Ephemeral Traces

Brisbane’s artist-run scene in the 1980s
University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane

When speaking at a public forum which accompanied the Ephemeral Traces exhibition at the University of Queensland Art Museum, artist Brian Doherty described the profound cultural shift that has occurred in Brisbane since the 1980s by remarking ‘well just being a young person back then was somehow threatening…’ This comment vividly captures the atmospheric change like none other because it describes both the push and the pull of attitudes and perceptions. Being young or a student, being an artist or an intellectual, was politicised without you having to go to rallies or print posters or join public campaigns. Just hanging around in a public place or driving a car, generally doing life, you would encounter a regular level of police harassment and public scorn. It is a far cry from the brave new world of today that welcomes youthful nimble creatives to invent their opportunities and carve their entrepreneurial pathways. While an artist’s path is, in many ways, as precarious today as it was then, this is undoubtedly a shift for the better and Ephemeral Traces is an important exhibition for provoking such reflection.

Curated by Peter Anderson, Ephemeral Traces surveys artist-run practice in Brisbane during the 1980s, focusing on five key spaces—One Flat, A Room, That Space, The Observatory, and John Mills National. This period was of course the final decade of the conservative Joh Bjelke-Petersen government which was ultimately exposed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry to be corrupt, violent, discriminatory and unprincipled. Commentators such as Liz Willis have argued that ‘[Bjelke-Petersen’s] almost twenty year reign also produced a magnificent by-product: a remarkable oppositional culture manifested in music, theatre and art; media, comedy and satire’.1 And while this exhibition does pay homage to the counter-cultural, anti-establishment aesthetic of this period, Ephemeral Traces offers serious consideration of the value of artist-run spaces, past and ongoing, both within a wider social context and within the ‘ecology’ of the art world. This is significant precisely because the artist-run scene is typically rendered invisible by and through ‘official’ curatorial channels, akin to an unruly and repressed ‘other’ in need of institutional correction and proper representation. From this scene, certain artists are invited to exhibit in higher profile exhibitions or galleries, or have their works acquired by public or private collections, and such legitimation comes to define and mediate their practice for a public audience. What this primarily conservative and recuperative mechanism does, among other things, is limit the definition of what an artist is—what the social role and value of an artist might be. Ephemeral Traces provides an insight into not only the social context in which artists were interacting and the incredible energy of the artist-run scene, but, more importantly, the exhibition provides an expanded definition of the artist, and one which is profoundly rooted in notions of independent production.

Each of the artist-run spaces covered by this exhibition is a unique case study in organisational efforts that are cooperative, collaborative and focused on artistic experimentation. The artist-run scene was not so much a hot-bed of political dissent as it was a safe haven for alternative ways of thinking and acting, living and working—far less boring and much more fun than whatever else was going on in ‘straight’ Brisbane and a lot less dangerous and dodgy than ‘bent’ Brisbane. Of course there were links to activist politics and punk aesthetics but this was also the scene that nurtured organisations such as the Queensland Artworkers Alliance and Eyeline magazine as solid advocacy and critical platforms. These artist-operators managed studios, venues and events, curated exhibitions and programs, produced publications, posters and public notices, and generally supported themselves and each other’s art practices at every stage of development and delivery. The collectives and their spaces may have been ephemeral, deliberately occupying disused buildings for limited periods, but the social engine and its effects were widespread. There is no doubt that this generation, and this community in particular, gave a public face to social inclusion and public permission to be different.

Artist Virginia Barratt, also speaking at the public forum, described the emergence of her performance art practice in this artist-run context as propelled by the question ‘what is a feminist art practice?’ Her unforgettable works certainly made an indelible impression on my imaginary. Of course much of the documentation of performance art and other ephemeral installations, exhibitions and events has been lost or is generally poor quality as the digital era was yet to arrive. In many respects this made the exhibition all the more compelling, as one experienced a glimpse into what was undoubtedly a different time. Peter Anderson is to be commended for constructing an intricate and also intimate exhibition environment with a wealth of archival and anecdotal clues and connections. The exhibition rewarded repeat visitation for an inquisitive and intelligent audience.

The exhibition also featured access to REMIX—an on-line digital archive, interview and oral history project also dedicated to the 1980s artist-run scene as a Stage One within a more comprehensive on-line future history archive. Initiated and developed by Paul Andrew—artist and former coordinator of THAT space—the site features a rich collection of stories, first-hand accounts and a significant body of digitised ephemera, images and other materials.2

Ephemeral Traces is a timely exhibition for our current political moment with social instability increasing globally. Certainly there is a contemporary return to the artist as maker, a renewed interest in the studio environment, and a proliferation of network cultures that can work to by-pass institutional frameworks. However, while Ephemeral Traces may celebrate all things DIY and reveal the gap between the artist-run scene and its institutional other, what it does more compellingly is provoke a more thoughtful interrogation of the exhibitionary complex, lifting the veil ever so slightly on ‘the art world’ and urging us to go further with our engagements with art and artists, well beyond the realm of objects.

What must be resisted in this act of exhibition is the gap of nostalgia and ‘museumisation’ which would distance us, the audience, from the socio-political practices presented as forgotten.  Rather one must enter into the more affective, non-hierarchical and entangled position of the artist-run space itself and consequently also change the positions of the institutions that frame us.

Hiram To, Estate, 1988–1989. Synthetic polymer paint and Polytex on wood panel, (one component of the installation Estate), 168.0 x 122.0 x 3.0cm. Collection of the artist. Reproduced courtesy of the artist. Photograph Carl Warner.

Barbara Campbell, “…Cutting off your nose to spite your face”, 1984. Synthetic polymer paint and screenprint on aluminium plate, 76.1 x 56.0cm. Collection of
The University of Queensland, purchased 1999. Reproduced courtesy of the artist. Photograph Carl Warner.

Bronwyn Clark-Coolee, Untitled (Brisbane drawings), n.d. Oil pastel, gouache and synthetic polymer paint on paper, 91.0 x 91.0cm. Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of David Pestorius through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 1998. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Ruth Propsting, Untitled #10, 1989. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 80.0 x 80.0cm. Collection of The University of Queensland. Gift of Malcolm Enright through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 1999. Reproduced courtesy of the artist’s estate.

notes: 

1. Liz Willis, ‘How Joh inspired a generation’, Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 2005. See http://www.smh.com.au/news/Opinion/How-Joh-inspired-a-generation/2005/04/24/1114281450821.html.
2. ARI Remix is a living archive project. A new not-for-profit, artist-led archive collaboration mapping the unmapped diversity of the 1980-2000 Queensland Artist-Run Scene, mindful of past, present and future artist-runs. See http://www.remix.org.au.