Peta Rake Inclusivity and Isolation: Artist-Run Initiatives in Brisbane

Inclusivity and Isolation was first published in Fillip 15, Fall 2011.

Through the first decade of the twenty-first century, Brisbane—the affectionate poor cousin of its more artistic, capital city counterparts Sydney and Melbourne—experienced a sizable rise in artist-run activity and spaces. In large part, this movement arose as a result of activities driven by graduates of the two main art universities in the city, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University’s Queensland College of Art (which had been educating and matriculating budding artists for well over three quarters of a century). Increasingly seeking out new spaces for the presentation and discussion of art with and on behalf of their peers, individuals and groups from Brisbane’s art schools thus began to establish artist-run initiatives (ARIs), defined as “unincorporated collectives of professional practicing visual artists, craft practitioners and designers and/or incorporated, not for profit organizations.” [1] Expanding by almost 75 percent over the last ten years, [2] a dozen more or less established collectives have formed compared to only a few such initiatives in existence prior to the year 2000. It could be argued that ARIs have invigorated the Brisbane art scene, which was, for all intents and purposes, stagnating primarily due to a lack of significant exhibition and funding opportunities for artists (made possible through the support of galleries and general not-for-profit organizations). But, the story of ARIs in Brisbane, Queensland, neither begins here nor so simply, faltering several times before taking root more recently.

Characterized as a “cultural wasteland,” [3] Queensland historically saw a mass exodus of artists and writers of any mentionable calibre south to Sydney and Melbourne [4]—centres that offered richer artistic infrastructure in the form of well-established artist collectives and galleries, among other outlets. Plagued by a long history of identity crises, Queensland had established within the Australian artistic and literary consciousness a particular reputation as the pinnacle of cultural cringe. [5] Often the subject of ridicule, Queensland is caricaturized geographically as the sweaty, tropical north, and culturally as home to long drawled “ockers” [6] and broad-brimmed, leathery cattle drovers. In other words, it is imprinted on the national psyche as a frontier space and people—a legacy, perhaps, of the 1788 colonial invasion. [7]

Notable artist-run activity emerged during the postwar period of the 1940s with the Barjai and Miya groups (1943–49) [8] whose core company included writers Laurence Collinson, Pamela Seeman, Laurence Hope, and Cecel Knopke. Barjai was originally a literary collective, but the group eventually expanded to include the visual artist collective Miya, whose membership consisted of artists such as Joy and Ken Roggenkamp, Shirley Keene, and Donald Savage [9]. Altogether, the groups responded to a need for the production and discussion of critical writing and work. In addition, they shared a distaste for and rejection of their contemporaries’ attempts at imitating modernism in watered-down, “Australian” versions, which local galleries were exhibiting at the time. In fact, the groups were so turned off by the production and presentation of this art that Collinson, for example, declared the local art scene “practically sterile.” [10]

Despite the activities of the Barjai and Miya groups, little evidence of lively and alternative cultural practices in Brisbane—especially regarding visual culture—had survived by the 1960s. [11] And, in the 1970s, Brisbane’s underground music scene, established by bands such as the Go-Betweens, the Leftovers, and Zero/Xero, had only faint connections with experimental sound and performance artists in the region. [12]Despite the relative inactivity of ARIs in the decades following the burst of artist-run organizations in the 1940s and 1950s, over the last ten years Brisbane has seen a spike—or more accurately, a proliferation—in the founding of such initiatives, with ARIs perhaps becoming the primary vehicle for attempts at shedding outmoded assumptions about the city’s and the state’s culture. [13]

Since the 2000s, in the lead up to the surge in artist-run projects and organizations, several attempts were made by Brisbane’s boosters, as well as Queensland’s government officials, to secure a place for Queensland and its capital city within the national arts and culture arenas. For instance, in the 1980s strategic tourism events were hosted, significantly with the 1982 Commonwealth Games and then the 1988 World Expo, both taking place in Brisbane. It is worth noting that while these events put a spotlight on the city, one consequence was that they positioned it as a liveable and laidback leisure destination [14] in lieu of dedicating long-term investment to the support and establishment of artistic spaces and practices. Eventually, the ousting of the conservative Bjelke-Petersen [15] government [16] (1968–87) and the abandonment of its totalizing “Queensland is different” motto [17] made possible a more inclusive national policy that would extend to the arts. Still, it was not until the state reconfigured its cultural policies in the mid 2000s that a significant amount of funding was redirected to the arts sector. [18] And, in 2008, generous funding through Arts Queensland, an initiative of the Queensland Government, began providing support to emerging and established artists and arts organizations. Since then, over $150,000 annually has funded ARIs in the state. It is important to note, however, that although Queensland specifically amplified funding for its artist-run initiatives, this type of support is not exclusive to the state nor are ARIs a Brisbane-based invention. Rather, the term ARI circulates widely among artist collectives throughout Australia.

Thus, the discussion on ARIs currently circulates not only within Queensland, but also across the country. By way of example, Australia’s National Association of Visual Artists (NAVA) 2011 symposia, We Are Here: An International Symposium for Artist Run Initiatives, takes as its subject a review of current ARI funding processes and impacts in the hopes of offering a more comprehensive program advocating for ARI activity. Jointly, NAVA and Arts Queensland believe that ARIs “play an important role in art form development by facilitating innovative and experimental practices, and offer audiences new platforms of engagement through alternative audience experiences.” [19] Distinct from Australia’s artist-run centres or spaces, the initiative places less emphasis on gallery-centric exhibitions and focuses energies on the preparation of mobile and transient programming among multiple and varying sites. Therefore, intrinsic to the Arts Queensland funding priorities is the push for financially supporting program development rather than studio and space rental. This version of the ARI gives birth to a transferable, and perhaps more contemporary, form of artist collective projects; however, it is not without its problems and particularities. These problems surround, for instance, the lack of a developed and layered commercial and institutional gallery system that actively supports emerging artists. In addition, how is the engagement with the local community being addressed by the ARI through programming, exhibitions, or other means? And what is to be made of the mounting competition from the dozen or so (pre-)existing ARI groups in Brisbane?

Using the framework of locality, it is important to survey the impact of ARI development in Brisbane and to ask whether these new, fledgling spaces attempt to address their structures as alternative modes of artist collective organization. Additionally, one must ask, in what ways do these ARIs take into account their specific location and contingent relationship to the local context? Following this line of questioning, a discussion of two current ARIs in Brisbane will examine the proliferation of these initiatives vis-à-vis a consideration of place and identity, with the notion of place and identity as salient given the ambiguous position Australia holds within the Asia-Pacific Rim and in relation to North America and Europe.

The enduring complexity of Terry Smith’s essay “The Provincialism Problem” (published in Artforum in 1974) remains one of the most relevant discussions on the problem of the provincial in Australian art. In it, Smith outlines the host of cultural connections that this former British colony possesses in the construction of identity, local narratives, and, by extension, artistic practices. For Smith, provincialism is a significant “problem” that places the artist at the mercy of the metropolitan/provincial dichotomy and cements the artist’s location in relation to that dichotomy within the schema of the art world. In this case, Smith recognizes and equates the provincial with the “other” in relationship to New York, as art’s cultural centre (at least at the time of his writing). Thus, Smith argues that artists living and working outside of New York (i.e., everywhere else) are always already provincial. What becomes clear in Smith’s argument and is recognized by historians, including Peter Beilharz, Robert Manne, and Ian Milliss, [20]is the fact that provincialism does not simply arise out of colonial processes or geographic location, but rather that it is an attitude, adopted by an individual in respect to his or her position within the system of art, which has a “history and geography of its own.” [21] This attitude of provincialism surfaces in particular in the aforementioned phrase “cultural cringe.” As Phillips implies, “cultural cringe derives from an unusually strict form of domination.” Or, put differently: “Australian culture is to English culture [European culture] as the ego is to the super-ego.” [22] Indeed, Terry Smith precisely reflects this attitude in the opening sentence of “The Provincialism Problem,” when he states, “provincialism appears primarily as an attitude of subservience to an externally imposed hierarchy of cultural values. [23]

However, while Smith argues against the “defiant urge to localism (a claim for the possibility and validity of ‘making good original art right here’),” this problematic allure of the local perhaps explains the buoyancy of ARIs in Brisbane. Described as a belonging, or a relation to a particular area, the local is a relative notion that relies upon an individual’s perspective, situation, and identity for its definition. In Smith’s text, he examines the idea of provincialism through a case study—Australia—to illustrate that it is a condition applicable to any number of “elsewheres,” whether they are Brisbane, Australia; Christchurch, New Zealand; or even London, England. [24] In this sense, there is no escape from the provincialist bind, even if artists choose to move from one elsewhere to another, whether cultural hub or rural retreat. If artists react against provincialist tendencies by moving, they still maintain ties to what Smith understands as “rationalised regionalism.” [25] Indeed, thirty years after Smith’s essay was published, Australia’s artists remain at the periphery of the international art system, but the provincialism “problem,” as Smith puts it, is no longer problematic. In the case of Brisbane ARIs, the problem has metamorphosed into an opportunity.

The Brisbane ARI Situation

Over the past decade Brisbane ARIs have become, to some extent, the next stage for many emerging artists and art professionals following the completion of bachelor degree programs, in particular, BFAs. While offering creative outlets and opportunities to artists and recent graduates not otherwise provided, ARIs have also the unintended consequence of producing participants who define themselves against existing contemporary art institutions in the city. Mirrored in some of the mission statements of these ARIs is the intent to position their initiatives as outside of commercial and established institutions. Accidently Annie Street Space (AASS), for instance, aims to “present a program of critically engaged contemporary art that demonstrates the vitality of Brisbane’s artistic production outside of commercially orientated or institutional spaces.” [26] Similarly, Boxcopy, founded in 2007, seeks “to engage with experimental and innovative artistic practice,” [27]while inbetweenspaces, which started up in 2008, creates “unique opportunities for emerging artists to develop and exhibit works in in-between environments—in sites that are outside of traditional gallery spaces.” [28]

However, interestingly, today ARIs, which initially rallied against established institutions, are now “artist institutions” that not only run parallel to those institutions, but cross-pollinate into government-run organizations of the region such as the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAG/GOMA) and the nationally funded Institute of Modern Art (IMA). An opportunity of note includes the QAG/GOMA’s Melville Haysom Memorial Scholarship, which for the past three years has granted awards to artists from Brisbane ARIs, with this year’s prize going to one of Boxcopy’s directors, Tim Woodward. Recently, the IMA hosted a forum that posed the question: “Not so long ago, everyone wanted to support the ‘mid-career’ artist. Now it’s ‘the emerging artist.’ But what is an ‘emerging artist’ and what is their place in the ‘art ecology’?” [29] This event, panelled by several Brisbane ARI directors, pointed to, on the one hand, the increasing authority of ARI activity and discourse, but, on the other hand, presented itself as a self-reflexive look at their constituency, the emerging artist. Nevertheless, important questions arise about the distance between the founding principles and purpose of ARIs and their current practices.

What does it mean, for instance, when the fundamental premise of ARIs is that they grow out of a culture predicated on progressive tendencies within a context freighted by economic, cultural, and social deficits? What is to be made of the seemingly resistant but in reality mutual relationship these ARIs hold in relation to existing art institutions? Is it possible for ARIs to straddle the dialectic between inclusion and isolation (of the institution, discourse, art market, art centre, etc.)?

The issues of “inside” or “outside” become fundamentally problematic for the ARI in Australia (complicated further by the unique characteristics and exigencies of each city) because the cultural practices within each visual arts scene are in dialogue with scenes located “geographically on the other side of the world,” [30] as Smith explains. This dialogue at a distance is predicated on the fact that Australia’s “official culture” derives from a distant elsewhere due to its colonial past and postcolonial present, while the impression of geographic distance (i.e., defined in relation to Europe and North America) yoking Australia’s visual arts milieu has done much to cloud the establishment of an authentically organic and homegrown scene.

Location-wise, Australia sits at the bottom of the globe, closer to Antarctica than America. Its neighbours are Polynesian and Asian, Buddhist and Muslim. In the Pan-Pacific or Oceanic region, the language most spoken per capita is not English, but Mandarin. And, a plane ride to the UK, Australia’s colonial forbearer, takes at least thirty-one hours. It is indisputable that Australia—the nation, its people, and its cultures—are historically related to a collection of relics made possible by colonial conquest. Despite an almost unfathomable distance from America and Europe, Australia maintains connections to these places but in a different way, highlighting the fact that Australian artists and arts professionals have moved on from some of Smith’s problematic and problematized understandings of provincialism in the 1970s.

In 1975 Brisbane saw the establishment of the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), [31] which answered the need for an arts institution dedicated to fostering more alternative practices, its inception growing out of international experimental art movements of the 1970s. Setting itself against the state-run gallery QAG—whose collection housed works by the celebrated figures of Australian art such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Arthur Streeton, and Russell Drysdale, but few others—the IMA was established by a fervent group of individuals (artists and art-interested individuals such as professors, academics, and curators) that comprised a loose interdisciplinary initiative with a common goal: to exhibit contemporary art for Brisbane’s audiences. Housed in an old and dank warehouse in the city’s red light district (once seedy, now gentrified cool), its attempt at presenting varied contemporary programs (such as performance and sound practices) encouraged other art practices to flourish locally within Brisbane, rather than elsewhere in Australia, inspiring by example through the international contemporary art it exhibited.

Significantly, the IMA’s express goal to exhibit shows featuring contemporary practices ultimately meant having to cast its curatorial nets wider, moving beyond Brisbane-based artists and reaching much further afield to conceptual American practitioners. Meanwhile, the QAG maintained a certain deliberate forgetfulness about acknowledging, let alone collecting, experimental 1970s art from Brisbane and its environs. The majority of its collection of 1970s experimental artists was not acquired until as late as the 1990s and early 2000s, including works by Mike Parr, Robert Macpherson, and Scott Redford (added in 2005). [32]

Despite the QAG’s consistent push for contemporary public programming and exhibitions, its single-minded collection of works by Boyd and Streeton, while not without merit, represented a rather conservative group of works when compared against the experimental art works and practices in circulation during the 1970s—work that did not feature in the Brisbane visual arena, in terms of institutional collections, for another two decades. [33]

One of the IMA’s early directors, John Buckley (1976¬–79) recalls the overall state of the art scene as indicative of a time warp to the 1950s, very much in the heyday of “painters” [34]separate from the pre-emptive forbearers of the ARI, the Barjai and Maya groups. In “The Provincialism Problem,” Smith anticipates Buckley’s 1976 statement that Brisbane art at that time was more or less retrograde or statically unprogressive in his comment that “Australian artists … within the last 20 years … have learned to do what everyone else does in art.” [35] The deficit it seems was problematic because, as previously stated, artists such as Redford and Parr were creating experimental art in Brisbane, but very much within an underground context. The IMA’s job was, on paper, to exhibit contemporary art locally, but practices seemed few and far between, so the search for experimental work went much further afield than Brisbane, and the program of exhibitions on offer focused on established rather than emerging practices. Works by Carl Andre, Mario Merz, and James Rosenquist, among other international artists showing in Australia for the first time, exhibited at the IMA. Furthermore, the introduction of alternative contemporary practices of sound, performance, and media arts in the 1970s and early 1980s [36]began at the very least to help invigorate the stagnant practices that Brisbane artists favoured such as appropriation tactics and reductionism in painterly technique. [37] The IMA, as the second oldest contemporary art institution in Australia, gained recognition from governmental funding bodies eager to support its annual program based on the fact that it was showing international artists of a certain calibre. In its later years it began to show more Brisbane-based artists because they had presumably “caught-up” or, as Smith reckons, had “learned to do what everyone else does in art.” Writing much later, Smith in Generation X: The Impact of the 1980s [38] states that during the ten years between 1980 and 1990, whole generations of young artists “kept creating exhibitions which meld[ed] at least the look of Minimalism and Conceptualism so perfectly that one frequently ha[d], in the mid-1990s this uncanny sense of standing in a gallery around 1970 seeing manifestations of a moment which did not occur in this way but perhaps could have.” [39] Thus, for all its purported commitment to showing and supporting local artists, there is an irony in the idea that works shown by the IMA might appear un-local in the sense that they are both out of time and place.

Today, the IMA departs from the current ARIs in Brisbane (regardless of individual differences in institutional structure, budget, and programming) because of its consistent exhibitions of established artists. Thus, the ARIs share, in contrast to the IMA’s exhibition program, a distinct commitment to supporting emerging artists who seek to engage in critical contemporary discourse. But it is the debate around exhibiting emergent versus established (not to mention mid career) practices that propels the proliferation of ARIs in Brisbane currently.

Since 2007, [40] a core group of fledgling contemporary ARIs in Brisbane have formed with initiatives such as Boxcopy, inbetweenspaces, Accidently Annie Street Space, Jugglers Art Space, MSSR, Flipbook, No Frills*, Independent Exhibitions (IE), Nine Lives, Vegas Spray, tinygold, minute gallery, Wandering Room, LEVEL, [41] and the Stitchery Collective. [42] The majority, though not all, of these initiatives receive funding from main sponsor bodies, such as Arts Queensland and MAAP (Multimedia Art Asia Pacific), as well as Metro Arts, which offers support and financial aid to ARIs in Brisbane. Others include the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, state, and territory governments, which supports artist projects and collectives, and the partnership of the Queensland Government and the Brisbane City Council in the Creative Sparks initiative, which offers additional funding for ARIs. Both governmental and non-governmental sources provide multi-level support for these groups. In order to qualify for ARI (not-for-profit) status, a group must provide a detailed, year-long program, with funding hinging on a variety of factors including needs per individual ARI, prospective goals, and annual schedule. What differs in this funding scenario from arts support in other countries is that ARIs, if funding is granted to them, can receive money within their first year of programming, an uncommon opportunity. Prior to the establishment of ARI funding, emerging artists found very little support for their projects except for the monetary and mentorship program offered by Youth Arts Queensland (YAQ). [43]

ARI funding has helped bring to the fore artistic talent in the region, underscoring shifts in funding policy, of course, but also heightening the status of contemporary practice in the city. As a general rule, the current projects receiving ARI support all address the deficiency of support for younger artists who attempt to tackle critical issues in their work through social practice, race, and feminist discourses, and other theoretical engagements. These ARIs hold a certain position that allows them to be engaged in critical dialogues about making art locally, dialogues that did not have a substantial platform until reading groups, panels, and forums established by ARIs became a fundamental part of their programming, which began to compliment and enrich exhibition schedules.

Two Brisbane ARIs

Brisbane’s current ARIs take many diverse approaches to the display and discussion of art including off-site, non-site (e.g., online and radio), performance, and sound and film programming. Boxcopy, one of the more established ARIs, running for four years, has been particularly active in diverse programming involving film, sound, and performance work. Two ARIs in particular, inbetweenspaces and Accidently Annie Street Space, take as their structures transitory, moveable initiatives embedded within the local context, yet are not merely concerned with “place.”

