The Push Pull Decade

Artlink began thirty years ago in a corner of an office in Adelaide. Today it is available in the Tate Modern Bookshop purveying its unique brand of attention to important issues in contemporary art, mostly Australian, often international, wherever the ideas are sharp and the ideals are idealistic.

Anyone involved in publishing in the last decade is a Jekyll and Hyde. By night the whiskery eruption of dynamically generated content, by day mulling over three or two column pinstripe. Push, pull, accelerate, brake, hang a left down sustainable forest road, hurtle across digital intersection narrowly avoiding infringing copyright, scream to a halt with a pallet load of unsolds.

Take a tablet - any one as long as it's an iPad – take it to the beach, on the bus, to bed, like a book. But it’s not a book, nor a magazine – it will die and disappear from your life and your bed. It will be replaced by something else. A chip somewhere in the body, the wrist, the forehead. And when you go under the bus, it will be gone. The words and images you experienced may still be on a virtual cloud, but perhaps one that has dissolved in a carbon smudge. The print on paper is likely to survive a lot longer. Hence the publisher who seeks to continue to produce, in parallel with a digital product, a critical mass of copies of any book or magazine for future generations, lest all their work be lost in space...……[1]

Natural selectivity

Art, and sometimes the history of the human beings who make it, lives on for ever, so people used to believe, when 'ars was longa, vita brevis'. The idea was that it was preserved, and stayed alive that way. But implicit in this is the assumption that only some art will live on, the real art, the art that endures despite the fact that it may not have been the outfit of choice of the powerful classes.

Inevitably reviewers of new art are merely playing out their own histories and predilections when they believe they have identified something significant for history. Within the field there continues to be confusion about how the mass of art gets ranked or listed for praise, recognition and advancement as promising, brilliant, or just worthy, and what the wordsmith’s real job is. The speakers on a typical recent ABC forum on Art Criticism [2] had the scalpel in one hand and the formaldehyde in the other. The blokes were clear about what needed to be done – sort out the quick from the dead. The grrls were less concerned about knowing the difference and what’s wrong with a bit of necromancy anyway.

Criticism as quality controller has the old hand watching the conveyor belt and tossing out those that look sub standard – a split second decision. These are the critics, the raconteurs with the decisive touch on the keys. The other lower profiled and certainly worse paid writers who work so hard on their responses to new art may, as their hands hover over the laptop, be seeking other goals than creating, bolstering or killing someone else’s career. Within the ecology of the knowledge culture, they are often artists and curators as well as writers or lecturers. Many experience first hand the challenge of creating a 'cultural product’ other than a newspaper column or a reputation for tough talking. Most have lived in other countries, have studied abroad. Some have worked for call centres and hateful bosses, like the hapless jelly wrestling poet, protagonist of Valet of the Dolls, (the tiny zine bundled with Lucas Ihlein’s 'Underground' issue[3]. )Quite a few hail from the era when kids didn’t learn grammar or spelling, have yet managed to acquire PhDs, and don’t think anything of it. They are focused on grappling with what comes up, as they enter the gallery space or the museum or wander down an urban laneway where artists have been at work. They are expected to decode the impact between players in a roller derby imaged on a remote screen, as in the recent announcement of a new work:

'BLOODBATH features five artists - Linda Dement, Nancy Mauro-Flude, Kate Richards, Francesca da Rimini and Sarah Waterson. At an all girl flat track roller derby game, sensors on the helmets of players feed data to the five artworks, generating digital elaborations of the moves and collisions on track.'

Surprisingly the wider art-going public continues to prefer contemplating large paintings or objects of complex elaborated decoration in the hush of an art museum, the kinds of places where the quality controllers are thoroughly at home. Hence the popularity of our issue on beauty, and if sales are the ultimate barometer the less familiar modes such as work in the digital arena continue to be a small audience niche, underlining the need for magazines like Artlink, Art Monthly and others to continue to keep the conversation going about the reality of today, networked or otherwise, into the future.

Life as a theme

I tried to sum up 1991 – 2000 at the end of 1999. [4] Now at the end of 2010 it seems the more things change the more they stay the same. The 1990s were the years when Australians discovered we were part of Asia. There was a surge of activity with children learning Mandarin and Bahasa in school, the Asia Pacific Triennial became the central focus for cultural knowledge-gathering and discovery, the magazine Art AsiaPacific emerged in Sydney, creators empowered by Asialink to take up residencies in exotic places came home having had profoundly life changing experiences. In 1996 Johnnie Howard shuffled into Kirribilli House and the vision expired. By 2003 the exotic outsiders we were getting to know were on boats and behind razor wire. We embarked on a hasty war without consulting the electorate which later endorsed it by twice re-electing the government. Artists responded, there were protests and some mild censorship. Across the planet the weather started to change. It was eleven long years of decay and procrastination – and no apologies. But what is changing now is that the people are getting visibly agitated and the large institutions of academia are starting to slowly turn their ships around. Artists are often significant catalysts, with their scientist colleagues in universities.

With forty themed Artlink issues in the last decade, standing back and unfocusing the eyes reveals swirling patterns of subject matter. With the possibility of fan-forced evolution through bio-technology and ecological breakdown, there was much work profiling these challenges including issues titled 'Taking in Water'; 'Ecology: Everyone’s business'; 'The Underground, Changing Climates; 'Art in the Public Arena'. On a large subject for Australians – Indigenous cultural thinking – there was the bumping together of Indigenous and settler peoples in Remote, and this year the milestone, 'Blak on blak' written and edited entirely by Indigenous practitioners. On another big subject, our place in the South and the Asian region, there were South; After the Missionaries; The China Phenomenon; Hybrid World. The human condition was canvassed in 'The Improved Body, Animals and humans'; 'Shopping and Extreme Pleasures'; 'Elders of the Artworld'; 'Work and Rational/emotional'. There were two on war, its causes and human aftermath Fallout, and Fuel for Thought. Art looking at itself (art industry matters) came in around 15 different packages such as 'The Word as Art'; 'Creating Curating'; 'Currents I and II' and 'Best practice export quality'.

Holding hands

It was the decade when collaboration evolved as a default position. Of the 40 issues published nearly half were devised by guest editors or co-editors. The network which is Artlink writers and contacts produced these fortunate meetings of minds and spirit. Senior writer, proofreader and core editorial advisor Stephanie Radok, added Reviews Editor to her portfolio of Artlink work freeing me up to work more closely with guest editors, in some cases in a mentoring role. The theme format allows a relatively free rein to the visiting expert, who ploughs his or her own furrow, while cultivating the kind of crop which sustains the Artlink soil for future plantings. Spreading the work around to people as diverse in their obsessions as Joanna Mendelssohn, Helen Grace, Kevin Murray, Felicity Fenner, Kathy Cleland, Ben Eltham, Dorothy Erickson, Ian Hamilton, Julianne Pierce, Richard Tipping, Cath Bowdler, Binghui Huangfu, , Margot Osborne, Daniel Browning, Lucas Ihlein and Stephanie Radok herself, has tested the brand to see how far it will stretch. Some issues and themes were more popular than others. Margot Osborne’s 'Art, Mind, Beauty' continues to outsell almost all other issues

An issue on death had already been done, back in the early nineties, and it is curious to review the themes to find that other human states appear – in 2001 curator Felicity Fenner had her young son and baby Oscar help her with an issue on Art and Childhood, the depiction by artists of that subject which by 2008 and the Bill Henson debacle had become such a cause de scandale of the media. With the ensuing response of the Commonwealth in instituting restrictions on the ability of funded client organisations to use imagery of children under the age of 18 in publications or on websites, Felicity’s issue would simply not have happened.

Old artists are fortunately not yet targeted for protection, and in 2006 we honoured some of the living octogenarians of the artworld [5] in print and at a big celebration at Carclew during an Adelaide heatwave, where Donald Brook the guru of them all, spoke, youngster Greg Mackie was in the Chair, and Inge King looking incredibly chic in a little linen dress arrived from Melbourne, and was later found reclining on the lawns enjoying cold beer and Chinese wok in a box.

The coffee machine

On a more day to day level, how did we at Artlink fare over the decade? Financially things dramatically improved for the visual arts, proving that arts funding in Australia is seemingly unaffected by the political hue of the day. After the advent of the long-awaited VACS funding in 2002 we were able to employ more staff hours and pay writers better. Many of the organisations like Artlink that were founded in the 1980s were on edge of the burnout abyss and hanging on by bloodied fingernails. We survived, and more, we were able to achieve goals, such as so basic a thing as full colour on all pages (2003) Through our gregarious art director Irene Previn, we found Isaac Forman of the web design company TripleZero, who generously embraced the Artlink website as part of his triple bottom line, and continues to do this to this day. Thank you Isaac! A total redesign of the site and relaunch of two decades of indexing and full text content in 2005 was followed by E-Commerce going live in 2008 to profile, describe and offer the magazine direct from the publisher by subscription or as a stock order.

During the noughties, three women took up the Manager position, a juggling job not for the faint hearted. After Belinda Daw moved to Sydney in 2002 Cathy Davidson did a year’s stint, and Tory Shepherd took up the paddles for the next three years, before winning a cadetship with News Ltd. After a short interregnum, a big managerial move in the right direction was to remove financial accounting from the job description. In mid-2006 Mairead Doyle, our first manager with visual arts training, quietly took over the reins. Her attention to detail and skilful prioritising of jobs brought tranquillity and a new order to the office. In early 2007 art director Irene Previn moved overseas and Richard Browning arrived from London just in time to design the 'South' issue, see Kevin Rudd oust John Howard, and witness Artlink’s big move from the beach to the city – another long term goal of getting a proper office in town realised, thanks to continuing VACS funding. Our Board, chaired by the incomparable Janet Maughan, continued to provide support in all the ways that matter, including many discussions on the legalities of digitising texts.

Rest of the world

Internationally, Artlink created two historic Australian art publishing events . In 2003 The China Phenomenon, thanks to the expert and enthusiastic assistance of co-editor Binghui Huangfu, was launched in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing. It is still used, including in China itself, as an essential guide to post-1989 Chinese contemporary art. In May 2010 Blak on blak was launched in the Netherlands at the AAMU in Utrecht, with the assistance of QIAMEA [6] and the participation of four Indigenous writers, editors and artists. [7]

As a spin off, we find ourselves on sale at two great Northern meccas for international art publications. The Athenaeum Bookhandel in Amsterdam and the bookshop of the Tate Modern Gallery in London. New online publishing software just launching will offer us more opportunities for offering our international fans a full online subscription.

Encouraged by national and international recognition of Artlink’s history of focused publishing on Indigenous art we have undertaken, and been supported by CAL’s Cultural Fund for the next three years, to produce an annual bumper issue each June titled Artlink Indigenous. The first of these in 2011 will be co-edited by the invincible team of Daniel Browning and Stephanie Radok.

Let’s party!

Artlink, like SBS, has been going continuously for 30 years now and we anticipate it will continue. As always we will adapt to the needs of the current moment. According to our fans the magazine has created something very special in terms of service to visual arts development in this country, including maintaining a critical edge which works with rather than against the creative forces at work.


References-

1- See Artlink Vol 29#4 Changing Climates in Art Publishing December 2009 based on our Adelaide and Sydney public forums that year.

2- Critical Failure, Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, with Patrick McCaughey, John McDonald, Naomi Cass and Phip Murray, chaired by Peter Mares, 9 September 2010, in conjunction with ABC Radio National.

3- ‘The Underground’, Artlink Vol 30#2, 2010 guest edited by Lucas Ihlein.

4- ‘Artlink: the Second Decade 1991 – 2000’, Artlink Vol 19#3 Reflections,
ed Stephanie Radok, Sept 2000.

5- Elders of the Artworld, Vol 26#4, 2006.

6- Queensland Indigenous Arts Marketing and Export Agency.

7- For vodcasts of the action packed half day FRAMER FRAMED forum at the AAMU (Aboriginal Contemporary Art Museum Utrecht, see http://www.artlink.com.au/events/blak-on-blak-launch-utrecht/

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