A Catalogue of Failure

Curator James Gatt asked me to write something for the first issue of his new magazine Kafay Larday. The magazine turned out, like many art magazines before it, to be very short lived when he got a job in New Zealand that took up all his time, but its first issue published in December 2022 was a good start at least. Anyway, here is what I wrote.

A Catalogue of Failure

I suppose there are myriad ways to fail, from the small day to day failures like the grants that didn’t happen for instance, through the grand projects that were never finished, all the way to lifetime failure, the entire career that just fizzled out.

I like to describe myself as a successful failure. I almost never sell anything, nor receive a grant or award, I’m rarely written about and never collected by the museums yet I exhibit often, without much wanting to, and I write and speak a lot. I certainly never achieved the success that I hoped for when I was young and that others expected of me but then again how many of us do? And given that those who do are often the very worst, would you really want to be part of that club?

But that shows how failure can be a complicated and ambiguous thing. Some failures are simply the necessary transitional steps to success, the experiments to find the right recipe. Others open another door that leads to success by a different route. And other failures turn out to be a lucky escape, a missed plane that crashed without you on it. Many failed relationships are like that.

I’ve had all of these. About fifteen years ago I even failed at doing a project about failure, but it led to the most successful collaboration of my life.

I’ve been thinking about all this because I’m not getting any younger so I have been engaged in one of those tasks of old age, sorting archives, finding homes for stuff and destroying what can’t even be given away. In the middle of this I saw an article that suggested that you should create a CV of your failures as well as the usual CV of successes and I thought this is obviously the perfect time to do that. In old age we may tend towards a defensive Apologia Pro Vita Sua but a rather cold blooded assessment of failures is probably a more helpful idea if we need to face eternity as the Egyptians believed, with a heart that is lighter than the feather of truth.

So here is a decade by decade summary of some of my most significant failed projects. Some were complete disasters, some led somewhere else and some even turned into delayed successes. My more extensive personal failures are for another time.

The 1960s
The Field

I first began exhibiting in the late 1960s at Central Street Gallery. This was when the opening exhibition for the new National Gallery of Victoria, The Field, was in its planning stages. The artists at Central Street Gallery and Pinacotheca Gallery in Melbourne made up most of this exhibition. The curators looked at my work because in the stockroom at Central Street but I wasn’t included in the exhibition much to my youthful chagrin.

Looking back now it’s obvious why, it wasn’t the quality of my work which, to be immodest, was as good as anything else in the exhibition. But as Brian Finemore in his characteristic way put it “Dear boy, we can’t go putting a 17 year old in a national survey exhibition, it just won’t do. Don’t worry, we’ll have another just for you in a few more years”. Hilariously, when the exhibition was recently recreated several of the artists said to me “Where’s your work?” remembering me as having been in it because I was so much a part of the scene at the time.

Brian kept his word and in 1973 the NGV held the Object & Idea exhibition which he saw as launching Australian conceptualism with me in a prominent position. Unfortunately by then I was deep into my early social practice phase, working with green bans and uninterested in exhibiting, so the prominent position he envisioned for me turned out to be an essay New Artist? that explained why I wasn’t exhibiting. In fact the essay was a major work in its way but it was launching post-conceptualism rather than conceptualism. Was it a failure to have believed conceptualism was dead when most people hardly knew it even existed?

So there it was, my career began with failure. There were associated failures such as the destruction of almost all that work because of poor storage but I have all the original drawings and I still regularly use them to recreate works for various exhibitions, in fact from the beginning I saw this repeatability as a feature rather than a bug.

The 1970s
The Yeoman’s exhibition

My hard edge shape paintings progressed through installations to participation works and then into a type of early social practice working with community groups and trade unions.

As my work became increasingly distant from the conventional art world I had two related major projects which failed although one of them amazingly came back to life thirty eight years later. I had developed the idea that the thing we valued about the objects we call art was that they created cultural evolution by presenting a new view of the world as it constantly changed. At first I pursued this by working with the green ban movement and the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation. When they imposed the first green ban I realised that they were doing a much better version of what I had been trying to do in my participation works, they were using the basic tools available to them, their ability to withhold their labour, to change social and cultural attitudes to the spaces we lived in. In other words, they were artists and better artists than most of what I saw around me in the art world. Their work was certainly more culturally significant and better publicised.

This led me to start looking for other people whose activities might not be seen as art in any conventional way, but could be regarded as art in my sense, that they generated cultural change. I came across the work of an innovative agriculturalist, PA Yeomans,  who had developed an innovative farming technique known as Keyline farming.  I visited his farms on the outskirts of Sydney and discovered he had a full blown educational and publishing program of his own books and magazines. In other words you couldn’t have found a more perfect example of a different type of artist who worked in multiple forms of media at the same time. I had enough influence to convince the Art Gallery of New South Wales to let me do an exhibition about him as an artist. Admittedly it was an odd thing to do. Artists did not curate exhibitions at that time, that was still a few years in the future. And they certainly didn’t curate exhibitions about farmers who never claimed to be artists.

