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A Tentative Typology of Alternatives

Public Good: Itinerant Responses to Collective Space
eds. Paula Booker and Marnie Slater, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington, 2008

Sitting, minding an artist-run space and counting hours between visitors leaves time to reflect on alternative avenues of production, contextualisation and engagement. The received ladder of artistic opportunity, through a hierarchy of artist-run spaces, institutions and galleries offers missing rungs and ego-bruising disappointment to most. Though communities can not be the ideal entities that lie in our collective imaginations, it still makes sense to reflect upon the potential of alternatives modes of making our practices public…

The university has a stranglehold on the pathway that leads to a professional artistic career. This isn’t a new or unpredictable development, as the shift from art being beholden to a market through production of craft, to it being a manifestation of a concept (which eventually proceeds to a market) is old enough to be traditional. It is also no coincidence that the proliferation of MFA programmes occurred in sync with the dematerialisation of the art object and the increase in production of artist writing in the 1960/70s. What is new (at least in this corner of the world) is the increasing academicisation of this training, which has been colonised by the language of the hosting institute – artists now quantify and qualify their experimentation via the notion of academically sanctioned research. It is now possible for a star student to enter art school at eighteen and leave with a PhD at twenty-seven. It could be argued that this prolonged university stint presents the artist with the rigour of conceptually framing their own practise, as well as an additional path to finances and audience creation. Self and peer framing offers the broader art community an alternative to the dominant framing of curatorial, historical or commercial institutional voices. The academy’s alternative expertise can offer a counterbalance to the dominant market’s fetishisation of cohesive and stable presentation over all other modes of public outcome. These dominant regimes follow conventions that aren’t essentially exploitative but do enact an exchange in values, based upon a calculation of commercial imperative, conceptual convenience and public relations. This is not to say that the four years of a PhD art programme doesn’t have the potential to be one long insular psychotherapeutic session in the guise of conceptual self-reflexivity. However, it seems as though, progressively over time, some art schools have chosen to borrow from the university’s set of tools that privilege individualism, the sometimes arbitrary markers of industry experience/expertise and the pillaging of other faculties’ discourses over collaborative research, peer review, and an interdisciplinarity characterised by dialogue rather than representation.

The journalised narrative of Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival’s (KOS) practice – where an artistic intervention helping disenfranchised kids rode a critical wave; firstly acquired by Saatchi, then dumped by Saatchi and since persisting as a type of artist in schools measure, disregarded by any arts community – is a testament to the fickle nature of the commercial art market. It also demonstrates how critical networks disengage with pedagogical models of art practice. The obvious exception is the graduate show; a time when notions of pedigree and influence derived from educators acquires a fresh lustre. The ritualistic harvest of fresh talent at graduate shows is the acceptable manifestation of the pedagogical within contemporary art cultures. The debutantes are embraced both for their own precocious promise, and for faithfully reflecting and affirming existing constellations of stars.
Two interesting projects that have been fostered out of a pedagogical art environment have been DAMP (having cut its umbilical chord long ago) and the Pedagogical Vehicle Project both emanating out of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). This might be like comparing the proverbial chalk with cheese. Rollins’s dripping wet paternalistic literacy programme, with over-determined facilitation of young teenagers’ collaborative artwork has little in common with the drop in and drop out performative tendencies of the VCA projects led by Geoff Lowe, Callum Morton and Danius Kesminas respectively. What I’m barracking for here is not a particular modality of art teaching, but an open attitude to the proliferation of creative conceptual art education projects that goes beyond the perpetuation of the atelier system. These programmes don’t need to be thrown into the fray of gallery presentation, as their worth lies in their educational value to students. Grappling with the power relations that emerge out of teacher-student collaboration, and the sanctimony of the facilitator are issues that should be addressed within the projects. The rhetorical claim that creativity in all fields is equally valuable is not always accepted by the arts community. We can too easily presume that if it is not a wall or trestle table then it’s not worth doing.

