happened in LA which are really interesting and which I only came across after I’d done all the work on Ephemeral Traces in the artist book collection of Robert Jacks.
It was like, you know, newsprint style set of papers from the conference and then I did some more research around that and there’s other things that have turned up. The kind of ongoing process of researching the field is what’s really complex and how you then present the archive material in public spaces is what becomes fascinating.
And the ring binder with all of That Space newsletters I think was really important. Some of the other material like that from some of the other spaces, like all the A Room flyers, I didn’t want to go beyond that. You don’t kind of need to have the kind of minutes of meetings and everything like that. You don’t need to go that way. You need to have some of the kind of ephemeral material. A lot of the material on the timeline, certainly the stuff that was in ring binder sleeves, when I put them up in ring binder sleeves they looked like they’d been emptied out of a ring binder which was where the stuff was being held. That’s just stuff out of my file.
Part of the assumption by some of the people who looked at the show and at least one who wrote about the show at one point was that that material had been borrowed from the State Library collection.
But the logistics of borrowing individual pieces of archival material from the State Library is phenomenal. You need a twelve month lead time and you need to know exactly what you want and it’s a really interesting kind of problem how you present that kind of ephemeral material. The archives and the archival resources that were there on a screen based material in the show is similar.
Pulling together the visual documentation of some of the spaces was just, it’s the amount of time that went into that. I mean the idea that I could have had that material together and organized it for a catalogue, the actual screen material which was really just going through and scanning old slides and stuff and putting together a slide show. I mean that arrived after the kind of, well pretty much just at the very last minute in terms of the people who were running the spaces who put those things together.
If you like, the capacity of the spaces and the people who still held material from the spaces to pull that into this context was just not there. In other words it would have needed another layer of funding and research to actually pull all of that together.
Paul : Precarity. We’re talking about precarity of the activist curator. Independent curators, artist-runs, the whole damned thing…. (laughter)
Peter : Well, as you know, I was really lucky to pick up things like the funding through the State Library of Queensland to actually kind of do research work in the State Library and along the way to pick up other bits of resourcing but in the main the resources for the show were, that were additional applications made for extra funding from the Australia Council which weren’t successful and so on and if they had have been maybe things like the catalogue would have been more of a kind of viable proposition.
But it’s also just, one of the other things for me is just the sense of what, and this is what happens when you start going into kind of publishing context. I mean you know this with the Remix work. But if you go into a hard copy publishing context you actually end up with physical things which I do think changed the way people see things, even now. A website is one thing but a hard publication is another and the way a hard publication can circulate is different too. It’s almost like it’s still something that gives a stamp of solidity to something which is ephemeral.
Paul : Particularly if it’s heavy and large in scale, like A3, a weighty tome etc..
Peter : Yeah, particularly if its heavy and the market for something like that is also what was kind of puzzling in a way and even if we’d produced a catalogue with the show it would have been a couple of hundred and my sense is that what’s needed is a kind of like wider distribution. But to go back to the kind of idea of working with the archives, what would have been really interesting to do within that and for the duration of the show like Ephemeral Traces was to build a public program into it which is actually positioned as ongoing research. So what you actually do with the show and the archive is bring the archive into the space, into the museum space and then for the duration of the show have an ongoing engagement with the archive which means what you need is the resources to commission people to work with the archive so that by the time you get to the end of the show what you’ve actually got is, for example, new researchers who weren’t in the space at the time who have spent time with elements of the archive to actually produce new work based in and around the show and archive.
So that what you would get is a kind of forum of people who were there at the beginning as a sort of presentation that comes with the opening of the show and then a series of kind of like reading group workshop kind of things, and maybe you’d work with art history students or something like that and the logistics of doing it were just beyond me given the other things I’ve done. And so, by the time you get to the end of the show a whole bunch of people have actually done, ones who weren’t there, have done new research with the archive and with the art work and then you present secondary things. So it becomes a kind of research tool and a dialogic tool.
Paul : And you’ve just reminded me that’s exactly what an artist like Julie Ault’s from Group Material in NYC has done by way of example, where she’s written all this stuff about Group Material. There was a bunch of ephemera. Reflected on this stuff and remembering stuff as well and thought she’d remembered remembered memories and then there was all this other stuff that was actually not in memory that was actually, you know remember differently or was not true or a little akilter. And so she’s written about all of that stuff and it’s the same thing again. So when you’re talking about an archive that’s basically still within living memory but in this instance something that we all did 30 years ago when we were all in our 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and some of us were in our 50’s and you’re doing it 30 years down the track it’s like the archive, in terms of this question of precarity is where I’m going, it’s like, you know, so yes what matters is that the artists archive the archive art is something that you basically organize around and in an intricate way down the track it’s important.
From an activist point of view that you allow that stuff to be remembered or forgotten if someone chooses to do so, but in doing that actually involves all of these complex problems and challenges along the way. Something we have spoken about is how people write themselves out of history. And so where I’m going with this, you know, you might talk about how it’s challenging for you that you haven’t come up with a catalogue but that might happen down the track. I mean one of the blessings of perhaps doing a catalogue down the track, lots of exhibitions had catalogues produced after the exhibitions closed. There’s lots of those examples….
Peter : The thing that’s really is that Alternative Art New York, the Julie Ault publication which you’re partly referring to, is actually a book published by, you know, the University Administrative Press which is an academic publishing house in the States, but it is preceded by a show. I think as well the Group Material publication which actually was produced, and Group Material is one collective of one point and it’s produced in a sense after the fact, after a show. In addition to that there’s the book which was produced by mainly edited by Max Schuman, a printer, a director of printed matter which is actually a book on Colab which does a similar kind of thing so it’s like, you know, you make a show and then post the show you actually start pulling this together.
I think for me it’s almost like that whole block of work dealt with in Ephemeral Traces is so complex, it’s like there’s too much there and I actually work out whether what the next thing I might do is take off the kind of semi-objective curators’ hat where you kind of try to manage everything and not take that route at all.
Whether the more intelligent move for me is to do what I didn’t do in the catalogue is actually place myself absolutely in the middle of everything so that the better way to provide an account of this period and the kind of context and the timeline and everything else is to use a different mode of work, a different mode of writing even.
One which is more perhaps run through with a more directly kind of person kind of over layer in part well one does, it’s not like about writing one’s biography but it’s about writing about this material but through a grid which allows the work I’ve been doing on it over this long period of time to actually have its layers revealed.
So, it’s really about how one deals with one’s own archives as well as the archives of others and what that might mean. What it means to take on, and this is the really interesting thing that I haven’t probably spent much time talking about to anybody, I mean I’ve probably spent more time talking to you about it than anybody, and that is what does it mean to me to have taken on the role as the driver of a project like this. I mean I don’t see myself as a central figure. I certainly wasn’t a central driver of any of those artist-run spaces so it’s not like I’m doing that. Nor was I a central artist figure, so I don’t have an art practice that has that kind of shape. So it’s not like I’m trying to go, oh look, here’s my art that you overlooked, because there isn’t any.
The bits of artwork that I’ve got floating around are kind of like totally fragmentary and there are little bits and pieces here and there and I can find projects that I’ve done and I think they’re kind of interesting and in retrospect I’ve pulled them back out again. But it’s not like I’m trying to do that and it’s not like I have an institutional position that I was to shore up. I’ve never had a job in an art institution. I’ve always been outside of, I mean when I say an art institution, I’ve never actually had a job in even a kind of, you know, one of those jobs where you work in an artist-run these days. You know I haven’t had one of those kind of jobs. I’ve never worked for the Queensland Artworkers Alliance
Paul : You ran a bar at That Space back in the 80’s….
Peter : I never had that kind of a, I mean I’ve stood behind a bar and collected money for other people’s drinks but that’s the thing. But it’s almost like saying, when you use the term precarious, my institutional position in relation to all of this was precarious. My capacity to actually come up with a way of coordinating a kind of collective process and the work that you do with setting up the Facebook is really important to actually facilitate that, but to actually be, take on the role of being the kind of, the buffer between what had been the scene 30 years ago and the institution and be that kind of go between between those two things was actually what I think was actually really the achievement of the project. To actually get it up and have it happen.
I mean one of the things I’ve said before is like you get to a certain point and you say well no one’s actually deal with this and if I don’t do it maybe no one’s going to do it. Who else is there that’s going to do it. And that for me was kind of one of the things and I think what’s interesting is by making the decision to begin the process I think other things have happened. I don’t know, I mean correct me if I’m wrong, I don’t know if you’d have gone down the Remix route that you’ve gone down without this project as a sort of dialogic thing.
So in some senses it’s been a catalyst for other activity and I think the way we’ve both been working on this is really interesting.
It’s like, the reason for getting the Facebook group together and the way that changed your way of working within the field and your way of working within the show has actually been really interesting because when we first had dialogue you’ll remember you were talking about using some of your documentary film making background to actually make something like a documentary.
Paul :A feature length documentary
Peter : Yeah, a feature length documentary that you might be able to flog off to SBS or one of those ABC arts programs that appear at times when you’re too tired to watch them and you have to do them on Ivy maybe and everyone forgets to do it on iView, I’m only joking. But once the kind of Facebook think started to move then the logic of doing things online became more obvious and the whole process around people actually reflecting on their practice actually changed. So, I think a lot of people who were involved at that time have probably as a result of the exhibition spent more time reflecting on what it meant to do what they did then they would have done without it and I think that’s a really interesting thing.
But at the same time as that I still, you know like once it’s done I kind of feel like, in some ways I feel like it’s not finished but I need to know, but in a sense that show is done. I’m not going to do that show again. I’m not going to do another version of that show but what I might try and do something around those things because I haven’t walked away from looking at what the artist-run environment means, its history.
I think it’s something that’s been of interest to me for a very long time going back to, you know, and in my papers I have my notes from the working party that was set up to respond to the Australia Council’s Contemporary Art Spaces Review which was a working party of the board of the IMA, which was me, Joe Furlonger who’s still a practicing artist and Simon Elliott who’s just taken on a major position within the Queensland Art Gallery. So going right back as people, I mean Simon’s had major deputy directorships and stuff like that at the MGA and so on so there’s a kind of pool of people and I think back to that. I mean, you know, I think what was all that work about, what does it mean to have done that kind of work within an organization, what does that infrastructural work mean.
In a sense part of the problem with making an exhibition is that because the story itself was not necessarily going to be familiar to people coming at it now for the first time, in some senses one had to simplify the story and make it a little tidier so that people could make sense of it otherwise it had the potential to just be very confusing.
By providing some key points of reference and some structures and being fairly clear about what they were it became possible for people to see things sequentially, it became possible for people to see things in context and maybe that makes the process of doing subsequent things easier. I mean I still don’t think it was an easy show to read. I know I got some feedback from some people which was that it was difficult and didn’t quite know what they were expected, what position they as a viewer were supposed to take with it. There were comments made about the look and feel if you like.
But then at the same time it would have been possible to do a show which only included ephemera and archive, only archive and ephemera.
There was a lot less documentation of performance work than I would have liked. There was a lot of other stuff that fell by the wayside that I considered including. All of the kind of overlaps between the visual art scene and the fashion scene and the music scene, almost all of those were kind of just like really not there. I would have loved to have had a kind of much tighter kind of music program and I mean I was just trying to chase stuff right down to finding people who posted clips on YouTube. It would have been great to have a kind of YouTube music playlist linking to things.
And there were great band clips like that I found but you have to track someone down through the YouTube account and get them to respond in time and blah, blah, blah and actually put a program together. But to put together for example just a screen of that kind of stuff across that period of time of bands playing and all that kind of thing would have been just about impossible. How to present the kind of various fashions.
