You are here
Marginal Notes: Towards a history of an artist-run scene
In his recent book Thinking Contemporary Curating, Terry Smith suggests the need for a shift away from a narrow focus on ‘the curatorial’ to what he terms ‘the infrastructural’. Central to this shift, he argues, is the requirement for an account of what he calls ‘infrastructural activism’. Such an approach moves beyond a consideration of art works, and the increasing demands of the ‘para-curatorial’ within the gallery and museum context, to the issue of how a context for art and exhibition practice is developed and contested. To grasp this field of activity Smith suggests that what is needed is a focus on ‘the pivotal role that alternative spaces, artist-run cooperatives, and supportive site-specific organisations … have played since the 1970s in the growth and diversification of infrastructure for the visual arts’.2 It is an area of research that is only just beginning, Smith argues, noting that a ‘history of these kinds of quasi-institutional initiatives throughout the world, especially since the 1960s, would show that infrastructural activism has been with us for a while, but has only recently come to be valued within the artworld as inherently creative, transformative, and essential’.3
While Smith cites just a few examples of ‘the beginnings of such research’4 the field is growing rapidly, as indicated by the recent publication of collections such as Institutions by Artists (2012), Artist-Run Spaces (2012) and Self Organised (2013).5 This literature builds on the accounts of individual organisations provided in institutional histories and publications that capture snapshots of the field at a particular moment in particular places.6 But such publications are really just the tip of the iceberg, the bulk of which remains submerged—a mass of smaller publications, exhibition catalogues, interviews, essays, ephemera and other materials that remain almost invisible just below the surface.
It is only when the task of digging through the archive begins that much of this ephemeral material drifts up from the depths to re-enter circulation, often in unanticipated ways. For example, in the case of my own work—on Brisbane in the 1980s—it might seem ironic that a starting point can be found in an early document drawn to the surface as part of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s (ACCA’s) 30th anniversary on-line history.7 In one of the very first postings the discussion begins under the heading ‘Melbourne 1982: the right place, the right time’. It is a positive heading, as one would expect from an institutional history, positioning ACCA in relation to two precursors: John Reed’s Museum of Modern Art of Australia (1958 – 1966) and Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA). But for me, what is telling is that it draws its positioning from a statement attributed to Betty Churcher, suggesting that while Reed’s Museum was ‘too early’, the IMA was simply in ‘the wrong place’.8
The perception that Brisbane was not the right place in which to establish a contemporary art institution—perhaps not the right place for innovative art at all—seems to sit at the heart of many accounts of the city’s relationship to contemporary art practice. Certainly, at the time the IMA was established in 1975 the view of the contemporary art scene in Brisbane was not particularly positive. Writing in Art and Australia, Pamela Bell described the Queensland Art Gallery, which had just moved into temporary accommodation in a city office building, as ‘in a nineteenth-century ice age’, with its collection ‘meanly displayed’. And even with a slightly expanding commercial gallery scene, and some support for established painters, she noted: ‘Of the younger artists the story is sadly different. There is not the stimulus or dialogue to encourage germination, let alone fertile growth’.9 In this context, one of the key roles for the IMA in its early years was the introduction of new art and new ideas about art to a Brisbane audience—and in particular, to Brisbane artists. As John Buckley, the IMA’s Director from 1976 to 1979, put it: ‘At this early stage, foremost in terms of its priorities is quite simply to make sure that the best work comes to Brisbane—to the benefit of those who already have a healthy curiosity or a growing interest, but more importantly, to help prepare and seed the ground for a working base for the growth of contemporary art in the north’.10
The definition of the art scene in Brisbane in the negative, both from within and without, seems to have had a significant impact on how it is understood. It has tended to be culturally defined as much by the desire of creative people to leave, as by the perception that nothing of any significance has happened there. My own interest in providing an account of Brisbane’s artist-run scene in the 1980s stems—at least in part—from a desire to counter such perceptions, or at least to interrogate them a little more carefully. In early 2013, as the Siganto Foundation’s Australian Library of Art Research Fellow, I had the opportunity to work back through the rich holdings of artist’s ephemera and related archival materials in the collection of the State Library of Queensland. As a result of this work, a proposal was developed for an exhibition on Brisbane’s eighties artist-run scene, to be held at the University of Queensland Art Museum (UQAM).
As things have developed, the exhibition I am working on will sit within a small suite of locally focussed projects to be held at the UQAM. The first of these was ‘Return to Sender’, curated by Michele Helmrich in 2012.11 This exhibition was framed around a group of artists who grew up in Queensland, but quickly left to pursue opportunities in other places, often immediately on leaving art college or university. Underpinning the exhibition was the idea that leaving Brisbane was driven by the desire to get away from the repressive climate generated by the corrupt conservatism of the Bjelke-Petersen government that ran Queensland for almost twenty years from 1968 until the late-80s.
As Ross Gibson puts it in his catalogue essay for Return to Sender, the over-riding conservative political climate ‘seemed as ubiquitous and unalterable as the weather’, as oppressive as endless summer heat and humidity, it set the tone for those who grew up in Brisbane during this era. So pervasive was this view that in the early 1980s graffiti painted on the side of the almost completed new Cultural Centre posed the following question: ‘95% of artists leave Brisbane. Why don’t you?’ But of course, not all artists did leave (or at least, not right away).
The exhibition I am currently developing presents the flip side of ‘Return to Sender’, focusing not just on artists who decided to stay against the odds, but on those who sought to build a cultural environment in which staying might seem like a viable option in the future. At the core of my project is an attempt to capture the energy and vibrancy of the scene that grew up around the group of artist-run spaces that operated across the middle of the decade, from around 1982 to 1988. Central to the project are artist-run spaces such as One Flat, A Room, That Space, The Observatory, and John Mills National, which provided something of a counterpoint to the more established IMA. Also significant are artist initiated organisations such as the Artworkers Union (Queensland) and Queensland Artworkers Alliance, as well as various other artist-run ventures, such as the short lived publications Art Walk and Art Wonder Stories, and of course, Eyeline, which was first published in 1987, initially under the auspices of the Queensland Artworkers Alliance.
While the exhibition is still very much in development, there are issues that have come up during the preliminary research phase that I think are worth examining now. Fundamental to the project are various questions relating to the underlying focus of the exhibition and its curatorial rationale. What is it, exactly, that this exhibition is about? Should its primary focus be individual artworks, or something else? How does this project fit within the usual historical account of the period, and other accounts of this field of artistic practice?
At the core of this project is a shift from a primary focus on individual art works, to something broader—an account of the ‘artist-run scene’ within which the works were produced. While the exhibition will include a selection of artworks that were produced or exhibited within the artist-run spaces in the 1980s, it will also have to do more than this if it is to more fully capture the context of their production. It is to be an exhibition project that takes seriously the idea that art practice involves more than simply making paintings or drawings. Instead, it needs to take an expanded view of art practice, seeing an engagement with the structures that enable the making, exhibition and critical engagement with art, not as something extra, but as an essential part of an artist’s creative work, and an essential activity within the scene it seeks to represent. In other words, it seeks to provide an account of what Terry Smith identifies as ‘infrastructural activism’, with the focus on activities in what might be thought of as a culturally ‘marginal’ city.
While some might see cultural change in Brisbane as being primarily driven by larger institutional shifts—the opening of the new Queensland Art Gallery in 1982, or World EXPO ’88, for example (more recently, the Asia Pacific Triennial or the Queensland Art Gallery’s expansion to include the Gallery of Modern Art)—my focus is on the changes at a ‘grass roots’ level. Changes that took place, as Barbara Campbell put it in 1983, as a ‘direct result from an enthusiastic leap from complacency taken by individuals who, traditionally, would have joined the queues moving to the cultural south’.12
One of the core problems for the project is that it must build an account of ephemeral practices from ephemeral traces. The ephemerality of much infrastructural activism is a problem which is acknowledged in Julie Ault’s 2002 edited collection, Alternative Art New York: 1965 – 1985. As she notes, ‘because many alternative initiatives were ad hoc, time based or anti-institutional, documentation is frequently fugitive’, and as a result, ‘what becomes history is to some degree determined by what is archived’.13 Despite the fact that her focus is on activities in what might be described as one of the key art centres of the period, her objectives—and some of the problems she identifies—are mirrored in my current project. ‘A primary goal’, she says, ‘is to ensure that alternative activities are not written out of the cultural histories of the recent past’. This is, I think, an important factor also driving the work I am doing.
