‘Spaced: Art Out of Place’ is a new biennial event that was recently staged at the Fremantle Arts Centre just south of Perth by IASKA, a non-profit arts organization founded in 1998 by two Western Australian wheat-belt farmers (Tony York and Donna Dransfield) and a university lecturer, Marco Marcon.
The biennial featured work by 21 local and international artists and was the result of a series of eight-week residencies that paired artists with small-town cultural organizations across Western Australia. Marcon had lofty ambitions for ‘Spaced’, describing rural Australian towns as ‘micro-social ecosystems’ ideal for experimenting with new models for artistic production and distribution. But, like many open-submission programmes, it was a mixed bag – some of the artists were less interested in social engagement than others. The two-day symposium held at IASKA highlighted this division and the pitfalls of developing a programme that demands a tangible outcome for a touring exhibition when you’ve asked the artist to respond to a specific site and make work for, and in collaboration with, a community.
Australian artist Mimi Tong opened her presentation by declaring: ‘I am not a socially engaged artist.’ Yet her project brilliantly engaged with both the social fabric of the community and visitors to the exhibition. View of Albany from Princess Royal Harbour, Western Australia, c.December 2009 (2010) is a six-metre-long concertina of pen drawings on card depicting the coastline of the Albany foreshore, broken halfway along by a chasm of white space framing a drawn construction site. The cranes and buildings represent the AU$70million Albany Entertainment Centre that divides the landscape as definitively as it divided the community when it received planning approval.
The US-based writer and curator Margo Handwerker commented during the symposium that what has, in the past, made socially engaged art works compelling is the successful orchestration of unlikely exchanges between seemingly disparate groups. The revolutionary thing about public practice is that it’s ‘not only affective, but effective too’. The US collective M12 were especially attuned to this proposition. During their residency they built a functional bird observatory that doubles as an overnight shelter in the wetland region around Denmark, a town south of Perth; Greenskills, a local environmental group trying to promote employment and business opportunities in the ecologically fragile region, hosted them. Aware that the site-specific project was impossible to display, they asked a local taxidermist to curate two vitrines of stuffed local bird species for the exhibition, thus furthering their hosts’ mission by creating an opportunity for a skilled local craftsperson to raise their professional profile.
In late 2009, Dutch artists Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis spent time in Australia at the sheep-farming region of Lake Grace learning to shear a sheep, spin wool and weave a rug. To create To the Other End (2009–10), they travelled to Bahrain (one of Australia’s sheep trade partners) for the Eid al-Adha Festival of Sacrifice, where they engaged a local butcher to slaughter an imported Lake Grace sheep on the replica Baluchi funeral rug they had made. Back in Fremantle, they installed the blood-soiled rug on the floor and mounted photographs documenting their activities in Lake Grace and Bahrain.
Handwerker says we should consider acknowledging efficacy as a motivator for public practice, putting the critical emphasis back on the communities themselves. Tania Spencer, the Lake Grace community representative sharing the symposium stage with Osterholt and Uitentuis, said the community had trusted the artists with their stories. I listened to Uitentuis and looked at To the Other End and saw activism with a clear political agenda that is critical of Lake Grace’s primary industry, sheep-farming – not a compelling example of socially engaged art. But I’m not a Lake Grace resident, and therein lies the quandary for a project like ‘Spaced’: if you’re not part of the community from which the project stems, can you ever really appreciate the work on display?