A spark in the dark

Keith Gallasch

The 3-day ARC Art, Design & Craft Biennial, organised and hosted by Artworkers in Brisbane, was packed with speakers, good sized audiences for most sessions, and, while there was little time allocated to open discussion, unleashed some key issues which kept coming back at us. The gathering of artists, curators and writers from visual arts, craft, design, fashion and new media art from across Australia and beyond made discrete issues of form, criticism and survival mutually accessible and provided some intriguing insights in a time of great fluidity between practices and fields.

Evolution and environment

The opening session addressed the big picture, the evolution of art. The discussion focused on the context for survival and success. Cathy Hunt, Director of the arts consultancy, Positive Solutions, said that for “organisational success, you need a successful environment” where companies are in control of their own destiny, where research and development is built in and risk accepted, and the arm’s length funding principle maintained. She called for changes of attitude so that arts grants are seen as investment rather than handouts, and for sponsors to be called partners. I spoke of the need to see survival and growth in terms of networks and communities, as part of an arts ecosystem, organic and at odds with the forces of fragmentation, and requiring of governments devolution of funds to innovative organisations and consortia who are more in touch with artists and emerging practices. Robert Heather, the Director of Artspace Mackay described how a regional gallery strictly reliant on local support keeps itself in the loop from which governments would excise it by developing a strong regional presence (including the South Pacific) and touring shows.

The following session on artist-run intiatives covered familiar territory, but reminded us just what hard work such operations involve, how critical they are for the bottom-up emergence of new forms in the arts ecology, and how such ventures range from open-ended community-based models to highly focused micro-movements. One thing in particular stood out, a desire to loop into larger networks. For example, Rawspace in Brisbane brings together local and national curators in its program, and Rocket Arts in Newcastle features a mix of visiting and local artists. Isabela Pluta of Rocket Art spoke of the pride involved in being able to “export work.”

Art words

Edward Colless’ reverie on critical writing was apt for the wide-ranging ARC Biennial ambit. He declared Play Station 3 as “setting the cultural benchmark”, surveyed the stages of the Play Station evolution, and celebrated the advertising creations of filmmaker Chris Cunningham—“exquisitely empty stuff [going] directly to the adrenal gland.” Here was a writer talking honestly about what grabbed him and what he thought culturally significant. Rex Butler too spoke of the need “to respond to enigmas.” And both Butler and Tim Morrell spoke of “reviews that should aspire to be as good as art.” Colless’ droll forecast of “art criticism going off-world” in our culture of re-mix and post-production warrants elaboration and publication.

Designing women

Tracey Moffatt was one of several soloists in the conference who played to crowded houses. As stand-up artist Moffatt entertained us with a trip through her latest work with herself in the guise of powerful Scorpio women: Georgia O’Keefe, Hilary Clinton, Bonnie Raitt, Marie Curie, Joni Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Marcia Langton and many, many more, but not including Condoleeza Rice, whom she says she does not respect. Moffatt spoke of her art as arising from obsessions and the need to defeat boredom, which she described as an invaluable state; “creativity comes out of it” and growing up in Brisbane, she said, provided plenty of it.

Three emerging fashion designers spoke variously of the challenges of revealing and hiding the shape of the body, the dynamic of the useful versus the decorative, and the ethical commitment to sustainable materials, eg hemp instead of pollutant cotton. The work of one of the designers, using “a glove as point of departure”, was intriguing. The environment for these young designers is a tough one, a high cost Australian economy in which the target markets are small niches of the wealthy.