Notes for the cancelled 1976 Yeomans exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Fortunately, the AGNSW curator Daniel Thomas had recently been to the family farm of Hilda Rix Nicholas which had recently been restructured according to Yeoman’s Keyline principles, and so Daniel knew exactly what I was talking about. The gallery had recently started a program of so called Project Exhibitions and so I was scheduled to do one.
In late 1975 as preparations developed the Gallery Trustees were presented with a list of upcoming exhibitions for 1976. One of them, a judge who was a Pitt Street farmer, started asking questions about the exhibition. The Trustees, despite the protests of the director and deputy director and the curators, then cancelled the exhibition on the basis that it wasn’t art, it was just an agricultural trade show.

That was a major failure and it was my last attempt to exhibit for almost 20 years. It wasn’t that I was embittered or disillusioned, in fact I thought it had been rather comical, but I decided I would just follow the logic of my work, let it lead me where it might rather than contort it into forms that suited the art world.

But that wasn’t to be the end of it. The cancellation was a minor cause celebre among curators but soon forgotten, even by me. Then in the early 2000s when Big Fag Press was set up I discussed with Lucas Ihlein doing a series of prints to be called Things That Didn’t Happen about projects that had failed. I decided I simply couldn’t afford to do it at around $2000 per print run given that a lot of things that didn’t happen, so I even failed at describing failure. Then in 2010 Lucas was invited by Hannah Mathews to be in an exhibition at ACCA, Power To The People, about the influence of early conceptualism on his generation and Lucas suggested we should remake the Yeomans exhibition as his work. We created an abridged version of the exhibition describing its history and shortly after it opened we were approached by a slightly sheepish AGNSW curator who suggested maybe we should reapply to do the original exhibition. Our proposal was accepted and in 2013, only thirty eight years late, The Yeomans Project opened at AGNSW as a collaborative exhibition. A failure had eventually become a success and Lucas and I continue to collaborate regularly, a success in every way.

Useful Native Plants Project
My other major project in the 70s, closely related was to develop a nursery that propagated and sold useful native food plants, ie bush tucker. My ambition was to make it possible to grow a backyard veggie patch made up entirely of Australian native plants. In 2022 this looks like a bit of a no brainer, there is now an entire industry built around this idea. But in the mid 1970s no one was in the least bit interested. And the only way I could actually find information about potential plants was by wading through 19th century research into Australian plants and then wading through innumerable plant catalogues trying to find any of those plant that might be available. They were never being sold as food plants, always just for the decorative effect of their flowers and foliage.

Quietly I worked at this for several years and amassed a substantial collection of plants that I had growing on a property I rented outside of Bathurst. However it slowly dawned on me that this simply was not my project, that it was somebody else’s culture that I was effectively stealing. Like others in my generation, my friends Tim and Vivien Johnson for instance, it was dawning on me that we were colonials on stolen land and there were things we should not do and this was one of them. I had aboriginal friends but none that I could collaborate with, so that idea collapsed, it remains only as scattered library cards covered in research notes. A few years later, the Bush Tucker Man appeared on television and the whole idea since then has blossomed, there are nurseries run by aboriginal communities supplying a whole growing industry of Australian native plant produce.

The Sydney Biennale Protests
For 10 years the Sydney art world protested the Sydney Biennale, starting in 1976. The first Sydney Biennale in 1973 grew out of the Transfield Prize which had grown unmanageable so Franco Belgiorno Netis changed tack and set up the Biennale. The first one just slipped past, but by the second one in 1976 after several years of the Whitlam Government there had been a change in consciousness and the art world wanted more than just another colonialist imposition telling us how we should be making art.  We got organised and through a series of demonstrations and meetings we made two basic demands that we continued to make for the next several biennales into the early 1980s. They were that we wanted 50% Australian artists and 50% women artists in the exhibition. The 50% women is obvious. The 50% Australian artists was because we saw ourselves as equal to these other artists that were being brought in whose work was already accessible in a whole range of other ways. We failed and neither of those demands were ever met until I think in the early 2000s there might have been almost 50% women. Interestingly, in the new hang of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, they have finally abolished the distinction between Australian and international artists and they all now hang together, finally we are treated equally. I always said I was an international artist, not an Australian artist, so it’s good to see the AGNSW slowly catching up.

One good thing that did come out of all the protests was the formation of the art Workers Union. Sadly it now exists in name only as one of the founding unions of the Media Alliance (MEAA), along with Actors Equity, the Australian Journalists Association and the Australian Theatre Employees Association. It is effectively out of action.

The Coal Film
In the late 1970s Frank Watters initiated the Hunter Valley Mining Project, a community arts project investigating the impact of the rapid growth of coal mining on Hunter Valley communities. He and I spent months crisscrossing the Valley organising artists and venues then as an extension of this I began working with Gillian Leahy to produce a film on the issue. We got a grant and a crew and spent weeks filming interviews and spectacular mining sites in a road movie which when it finally reached rough cut was just a complete failure. We didn’t understand the issue enough, we weren’t interesting enough as commentators, and there were too many holes in it. It just didn’t work. Given that coal mining is one of the issues that defines this era it’s a tragedy we failed, but we did fail. The only positive is that it cured me of ever having much to do with filmmaking.

