Magazine Memory Stick

December 2013 packing up Waymouth St, Helen Davies and Janet Maughan. Photo S. Britton.

Preparing to stop and regard the procession into the past that is Artlink's 33 year history, another thirteen years have passed since I did a wrap of the second decade (1990- 2000)1, as organisations are expected to do when they have a milestone - the JamFactory turning 40, NAVA turning 30. Too much already. It’s the year of the horse and of the handover and I need to wrap those thirteen now, before I gallop off. All those themes, all those launches, lugging all those boxes in and out of all those venues, all those trays of sushi. The emails that bring such treasure and the ones that deliver the treasure so late in the day. All those attachments, the conversations to and fro, and almost all lost thanks to the digital world and uncertainty about digital archiving (who actually does this?) The early part of the archive from Artlink’s birth in 1981 has paper letters and faxes which are preserved, but within a few years we went virtual. How can someone now get a feel for how it was, how things were done and talked about even as recently as 2001? To know the history there are Annual Reports, where facts are listed, but only in the faulty memory banks of the brain can you keep those conversations and surprises, and the building up of relationships and understandings. It won’t be too long before we will be able to preserve our thoughts and conversations on a biological memory stick perhaps housed conveniently on the forearm like Stelarc’s third ear. The Cloud sounded cool but is a hot factory belching CO2 somewhere in another country; it has to be more elegant than that.

So – 2001...well we did an issue no art magazine would be proposing today – Art & Childhood. It had a baby on the cover, fully dressed (in a frock) and with the permission of its mother, photographer Polixeni Papapetrou. The guest editor was Felicity Fenner, mother of Oscar, who helped with the illustrations.

Water and New Media were other issues, plus 'Export Quality’. This was the heyday of the classy art fairs and the Australia Council had selected ARCO in Madrid as the one that might at last bring Australian art to European hearts and minds. Key was gallerist Paul Greenaway who spearheaded the year of Australia at ARCO in 2002 with Roslyn Oxley9, Tolarno and other galleries. Artlink organised the joint stand for five Australian art magazines. The Spanish were extremely polite and invited us to have drinks and gave us lavish publications and the speakers they programmed were not from the usual art promotional circuit. After a few years the enthusiasm faded, and it was back to Art Basel and each gallery on its merits.
2001 saw an increasing desperation in the air, so many expectations, so little money. Lawyer Janet Maughan, Chair of the Editorial Advisory Committee, stood up in front of Arts SA and delivered the case for the prosecution…if all the nervous energy and frenetic output of themed issues, overseas promotional events, websites etc wasn’t rewarded soon Artlink was in danger of vaporising. In 2002 the verdict came down: Flagship status and Triennial agreements together with a decent increase in funding. This meant some very basic things for Artlink, such as increasing the number of colour pages from 16 to 72, small increases in writers’ fees and payments to workers.

2004 was the year when the Myer Report finally bore fruit and many visual arts organisations came back from the brink better resourced and with multi-year funding plans locked in via the new Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy ‘harmonising’ Federal and State funding programs. This security gave us the freedom to be more adventurous than ever, take on and mentor guest editors and think ambitiously about our long-term goals. 2

For me the work was still round the clock, no holidays, no weekends off. In the rare moments of reflection I asked myself why I was doing this. Where was the reward? I still can’t say exactly. Of course there are the themes, each one of which becomes a total obsession during its tenure and then becomes totally irrelevant when the next one assumes its grip of steel. How do these themes evolve? True confession is that they are mostly subjects that I personally find appealing. Bugger the market. The committee that meets regularly to thrash through all kinds of possibilities is an invaluable forum. It’s a mesmerising vista from around 1993 with the advent of the wonderful presence of Janet Maughan at the helm of this unruly mob of ideas people3, smiling benignly as she cunningly directs the flow, bringing it neatly into the underground cave which is the end of the meeting and the beginning of feeling around in the dark to find the best way to make the strongest tadpole reach its target. Fertilisation happens when someone, be it me or a keen guest editor, decides to grow the idea, shake it around a bit and turn it into a set of essays and images. Perhaps this is the lever that drives the addiction of Artlink. The themed issues may share a gene pool but they are individuals. They smell different and have their own quirks and biases. How clever is Janet to have presided over this cauldron for so long. But like me, she thinks the time has come to hand over the reins to another. Nothing is forever.

Some themes have made repeat appearances with different filters. The Improved Body: animals and humans in 2002 was a continuation of the conversation started with Art & Medicine five years earlier and will continue this year with The Biotech Species guest edited by Melentie Pandilowski, now based in Canada. Stem cells were a newish element in science in 2002 but already, in our issue, artists were visualising farms where customers could be allocated a pig who would grow a pretty pair of wings for them. This week we hear that stem cells will very soon be created in the lab and any organ or body part will be available to order. No pigs required.

