june 2006


speakers: Reuben Keehan, Ian Milliss, Zanny Begg, Margaret Mayhew


Loose projects

forum coordinated by Anne Kay & Lisa Kelly
in response to Zones of Contact 2006 Biennale of Sydney
curated by Charles Merewether

Cones of Zontact: forum
Cones of Zontact forum, publication & exhibition: gathering & browsing

ANNE KAY__ Thanks, we might get started. Thanks so much for coming. Lisa and I organised this as part of Loose. Does everyone know that there’s ten of us in Loose? There’s info of the website if you’re interested, but it’s not just us two. A few of us are here, like Philipa [Veitch], Alex [Gawronski], Jane [Polkinghorne], Mark [Titmarsh]. Yeah, I don’t know, do you want to talk a bit about the project?

LISA KELLY__Yeah. So we’re sitting inside headquarters of Cones of Zontact, which is a publication project that we came up with. When we started Loose, we pretty much figured on operating as a cooperative kind of project where everyone took a month of the program and devised their own project within that. But in June and the Biennale, and with us having opened quite recently, we were quite keen to do some kind of point of response to the Biennale of Sydney. And as a lot of people here who have participated in the project will appreciate, our interest was to do something that included as many artists living and working in Sydney as possible. Being an observation or counterpoint to the fact that there’s only one Sydney based artist in the Zones of Contact exhibition: Ruark Lewis. The infamous Ruark Lewis…

So the intention of this forum is, it’s a loose forum, it’s just to create some informal kind of space for dialogue around issues of points of relationship between large organisational structures, international and national structures, like biennales, and how they kind of relate to ground level artists’ communities in the cities that they occur in. Whether that’s Sydney, or other people might have experience of biennales in other cities…

download pdf [4.8MB] of full transcript and images from tape 1
[transcribed by LK & AK from poor audio recording]
edited highlights of discussion from tape 2 available for listening as mp3 here

for transcript excerpts

[10:45 mins]
REUBEN KEEHAN__ But it’s kind of interesting to look at how also the model that we’re operating under, a single director, a single curator choosing all the artists. Now, I have to say that I haven’t seen the show yet. I can’t actually sort of say how effective it is as an exhibition, it may well be very, very interesting as an exhibition, and the works themselves may be quite interesting. But it kind of seems to me illustrative of what this government is doing to Australia, which is to…to bureaucratise things to a point where there seems to be no longer any kind of actual community engagement with what’s going on. And the Biennale stands as a kind of model of this.

In my ideal Biennale, which is where you use the Biennale’s resources to bring artists to Australia, but you give independent spaces the resources. You give them access to these artists so that they can sort of plan the programs more according to how their audiences engage with these more appropriately. So for instance, rather than having an exhibition in the space, you could have a series of artists talks and presentations where you invite along people from the local community who could engage directly with these artists. Is it always about showing objects or commodities? It can also be about the processes of engagement, like we’re doing now — speaking — that kinds of objects arise out of. For a number of artists these kinds of engagements are the very work that they do. [12:30]

IAN MILLISS__ I’m being advertised as the old hand here because I’ve been around every last one of the Biennales since they started in 1973. And, it’s sort of depressing and at the same time heartening that in lots of ways nothing’s changed. The sort of things you’ve been talking about happening now [points to Reuben] are in fact very similar to the sorts of things that were happening in the ‘70’s.

The original Biennale – I was explaining this to someone the other day – Franco Belgiorno-Nettis started a thing called the Transfield prize, which originally wasn’t an art prize and anybody could be in it. It became so big it became unmanageable they changed it so that it was an invited prize. And so for two years in a row it was an invited prize. During those two years the things that won were basically, early types of conceptual art, this was in 1970 to ‘71. Then he set up the Sydney Biennale, using the money from the transport business.

