The Darwin and the Art of Evolution Conference was held at the Art Gallery of NSW in September 2010. It was convened by Fay Brauer of the University of NSW and Tony Bond of AGNSW. Speakers at the two day conference covered a range of material both popular and scientific that developed around Charles Darwin’s theories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and one session had a panel of four contemporary artists interested in Darwinian theories. I never found out why it was held in 2010 when the real Darwin action was in his bicentenary year 2009 and although I was a bit of a late entrant as a speaker I am also still puzzled about why Tony asked me if I was absolutely certain that I wanted to do it. Anyway, I was part of the contemporary artists session with Lisa Roet and her beautiful primate drawings and sculptures, Stelarc and his always astonishing technological enhancements of the human body and Brook Andrew who had been working with the 19th century aboriginal portrait photos that had featured earlier in the conference. We each gave a 20 minute talk about our own work and its Darwinian influences. What amazed me was that I was the only speaker in the entire two day conference who mentioned the word meme.
This is my paper and its accompanying slides.
This conference is called The Art of Evolution.
Let me start by noting that almost everything we have seen at this conference, regardless of it’s exact subject, has discussed iconography in some way.
Pretty much all of it has assumed that we are all approximately in agreement when we talk about art and artists and artworks, whatever the media and whatever their position on the high to low culture scale.
However, I’m afraid I come at this subject from an entirely different direction, seeing the range of activities that make up the art world from a view point that is known as universal Darwinism, the use of Darwinian concepts of evolution and adaptation to explain a wider range of phenomena than just organic evolution.
I think we all now exist in a culture that is awash with Darwinian concepts, most of them unacknowledged. In my early years, for instance, as a young artist I think I held a view which is pretty much the status quo in the art world to this day, a view that art was a clearly definable and distinct human activity and that within it’s boundaries it progressed, evolved into myriad styles in a way that could easily compare to a Darwin chart of the evolution of species.
This is a 1936 chart by Alfred Barr then Director of New York Museum of Modern art. Similar to an evolutionary chart for organisms but lots of cross species miscegenation you could say, and that to some extent exposes both the fallacy and the potential of that viewpoint. Indeed art styles are rather like Patricia Piccinini organisms, mixing up genes from the most unlikely forebears and producing creatures far less plausible than the platypus.
And in my early years like most young artists I combined a naively opinionated world view with an insatiable appetite for what was fashionable in art
shaped canvas from 1967
later shaped canvases from 1968
and a belief that I could be successful by catching the wave of the latest fashionble style as it came through. Again, I think this par for the course.
installation from 1969
There was however a bit of a reality test because I also believed that the reason styles changed was not just a question of fashion but rather that the world constantly changed and art inevitably changed to reflect that.
drawing for Walk Along This Line 1970
But let me go back slightly. I had spent most of my early childhood in a small town called Wallerawang, just below the western escarpment of the Blue Mountains between Lithgow and Bathurst. My first few years of school were there and my family had lived there for generations. It is also, I would add, on Wiradjuri land, or at least the on the border between Wiradjuri and Gundangara and Dharug country although I’m sure Brook Andrews will tell you about that.
It also happened to be the place where Charles Darwin spent more time than anywhere else in inland Australia at Wallerawang Station, the homestead of James Walker, a prominent pastoralist.
It was here that he shot (shock horror) and studied a platypus and it was here on the 19th January 1836 that he wrote in his diary about his observations of ant-lions:
…I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country compared to the rest of the World. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object is the same & certainly the end in each case is complete”.
This comment is probably the first indication of the line of thought that soon blossomed into the theory of evolution. What was happening here was that in the Galapagos Darwin began to realise that a single species could diverge to make use of a range of available ecological niches. In Wallerawang he began to realise that the opposite could also occur, that differing species could converge in order to exploit similar ecological niches, in other words for all its apparent eccentricity the platypus occupied a similar environmental niche as say the water vole in Britain.
I’m not entirely sure how I ever stumbled across Darwin’s connection to my hometown because it was completely unacknowledged in the area but as a result in 1969 while working at the Mitchell Library, my first job after leaving school, I found and read everything I could about Darwin’s voyage in the Beagle and the theory of evolution.
As a result of this and a range of other influences from Marshall McLuhan’s writing on media to anarchist writers like Kropotkin (Faye Brauer’s talk this morning made clear the connection between Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and the progressive version of social darwinist thought) and the sadly under rated anarcho- syndicalist writer Rudolf Rocker I had developed a hodge podge theory of culture and cultural activism as the bedrock of human cultural evolution. In this picture art, its institutions and markets were simply a parasitic offshoot of a broader human creative impulse that itself was only part of human social ecology. I had clumsily tried to develop this viewpoint in an essay for Victorian National Gallery’s 1973 Object and Idea exhibition titled New Artist and the pursuit of a definition of what it is to be an artist has been central to my work ever since.
