Simon Maidment is the director of Satellite Art Projects, a not-for-profit arts organisation focused on presenting ambitious public projects outside of the gallery context. Working across platforms, Satellite’s projects and commissions involve collaboration between artists and other specialists — including architects, engineers and designers — to realise engaging site-specific public artworks.
Trent Walter : What was the catalyst for starting Satellite?
Simon Maidment : It came down to a couple of things. I’d been working as a practitioner and with other artists outside the gallery context and on individual projects for specific sites. While I was Director of West Space, I had the opportunity to do a number of projects that were outside our regular gallery programming, including international projects and publishing. Working towards something ambitious with an artist was something I really enjoyed doing. I was always influenced by and admired a number of international projects, like Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave, and some local ones as well, but couldn’t really see how they could be supported by a gallery program, a gallery context, or an organisation based predominantly around a gallery as a site. And there weren’t a lot of opportunities for [Australian artists] to work like that.
TW : So the idea is not necessarily public art, it’s making work for an alternative site to the gallery. But mostly it’s manifested itself, so far, as public art?
SM : Yes, for us it has. It’s not a public art agency: it’s to work with contemporary artists across disciplines outside of the gallery and museum context. I would count things like publications, broadcasts, interactive works, performance, public art — or art in the public sphere — as definite areas of interest for a commission.
TW : ‘Public art’ is a strange term.
SM : Well it’s loaded, isn’t it? It’s also an increasing speciality where artists working in the public sphere over the last twenty years have been known as ‘public artists’. People now train as public artists: they do public art courses as opposed to [regular] art courses. I’m very much interested in taking artists who have a strong studio practices outside the gallery context. But also artists who are interested in what people have termed a ‘post-studio’ practice — a range of artists whose work operates in a more relational way — and having those practices play out in the public sphere.
TW : Why is Satellite important for the public, and why is it important for the artists to be working outside of the studio or the gallery in this way?
SM : I’m very interested in art’s agency in the socio–political sphere. I think we are all looking for things that make our society better. I think we’re all looking for ways in which the products of society, the things that we all generate, can in some ways inform a progressive social future for us all. I don’t think anyone really sees what is beyond the historical horizon of capitalism, but I think that art has a crucial and active role to play in proposing, shaping and eliciting different kinds of living in society. I’m very interested in art that is not just born of an historical moment within an artist’s mind but is in direct response to the context in which it has been made, and for that to really operate well and have some frisson within society. The art needs to reveal that relationship to the public. Art is also interesting in that artists can cross all of those different borders. They can do things working with a design team to inform something in quite an instrumental way. There’s a really rich area that both artists and architects are working with at the moment — and often together — which is really exciting.
TW : Satellite projects must require a high level of collaboration. Who else is involved with the current Satellite commission of Kate Daw and Stewart Russell’s Civil Twilight End 2011 (a bell housed in a brick tower that is struck when the sun is 6º below the horizon) at Goods Shed North in Docklands.
SM : Natalie King co-curated this particular project with me. The construction is being managed by the building arm of the commissioning client: Equiset/Grollo Group. Working with Lovell Chen architects we got a lot of detailed information about the history of the building, including its previous use. When we started working with Kate and Stewart, they wanted to design a bell tower from the reclaimed bricks of the Goods Shed. The brickwork pattern was purpose designed by Geoffrey Barton. There were also structural engineers, a bell consultant, a foundry who cast the bell and an electrician to refine the control mechanism that would allow the hammer to strike. Getting the tower approved was also a very long process and involved a lot of stake holders: Heritage Victoria, VicUrban and City of Melbourne, as well as the architects Elenberg Fraser.
TW : What are the architectural and urban effects of having Civil Twilight End located at Goods Shed North?
SM : The tower has been designed in relation to the pedestrian experience and to the scale of the Goods Shed. It isn’t overbearing in the way a number of the larger buildings in the precinct can feel — rather, you can reach across one of its faces. In contrast to the small spatial footprint of the tower, the sound of the bell emanates throughout the immediate area and can be caught by winds and pushed further through the precinct. Like the historic aural bond created by a hall or church bell, the introduction of the sound of this bell stirs feelings of nostalgia and longing and, hopefully in time, a sense of belonging.
TW : Does this project go some way to fulfilling your ideal vision of Satellite Art Projects?
SM : The launch of this project marks a really important day for our organisation: our first permanent commission, and one that is poetic and so beautifully integrated into the context and precinct. We founded Satellite Art Projects to work closely with artists. To give them support to develop their ideas and together generate projects that they wouldn’t be able to realise on their own. This project represents our first sustained undertaking and we’re thrilled with the project: it’s got a great narrative to it, it’s beautifully realised. It’s timeless really. And you can’t ask for more than that.
Trent Walter is a Melbourne-based printer and writer. He lectures in artists’ books at Monash University, Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture.