Q&A: Alternatives – Ian Milliss (part 2)
THIS IS PART 2 of the Q&A ‘Alternatives’ interview with Ian Milliss. You can read Part 1 here.
Image above: Art as merchandise / merchandise as art; pointing out that the art object has, in reality, always been just a souvenir of a cultural process. A mass-market T-shirt adaptively reused by adding a slogan that sums up the current human predicament.
What is your opinion of the current state of the three main pillars of the contemporary arts system: the museum, the art biennale and the commercial gallery?
AS YOU SAY they are the three main pillars of the contemporary arts system, an undisguisedly neoliberal art system. Neoliberalism’s program is to hijack and pervert all social structures to the purpose of money-making. That is what has happened to the international art world from the 1980s, it has become a sort of gigantic Ponzi scheme. It has only been less so in Australia because there is less wealth to be thrown around and there is no doubt that as always the museums and commercial galleries have mimicked their international equivalents but on a smaller scale.
The problem for me is that even without the extensive recent corruption of neoliberalism, I still 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. What I mean is that just as there is a sort of innate instinctual human morality that religion hijacks so there is also an innate human instinct to create and to constantly modify human culture into more adaptive forms. These institutions have managed to hijack that instinct in their own interest although it is in the nature of a constantly changing world that the more you try to control an activity the more likely it is to pop out in different forms elsewhere. You don’t have to search very far to see how the human instinct for cultural adaptation is now just swirling past these institutions in a myriad of new forms that they can no longer keep under their control.
So, what about museums?
In the 70s, I believed that museums should get with it, be buying and showing contemporary art and so forth, but I realise now that a lot of that was a reaction to the appalling state of the AGNSW then. As time went on that changed and around the world we have seen museums not only showing more contemporary work but in fact actively entrepreneuring new art styles and movements. With their need for constant novelty and new attractions to keep up repeat visits they have gone into business manufacturing the sort of art that is most convenient for their overall business model, basically subcontracting artists to produce to a formula and ignoring all those forms of cultural production that don’t suit them. It is all about churn and artists are just the naïve factory fodder for that process.
Museums have revelled in their role as gate keepers of official culture and fluffers for the art market, but the inevitable corruption that comes with power means that they have become like the mainstream media which has shifted from reporting to propaganda, to manipulating events rather than just recording them. And of course like the mainstream media they are now facing a future of irrelevancy as the internet has suddenly undermined the gatekeeper role that maintained their power by making it possible to access enormous international audiences without having to deal with them.
On the other hand my first job and post school education was as a librarian when I worked in the (rather elite) picture section of the Mitchell Library which has one the best collections of early non-indigenous Australian art, historical photos and artefacts. And my bosses were Suzie Mourot and Warren Horton, both legendary librarians. So I have an understanding and a great respect for museums in their most traditional role, as collectors and guardians of historical artefacts.
And that is the dichotomy here, between museums as passive recorders or as active players, complicated by operating in a toxic neo-liberal ideological environment where their financial survival is constantly threatened. And of course even the process of preserving historical artefacts is not value free and that is particularly so under neoliberalism’s insistence on a best-of-all-possible-worlds view of recent history.
On a more personal level, despite my critical attitude and a lifetime of sidestepping these institutions I am now in fact quite interested in them, both because I think the presentation of history is enormously important but also because museums do potentially provide artists with access to a certain segment of a general audience. And they are now showing a tiny amount more interest in me. This year the AGNSW is finally staging my exhibition they cancelled in 1975, so that’s only 38 years late. Meanwhile the only museum that has any of my work is the National Gallery of Australia [NGA] and most of that is a group of things given to them by Daniel Thomas. Hilariously though they didn’t catalogue it as art works but just filed it away in archives as correspondence and it is only in the last few years that Roger Butler [Senior Curator of Australian Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books] realised it was there and retrieved it and dealt with it properly. I suppose that summarises my entire history with the art world, I was included in the first place because I was recognised as an artist early on but then came their complete failure to recognise what I did afterwards as legitimate art activity.
Image above: The protests around early Sydney Biennales centred on the sexist selection of artists and the underlying colonial attitudes that insisted Australians could not make art without international models to guide them. ‘White Elephant or Red Herring’, published after demonstrations during the 1976 Biennale, could be seen as an early example of crowd sourcing. It brought together a variety of comments and proposals solicited from a wide range of artists, along with a history of negotiations aimed at securing equal representation for both women and Australian artists written by Viv Binns and Ian Milliss, and proposals by Ian Milliss and Ian Burn for setting up an artists’ union.
I have stated repeatedly that they have nothing to do with art, they are simply a form of lightweight mass entertainment and that in the future they will mostly be taken over by the large entertainment corporations like Disney and run as money-making ventures. And, although I believe anything can be a viable medium, I think biennales are like portraiture, a cultural meme with very little real value left in it. They are an irrelevant public spectacle like New Year’s fireworks display, momentarily diverting, designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
And what about commercial galleries?
Well they aren’t all created equal.