There were a whole chunks of things. There was Anna Bourke’s workshop, she was actually the landlord subletting the realty space at the Observatory. Then there was the 2D stuff. Then there was Belltower stuff. And it all overlapped and so on.
At one point it was like, so how do I do this, what do I do. Do I do a fashion show. Do I do a fashion parade. Do we, what do we get.
Do we get clips of stuff and there’s the live music stuff, there’s the dance music stuff, there’s the fashion stuff, there’s this? And there’s all of those kind of things. At one point I did think that, for example, here was an idea that I had, was that the opening night I would actually try and actually acquire some outfits from some of those labels and I talked to Debbie as well about the possibility of doing something.
It’s just like, public programs. I had more that I wanted to do with that and that got contracted down quite dramatically to what I was hoping might be able to do. Do some extra things.
But one idea I had at one point was that what would happen is we’d get a bunch of students who were in a sense the age we were at that time wearing those clothes from that time to basically wear them on the opening night and only the opening night. Not to have the people who made them wearing them but to have, get a bunch of students from art history to wear them and to have their own wall labels with them, to actually carry around a little label to actually say this is an outfit by, and to actually be in a sense active in wandering around in the environment and to have conversations as well with people about those outfits and those people, the people who made them. So you would actually have, not a fashion parade per se but people walking around looking like people wearing 1980 Belltower outfit or a 2D outfit or an Anna Burke whatever and actually do it in that kind of a way. So rather than it being some kind of specialized thing it would look much more like people wearing outfits that appear on some people and not everybody in the kind of shared camera photographs where some people look particularly like they’re kind of wearing something that’s like a bit out there and fashion and so on and other people look like they’re wearing whatever daggy things they’re wearing. But it’s layered like that.
You look at those photographs and that’s actually the case. You go, wow that’s an outfit and that’s just a pair of jeans and a jumper, you know.
Paul : You just reminded me too, as you always do, I’m glad you talked about that stuff because, remember when we went to see the 80’s Show at NGV and we ran into curator Claire Williamson and her team and they were researching the Bohemian Melbourne exhibition and we walked around that exhibition and I remember one of the things that astonished, I think astonished both of us, was a lot of, that was a survey show of 80’s…Mix Tape..
Peter : Mostly drawn from the NGV collection
Paul : It was drawn from the collection but what also struck me was that there was so much that was in there that was purchased from, there was a huge collection of stuff that was being collected at the time was actually being made in the 1980’s and I was trying to imagine, at that stage, what would be in the QAG art gallery collection had it followed a similar, an active collecting mandate, and because I knew there was bits and pieces but I knew there wasn’t much at all, a black hole of a temporal period. As you found out there are some things in the Queensland Art Gallery that were going to take you a long time to organize and that was one of the things I wanted to ask you about in terms of the precarity and temporal constraints of independent curator was that the long lead time for accessing state collections
Peter : You need, to get a state collection or a library collection loan you need twelve months.
To get archival stuff, all that, you need twelve months. Which means twelve months out from the show you need to have absolutely finalized your works list.
This is what’s actually really interesting. It’s a kind of really productive kind of learning curve in a sense working with a museum and this is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to do it on my own, I wanted more curatorial kind of input from the museum itself because their processes and protocols and internal mechanisms are really kind of important.
I needed someone managing the internal dialogue as well because that meant, you know like I maybe have sort of like an internal assistant curator with one person who I knew would then work internally. So rather than me trying to go to different people internally, because that ended up being quite a challenge actually. I mean there was a moment where it became unclear whether my route was in through one or other people in the institution, whether I had a contact point, would then go out or whether I was dealing directly with institutional staff.
So, when you’re trying to get things done are you’re dealing directly with this person or that person or with that person. They’ve got their hierarchy or do I go up under the hierarchy or do I go in at the top of the hierarchy and the hierarchy works it out. Then there’s always room for miscommunication. If I go in there then is it clear.
And then I need to know back where something’s at. So, at some times I would find that things were nowhere near as far down the track as I thought they were.
