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Tag Archives: Marcus Westbury

Art and Social Security

At a party in the early 1980s I heard some guy answer the question “What do you do?” with “I’m on a government arts grant.”

As I was young and ernest about my career in the arts I asked. “How did you get that?”

“I’m unemployed.” He replied.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, many aspiring artists and musicians in Australia were on the dole. Nick Cave was handing in his fortnightly unemployment form along with many other artists, musicians and writers. At the time unemployment benefits were easy to obtain with the minimum of bureaucratic hoops to jump through and even the meagre unemployment benefits meant time to paint, write or play music. This self-initiated low grade arts funding was a very productive time for the arts in Australia, especially Australian music. Unemployment benefits provided a very wide funding base for the arts, it was non-elitist and possibly not as economically reckless as it sounds.

The downside was that it did lead to the arts being undervalued in the wider community, artists, bands, photographers were all expected to work for very little or free because everyone knew that they had the social security safety net to fall back on.  And artists and bands were repeatedly ask to work for free to raise funds for one cause or charity.

The question back in the 1980s was how to survive and make long term unemployment part of a bohemian artist’s career path. Justin Heazlewood, aka The Bedroom Philosopher, discusses being ‘funemployed’ and how it really isn’t that much fun. It requires financial risks on a very low budget and no stability, with a society that assumes that because you have achieved a modicum of fame that you must be rich.

Arts funding needs to be completely re-examined and changes need to be made at the most basic level. This is still an issue and tougher requirements for unemployment are not going to make it any better. What is needed is a living wage for artists; for more about this read David Pledger’s “Social security for artists” NAVA June 27 2016.

The first fact that must be remembered is that it takes time to get an arts career going; decades often and during those decades the starving aspiring artists needs food and shelter, training, materials, equipment, time to experiment, to learn, to develop. It is not going happen overnight, if ever. Fortunately for any government that is serious about funding that arts, art education and students are inexpensive investment that return money directly to the economy and in the long run they can make big returns.

“When I was last unemployed in Newcastle in the mid 90s there was 47% unemployment, so I literally didn’t know anyone with a job. There was a big economic transition and a lot of people with time on their hands. I think of all the people that I know – some of who have gone on to be quiet successful artists – and we all got good at what we were doing because we had the time to do it.” Marcus Westbury (Interview by Rose Vickers Das Super Paper #20, August 2011)

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Shopping Centre Art

What was I doing at a VIP event at Barkly Square shopping centre in Brunswick?

What has happened at Barkly Square is that the service lane that bisected the shopping centre running parallel to Sydney Road has been change from a problem into a feature. The lane has become, according to the media release, “… a new arts and entertainment precinct which will celebrate the artistic and culinary soul of Brunswick.”

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A collaboration between Ghostpatrol and Bonsai fill two sides of the wall of the lane. Kyle Hughes-Odgers, a Perth based artist, has a wall with a brickworks reference as Brunswick once had a brick making industry. On another wall there is a giant owl by Twoone.

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It is not all street art, Tobias Horrocks, a local artist work with a post-minimalist ideas and cardboard. This was his first permanent installation. The basic cardboard form is repeated blocking and filtering the light from the window above the entrance.

Barkly Square is just a small inner-city shopping centre, a bland location for a few chain shops, near the beginning of the Sydney Road shopping strip. It is not the first shopping centre in Melbourne to feature street artists on its walls; QVC and Southbank both invited street artists in years earlier.

Media maker and festival director, Marcus Westbury has, what he describes a “strange obsession” with “he fate of old suburban shopping arcades.” He explains why on his blog. “I am, as far as I can tell, pretty much alone in believing they’re a rich vein of untapped urban and suburban gold. Or, to put it in language that hipsters, planners and local politicians can reflexively and instinctively respond to they’re kind of like lane-ways.”

In this case the it not so much as trying to artificially reproduce the iconic Melbourne lane but assimilating the rest Brunswick into the shopping centre. The usual mall food court has gone from Barkly Square, now there are cafes with outside seating in The Laneway, as it has been prosaically and practically named. The transformation of the area is the usual mix of work by street arts, planters, bollards, bike racks and funky design elements. It is still a working service lane but now is a mix use urban area.

Shopping centres need to reinvent themselves, in the wake of on-line competition, they need cater for more than just shopping. The holy grail of urban design to create a ‘meeting place’.

Samuel Louwrens, the Operations Manager for Barkly Square Centre Management is feeling inspired at the art and developments on the lane. He is enthusiastic about his new lighting for the art and was waiting for more suggestions from the public about what could be done with the lane. He pointed out that there are still more large blank walls at the far ends of the lane.

