Entitled "Does New York Exist", the Axis Project undertook a collaborative investigation of centre/periphery relations between Brisbane and New York. Jay Younger, Paul Andrew, and Lehan Ramsay embarked on this mission in1988. The project was funded by the Visual Arts/Crafts Board of the Australia Council.
Nicholas Zurbrugg: What is Axis?
Jay Younger: Well, Axis began out of our artist-run space activity, really. THAT, The Observatory, and the Queensland Artworkers Alliance were all artists' initiatives, and that's where the AXIS project came from. lt's just to explore the notion of what artist-run spaces are.
Paul Andrew: All of the approaches we've been involved in evolved out of New York in the early '70s. Alternative art spaces were developed there and they're very much our origins, if you like. And it seemed important to look at those and see how they had changed, and what sort of structures were there now.
NZ: What did you know about the New York artist-run spaces – how did you find out about them?
PA: Well one of the things that started us off having a real connection with New York was the Outside Art Show at THAT Space in '86. lt was an exhibition of graffiti art, a trace of an opening they had at a New York gallery called No Se No (The show was co-curated by Malcolm Enright with Toyo Tsuchiya, the Director of No Se No). No Se No was one of the key Lower East Side galleries. Interestingly, when we got there, the place was just decayed, it's just a hole now. And the whole scene is fragmented. And that's what we wanted to investigate, to see what was happening now, because we'd heard of things about the demise of these groups and the gentrification of the area, and de-centering of New York. So we wanted to go there and see for ourselves.
JY: There were other things too, apart from Outside Art. There was Fiona Templeton who was a New York performance artist who performed at John Mills National and MOCA. And Marcia Tucker and William Orlander from The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York who came separately to THAT Space to see what it was. There were all sorts of connections.
PA: And that's the idea of "Axis". To us there was a real sort of axis between Brisbane and New York, it wasn't just some sort of mythical entity.
JY: But also, New York was interesting because it was "the" centre of the international scene, and had an impact on Brisbane because of that.
NZ: What sort of questions were you asking? What were you expecting to discover?
LR: Well, I think that we were expecting, firstly, to be able to gather information and give a lot of information back. When we got there we found that it wasn't so easy to give the information to people, they weren't quite so receptive to us as they were to actually giving us their information. I think that was one of the major changes in our idea of New York.
PA: We had the Axis File with us, which is a set of images by Brisbane artists, and we had lots of slides and information.
LR: And there was also the idea of coming back here with all the information that we had collected. And we have been able to create links by giving this information out to people and having them go over and make their own connections.
PA: The long term implications of the project aren't things which are "materialistic", such as exhibitions. They are more about creating connections. And community-wise this is great. it's a really positive thing. I think that is a success of the project. NZ: What sort of art practices and art spaces did you discover in New York? Were your expectations fulfilled?
LR: Well, the first thing that you find there of course is the commercial galleries, because they're so obvious in Greene Street and Soho. I think initially we were just really disappointed and really depressed by what we were seeing, the commercial art scene is very conservative.
JY: Very Flash Art.
LR: It was only when we started tracking things down that we began to find things that we were interested in. We'd find one artist-run space or alternative space and they would give us information about another and that would lead to another. It was like an underground trail, a paper chase that we were following.
PA: The first day we were in New York we walked down Broadway and came across the New Museum which had this ghastly big installation in its window which was there the whole time we were there, and it was the most boring thing. Neo-classical.
NZ: Did you find anything like THAT space in New York? What spaces did you find most interesting?
JY: No, but the spaces that I found really interesting were PS122 which was mainly a performance venue. lt was cabaret, and theatre based, but it was performance in that context, and it was really good, and very well supported
LR: And Exit Art which was mainly a gallery, but they showed films and things which had a very Latin American bias.
JY: They were very interesting in that they wanted to promote something else as "art from America" in the international context. They were talking about the dominant image of what American art is: basically Mary Boone's and Castelli 's. They were trying to place other artists within that international context, but in a different way. They refused to call their artists Latin American artists because they were about contextualising artists from those kind of backgrounds without the ethnic bias. They felt it would be very problematic to call these artists "ethnic" because they were very much New York artists.
PA: And I think Store Front (For Art and Architecture) was one of the most interesting spaces too. lt was one of the original spaces set up during the East Village phenomenon that's still around and doing very well.
NZ: What were the functions of artist-run spaces in New York? Was it like THAT Space, which has had its role in launching a generation of artists here, introducing new forms of art into various commercial galleries in Brisbane.
LR: The official line on artist-run spaces in Australia is that they are for emerging young artists, very experimental and raw.