The 1980s
Union Media Services

Union Media Services was the most important project of my whole life until the recent Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA). It grew out of my early 1970s involvement with green bans and the building trade unions via the Media Action Group, a group made up several Australian artists recently returned from New York where they had been involved in Art-Language, and a contingent of young artists and students around Sydney University. It produced educational slideshows that critiqued the media. In 1979 after working on the layout of a book called The Job Killers we were approached  by a trade union journalist Dale Keeling to help on a trade union newspaper he edited. I was the only person who was in a position to spend much time doing it and Dale and I quickly accumulated a whole string of trade union newspapers and built up a business that soon employed several people. Ian Burn came to work with us and other Media Action Group members joined the company board. This resulted in Dale leaving, he strongly objected to their presence, I think he understood something far better than I did. But after that early setback the business grew at a terrifying pace. By the mid 1980s we were doing a lot of work while losing money hand over fist simply because we were undercapitalised and incompetent at business systems. We didn’t have the necessary management skills and we couldn’t learn them fast enough. Undercapitalized small businesses that expand rapidly are notorious for going for going bust. We didn’t go bust but we had a major crisis.

I’ve always argued that the financial losses were our most effective bit of collaboration. But once we had the whole thing back into profitability and better systems in place,  as managing director I got the blame for it all and was pushed out.

Strangest thing about that was that it meant I escaped without any real consequences other than losing control of this project that I had worked so hard to create. As someone I once described it to said, “So you were the captain of a sinking ship, the crew rebelled and threw you overboard into the only life raft, and you drifted away?” which I think is a pretty good description of what happened.

Ian Burn went on to gather up art world kudos for it after airbrushing me out but he also ended up with all the problems associated with its precarious financial position without having any real trade union contacts. Rather like any divorce, he got the art world friends but I got the trade union friends and I went on to work on my own for a number of unions ending up as a National Research Officer for the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union (FMWU, known as the Missos), one of the largest and most powerful unions. I became the client rather than the contractor, doing the same work but with big budgets and influence, positions on ACTU committees etc. I got to build what was a really exemplary communication system used  as a model by many other unions, so I came out of it well while Union Media Services slowly sank into the doldrums.

All in all, Union Media Services was a success in its objective of setting up an alternative media by radically changing the way trade unions communicated with their members but for me personally it was undoubtedly my greatest failure.

By the early 1990s after several years with the Missos I felt I’d done everything I could do in the union movement and I really needed to  change course but the trouble was I didn’t know how. I started playing around with graphics done on the computer and that became  the next failure. They needed large scale print facilities which barely existed at the time so in the end they existed as files awaiting future technological developments, but they had been developed in programs which all slowly became either obsolete or could not be upgraded, or they were on media that deteriorated. The end result was that something like 10 years work from the early 90s all the way through to the early 2000s completely disappeared. There are a few remnant printouts of bits of it but that’s it.  All  gone.

The 2000s
In 2003 I returned to live in Wallerawang, just over the Blue Mountains  near Lithgow, a fascinating but difficult place dependent on coal mining and power stations where I had lived as a child. I returned because I believed fighting climate change meant you had to be in the places where it was being created and help those communities change.

After a bit of lobbying the local Council soon made me community representative on a number of committees – Heritage Assets; Environment; Economic Development – and I even sat in on some job interviews. Despite all this input I never once in ten years managed to get them to acknowledge they had a looming problem or to even mention the words climate change in any report or strategy. Failure hardly describes it.

The 2010s
In disgust in late 2012 we moved out to the Blue Mountains but the next year I put my frustrations into a poster for Kandos Cementa13 that described an imaginary Kandos that was really what I envisioned for Lithgow. One of the elements was an imaginary Kandos University with a School of Cultural Adaptation, leading the world in climate change issues. By the next Cementa in 2015 several of my friends had proposed we actually create this virtual school and the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA) was born. It has become the most significant project of my life I think and the fifteen members are all constantly busy with projects. The final irony is that one of our major partners is the Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra Lithgow Transformation Hub recently set by Western Sydney University, a genuine real life version of what I had proposed. So a decade of failure that foreshadowed what looks like real success.

There have been other things, most significantly my complete inability to ever get funding from cultural institutions or the Australia Council.

I know everybody goes through this but I think I have been very conspicuously non funded. It was brought home to me when Lucas Ihlein was awarded an Australia Council fellowship, partly to spend more time working with me when the previous year they wouldn’t give me one.

What is the conclusion to be drawn from all this? I have in fact done many successful projects and many of the projects here were partially successful, but not successful enough.  Tony Burke says he remembers my comment that the Australia Council needs to ditch the rhetoric about excellence and instead talk about buying artists time to experiment, to fail their way to success. In other words a new arts policy would aim to fund more bad art. I wonder if they will ever have the courage to do this?

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