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At noon on Wednesday there was a launch of the lane in a temporary VIP area outside a cafe in the lane listening to a guitarist, Grey Milton launching Barkly Square’s busking program. Grey finished his set. There were two short speeches from the corporate investment manager of the property group that owns Barkly Square and then the Mayor of Moreland. Then the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective took over by this time there weren’t just invited guests but a small crowd of people enjoying the spectacle. To have about a hundred people in the lane showed that, at least for the moment, the plan was working.DSCF0329

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Is there art without politics?

Ai Weiwei comments (The Guardian Weekly 21/09/12 p.37) on “Art of Change: New Directions from China” at the Hayward Gallery, London and he asks: “How can you have contemporary art that doesn’t address a single one of the country’s most pressing issues?”

I frequently find myself asking this question looking at contemporary art in Melbourne that stands for nothing but superficial gestures and thinking similar thoughts to Ai Weiwei but about Australian art rather than Chinese.

Although Australian art is heavily influenced by contemporary western cultures, it rejects the essential human values that underpin it. The Australian Government claims to the rule of law, respect for international laws and human rights but have so often excepted themselves from any obligations in various circumstances that nobody understands what this means anymore. In Australia you have a right not be discriminated against on the basis of your race except if you are an aborigine living in the Northern Territory. You have the right to claim asylum except if you come by boat. I could go on and on about the exceptions that the Australian Government has granted itself and then another tract about the exceptions that have been granted to allied governments.

Ai Weiwei offers a solution at the end of his comment. “What’s needed is open discussion, a platform for argument. Art needs to stand for something.”

Politics may not be something that an artist chooses but a position that is thrust upon them because their art does stand for something. Bill Henson has become the spokesman for artistic freedom because of the government campaign against him, not because of any overt political content in his work, but the content that government wanted to repress, a discussion that it did not want opened.

Sydney-based artist, Stephen Copland suggested to me that perhaps the political art should be judged from the archaeology of the stratigraphy of exhibitions (and the art exhibited) within the artist’s career rather than individual works of art. In this way the seriousness and depth of the artist’s political interest can best be judged. In a broader survey many artists would mark out the stratigraphy of the burning political issues in the layers of art works.

There are still plenty of largely uncensored platforms in Australia and Australian art is not under as many restrictions as art in China; the ALP did give the Australian Classification Board the power to censor art exhibitions after the Bill Henson furore.  But this freedom counts for nothing if nobody is saying anything or making superficial gestures. So many good artists remaining silent… I see so many exhibitions that are studiously saying nothing.

Sometimes it looks like all that many contemporary artists are trying to achieve is to fill a gallery space and I don’t mean completely fill up a gallery space, like the “New York Earth Room” (1977) by Walter De Maria. I mean just scale up a simple drawing so that it fills a wall or projecting a looping video onto a wall. As if filling up a gallery was an end in itself. Not that this should be taken as a complaint against all contemporary art installations as a whole, it is not about skill or technique or lack of them. There are boring exhibitions of highly competent paintings and the work of skilled crafters. Almost every week I see exhibitions that are a bit of a bore.

And the artist’s comment on this whole empty process appears to be bored and empty. Sometimes it appears that contemporary artists have done post-graduate studies in grant and application writing. This involves the composition of studied art world patois involved in over complication and indulging in obfuscation. “The exhibited works appear as chapters severed from their context” – that’s a nice way of say it is an incoherent exhibition. “Post-planning” – they are making it up as they go along. “Leading artist” – who is being lead? (For more on this art speak see Hyperallergic’s “How to Talk about Art” column.)

Why do we put up with these solipsistic, self-absorbed creations that contribute nothing to the wider cultural discourse of politics or life or anything of than other contemporary art? Who is responsible, who is to blame for this awful boring art? Let me say this first off, it is not all the artist’s fault; they are too obvious and too easy to blame. Nor is it entirely the fault of their teachers, the curators, gallery and arts grants boards. It is also the fault of the critics and art reviewers – it is my fault.

I should have slammed the artist’s work from the moment my fingers touched the keyboard. I should have dismantled their flimsy ideas and dammed their pretentious self-indulgent attempts at art. Perhaps I should have howled at the other critic’s praise for these artists. The fact is there aren’t really that many arts writers, even including bloggers, in Melbourne to complain about. We are living in a time when people in all seriousness praise the arts coverage in MX, the free paper distributed on the trains, over any other newspaper in Melbourne simply because they print more pictures.

I am not expecting that art will change that many minds or that art should be judged by its political efficacy or position. In 2010 Marcus Westbury asks “Does Political Art Work?” with the danger preaching to the choir or the tabloid frenzy the sidetrack issue. I’m not expecting art to work in politics all I’m asking is for the artists to make art that stands for something important. (The artists don’t have stand for political office, like Carl Scrase or Van Rudd.)

I am expecting that “art needs to stand for something.”


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