Ecology: Everyone’s Business (2005) picked up where Art, Architecture & the Environment (1991) left off and was followed by Disaster & Fortitude (2012). Then as the damage to the environment became more and more obvious and artists were responding accordingly, we did Mining: Gouging the Country (2013).

Indigeneity also became not just a theme of interest to many but a strand of Artlink that became stronger and stronger with themed issues each decade, until in 2010 with Blak on Blak a bumper issue edited by two Indigenous editors Daniel Browning and Tess Allas, and all Indigenous writers, in turn led to one of Artlink’s greatest achievements, the evolution of a new annual mega-issue series, inspirationally funded by Copyright Agency Ltd, Artlink Indigenous. The combination of courage, diplomacy, doggedness, scholarship, integrity, good humour and very hard work which characterised the team of Daniel Browning and Stephanie Radok, who co-edited the first three editions 2011-2013, put this series on a trajectory to continue to open up the unexpected, the critical, the rich, not to mention the nationally and politically significant.

The US war on terror was the catalyst for our March 2003 issue Fallout: war, terror, refugees. It was launched by John Pilger just days after John Howard took the country to the conflict. It takes war or penises to get the attention of the mainstream press. Pilger’s presence and the uncanny timing of the Fallout issue, and another little controversy in 2004, concerning the cover of the Adelaide and Beyond issue which had a naked youth sleeping with his fingers in a fishbowl, and which Barnes & Noble in the US refused to sell without a figleaf, an option which we rejected. Both rated highly enough to make some fodder for the papers. The entire story of retail distribution in North America is a long one and it does not have a happy ending. After various different distributors taking us on, sales only improved with the rise of the Borders chain, which of course was one of the first closures in the bookshop crashes around 2011.

But the fact is, rather like the ARCO situation for the dealers, the idea that foreigners will buy an Australian art magazine even in a good bookshop, is pretty unrealistic. Artlink and its ilk are enthusiastically received at international conferences overseas, especially exhibitions with related content, and even book fairs, any place where the audience is similar to you, dear reader, but not so often in retail outlets. The surprisingly disfunctional bookshop of Tate Modern which carries obscure art magazines from Latin America, Africa, India etc somehow could not sustain an Australian magazine on the shelves. But it was also a distaste for the very idea of shipping heavy paper magazines by air to the northern hemisphere for almost certain pulping that propelled us to the more ecologically defensible strategy of proving the full digital version for sale. And after a decent interval the Artlink app was born.

Some themed issues seem to devour more time and energy than others. Elders of the Artworld in 2006 was one of those. Whereas art history or museums or public art, or graffiti or a city like Brisbane or Sydney, may have been treated before or since by other magazines and books, there are some that break new ground. Who thinks about living artists who are very old? Looks at where they are now, and where they were? And brings them together from around Australia to a big party to celebrate. In an earlier, pre-climate-change version of a hot Adelaide day Inge King arrived from Melbourne in a chic linen shift and sat on the grass at Carclew after the speeches with a circle of admirers filling up her glass among them my husband, the artist Clifford Frith, who was 82 then, and who with an unbroken career of over 60 years had also made it into Artlink for the first time. Having rashly encouraged me to start the magazine in 1981 and supported me for years financially, and with love and regular meals to this very day, he has a lot to answer for. Without him there would be no Artlink.

In 2010 Blak on Blak required a fully fledged forum at AAMU in Utrecht to do justice to its significance, with speakers from Australia dodging the Icelandic volcanic eruption which grounded planes; Margo Neale came from Rome by train, the rest of us flew in just in time. Sitting with Gordon Hookey, Daniel Browning and Tess Allas at an outdoor café, Gordon demanding to know why an auction house was buying dialysis machines in remote Australia using proceeds of Indigenous art sales held in trust accounts, when Medicare should do it, very nearly convinced me that Aboriginal art was indeed a White Thing. The following year Fiona Foley did a presentation at October Gallery in London around Artlink Indigenous: Beauty & Terror, which was cool and tough and made a lasting impression on the audience as did Christian Thompson’s onion-skin hoodie performance.

At the end of 2005 our revamped website went live. It had everything we had been dreaming of through fifteen years of frustration with a corporate sponsor who promised to help but did almost nothing. Admittedly those waiting years saw massive changes and the advent of user-friendly e-commerce. Our existing dynamic database, that allowed us to upload buckets of text and image, was finally working brilliantly providing a vast amount of material to users, way ahead of any other Australian art magazine, and it was out there and running hot. Isaac Forman, of Triple Zero who did the first revamp, is this year taking Artlink into a new incarnation of the site…watch this space.