media report on 1970 doormat work
My late 60s hard edge paintings and conceptualist works had reflected this. By 1971 the work I was doing was about generating interactions between viewers in the gallery space when it occurred to me then that if my work could be considered art there were others making social and cultural interventions in the built environment on a much grander scale than I could imagine and they too should be considered as artist. I’m talking of course about the NSW Builders Labourers Federation and the Green Ban movement which was just starting to really fire up at this stage. And while the green ban movement represented an extraordinary opportunity for participatory politics involvement was, in any case, forced on me because the area where I lived on the edge of Victoria Street in Potts Point was being taken over by developers.
my article critiquing the Victoria Street barricades
I became one of the founders of the Victoria Street Resident Action Group, the resident group that was subjected to the most extreme levels of violence including bashings, kidnapping and ultimately murder. But one of our actions was to set up the first urban squat since the great depression, a revival of a form of action that proliferated through inner city areas, survives to this day and has generated a number of temporary hot beds of artistic activity. The image is an article I wrote in one of our publications at the time. And I learned an important lesson. If you really are effective at threatening the status quo they will kill you. Nature is red in tooth and claw even at the level of competing ideas.
from an article I wrote on the experience of Victoria Street
This consumed my life for around two years but after the trauma of the Victoria St experience I attempted again to develop my ideas within the art world. With the support of Daniel Thomas I began to curate an exhibition on the work of P A Yeomans, an agricultural engineer and machinery manufacturer who I described to people at the time as ‘the Australian Capability Brown” because of the way he had developed techniques for farming that worked with the natural Australian landscape rather than attempting to superimpose a european model upon it. At the time Yeomans was only known in farming circles where he was a controversial figure opposing the growing emphasis on chemical based farming but he is now seen as an almost mythical figure, the great forerunner of permaculture and industrial scale organic farming in Australia. My real point however was to make the case that cultural change, in the sense of a shift in the way we humans understand the world and act in it, is only occasionally generated in the art world yet it was the people who could produce this cultural change who should be regarded as artists. The exhibition should have been rubber stamped by the AGNSW trustees but to our shock they intervened and rejected it as “just a trade show”. As Joanna Mendehlssohn pointed out to me recently it was that same board of trustees who also rejected the donation of a Christo work because it was just a gum tree wrapped in plastic. I wondered if it ever occurred to them that their galley was full of just bits of fabric with paint on them.
From this point on I devoted my time to a range of cultural activist activities. I worked with Frank Watters on the Hunter Valley Coal project, a series of exhibitions in the Hunter valley of art and artefacts that responded to the growing threat of large scale coal mining in the valley that has now to a large extent destroyed much of the valley. I worked with Ian Burn, Terry Smith and Nigel Lendon who had just returned from New York – and a large group of others – to set up the Media Action Group producing slide shows targeted at education institutions analysing the mass media and advertising and the biased treatment of issues like uranium mining.
our 1978 publication discussing the Sydney Biennale
A large group of us lobbied for equal representation of both Australian and women artists in the Sydney Biennale, a movement that eventually led to us setting up the ArtWorkers Union, now amalgamated with Actors Equity and Australian Journalists Association to form the Media Alliance.
And with some Media Action Group members and a trade union journalist Dale Keeling I then set up Union Media Services where with Ian Burn and a number of other artists we developed the first Australian social marketing agency running campaigns and publications for trade unions, community groups and government departments.
One of our clients was the Australia Council who we worked closely with to develop the Art and Working Life programme supporting artists and cultural activities in the workplace and eventually one of their largest programmes.
Union Media Services wrote and produced numerous Australia Council publications
What all these activities had in common was they involved working collaboratively in groups, they targeted areas of cultural fracture as areas of opportunity and rather than aiming to produce artworks they aimed to create ongoing social organisations and activities. In other words we were creating organisms capable of surviving and evolving in a Darwinian social ecology. I would add that we were mostly successful and many of these activities still continue in some way, have grown or else evolved into something different since we began them.
Now I’m sure many of you at this point can see where this is headed.
In 1976, a few years before this, Richard Dawkins had written The Selfish Gene where he coined the word “meme” as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. To quote thwink.org, an online organisation devoted to analysing the processes of developing sustainability solutions
In 1976, in the final chapter of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins dropped a bombshell. In a few quick paragraphs he sketched out what memes are, why they existed, and why they were so crucial to the study of all species whose niche dominance requires a strong culture. The potential of social engineering has not been the same since, because now we can apply all the principles of evolution to learned, memetic behavior, rather than just innate, genetically based behavior. In other words, cultural engineering is now as realistic as any other branch of engineering.
I can only agree, to me also it was a bombshell. When I finally read the book at this time in the early 80s I realised that this was what I, and the various people I had been collaborating with, had been doing, that finally there was a language to describe it. We all saw ourselves as artists but rather than creating art works like paintings or sculptures, physical objects that could be easily exhibited and traded, we had been creating new memes or reviving and adapting existing ones.
At this point I would strongly recommend the work of Susan Blackmore, her 1999 book The Meme Machine takes Dawkin’s work and explores and expands the concept of memes. To quote Wikipedia – another meme which as we know is never wrong
“Blackmore’s treatment of memetics insists that memes are true evolutionary replicators, a second replicator that like genetics is subject to the Darwinian algorithm and undergoes evolutionary change.
