Tag Archives: South Ways

South Ways – art undercurrents across the South

Paper for South-South Axes of Global Art (Paris, 17-19 Jun 15)

Context

I present this paper as a curator, more concerned with opening up a space for new possibilities than analysing the past. My purpose is to present alternatives to the biennale model that are conducive to horizontal south-south exchange. Presenting these here, in the cultural capital of the North, affords a critical space to consider its limits and potential for further development.

Before I begin, I need to account for my voice as a citizen of Australia. Australia is an extractivist settler nation that has largely ignored its position in the South in favour of models inherited from Europe and North America. Until recently, the colonial imagination was fired by nationalist tropes like ‘Downunder’, the ‘Great Southern Land’ and ‘Southern Cross’, but these are mere clichés in a neoliberal state that is more concerned with the people it can exclude than the shared stories it can generate from within.

Charles de Gaulle was rumoured to have said of Brazil, that ‘it is a country of the future, and always will be’. So in Australia, our place in the world remains, paradoxically, a distant horizon. But as Paulin Hountondji remarked ‘culture is not only a heritage, it is a project’ (Sahlins 2005). The South is our project, to be more than a colonial outpost. Australia’s distance from the centre has potential to open a space for new possibilities.

Also before going further I should clarify my use of the term ‘south’. Though it seems uncomfortable in a globalised world to offer spatial limits, I do use ‘south’ as a political reality, more than a convenient trope. Jorge Luis Borges proposed that ‘universal history is the history of various intonations of a few metaphors’ (Borges 1973). Derrida proposed light was one of these key metaphors (Derrida 1978), evident since Plato in the symbol of knowledge as enlightenment. South could be considered among these key metaphors. The meaning of South is predicated on the concept of a vertical hierarchy, where value lies above. It is more than just a trope—an improvement on ‘Third World’, but not as incisive as ‘Majority World’. South cannot be readily transposed. South is a real fixed phenomenon, what Ricoeur calls the vestricktsein, ‘living imbrication’ (Ricoeur 1984, 75). By convention I fly up to Paris, despite that our experience of the world is as in the long run as an even plane. ‘Going south’ has become synonymous with failure. This is a phenomenological function embedded in how we see the world. We live in metaphors, which suits some better than others. Just as blackness is historically tainted with ignorance, so ‘southern’ is by default lowly.

The biennale dream

The story begins with the quest for civic identity. Sydney and Melbourne are Australia’s rival cities. Missing the nature-given attractions of Sydney, Melbourne identifies more with man-made elements, such as its architecture. Through its Major Events strategy, Melbourne also seeks to feature in the international circuit through programs like the Formulae One Grand Prix. But an important piece has been missing. Though originating many of the artistic movements in Australia, Melbourne lacks a place in the international visual arts calendar. Finally, in 1999, it acquired its first, and only, visual arts biennale. Mostly praised by local critics, the event proved a financial disaster. In the end, the Melbourne Biennial didn’t receive the same kind of international funding support that was already directed towards Sydney, one the oldest biennales. At a forum in RMIT Gallery, the godfather of biennales, Rene Block, explained cruelly that there was just ‘no room on the carousel’ for Melbourne. It was too similar to Sydney, which was already established, and did not have the exotic appeal of new members like Istanbul or Gwangju.

This led to many discussions about what it meant to have a biennale in Melbourne. Was there an alternative model? Brisbane had shown how it was possible to consolidate a place in the international calendar outside the carousel, in the Asia Pacific Triennial. Rather try to inveigle oneself into an existing circuit, the Art Gallery of Queensland had created a new set of exchanges framed by an east-west dialogue between Australia and the cultures of its region. At a public discussion at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2000, the Brisbane model was explored and the question asked—what new international space could Melbourne help open up?

At that time, the democratic turn in many countries in the South were relatively fresh. Nelson Mandela had just stepped down as President of the new South Africa. In Latin America, countries like Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay had broken with the military dictatorships of the 1970s. The 20th century story of the South as a region of tin-pot dictators and banana republics was no longer relevant. Boycott was no longer the most appropriate ethical engagement with the South. In this context, it seemed that a triennial style event in Melbourne could provide a new space for trying out exchanges with these reformed countries along southern latitudes.

South Project

In 2003, the South Project was initiated and heads of the city’s cultural institutions came together to endorse a future APT style event in Melbourne. In the meantime, however, most of the leading visual arts organisations like the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art reverted back to architecture as a forum of ambition. New buildings like Federation Square testified to Melbourne’s cultural value. It was left to a relatively marginal organisation, Craft Victoria, to carry the South baton. For a craft organisation, the South Project offered not only the potential to forge south-south alliances, it also provided a way to engage with craft practice in an otherwise highly conceptual visual arts scene. The rationale for this came from the relative importance of craft as a means of both livelihood and cultural identity in many countries of the South.[1]

Rather than see this developmentally as evidence of a cultural backwardness, the challenge was to integrate crafts into the platform. This was framed as a democratic issue. Craft helped ensure that this exchange was not simply reproducing the cultural elites that normally ride the carousel, but embraced also those in townships, slums and poblaciones.