And while we are talking space, Artlink’s design and layout evolved from humble beginnings, including for a while just me and a Mac; from 1993 onwards it has been in the hands of three different professional graphic designers: Eija Murch-Lempinen (29 issues), Irene Previn (25 issues) and Richard Browning (29 issues and counting). An art magazine with as much text as Artlink is a hard design nut to crack. The addition of video content to the app version viewed on tablets and other devices, has inflected the page layout slightly to highlight the moving image content. A holy grail has been achieved – not just the provision of an Australian art magazine to anyone on the planet that can download and pay for it, but also the inclusion of moving image works, or video clips and slideshows of multiple artworks by an artist or in an exhibition.

The dynamics of print vs online had been rumbling for years and around 2008 a tipping point was reached. There was a sudden rushing sense of abandoning print and plunging into the abyss of the web. Mainstream magazines started to haemorrhage and mass media print to falter. We brought together a large number of key people in the visual arts, literature, libraries, ecology, media, IP law and the blogosphere to debate this at public forums in Adelaide and Sydney in May 2009, funded by Copyright Agency Ltd. Would print survive, would copyright wither away in the face of Creative Commons? Our December issue Changing Climates in Arts Publishing documented the debates. It was a way of crystallising our future and helped us decide that print still has a vital niche, but online is the main game now; that Creative Commons is wonderful in theory but writers deserve to be paid for their work. In the four years since then, the commercialisation of mobile media through apps is an elegant solution to the ecological arguments against dead trees, and those decisions are holding up.

Artlink went to China for the first time with The China Phenomenon (2003) which was a huge novelty at the time. There were launches in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing with consular officials from DFAT and big attendances where co-editor Binghui Huangfu and I spoke. Later we visited artists’ studios – the most rewarding part of all. And of course there were banquets presided over by Brian Wallace of Red Gate Gallery, where we entertained all the local artists and writers who had participated and their partners, for the cost of a dinner for four in Australia.

The China Phenomenon began being used as a reference tool by writers and curators within China as well as in Australia and abroad as soon as it was published and articles appeared in Chinese media within a few days, commenting on the accuracy and balance of Artlink’s treatment of the subject. A minor diplomatic incident happened in Shanghai around the insert document translating all the texts into Chinese; the Director of the Museum read these texts the night before, and came across the thing that never happened, the Tiananmen Square massacre. He demanded his curator’s head, a chunk of money from Artlink, the cancellation of the launch, and/or the destruction of the Chinese inserts. Binghui managed to persuade him to take the second and the last of these, the Vice Consul turned up, the launch and forum went ahead (our very serious speaker was the artist Yang Fudong) and the curator took the Chinese inserts out of his bottom drawer in a plastic bag and distributed them at the restaurant afterwards to all the artists.

It was another three years before I was able to make my first visit to Korea as a guest of invited by the organisers of the Gwangju Biennale, and then on to visit the Shanghai Biennale, travelling with Tamara Winikoff who was on a NAVA quest to get a handle on how the visual arts function in Asia from the point of view of practising artists. Meetings with two different artists associations in Seoul as well as the Arts Council revealed a model surprisingly similar to Australia, whereas her talks in Shanghai confirmed a totally different situation.

Another seven years passed before Alison Carroll was available to guest edit This Asian Century on contemporary visual arts in Asia, a theme partly prompted by the Labor government’s long awaited white paper ‘Australia in the Asian Century’. Senator Penny Wong launched it in March 2013. Since the tragi-comedy of the election of the Abbott government last year and their wooden-footed performance in Asia, the Century will likely be a little delayed. And its arrival here may not be ‘at a time of our choosing’. Will Artlink’s policy decision in 2013 to dedicate one themed issue per year to Asian art prove to be visionary or a waste of breath? My gut feeling is that it must be done and like the fast flowing river of touring exhibitions and hundreds of Australians who embarked on residencies in Asia during Alison Carroll’s Asialink years, if a reverse flow is started and Asian writers, editors and artists begin working closely with an art magazine here the relationship can also grow.

Since the role morphed from ‘assistant’ to ‘Manager’ in 1994
I have worked with six managers not counting those who only lasted a few issues. The increasing complexity of the financial software and reporting standards forced us to rethink the job description and split the hours between a Manager and an accountant/bookkeeper to come in once a month. At the same time we rationalised under the title General Editor all the various roles I had gradually been able to devolve to Stephanie Radok, including coordinating the exhibition reviews commissioned by our unpaid team of Contributing Editors, and an array of other vital editorial jobs including acting in my position on many occasions over the years, and rigorously proofreading the magazine since 1989.4 The depth of her knowledge and scholarship as well as her imaginative, fearless and clever writing have become embedded in the fabric of Artlink. We have been very lucky to have such a seriously smart intellectual on the team for so long. And she’s a fabulous cook.

