banner image
Home Events News Gallery Publications kiosk About Links search

Interview between Andrew McQualter and Sandra Bridie. March 17, 1998.

Andrew: Sandie, I thought that it would be interesting to get together and talk about the culture of artist run spaces in Melbourne. I'm putting something together for Log magazine about alternative spaces and artist run spaces. I thought that given your activity over the last ten, eight years or so - you'd be a good person to talk to...

Sandy: With artist run spaces my approach to it has been largely influenced by my initial involvement with Store 5 in Prahran and also seeing later, more clearly how John Nixon's projects evolved- he ran various artist run spaces and very clearly imprinted himself into those. I saw that an artist's activity could involve more than than just the things that they made in the studio, and I suppose I see artist run spaces or the people that I know that are involved in artist run spaces as being artists who operate in a broader fashion.

In terms of his involvement with projects in Melbourne like store five, Q space, even galleries up near RMIT in the 70's, and then other projects in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide, someone like John Nixon is a pretty influential figure in terms of being a role model for a large number of artists who have emerged since the 1980's. How do you think that contemporary artist run spaces in Melbourne differ from the "Nixon" model?

I think Store 5 was in that model. I think that Nixon oversaw the space and was very present in that space. He was very much the mentor figure, there was a very defined and adhered to aesthetic, a kind of poverty of literature, it was so simplified, and pretty unsophisticated, there was a kind of rusticity about it. I think the later spaces have become more elaborate in their literature, until you come to something like Westspace where a large amount of the activity is the documents that come out of the space and they're very sophisticated and about articulating themselves as a space.

In alot of ways I often felt that spaces like Store 5 were a temporary measure for artists, whereas now exhibiting in artist run and alternative spaces is a permanent reality for many artists.

I think allot of those early spaces were seen as a read any of John Nixon's statements from the time when he was involved in artist run spaces in the 70's or 80's and the idea you get is that the spaces are very much a reaction to the lack of sympathy for a type of work, Those spaces were created because the artists involved needed them. But I think now, artists are seeing that kind of space as less of a necessity and more of a choice, like modes of art making. It's accepted that the art world isn't going to provide for you.

Do you think that with spaces like Store 5 there was the expectation that eventually the artworld would provide the venue and the means of support for the artists involved?

I think there was that expectation, there was that ambition, to be accepted commercially.

Artists like Callum Morton, Stephen Bram and Rose Nolan definitely have a profile in what's known as the alternative, or artist run space scene in Melbourne and also in Sydney. I guess, what I'm thinking is that there's been some kind of change over the last five to ten years, artist run spaces were seen as a stepping stone along the career path of artists, now they have assumed a role that is more on par with that of the commercial scene and the art institution. They still represent the work of emerging artists, but also that of more established artists, the boundaries are less clear.

Richard Holt speaks about artist run spaces as being a sector of the artworld. Rather than being outside the artworld. If you see an artist run space as a stepping stone towards something else, then you don't usually step back. I think what I have learnt through using artist run spaces is that if you maintain a range of practises, then you can keep moving, too.

In a sense there's the feeling that a commercial gallery can't provide all the necessary opportunities for an artist to fully realise their practise.

Well, I wonder where the idea that a commercial gallery could provide for you came from, because there has always been an excess of artists. Maybe if they couldn't find a gallery these people just stopped producing work, I wonder what happened to them? The activity in artist run spaces indicates that there is an enormous numbers of artists working in Melbourne, there is a glut of artists, maybe that's the reality, that there will always be too many artists to be provided for...

Do you think that's a bad thing?

No...I don't think that it's a bad thing. What I'm thinking about is ... well, in the time period that we're talking about - say, 1991 to the present - my own criteria for success has changed. I've become a lot more aware of the "realities" of the art world as I've become a lot more firm in my decision to persue a career as a visual artist. I suppose I assume that I'm talking for a whole lot of people when I say that artist run spaces have become a permanent reality for a professional artist.

Maybe we should go on to what happened after Store 5? (giggles)

nothing! everything!

There's been a proliferation of artist run spaces in Melbourne over the last few years, after the closure of Store 5 there was 1st Floor...


...and Stripp, which was called Aether Ohnertitle before it was called Stripp.

They all came along at the same time.

Initially, there was the expectation within the artworld that 1st floor would be the "successor" to Store 5.

Maybe that's because David had shown at Store 5.

1st Floor distinguished itself from Store 5 by what was initially David's idea to have a number of short texts written for each exhibition, that was a pretty consistent practise for about two years...

that's kind of fading out now?, in a way, yes.