Incidentally, I would also strongly recommend thwink.orgs paper The Memetic Evolution of Solutions to Difficult Problems.
the memetic universal problem solver
From that we finally have the universal problem solver and proof that often the solution to a problem is often just a new problem.
I would add that my old friend Donald Brook also had a similar realisation and he has written about it extensively in recent times.
But if, as I do, you begin to define artists as cultural or memetic innovators then this also casts the art world in a rather different light as well.
For starters many people, perhaps even most, who currently define themselves as artists fall outside the category artist because they manufacture objects that conform to an existing meme. As memetic replicators rather than memetic innovators they are artisans rather than artists.
I would add diplomatically that all my other panellists here most definitely do fall into the category of memetic innovators.
On the other hand other large groups of people who would never consider themselves artists would now fall into the category of artist. PA Yeomans who I mentioned earlier is a good example.
Furthermore on that basis the institutional art world becomes barely relevant – although it is a meme in its own right it can be seen as a parasitic meme, a “selfish” meme as Dawkins would describe it, that has attached itself to the larger human impulse of cultural innovation which it then diverts and exploits to suit its own ends in much the same way that organised religion is a parasitic meme on natural human morality.
Art works also lose their position as a special category of human production, they can be seen as little more than souvenirs or relics or merchandise that are retained to remind us of the real action, the changes in cultural memes that the artist has helped bring about. In other words in this schema the relationship between the art market and real artists is pretty much the same as the relationship between the bottle collector market and beer manufacturers.
I would suggest in passing at this point that even though memetics is still a discipline in its infancy and riven with factions and complications we may well see it ultimately subsume art history and most other forms of cultural studies.
if to be an artist means you must be a cultural activist of some sort, if being an artist is not defined by producing a particular sort of stuff, namely art works, that are then distributed through commercial galleries and shown in the art institutions that act as fluffers for the art market, but rather artist is a title that has to be earned through demonstrating memetic innovation, then what should an aspiring artist be doing now?
Well, as animals that are the replicators of memes we are to put it bluntly facing extinction, in fact we and our memes have brought about the likely mass extinction of much of the life on the planet.
Our ability to generate memes is the characteristic above others that has brought us to such domination of the planet, memes such as scientific method have brought us understanding, our technological memes have brought us wealth and health. But our other memes of such as consumerism, corporate personhood and extremist capitalism have brought us to the brink of complete catastrophe.
As has been discussed previously, extinction is a fundamental part of the process of evolution. On the comparatively rare occasions that I exhibit in conventional art environments, imminent death and extinction is usually my theme and has been for the last twenty years.
The Brief History of the Human Race 1992
This is a set of large scale computer prints from 1992 called “The brief history of the human race”.
The Tree of Life 2006
The Arcadia Tables 2008
these are from the last ten years,
Portrait and a dream 2010
and this is from an exhibition this year.
But it’s not really my personal death that concerns me, it is the extinction of all that surrounds me. This fact above all is what we need to adapt to or rather what we need to adapt to avoid.
Vanity table 2010
This is also from an exhibition this year.
Although extinction is as much a part of theory of evolution as successful adaptation the irony here is that we may become extinct not because of an organic failure to adapt but rather because of the inability of our memes, like extreme capitalism, to adapt.
On the other hand all memes have one delightful aspect, that they are effectively Lamarkian, they can acquire new characteristics within a generation that will then be passed on. We can all develop mutations of a meme and if we are successful in imposing them then those mutations will for a time be transmitted, at least until natural selection culls the least advantageous of them. It is within our power to change our memes and change them quite rapidly if we have the will.
With this in mind my personal choice about 8 years ago was to move back to Wallerawang,
an area that is now almost post apocalyptic, a wasteland of power stations and coal mines, a rust belt area in the bush surrounded by beautiful and spectacular mountain escarpments. And an area that is economically dependent on coal mining and coal fired power stations, an area that is in the most direct way busily constructing the end of the world as we know it. I’ve always liked to be where the action is.
My local community will directly suffer from any adoption of the only real solution to climate change, the immediate closure of the coal mining industry. If that solution is to occur, and it must occur as soon as possible, then these communities must be looked after, helped to make the transition to new economies.
My agenda has been to use my skills – artistic and political – to tackle the issues of climate change at the pointy end. I have now been appointed to the Lithgow Councils Economic Development Advisory Committee and also their Environment Advisory Committee where I am assisting in the development of new economic models for the area, models that include more renewable energy but also a role for the creative industries particularly design and content production industries, niche manufacturing and heritage tourism. And I am working with the council to develop arts projects that can carefully shift community attitudes, to help them face the inevitable.
And I’ve paid my respects to Darwin.