The democratic framework was attempted in three ways. The first was to include where possible a local indigenous welcome alongside the inevitable meeting of dignitaries. While now a common feature of public events in Australia, it was still a relatively new component in other countries, particularly South America.

The second was to include practical workshops alongside the standard format of talks and exhibitions. Fibre crafts played a leading role, including Australian Aboriginal techniques in Johannesburg and Māori basket-making in Wellington. This offered craftspersons and artisans with a more direct benefit in attending, as well as opportunity for the university educated participants to engage in a dialogical space was did not privilege their cultural capital.

The third involved exchanges with children. The South Kids program featured the story of an emu that wanted to fly. A kit including the toy emu and camera circulated around schools in the South, enabling children to document their worlds. In Soweto, this was a pretext for praising the capacities of the ostrich, which though unable to fly has unique features such as physical beauty, useful eggs and impressive running speed. The story of the flightless bird was a predicament seen to typify the South, as a region lacking the capacity to share its unique features with each other.

In the end, the South Project did not achieve its grand ambition to establish a triennial in Melbourne. While this was partly the consequence of internal political factors, it was not helped by the relative lack of economic opportunities for Australia across the South compared to the Asia Pacific.

Nonetheless, the South Project left a residual network and a trail of unanswered questions. What does the South share in common, besides a shared opposition to the North? To what extent is the focus on the South reproducing a post-colonial dynamic where indigenous cultures are defined by their oppression, rather than in their own terms? What would be a space such as the South that didn’t need the North to define itself against? A kind of Hegelian dialectic had been initiated to discover an autonomous identity for the South.

Southern Theory

Meanwhile, there emerged a call in the academy to broaden the purview beyond the trans-Atlantic north. In 2007, the book by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell was published, titled Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (2007). Connell addressed the degree to which the discipline of sociology was built on a set of interests that were particular to the northern metropolitan centres. She argued that the theories of Marx, Durkheim and Weber did not account for the experiences particular to the periphery, especially that of its subaltern majorities. Rather than the universal systems offered by those theorists, Connell advocated for a ‘dirty theory’ that takes into account the particularities:

The goal of dirty theory is not to subsume, but to clarify; not to classify from outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness. And for that purpose — to change the metaphor — all is grist to the mill. Our interest as researchers is to maximise the wealth of materials that are drawn into the analysis and explanation. It is also our interest to multiply, rather than slim down, the theoretical idea that we have to work with. That includes multiplying the local sources of our thinking, as this book attempts to do. (Connell 2007, 207)

While concerned particularly with the institutional production of knowledge, Connell’s work paralleled others that have recently used the South within a framework of critical social theory. This includes Enrique Dussel’s work constructing a discipline of liberation philosophy (Dussel 1985), which evaluates ideas according to their impact on social justice.  Such a philosophy takes geopolitical space seriously. As Dussel writes, ‘To be born at the North Pole or in Chiapas is not the same thing as to be born in New York City.’ (Dussel 1985).  This drive has been continued by thinkers and activists such as Boaventura de Sousa Santos, whose epic ‘epistemologies of the South’ (Santos 2013) aims to deconstruct universalising gestures.

There is much diversity among the theorists framing their work in a Southern context (Rosa 2014). But they share the key principle of place as a valid framework for the production of knowledge. This means working in the South can be more than just a second best option, indicative of failure to succeed in the North.

Southern Theory and visual arts

How might Southern Theory apply to the visual arts? Within an ecological framework, ideas are evaluated not only for their internal consistency but also the greater world they make possible. We may thus look at anthropology not as the disinterested study of an exotic tribe for the production of academic knowledge elsewhere, but as an exchange involving solidarity with the aspirations of the community under scrutiny. While Southern Theory is predominantly a matter of reflecting social realities, in the case of creative practices it is more about constructing alternatives to the world as it is.

Walter Mignolo is one theorist who has extended the southern perspective to the practice of visual arts and design (Kalantidou and Fry 2014). From an academic base in Hong Kong, Mignolo has led a group of scholars to develop a ‘decolonial aestheSis’ (Mignolo and Vázquez 2013), which critiques Western aesthetic categories like beauty through practices of juxtaposition or parody. Mignolo highlights the Sharjah Biennial (Mignolo 2013) as an example of radical decentring. According to Mignolo, this event ‘turns its back on the intellectual Euro-American fashions that have dominated, until recently, the “biennial market place”’ (Mignolo 2013).  For Mignolo, the value of Sharjah is a matter of its content; the countries and artists that participate represent an alternative ‘cultural cartography’. He notes that of the 100 artists, only 2 were from the USA and 20 from Europe. However, he refrains from mentioning any work in detail. The works are seen to illustrate a particular world view that is independent of the West. An example of one ‘illustrative work’ is:

Nevin Aladag, Turkey, Session (2013). This video triptych shot in Sharjah brings together the topography of the city and percussion music composed with Arabic, African and Indian percussion instruments. The video triptych invokes the spirit of re-emergence in that it works with musical instruments that elude the European renaissance. At the same time, that the instruments are played by and in the environment of Sharjah, cultures once disavowed by western hegemony ‘re-emerge’ with the force and the confidence of pluri-versal futures. (Mignolo 2013)

While its subject may seem non-Western, the format is readily assimilated into the dominant model. It is a ‘white cube’ work, detached from the work, where the visitor is an anonymous viewer. Apart from its geographic location, this work reproduces the biennial model of the world as spectacle.

