Jakub Szczęsny and Kaja Pawelek, Narrogin Banksia Tower, 2011

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Looking for art in all the wrong places; Repositioning art in a regional context

The evolution of the Spaced residency program in Western Australia

Marco Marcon | Feature

Nearly two decades ago, when artist Rodney Glick and I started discussing the possibility of developing an international contemporary art space in a small country town, people found the idea both comical and intriguing. They laughed when they heard it first but then reconsidered, perceiving a potential beyond the apparent joke. The reason for such hilarity is obvious: contemporary art is so closely associated with the inner city areas that the idea of transplanting it among paddocks and feedlots came across as funny, like a hairy man wearing a tutu.

Rodney and I worked on the idea with farmer Tony York and his wife Donna, a graduate from Curtin University’s School of Art, who lived in Tammin, a small town 200 kilometres north‑east of Perth. Their participation was essential to establish a foothold in the nearby communities. Without them it would have been absurd to roll out our circus of neo‑conceptualist, post‑minimalist and live‑art specialists in this regional heartland of Western Australia. Donna’s contribution was especially important to activate local networks and gather support for such a batty scheme. (After we succeeded, many confessed to us that at the beginning they thought we were, not to put too fine a point on it, “pissing in the wind”).

M12 Group, Ornitarium, 2011, installation view, Wetlands Education Centre, Denmark, Western Australia

The four of us had different ideas in mind when we started planning the new organisation, and in many ways the concept behind the residency program would evolve as the result of a series of misunderstandings, like a felicitous game of Chinese whispers in which subconscious aspirations emerge involuntarily through the cracks of misconstructions. For my part, the motivation was a desire to react against what I perceived to be the stasis affecting the arts in the late 1990s. At that time, the intense and all‑consuming obsession with postmodernism, which had taken the Australian art scene by storm in the 1980s, had ceased to exciting. And the lull extended well beyond our shores. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, artistic movements, programs and manifestos had been succeeding each other in an intense generational struggle to claim ownership of the prevailing Zeitgeist, but as the millennium was coming to a close, nobody was coming forward claiming to present an appropriate alternative that would have defined the spirit of the time.

In the real world, the commercial gallery circuit continued to reign supreme, tended to by armies of gallerinas and controlled by unwholesome alliances between small international coteries of private dealers and museum curators. Non‑commercial art spaces continued to cater for the usual inner‑city crowds and some of them had started slowly moving away from their grass‑roots origins to acquire a corporate polish. Gallery directors had beautiful teeth, sported fashionable haircuts and knew how to behave around people with money. Things appeared so stagnant that attending yet another inner city exhibition opening felt like a chore. Like the bourgeois revellers in Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, one had the sensation of being immured in pointless party from which there is no escape.

It was clear to me that the time had come to reposition contemporary art within the social context, and finding a new home for art away from the usual urban milieu seemed like a good place to start. As I later discovered, this need was felt by many other artists and curators around the world, an awareness that led to the emergence of new modes of practice which were seeking to redefine art’s social contract. These emerging trends went under different names—including the new genres of public art, relational aesthetics, dialogical art and social practice as some of the better known monikers—to support a common interest in restoring social relevance to contemporary art.

Historically, these trends found their origin in one of the key moments in art following the Second World War: the shift between early self‑referential conceptualism and that loose artistic tendency known as “Institutional Critique”. As Benjamin Buchloh and other have argued, early conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth and art collectives such as Art & Language, subscribed to the decontextualised, socially neutral, apolitical stance of Anglo‑American analytic philosophy, and perpetuated typical High Modernist values such as aesthetic autonomy and self‑referentiality.[1] By breaking free from the self‑referential nominalism that constrained these strands of conceptual art, Institutional Critique made it possible for the criticality of conceptualism to be extended to the broader socio‑political conditions that shape art and aesthetic experience. It is exactly this widening of the original brief that should be credited with paving the way for current forms of participatory and community‑based responsive art, including the projects we commissioned.

Eventually, Donna and Tony found the home we were looking for to initiate our contemporary art project: a disused drapery in the small town of Kellerberrin, not far from their farm. Seeding funds from Wesfarmers Arts and the Western Australian government allowed us to transform the old shop into an art centre that included a gallery, office, studio and living quarters. The IAS, or International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia as it used to be called in those days (the name’s grandiosity was deliberately self‑mocking), opened in 1998. Our plan was to commission the creation of new works to be developed over a period of several months through a dialogue between local residents, who usually have had limited exposure to contemporary art and artists, who have often never worked in a rural context for such extended periods of time. We wanted to take artists and audiences out of their respective comfort zones and invite them to find new ways to relate to each other.

