Adapt or die

“An underground artist? Me?” Ian Milliss on maintaining the rage to avoid extinction

Ian Milliss Arcadia Tables 2009 recycled plywood offcuts, Mori Gallery. Courtesy the artist.

An underground artist? Me? You’re joking aren’t you? Is it because I live in a coal mining area? I might have a dysfunctional relationship with art but being underground is not the metaphor I’d use. I’ve never been underground, I’ve been aboveground, engaged in open warfare with the artworld over an area of cultural territory where, metaphorically, I have been trying to set up community allotments and tend my own garden (à la Candide) while they have been trying to develop a carpark and big box mall selling useless tat. The horror!

Like so much to do with art it comes down to your understanding of what an artist does. Decades ago Donald Brook and I realised we had a very similar understanding. He described the artist’s job in proper philosophical terms to be “memetic innovation” and my more belligerent version said that the artist’s job was to change the culture by whatever memes were available. But we do mean roughly the same thing and I think we’re agreed that the process is fundamental to human adaptation – hence crucial to evolution and survival – and never more so than now. Let’s get it clear immediately: comforting the comfortable with pretty paintings, soporific videos, overblown decoration and room- size gambling chips – art as we know it – is barely relevant to being an artist. So much for the art world and its gilded, delusory entertainments.

“Underground” is one of those weasely terms like “economic rationalism” or ‘intelligent design” that attempts to make opposition look illegitimate before the debate even begins. The art industry is similar to organised religion: a malignant meme that parasitically exploits a fundamental form of human adaptive behaviour – cultural innovation – in the same way that religion exploits natural human morality. Like religion, the art industry distorts the behaviour it has hijacked into something smaller, meaner, limited to maintaining itself rather than helping humanity to understand, evolve, survive. And art isn’t even a very old meme. In its current form it barely dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, yet it is often presented as an eternal truth of human culture.

An increasing number of artists just won’t play the game any longer. Even more numerous are those working in a wider range of activities who would never dream of calling themselves artists, yet are better artists than most in the artworld. They represent the ancient mainstream of human creativity. They creatively adapt and reinvent the culture, generating innovative memes that reframe our understanding of the world, and precisely because they aren’t the old memes of art production, the artworld is incapable of recognising them.

There are some reasons to still engage with the artworld. If you don’t at least occasionally exhibit and debate (or in my case argue and attack), you abandon the field to the enemy. Mistakenly or not, the artworld tends to be one of the first stops for anyone developing an interest in cultural issues, so it is necessary to show up there to provide another viewpoint. However, that doesn’t mean you have to respect it. It can occasionally provide a bit of money, resources and access to some limited audiences, but that’s about all there is to it. Mostly it’s an irrelevant distraction and if, as an artist, you find the art industry is the focus of your activities then you really have got it all wrong. It should never be more than a sideline.

So what should we be doing? Hey, work it out for yourself: you’re the artist. I would only suggest that we have to both resist and also create something new while stealing and reusing every good idea that we see. That’s why it’s better to work in groups than alone: more ideas to rub together. To be interesting, it’s going to have to be about big issues and not bound by the art industry’s limited notion of what an artist should do. Utilitarianism is important – it should be creativity that can be judged by real world results, and more akin to the advertising industry or the design industry than the art industry. More Tatlin than Picasso or Duchamp. Aimless play is at the core of creativity, but “art for art’s sake” uselessness is mostly just a class marker, a way for the rich to proclaim they can afford to waste money.

It’s also good if we can demonstrate an entirely new way of being an artist: not just a different type of production, but a different way to reach an audience, to distribute our work, to operate in the world. If that sounds a bit too hard, just remember there is a myriad of existing models to be taken over and adaptively reused, evolved into something new. This is why I’m so interested in heritage issues. A lot of the solutions we need to survive our obviously catastrophic future already existed in the past – they just need a fresh eye applied to them. It’s that important: nothing but our ability to creatively adapt will save humanity and most other life on the planet, and the job of artists is to make the wilder leaps of imagination. And that’s why you should also forget about making a mark on history. Posterity? There probably won’t be any.

What is to be done about the art industry meme? Bite the now extended hand as I’ve just been doing? That’s always a good idea because it is only the art industry’s insatiable need for novelty that leads to these attempts to round us up. The art industry approach is to dismiss any culturally innovative form as not legitimate until it can work out a way to sell it, to bash it into the old mould again. However, once it’s in the shops (sorry, galleries) then suddenly it’s the most important thing ever – Hail Basquiat! Hail Banksy! Let the speculation begin!

Or should I just point out that nothing needs to be done, because it’s been happening out there now for decades, certainly for most of my life, artists working in communities, in design, in political activism, in the places where real cultural change has been happening. They’re out there designing and hacking and modding and open-sourcing. You’re more likely to find them in Juxtapoz or Make magazine than in Australian Art Collector, more likely to see them on the web in Afrigadget or Street Use or Appropedia or DesignBoom or Etsy or We Make Money Not Art than in the next Biennale of Sydney. There is nothing underground about them. They are very public, even if the artworld has been too busy admiring itself in the mirror to notice them.

One thing I will put a bet on: in the future, the artists that matter – not the richest or most publicised or who get the most grants or have the most exhibitions in the most prestigious institutions, but the ones that actually matter – won’t be producing the useless cargo cult fetish objects that fuel Biennales and the art market. They’ll be adaptively reusing culture and technology, reshaping them into something utilitarian and meaningful that may help us avoid the extinction we are now headed for.

Ian Milliss is an artist with a past. He reminisces about the future at