Established three years ago, inbetweenspaces is a joint ARI established by Danielle Clej, Ruth McConchie, and Sarah Byrne. [44] Its focus is on the initiation of collaborative exhibition projects and curatorial ventures that enter and utilize disused and transitory urban sites. Its exhibition Fresher Cunts, notoriously staged in 2008, organized a direct parody of the annual IMA exhibition known as Fresh Cuts. Running for eleven years by 2008, the IMA’s Fresh Cuts annually featured work by “best of” graduates from area art schools. As a rule, it exhibited work by four emerging Queensland-based or Queensland-born artists who either graduated from or were enrolled in postgraduate studies (up to six years out of art school) and who had not shown work at the IMA before. Each iteration of Fresh Cuts creates a bit of a stir in Brisbane, often due to the subjective and hierarchical evaluations made in any given year since it is the case that these competitions act as vehicles of legitimization for the artists involved but equally of isolation for those excluded.

inbetweenspaces’ tongue-in-cheek response, the exhibition Fresher Cunts, is likewise an annual showcase for emerging Queensland artists, and as a rule the artists who are accepted into its program must be born or based in Queensland and have not been shown in Fresher Cunts before. Perhaps more interesting than the exhibition itself is the show’s structure, which responds to the act of isolating artists (inherent in Fresh Cuts) and uses it as a method, although parodic, to deconstruct and realign the systems available for presenting emerging practices in Brisbane. While Fresher Cunts engaged with emerging artists to showcase their works, it also questioned the role of art practices at odds with the art institution in such a small scene. To some degree, the organizers of inbetweenspaces had positioned their show not only as a stiff rejection of the artists selected by Fresh Cuts, but also to the participating artistic community. In an interview with several organizers of local ARIs, the founder of Brisbane Dialogues, Jacina Leong, [45] posed the question of what “role [do] ARIs play in the art community in Brisbane?” In response, MSSR’s [46] Chris Bennie and Nicola Chatham aptly differentiated Brisbane ARIs from their southern counterparts, which operate to a certain extent outside of community involvement. For some, the inclusivity of Brisbane ARIs operates as a strategy that seeks to engage the local community in an experimental and enriching manner. This approach surfaces in Fresh Cunts quite precisely since the project addresses problems of artistic inclusivity and exclusivity while addressing the local arts community.

Accidently Annie Street Space (AASS), an ARI project run by Louise Tahiraj, Stephen Russell, Erika Scott, and Elizabeth Willing, opened in 2008 in a small suburban house on Annie Street, just outside of the city. The main aims of AASS were to curate exhibitions of both emerging and established artists who focus on experimental and critical engagement with contemporary art discourses. In pursuit of these aims, the artists involved sought to present a program demonstrating the vitality of Brisbane artistic production outside of commercial and large-scale galleries and institutions. Unlike other ARIs, AASS wished to engender creative dialogues between a large interdisciplinary audience consisting not only of curators, artists, and arts writers, but also the wider public. AASS’s dedication to the exploration of alternative artistic practice that engages with the public, and therefore the local context, borrows from historical movements and artists that considered the public and audience integral to their evolving practice.

Located in an atypical Queensland bungalow with a tin roof, shutter windows, and an open basement, the architecture of AASS spoke to the local environs in a way that echoed the realities of artistic practice in the Brisbane tropics for decades, recalling makeshift garage studios with dirt floors, hairdryers used to dry oil paint in the humidity, and tarpaulins to keep summer storms from flooding the floor. The use of the domestic space of the home, rather than the more common warehouse, a space much more conducive to showing art, enters into a very “real” relationship with the local and presents a way to open up a dialogue with wider and even more internationally recognized conversations such as the rejection of the white cube, played out in such places as ARI Undenk (Berlin), known for taking over spaces and places, or Perth’s longest running ARI, Gotham Studios, housed in the chambers of a period bank. [47] The trek through the old winding back streets of Brissy required to get to the space at AASS forged an integral and intimate relationship between visitors and the gallery space itself. Curated by invited artists, the shows at AASS featured primarily small group exhibitions that introduced the work of local artists (refreshingly, not always the directors). While varied, all the exhibitions had an implicit commitment to portraying differing constructions of what the local might mean in relation to disparate artistic practices. Exhibitions such as Renovare (August 2008), which featured works by local artists Courtney Coombs, Cait Foran, Jose V, and Stephen Russell, operate on the physical architecture of the house in order for it to become an agent of transformation and renovation. This exhibition in particular pursued the local in a conspicuous way, because it interrupted the actual structure of the house and in this instance framed the local in the context of a “place.” Stephen Russell’s 2008 Love, which spelled out the word in Hollywood-sign-style letters, was bolted to the corrugated iron roof and Cait Foran’s 2008 Slushie projection vividly shone out from the shutters at the front and sides of the house, pushing against the boundaries of “inside” and “outside” the designated space. Another show, House Party, curated by Louise Tahiraj in April 2009, converted AASS into a transitory venue hovering between an exhibition space and an everyday home, thus bringing together the gallery with a social space and its myriad personal relationships and interactions. [48]