My wife Wendy and I set up a local branch of the National Trust which then raised money to erect a belated monument to Darwin and the unfortunate platypus whose descendants still live nearby. It’s close to the site of the homestead, now underwater beneath the ironically name Lake Wallace in a park that we have got renamed in his honour. The platypus is by a local sculptor Tim Johnman and the metalwork by another local sculptor Phil Spark.
And I also have begun exhibiting more and speaking at events like this in order to try and poke at the art world meme. Even if I believe the art system is essentially parasitic it’s single saving grace is a belief in the value of innovation, in what might be called pure cultural research even if it exists more in the PR than reality.
I would recommend a visit to the exhibition In The Balance at the MCA right now. The exhibition’s feebleness illustrates what’s wrong about art world institutions but on the other hand Lucas Ihlein’s environmental audit work, the historical campaign photography of Olegas Truchanas, the work of Catherine Rogers, Diego Bonetti and a few other works illustrate whats right, what can be done and what needs to be done.
But my personal message about the art system meme is short and one that I am sure Darwin would have agreed with if he was here.
Adapt or Die tshirt 2010
It is simply – Adapt or die!
Posted: May 29th, 2011
, Art and Working Life
, Art Workers Union
, Brook Andrew
, Charles Darwin
, Daniel Thomas
, Donald Brook
, Fay Brauer
, Frank Watters
, Ian Burn
, Joanna Mendehlssohn
, Lisa Roet
, Media Action Group
, Nigel Lendon
, P A Yeomans
, Richard Dawkins
, Susan Blackmore
, Terry Smith
, the awful trith about what art is
, The Meme Machine
, The Selfish Gene
, Tony Bond
Comments: No Comments
I produced a lot of work between the late 1960s and early 1972 when I stopped showing in galleries. There are at least 1200 drawings still in existence from this period, mostly for works that have never been exhibited. The works that were exhibited are usually just one of a series of variations and there may even be multiple drawings for each of them, usually a very rough sketch, a more formal drawing and sometimes even more finished drawings that could be described as art works in their own right. Oddly enough they are almost the only finished works from that time because almost from the start I treated drawings as manufacturing plans in the expectation that the finished work, even when they were hard edged shaped canvases, could be destroyed and recreated multiple times.
This work from 1970 is a typical example. It was first shown in the Contemporary Art Society Annual Exhibition at Farmers Blaxland Gallery Sydney. The show opened on October 28, the day before my 20th birthday. Even though Walk Along This Line which was shown at almost the same time is now better known, this work received more publicity at the time.
It consisted of two sheets of foam rubber 3 inches (75mm) thick with my name and the date stencilled on each end. There were two pieces because it was not possible to get a single piece wide enough for the door.I stencilled the name and date was because at this time I still felt a need to do something that indicated in some way that this was a work of art. I have dropped the stencilling when the work has been remade for later exhibitions. Also at this time I used yellow foam, in later versions it has been pink or blue, simply because the colour is irrelevant.
The work received some mass media shock horror attention, as did John Armstrong’s and Neil Evan’s
and I was also interviewed several times for radio, a nasty experience as it turned out, leading to my first realisation of how smarmy and untrustworthy journalists can be and how straightforward statements can be twisted in order to ridicule you – nothing much has changed there except for the worse.
Only two months earlier James Gleeson had devoted an entire lengthy review to condemning me, starting off with:
The more comfortable line of approach would be to accept Milliss as juvenile joker – he is barely 20 – and let it all go with a laugh.
Yet when one begins to probe into his ideas … the uncomfortable conviction begins to emerge that Milliss is serious and is concerned with some fundamental issues about the nature of art
This time, faced with several more like minded artists he feared for the future of western civilisation:
He wants $13 for a piece of string
At the thirty-second annual exhibition of the New South Wales division of the Contemporary Art Society at the Blaxland Gallery there is an exhibition (Catalogue No.13) by Neil Evans called “Tramseat VI”.
It is a piece of string stretched below an awning in the Gallery – nothing more. Price: $13.
Ian Milliss exhibits an untitled work of two mats of sponge rubber at the entrance so visitors must walk over them. Price: $350.
Peter Kennedy shows four photographs of sheep at a reasonable $50, and John Armstrong has hung some pieces of marble from a branch of dead wood for $200.
They are works of so-called Conceptual Art.
As one who firmly believes art should be an open-ended process, and that it should be the inalienable right of artists to explore to the limits of their imaginative reach, I would be the last to reject such works on the very dubious grounds that they had nothing whatever to do with art.
They are concerned with art, but their ideas about art are such that their work bears no immediately recognisable relationship with anything hitherto passed for art in man’s long history as a creative animal.
It might be wiser to give such works a different designation.
If we call them “quasi-art” or “quasart” it might help overcome the kind of mental boggling that occurs wen we try to accommodate Evans’ piece of string and Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling under the same umbrella wrd – “Art”.
Wrappers, like Christo, earthworkers and conceptualists like Evans, Milliss, Kennedy and Armstrong, are quasartists because they have rejected all modes, elements and techniques of art as it has been understood to the present day.
Others, like the minimalists and colour-field painters, reject most things, but remain linked with tradition through their interest in, and concentration on, colour – one of the most abiding elements in art.
