The outsider gallery

Alex Gawronski

At a recent Sydney forum on artist-run spaces, an observer suggested that rather than offering a radical alternative, such spaces merely mimic dominant commercial models, maintaining the status quo by reiterating the hierarchical prestige of those venues. If this is the case, then the frequently cited adage that artist-run spaces are merely the training grounds for tomorrow’s (commercially) successful contemporary artists would necessarily be true. So if artist-run spaces no longer fulfil any experimental or broad cultural purpose, where does that purpose lie today? If the artist’s self-directed conviction in do-it-yourself practices is still alive then where is it found?

A series of events and propositions exist that confound and complicate simplistic notions of artist coordinated events as well as the roles of ‘traditional’ artist-run spaces. Some of these have taken contemporary work outdoors for brief periods. Others have hijacked the physical and conceptual boundaries of the gallery while at the same time questioning existing spatial models of contemporary practice. Still others have utilised the 4 walls of the gallery but for widely divergent ambitions, more aligned to the utopian politics of direct action. Of course none of these are ‘new’ or unique historically. What they demonstrate, however, is the return and continued vitality of thinking resistant to readily available precursors. Such efforts promise to render the exchange between artist, gallery, public venue and community more fluid and, at the same time, less definable.

In 1998 a one-off project titled Glovebox was launched. It was overseen by Simon Barney and Chris Fortesque, directors of the now defunct South gallery in Surry Hills. Glovebox occurred on the top storey of a carpark close to Sydney’s Central Station. The premise of the exhibition was explorative and vaguely irreverent. Artists were asked to install work in the gloveboxes of friends’ or other artists’ cars. On a nominated date, which became the standard opening, cars containing completed works congregated at the aforementioned venue. As cars were parked, visitors and drivers were able to roam among them investigating the art on show. Such work varied dramatically from the ironic to the deadly earnest. It spanned everything from more conventional media like painting and photography to free-form audio compositions designed to be played on car stereos for extended periods. The work in Glovebox ranged from highly intricate installations to wry minimalist gestures.

What distinguished the show was its expanded thinking on what constitutes an exhibition. Aligned with this thinking were the obvious suggestions of mobility and direct interchange between artists and general car-owners. Glovebox exploited the symbolic reverberation of cars in Australian culture that remains highly charged. Although in certain respects simply an exhibition in an alternative venue, the show was equally a parody and skewed celebration of the car-meet or car-boot sale. While free of artist run space nominalism, Glovebox was generated from the activities of such a space and at least partially from the inherent frustrations of its daily coordination. Also challenging was the implied durational aspect of the event. Participants were asked to caretake the work in their cars for a period of at least 2 months. In this time such work might travel considerable distances and to places not normally associated with contemporary art. Glovebox set a precedent for the alternative reception of contemporary art in Sydney.

Partly influenced by the social and artistic success of Glovebox was KWL (Keep Within the Lines). Once again this was an event staged in a public carpark. The Seymour Centre carpark adjacent to Sydney University is a central and spacious venue that provides additional panoramic views of the surrounding area. KWL was organised by Josie Cavallaro, Sarah Goffman and Lisa Kelly, 3 Sydney-based artists who approached the university to use the site. Artists were invited to produce work in direct response to the physical confines of the standard parking space. Such work might specifically address the nature of the carpark environment and its attendant conceptual underpinnings. On the other hand it might appropriately engage the basic dimension of the parking space. In the former category was the Duchampian display of an immaculate lime green Torana propped in mid air. Related works included: an installed car-stereo and speakers that emitted the phantasmic repetitive splutters of a car failing to start; a rooftop display of pyrotechnics courtesy of a rocket-propelled trolley; a self-regulating fountain-come-shower and clusters of small grotesque heads grimacing as though in imminent threat of annihilation by an arriving vehicle.

Once again the possibilities for social interaction were emphasised, particularly in lieu of the carpark’s general accessibility. In this instance the focus of the event was orientated more towards concepts of modular containability than duration. KWL questioned the compartmentalisation of contemporary practices by humorously overlaying them with standardised concepts of urban separation. Once again the spectre of the car, that modern civilian container par-excellence, was conjured in its absence. Through recourse to the parking space, KWL cast a wry and questioning eye over the premises of both artist-run and commercial spaces. Most of the participants were regular exhibitors in either or both.

Returning to the 4 walls of the gallery—though in an activist guise—were the activities of now defunct Squatspace. As the name suggests, Squatspace was an adjunct of those buildings (with squatters) on the busy thoroughfare of Sydney’s Broadway. The location has undergone one of the most dramatic transformations in recent local history, converted from a strip of disused or under-subscribed businesses to an area marked by a constant stream of pedestrian and road traffic. Most of this is primarily the result of the multi-million dollar redevelopment of the Grace Brothers buildings nearby.

Squatspace grew out of intense conviction in self-reliance and disillusionment in the escalating commercial structures re-shaping Sydney. As a gallery, Squatspace superficially resembled many other artist-run spaces, coordinated principally by the artists Lucas Ihlein and Mickie Quick, and supported by a team of indispensable helpers including lawyers, musicians and performers. What marked Squatspace was not only its mode of operation but its public association with squatters’ rights and ongoing tussles with local council. The highly visible location meant that it was a target for oppositional attacks by members of the public and others. Significant to its practices was its embrace of generally unfashionable forms of overtly politicised art: poster making, pamphleteering, performance and other activities flippantly considered ‘marginal’ to dominant modes of contemporary cultural production.

Squatspace generated a climate of public engagement by inviting people for free dinners, discussions and films. Within this climate the art displayed was varied and often far from flawless. Its importance, like that of the projects previously mentioned, lay in its open critique of the broader function of art in society. Rather than accepting art’s contemporary role as a self-contained given, the projects discussed here assist in exploding its possibilities in multiple directions. They require serious consideration no matter how humorous or novel they seem at first. At the same time, the metamorphic quality of such projects questions the place and reception of art as a living, interactive entity. No matter what their ultimate results, such practices promise something more vital than the simple justification of career demands.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 26

© Alex Gawronski; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001