Due to changes in leasing agreements, AASS eventually had to abandon its focus on the local site and significantly altered programming such that by 2011 an interesting dilemma arose from the fact that there was no longer readily available space. As a result, Accidently Annie Street Space—Offsite was launched. Joined by artist and curator Tess Maunder, the inaugural exhibition, Soft Site (2011), exhibited work by Brisbane-based artists Chris Bennie and Tim Woodward, as well as Victoria-based artist Lou Hubbard in Room 15 of the Kangaroo Motel, located on the outskirts of the city, thereby extending the definitions of space in the ARI’s original mission. The Soft Site exhibition sought to ask what the position of art is in relation to locality. Aside from the art on display, the exhibition space contained only a bed, bathroom, desk, and television. Phone books were placed under a table, paisley sheet covers were tucked into the mattress, and starchy folded towels were placed on the end of the bed. The artists responded to the room in a covert way, mostly playing on inconspicuous elements taken for granted in any transient room, as was the case with Tim Woodward’s performance piece Old and New Hopper Actions (ROLEPLAY IN TEN PARTS) (2011) that involved “staring at stuff” and completing the remedial tasks one might do as a guest in a motel room; i.e., staring at old takeout menus, watching mindless TV programs, and drinking from the free miniature milk cartons stored in the bar fridge. There is a way in which these works both individually and collectively, as Soft Site, address and deconstruct the obvious symbolism communicated by the site of the Kangaroo Motel. Here, identity becomes displaced and transient in the local context, resonating with universal narratives of the banal and the everyday.

This “off-site” mode offers a transitory model for the ARI that can begin to blur boundaries with the local and speak strongly to the potentiality of the ARI as moveable and dedicated to place, no matter what the locality. Operating in an urban culture that still has a small audience for contemporary art practice, the push to expand audiences offers varied opportunities and challenges for the artists involved. Speculative viewers from outside the community presenting and engaging projects such as Soft Site are hopefully a new way forward for contemporary practices in Brisbane. The expectation is that the concept of “off-site” as a critical method to address one’s locality would not be maintained over the long term and would not alternatively fall into a trap in which “off-site” is equal to non-site, removed from place and cultural setting. What this system encourages is praxis that bridges a conception of the local that is not necessarily tied to “space” in a way that becomes static and merely in the service of a specific notion of “place” and identity.

Having dissolved the assumptions around what once was an unsophisticated Queensland art scene, many artists are now choosing to stay in this northerly capital. With more or less readily available funding from multiple sources, a large pool of graduates each year from the two university art schools in the city, and a growing contemporary art audience, the artist-run initiative movement has contributed significantly to the development of the local art scene. To return to the fundamental premise of the ARI—a resistance to established institutions—we find a tension in the local premised on the interplay between inclusion and isolation or exclusion of certain artists and artistic practices. It could be argued that Brisbane’s ARIs have positioned themselves within a “place” more fluid than ARIs in other Australian cities, as they have generally sought to understand and engage with the local through community involvement by growing new art audiences and (re-)engaging old ones. The proliferation of ARIs in Brisbane is not necessarily a negative trend as its supports the diversity existing within such a small scene. However, the question to be posed here is whether or not the proliferation of ARIs encourages increased criticality towards contemporary art practice in the city. Do more ARIs necessarily mean that a scene is rich in the ways it fosters relationships not only with the local but also with the international art community? Furthermore, in light of the fact that Brisbane ARIs have a definitive commitment to community engagement, how “real” is this engagement with communities situated outside of the visual arts? To return to ARI alignment as peripheral to institutions, and the particularly complicated relationship among ARIs and the more hegemonic art institutions in Brisbane’s case, one acknowledges that addressing the local arts community also means addressing established galleries and museums. Perhaps if we are attentive to this straddling of institutional and alternative art practices, ARIs in Brisbane are tentatively offering what may be referred to as a transferability that seeks to simultaneously address both mainstream and alternative art audiences and by extension, enrich art practices in the city.


