Q&A: Alternatives – Ian Milliss (part 1)
Ian Milliss’ creative practice spans almost five decades, but for much of that time he has been ‘the invisible artist’. The reason is that little of his creative output results in an artefact that can be displayed in a gallery or museum, even less bought and sold on the art market. His work engages more deeply and directly in the processes and discourses of life: its social constructs, systems and interactions. While the phrase ‘ahead of his time’ can be a cliché, it is for Ian Milliss an accurate – indeed poignant – descriptor. Today, a new generation of arts practitioners born to the facility of the internet are beginning to recognise the power and import of his work, and the wisdom of his method. Most significantly for a world in rapid change, it is an approach that emphasises the need to adapt: to evolve and to recycle the materials we appropriate in the processes of living; to ensure that our culture, our society and, indeed, we ourselves, remain sustainable.
This is Part 1 of the interview, to jump to Part 2 go here.
Do you think of yourself as an artist?
THE QUESTION OF WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN ARTIST has probably been the question that has defined my entire life. From the first high school “vocational guidance” session in my pre-teens I declared that I was going to be an artist, to the horror of the counsellor who pleadingly told me I had scored extremely high in all the tests, I could do anything at all, I could even be a dentist! And by my mid to late teens I was already showing at Central Street Gallery and was becoming a perfect art world insider, mentored and supported by the most influential artists and critics of the late sixties like Tony McGillick, Donald Brook and Daniel Thomas.
Image right: Media coverage of an untitled work by Ian Milliss, first installed at Farmers Blaxland Gallery in 1970.
In mid-1970 Ian Milliss began moving away from text-based conceptual works and earlier minimalist installations to projects that required active participation by the audience. Some works (such as a circular tug of war) were aggressively physical while others were almost contemplative (such as his arrangement of gallery partitions and furniture at the Blaxland Gallery to create an enclosed conversation area within the exhibition space). This marked a broadening of thinking about manipulable space from the immediately personal, to the domestic, then urban and social spaces and finally the political. He began with a series of letters to friends suggesting modifications to their living arrangements.
Extensive media attention for several of the 1970 works such this one and ‘Walk Along This Line’, his entry for the Transfield Prize, sharpened his awareness of the mass media as both a distribution mechanism and cultural players in their own right. As a result, his entry for the 1971 Young Contemporaries Prize was an open letter to the Contemporary Art Society committee members claiming the prize on the basis he had received the most publicity in the preceding year.
Ian Milliss began to see the art-world infrastructure as itself a potential medium, editing the ‘Contemporary Art Society Broadsheet’, one of the few art-world publications of the time, before quickly moving on to resident activism, the green ban movement and squatting.
(click on image to enlarge)
BUT ONLY A FEW YEARS LATER around 1972 I had already raced through minimalism and conceptualism into a strange (for the time) practice that could not be exhibited and where I saw daily life, art world social structures and community activism as parts of my ‘media’. Then I began to feel uncomfortable with the term because I associated it with so many of the aspects of the art world that I was criticising. But although I made some ambiguous and uncertain statements about it, as I thought it out more I decided yes I definitely would describe myself as an artist if only to provoke the art world into thinking a bit about what it means to be called an artist, I was not prepared to allow them to define the term in their own dubious self-interest.
However (and it is a big however), slightly later again as my thinking had got clearer I decided that it is not a title you can bestow on yourself, it can only be decided retrospectively based on results but it did not require an involvement with the conventional art world. I began to see it in much broader cultural terms, in the more sociological sense of culture.
It’s fairly simple really, if you believe it is a term like tailor or plumber describing the manufacturer of a certain type of physical artefact then anyone who manufactures paintings or some other sort of content for the art business can call themselves an artist. That seems to be a sufficient definition for most people involved in the art world although, in most cases, I would define that as being an artisan.