On the one hand you have the Gagosian type, gigantic hybrids of the casino and organised religion where real financial capital is turned into fool’s cultural capital, a place where you go to risk your money on an enormous scale in order to display that you have it and to get it laundered, to purchase absolution for the crimes committed in making it.
On the other hand you have the mom and pop corner store versions that are most of the galleries in Australia, the Schwartzes, Oxleys, Shermans etc. While they do the same thing on a lesser scale I don’t have much problem with them, artists have to make money and these help them. However in their current form these galleries are dying, they also are a meme that has reached its use-by date (again, the internet) but in fact I’ve been anticipating their current crisis for decades and I’m only surprised that it has taken so long to arrive. I suppose I’ve thought that because I have expected a time would come when far more artists would operate in the way I do and what I need is not a retail outlet but rather a cross between an agent and a business partner. I think it is interesting that Christo and Jeanne Claude never had a dealer because in fact that is how they operated, each bringing a particular skill set to the partnership. And to someone like me who has almost always worked in collaborations of some sort that is an obvious and natural way to work.
I would add about all three of these “pillars”, it’s not that I think that in the future they are going to suddenly disappear, on the contrary, they may well increase in number. But I think their significance will disappear, outshone by other means of display and distribution that are more accessible, more relevant … more open source, I suppose you could say.
Image above: The 2011 installation of ‘The Yeomans Project’ included a day trip to Taranaki Farm, a mixed farm on the outskirts of Melbourne designed according to PA Yeomans sustainable farming principles. Here, the art audience was no longer confined to an art venue (or even to viewing art in a temporary ‘novelty’ venue) but invited to step out into the world to view other social and economic activities in terms of their cultural significance.
More generally, what are your views on the exhibition as the primary format and mechanism for engaging with visual art?
One of the things that never seems to be said is that the real practical definition of art for many decades now has been that it is stuff that can be exhibited. That was exactly why everyone said I had stopped being an artist, I stopped seeing exhibition as my primary form of distribution just as I stopped distorting my ideas into exhibitable formats and stopped seeing the art world (which could be defined as people who go to exhibitions) as my primary audience.
So for me that question was resolved 40 years ago, I felt it was not only possible to be an artist without using exhibitions, I also saw it as a necessity, as a way of sidestepping the unspoken ideological program of the institutions that controlled exhibitions. Because that is the core of art world conservatism, isn’t it? By defining art as something that is exhibited and by controlling the venues for exhibiting, by making exhibiting crucial to the economic survival of artists, they can control cultural change, or at least try to, and can delay change that doesn’t profit them. The problem now and the joy for me is that increasingly it doesn’t work anymore; there are so many others ways now available to distribute work – again, the internet.
And again just as the old structures are collapsing I have a renewed interest in the nature of institutions and exhibitions because I think an important role still exists for museums if they revert to their collecting and preserving role, but they now face the problem of how to protect and preserve a history that was never specifically designed for exhibition. The simple truth is that the most important cultural activity of the last sixty years has mostly not been the stuff you have been seeing or that they have been collecting. They have built up gigantic collections of the official academic art of our time while the real action has been happening elsewhere and they have missed it almost entirely. And the ‘art works’ they should be collecting now are not things that are specifically manufactured for the art trade, but rather the detritus produced in the process of cultural change, objects whose intention was not to end up in museums but rather to effect a different understanding. I always say that art collectors and institutions are no different to bottle collectors, but they have so corrupted our culture that most artists now think their role is making bottles when really they should be making beer.
Of course the problem they now face of catching up is still beyond their understanding but when they do understand they will still not know how to present it although the problem of exhibiting intangible culture has been around for forever and the solutions already exist in places like the Canberra war memorial. In other words art exhibitions in the future will be much more like the social history exhibitions of today. I have a show coming up at Artspace late this year and this is exactly what Blair French [Artspace Executive Director] and I have set for ourselves as one of the key issues, creating models for exhibiting a history of work that was not primarily designed to be exhibited. And of course it won’t be exhibiting in the simplistic sense that has prevailed in the past because it will involve a whole range of related online activities and events, not just static displays. None of which is terribly innovative yet the art world’s limited notion of exhibition persists, probably because those other activities can’t be subjected to the all-important financial speculation.
Image above: Cementa-13 festival was an event focused on social practice. It ran 1-4 February 2013 in Kandos, an industrial country town that had lost its main industry, the cement works. This pamphlet was included with other tourist material at various venues. It was a reaction to the frustration of working with intractably backward local councils and described a utopian Kandos that, nonetheless, could exist if the effort was made to adaptively reuse the cement works and invest in renewable energy.
THIS IS PART 2 of the Q&A ‘Alternatives’ interview with Ian Milliss. You can read Part 1 here.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO KNOW MORE about Ian Milliss and his work, here are links to three different approaches he has taken to articulating his autobiography:
A biographical history set in the context of evolutionary theory presented at the ‘Darwin and the Art of Evolution’ conference held at the Art Gallery of NSW in September 2010.
Losing My Self: some anecdotes about anonymity from ‘The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest’ [Issue # 8, Winter 2011–12]
‘Why Stuff Doesn’t Matter’ (below), a video by COFA.online and UNSW Community