This is a lecture I gave in 2010 at the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts. Joanna Mendelssohn, the lecturer who asked me to give the talk , is one the very few academics in Sydney who has both been aware of my work from almost the beginning and is politically as well as culturally aware so she has understood and sympathised with what I have tried to achieve.
The theme could not have been more appropriate because if one idea has been fundamental to my practice it has been the idea that being an artist is not defined by manufacturing stuff for the art market. The role of the artist is defined by generating cultural change and while some of the means you might use to do that may produce artefacts that could be traded in the market place that is basically a sideline, exactly the same as any other sort of merchandising. You should never mistake the merchandising for the real activity even if most people who talk about art have made that mistake.
I had the Victoria Street Resident Action Group and the squatting there in 1973 on my list of future posts. It was a critical experience for me and I have already talked about it before but I thought the whole event needed a bit more detailed discussion. Before I could get the time to do it the problem solved itself in the form of this interview by Iain McIntyre which I did last October 2011 for Community Radio 3CR in Melbourne. It’s long but it has pretty much the whole history of my involvement in the group. It can be streamed from www.australianmuseumofsquatting.org or it can be downloaded as a podcast.
I’ve been thinking a lot about memorials recently partly because of other things I have been working on like Lithgow’s proposed Inch Street memorials and also the bicentenaries of the the first crossing of the Blue Mountains by English toffs (Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth) and the building of Cox’s Road shortly after.
But I’ve also been thinking of shame memorials, memorials designed to permanently shame the arseholes who are obstructing attempts to reduce CO2 emissions, lest we forget them. I have no doubt that one day, like the genocidal war criminals Milosevic and Mladic they will be put on trial for crimes against humanity (yes, I mean you Tony Abbott and Allan Jones and Martin Ferguson) but there are so many minor local pub loud mouths who are their enablers and supporters. They also deserve to be remembered especially considering they will all soon be rabidly denying they ever were climate change denialists. Their names need to be publicly recorded now so they can’t wriggle out of the punishment then. I suppose you could say that I am still in the anger phase of my grief about the end of our world although mostly I’m in the depression or acceptance stages.
That is probably why I was so struck by this drawing I did in 1970 which I stumbled across yesterday while searching drawings for the doormats post.
This work might deserve an outing some time soon where the names of denialists are written on a footpath in chalk to be trodden under foot and blown away as the dust of history. They probably don’t deserve anything better.
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.
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 Streetwith 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.