So, Chris, let’s talk about anarchy. Or, more precisely: I was wondering if you could tell me about the ways in which anarchist or syndicalist principles inform your practice?
I’m not approaching it from a hard-line political position, but anarcho-syndicalism is definitely something I align my work with. I’m not a big reader of anarchist theory, but I’m interested in ideas of anarchy as a lived politics that don’t necessarily need to be enveloped in political theory.
And this idea of anarchy is expressed in your relationship to and use of language also?
Yes, definitely, but, more specifically, I’m interested in its expression in the interaction of objects and people and language. I’m interested in a lived form of anarcho-syndicalism, and the work attempts to operate as that kind of structure, to varying degrees. A formal example would be the way that language operates in problem poem. There are sentence structures within that show: the objects are like freestanding words, but they live together without punctuation, which reflects some kind of anti-government position. There are natural systems of reciprocation in place, which mean that if you give someone something, they’ll probably give you something in return, but these are not presumed relationships. Words and sentences can work in that way too, and this is how I see the idea of anarchy relating not only to the writing, but also to the installations and the collaborative and activity-based aspects of my practice. In problem poem, there are some made objects, some found objects, some objects made by other people, and they all interact in some form of conversation that is systematic, but it’s not a defined system, and so it’s in this way that the work perhaps fits into an anarchist model. An anarcho-syndicalist society or an anarcho-feudalist society or a commune is a direct form of living, and that’s something I’ve tried to do in my practice.
So organising the open conversation, the swap meet and the other events as a part of Event Horizon is an expression of this?
Yes, within the contemporary art industry, those things would normally be formalized, in the form of a festival or a symposium, but I prefer a more direct approach to these kinds of activity, so that they can just be what they are. There will be overlap, and there will be some bits that work and bits that don’t work.
So the failures are OK?
Yes. But, well, there is very little room for failure when you don’t have a lot of expectations, or when you don’t have a complete outline of what you want something to be.
And do anarchist ideas inform your approach to authorship, and your use of others’ objects and practices within your work?
I’m interested in a view of practice that is open. An author is necessarily authoritative — having an author governs the channels between practice.
Can I ask, then, how you negotiate the problem of your own authorship of these events?
It’s something that’s problematic, but I think I have tactics to avoid this problem. I try to treat these events as social situations, so they’re about relationships and conversations, rather than being a finished point. I think that that in some ways negates the problem of my role as author: the work is something that’s in flux, and which is constantly developing. One other tactic lies with the fact that none of my work is ever for sale. There are records of work, such as publications, which have been for sale, but the physical works are not for sale. The fact that it’s not about commodities helps it avoid the problem of authorship.
The work can be reduced to an object by the institution, but you don’t participate in its commercialisation?
Yes, I try to make sure that my practice is not dictatorial or overly ‘authored’ — and I hope that this is apparent through its overlap with other people’s practices, through its non-fixed nature, and through its use of other people’s objects, things that obviously haven’t been crafted by me. I think that these details help to negate the problems of authorship, to a certain extent, but it’s impossible to completely escape these problems.
To my mind, problem poem represents one pole of your practice, in the sense that it was concerned with objects that embody relationships and personal histories, while the swap meet and the discussion day, as a part of Event Horizon, were all about the actualisation of those relationships. And the iterative exhibitions that were the three stages of Event Horizon were somewhere in-between, because they were partly concerned with interpersonal relationships in a manifest form, and partly about the objects themselves.
It’s the paradox of a personal politics: obviously, a personal politics involves other people, it’s not solely personal. I think that’s why I have those different aspects of the practice. And there’s room for overlap, but I try not to force these things. A show that I did at Gertrude Street in 2006, which had performances in it, and which had an installation that included other people’s work, was a catalyst for a lot of the shows I’ve done since then. It didn’t necessarily feel like a major show at the time, because it wasn’t necessarily successful in a lot of ways, but that show and Event Horizon, as well as Y3K and a show that I did at Enjoy with James [Deutsher], are important because there are many layers of actual events and object relationships.
So Y3K, as a project, in its entirety, might be understood as an extension of your practice?
Yes, but it’s a part of a broader praxis. Obviously, I was not solely responsible for it: James and I were both responsible for it, as were the artists who showed there and had studios there. But I definitely viewed it as an extension of that side of my practice that is concerned with facilitation.
I was going to say ‘community-building’, but ‘facilitation’ is a better word.
I think community-building is part of what I do, but there are a lot of institutional forms of community-building that I don’t relate to, so I don’t see it as a community-focused practice in a socio-political sense. I don’t give myself over completely to supporting others’ practices — I retain my own conceptual and aesthetic frameworks, and material responses — but collaborations and others’ involvement is important, so it’s a balance between these things, and hopefully this is reflected in the work. Having these different layers of collaboration and involvement leads to some good experiences and some bad experiences, but I always have an optimistic approach to it.