While there is a small secondary literature that deals with Artist-Run or experimental art practice in Brisbane, the activities of this period are perhaps not as widely known as they might be. This, despite the fact that such activity has been regularly discussed in Eyeline, with Urszula Szulakowska’s essay ‘BrisDaDA: Collaborative Art in a Stagnant Culture’ setting the scene in the magazine’s very first issue. Such activities also provided a central focus in Szulakowska’s subsequent publication Experimental Art in Queensland: 1975-1995.14 Over the years, artist-run practice has also been discussed and documented in a range of other artist-initiated publications—from Art Walk in the 1980s to Local Art in the 2000s—as well as exhibition catalogues, newsletters and other publications. In fact, in the mid-1980s, during Peter Cripps directorship, the IMA staged a number of very important exhibitions reflecting on local cultural practices, such as Know Your Product (September 1986) and Q Space + Q Space Annex 1980 + 1981 (October 1986). More recently, two exhibitions curated by David Pestorius have taken up the territory first explored in Know Your Product—the overlap between the art and music scenes—with The Brisbane Sound (IMA 2008), and Melbourne><Brisbane: punk, art and after (Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne 2010).
My sense, however, is that despite the work that has been done, there remains a general perception that there is not much to either write about or exhibit when it comes to the history of Artist-Run projects in Brisbane, at least until very recent times. Certainly, the Australian literature on the development of the Artist-Run Initiative (such as it is) has had little to say about activities within the Brisbane context. Although the exception to this is the attention given to ‘Q Space’ (1980 – 81), with the IMA’s exhibition catalogue for the October 1986 exhibition that documented this project being the primary reference (just as the catalogue for the Inhibodress 1970 – 1972 exhibition held at the IMA in 1989 has become a key reference for that Sydney-based early artist-run/alternative space project). Most of the time, artist-run activity in Brisbane during the eighties is perceived as a blank, a void—perhaps, given the social and political climate of the time, it just seems implausible.
It was in this context of scant commentary on Brisbane ARI activity that I was initially pleased to encounter Peta Rake’s essay ‘Inclusivity and Isolation: Artist Run Initiatives in Brisbane’, first published in the Canadian journal Fillip, and subsequently included in the anthology Institutions by Artists.15 Interestingly, this essay is also listed by Terry Smith amongst those ‘beginnings of research’ into the history of infrastructural activism. However, while it does not explicitly set itself up to provide a history of Artist-Run practices in Brisbane, it quickly becomes clear that this is a piece of work that does not fit within Smith’s framework. In fact, rather than providing the beginnings of a history of ARIs in Brisbane, it tends to do the opposite—focussing mainly on the present, and incorrectly asserting that there were ‘only a few such initiatives in existence prior to the year 2000’ (p.147). In other words, it does exactly what Ault argues against, it writes much of Brisbane’s artist-run activity out of the history, not by arguing that it was not important, or indicating that its history is hard to trace, but by suggesting that there was little or no activity of this kind.
Thus, while Rake’s essay tries to grapple with the contemporary situation of the ARI in Brisbane now, it does so based on what appears to be a significant lack of understanding of the history and development of the field under discussion. Early in her essay Rake makes reference to the activities of the Barjai/Miya group in the 1940s, but then claims that there was ‘relative inactivity’ in relation to artist-run activity ‘in the decades following’. It is an unfortunate turn in her argument. By making this early reference to a local precursor to the Artist-Run Initiative, the reader might be given the impression that the historical spade work had been done, and that the assertion that there was little or no artist-run activity in Brisbane until very recently is valid. In plain terms, this is simply wrong. In providing any indication of activity before 2007, the best she can muster is a footnote citing a single secondary source that names five ‘now defunct artist-run spaces [that] were active between 2000 and 2004’ (Smith & Stonely, 49B, Satellite Space, Someone Else’s Studio and The Farm). In the end, Rake’s account of the present flounders on a flawed account of the past, with the essay failing to grasp either the history of local circumstances or the broader development of the ‘artist-run initiative’ as a category within Australian art practice more generally.