The cross-cultural test

Alison Carroll brought wit and wisdom to the issue of cross-cultural exchange, providing a chart with the categories ‘poor’, ‘fair’, ‘good’ and ‘excellent’ into which contacts between nations were allocated. India and Britain were ‘good’ in the 18th century, but not so good thereafter. Something positive was going on between India (Calcutta in particular) and Japan in the early 1900s. “Fragile…and not getting better” was how Carroll described the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. As for the USA, poor in all its cultural connections. And events? Venice Biennale, fair, Asia Pacific Triennial, excellent, and Asialink, her own organisation, 80% excellent. In playing this impressionistic game of evaluation, Carroll made us sit up and think, pinpointing how impact cannot be measured by media response, audience size, number of events and the budget scope. Less measurable indicators, but ones with long term impact, like establishing new horizons, the power of small moves, “touching souls”, and the heat generated, or that shiver up the spine, need to be acknowledged, said Carroll. Lee Weng Choy, director of Singapore’s The Substation, described his own “natural” cross-cultural evolution (involving Malaysia, USA, Philippines and Singapore), contrasting it with difficulties in S-E Asia: “there is no density of exchange, The Substation has to work for it.”

Skilling/de-skilling

There were 2 sessions devoted to “crossover.” While they were significant in bringing together visual art, craft and design, the absence of new media art in the mix was notable. There was occasional but incidental mention of digital work. Brian Parkes, Associate Director at Object (Sydney), described new works he’d seen recently in Europe including digital wallpaper (inspired by William Morris) and an intelligent coffee table able to stand on 2 legs if required. However, other themes began to emerge in “Crossover” that would continue to be addressed from various angles: technical training and the shifting lines bewtween art and craft, and the rise of design at craft’s expense.

The new meticulousness in the visual arts was noted, described as a “resurgence of the handmade”, epitomised by the presence of Fiona Hall on the panel. Hall described her commitment to “intricate crafting” as “connecting to the specificity of the natural world and the natural sciences.” She ascribed the technical foundations of her work to her 70s art school training in design, lettering, “a bit of sculpture”, welding, photography, and drawing (“like doing scales”)—even though finding her place in the art world took some time.

Although Noel Frankham (Professor of Art, Tasmanian School of Art), like the other panellists, applauded the retitling of the Australia Council’s Visual Arts & Craft Board as simply the Visual Arts Board in a time of great fluidity between forms, he worried that in the resultant “blur we might lose our language.” Likewise he opposed the functional jargon of the Creative Industries movement and its desire to “create and entertain.” Sketching a history of the fate of the craft field, he noted its continuing dimunition in art schools and the parallel evolution of marketplace-friendly design courses.

While some worried about the reduction in skills teaching in tertiary education, Adrian Clifford of the design group, Rizen, in another session, was concerned that a new emphasis on technical education was beginning to squeeze ideas and theory out of the universities.

New models

Discussing the relationship between art, science and technology, artists Keith Armstrong and Trish Adams, curator Julianne Pierce and SymbioticA’s Oron Catts outlined the challenges of collaborating with scientists—different ways of working, different expectations and the huge problem of ethical clearances—but also the pleasures of the process. A scientist working with an artist might be called upon to meet the artist’s vision with significant innovations (as in Pierce’s account of robotics scientists working with Mari Velonaki on her Fish-Bird project), or, as in Trish Adams’ case, the scientist might find their role exploratory rather than fully research-oriented. Catts detailed the possible levels of involvement and Pierce outlined the challenges to such work and to new media art in general—mainstream arts and media wariness, a limited gallery focus, a lack of curatorial training, and the functionalism of a Creative Industries approach recently evident in Australia Council CEO Jennifer Bott’s announcement at the Vital Signs conference (p35) that opportunities would be sought for the field in design and engineering!

The following session, New media—where to now? addressed different kinds of opportunities in the new media art engagement with the commercial sector (gaming) and arts institutions (artist and QUT lecturer Deb Polson on her innovative mobile phone commissions and for visitors in galleries in Victoria). Corporate interest in the potential of mobile phone art is also high said David Cranswick (dLux media arts) in his account of the Mobile Journeys project. On the one hand, new media artists don’t want to be relegated to the role of supportive technicians or content providers. On the other hand they want to make the most of the opportunities of new and multiple platforms for their work that could produce income and audiences. As Peter Giles of AFTRS says of the emerging communications model, “a project that spreads across platforms…is inherently both experimental and commercial at this crucial moment in development of the media” (see p21 on the LAMP intiative).

