Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 4 Artist Run Spaces
Log 4 Artist Run Spaces

Danny Butt


The early 1990s in New Zealand wasn't exactly a time of remarkable cultural activity. The intense urbanisation and socio-economic fragmentation which had already taken hold in most western nations after the crash was barely beginning in NZ. Auckland in 1992 wasn't so much a city as an oversized New Zealand town. The same can hardly be said now.

Teststrip can't be credited with all of these changes, but their legacy is at least a model for art practice which is simultaneously more corporate and more collectivist than just about anything else in this decade, and deserves sustained critical analysis well beyond the scope of this article. If nineties global capitalism leans hard on the lie-dream of "opportunity" and "self-reliance", Teststrip saw this coming quicker than most others-and saw the opportunity to band together to make daring raids on the art world, under the pirate flag of loosely distributed networking and ambitious team orientation. Says original board member Judy Darragh, "We've all got our own stories about how it started-but I like the political, slightly anarchic aspect to it."

Teststrip began in 1992 with eight artists: Kirsty Cameron, Judy Darragh, Gail Haffern, Giovanni Intra, Denise Kum, Lucy Macdonald, Daniel Malone and Merylyn Tweedie. This unit remained remarkably stable over time, with four of the original members still present at their closing at the end of 1997, and Susan Hillery, Simon Cuming and Guy Treadgold all serving for long periods on the board. While the Micrograph publication series continues, and other projects such as their work for Codec http://www.codec.org.nz hint at the possibility of Teststrip not yet disappearing entirely, it seems fitting to recap for this issue of LOG the organisation which made artist-run spaces an integral part of the contemporary NZ art landscape.

The space developed from a number of nodes of activity. There had been discussions among Elam art school students Cameron, Intra, Malone and Kum about finding a new space to show work. Darragh and Tweedie had already applied, unsuccessfully, to QEII to set up a space. "We were dissatisfied with the opportunities which were available", says Darragh. "There we were, nearly mid-career artists for God's sake, with nothing happening..."

Eventually all these conversations found each other, and the idea of Teststrip began in a space where Daniel Malone was living in Vulcan Lane, now café and fashion central. While Australia has a long history of artist-run galleries, these were pretty much unknown as a way of working in New Zealand. The artist-run spaces in the 1980s tended to be project-based, and dominated by site-specific sculpture & installation, with a solid helping of good old kiwi do-it-yourselfism. By contrast, Teststrip's agenda was media-based and the organisational structure was inextricable from the work. "We wanted to be independent, we wanted to be doing our own thing", says Darragh.

In his two years as administrator of the gallery, Daniel Malone had a lot of opportunity to think it through. He says simply, "Teststrip has always been about us pursuing and creating a context for our own work. I guess we were interested in creating things-not like most galleries which act as a conduit or filter. We didn't go out and look for stuff for the gallery-we just each had our own practices and interests which we brought to it. Of course, that meant we had to keep in touch with what was going on."

Teststrip initially held shows by the eight board members, and, according to Darragh, "we didn't necessarily have aspirations past those first eight shows." But Teststrip's desire to create a context for their own work led them back to the social environment they worked in. This meant that musicians, writers, fashion designers and filmmakers all became involved. "After the first shows, and thinking about what we wanted to do, it made a lot of sense to really involve the community who were coming to Teststrip and patronising it. We did a lot of shows by people who did interesting things, who didn't necessarily consider themselves practising artists, but who were interesting in that context," says Malone. Judy Darragh looks at it slightly differently- "To begin with I think we were perceived as art school kids, and we didn't want to play to that, but at the same time we didn't want to show established artists."

A touch of art brut? Not really, but the documentation from the first couple of years does contain strong echoes of what Stuart Mackenzie called a "nostalgia for the avant-garde." Indeed, an article written in 1992 by Simon Cuming (who would later become a board member) claims that Teststrip is "a collective reaction to cut out the middle man and the politics involved in presenting art to the public eye."

More particularly, Teststrip has always had a love of Surrealism-Artaud and Breton feature strongly in some of the early manifestoes, and even in 1997 exquisite corpses were gracing the Teststrip walls. Catalogues like Suffer, Teststrip's survey show at Hamish Mackay Gallery in Wellington, state somewhat pompously: "We want to break through a new vulvatic gate where theory is nothing but a bead of sweat on the brow of a dead mule". Teststrip's early published emanations implicitly but insistently assert that some kind of truth is to be found in the macabre, the abject, and the unconscious; that there is a space beyond gender and "politics". While such wilful and wistful moves seem oddly nostalgic now, at the time they drove an extraordinary series of shows which kicked the arse of New Zealand contemporary art into the realm of contemporary culture.

Commentators like Mackenzie started calling it "grunge" because that was the term going around at the time in international art magazines. Mark Amery, on the other hand, repeatedly emphasised the "fun" Teststrip was injecting back into the art scene. To avoid being boxed in further, Teststrip were left with no other option than to ban Herald reviewer T.J. Macnamara from viewing, let alone reviewing, shows. Clearly, it was time to up the ante. The minutes of meetings from this time make hilarious reading-strategies included, "Send invites to the powers that be to let them know that they are not invited-Leuthart, Burke, Leonard, Killeen (because he always comes)." In 1995, Teststrip finally moved from Vulcan Lane to the sex shop end of Karangahape Road, into a space which would paradoxically be transformed into one of the most aesthetically formal white cubes in town.