If quasart turns out to be a true portent, then we will have to fix on some date in the second half of the twentieth century as a watershed marking: the division between two quite different notions concerning the nature of art.
This of course, is what the conceptualists and other quasartists would like to achieve.
But is seems unlikey their theories will effectively replace a tradition enriched by experience and of such dynamic character.
It is more likely these revolutionary contributions will in time be studied as interesting though aberrant forms thrown up by a culture undergoing a sharp nervous crisis.
Whether one thinks of such works as inspired or misguided, they cetainly help to make the exhibition a stimulating eperience.
Works by Gunter Christmann, who won the Hunter Douglas Luxaflex Prize, Col Jordan, Joseph Szabo, Guy Warren, William Peascod, Michael Schlieper or Giselle Antman, which yesterday would have seemed daringly avant-garde, are suddenly seen as establishment pieces threatened by a new wave of radicals.
Donald Brook was in agreement that this exhibition was symptomatic of art reaching a sort of watershed but he was pleased to see it as an occasion to put the boot into formalism and by implication the CAS’s recently retired long term president, the artist, critic, advocate of formalism and unrepentant cold war warrior Elwyn Lynn:
Show that says: Attack
The Contemporary Art Society of NSW has not developed as one might have hoped into an Institute of Contemporary Art on the London model.
Instead it has remained a loose association mainly of artists struggling along from one committee take-over to the next inside a framework of earnest meetings and depressing exhibitions that used to be dedicated to the great Australian post-Dada anti-art tradition of the fair go.
But the last two annual exhibitions have been different. Last year the show had a firm style bias that transformed it (unfairly) into something pleasurable to see.
And this year, although variety is back, there is a lively sense of attack and involvement in new ideas.
There is, indeed, about as much post-painting as there is painting, and the society seems to be on the brink of abandoning its 32-year-old conviction that the only real art form is the handcrafted, wall-mounted coloured rectangle.
They just don’t write fun reviews like those any more. A year later Donald Brook reproduced the top photo in an article he wrote on young Australian artists for the UK art magazine Studio International.
But all of that begs the question of what on earth did I think I was doing. For much of 1970 I had been preoccupied with defining the essential characteristics of art, as Gleeson and Brook both recognised. On the one hand you could see this as a dadaist gesture, art being contemptuously treated as a doormat, but although it had that provocative gesture aspect that just wasn’t my thing. In fact it had come about as a natural extension of 1969 works that manipulated gallery spaces by outlining them with rope or tape or extending them with extra walls or corridors. As a result I then became interested in controlling the way people moved through the spaces and the way they interacted with each other. But there was another issue related to defining what physically constituted a work of art. I increasingly used parts of the gallery and gallery fittings or incorporated other pre-existing objects into the work so that it became increasingly difficult to define what was or was not part of the art work. There was certainly no simple object hand made by the artist that could be defined as the art work. Thirdly I was irritated by performance art which I considered little more than bad theatre or on the rare occasion that it was not boring then it was little more than mediocre theatre. It did nothing to question the essential viewer/artwork(or artist performer) relationship that concerned me so I decided to turn it on its head and make the viewer – if they could be called that – into the performer. If the viewer did not perform the artwork then it did not exist, the action and consequences were the art work, not the physical bits of sponge rubber. Essentially in the end rather than creating art works I was setting up conditions in which art works of a sort could occur, in this case the audience could stumble in an uneasy way across the suddenly unstable floor surface.
These seem to be the original rough drawings:
In the formal drawing that followed it is grey sponge
but in the drawing done for the specific installation it is blue.
At that time in early to mid 1970 I did drawings for an incredible number of works around doorways, blocking them, extending them, manipulating the rooms behind them. There are dozens of variations for even the simple scenario of putting something in front of a doorway that must then be walked over, everything from water or flour or sugar ,
trays of gravel,
Looking at them now I find it impossible to hide the fact that there seems to be some sort of personal psychological issue involved. It seems I was struggling to get through to somewhere else but I couldn’t quite do it and these works seem to symbolise that. By the end of 1970 I had passed through that doorway because I finally worked out the way forward. A whole different phase began where I had a decreasing need to produce exhibitable objects of any sort.
The work has been shown twice since 1970. It was in Off the Wall / In the Air: A Seventies Selection (curator Jennifer Phipps) at ACCA Melbourne in 1991 and in Monochromes curated by David Pestorius at the University Art Museum, Brisbane in 2000. At the ACCA exhibition it quickly became a real eyesore, caked with mud walked in from the gallery’s garden setting. At the Monochrome exhibition it was set outside the lift where it remained monochrome for the first ten minutes of the exhibition. Perhaps it was to preserve its monochrome nature or perhaps it was for the risk averse insurance regime of the 21st century that the lift was soon switched off and people were prevented from walking on it for the rest off the exhibition, or so I was told. You have to laugh. Future versions will no doubt be handled with white cotton gloves. In the case of the original, when I got it back I gave it a good wash and used it as a mattress for the next few years.