Design issues

For John Warwicker of the Tomato design team (UK), who collectively (if globally far flung) create commercial design for corporate clients as well as their own individual artworks, the line between experimental and commercial, and between design and art is thin indeed. Warwicker’s demonstration of un-fixed (constantly morphing) and label-less logos, spare, witty mobile phone visuals, a giant animated Absolut bottle on an airstrip and a massive chillout room in Japan, suggested the joy of creation and lateral thinking, and recalled Edward Colless’ “exquisite emptiness.” But like artists, Warwicker asks important questions: “What is a screen?” “What is a brand?” “What is change?” He answers: “Art is not change; what changes is the culture and the commodification of art to keep itself alive…[it’s] a primal process of being human.” This blunt Darwinism is matched by his retort to a query about working for the likes of Nike: Tomato has no group ethics, and he has to support mother, former wife and kids and second wife and child, pay 30% of his fee to Tomato and tax as well, leaving very little after earning twelve thousand five hundred pounds a month. Some laughed, some reflected on equivalent compromises between survival and conscience, if on a much smaller scale, in their own life and art.

If innovative art is finding more space in the advertising sphere, speakers on the public art panel gave a sad account of worrying trends: a demand for merely illustrative works, the squeezing out of dissent, art objects used as security barriers and, above all, the redefining and dimunition of public space.

Award-winning designers Alex Lotersztain and Brian Steendyk presented accounts of their fascinating works. Lotersztain is nomadic, working with communities in the Philippines and Africa, oscillating his focus between craft, art and design. In Africa he helped a community of expert basket weavers whose market was failing to come up with new designs with international appeal. Steendyk started out as an architect but moved into design, creating innovative chairs in plastic, and a desirable bath that looks like a hybrid of boat and chaise longue, a thing of beauty in itself. The fluidity of roles and forms in the work of these men is of the moment.

Critical limits

Matthew Collings, the British art critic tied himself (and us) in knots, apparently not happy that he’s popularised the contemporary art of which he is critical, and which, he says, is no less obsure for all its successful repackaging on TV and in galleries; unhappy too about the failure of his own painting to find a niche, and about the ills of postmodernism (“ban it”) despite admitting himself a product of it. As stand-up critic, Collings did a lot of quotable quipping which kept the audience agiggle if uncertain about where he was going (everywhere), declaring contemporary design often more interesting than art, craft as trying too hard to be art (“the Tracey Eminisation of craft”), but with a few interesting things to say about how—beyond the old standbys of form and colour—we read paintings, from Rubens to Pollack, which is about where he draws the line.

Wrap-up

There were other panels I didn’t get to, on Aboriginal art and markets; there was the Rawspace launch, too joyous and crowded to experience some good looking new media art, and there was the closing event, the bizarre Matthew Barney film, De Lama Lamina. This features a street pageant installation created in Bahia with the great Brazilian New York art-rocker Arto Lindsay. Lindsay’s band plays on the float, a performance artist above them builds a geodisic dome from a tree and, in the innards of the massive metal float below, a solarity figure masturbates against the rotating shaft of the engine. If this left us speechless, perhaps it was not a bad thing after 3 days and a zillion words spent worrying at the interplay of visual, art, craft, design and new media art in all their hybrid complexities and functional, educational and commerical perplexities.

If we were enlightened or not about any of this, there was no room for complacency. Speakers reminded us of the impending Anti-Terrorism Bill and its sedition section, of art funding limits and the ongoing difficulties in art education. I think it was Adrian Clifford who said in question time in his session, “We tend to think we’re at the end of history and that there’s little to do, which is garbage. We’ll look back on now as the dark ages.” Artworkers cast a little much needed light, an arc-ing spark in the dark, with a very welcome ARC Biennial.

Artworkers, ARC, Art, Design & Craft Biennial, Brisbane Town Hall, Oct 28-30

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 52,

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005