The problem Rake’s essay highlights is the cultural impact of the constant assertion that Brisbane is (or was) a ‘cultural wasteland’—it is always ‘the wrong place’, a place where ‘nothing happens’. The invisibility of earlier ARI activity in Rake’s account is also perhaps a sign that even when things do happen, they quickly slide from visibility, leaving a rapidly fading trace that is difficult to recover. In a way the ephemeral and temporary nature of much artist-run practice is a significant contributing factor here, particularly in a context where there is a growing expectation everything can be found on-line via a simple Google search. In this respect, it is worth noting that much of the history of Brisbane’s earlier artist-run activity will be found in ‘hard-copy’ rather than on-line—in archives, ephemera, magazines, catalogues and small press publications—and getting hold of it might well require a visit to the library. Even tracing shifts in areas like arts policy and funding, and showing how it might impact on activities in the field is a challenging task—while Rake makes a number of points about shifts in policy and funding, her account is confused and lacks any sense of the way the ARI field itself has been shaped by earlier policy and funding frameworks.
From my perspective, one of the things that makes the eighties so significant, is that it was during this decade that one of the most fundamental divisions was made within the broad field of ‘alternative spaces’ within the Australian context. Simply put, following the 1983 ‘Open Sandwich’ Alternative Spaces conference (held as part of ANZART [Australian New Zealand Artists Exchange] in Hobart), the Australia Council initiated a policy review process which lead to the separation of this field into a national network of Contemporary Art Spaces and a more open-ended sub-sector of Artist-Run Initiatives. As Bob Lingard noted in his introductory essay in the IMA’s 1989 institutional history, ‘1984 saw the consolidation of contemporary art spaces (CAS) as a funding category for the Australia Council and a consequent definition of their functions as distinctive amongst alternative spaces, certainly as different from that of artist-run spaces’.16
While the Australia Council’s new network of CAS ‘flagships’ tended to be understood as broadly similar in aim, the defining characteristic of artist-run spaces was their diversity, with the Visual Arts Board’s 1987 Artist Run Spaces Research Report organising them under the headings of studios, open access workshops, exhibition venues, and information and resource facilities.17 Within a very short period, the nomenclature of this field shifted to Artist-Run Initiative (ARI), in acknowledgement of the diversity of practices that fell within this area.18 In light of this, providing an account of artist-run activities requires that the net be cast widely to include not just exhibition venues, but studios and workshops, publications, and other organisational activities.
But perhaps taking such a broad view of the artist-run field—activities that constitute ‘infrastructural activism’—also requires something of a shift in how we understand art practice more generally. To begin with, so much of the work produced and exhibited in the artist-run context was ephemeral, performative, temporary, fleeting, and often involved activities that could be seen as curatorial or organisational as well, so what counts as an artist’s ‘work’ in this context is defined more broadly than might usually be the case.19 In fact, while not always clearly articulated, the view that the wider activities of what might now be called ‘infrastructural activism’ should be considered a significant part of an artist’s work was certainly at play in the thinking and practice of quite a number of the artists at the core of Brisbane’s eighties artist-run scene—Jeanelle Hurst, Paul Andrew, Jay Younger, Lehan Ramsay, Virginia Barratt, Adam Boyd, Russell Lake, and Brian Doherty,20 to name just a few.
One of the problems, of course, is that such ‘infrastructural’ work is not the sort of thing that art museums usually collect, and this, I think, is the real value of an approach that begins with an examination of ephemera, rather than individual art works. To be frank, very little of what was shown in Brisbane ARIs during the eighties has actually ended up in public collections, with the holdings of the Queensland Art Gallery being particularly thin in this area. In any case, it is far from clear that the ‘story’ of this sector could be adequately told simply by re-presenting a selection of works from exhibitions held in the various artist-run spaces, although it is essential that such work is included.
As I see it at this stage of the process, any exhibition that attempts to provide an adequate account of an artist-run scene needs to give appropriate weight to materials that might otherwise be seen as merely ‘supporting’ the art works—documentation of exhibitions and other activity, the ephemera produced at the time, and other archival materials that might provide concrete evidence of what was happening. Certainly, such material is an essential resource in any preliminary mapping of the scene. In the preliminary scoping of the Queensland State Library’s holdings, supported by my brief tenure as the Siganto Research Fellow, one of the central resources on which I drew was the Library’s substantial collection of artist and gallery ephemera.