Incidentally the original photo was taken by the sculptor Noel Hutchinson and the sandal wearing gent is Weaver Hawkins, an extraordinary artist who was an original member of the Vorticist group, badly injured in WWI (hence the awkward looking arm) and later migrated to Australia. At the time I found his work a bit odd and disconcerting, too strange to even be described as unfashionable, now I admire it tremendously, particularly the landscapes and although I was acquainted with him I wish now that I had been better friends with him and talked to him more.
Posted: May 29th, 2011
, conceptual art
, Contemporary Art Society
, Donald Brook
, Elwyn Lynn
, Farmers Blaxland Gallery
, James Gleeson
, John Armstrong
, Neil Evans
, performance art
, Peter Kennedy
, walk along this line
Comments: No Comments
The Barricades was written in January 1974 for The City Squatter,
the newspaper we published within a few days of the massive police raid that closed down the Victoria Street squat and forced the Resident Action Group out of the buildings we had occupied for most of 1973.
The complete text is at the end of this post.
Throughout 1973 I had been engaged almost full time in activities around Victoria Street, Green Bans and the resident action movement. This had been a straightforward development for me. In 1971 my work had at first been about involving the art audience in the art work through games that required them to interact with the work or with each other in some way, or created some sort of physical involvement with the gallery or other space – I’ll post some of these works later. This evolved from an engagement with the physical spaces of the art world and later led into an engagement with its infrastructure both in recognisably conventional ways (eg editing the Contemporary Art Society Broadsheet) and less conventional ways (eg in late 1971 entering the Contemporary Art Society annual art prize with a letter to the judges saying I deserved the prize because I had received more publicity in the preceding year than any other entrant). I was also writing to people suggesting ways they could alter their living spaces and around this time I began to write my New Artist essay for the NGV’s Object and Idea exhibition. It slowly occurred to me that if I could still be regarded as an artist (as it seems I undoubtedly was) then there were others who were also involved in manipulating the social relationships surrounding the use of space and the city on a far grander scale than I could and that was the NSW Builders’ Labourers Federation. I started saying that they were the greatest living Australian artists and I started including things about their activities in the CAS Broadsheet.
At the same time that I was developing my contacts with the builders labourers, Victoria Street, Potts Point, near where I lived in St Neot Avenue, virtually exploded into warfare when Frank Theeman, a developer who had bought up a large stretch of the street, began a vicious process of forced evictions and demolitions. At first I was only slightly involved but then got pulled in completely when Arthur King, the main organiser of the resident action group, disappeared – kidnapped by the developers thugs and held in a car boot for several days as we later found out. From that point on a group of us, mostly Push members, set up headquarters in the former stables at the rear of one of the buildings. For months we fought an ongoing battle against the developer, eventually setting up the first large scale squat in Australia since the Great Depression. In January 1974 we were eventually forced out when hundreds of police and “security” thugs moved in and arrested us all, smashed everything usable in the street – every kitchen and bathroom, every window and door – and erected a barbed wire fence around it all.
The barricades article was written a few days later. At the same time I co-wrote another article In Memory of Victoria Street with my close friend Teresa Brennan and the publication also contained articles by Wendy Bacon, Anne Summers, Roelof Smilde, Darcy Waters, Sasha Soldatow, Liz Fell and others that detailed our research into the corruption behind the development. This research was the beginning of the wave of investigative journalism that over the next few years exposed the rampant corruption in NSW politics and the police force.
This is one of those things that has far more significance for its author than is obvious because in writing it I finally got clear in my head how political activism could be understood in terms of my previous more conventional activities as an artist. It was not in any way a theoretical paper but rather an example of how you could apply art world skills to other situations and so it opened up a way forward for me even though I did not know of anyone else who was thinking the same way – of course now via the internet I would instantly be able to find hundreds of people all over the world doing the same thing but then in 1974 in Australia it was a lonely and isolated position.
This “review” told the story of one aspect of the squat’s history and contained useful information about how not to build barricades yet it also gently satirised the art world and the uselessness of the products that it produced. Something I had been thinking about was that most of the objects in museums had an earlier utilitarian purpose (eg religious altar pieces, political and religious propaganda, topographical or personal documentation) before ending up as objects of aesthetic contemplation. In a gently satirical way I treated the barricades as if they were sculptures, more comforting aesthetic decoration than utilitarian protection, as events proved. Because the barricades were pretty useless they could only be seen as art for art’s sake. Had I been an Art & Language member I probably would have written a lengthy and incomprehensible theoretical paper about this, but my more activist inclinations led me to write this parody of an art review.
Nonetheless, as I said, it was personally important because it really marked the point where I stopped feeling any need for validation from the art world, from this point on for me the art world just became another audience segment, occasionally worthy of attention but no more worthy than any other audience segment. Political activism I now could see was just one of many activities you could undertake as an artist if the activism created cultural change. But it
would will be hilarious if when my copy of “The City Squatter” containing this article itself one day resides in an art museum thus completing the cycle.