Amanda Finnis was the first of the series of managers, all with very different skill sets, (Amanda was a singer-songwriter and did theatre sports) followed by Belinda Daw, Cathy Davidson, Tory Shepherd, Mairead Doyle and now Helen Davies, the first at Artlink who had actually worked in magazine publishing before. Mairead presided over Artlink finally leaving the secure nest of Henley Beach and finding space in the heart of the City of Adelaide in 2007, to share with John Maitland’s Energy Architecture. Helen has been the creator of change of another sort, an energetic and fearless engagement with the digital domain, in particular her brilliant engineering in 2012 of the Artlink app, followed by digital books and anthologies. Without Helen’s willingness to give anything a go, a range of things would never have happened, including the Mandarin translation and reprint in China of the first Artlink Indigenous.

Although Artlink Indigenous scooped the quarterly limelight from 2011 to 2013, other themes beeped and blinked like The Underground edited by eco-hipster Lucas Ihlein, Art in the Public Arena (the fourth on this theme since 1989) Surveillance, a little before its time, Pattern & Complexity by Margot Osborne (editor of our best selling issue ever, Art, Mind, Beauty four years earlier). Phenomena, and the recent Mining issue are two projects I have found especially interesting during the last decade. Mining had much resonance in WA where our long term honorary contributing editor Thelma John has kept us in touch with issues, as has Michael Edwards in Tasmania.

A perennial discussion has been our relationship with academia – the joy of knowing that scholars and students are part of Artlink both as contributors and readers collides with the all too realpolitik where academics channel their time into earning points for articles in refereed journals – and the way the definitions of refereeing changed over time, from double blind to ‘independently edited’ which is where Artlink finally kicked in.

Our longest serving honorary contributing editors, Joanna Mendelssohn at COFA, Dr Juliette Peers at RMIT, and Professor Pat Hoffie at QCA, have been at the heart of very long term alliances with university art schools and have been prolific writers as well as mentors of young reviewers. All three, plus writer-thinker-artists Djon Mundine and Stephanie Radok are the subjects of Artlink i-book Anthologies, to be published this year. Like so many people I have worked with, such as Donald Brook, Janet Maughan, Alison Carroll, Tamara Winikoff, Daniel Browning, Kevin Murray, and so many others, their vocabularies are lint-free and of their own making. The launch of our first i-book by Donald Brook, whose work has had such an overarching influence on Artlink from its first issue on, will happen very soon. It’s called Get a Life.

This is a moment long delayed, through the kind of inertia that is the eye of a storm that churns day-to-day, week to week, year to year. Escaping from the vortex is not easy. It must keep its energy and momentum. In the old language it would have been just a rat on a treadmill, but fortunately the age of Big Weather gives our lives a more dramatic sense of contingency. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Adelaide won a world contest the other day for the hottest city on the planet. Someone had to work that one out.

Arriving at 2014 there is a deep breath, coming out of warrior pose, eyes closed, contemplating the moment. The moment becomes the near future, the near future is now very near.

Thank you to my team, Helen Davies, Stephanie Radok, Lisa Mortimore, Richard Browning and Julie Issom; the Board: Janet Maughan, Bill Morrow, Jackie Wurm, Lisa Slade and (recently replacing Adrienne Hender who served for a fantastic 20 years), Steve Bastian. And all the Artlink friends, family and supporters, individuals, organisations, funders, advertisers and sweaty couriers. I love you all.

1 In Reflection: 20th Anniversary issue in 2000 edited by Stephanie Radok.

2 The Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, which with Arts SA, have been our mainstay in the struggle to survive and thrive, have also been hugely supportive in other ways, which mean a lot to small organisations. Other states have chipped in too, in particular for many years Victoria, as well as Queensland and Western Australia.

3 This group has included at various times since 2000, Di Barrett, Paul Hoban, Mary Knights, Stephanie Radok, Chris Reid, Christine Morrow, Andrew Best, Maria Zagala, Jackie Wurm, Melentie Pandilowski, Julianne Pierce, with special guests to planning days including Isaac Forman, Bill Morrow, Ann Mather, Tamara Winikoff, John Neylon, Juliette Peers, Pat Hoffie, Thelma John, Joanna Mendelssohn and many more.

4 Lisa Mortimore is currently the inspired part-time Sales and Marketing Manager, a position created in 2010.

Stephanie Britton is the Executive Editor of Artlink.