  1. 1. “Artist Run Initiatives 2010 Guidelines,” artsQueensland,
  2. 2. According to the Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy Inquiry, there are eighty-five artist-run initiatives in Australia. This report was finalized in 2002, and ARIs in Brisbane had almost doubled by 2010. See “Chapter 2: The contemporary visual arts and crafts sector – an overview,” in “Summary Report,” Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy Inquiry, 2002, 7.
  3. 3. Ross Fitzgerald, From 1915 to the Early 1980s: a History of Queensland (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1984), 25.
  4. 4. This tendency not only describes the abandonment of Brisbane for southern art scenes between the 1950s and the mid 1990s, but remains current. In a recent interview between ARIs it was stated that there is a “desire to move elsewhere … in order to ‘make it’” (Boxcopy, quoted in Jacina Leong, “MSSR/Box Copy/No Frills*,” Brisbane Dialogues, accessed September 4, 2011, Even though a recent text argues that a vibrant art scene existed in Brisbane i¬n the two decades following the Second World War, many artists such as Glen Harwood, Barrie Reid, and Charles Osborne began to move out of Queensland after the 1950s (members of Barjai and Miya artist groups in Brisbane). William Hatherell, The Third Metropolis: Imagining Brisbane through Art and Literature: 1940–1970 (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2008), 17.
  5. 5. “Cultural cringe” was coined by A. A. Phillips in 1950 and spoke to the post-colonial construction of the thought of Australia as inferior culturally. Prem Poddar and David Johnson, A Historical Companion to Postcolonial Thought in English (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 104.
  6. 6. A noun or an adjective used to describe an Australian who speaks in an uncultured manner or employs a broad Australian accent.
  7. 7. When the British arrived in Australia in 1788, the land had been named terra incognita nullius (an uninhabited empty land) since antiquity, when Roman cartographers named unknown territories by this term. Terra Australis Nullius was maintained until the Mabo v. Queensland case in 1992. The British had claimed terra nullius under international law, thus advocating that the uninhabited land had no sovereign, and therefore was discoverable and conquerable. The overturning of this terminology has more or less founded Australian history on British invasion rather than righteous settlement. Larissa Behrendt, Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia’s Future (The Federation Press: Sydney, 2003), 140. See also, Gary Backhaus and James Murungi, Lived Topographies and Their Meditational Forces (Lexington Books: Sydney, 2005), 49.
  8. 8. The names of the groups, Barjai and Miya, both directly translate from the indigenous Cateebil dialect (the region extends from the Brisbane inner city to Woolloongabba) as “today” and “meeting place”—suggesting both the intent and meaning behind the groups’ activities.
  9. 9. Michele Helmrich, Young Turks and Battle Lines, Barjai and Miya Studio: An Exhibition (Brisbane: UQ Art Museum, 1988).
  10. 10.“The Miya Studio Archive,” UQ Art Museum, accessed September 4, 2011,
  11. 11. Hatherell, The Third Metropolis, 111.
  12. 12. The Brisbane Sound was an exhibition that opened in March 2008 at the IMA. The first section was curated by Eugene Carchesio and sought to bring to light the experimental music scene of the 1970s.
  13. 13. In the 1970s and 1980s, Brisbane barely provided a platform for a thriving, experimental art scene. However, past practices have more recently gained attention as strong examples of this era, including Brisbane artists such as Mike Parr (associated with the Sydney-based ARI Inhibodress from the 1970s), Rose Nolan, Gordon Bennett, and Rosemary Laing, who have since become well-established nationally.
  14. 14. Brisbane is ranked thirty-six on the world’s most liveable cities by the 2010 Mercer Quality of Living Survey.
  15. 15. Johannes “Joh” Bjelke-Petersen was the Queensland Liberal Party Premier from 1968 to 1987 and remains one of the most controversial political figures in Australian history due to his conservative economic and social policy and the several corruption incidents that surrounded his government.
  16. 16. Queensland was coined the “Moonlight State” after a Four Corners report on Queensland’s police corruption, prostitution, and mismanagement of state funds. Due to this report, “The Fitzgerald Inquiry” was launched by Tony Fitzgerald, QC, into the apparent allegations. It eventually led to the deposition of a premier and two by-elections, as well as the jailing of three ministers. Bjelke-Petersen was charged with perjury, only to be later acquitted, resulting in a hung jury. The case remains one of the most high profile government scandals in Queensland history (Elizabeth Allen, “Players in a Vast Drama,” Courier Mail, May 14, 2007).
  17. 17. Brian Costar, “Sir Joh, Our Home-grown Banana Republican,” Age, April 25, 2005.
  18. 18. In December of 2003, chaired by Rupert Myer, AM, an inquiry into the 2001 Australian Visual Arts and Craft Strategy (VACS) was undertaken. The VACS pledged $39 million in funding towards the arts nationwide over a period of four years in order to increase the vitality and viability of Australia’s contemporary visual sector. See the full report for preamble at
  19. 19. “2010 ARI Outcomes,” artsQueensland, October 14, 2010,
  20. 20. Peter Beilharz and Robert Manne, Reflected Light: Latrobe Essays (Sydney: Black Inc., 2006), 95.
  21. 21. Ibid.
  22. 22. Ian Henderson, ‘‘Freud Has a Name for It: A. A. Phillip’s ‘The Cultural Cringe,’” Southerly 69, no. 2 (2009), 110.
  23. 23. Terry Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” Art Forum, September 1974, 55.
  24. 24. Heather Barker and Charles Green, “The Provincialism Problem: Terry Smith and Centre-periphery Art History,” Journal of Art Historiography 3 (December 2010), 15.
  25. 25. Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” 55. In a later article he states that “overemphasis on the necessity of locality risked narrowing into a restrictive parochialism, an ultimately conservative nationalism,” and in this way rationalized regionalism becomes an overemphasis of locality. What Smith truly argues in “The Provincialism Problem” is that the “distinctly local, openly contradictory and contestatory embrace of the demands of internationalism … [is] the only way to break the provincialist bind.” (Terry Smith, “Inside In, Outside In: Changing Perspectives in Australian Art Historiography,” Journal of Art Historiography 4 (June 2011), 5).
