As part of the research project on the cultural economies of Artist Run Initiatives (ARIs) in Australia, directed by Maria Miranda at the Victorian College of the Art, Anabelle Lacroix has curated An Act of Showing: Rethinking Artist Run Initiatives Through Place. Maria and Annabelle framed the exhibition as a material conversation between ARIs and Aboriginal Art Centres in Australia and the Asia Pacific. It is an attempt to reframe our thinking about ARIs through the lens of place.
In February 2017 Anabelle spent some time in the north-west of Australia, where she stayed with Alana Hunt and visited Waringarri Aboriginal Arts and Warmun Art Centre, located on Miriwoong and Gija country respectively. This conversation brings together a few of the many threads of thought explored during this period.
Alana Hunt: When you first contacted me about ARIs in the north-west of Australia, Aboriginal art centres were not really on your radar – or at least they were at its very far edges. But after a few long email exchanges you decided to include Aboriginal art centres, and even come up on a research trip for the An Act of Showing exhibition.
Anabelle Lacroix: Maria and I had a sense that there were productive connections to be made between ARIs and art centres, and we knew there needed to be more first-hand research to explore this. At first it was a proposition — an open invitation to an art centre — that became something concrete with Waringarri Aboriginal Arts after my visit. Was this connection surprising for you?
AH: The connection was obvious to me – and I was excited by your curiosity. However, it’s definitely something I feel isn’t addressed, understood or acknowledged enough in Australian art more generally. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding, and this is also, in some ways shaped by an old, though still recurrent, perception that somehow art made by Aboriginal artists in remote Australia is not ‘really’ contemporary art. This runs parallel to the idea that art made by Aboriginal artists in cities is not ‘real’ Aboriginal art. I don’t subscribe to either of these views; to me it’s all contemporary and Aboriginal, and both of these terms are broad and complex.
I remember in our emails – at one point you asked me if Aboriginal art centres were more “government initiatives” rather than artist led initiatives. This perception is something that contributes to the assumptions described above. How do you feel about this now, after your research and visit?
AL: It’s interesting you bring these misconceptions up, as I interviewed Richard Bell a couple of days ago about the start of ProppaNow and he said exactly that. ProppaNow started to resist the idea of urban Aboriginal art not being ‘Aboriginal enough’, founded with a genuine interest from the group in contemporary art, and wanting to be part of it.
My trip to the East Kimberley in Kununurra and Warmun revealed that our initial sense that Aboriginal art centres had something important to offer this discourse was founded. The manager of Waringarri Arts in Kununurra said to me straight away ‘we are artist run!’
I arrived in Australia from France six years ago. In this sense, I have been looking at the art scene here from an external point, which is gradually shifting to a more insider position as time passes. I did often wonder why art centres are seen as a sort of ‘separate’ category of art space. From my experience in Melbourne I had the perception that they were commercially run, and also strongly connected to government initiatives, with a lot of them being run by ‘white people’. At the same time I have been very interested in the discourse around the position of Aboriginal art in Australian art and as contemporary art. Through this project I have been interested in looking at art centres through the lens of artist agency and self-determination, to look at places of production of art as an ensemble of spaces. I was wondering if this would advance the discourse about Aboriginal contemporary art and avoid the perpetuation of ‘separate’ categories. I do think that there are big differences between ARIs and Aboriginal art centres and these are also interesting to explore. When talking with you about art centres you said there’s a need to look at them more critically. Could you expand on that?
AH: The collective power art centres harness, in the face of colonisation and the cultural genocide that entails, is absolutely phenomenal. It’s important to foreground this.
They are more often than not the social and cultural centres of the communities they exist within, and in many cases the only independent form of income available locally. In this sense their social, economic and cultural power cannot be understated. And this is not by chance; Aboriginal artists have carried their visions to fruition. That said, art centres are not flawless in anyway. And as the art market and funding structures ebb and flow, art centres often struggle for sustainability. There is a need for much more rigourous, brave and innovative thinking to continue to grow the work art centres have already done. But there isn’t really enough critical conversation, honest self-reflection and industry sharing to get this going in the way that is required.
It’s similar to the yearning many feel for a more rigorous and informed engagement with Aboriginal art more generally. It is starting to grow in Australia but there’s a potent mix of misconceptions and assumptions that create silences and perpetuate misrepresentation. I’ve seen this unfold in some of Australia’s leading arts institutions. We haven’t developed the language to think through these forms of art and cultural practices to the serious degree they deserve to be thought about in a contemporary context. Race plays a big part in this, and the deep inadequacy of real inter-cultural communication in Australia. (Am I being too opinionated here?) I recently saw that Yirramboi Festival have a Blak Critics program, working towards building more robust and culturally informed Blak voices to respond to Blak work. I think this is really exciting. I am personally really interested in planting seeds for that kind of challenging engagement and the resulting discourse locally, where I live on Miriwoong country in the north-west of Australia.
In your research for this exhibition, how has this idea of place played out in the responses from and work of the different initiatives you engaged with? Is there a clear city vs. country divide, or is it more complex?