It is an interesting coincidence that the initial development of the State Library of Queensland’s Artist and Gallery ephemera archive began in the eighties, with the objective of collecting materials that might make it possible to more fully trace local art practices. Initiated by the then Arts Librarian, Cassie Doyle, the ephemera collection was treated ‘as a primary source, supplementing information found in books and journals’. While it is important to note that the ephemera collection is not comprehensive, what has been preserved and organised is an immensely valuable resource, allowing the construction of what we might call a ‘flat’ view of the artworld. This is quite a different view from the one you get if you only focus on artists and works acquired by art museums, or on published resources such as reviews and articles in newspapers or magazines.
It is from within the plethora of exhibition invitations, notices, posters and flyers that the contours of the artist-run scene will be first sketched out. For it is the ephemera that provides the public trace of this area of practice, and it is this flowing current of activity into which individual works of art can be inserted. It is the ephemera, and additional photographic documentation—of exhibitions, performances and other events—that provide a visual counterpoint to any contemporary written account of the period. These materials may not offer us such a pristine view of exhibitions and works as the formal installation shot. For all its formal clarity, the installation shot misses something—the bodies of artists and viewers, the activity of engagement and dialogue, the messiness and confusion of things as they happen. It is only with the addition of more ephemeral traces, images and objects, materials that take us out of the white cube, out of the ‘frame’ of the individual artwork as it were, that we can grasp more fully the infrastructural work of ‘the scene’.
Jeanelle Hurst, Highrise Wallpaper, 1988. Photography Jeanelle Hurst.
That Contemporary Artspace openings, including artists Belinda Gunn, Adam Boyd, Robert Kinder, Malcolm Enright and Katie Smith aka Kate-astrophe. Photography Jay Younger and The Shared Camera.
Poster by Jeanelle Hurst, Russell Lake, Adam Boyd and Zeliko Maric for the exhibition, ‘Brisbane Hot’ (including the O’Flate Artists Jeanelle Hurst, Adam Boyd, Russell Lake, Zeliko Maric and Belltower Design), Institute of Modern Art, 1985.
Artist/Curators Virginia Barrett and Adam Boyd, A Re-enactment of the Creation of the Earth in 15 Minutes, 1986. Performance, John Mills National.
1. This essay is a significantly revised and extended development of ‘Tracing the Ephemeral: Towards a history of artist-run spaces in Brisbane’, the Australian Library of Art Siganto Foundation Research Fellow Lecture, presented at the State Library of Queensland, 1 June 2013. It draws extensively on the research undertaken during my tenure as the Queensland State Library’s Australian Library of Art Siganto Foundation Research Fellow, for which I acknowledge the invaluable support of the Siganto Foundation, and the assistance of the State Library of Queensland and its staff.
2. Terry Smith, Thinking Contemporary Curating, Independent Curators International, New York, 2012, p.99.
3. Terry Smith, ibid., footnote 35, pp.98-99.
4. For example, Julie Ault (ed.), Alternative Art New York: 1965-1985, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 2002 and Julia Bryan-Wilson Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam Era, University of California Press, California 2009.
5. Jeff Khonsary & Kristina Lee Podesva (eds.), Institutions by Artists, Fillip Editions and Pacific Association of Artist Run Centres, Vancouver, 2012; Gabriele Detterer & Maurizio Nannucci (eds.), Artist-Run Spaces: Nonprofit Collective Organizatons in the 1960s and 1970s, JRP|Ringier in co-edition with Les Presses du reel & Zona, Zurich, Dijon & Florence, 2012; and Stine Hebert & Anne Szefer Karlsen (eds.), Self-Organised, Open Editions, London, 2013.
6. In Australia early examples include Stephanie Britton (ed.), A Decade at the EAF: A History of the Experimental Art Foundation 1974 – 1984, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 1984 and Bob Lingard & Sue Cramer (eds.), Institute of Modern Art: A Documentary History 1975 – 1989, IMA, Brisbane 1989, while a publication such as Din Heagney (ed.), Making Space: Artist-run Initiatives in Victoria, The Victorian Initiatives of Artists Network, Melbourne, 2007, provides a wider snapshot of the field.