The current Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor has brought the concerns of Sharjah to the centre. The majority of works offering a political critique of capitalist hegemony. But as noted (Cumming 2015), there is some irony in an event that is resourced and enjoyed by the very elites it attempts to critique. While some may argue that the carousel is opening up to the South (Gardner and Green 2013), there is no guarantee that it extends beyond the strata of cultural elites found in almost all countries. The challenge is to consider platforms for art making that go beyond reflecting the world as it is, and instead offer alternative pathways for creating a world that might be.

South Ways

It was with the aim to develop alternative platforms that a project was formed last year within the Southern Perspectives, a network of writers and artists that continued after the South Project. The aim of South Ways was to initiate development of platforms for art that act in the world. The process involved roundtables that brought together a variety of voices from those involved in creative practice. Four roundtables were held in different cities of Australia and New Zealand reflecting a diversity of perspectives. To provide a simple pragmatic frame, the seed for each roundtable was provided by a single verb that reflected a distinctive mode of engagement found in the South.[2]

I will provide a brief overview of these verbs and an example of their use.

To bestow

The first roundtable was held in Wellington New Zealand and included a mix of Māori and Pākeha participants. The verb to consider was ‘to bestow’ reflecting the traditional Māori practice of koha or gift giving in art practice and the emergence of Pākeha jewellery forms of engagement involving gift exchange. The main challenge concerned the vulnerability of such practices when exposed to consumer capitalism. Even in biennales, the freebie expectation means that gifts offered as part of the art world are rarely taken in the spirit of exchange. The task was to develop a platform that fostered trust and reciprocity between artists and their audiences.

The project Joyaviva was an exhibition where artists developed prototypes of modern amulets. This drew on the South American tradition of public shrines that receive ex-votive offerings. In the exhibition format, visitors were offered plastic flowers to adorn works and encouraged to reflect on the impact of these amulets on their lives. One of the participants, the Māori artist Areta Wilkinson, integrates koha into both her art work and academic research. For Joyaviva, she featured an initiative to support a Māori community devastated by the Christchurch earthquakes, which included a Matiriki brooch symbolising the Pleiades constellation that signals the New Year.

To open

Melbourne was the site of the second roundtable. Initially, the verb to open related to the work of artists like Nicholas Mangan who chose to expose sites of production in art galleries, such as guerrilla supply lines or factory assembly belts. Present were some of the artists who had chosen to boycott the Sydney Biennale because of its association with Transfield, the company commissioned to manage offshore detention centres. As befits the birthplace of Julian Assange, the Melbourne gathering advocated for a radical transparency, which would highlight the economic value that artists contribute for sponsors to major art events. The proposed WikiLeaks style of platform has yet to emerge.

But one initiative that does aspire to this is the Sangam Project. This platform emerged from the context of the practical workshops in the South Project, where North and South sometimes met in the process of product development, where designers and artisans sought to build creative partnerships.  The program attempts to use the new e-commerce platforms as a means to give economic value to the information about the maker, otherwise unacknowledged. This aspires to platform that is alternative to the commodity circuits that occlude the means of production.

To swap

In Sydney, the verb ‘to swap’ was set up to reflect the phenomenon of reverse primitivism in which Southern artists turn the exotic gaze back on the North. In the end, the subject of contention again was the biennale. In this case, the issue was the way the carousel privileged the art of international relations, rather than local practices that draw on urban nature and community histories. The proposal was a distributed biennale which spread its program across local sites in different cities.

An existing example is the project Minga Sistemas de Trabajo Colectivo in Santiago, curated by Angela Cura Mendez and Felipe Cura (Donoso 2015). Minga is a precolombian term for collective labour. In the island of Chiloe, it often takes the form of a Tiradura de casa when the community gather to move someone’s house to a different location. Working with the community of artist-run art spaces in Chile, this exhibition involved gathering more the spaces themselves than work within them. Maria Gabler re-constructed the walls of Galería Tajamar, which exists in a public housing estate, within Galleria Gabriela Mistral in downtown Santiago. This Minga of contemporary art enables a concentration of work that still retains its locatedness within its home community.

To glean

The roundtable in Hobart was concerned the practice of recovering what is left over, ‘to glean‘. This reflected not only the arte Povera practices such as El Anatusi, granted the Golden Lion in Venice for sublime recycling, but also recovery of cultures lost during the process of colonisation, which was particularly dramatic in Tasmania. The discussion eventually led to the revival of the idea of a Museum of Southern Memory, initially proposed in the first South Project, reflecting the common experience of Apartheid, Stolen Generation and the Disappeared. This museum will not be a physical structure, but a network of individuals and groups that sustain a story or cultural practice through use.