But essentially he set it up as a colonialist gesture, to basically get in international art, because in a sense we had shown we couldn’t get it right. He had to bring in this stuff to show us how to do it. So basically, he brought in a lot of international art, to show the rest of us this is the way it should be done. Now essentially that has been going on in Australian institutions as long as they’ve existed. International art of every sort whether it was 19th century English Salon Art, right through to the Biennale, it has always been this essentially colonialist enterprise to teach us the way things should be done. And the cultural cringe, the much discussed cultural cringe of the 40’s and 50’s simply got re-badged as internationalism and represented as terribly glamorous. But the idea was that this was the stuff was the stuff we should be looking at and conforming to.

So, after…the result of this in 1973 was that the so called Biennales, which in fact happened every three years, which were ‘73, ’76 and ’79. There became an increasing protest against them and we started fighting. We didn’t take this lying down. We wanted 50% Australian representation and 50% women. And we never completely got that, at least not in ’79. It’s interesting but one of the people who was part of the group was Charles Merewether. [15:47]

ZANNY BEGG__ Ok. Well, I can’t really comment on the art… But I would say of the three venues I’ve been to, I’ve actually seen some work that I really liked. I’ve been to the MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), SCA (Sydney College of the Arts) and Artspace. And I do intend to actually go and properly look. So I don’t like to ignore the Biennale – I appreciate being able to see work from around the world. So maybe my position is not as critical as Ian’s in that respect. And I’m also curious too, if people in this room were invited to participate in the Biennale, whether they’d say yes or no? If that position is totally anti, or whether you can actually engage…

So, I guess from my point of view I think there are points at which you can engage, and sometimes usefully. And I think some artists have done some really interesting projects. The problem that I have is with the model itself, which is that it’s a very product-orientated rather than process-orientated event. Which is the spectacular, wham-bam, ‘this is Sydney’. And I think that model itself is extremely vertical rather than horizontal. Which means that, ironically enough, even though it’s called Zones of Contact, there actually hasn’t been very many contacts actually made out of the process. So that all these, I think, actually extremely critical and interesting artists have come to Sydney – I’m not actually dissing the artists who are involved in the Biennale. Some of them have really interesting practices, and are doing very interesting things in their particular context. But we don’t get to meet them. And they don’t really get to engage with the artistic community here in Sydney.

Just by way of illustrating that with an anecdotal story, I met a guy today from Russia who did a talk down at the MCA, whose work I think is really interesting. And we were just chatting at the end, and he was interested in meeting with Left artists. And he went to the Labor party today to a meeting [laughter], and met Bob Gould! And was down at Gould’s bookstore. That’s who he came across! And I was ‘Why didn’t I meet you earlier?’ – and he leaves tomorrow. So the frustrating experience is that these are, I think, very very interesting and often very very good artists. But they don’t get to connect into a community here in Sydney, where those become useful interactions. Where, if it had of been a week ago, I could of introduced him to a whole lot of people and there would have been a real connection there, that would be lasting and would actually have some impact on him, and here in Sydney. So, I think, this is my criticism. It’s not necessarily of the artists at all, actually, but of the model… [23:30]

MARGARET MAYHEM__ I got this! [holds up Zones of Contact catalogue] It was actually stolen by my flatmate, who then decided to cut it up. And I managed to grab it off them – destructive freak downstairs! [laughter]

Anyway, so I was reading this, and Charles Merewether’s essay is wonderful. It’s so moving and profound and lovely, and you think about all these theories of relationships and building community. And when you open it up, and [turning pages] there’s filler and introductions. And then there’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. Ok, so you’ve got eleven pages of corporate logos. So this is the type of community that a Biennale creates.

All this lovely beautiful rhetoric, which I’m really happy to appropriate. I think it’s lovely, it speaks to me. This isn’t a community because it is something that is part of a state, and it is something that is increasingly corporate, where art’s just kind of, you know. I mean, art’s a spectacular religion of our culture. Our capitalist culture is about speculation and possibility. And they’re working in teamwork, and it’s a lovely example of that. And that’s what I was thinking. It’s not like you can go “oh, Charles Merewether, he’s not like he was in the olden days, where have his radical roots gone?” Again, he’s part of this machine. It’s like being a director of a large corporation. This bizarre faceless thing… [29:07]

~ selected excerpts of speakers from total discussion of 1hr 1min 27secs