International Art Space, Kellerberrin, Australia. Photo: Robert Frith

This structure was intended to generate a degree of productive displacement in both artists and communities to destabilise old perceptions. In many ways this strategy followed the classic modernist technique of defamiliarisation, applied not to the artwork but to the social context and institutional practices within which the work is produced and distributed. That is to say, what was “made strange” were not techniques, materials, representational processes or formal principles but the relations between artists, institutions and communities. We hoped that the artworks we commissioned would create new visions out of unfamiliarity, displacement and the collision of perspectives. The aim was to create new meaning from the critical and creative dialogues between different subcultures.

The idea that separate cultural perspectives can, at least in part, be connected by creating a new common ground is, I believe, a more productive guiding principle than the other two main alternative approaches to the understanding of the dynamics of cultural difference; namely, the tendency to deny difference because human nature is universal, or support the conviction that cultural differences cannot not be bridged because they are absolute.

Over time, we fine‑tuned the rules of engagement we use to manage the interaction between artists and communities. For example, we established that time is of the essence and that site‑responsive and participatory projects have a durational aspect than cannot be ignored. For this reason, we also gave residencies scope to run for as long as practically possible, often divided into separate stages.

The rapport between artists and local residents is probably the most important element in these types of projects, making it possible to create trust and facilitate a more open disposition toward unfamiliar artistic practices. But it is impossible for artists to interact with a whole community; they can only establish meaningful work and human connections with individuals or small groups. It is also important not to lose sight the fact that even the smallest town encompasses a plurality of subgroups differentiated by gender, race, class, age, profession, sexual preference etc. Artists should neither sweep these differences and potential tensions under the carpet, nor go out if their way to needlessly exacerbate them. In the end, unanimity is neither a goal nor a value.

Despite the importance of community engagement, artists should not dilute their practice in order to accommodate what they perceive to be the expectations of non‑specialist audiences. Artists make art like farmers grow food. Local residents rarely have an interest in becoming professional artists but they are often keen to enter into a human and cultural dialogue with the visiting artists. Artworks are relevant to communities because they emerge from a dialogical exchange that reflects the specificity of the situation in which they were collaboratively conceived.

Finally, the relationship between artists and communities is regulated by the ethics of hospitality and it’s ethically sounder when artists have less economic and social capital than their community partners. If there is a power imbalance, and there almost always is, it should be in favour of the community. This is why, rather than placing established artists in disadvantaged communities, it is often better to match disadvantaged artists with established communities.

While these principles served us well, things did not always go according to plan. Kellerberrin townsfolk sometimes had mistaken ideas about the nature and capacity of the IAS. Some people expected that we would save the town from economic and demographic and decline, others wanted us to reconcile the Indigenous and non‑Indigenous sections of the community, help local youths at risk or offer a forum for local artists. These perceptions are a sign of the fact that when art is taken out of its institutionally designated sites (such as galleries and theatres) and into a community context, it often becomes burdened with expectations that have little to do with art. Thus small and poorly funded art organisations are frequently asked to deliver benefits that are usually the province of government departments with immensely superior resources: cure or prevent mental illness, educate, increase people’s wellbeing and self‑esteem, help the local economy, save marginalised youth, reconcile Indigenous and non‑Indigenous culture, bring tourists into town etc. The underlying assumption is clear: real art can only happened within a mainstream institutional envelop.

Tea Mäkipää, Business Hotspot, 2014, Cape Le Grande National Park. Photo: Robert Frith, Acorn Photo

While we tried to help the community achieve some of these objectives, what some people hoped we could deliver was not only beyond our capacity but also not in line with our main aim. We didn’t set out to save a town but to make a small contribution to saving art from the ossified state in which it found itself. This doesn’t mean that we exploited the community for our own purposes, unless exploiting means offering people free access to artists, exhibitions, performances, media screening, educational workshops and a variety social and cultural events. All we wanted was to provide the conditions for people and artists to explore new ways of relating to each other and thus develop an alternative to art’s usual production and distribution cycle, i.e. the mostly privatised circuit linking studio, gallery and collection. Not all artists we invited took up the opportunities provided by working in what was, at least for some of them, a radically new context. But when they did, they found the experience rewarding.

After ten years, our Kellerberrin programs started to lose momentum. Some of our key community collaborators left town or became too busy to keep contributing, some of the new Shire counsellors were unsympathetic. Our premises also badly needed renovations we couldn’t afford and our income streams were drying out. It was time to move again, to go further geographically and also conceptually. This is the main reason why in 2009 I persuaded our board of directors to cease operations in Kellerberrin, relinquish our brick‑and‑mortar facilities and concentrate our efforts to develop “spaced”, a new program of site‑responsive projects very similar to those we had organised in Kellerberrin but managed in collaboration with partner organisations scattered across the whole of regional Western Australia. Our new program was well‑received and earned us greatly increased organisational funding.