8. Betty Churcher quoted in ‘Position Paper’, Centre For Contemporary Art, June 1984. https://www.accaonline.org.au/sites/default/files/1984_June_Centre%20for%20Contemporary%20art%20position%20paper.pdf (accessed 8 October 2014). There is a double irony here as ACCA’s inaugural Director, John Buckley, had Directed the IMA during its formative years, and Churcher had been an early committee member.
9. Pamela Bell, ‘Brisbane Scene’, Art and Australia, Vol.13 No.1 July-Sept 1975, pp.46-47.
10. John Buckley, ‘Brisbane Scene’, Art and Australia, Vol.15 No.4 June 1978, pp.374-375.
11. Michele Helmrich, ‘Return to Sender’, University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane, 16 June – 26 August 2012.
12. Barbara Campbell, ‘Brisbane Scene’, Art and Australia, Vol.20 No.4 Winter 1983, p.464.
13. Julie Ault, op.cit., pp.1&3.
14. See Urszula Szulakowska ‘BrisDaDA: Collaborative Art in a Stagnant Culture’ Eyeline, No.1 May 1987, pp.14-17; and Urszula Szulakowska, Experimental Art in Queensland: 1975-1995, Queensland Studies Centre, Griffith University, Brisbane, 1998.
15. Rake, Peta, ‘Inclusivity and Isolation: Artist-run initiatives in Brisbane’ in Khonsary & Podesva op.cit., pp.147 -172.
16. Lingard & Cramer, op.cit., p.14.
17. Karilyn Brown, ‘Artist-Run Spaces’ Research Report Commissioned by the Visual Arts Board, Australia Council, Sydney, 1987.
18. Peter Anderson, ‘The Politics of Space: From “Alternative” Spaces to Artist-Run Initiatives’, Art Monthly (Australia), No.19 (April 1989), pp.25-27.
19. From the point of view of the career of an individual artist, Francis Plagne offers a suggestive approach in his 2011 account of the expanded practice of John Nixon, and is of particular relevance given Nixon’s activities in Brisbane at the start of the eighties. While occupying the position of Director of the IMA, Nixon continued his own art practice, as well as his involvement with Art Projects (in Melbourne), and also initiated other individual and collective art activities, such as Q Space and Anti-Music. Francis Plagne ‘Salon des Independents: John Nixon as Curator and Publisher in the 1980s’, Discipline No.1 Winter 2011, pp.18-23.
20. As Brian Doherty put it in correspondence to Urszula Szulakowska in the mid-1990s: ‘I very seriously considered these activities to be my art practice as much or more than putting marks on paper—it’s just that the products were of a different order’. Szulakowska papers, State Library of Queensland.
Images for this article were kindly supplied by artist and That Contemporary Art Space Director, Paul Andrew, drawn from the digital archive for his transmedia ARI Remix Project currently under development at remix.org.au.
* The Shared Camera is archival photography by a collective of ARI artists documenting 1980’s performance, exhibitions, openings, infrastructure and artist events, including artists Jane Richens, Jay Younger, Megan Hawkins, Henry Davidian, David Gorton, David Gofton, Michael Curtis, Adam Boyd, Lehan Ramsay, Anna Zsoldos, Paul Andrew and others.
The Remix Project is a digital heritage, oral history and archive project in development by a collective of artists represented in this essay, who are mapping the 1980–2000 Australian ARC (Artist Run Culture) scene from artists’ points of view. This public archive is designed to coincide with the 2016 UQAM exhibition curated by Peter Anderson and Michele Helmrich and the forthcoming 50th anniversary of Australian ARC in 2020. For more details or to help crowd fund this not-for-profit project please contact Remix Archive Coordinator Paul Andrew by email at email@example.com
Designed to assist with the development of both the UQAM exhibition, ‘Self-Organised’, and the Remix Project is the Queensland ARC 1980-2000 Scene—Social Media Research and Digital Heritage Open Group established in November 2012, please join and share here https://www.facebook.com/groups/451268288264701/
Also see, Jeanelle Hurst http://www.jeanellehurstprojects.com/ and Tim and Mic Gruchy http://www.grup.tv/
Peter Anderson is an independent writer and curator based in Melbourne. He was the 2013 Queensland State Library Australian Library of Art Siganto Foundation Research Fellow.