This year, the project of a Social Repair Kit involves re-modelling traditional forms of conflict resolution through blood money. The ‘sorry object’ is the subject of workshops in Bogotá, Santiago and Melbourne. The focus is the injury sustained by conflicts such as the Colombian civil war, coup against Allende and last year’s Sydney hostage siege and consequent islamophobia. Rather than reflect on these conflicts, the aim is to draw inspiration from traditional modes of conflict resolution, such as the Palabreros, in order to develop objects that can be introduced into the communities to facilitate apology and pardon.[3]

Conclusion

South Ways is a scattering of seeds, each with a kernel of action. Of course, we need to be realistic about the likelihood that these proposals will flourish, given the kind of soil in which they are planted. Stepping off the carousel means leaving behind the capital which it has proven effective in gathering. The success will depend on the strength of solidarity rather than self-interest of participants. But if South is to be more than a primitivist mirror to the North, it needs to be a space were we can test out other ways of being.

Notes

[1] See (Skinner 2014) for a more developed framework for the importance of craft in a settler colonial art history.

[2] The theoretical framework for this use of verbs is Actor Network Theory, which offers a flat explanatory structure that does refuses the mimesis and instead identifies the effects that accompany representation (Harman 2014). Accordingly, the dominant verb in visual arts is ‘to explore’ or ‘to examine’. This colonial mode entails a distance between the active world of the artist and unknowing object of knowledge. Viewed in this way, the challenge becomes identifying alternate actions in the world.

References

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1973. “Pascal’s Sphere.” In Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, 1st British ed. London: Souvenir Press.

Connell, Raewyn. 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity.

Cumming, Laura. 2015. “56th Venice Biennale Review – More of a Glum Trudge than an Exhilarating Adventure.” The Guardian. Accessed June 14. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/10/venice-biennale-2015-review-56th-sarah-lucas-xu-bing-chiharu-shiota.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas.” In Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Donoso, Diego Parra. 2015. “Cuidado: Zona de Autogestión Apuntes sobre Minga en Galería Gabriela Mistral.” Revista Punto de Fuga. http://www.revistapuntodefuga.com/?p=1774.

Dussel, Enrique. 1985. Philosophy of Liberation. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, c1985.

Gardner, Anthony, and Charles Green. 2013. “Biennials of the South on the Edges of the Global.” Third Text 27 (4): 442–55. doi:10.1080/09528822.2013.810892.

Harman, Graham. 2014. Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political. Pluto Press.

Kalantidou, Eleni, and Tony Fry. 2014. Design in the Borderlands. 1 edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mignolo, Walter. 2013. “Re:Emerging, Decentring and Delinking.” Ibraaz. August 5. http://www.ibraaz.org/essays/59/.

Mignolo, Walter, and Rolando Vázquez. 2013. “The Decolonial AestheSis Dossier.” Social Text. July 15. http://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/the-decolonial-aesthesis-dossier/.

Ricoeur, Paul. 1984. Time and Narrative Vol.1. University of Chicago Press.

Rosa, Marcelo C. 2014. “Theories of the South: Limits and Perspectives of an Emergent Movement in Social Sciences.” Current Sociology, February, 0011392114522171. doi:10.1177/0011392114522171.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2005. “On the Anthropology of Modernity, Or, Some Triumphs of Culture over Despondency Theory.” In Culture and Sustainable Development in the Pacific, edited by Antony Hooper. Canberra: ANU Press.

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2013. “Public Sphere and Epistemologies of the South.” Africa Development 37 (1): 43–67.

Skinner, Damian. 2014. “Settler-Colonial Art History: A Proposition in Two Parts.” Journal of Canadian History 35 (1): 131–75.

 

[3] I should also mention a more dispersed project drawing from the Melanesian language of silence to develop a platform outside of discourse. Vakanomodi project is named after the Fijian practice of deep listening to the land.

Image is from the exhibition Mirador, de María Gabler, en Galería Tajamar, Santiago de Chile, 2015. Foto: Sebastián Mejía

Kay Abude’s Piecework reveals the labour of capital

Kay Abude, Piecework,  2014 Steel, MDF, timber, plywood, fluorescent lights, chairs, cardboard, paper, plaster, silicone rubber, paint, brushes, various modeling tools and steel utensils, latex gloves, cotton and nylon rags, cotton velvet, silk, rayon braided cord and workers. Dimensions variable

Kay Abude, Piecework, 2014 Steel, MDF, timber, plywood, fluorescent lights, chairs, cardboard, paper, plaster, silicone rubber, paint, brushes, various modeling tools and steel utensils, latex gloves, cotton and nylon rags, cotton velvet, silk, rayon braided cord and workers. Dimensions variable

Piecework, 2014 is an installation and series of durational performances that occur throughout its exhibition in Gallery 2 at Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts.  The installation consists of three workstations and three workers dressed in a uniform.  The workers engage in an activity of casting plaster objects from moulds in the form of 14.4kg gold bars.  These casts are then painted gold.  Piecework displays a purposefully futile labour of a repetitive and tireless fashion.  It explores a form of work relating directly to performance that is quantifiable, investigating ideas of power and value and asks questions about the role and meaning of labour within artistic practice.

