Socially engaged FIFO art? IASKA's Spaced

Julia Davis Headspace (Lake Brown) 2010; image courtesy and © the artist.

Western Australia is currently experiencing a well-documented economic boom due to its vast holdings of natural resources. This has in turn created a rather unique work force of 'fly in, fly out' (FIFO) workers who have a ‘permanent’ home off site (many based in Perth) who then fly in to work, often in a remote location, for around two weeks before returning home for an extended ‘weekend’ of around five days.

Amidst this flow of workers being processed through Perth Airport recently, has been another type of FIFO worker, the twenty-one artists participating in Spaced, the new initiative of IASKA (International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia), which makes the bold claim to be a biennial of ‘socially engaged’ art.

These twenty-one artists have come in to work with mainly remote communities throughout Western Australia and, like the mine workers, have a period of intensive work on site, before returning to their home base or studio and subsequently make a return visit to present an outcome of their research. Another manifestation of their project is about to go on display at the Fremantle Arts Centre as part of the Perth International Arts Festival.

There is a long history of artists seeking unfamiliar environments or using the stimulation of travel to inform their practice. In the West for many years, this meant a cultural tour of the remnants of the classical world and countless artists have made study tours of Italy and other sites in Europe, traipsing over ruins and through churches and museums in a quest to illuminate their practice. In the modern era, things shifted as dialogues rather than cultural sites were sought and at various stages, big cities like Paris, Vienna, New York, Berlin and London have attracted swarms of artists wanting to talk with other artists in cafés and studios about the latest shifts in contemporary art.

So what do the antipodes have to offer in this elite metropolitan company? Places such as Muckinbudin, Moora, Roebourne, Esperance and the Abrolhos Islands can hardly qualify as major metropolitan centres, but the organisers of Spaced have made a pitch to contemporary practitioners that these places are just as compelling and potentially invigorating to a practice as some of the more renowned incubators of new art.

What a lot of these sites offer is both a connection to an ancient site (whilst less obvious than the detritus of the classical world, a number of the Spaced artists have conceptually excavated the cultural layers embedded in the landscapes of Western Australia) and to a new type of discourse. The talk is not between artists this time, but between artists and non-artists and often issues of education, comprehension, relevance and translation come up as key factors in the success or failure of these residencies. The isolation and remoteness of this engagement provides a spectacular backdrop for what is often a very difficult environment to make art in.

So is the comparison between these two types of FIFO workers merely superficial? I am sure the organisers of Spaced (and the funding partners) would like to think their project has more social conscience than what is represented by the hole in the ground left by many of the mining ventures. The reality is however, that the tenure of these projects is extremely short and in a land of big space and ancient time the register of an art residency could be considered negligible.

Despite the brevity of ‘contact’ in this project, what Spaced does highlight particularly well is how the portfolio of the contemporary artist has evolved considerably since the turn of the millennium and the artists involved here come into the community with a broad, flexible and often very carefully articulated practice. Their acumen in relation to reading community structures and awareness of relational aesthetics qualifies them well to tackle a project like this. These artists are adept at working responsively with non-artists and this has been one of the key objectives of Spaced. With the rapid development of new media and the reach of the internet and GPS technologies into even the remotest corners of the earth, highly conceptual or experimental approaches to art practice no longer need to unfold or develop in a major metropolitan centre and Spaced locates itself very strongly at the forefront of this new approach to art practice.

IASKA has a very impressive track record of running these projects, having run a highly ambitious and ground-breaking project in the Western Australian wheatbelt town of Kellerberrin from 1998 onwards, since when seventy-two projects have been undertaken in and around this small rural community. Having undertaken one of these projects myself, I am cognisant of the fact that for the artist, such a project can be highly significant in how you think about your practice and how it might evolve. But I often wonder how the community of Kellerberrin remembers such initiatives. Were they simply temporary distractions from the challenges of working on the land or even some sort of novel ‘imported’ entertainment - in the manner of travelling sideshows of the past?

Unlike the profit driven focus of the FIFO mine workers, there is no doubting the endeavour and invention many of the artists bring to bear in their work. Their engagement with community during their six week (on average) residency is palpable in many of their initiatives, but it is the ongoing engagement I wonder about. Does it all just stop when the artist leaves? What will be the ongoing dialogues with these communities and more importantly, how will these projects contribute to social change or betterment for the communities involved?

Gregory Pryor is an artist, writer and lecturer at Edith Cowan University, WA.