AL: You just asked me if you are being too opinionated here, but I don’t think you are. On my first day at Waringarri Arts I met the artist Ben Ward and he immediately asked me what were my thoughts about race. That made me speechless, for about a second, and then I replied with a kind of non-answer, which was that I don’t think that race is about colour. We laughed. I thought about that question a lot during the trip. If each Australian were encouraged to ask themselves that question, it would make us all think differently.
My research trip to the North West was driven by the direction that Maria and I developed for the project, which is to focus on ARIs through the angle of place vs. making ‘space’ through Chris Kraus’s idea of ‘radical localism’. We are trying to highlight differences rather than group all ARIs as a collection of similar spaces and activities, because after all, every ARI springs up from a specific context—cultural, political, geographical. Asking this question, in Australia, you can’t go past ‘country’ and the differing kinds of relationships that Aboriginal and non-indigenous artists have with the land.
The situation is very layered. There are remote/urban differences in the sense that non-urban initiatives tend to be more site-specific. But we’ve tried to go beyond that divide with this project. We have invited ‘white cube’ galleries in major cities, whose spaces could be situated just about anywhere — which I disagree with to some extent — and we’ve asked them, how does place matter? What does it mean to artists, to artist-centred organisations, and to their art communities?
We are also interested in shifting the idea of ARIs being underground. I recently read the catalogue of ‘Pitch your own tent’, a project curated by Max Delany at MUMA on the role of three ARIs in Australian art in 2005. Max spoke about the will to go beyond the terminology of ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’. This is still so relevant today.
Looking back over time through this project I’ve tried to consider how things have also changed. I’ve come to realise that pressures are bigger, the gap is bigger and neoliberalism has arrived as its own colonising force.
AH: Can you expand a little more on Chris Kraus’ idea of ‘radical localism’. Where is her locale? And why did her writing speak to you personally?
AL: Chris Kraus’ idea of ‘radical localism’ is quite simple and very deep at the same time. It talks about the importance and meaning of local energies in opposition to global forces, such as the global art movement. It delves quite deeply into philosophies of place, of being in place through personal experience. She foregrounds ARIs as important forces in a context of institutional critique, and sometimes activism. What I really liked about ‘Kelly Lake Store’ and ‘Where art belongs’ — the texts she discusses these ideas in — is the accurate analysis of the social interactions that happen in ARIs, and the unfolding of a deeper reflection based on her personal intuition and experience. Kraus is originally from New Zealand but moved to the US to study, and has been based there since. She seems to maintain an ‘outsider’ point of view, always questioning and exploring what’s happening around her. What spoke to both Maria and myself was a comment in the preface of ‘Kelly Lake Store’ where the author describes that art is not what but how, and where, and to what end. That art becomes a practice and a way of living.
AH: Wow. I think these are really powerful ideas—they’re tools to reframe what we do. As an artist they resonate very much with my own interests, not so much in the ‘artwork’ but in the ‘work of art’. In art’s capacity to shape the personal and public spheres we inhabit, where the art lies not in the object but in its cultural activation. Coming from a background in social practice this is what I found so exciting working at Warmun Art Centre. It was the social activation of place, which unfolded in the messy everyday, at particular moments flooded into the political, while always being grounded in the very powerful Ngarranggarni of Gija country.
In the development of these ideas, have you had anyone challenge your decisions?
AL: A little bit! Some ARIs in Sydney were a bit more sceptical about the connection to place because they are not specifically community focused. We discussed this aspect further and Maria and I stressed that the project is not about community art but layered with more philosophical aspects of place.
I also had a few discussions about how ARIs in major cities may be serving a very specific portion of the art community, self-centred, career-building, post-art-school type of crowd who are there to play with their friends and build a reputation. I think it’s important to be critical about that but also this kind of discourse has to be put into perspective, and if anything, I think it is a way of testing the art world politics, and a way for artists and curators to find their own methods and points of views.
And finally, Maria and I also challenged the connection between art centres and ARIs. The idea of connecting ARIs and art centres is not to develop practical exchanges necessarily, but more to rethink the way we consider these two categories. Aboriginal Art Centres have been extremely resilient, artist-centred organisations, with some running for more that 30 years!
This is the #spillway at #LakeArgyle a massive man made dam - 19 times the size of #sydneyharbour - that drowned parts of #miriwoong country in the 1960s. When the dam becomes full excess water floods into this spillway, which during this wet season has changed from a trickle of a creek into a roaring ocean. To me this water is everything the #colonialstate and its #infrastructure is unable to contain; it thunders out of an otherwise still lake to become this force. #videoart
An Act of Showing: Rethinking Artist Run Initiatives Through Place was on at Testing Grounds from the 17-31 May, 2017.
Anabelle Lacroix is a curator based in Melbourne, currently working as a research assistant at the VCA, University of Melbourne and produces the visual arts program of the Melbourne Festival. She is also planning a few surprises with Liquid Architecture.
Alana Hunt is an artist, writer and cultural producer living on Miriwoong country in the remote northwest of Australia and working across the Asia-Pacific. From 2011-2015 she worked at Warmun Art Centre and has recently completed an eleven-month newspaper serial in occupied Kashmir.