Shift work is characteristic of the manufacturing industry, and the artwork employs performative strategies in a rigorous process and task orientated manner by using Linden as a workplace that is in constant operation over the period of a 24-hour cycle.  The ‘three-shift system’ is performed (Shift 1: 06:00-14:00, Shift 2:14:00-22:00 and Shift 3: 22:00-06:00) by the three workers who produce these gold bars throughout the six week exhibition period.  The workers are paid a fixed piece rate for each unit produced/each operational step completed per shift.  Ideas of the factory are embedded in the vary nature of the work mimicking a manufacturing process carried out by uniformed workers who take up their posts in eight hour shifts.

The catalogue essay by Jessica O’Brien:

The poetry and politics of production

Addressing the intersection between art, life and capitalism, Kay Abude’s Piecework interweaves personal experience, a critique on the distribution of global economic power, and the relationship between producers and consumers.

Piecework unfolds over a six-week period. A durational performance piece highlighting labour and process, the performers undertake manufacturing processes that reference the artist’s personal experience and recent site visits to Chinese factories. The group works through an endless pattern of standardised procedures that result in gold painted serialized plaster ingots. The performances are structured according to a three-shift system, dividing the day into three eight-hour working shifts that mimic a continuous 24-hour production cycle.

By foregrounding the body of the worker, Piecework engages with the pervasive neo-colonial first world practice of exploiting emerging economies and their abundance of cheap, unregulated labour. With most of Australia’s goods produced offshore, the performance addresses the disconnection in the minds of the consumer between the products we buy, and the often dehumanising labour that is required to produce it.

Banal, repetitive, precise and designed for maximum efficiency, Piecework could stand in for the processes behind countless products and could be extrapolated in factories a hundred or a thousand times over. Each action is carefully considered, creating a Haiku-like poetry to the work.

Highlighting the formality existing in standardised production, there is a purposeful ambiguity in the artist’s aestheticised interpretation of reality. Kay writes: “Two different types of labour exist in the two environments of the factory and the studio. The large populations filling the factories are dependent on the market that exploits them. These people labour because they must work for their livelihoods – they work in order to live and survive. The labour present in art practice is one that is voluntary and pleasurable for the artist – the artist lives to work and create.”[1]

Downplaying the desire for a single ‘artist’s hand’ in the work, while expressly displaying the labour that it took to create it, the audience is left to question the value of the objects that are produced, and how it is conferred.

At the crux of these ambiguities is the role of the audience in the artwork. “The fine arts traditionally demand for their appreciation physically passive observers…but active art requires that creation and realization, artwork and appreciator, artwork and life be inseparable.”[2] Utilising the understanding that the relationship between the artist and the audience is at the heart of Performance Art, the seemingly passive and non-participatory viewers of Piecework are in fact directly implicated in the work.

Piecework replicates the role the audience plays as participants of consumer culture, in their role as consumers of the artwork. Abude is the manufacturer and we the consumer. Without a market or an audience, ‘production’, in every sense of the word, would not exist.

By foregrounding the human process by which consumer goods are made through the physical presence of the workers, Piecework addresses the disconnection and compartmentalisation that is characteristic of present day consumption in a capitalistic society. And yet it also replicates those very relationships, distilling and aestheticising disturbing imbalances of power.

As Claire Bishop’s remarks: “The most striking projects… [hold] artistic and social critiques in tension.”[3] Piecework is a considered response to a pervasive social issue, but does not attempt to present a fixed meaning, or take on the herculean responsibility of suggesting a solution to global economic inequality. As unwitting participants of the performance, the significance we chose to ascribe to our role as a consumer of product and artwork is up to us.

Jessica O’Brien
June 2014

Jessica O’Brien is an independent curator and writer based in Melbourne.

[1] Abude, Kay, Put to work, M Fine Art, Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Music, The University of Melbourne: November 2010, p. 28.

[2] Kaprow, Allen, Essays in the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley: University of California Press: 2003, p. 64.

[3]Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso Books: 2012, p. 277-8.

Hobart report: Thinking through flotsam

Julie Gough, The Lost World (part 2), 2013, installation detail. Photo courtesy the artist

Julie Gough, The Lost World (part 2), 2013, installation detail. Photo courtesy the artist

 28 June 3-5pm Contemporary Art Tasmania, Hobart What does it mean to make art in the South? How does living at the end of the world condition what we see? The Hobart roundtable considered particularly the creative act of gleaning as a means of recovering what is otherwise left behind. This can apply to not only material detritus but also lost histories that have been overlooked in the march to progress and empire. The roundtable began with discussion about the relationship between Australia and Latin America. The Buen Vivir movement in Bolivia and Ecuador was seen as an important model for a culture of responsibility towards the environment. More specifically, the regions of Tierra del Fuego and Tasmania were considered to have much in common. But counterbalancing the connection was a history of oppression and corruption in many countries of Latin America that belie its more idealist tendencies. In between the two continents, New Zealand offered an important model in the case of the Whanganui River, which in August 2013 gained recognition as a legal entity in itself.  The river had originally been exempted from the Waitangi Treaty, but has since been subject to overuse, such as mining for gravel to build roads. But from a Māori perspective, the river is a living entity which cannot be subsumed only to human interests. This model could be relevant to other locations, such as the Great Barrier Reef. There are many issues that need to be considered in Australia. The relative rarity of second languages means it is harder to entertain multiple perspectives on the world. Within art schools, there is no allowance for the validity of knowledge systems apart from the PhD. In this context, art can play a role in opening up alternative possibilities. A number of works were mentioned:

  • Tasmanian photographers Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis created a bridge to nature
  • Bea Maddock’s etching Terra Spiritus circumnavigates Tasmania replacing European names with local versions, using ochre pigments
  • Julie Gough’s exhibition Lost World, Part 1 and Part 2
  • Elizabeth Lada Gray compared Tasmania and Tierra del Fuego.
  • Natasha Cica’s Think Tent sits ten people, with selected guest speakers that engage with public for an hour at a time.
  • Justine Shoulder club based community artist, located in space between dance floor and garden. Animist creatures that possess him. Had big commission from Performance Space.
  • The book Pride Against Prejudice by Ida West is an important contribution to reconciliation
  • Local council road signs for Mount Wellington as kunanyi

South is an important identity for Tasmania. At the bottom of the world, it offers a space for alternative activities that slip below the radar, that might otherwise not be possible in the metropolis. On the other hand, however, it has become a marketing term with romantic associations useful for selling gourmet food and tourist experiences. It was said: ‘Underlying this is a murmur in the back of our minds about a paradise lost that can be regained.’ There is potential to engage with other Souths. Singapore, for instance, has a complex relationship to the North. In such centres, one can feel that one should replicate models located in the North in order to develop. This creates a counter argument for the importance of local referents. The roundtable revisited a proposal that Greg Lehman and Jim Everett developed as part of the South 1 event in 2004. The idea for the Museum of Southern Memory emerged originally as a response to the work of Marcelo Brodsky in Argentina, who documented the memories kept alive of those who were disappeared during the military dictatorship in the 1980s. There seemed an important role for an institution that could house those memories which need to be kept alive. It was said, ‘Tasmania is part of the geo-political South of Australia. One aspect is that after the colonial tsunami has washed over and retreated, it wipes away native cultures and people.’ The proposed museum would share Tasmania’s experience of loss and recovery with other parts of the South. It could be a museum towards which any visitor might feel they could make a contribution. As well as including stories of victims, there is potential to also include non-literate techniques for memorialisation, such as knotting. This was highly developed in the practice of quipu as a form of record keeping in Inca Peru. In general, the table agreed on the importance of maintaining multiple perspectives. The binary identity of indigenous and non-indigenous did not reflect the way in which we are all products of a colonial mindset and we all have a potential relation to place. The group will continue to work on the idea of a Museum of Southern Memory, eventually with input from other voices in the South. Present:

Julie Gough The Lost World (part 2), 2013  Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, and CAT (Contemporary Art Tasmania) (Solo exhibition) Curated by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll Design by Christoph Balzar Technical design by Ronald Haynes and Mark  Sheppard +23 October – +30 November 2013 Project URL: CAT (Contemporary Art Tasmania), http://www.contemporaryarttasmania.org/program/the-lost-world-part-2 Project URL: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge http://maa.cam.ac.uk/maa/the-lost-world-part-2/

Who makes it? A credit crunch for creative labour

Production of work in Hosier Lane for Manifest (ACCA, 2004) a Zaishu project by Matthew Butler

Production of work in Hosier Lane for Manifest (ACCA, 2004) a Zaishu project by Matthew Butler

South Ways is a lateral conversation about alternative platforms for creative practice that are particular to the South. The first roundtable in Wellington concerned the connection to Māori practices of koha, or gift-giving, and the emerging field of ‘social practice’. This raised the need to frame creative works so that they might be reciprocated appropriately. The second roundtable in Melbourne dealt with the process of commodification and alternative ways of revealing the otherwise hidden labour that contributes to the cultural product.

The Melbourne roundtable was informed by the work of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who articulated an epistemology of the South where ‘preference must be given to the form of knowledge that guarantees the greatest level of participation to the social groups involved in its design, execution, and control and in the benefits of the intervention.’ (Santos, 2007)

The roundtable discussed different models for art that reflects the social relations in its production. Matthew Butler presented the Zaishu Project as an attempt to create work that straddles art and design by giving participants a stake in the outcome. Inspired partly by street art in Chile, the project emerged in 2004 when the City of Melbourne with John So as mayor was cracking down on street art. Lanes were continually painted a band of white to deter stencil artists from leaving their work overnight. One day, Butler lined a lane with cheap construction site plywood and with help of curator Andy Mac invited street artists to work on them in a clandestine stencilling event. The results were exhibited as a pop up exhibition in the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, along with DJ. The plywood was laser cut into slot together components to form the 52 stools and each artist was given one made from a random selection of works. The project has since involved hundreds of artists and gone on to include communities that include Bollywood poster painters in India, tribal artists in Fiji and is planned to go to Fitzroy Crossing in a project with Aboriginal youth.