JY: And also illegitimate.
LR: I think the difference is that artist-run spaces in New York were run by people who were paid professionals, and who were usually quite a bit older than here. 11 was not just a stepping stone.
JY: They were seen as something that was not just temporary.
PA: Here they are like thresholds to the commercial network, there they are seen as entities unto themselves.
JY: it's seen as a whole different strata, separate from the commercial market. They cater for very different needs: for example you have Store Front (For Art and Architecture), Exit Art which is about Latin American art, and then you have something that's about black art, and something that's about women's art, etc.
LR: it's not seen as babyish beginnings. I think a lot of artists go back to them. And it's not seen as a step backwards to go there again.
JY: There are two different types of artists' spaces there too, I mean there's the 2B, No Se No, Rivington School, Lower East Side sort of thing and then there is Artists Space and The Kitchen. One's really raw where anything happens anytime, it's much looser, and the other type is much more professional and much more long term.
NZ: That leads to an interesting question - how easy do you think it is for someone to have a show in some of these places that you visited?
LR: With 2B, which where we showed Axis File, we had spoken to some people beforehand, but in the end someone casually said "Yeah, bring your stuff along" and we just wandered in there on the day and stuck it on the wall. There was a lot of things happening that night, and we got to meet a lot of people and see a lot of things. But, normally, I think it's virtually impossible to show your work in a New York gallery. We certainly didn't take our work along to show, so I think we were saved any disillusionment. People were saying that you could go into a gallery and try to get an audience, but the chances were that they wouldn't see you, and if they did they'd probably look at your work and say well come back in twelve months - if you're still around.
JY: Galleries aren't really interested in you if you aren't local. And that was said to us a number of times by a number of people.
NZ: So it's very much a New York scene.
PA: A lot of the art in New York seems to be regionally specific, it does seem to be about the sort of issues that are going on in New York at the time, and here we tend to sort of appropriate those issues and give them a local edge. At the same time there's a lot of stuff coming out of Brisbane which is specific to what is going on in Brisbane. But we were looking at why New York art is so dominant here, why it makes such an impression on us. Now I think it's just the way it's marketed.
JY: For instance, some of the people we talked to about Flash Art were quite amused by how seriously the New York art scene is taken .. .
PA: ... over the border.
NZ: What do you mean "over the border"?
PA: In New Jersey, just over the river. As close as that.
JY: Once it's put into Flash Art, the whole thing becomes incredibly legitimate, really big and inflated.
LR: And international.
JY: But the people that are doing it, just go along and do it, like anyone does.
PA: it's almost like a couple of years ago here, when we said "oh Eugene's [Carchesio] got an exhibition on ." and thought, well that’s nice. But now it's in Eyeline it must count, it's valid now. it's that sort of thing, but on a much bigger scale.
NZ: Did you see much international art in New York when you were there?
LR: We saw The First New York International Festival of the Arts, and the International Super 8 Festival. But their attitude to international art was really funny. We interviewed Creative Time, which is an organisation that puts on a lot of large scale projects, and we asked them whether they intended to mount any international projects, and they said "Oh yes", we're getting such and such from this country and so and so from this other country, and we're bringing them all here. So it was almost as if their concept of international was bringing things from over there to them, because they were international. They saw no need to go out of New York to get anything, you simply brought it all to yourself. PA: New York is a world in itself, it's got everything it needs, it's almost like a simulacrum of the world, it's become this other world.
NZ: Did New York seem a bit parochial or concerned with its own interests?
PA: More than Brisbane is with Brisbane.
JY: Oh God yes!
LR: Well , Brisbane is always looking at what's happening elsewhere, whereas we felt New York was really closed, it's quite content with itself, and quite indifferent. The myth is you only have to drop the fact that you're Australian and everything will open up for you. But I think anyone travelling to New York would get a real shock. I suppose New York has always been flooded with the exotic, they're very blasé about everything which arrives there.
JY: But I think that Aboriginal art was something really different. It was interesting to us how much the American art audience absorbed Aboriginal art, so much more than we do in Australia. I think there's something strange about how Americans relate to the ethnic and the exotic.
PA: They're looking for "the Other", something exotic, something different that they can put on their walls.
JY: But there's also a moral thing, wanting to be "good", wanting to accept the ethnic, and thinking, "I'm a really good guy because I went and saw an Aboriginal art exhibition". PA: I think it's got more to do with the New Age myself.
LR: I remember Martyn Jolly, when he was the Curator at the Australian Centre of Photography, saying that he'd taken work by Australian art photographers to New York. And when he showed it to curators there they'd say "Oh well we've got one just like that", and "look at this, it's just like that one over there ".
PA: Almost like Australian hybrids of what's going on there.
NZ: To what extent, did you find that some of your best ideas were already on the walls of galleries in New York?
PA: Not much at all. When we were there one thing we kept saying all the time was how bored we were with the galleries and how interested we were in the performance, film, and street culture. We spent most of our time on the streets where it was really "all happening", really!
JY: And film, Super 8 and performance was what we felt was really interesting because it was genuinely experimental.
NZ: In what way?
PA: Well all the gallery art seems very conventional, formulaic sort of postmodernism - post David Salle – panels made of broken up images.
JY: And all the galleries were just full of Neo-Geo. PA: It was incredibly homogeneous. And it was interesting that when I went to see the show the Australian artist Margaret Morgan was in, it was the same thing too.
JY: The Super 8 and performance we saw dealt with a particular type of humour which you don't see in Australia or in the mainstream within America.
PA: And it's not mainstream American humour either.
JY: it's more a case of random connections.
PA: Like the performance by Sally May. She did a parody of a heavy metal guitarist, and she literally tucked the guitar.
PA: Well ... metaphorically.
JY: it's like it's coming out of that whole Warholesque myth of New York where everyone's nude, running around and throwing paint at each other, all sorts of wild happenings. But it's moved on from there, you can see the roots in that, but it's moved on to chaos, organised chaos, and that's really interesting.
PA: it's sending the whole myth up, it's parodying it.
JY: But that kind of humour is something that we see in Super 8 in Australia too. I think Super 8 in Australia is one of the only areas that you actually see that kind of work in Australia. Spontaneous, humourous, random, puerile.
LR: We saw some big shows there too. But they weren't as good as the more alternative things that were going on, they seemed a lot drier and a lot more orthodox.
NZ: Were these more alternative things like the new kind of "Porn-Modernism"
associated with artists like Karen Finlay?
PA: Yes, Karen Finlay is different; she's been spending ten years playing with organised chaos. She does these really sort of maniacal, "hysterical" monologues where she just builds up into a frenzy.
JY: it's like an evangelical outburst of the most crude things you've ever heard.
PA: But it's all controlled, carefully controlled and organised, its structured ...
PA: And there's a very bizarre chorus line.
JY: People with the oddest bodies: short fat men with big penises, tall men with small penises, and thin women with large breasts. Really unusual bodies.
LR: They'd wander out and stand there for a while, and then they'd go away.
PA: lt was very minimal, and it was just so funny.
LR: But there is another side to the story, especially in alternative films. When you were talking about the myth of New York as wild happenings I thought of the movie Mondo New York, which is composed of a series of performances. Like the guy who ate rats.
JY: Joe Coleman.
LR: They showed this performance in which he was a kind of charismatic preacher who started eating rats heads off.
JY: They showed a man with a picture of a rat on his head saying - "bite the big one Joey Coleman ", sort of like a challenge issued.
LR: Later we heard that he'd done a performance at The Kitchen - we heard this from Creative Time - where he began by eating rats heads off, then he pulled out a gun and began menacing people with it.
JY: But his big party trick is to put firecrackers all over his body and then light himself up and explode. Then everyone tends to run out, and he can rob their bags.
LR: He also pulled out a shotgun and held an audience hostage.
JY: it's just like this whole gross out. Who can be the most gross person in New York, who can be the most perverse, or the most violent.
PA: And most of it's sex orientated, at least the stuff we saw. Mondo New York was nearly all about sex.
LR: Do you remember when we went and saw the films at No Se No, it wasn't just sex though, it was also this kind of incredible obsession about death and violence. Sex and death seemed to be so tied up.
PA: There was that Super 8 movie we saw with Nick Zed. One of his first films was a cult movie where he has all this meat, carcasses. it's an orgy of meat, raw meat, and they cut people up. it's sort of cannibalistic.
LR: A lot of the films that have been done in New York have this preoccupation with violence.
PA: Also with excreta.
JY: it's just perverse, it's about being as perverse as possible.
NZ: So - "everything right in America"! PA: So many people said to us that New York is not America, it's somewhere else. They said you can be an hour outside town and it's just middle America, the absolute opposite. it's just like having this other place surrounded by "normality", and it simply doesn't bother to confront the attitudes that are middle America. lt just pushes them out.
JY: New York is almost like a dumping ground for anyone who doesn't want to live like middle America, they just dump them in New York.
We heard that he'd done a performance at The Kitchen where he began by eating rats heads off, then he pulled out a gun and began menacing people with it.