The new spaced program is based on the same curatorial philosophy as the old IASKA, with one exception: while in the past artists came to Kellerberrin one at a time, we now work with multiple communities in several locations. This new organisational format requires that we share curatorial control and branding credits with our partners. A fine line has to be drawn between allowing each node of this geographically dispersed network the freedom to implement their ideas, while making sure that the program as a whole remains in line with our original intentions and maintains unity and cohesiveness. In many ways, the decision to divest ourselves of our physical headquarters symbolised the desire to develop an organisational identity that was fluid, porous and not afraid to share the ownership of the program with partners. This approach was, quite deliberately, the opposite of the sleek, branding‑obsessed and corporate‑style managerialism that has taken over publicly funded contemporary art organisations in the last fifteen years or so.[2]

Sohan Ariel Hayes and Michael Woodley, Birndiwirndi-Worlds Apart, 2011, video projection on abandoned building, Yindjibarndi, Roebourne

The idea of a network also underpins the public outcomes of the projects we organise, as they often take many forms and engage different audiences at different times and in different places. There are several outcomes we hope artists are able to deliver: interaction with local residents; works, which can be ephemeral or site‑specific to the community of residence; online blogs that may include original material; works to be included in final group exhibition and subsequent national tours. These are usually, but not always, versions of the works shown in the community that have been revised to suit a mainstream exhibition venue.

Calling each of these activities a “public outcome”, and therefore something akin to a work of art, may sound preposterous, as well as an extraordinary imposition of duties on artists. But the curatorial concept behind it conceives of these outcomes as inter‑related realisations in a variety of mediums of a single idea. This networked concept of the ontology of the contemporary artwork is an important aspect of contemporary art and has been discussed by many theorists. For example, Peter Osborne describes it as the “distributive” nature of contemporary post‑conceptual art.[3] And Grant Kester, whose writings specialise in participatory art, has recently argued that the interaction between artists and communities can be in some cases regarded as constituting a distinctive form of participatory aesthetic experience which is as valid as that of the traditional solitary experience of the viewer looking at a work of art.[4]

When Nicholas Bourriaud coined the term “Relational Aesthetics” to describe certain strands of participatory and dialogical art practices, he perhaps unwittingly stumbled on a theoretical treasure trove.[5] This is because, a relational paradigm characterises the epistemological models of some of the seminal aspects of twentieth‑century thought. For example, it can be found in Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of the differential/relational structure of language and in Martin Heidegger’s idea that the meaning of things cannot be understood in isolation from either the concrete historical world in which we encounter them or our practical engagement with such a world. These approaches exemplify an ontology of relationality that underpins the networked concept of the artwork.

It would be a mistake to think that these considerations are too abstract or irrelevant to the day‑to‑day concerns of a small art organisation running projects in rural Western Australia. On the contrary, this is the crux of the matter. Because the motivation to seek a new home for contemporary art in a rural and community context is closely linked to the realisation that in too many cases contemporary art institutions have abandoned any commitment to questioning the role of art in society. As I have indicated earlier, towards the end of last century the logic of the white cube came back to dominate a de‑politicised art scene. With it also returned a very conservative idea of the artwork as a self‑sufficient, i.e. not a networked or relational entity. For us, and other organisations around the world, working in a regional context is simply a means to provide contemporary art with a new web of social relations to facilitate the creation of artworks that are more than living‑room sized aesthetic fetishes.

Anna Nazzari, Installation view, Spaced 2: Future Recall, Western Australian Museum, Perth, 2015. Photo: Robert Frith
Anna Nazzari, The Seance, 2014, scrimshaw on whale tooth. Photo courtesy the artist

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual art 1962–1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions’, October 55, 1990, pp. 105–143
  2. ^ This is an issue that artists and theorist Andrea Fraser has often addressed in her works and writings. See for instance ‘A Museum Is Not a Business, It Is Run in a Business‑like Fashion’. Beyond the Box: Diverging Curatorial Practices. Ed. Melanie Adaire Townsend. Banff: Banff Centre Press, 2003. pp. 109–123.
  3. ^ Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, London: Verso, 2013
  4. ^ Grant Kester, The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Durham: Duke University Press, 2011
  5. ^ Nicolas Bourriaud (trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods), Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les presse du reel, 1998.

Marco Marcon is the artistic director and co‑founder of the International Art Space and spaced residency program in Western Australia. More details of the residency program, including the IAS blog, at www.spaced.org.au.