At 1st Floor the artists and writers have explored a particular idea, that of creating texts which are - contingent - to the artwork. The idea was to have a kind of immediacy of response to the exhibitions from somebody who was involved in philosophy or cultural studies. And there was the idea of presenting arts practise and text based practises as parallel activities.

As an experiment it seems to have run its course, the writers are now more involved in initiating their own projects, both at1st Floor and in other gallery spaces, also in journals and other publications.

So you had people who were studying at Uni rather than artists as writers?

Quite a few artists contributed texts, too. There was lovely exchange going on for a while between Maria Griffin, Megan Marshall, Simone Slee, Andrea Tu and Nicole Tomlinson who have all exhibited as artists and who all, in some way, worked with text. Amanda Ahmed was also kind of involved with that dialogue and continues to produce texts for shows. Those texts were very personal, very poetic, they explored certain ideas that, uh, the artworks also explored... ideas of decoration, domesticity, femininity, subjectivity and a priveleging of the personal over the objectivity and transendance usually associated with abstraction and formalist work . Michael Goldsmith and Lyndal Walker also wrote texts.

Most of the artists who were involved were completing their tertiary degree at the time and so were the writers, so from the beginning there was a sense of gaining experience and trying out a number of different approaches to things.

So this was made up of students rather than graduates?

Pretty much the same way as a space like Grey Area started, with a group of people about to complete their studies, wanting to keep the the sense of community that developed during the time they had been studying together going. Starting a space is a means of providing themselves with a space to continue that dialogue and also to develope one with the outside world.

Well, there's been a lot about all that with this funding for emerging artists that beginning to trickle through from the Australia Council - about creating a space to emerge into... I never really saw Store 5 as serving that purpose. But that's very urgent and very real need of emerging artists, for them to see that there is a space for them to pick up their activities once they leave art school, somewhere to gain momentum.

As far as I understand it, that was the intention. The shows at 1st Floor were in David Rosetzky's brother's lounge room - it was a beautiful warehouse space lounge room - but a lounge room never the less. The shows were only only on for three days, so, the most you could expect was an audience of maybe 15 to 20 people during those three days. it was a very intimate dialogue between a very small group of people.

Like Store 5.

After that the gallery moved to a more public space and the gallery became something different. As a community of artists, it has spread out and it's not as close any more.

Well I think that the artists have gone into the world as well, combining their involvement with the space with the other things that naturally occur when you do show regularly. You achieve a kind of momentum.

Later on there was the opening of spaces like Grey Area and Gogo, and projects like Citylights, which is a group of artists taking the issue of public art into their own hands. In a way what I find most encouraging about what has happened in Melbourne during the last couple of years is the sense of artists' empowerment in creating their own spaces and creating their own community. the city, too. That's really nice that in that little square between Collins St and Flinders St. there's three or four galleries within spiting distance of each other. In a place that was formally held by commercial galleries, artist run spaces are presuming to be seen. Citylights is a really nice surprise, kind of like Top Cat poking his head out of the garbage bins at the end of the alley.

The thing that the quantity of artist run spaces in Melbourne allows for is for a space to develop a distinct identity and focus for its activities, it feels like there's alot of elbow room. There's a variety of approaches towards running a gallery and creating an audience for the work that is shown here.

It's really interesting to see the different types of approach. Grey Area is almost wholistic in its approach, there's something optimistic and straight forward about the way that they have achieved what they wanted. It was casual but they knew what outcome they wanted, with the artist talks and the studios upstairs. It's the right kind of scale for them to be able to manage of without the gallery overwhelming them, it's kind of democratic.

That's in opposition to the much more structured approach taken by galleries such as Stripp and 1st Foor, and then there's a space like Gogo which appears to be much more of a wild card.

Well, Gogo, um, not many people knew that it existed until this year. There's a new kind of energy to it. Grey area has an energy but its not chaotic, or exuberant to the same level that Gogo is. It's not just optimistic it's wild. There's more velocity than we usually see in Melbourne, it feels like a kind of Sydney energy.

You can compare that to the social projects of spaces like Westspace and Platform - which are providing a space for art in a place that doesn't usually see art.

They're social projects in that sense, but also in the sense that they see themselves as providing something for artists. They are very outspoken and very political. Brett Jones (from Westspace), Richard Holt and Andy Seaward (from Platform) write a lot and they are willing to argue for the rights of artists. They aren't shy about putting themselves forward they really are presuming that they should be acknowledged. I think other artist run spaces don't have that evolved sense of what they have coming to them, what they deserve. We need someone doing that.