I like this idea of openness and optimism that runs through the various expressions of your practice, but that it’s also strongly against a dogmatic utopianism, or against dogma entirely…
Well, I intend it to be, but there’s a masochism to it as well, in that if you have a bunch of objects on the floor, you’re inviting people to step on you, in a sense. I approach it with an optimism, with the hope that people are going to respect the objects, but that doesn’t always turn out to be the case, so maybe it’s a blind optimism.
Is it, then, a testing of the social? We were talking at the opening of problem poem about the small robots on the floor, and the fact of them being stepped on or knocked over.
I don’t know if it is a process of testing or not. I assume that people are going to treat the work with respect and not step on things or knock them over, but I’m learning, or, rather, I’m trying to get to a point where I’m not disappointed when that kind of thing happens. I can’t remember what it was in, but somewhere I talked about it as ‘psychological betterment’, and I do try to strive for that through my work. It is an evolving thing, it is something that develops and, in that way, it is socially active. That’s something that interests me about art: a lot of the time, it’s an exhibition of fixed objects in a space, and they may interact in a lot of intellectual ways, and in physical ways, but they’re fixed. I don’t want to make something kinetic, but it is very important for me that over the course of the practice it does develop and change. And I guess that relates to the anarchic politics of it as well, the idea that it is in flux.
Is there an intention toward deliberate disruption in the work? I’m thinking specifically of your self-governed thesis: it was self-governed, but it was nevertheless a thesis, and so it replicates or reproduces an institutional form, and, in so doing, it also interrogates that form.
It’s a rupture, I don’t think it’s necessarily a disruption. It’s not meant to be an aggressive action. Maybe it’s better understood as a parallel — it’s not necessarily against those institutional forms, but perhaps it’s disrupting a formula.
Are there narratives built into the combinations of objects, or is it something that happens organically?
It does happen organically, but there are continuing narratives. I guess it’s similar to the some of the writing I’ve done, including the thesis, where things are repeated, where things accumulate a narrative, but it’s not something that’s necessarily prescribed to them. For instance, in Event Horizon, there is the narrative of the interactions between Josh [Petherick] and I, or Alex [Vivian] and I, and our friendships, but I think the narratives form in-between the works, rather than in the works.
So the objects are embodiments of human relationships?
I think the relationships between objects are the embodiments of human relationships, rather than the actual objects. Because I think that once you take an object out of there and put it in a different context, most of the meanings aren’t carried over.
The isolation of the objects in the gallery space is important?
Yes, the formal nature of that relationship is important, it’s like a snapshot within the dialogue of my practice, and of those objects and their histories, and of the friendships between the people involved. In a sense, the gallery context is really important, but it is just a moment, because the objects will go on to have other lives.
As art or as not-art.
Yes, absolutely. But in problem poem, and in some other projects that I’ve worked on since, some of the things are bought objects, often from eBay or etsy, so they’re secondhand objects that have unknown histories that have nothing to do with my practice. And that’s something I appreciate. In a way, it’s a retrograde view, and there’s a romantic sense to that, but my practice is not opposed to engaging with romance and failure. There is meaning in these objects: whether they’re bought or found objects, they’re loaded with meaning. On the one hand, there is a negation of that meaning, in that they gain a completely different meaning in the context of the artwork, but, on the other, they also still embody their original meanings. I guess it’s similar to Haim Steinbach: he has these objects that are often very loaded, but they take on a completely different meaning in his work, and I guess I share that approach.
The mention of Steinbach relates to something else I was going to ask. You evoke with some skepticism the concept of relational aesthetics in your thesis, but Bourriaud has also written on Steinbach, specifically in Postproduction. This is a roundabout way of asking: how much does your work engage with theory, either with classical political theory, like Proudhon, who you also evoke in your thesis, or with contemporary theory, like Bourriaud?
I hope the work does engage with those theories, but it’s not something that’s direct. The thesis was an exercise in engaging with that material, but I’ve opted for a less defined approach to art practice since writing that, and I don’t feel a need to connect it to those theories. For example, I appreciate the theory of relational aesthetics, but I don’t see my work fitting into the practice of relational aesthetics, in that a lot of that work has aims and community outcomes that I don’t relate to. My problem with relational aesthetics probably lies with the forced social interaction that it suggests. My work could be seen as a practice of this type, because it is inclusive in a lot of ways, but this is not necessarily its positioning. I do believe, though, that small communities or smaller groups of people tend to work better.
Your work avoids forced inclusivity?
Yes, exactly, it isn’t anti-inclusive, but it’s against forced inclusivity. Does that answer your question regarding Bourriaud?
Yes, I think so. And with this mention of small communities, we’ve also come full circle, we’ve come back to my original question about the place of anarcho-syndicalist thought in your practice. However, are there any last comments you’d like to add?
Yes, as an overview, I think it’s worth mentioning that my practice operates as multiple things as once, and that there’s not an overarching theme. So we can talk about it in relation to anarcho-syndicalism, and every aspect of it somehow relates to that, but we could also have a conversation about microbes, or misanthropy, and I’m sure that that would be relevant as well.
Brad Haylock is an artist, a designer and a lecturer at Monash Art Design & Architecture.