I would define an artist differently, as someone who creates adaptive cultural change, who influences our understanding of the world and that can be carried out using any media and usually only recognisable after the fact. And I use the term media in a very McLuhanish sense, virtually any and every technology functions as media by extending the human body and our sense of self. That makes artist a term more like expert or leader, terms that exist independently of a specific discipline and describing activities that in reality can’t be effectively codified (although at one time I probably wanted to believe they could). In fact the art world itself has always obliquely known this, just think of the old saw about how “just because it is a painting doesn’t mean it’s art”. In fact I don’t think it is necessary even to make art works at all and I have made exhibitable art works only occasionally in the 40 years since then.
So in short, both for convenience and to make a point to the art world, yes I do describe myself as an artist but deep down I think that is rather arrogant, although not for the reasons others might think it arrogant.
Do you think an artist has a particular role or responsibility in the world?
As far as responsibility goes that’s a bit like asking do I think left-handed people have a particular responsibility in the world – no I don’t, they just do whatever they do for better or worse, because artists are a certain sort of person who innately understand the world in their own way, they can’t help it and can’t do anything different.
As far as role goes however that is a different sort of question. For starters I think their role happens independently of the art world and only occasionally do the twain meet. As I said before I think the people I would recognise as artists are somehow involved in adaptive cultural change, what Donald Brook has called memetic innovation. What I mean by this is that they are somehow presenting to others a view of the world that is out of kilter with the conventional stereotypes by which we recognise and navigate our surroundings, the physical world and human society. They can do that in any way whatsoever, using any media and any activity. The defining point is that whatever they do, they do it in a systematic way that leads us to a new understanding of the way our constantly changing world is working and what it could become. Sometimes they do it by presenting imagery other times by design or actions.
On that basis I suppose I would say that the artist’s role is to generate a stream of ideas that helps human society to constantly adapt, to create and modify the cultural memes that underlie our behaviour and production.
Image above: Members of the working groups who set up the Artworkers Union photographed after a meeting at Sydney University Tin Sheds workshops in 1979. Ian Milliss is in the centre holding the sign.
How do you see your role?
Through the 70s I tried to work in areas that I saw as sort of social fracture points and to use the visual skills I had learned to generate change and to develop communities. So I worked in areas like the Green Ban and Resident Action Group movements, the anti-prison movement and then the trade union movement. At the same time, I also worked in the art world like organising action to demand the selection criteria of Sydney Biennale ensured 50% Australian artists and 50% women, and later helping set up the Artworkers Union. I gave up on the art world by 1980 but working with unions continued into the mid-90s. However, by then I had become increasingly isolated and disillusioned, and pretty depressed about it all.
Image left: Ian Milliss came to realise that the NSW Builders Labourers Federation, and the green ban movement as a whole, were generating cultural change on a scale beyond anything to be found in the conventional arts. This led him to think about other art-world activities such as criticism, collecting and so on and this article was effectively an art review of the barricades built by Victoria Street squatters. It was published in ‘The City Squatter’, a newspaper they produced after they were arrested and evicted from the Street in January 1974.
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I saw my role as a sort of activist organiser with specific visual and media production skills, a particular view on how cultures work and, over time, some heavy-duty political experience. Meanwhile in the art world I think I was seen as someone of significance in the late 60s early stages of conceptual art but also as someone who had then gone off the rails, either gone crazy or got too politicised or had given up art, depending on who you talked to. Whatever else I was doing simply didn’t count, by not conforming to the market’s mandatory format of manufacturing exhibitable saleable artefacts I had effectively disappeared, even though I was occasionally still around socially.
But the way I described myself to them was that I was still an artist but that I worked with media the art world did not recognise as legitimate for audiences they did not recognise as legitimate – in fact one of the defining element of “art” from the art world’s point of view is that it must first be exhibitable and made for them as the primary audience, all other audience segments are despised especially working class audiences. Whenever I bothered to turn up in the art world I would describe what I did and the invariable response was “but do you still do any of ‘your own work’ that we could see, where do you show now?”.
Interestingly Graeme Sturgeon in his 1978 book ‘The Development of Australian Sculpture’ described perfectly what I was doing in what must be one of the first descriptions in the world of what was later understood as social practice and activist art:
“Ian Milliss represents this new type of artistic attitude which looks to art activity as a tool for facilitating social interaction and in a direct sense as a radical political means of promoting cultural and social change – not, as is now the case, as a means of propping up and defending the status quo. … Although his reaction has been an unusually extreme one it is perhaps a pointer to the future.”
But Graeme was pretty unique and by the mid-80s into the 90s I was usually ignored and in fact often treated with real disrespect.
So, why do it?
Well I suppose I’m an obsessive person and each thing followed on logically from the previous thing, from early on I was hardly influenced by other artists, I just doggedly kept on extending what I was doing to see how far I could take it. In a way it just felt like it was in the script, that I couldn’t really do anything else even when it led to a fairly unhappy and impoverished life and certainly not a career in any normal sense. Most of my early peers like Tim Johnson or Imants Tillers or Mike Parr developed conventional successful careers based on institutional support whereas that just didn’t work for me. I sometimes did try to be more conservative because my life has been really hard, too hard, but it simply wasn’t me, in the end I just couldn’t do it.
It’s only in recent years that there has been a little reward and recognition again, although in typical Australian colonial fashion much of that has happened because there has been increasing international recognition of artists like me, in fact we are highly fashionable, and so the art world has finally understood some of what I did by seeing it as the equivalent to something from overseas. Although of course I can never be seen as being as good as the overseas artists because I made the mistakes of doing my work here, of being original and not basing my work on that of an overseas artist, and of doing it unfashionably early, decades before overseas heroes had made it an acceptable mode.
Funnily enough my friends Christo and Jeanne Claude always understood what I was doing and always talked about me publicly when they visited Australia. The incredulous audience reaction was particularly amusing in the 90s when I was at rock bottom in terms of local acceptability.
Images above: Union Media Services worked closely with the Australia Council developing and promoting their trade union based Art & Working Life Program.
Left: a monograph by Ian Milliss, Ian Burn and Lesley Pearson documenting A&WL projects and the theoretical framework of the program.
Right: an example of A&WL publicity material produced by Union Media Services for the syndication system they developed through union journals; a system later adopted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions to co-ordinate other publicity campaigns across the entire union movement.
Have you always worked in this way, or did you change direction over time?
I had got past exhibiting or making art for the art world audience by 1972, I was only 21 but I had been exhibiting in major galleries (Blaxland, Central Street, Watters, Bonythons, Ray Hughes, the National Gallery of Victoria [NGV], etc) since I was 16. My ‘New Artist’ essay for the NGV’s 1973 Object and Idea exhibition backgrounded my refusal a bit. And the Trustees intervention and cancellation of my PA Yeomans exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales [AGNSW] in 1975 pretty much finished any chance of me continuing to try to fit into an institutional setting. 
Through the 70s I worked equally with both community groups and art world protests but by the late 70s I was working almost exclusively with trade unions. I did do a lot of work with the Australia Council around their Art and Working Life programme but in general I saw the 80s as the art world’s return to order in which the radicalism of the 1965–75 period was successfully wiped out by drenching it with buckets of money and the art market reasserted control by means of intellectually corrupt inanities like “conceptual painting”.
But, overall, my work typically involved: focusing on groups, actions and organisations rather than making objects; working with non-art audiences and alternative media; sometimes operating within accepted art world conventions but mostly not, using anonymity and non-art media as a tool for addressing audiences in their own terms; investigating different models of what it is to be an artist from individual object maker to organiser/producer to collector/researcher/curator both alone and in collaborative partnerships.