The illustrations were not by me, ironically my drawings were too spindly and arty to reproduce well, they were redrawn for publication by Val Hodgson, an architecture student member of the group. The lettering may have been a Letraset novelty font but it may have been hand lettered by Jenny Coopes, I’m not sure now. I have been told by friends in London that this article achieved brief world wide fame when it was reproduced widely in urban squatters publications in the UK and Europe but I have never seen any evidence of this.
Then passed along the order
That a fortress should be made
And soon, with planks and palings
We constructed the stockade.
We worked in teeth set silence,
For we knew what was in store:
Sure never men defended
Such a feeble fort before.
from ‘A Ballad of Eureka’ by Creeve Roe, 1901
Work began on the Victoria Street barricades early in December, and continued for three weeks. It commenced with the indications that squatter Cox’s appeal was to be dismissed, and that police action against the rest of the squatters would probably follow.
Initially we had fantasies that our work would compare with that done by French architecture students in 1969. They had taken over several derelict buildings and rebuilt them as community centres for migrant workers. When the authorities moved in they were so well barricaded that the buildings had to be demolished around them.
While the Victoria Street barricades were aesthetically pleasing and structurally decorative, they were comparatively useless, as even the strongest only lasted an hour and a half. You may learn from our mistakes.
Nine houses were defended but the amount and type of barricading in each house varied, depending on the occupants’ attitude.
The most determinedly barricaded houses were nos 59, rear 111 and 115. Nos 59 and 115 are large early Victorian mansions. The rear of 111 was a small brick duplex.
The only vulnerable French window (opening onto the front verandah) was boarded up and braced with 9″ x 2″ Oregon (Diagram A).
The front door was similarly but more massively barricaded. It had several braces, but was not as well built as the other. It collapsed after only twenty minutes of chopping and pounding by the thugs. Once these barricades had been erected the only access to the building was through an exterior staircase at the rear. A barricade (Diagram A) was nailed into position there when we knew the thugs were on the way. Unfortunately they never went around the back.
All barricades were built with holes in them to allow us to fend off the thugs with long poles. This idea was pure romanticism (as some said all along). The only squatter foolhardy enough to try this was smashed in the jaw with his own pole when a thug hit the other end with a sledgehammer. A layer of corrugated iron nailed to the door would have been a better idea.
The only vulnerable window in the building was nailed up with one inch plywood (used for concrete formwork), and braced against a nearby wall with 4″ x 4″. Some of the doors had barbed wire nailed to them, but since the thugs used axes this was a waste of time and materials.
These flats had the advantage of being fairly small and were completely barricaded with scaffolding. There were already iron bars on the windows, and these were backed with 1″ ply (which it is almost impossible to chop through: it must be sawed). The ply was supported with scaffolding (Diagram B).
The front door, which opened into a narrow hall, was blocked by removing a brick from the-wall on either side and inserting a bar into the space (Diagram C).
The building was impenetrable, so the thugs knocked a hole through the roof into the top flat, and there tore up the floor to get down into the bottom flat. This took over an hour and a half. Lesson: The roof is the ultimate weakness on an otherwise well barricaded building.
A scaffolding frame was built around the front door of 59. Its horizontal bars were bolted into place at the last moment. (Diagram D.)
The outside of the door was armoured with corrugated iron to prevent its demolition and protect, the scaffolding. The windows were all nailed up with ply and braced against the opposite wall with scaffolding to take any pressure. (Diagram E.)
The upstairs verandahs were strung from top to bottom with barbed wire.
The thugs got in through one of the four french windows, barricaded as in Diagram A, skew nailed and butted into the window reveals, and braced twice. It did not collapse but was chopped to pieces in approximately 35 minutes. We had optimistically supposed that the thugs’ conditioning would lead them to come through the better barricaded front door — six feet away. It didn’t. A layer of corrugated iron and possibly hardwood instead of oregon, would have slowed them down considerably.
The only tools necessary for the job were a tape measure, a hammer, and a good cross-cut saw. A chisel would be useful but not essential. Tin snips and pliers were used for the corrugated iron and barbed wire. A spanner and hacksaw were used on the scaffolding.
The timber was mostly scrap from city building sites (dismantled formwork, etc.). In lieu of sympathetic builders’ labourers, it could be scavenged in the street, from old fences and buildings which have been partially demolished. Corrugated iron came from the roof of a burnt out building in the street. Although scaffolding made by far the best barricades we used it sparingly. It cannot be used efficiently in every case, and impossibly large amounts would have been necessary. If you hire it, you will lose the enormous deposit required, because after the battle you can’t dismantle your scaffolding and take it with you into the paddy-wagon. If you ‘borrow’ it, like we did, you can lose the friends who ‘borrowed’ it for you. Perhaps the best idea would be to ‘borrow’ it directly, but don’t get caught.
It is far more important that a barricade should be well-built and braced than that it should look intimidating.
The barricading was only one small facet of what Victoria Street was all about, but it illustrates some of the elements that made it work.
1. The best solution to any problem was always the immediately improvised one, within the limits imposed by all the available materials, people, etc.
2. The most direct contacts were the most useful, e.g. going straight to the men on the job sites rather than union officials.
3. Possibilities were discussed rather than decisions made. When necessary, people made their own selection from the available options, e.g. the people in each house made their own decision as to how much barricading they were able or wanted to do, and how they would do it.
4. Don’t rely on ‘experts’. Help from builders labourers was well intentioned but not much use. We knew what our problems were better than they did, and we came up with better solutions.
Posted: May 10th, 2011
, Anne Summers
, art for arts sake
, cultural change
, Darcy Waters
, Green Bans
, Jenny Coopes
, NSW Builders Labourers Federation
, public space
, right to the city
, Roelof Smilde
, Sasha Soldatow
, Teresa Brennan
, Val Hodgson
, Victoria Street
, Wendy Bacon
Comments: 1 Comment
This probably seems an odd thing to start with but there is a reason. They illustrate a problem both with the way my work is seen and the general misunderstanding of what an artist does.
First, what are they? They are a set of ten stools made of recycled varnished plywood with painted blood stains and hand prints on nine of them.
The plywood was part of several ute loads of plywood pre-fab audio visual stands that came from an AV hire company that rented them out for events like Melbourne Cup parties.
They were getting a bit old and shabby and were due for replacement in July 2007 but rather than dump them one of their employees Peter Jackson (himself an artist) sent out a message on the Network of Uncollectable Artists message board for any one interested to come and take them away.
In the end I was the only one who wanted any so I got nearly all of them. I gave some of the plywood away but in January 2008 when Mickie Quick invited me to participate in the Gang Festival I decided to make some stools by modifying the stands. I reduced them in size and reshaped them while retaining the structural slotted construction. I then screwed them together, added four small glue blocks for rigidity and then painted them or rather I splattered them.
So what I did for the Gang Festival was some painted furniture? Well, no, actually I was doing something else entirely (although when I’m feeling mischievous I tell people that all I do these days is make painted furniture out of recycled wood, I like the way it sounds so folksy kitsch). The call out that Mickie sent me said
Gang is seeking visual artists interested in having their work included in the lane ways surrounding Peace Park and Pine St.
Gang takes its name from the Indonesian word meaning alleyway or small side street and commenced life in 2005 as a celebration of the deep links between independent art spaces and collectives across the two countries…. The kampung street festival is a celebration of the fringe and the marginal, and the creative spaces generated by artist run initiatives.
Our focus this year is on sustainable environmental arts practices … The specific brief for the outdoors exhibition is to extend these themes of reuse and rubbish in the Sisa exhibition to include questions about what and why we consider a thing “of use” or “useful”. What makes a thing of use? (use/ful) What makes a thing no longer of use? (use/less) How do we determine the right usage of a thing, a word, a street, a day? Why do things become under utilised or over utilised?
That easily covered the recycled plywood bit, but my real concern was the use of public space which was at least implied in Mickie’s email. My interest in the conflict between community, corporate and political control of urban space went all the way back to the early 1970s when I was active in green bans, resident action groups and squatting. In the 1990s I had spent some time working in Jakarta where lane ways are used as extended living areas then in 1999 I spent several months in Boca Raton, Florida, the extreme opposite where the only public space is the highways and even shopping malls are so controlled they almost have a dress code (if not a skin colour code). I became obsessed with issues around public space particularly the right to just loiter and the government and private attempts to deny or control it. I was obviously not alone in my interest because it was around this time that Sean Goodsell produced his designs for park benches, bus shelters and later picnic tables that could convert into sleeping places for homeless people. I was a particular fan of a (now disappeared) website The Anti Sit Archive that was filled with photos of devices to prevent public sitting.
Above all loitering is an issue about the commons, that everybody owns the city and has a right to be in it and it is one of the many small battles that must be fought against the creeping totalitarianism of western society. That is why I made the stools, so that visitors to the festival and the lane way exhibits could sit down , hang around, chat and basically comfortably loiter in the street. The artist’s job is not necessarily to make stuff, it is encourage adaptive cultural change so to the degree that I made a “work of art ” it was not a bunch of stools, it was to be people loitering, the street converted into a place for socialising and the stools were just the means to that end. Incidentally I notice that recently someone in New York had a similar idea.
But it was not to be. The night before and the day of the festival was non-stop torrential rain. The whole thing just got added to my list of “What Didn’t Happen”. In fact ultimately the stools first public appearance was in my later 2008 exhibition at Mori Gallery called Grave Goods. There they joined another set of stools made for a completely different reason and one of the most amusing aspects of the opening was the way people stood and looked at them rather than sat on them.
At least I sat on one of them and on occasion I still use the tables from that exhibition for big lunches.
Finally, why the blood stains? Because we live in a murderous world plastered in blood and shit, but mostly we are blind to it.
Posted: May 5th, 2011
, adaptive reuse
, anti sit
, Gang Festival
, painted furniture
, public space
, right to the city
Comments: No Comments