Other projects were discussed:

  • An exhibition of art by refugees to Melbourne will give over curatorial control to the participants (Damian Smith and Trinidad Estay)
  • Work that uses the Mexican walking fish axolotl as a metaphor for cultural crossing (Diego Ramirez)
Installation shot from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action' Sutton Gallery 2013

Installation shot from Nicholas Mangan 'Progress in Action' Sutton Gallery 2013

Ian Burn (1939 - 1993), Documentary wall 1967 - 1996, Digital print, 120 x 150 cm, from 'The Artist and the Social Order' exhibition UWS Art Gallery 2009

Ian Burn (1939 - 1993), Documentary wall 1967 - 1996, Digital print, 120 x 150 cm, from 'The Artist and the Social Order' exhibition UWS Art Gallery 2009

There was broad discussion of artistic labour as a hidden component of public life. This included reflection on the pressure placed on the Sydney Biennale in the 1980s to feature more art and working life, led by artists such as Ian Burn. (Geoff Hogg)

Nathan Gray reflected on the criticism that artists who boycotted the Sydney Biennale because of Transfield sponsorship should also reject anything that has government funding. First, he argued that government funding is public money to be used for common good. ‘You wouldn’t think of banning someone from Medicare because they were critical of Julia Gillard.’ Second, as a payment for services, the artists are in a position of subsidising events such as the biennale. During discussions between the participating artists about the boycott, it was revealed that both Australian and international artists were paid the same rate of $1,500. This discussion highlighted the unpaid contribution many provide for an event that contributes to the value for sponsors such as Transfield.

To build on this discussion, the project What I got paid? was proposed where artists submit information about how much they were paid for their labour. Similar to the Wikileaks strategy, the purpose is to weaken the structures of power that are built on secrecy through a flood of classified information. This would open up lines of conversation by artists about the value of their labour. There is potential for such a venture to now only include information about payments, but also attribution, as the contribution of many technicians and craftspersons to creative products often go unrecognised.

Ceri Hann 'Paradigm Shifter' hermeneutic object

Ceri Hann 'Paradigm Shifter' hermeneutic object

In general, the sentiment of the roundtable was to support art that open about its sources of production. One means of revelation is from the bottom up, through platforms where producers can share information about their contribution to cultural products.

Participants

Ceri Hann, Damian Smith, David  Corbet, Diego Ramirez, Geoff Hogg, Laura Carthew, Matthew Butler, Nathan Gray, Nikki Lam, Trinidad Estay

Reference

  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2007. “Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of Knowledges.” Eurozine, July 26
  • ‘Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft & Design’ Sangam Project 2013

Wellington roundtable: Giving art away

Drawing from Wellington Roundtable

Drawing from Wellington Roundtable

On the morning of Thursday 27 February, 24 people gathered in Wellington to discuss how we can give art away. This roundtable was part of Kete, a biannual craft fair organised by the NZ Academy of the Arts. It was also the first in a series of meeting in South Ways, a project to identify and develop forms of creative practice that have a particular home in the South.

Wellington was an important place to begin this discussion (see background of the key word Bestow). It is the location of Te Papa, a museum whose brief involves the care for precious taonga, Māori treasures deserving special respect for their connection with ancestors and tribal life. It is also the site of vibrant artistic scene, including a community of contemporary jewellers who operate outside the gallery system. The roundtable was a space to stories from both sides about the dynamics involved in gifting art objects. Emerging from this are ideas for platforms that might support this practice.

Artist badge from the Free Time (Sarah Read) toolkit by Jhana Millers, 2012 (Visa Prezzy card, bronze)

Artist badge from the Free Time (Sarah Read) toolkit by Jhana Millers, 2012 (Visa Prezzy card, bronze)

Art that is given carries a meaning that is different to art that is bought and sold. How can we make a space for this while acknowledging our dependence on money to survive in the current world?

Here is a summary of the discussion:

The art of give and take

Gifting is an important means of creating relationships, particularly in Māori culture. The practice of koha cements relationships within iwi and between generations. For koha and other gifting practices, much depends not only the attitude of the giver, but also on the way it is received.

For contemporary jewellers, gifting and exchange has become an important means of sustaining its community of fellow artists. Newly emerging social practitioners are seeking to expand the circle of gifting to include the general public. This offers a counterpoint to the process of commodification that continues to deplete the public domain.

The issue they face is the potential lack of control over the disposition of the public. The danger is that these gifts are seen as ‘freebies’. A challenge is to find frameworks in which objects might circulate into the public domain without too quickly being absorbed into private consumption. It is important to create spaces that involve mutual respect between audience and artist.

Jacqui Chan, Host A Brooch, urban jewellery project, Christchurch 2011, participant's photograph.

Jacqui Chan, Host A Brooch, urban jewellery project, Christchurch 2011, participant's photograph.