For the next decade that didn’t really change but it did slowly peter out in the early 90s. At that time I actually started making a lot of personal work but as therapy rather than for exhibition and as a way of experimenting with computer technology. And during the 2000s I had several exhibitions of paintings, furniture, etc but by then it was because I had got interested in doing a few examples of the more conventional things I hadn’t previously done, crossing ‘t’s and dotting ‘i’s in my overall project of exploring a wide range of different ways of being an artist.
But also by the mid-90s I wanted to reassert a presence in the art world to ensure the sort of arguments I had made could not be written out of local art history. To me the art world was not a definitive audience but rather just another bundle of specific segments in a wider mass audience. In fact the segment I was now most interested in addressing was other artists, particularly young ones, rather than the general art audience. It was an irony that as I did this the sort of activist work I had been doing was just starting to become internationally recognised and acceptable. Also ironically for many years I had been making my living using computers and in media work that focused on community building so the arrival of blogs and social media which has undermined the previously invincible art world structures were a godsend for me providing me with a really simple way forward. I was already fully skilled and so by sheer accident I fitted in fairly easily with a generation of much younger artists who were beginning to work like that and I found a new bunch of brilliant collaborators like Lucas Ihlein.
On the other hand I still have little respect for accepted forms and institutions and probably remain far more politicised than most artists, even the young ones, but I am at the end of my career rather than the beginning with no public reputation and I’m a completely uncollectable failure in normal terms. That gives me a sort of freedom my younger friends can never have, so I can enjoy myself skipping around doing contradictory things that are sometimes conventional and conservative like showing paintings at SNO then completely unconventional like working on cultural and economic policy projects with Lithgow Council. I’m also doing a lot more writing about art than previously.
And on the rare occasion that I get written about I seem to be more accepted if still not understandable, like Glenn Barkley commenting in an Artist Profile mag article I’m Not There: Notes On Disappearance:
“Milliss’ disappearance strategy and the expansive nature of his concept of the nature of ‘creativity’, or the nature of ‘art’ seem to make more sense now than they may have made in the 1970s. Milliss now operates as a kind of agent of influence on a number of writers, artists and curators and his ‘art work’ still continues to baffle, manifesting as it does in a variety of different ways from acerbic online commentary to working within local councils to creating furniture and recycling his own past paintings”.
That is a reasonable description of some of what I’m doing and where I’m at now.
Image above: ‘The Murdering Stools’, a set of stools made from reused plywood television stands originally made for Gang Festival of Indonesian Arts, 2007.
Ian Milliss describes this work as “a symbolic plywood version of turning swords into ploughshares”. Springing from a concern about the excessive endless violence of television crime shows, these stools were made from recycled TV tables and covered in bloody spatters and hand prints in reference to their former use. Ian Milliss believes that television is one of the main vehicles for promoting the worst of western culture: the individualism, greed and distrust. Consequently, television not only portrays crime, it is itself a crime scene and this art work was the ‘forensic evidence’ of its crimes. But the stool is also one of the simplest, earliest, most common pieces of human furniture. In one form or another it is fundamental to street culture everywhere in the world; sitting around, having a rest and a conversation, greeting your neighbours and, in this case, looking at the art works in the alley. ‘The Murdering Stools’ represented the adaptation of something that facilitates passive absorption of a violent culture into something facilitating a more amicable culture of basic human interaction.
That was the theory. In fact a huge storm broke on the Friday lasting all weekend and the festival had to be cancelled.
1. PA [Percy Alfred] Yeomans was an Australian farmer and engineer whose early research into sustainable agricultural systems has been internationally influential. His work has subsequently been adapted for sociological, psychological and even pseudo-religious purposes. Ian Milliss also saw it as a model for a radical re-interpretation of the role of the artist and, in 1975, prepared an exhibition on Yeomans for presentation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. However, the project was cancelled by the Art Gallery trustees because they considered it too closely resembled an “agricultural trade show”.
“I see the art world as rather like organised religion, as a set of parasitic cultural memes that exploit a natural human activity and attempt to control and divert it to serve them when it has a quite different reason for existing.”
Part 2 of this interview is here.