Westspace is located in the western suburbs of Melbourne which is generally considered to be a more industrial or working class part of town.

Lots of artists are moving out there...first home buyers...

It's creating a space for quite a few artist who would be considered "mid career", people who are continuing to practise and produce some good work despite somehow falling through the net of the commercial gallery system. I don't get out there as much as I could, one of the last times I was there I saw a great show by a woman from the Phillipines. So maybe Westspace is reaching artists from non-english speaking backgrounds, too.

It's the nearest thing to an institution, and Brett won't apologise for that. He sees Westspace as a permanent fixture and not as a "project" at all. He sees himself as speaking on behalf of artists. That artist shouldn't have to be beholden to anybody and that they are quite capable of doing it on their own, but that they should be supported as well, and the space is making sure that they would be eventually be provided for. Brett's a very good spokesperson on the rights of artists to be self determining. I don't think anybody else has had that gumption. To see an artist run space in terms of that permanence, that it is not just a space for emerging artists, that it is not just set up for a phase that an artist goes through. Artist run spaces are providing much more than that. They are providing what the Australia council is providing less and less of.

With what's been happening recently in terms of artist run spaces organising exchanges between galleries in other countries (1st floor hosted shows from New Zealand, Glasgow and by the international group Modern Culture in the last few months) and in terms of artist run spaces being a focus for community, I feel that artist run spaces are providing what the art establishment or the dealer used to provide - definitely in terms of support and community and opportunities.

...yeh, I think that they've seen that that's not going to happen again...

well, not in our lifetime...

...or the foreseeable future. I know that public galleries are looking to artist run spaces as taste setters - and I don't feel that that's being aknowleged. I think that that's where it becomes kind of frustrating - that we are not being acknowledged for the role that we're playing. I think it was Larissa Hjorth and Paul Quinn that were talking about poaching from artist run spaces. Artists can put up works and then they can be selected for the market or for the institution, but the risks have already been taken. There's no exchange going on.

So in a way, artist run spaces, by raising their profile, are coming into line are coming into line with the worlds of music and design...

...yeh, by independent activity...

The risks are initially taken by small businesses, like independent shops, record labels or small publishers.

This is where movement comes from. I mean I don't know how you would read what's going on in Melbourne at the moment. There's not much you can say that anyone would agree with once you have said it, but materialism seem to be a Melbourne thing. But yeh, the artist run spaces are where they ground swell is, obviously, where else?

I think that we've almost entered a 'second phase' now, the artist run space as the ongoing entity, and then the um, versions of those that seem to be arising - like "h" and "rubik".

I get the feeling that maybe a decade ago a project like "h" would have been initiated by a government institution, whereas what's happening now is that artists are doing that work, setting up the space, curating the program, finding the funds themselves and coming up with projects that are things that they want to see. Rather than being driven by the academy or by government policy, artists are creating their own projects and their own means of promoting and exhibiting their work.

Maybe these projects have come about through a kind of dissatisfaction with interpretation as well. Artists are past the passive stage of needing to be spoken for and needing to be provided for. Rather than the artist just creating the product that the art world lives off the artist is actually creating their own community, creating the context in which their work is seen and maintaining the space, speaking about the work and for themselves, contextuallising it, they're actually placing the work in a living environment rather than the work just being a symptom of another kind of world, which might be called the artworld, but is not really not the place where artists live.

I'm interested in this idea of artists creating their own community and context in relation to something that Peter Timms spoke about in a recent review in the Age.

Talk's first bad press!!

He almost lamented the existence of artist run spaces...

...he seemed to be mourning a loss of power... mouring the idea of the modernist hero working in isolation and the loss of the power of the establishment to invest meaning in an artwork, to place value on it ...

I got the sense that Peter Timms was in a bit of a panic at the idea of losing any sense of objectivity and criteria for the assessment of excellence, which has come traditionally from the academy or the commercial sector. And what the community of artist run spaces and alternative spaces creates are pockets of activity where there's no objectivity, where the criteria for excellence are created promarily by the artists who created the space, rather than artists' work being judged along the lines of a single standard. I think that's the complication of the culture of artist run spaces, but it is also its value.

I would say that the investment of meaning in a work is in the doing of it. An artist run space provides a community that understands the conditions that the work came out of, maybe that understanding is legitimate grounds for the assessment of a work's success. Critical judgement of work is proven to be highly subjective, anyway -

Y'know the Age seems to make a habit of employing these mid-generation critics, who feel that they can just slander someone or something, just dismiss art rather than opening it up. I would have thought that it was time - and I think Robyn McKenzie did this more - to just open up discussion, I mean you don't have to site your own opinion to write good or usefull criticism you can talk about the work and allow viewers to make up their own minds, you can give them details about the work, or describe it, that's allot more helpfull.