Proposal for a Festival

One way of framing the event so that strangers might be open to a gift is to declare a certain number of days when people are encouraged to give and receive gifts. These gifts would be tokens of connection rather than consumer goods. This has potential to enliven a city, making inhabitants more aware of each other. They can also create solidarity for particular causes or groups. This Festival could be supported by a city such as Wellington so that artists would be paid to set up participatory projects in which:

  • members of public would wear items of jewellery walking through the city
  • jewellery that was made from the city
  • jewellery made for the city

Some general points from the roundtable:

Gift

  • A gift can involve extreme honesty. They can be loaded with meaning from the giver and responsibility from the receiver. Sometimes they can even stand in for the person who gave them.
  • Gifts have a ripple effect.

Huhana Smith, Senior Curator Māori Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Associate Curator Joe Horse Capture from Minneapolis Institute of Art. Curators kindly allowed the perspex to be removed from the poutokomanawa. It was an unforgettable experience, because no Māori visual culture scholars to the best of my knowledge then, knew where this taonga had ended up.

Huhana Smith, Senior Curator Māori Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Associate Curator Joe Horse Capture from Minneapolis Institute of Art. Curators kindly allowed the perspex to be removed from the poutokomanawa. It was an unforgettable experience, because no Māori visual culture scholars to the best of my knowledge then, knew where this taonga had ended up.

Taonga

The receiver can have important responsibility. For example, in 1922 the Prince of Wales was given a  Mere Pounamu presented with the blade first as a sign of kaupaki to establish an ongoing relationship.  The idea was that it would be given back, which the Prince failed to appreciate.

There is the money market and Māori market. Less important things are made for money.

Koha Kilohertz "My Te Reo (Maori language)classmates organized a koha for me to make a koha for Hoani, our tutor. I organized a koha for Ewan Duff (local Maori stone carver)who kohad the pounamu to me." Andrew Last

Koha Kilohertz "My Te Reo (Maori language)classmates organized a koha for me to make a koha for Hoani, our tutor. I organized a koha for Ewan Duff (local Maori stone carver)who kohad the pounamu to me." Andrew Last

Koha

  • Māori are very generous.
  • Koha cements relationships. It helps keep the relationship a living one.
  • It isn’t the object, it is the spirit in which it is given.
  • The word koha relates to oha ti, or someone’s last words. This is a message of generosity as part of our very being.
  • Koha is reciprocal.  There’s a message that goes with it, an instruction of some sort
  • It can’t be too small or too big.
  • Gifts are ways of marking a particular moment.
  • They can wait for a long time before reciprocation.
  • Gifts mark connection to this place. It can be important for new-comers to feel at home here.
  • The principles of koha are now taught in New Zealand tertiary institutions, involving a visit to a marae.
Joanna Zellmer 8 portraits from a jeweller’s point of view, From the series “signs in a state of change”, archival satin fine art paper, box framed, each 520 x 390 x 45mm

Joanna Zellmer 8 portraits from a jeweller’s point of view, From the series “signs in a state of change”, archival satin fine art paper, box framed, each 520 x 390 x 45mm

Contemporary jewellery

  • There is a very strong sense of community in New Zealand’s contemporary jewellery scene.
  • But there is a need to challenge this by broadening its audience to include people outside contemporary jewellery.

Social practitioner

  • The social practitioner is an artist who develops connections between people through art works and objects. A number of contemporary jewellers could be seen to be working in this way now too.
  • It involves making art available to everyone. Support for this is gained from both museums and social agencies.
  • It can be informed by Buddhist principle of being effective in the world
  • Sometimes it is important to lend rather than give objects. In that way there is less focus on the object itself and more how it opens up the world around you.
  • Given the lack of saleable product, for some it can involve going to the path of a monastery. This could be living on home-grown vegies in the Coromandels.
  • But there is a danger of an audience that doesn’t respect the art offered as gift. This is sometimes encouraged by the ‘art as fun park’ attitude encouraged by recent biennale culture.

The alternative career path: Coromandel NZ (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Coromandel_Peninsula.jpg)

Other proposals

Existing projects in New Zealand
  • Cuckoo a New Zealand artist collective that organise events in other institutions according to a principle that no money is ever involved
  • Host a Brooch
  • See Here
  • Organisation that brokers spaces for artists to work in vacant shopfronts
Other possible
  • Crowd-funding not so relevant in New Zealand because people aren’t as wealthy as in Australia
  • Cooperative where members would pay an annual fee to borrow works by artists and jewellers

Voices:

Andrew Last; Birgit Moffatt; Carol Mayer; Deborah Donnelly; Elsa Krasniansky; Helen Donnelly; Huhana Smith; Jacqui Chan; Joanna Mere Branthwaite; Johanna Zellmer; Katheryn Yeats; Kevin Murray; Kohai Grace; Laura Porterhouse; Matthew Wilson; Megan Tamati-Quennell; Owen Mapp; Peter Deckers; Richard Reddaway; Sandra Alfoldy; Sarah Read; Tiffany Singh; Vivien Atkinson; Yenji Chen.