I’d sent something, I’d thought it had been enacted but I find that it hadn’t. So things were slower. Even the possibility of getting work on site and photographing it effectively for a catalogue was almost kind of impossible. I don’t think we could have done it. Plus, the added bonus of trying to do a whole lot of finalizing over a Christmas period when people were going away on leave and when my main contact, had long service leave, all of those sorts of things which we don’t need to go into.
But one of the really fascinating things about doing a show like this is that a year out people were still finding their own stuff. So the possibility of actually knowing what you would have, I was still kind of digging around and stuff was surfacing. So to do a show like this you needed, I already had a long, long lead time but my mechanism for doing it, as I said a while back, was not driven by going into an art museum and finding these works.
It wasn’t about selecting works, it was much more complex than that.
And given the way art museums work that is how, that is what a collection is. It’s like one key job is to make a list of the works that are going in the show and that’s pretty much done and if you want to borrow from another public institution you need that a year out. And some of the sort of loan stuff was done well and truly within that kind of a timeframe. But the other sorts of things that really threw a spanner in the works for that is that artists who had stuff did crazy things that made it really kind of difficult. They had a whole bunch of archival stuff which they would then donate to the State Library and say, oh I’ve donated to the State Library or whatever.
You know a number of people did things like that. Or really late in the piece would go, I found this, you know. And suddenly you kind of get a whole lot of new bunch of stuff and you’re kind of going, well what, and still thinking it’s really important.
There’s a whole lot of stuff that never got in there. I would have loved to show for example that fantastic video, the Super Eight, that was done as a kind of lead up to Everything You Want To Know About Art But Were Afraid To Ask with Ted and Barbara. But how late did that come to surface?
I couldn’t possibly have used it in the show. It didn’t even appear until late. That’s the kind of problem I was dealing with. That could have been fundamental. I had huge problems. I wanted to use the document, this is the sort of problem that you get. I wanted to use the video, the audio of the video documentation of Barbara Campbell’s performance and I needed the audio, I didn’t want to show the video because I’m in the video and I showed two images from the documentation of the performance that I’m in because none of the other performances were effectively documented. That stuff was in the Griffith collection.
But the performance was first done by Barbara and Ted at One Flat and then subsequently done by Barbara a number of times but it’s actually about the process of going to see a famous work of art. And I really wanted to position it in the timeline where it was positioned, which was the very first thing on that wall. So, it’s 1974 not 1975.
I don’t think we ever really got the audio of that working properly. Again it’s a kind of a technical thing. You know it’s like how big a screen did I really need for the Remix site and where was that going to be positioned. And you know how many times the URL to the Remix site ended up sliding off the Ipad that we were using as a kind of device for looking at it. So, I would have much preferred that to be a large desk mounted Apple screen with access only to that and no other way of getting into anything else, but a way of actually preventing anyone going anywhere else.
So, it was only going to be that. At the same time as that I also wanted, you know, it would have also been great to have a screen sitting back to back in a sense in a kind of research kind of space that just only linked to the Facebook page and let people go into that raw data, and so it goes…
I mean Janelle’s One Flat work for the exhibition, Jeanelle wanted it all to be interactive but all of that kind of came out right at the very end. Suddenly I’m kind of like, it’s three screens that’s interactive and there was this huge problem when what Janelle had developed was kind of presented because it was like, the way you’ve mixed this and set this up, because I sort of said this is what I want, this is all I’m after and it suddenly got turned into something else and my input into that because of the way I was working was to step back and say work out how you want to present what you want to present.
But institutionally it was this kind of really difficult thing of delivery and at one level it’s my job to deliver stuff and to deliver stuff on time but at the same time as that working within a kind of, trying to work within a fairly open ended kind of way, it’s like I was trying to avoid the I want you to present me here what you’re going to do and I’ll give it approval.
The idea in some instances of actually approving of something within the kind of dialogue around the show, you know, in some instances I can see that might not work and as I found myself….coffee?