Over the last few years Melbourne has seen an increase in initiatives that utilise a spare room or some space within a domestic setting for the presentation of an art practice to a ‘broader’ audience. Dude Space, Apartment and Austral Avenue probably don’t have the requisite hospitable conditions that the notion of the salon suggests – although Lyndal Walker’s Springthing (2005) at the now defunct Dude Space might be an exception. The convivial social space of the backyard barbeque in Walker’s project al- lowed a dialogical quality to infuse the space’s decorative representations of abundance, growth and garlands.
Melbourne’s Michael Graf has been consistently showing his refined canvas board projects for well over a decade in lounge rooms on both sides of the Yarra River. Shown during single Saturday afternoons to small audiences, sometimes with cake and tea, his paintings can’t be separated from intimate and warm environment they are shown in. Regardless of how esoteric his references are and the clinical and delicate quality of his painted surfaces, Graf’s practice is dedicated to the contemplation of a singular moment that shifts imperceptibly across the space of a few panels and in the quiet social space that accompanies it. These spaces replicate the space of the white cube with accompanied conversational launch/opening niceties and make obvious allowances to their domestic infrastructure in presentation.
So while the practical difference between this nouveau salon (with domestic connotations of the private and the exclusive) and the small inde- pendently-run space (with its more public profile regardless of the limits of its actual audience size) are minimal, the two models may also be seen as ideologically opposed. The position you adopt will probably reflect where you fall on the fraught question of how accessible you want your art to be. My use of the word “salon” might reflect a dubious romanticisation of the critical dialogue that might have occurred in Gertrude Stein’s front room. Not to men- tion the incongruity between the exclusive class patronage of early twentieth century European cultures and the contemporary Australasian context. If we imagine a domestic space with its implicit associations of nurturing and of the drawn-out supportive feedback session – isn’t this the space of the cliché? Or does it offer the rich possibilities a salon might still inhabit?
On the one hand an artist might engage community via the involvement of colleagues, friends and acquaintances and risk smelling of clique/cognoscenti. On the other hand, if we collaborate with a community outside of our own, there’s the potential accusation of contributing to what Maria Lindt describes as a form of “social pornography”. Of course debates amongst the likes of Foster, Kester, Bishop and Lindt matter very little for practitioners that purposefully inhabit a zone be- tween art and the social ameliorative. Scott Mitchell’s iPod Social Outreach Project engages this critical zone. His practice works across communities involved with the arts, online modding and a broader public responding to ads in local papers. As a researcher in the field of industrial design, his project sought to work against and around the iPod’s integrated obsolescence by “assisting” a public with their iPod woes. Mitchell performed a range of services that included modifying the iPod’s use, booting alternative operating systems and incorporating small solar panels into the iPod as a power source. Mitchell used the Internet to keep his clients in touch with his service’s progress but this communication also established an archive for anyone with net access. It created a point of engagement for anyone brave enough to face the circuitry, and invited the audience to get in touch with existing online communities that Mitchell frequently quoted and linked to.
The questions of what art is, and what it isn’t, of whether framing the social within an art context engages in the reification of the art object, seem somewhat irrelevant to Mitchell’s practice. For practitioners the issues of artistic significance and the ethical dimensions of cultural capital often aren’t such a burden. After all, a community mural painter, arts therapist, social outreach worker, youth counsellor or educator is unlikely to be concerned about the public’s perception of assistance given to a disenfranchised group, regard- less of how conceptually aware as they might be. This dimension – along with balancing the nuanced power relations between participants – is part of these professions’ core values.
If there is a place where the commission has an unproblematic position it is in the world of applied design. In this field, the aspect of commercial exchange that is implicit in a commission is considered a publish- ing path full of potential. The brief, a document that sits between the patron/ client and the designer, plays an integral part in the physical manifestation of design practice. It is what Brian Massumi would call an “enabling constraint”.By contrast, artists commonly regard contractual relationships as a hindrance and source of compromise. Commercial representation, on the other hand, is seen as the manifestation of an artist’s practice in a different white cube.

Emily Floyd’s shows at Anna Schwartz Gallery adeptly circumvent these limitations, as her work self-referentially proclaims its status as décor, sold to a middle class that doesn’t mind a joke at its own expense as long as it confers cultural capital. The hidden contract between dealer and artist is different from springboard of the brief. For most designers, the brief is a consultative and shifting contract, requiring dialogue. Artists might benefit from adopting this approach. Instead of viewing the brief as a restrictive boundary, we could utilise as a chance to pursue unforseen directions and development of our practice by engaging in a dialogue with other voices. Since the art world has fetishised the singular artist’s intention as the fundamental interpretive and production tool, any interference with this sacrosanct convention is regarded as a compromise. As artists, we are complicit in the conceit that generates the myopic relationship connecting the studio bubble to the gallery and back again. Would the trip to a patron, who actually wants a slice of the artist’s practice, be such a compromise? The negative flipside of this – if the commission was the only publishing tool for the artist – might see creativity become hostage to the commercial imperative of user/audience pays. It is from these conditions that the compromise of the commission has been considered a negative condition for the process of art.
The very notion of compromise contradicts many of the deep values of the art world. For example, it opposes the ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ macho violence of some traditional site specific practices – Richard Serra, Walter de Maria and others – and counters Clare Bishop’s call to representational antagonism as a more faithful and critical form of social representation. Alternatively, the compromise of a commission could be seen as a space to start a conversation with someone about the role and material presence of our practices. We should not allow the cliché of the commission – as the replication of the likeness of a patron in oil on canvas – to limit our thinking.