Something that I find interesting in Peter Timms' recent review in The Age is his lack of awareness that there are allot of artists emerging from artschool who have no interest in making discrete objects, or in traditional forms of art making - graduates who have a strong schooling in notions of space, of installation practise and of site specificity... there is a need for those people to have a space to practise in. That was the thing about 1st Floor, there are allot of people there who are now making really wonderful work who had their first shows at 1st Floor, and the shows were often pretty patchy. The space was needed for them to acheive that developement.

You grow into it, you only evolve by doing, Timms has a paternalistic attitude - artists should be seen and not heard - that you should only exhibit once you've fully evolved, you need to be selected, curated into group shows, figure out who you will be seen by, who you want to be selected by - wait for some to designate your role.

In a way that review allowed me to complete the other side of a polemic, about what the function of artist run spaces is. It's enabled me to re-politicise what I do in a way. In that artist run spaces can potentially create a space that is outside established-or establishment- modes of working in the art world. That they are creating alternatives, that they are breaking down that heirachy of criticism by producing their own texts or providing spaces that are there as much for failure as they are there for success.

Do you think these activities make the critic's voice appear to be redundant?

Well they can, but maybe that's other people's problem, not ours. It's always interesting for a work to be re-read, but it's not always interesting for a work to be judged and dismissed, I think everybody's response is legitimate but it says more about them than it says about the work.

We could discuss this further but, first, I thought that it would be interesting to discuss a project like Critical Cities in terms of the development of a community for the viewing of a certain group of artists' work and the development of ideas within that community.

well, Critical Cities was initiated by Callum Morton, it was seen to be ongoing, but it kind of fizzled out. There were six people involved, the activities were intermittent and of short duration -like an afternoon- it was usually a Saturday afternoon, and the exhibitions had a kind of Saturday afternoon feeling, getting together and having a beer and the conversations came out of looking at a work and talking about it and also being in a different environment. All of that wove into what was Critical Cities.

I've heard of critical cities shows happening in back yards, lounge rooms, and in public gardens, it really was a seeking out of different, alternative venues for an artist's work - but also a way of the artist almost selecting the audience.

It was kind of like occasional art, like occasional furniture - like a banana lounge that you would put in the back yard - that was the approach. In the end that it became more formalised, that's the point that it dissipated. It was very much to do with the artist negotiating their environment, very much about an artist's response to another person's living space, and about that artist's response to that other person, often a familiarity with another person's living space, so those personal histories came into it also links between the two people's work, the was quite nice kind of range of activities that spoke about the personalities in the group and their engagement with the city.

Critical Cities also evolved into projects like Loop, which was a collection of short films...

...yeh, that was one of the critical cities exhibitions.

Loop seemed to stand apart from Critical Cities, in that it was a packaged work, and had a much larger audience.

It was part of one of the Next Wave Festivals. That was one way that Critical Cities could have gone, and where I would have seen it as becoming a bit of a juggernaut - losing it's lightness and manoeuvrability. Becoming something so intent on getting critical response, with a large number of successful artists contributing, it became allot more cumbersome in my mind and I think that's the point that it died out, after Loop. It was a good idea, to have all these three minute videos showing at the Longford Cinema in Toorak. I like the idea of an experimental approach entering established venues.

I remember going to see Loop, and one of the best things about it was the "pot luck" quality of the program. It was like going to a White Gloves film festival where all the entrants were artists.

Yeh, speaking for myself, it was the first or second time that I had ever used a video. It was the same with most people, but you could see their artistic concerns coming out - some people doing more formalist or narrative works or whatever, it would have been interesting to see a second Loop, I think that it would have been a lot more sophisticated - they would have known more about that medium and they would have known more about what the limits of that medium were.

We haven't really spoken about the social aspect of artist run spaces yet, and that is an acknowledged part of the artist run space, certainly with Talk that was one of the reasons that we set it up. I was interested interested in setting up the space so that there was a group of people to do this thing with, a group of people to go to the pub with and have around. I think that the space is not just about the artwork .

So artist run spaces are a focus for community as well?

Yeh, in the broad sense of it, and I think that art can be broad and not just about the object the object is just a point in the continuum.

Should we leave it there?

Andrew McQualter and Sandra Bridie.
March 17 1998.