"We were never actually a grunge gallery," says Malone. "We were just interested in working with whatever means we had available, and when we saw the opportunity to change those means, we would." Teststrip was getting serious. Judy Darragh explains: "We'd been going for three years, and with the scale of the new space, it just made sense to do something different." According to Malone, the shift toward showing practising artists was a conscious one: "After we'd done all those shows, which were more from our social milieu, if you like, we decided not to repeat that. To show a lot of those things again, even in a different order, seemed like it wasn't so interesting. What we wanted to do eventually was create a context and environment for other people who were doing what we were doing. At the same time, as we carried on our context grew, and we had a wider range of conversations which in turn led to projects."

With a gruelling schedule through 1995 (three shows every two weeks), which the Teststrip board members had the privilege of paying for, the sheer demand on resources required looking for other means of survival. After four years of wilful independence and self-reliance, Teststrip applied for and received funding from the Arts Council. "We just applied it to pragmatic things-a cheap computer, a fax, a phone. We could pay a minimal wage for the time spent administering the space. But it was still largely based on volunteer labour and artists continuing to help pay the rent," says Malone. In terms of bang for buck, Teststrip were one of the most efficient funded projects ever, getting more shows to more people than some organisations with five times the budget.

The curatorial process, on the other hand, remained as dissolute and organic as ever. "It was just 'Hey, we've got to fill this programme!' 'Who did we write down last time?' 'Did you get in touch with them?' 'No.' 'Who else did we talk to?' 'No that person sucks-did you see the work they did at blah blah?' It was just totally people coming to it with who they're into." Malone is acutely aware of how the change in organisational structure which allowed him to act as administrator transformed some of the decision-making processes. "There became a level which was more about pragmatics. If you've got one person doing a lot of the communication, then ultimately a lot more of them comes through in the programme."

Through 1995-96, Teststrip started showing more work from Australian artists-a move which gathered them some flak as a series of very minimal, very 'art' shows reinforced a widespread perception of Teststrip as being overly ambitious. Certainly, it was a long way from the loose 'social context' shows of the years before. Combined with an ostentatiously international 'advisory board', it seemed that Teststrip were committed to going global. Did Teststrip forget their roots? Malone's own account frames it differently: "It comes down to keeping it evolving. Not necessarily of going down an inevitable path of becoming more and more professional-if anything the second year I administrated I probably relaxed a bit. But Australia has a long history of artist-run spaces. We thought it might be interesting to consider ourselves part of that network. It didn't really eventuate, and we felt that the flow was pretty one-way-we showed a lot of artists from there, but we didn't get much of a chance to create opportunities for artists from here to show there. The upside of that is that we gave some exposure to a lot of work which hadn't been seen here. And again, an organisation like Artspace has taken that and expanded upon it. But it was interesting going over there to show, because we'd get quite panicked beforehand thinking 'Oh god, these guys are so together, we've got to get our act together for this.' But then they'd be having the same problems we did-someone's borrowed the ladder because they're a friend of such and such, etc..."

If Teststrip were considered too careerist and not the charitable sheltered workshop that many felt to be the duty of an artist-run space, they were also finding out about some of the organisational dilemmas inherent in the project. "You're working for someone else, for someone else's work," says Malone. "So you've really got to a) have faith in the artist or b) be getting something out of it for yourself. I mean, fucked if you're doing it for the money." "The problem with artist-run spaces," says Darragh, "is that you're an artist and your own work should come first, and then you end up supporting all these other artists."

By this time, there was a whole network of similarly configured guerilla institutions up and down the country-from the High Street Project (Christchurch) and the Honeymoon Suite (Dunedin) in the South Island, to Fiat Lux and Room3 in Auckland. All these spaces had and have widely diverging aesthetic and organisational objectives, but all of them are marked with the influence of Teststrip's fierce independence and confidence.

For its final year-older, wiser and with perhaps not as much to prove in the wake of the international experiments-Teststrip seemed to relax into itself. With the presence of other spaces, there was talk of an opportunity to retire gracefully. Shows became more informal and diverse, music and video events more regular. The decision to end the space came fairly easily. "It was really good, actually," says Judy Darragh. "We'd all been moving in different directions, and Daniel was doing more and more of the day-to-day thing, which wasn't sustainable for him or us." "To go on it would have had to have changed," says Malone. "I'm really enjoying it not being around. It feels like a huge burden relieved. That's the crux of it really-it always was the sum total of the energy and the attitude and commitment of the board. Without that there is no Teststrip. So when that looks like it's going to become in any way compromised, then it was a really simple decision. If there's a loss, it's not that there isn't somewhere to show, it's that there are these people who will no longer be involved in this way."

For the very last show, Gold Watch, the Teststrip board went back to how it all started - exhibiting their own work. The show had the kind of easy, assured intimacy which only time and love generates. It reminds me of an old couple who a friend used to clean for, who said to us one morning: "Yup, we've been married for twenty-five years, and we've never had an argument." Of course, it was easy to tell they'd fought like cats and dogs the whole way through, but their knowledge of and comfort with each other was a force whose magnitude was perceptible, but not really understandable to an outsider. In the same way, Teststrip was a group of people with a combination of talent and shared vision which only comes together in exceptional circumstances. "We were really lucky," says Darragh, "that we had really good artists on the board. We didn't have accountants or lawyers-just great artists. That's what it's all about."

Danny Butt



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room