  26. 26. “About,” Accidently Annie Street Space (blog), accessed September 4, 2011,
  27. 27. “About,” Boxcopy, accessed September 4, 2011,
  28. 28. “About,” inbetweenspaces, last modified 2010,
  29. 29. “Events,” IMA, accessed September 4, 2011,
  30. 30. I. Miliss in Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” 55.
  31. 31. The IMA is, however, not to be mistaken for an ARI; even though at first it had a similar structure, it later adopted the position of Director as well as a Board of Trustees.
  32. 32. QAG’s and GOMA’s acquisitions, like those of many large institutions today, are publically available on their Web sites. While no published data exists on this phenomenon of certain conservative acquisitions, accession numbers suggest plainly that this is certainly the case. See the Queensland Art Gallery Web site’s Online Collection at
  33. 33. The acquisition of these very established Australian artists, particularly Streeton, is concurrent to the conservatism associated with Australian art tastes and also Queensland as one of the most conservative Australian states under the Bjelke-Petersen government. Outlined by Green and Barker, the example of Australia’s inclusion of Arthur Streeton’s landscape painting into the 1958 Venice Biennale by the Menzies Federal Government, while contemporary Mark Rothko was being exhibited in the American pavilion, struck a chord and even motioned the removal of Australia from the Venice Biennale all together. In retort, art historian Sarah Scott stated, “If Australia represented itself as contemporary, then it would be indistinguishable from anywhere else.” Barker and Green, “The Provincialism Problem: Terry Smith and Centre Periphery Art History,” 13.
  34. 34. “J. Buckley 1976–79,” IMA, accessed September 14, 2011,
  35. 35. Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” 54.
  36. 36. A naive exhibition in 1983 at the IMA, No Names showed over forty-five Brisbane artists and wasn’t a curated exhibition, thus lifting the usual restrictions placed on the work or artist. The conceptual program was devised by Ted Riggs, who at the time was a volunteer at the IMA, as well as an emerging artist. The show sought to remove the usual exhibitionary restrictions and subsequently give emerging artists a chance to show their work in the IMA, an institution that, up until the early 1990s, never really showed any Brisbane-based artists, let alone emerging practitioners straight from art school. Peter Anderson, Now and Then: Making a Name for Yourself—Emerging Artists in Brisbane (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art Press, 1999).
  37. 37. Brisbane-based art historian Rex Butler outlines in his introduction to Radical Reductionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art that appropriation became a certain logic in Australian art during the 1980s and 1990s. Obviously a reaction to postmodernism and further post-colonialism, appropriation described as “the original comes after its copy” becomes oddly relevant to the cultural conditions of Australia, offering up a paradoxical national culture that would consist in the remixing and recontextualising of foreign sources. Rex Butler, ed., Radical Reductionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art Press, 2005), 7.
  38. 38. Terry Smith, “Generation X: The Impact of the 1980s,” in What is Appropriation? An Anthology of Critical Writings on Australian Art in the 1980s and 1990s, ed. Rex Butler (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 1996), 100.
  39. 39. Ibid., 252.
  40. 40. Prior to this, several now defunct artist-run spaces were active between 2000 and 2004. These were Smith and Stoneley, 49B, Satellite Space, Someone Else’s Studio, and the Farm. Louise Martin-Chew, “The Artists,” Artlink, June 2003, 56.
  41. 41. LEVEL is an artist run initiative with dedicated residency and exhibition programs providing opportunities and building connections between emerging, early career, and more established female visual artists. (“About,” Level, accessed September 4, 2011,
  42. 42. An ARI that speaks to the interdisciplinary engagement of wider and future audiences is the very new artist-run initiative the Stitchery Collective. Founded by Kathleen Horton and Paula Dunlop in mid 2010, they are a group of artists and designers that is seeking to engage the community joyfully through clothing and sustainable practices, and due to substantial grants the collective has just established its headquarters in a cheerful terrace building in the city. See
  43. 43. Youth Arts Queensland (QAQ) is Queensland’s peak body that assists young people across the arts and creative industries. It provides platforms based around programs, industry, community, and business.
  44. 44. Sarah Byrne held the role of co-director until August 2010.
  45. 45. A project run by Jacina Leong called Brisbane Dialogues wishes to provide a resource for local artists, arts writers, and art workers to evaluate and engage in critical conversations about contemporary art initiatives, practices, exhibitions, and projects taking place across Brisbane. See, for example, Leong’s interview with MSSR, Boxcopy, No Frills*, and Accidentally Annie Street Space at
  46. 46. MSSR is an acronym for Chris Bennie and Nicola Chatham’s first project, Moreton Street Spare Room.
  47. 47. Undenk ARI doesn’t have a space and is not an organized collective producing art. Rather they take over spaces, “stage events, [and] reclaim the streets.” They claim to be a worldwide network of street artists, but their intent reaches to the political as well as the literary (see Similarly, Perth’s Gotham Studios claimed the empty floors of the NSW Bank in downtown Perth during a period of urban renewal in the 1980s that left many practicing artists homeless. Gotham seeks to provide a platform for emerging artists in Western Australia (see
  48. 48. The Lame Objects (2009) exhibition at AASS also reached further afield to not only include local artists of the area (Charles Robb, Sarah Werkmeister, and Nicky Wynnychuck), but also to include UK artist Martin Creed’s work No. 88 (2009).
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