Alasdair Foster, director of the Australian Centre for Photography, on “open source” art
[Alasdair Foster:] One of the things that interests me, and I think is very much an area that public institutions should look at, is art works that don’t carry intrinsic financial value due to rarity or even their object nature.
[CHRIS BOYD:] FOR EXAMPLE?
Well, like images which are primarily code. So images which are made for transmission rather than printing, where the print is the secondary thing not the primary.
We’re moving from a time when you used to think of an image on screen as the duplicate, to one where we see the image on the screen as being the original and if it’s outputed as a hard print, well that’s just one way it might go.
It’s very interesting how the commercial market always finds a way to sell things -- the whole postmodern thing about the productless products like Calvin Klein underpants which were bog standard underpants where you bought, not the underpants really, but some caché that associated your average body with the fantastic one on the packet... or perfumes which contained probably not a great deal of product but come with a set of associations... So I guess there are ways in which you can sell the idea of an art work as the art work...
Dick Quan came [to the ACP in Sydney] and talked about collecting video art and about knowing that -- if there was an edition of three -- that there would be many other copies around. And saying: it wasn’t buying because of some absolute rarity, you bought it because the people who bought those three were part of the economic process by which that art could be made. And your sense of connection with the art work and the making of it and some level of authenticity was about engagement in the process of art-making not about a rarity value of there only being three or whatever.
ROBYN ARCHER ONCE TOLD ME SHE WOULD PREFER TO PAY TO WATCH ARTISTS PAINTING RATHER THAN BUYING THE “DETRITUS” OF THE CREATIVE ACT... YOU’RE TALKING MORE ABOUT THE ‘ECONOMY’, AREN’T YOU?
It’s probably more like patronage to be honest. In the best sense of that. It’s not about the patron who wants to own or shape an artist, but one who wants to be a part of the process by which that artist prospers. That’s a very different thing from simply seeing them as machines to create rare objects. Mechanisms to create rare objects.
A FEW YEARS BACK A TROY INNOCENT WORK -- LIKE A TWO SCREEN VIDEO GAME PEOPLED WITH 3D PACMAN CHARACTERS -- WAS OFFERED & SOLD FOR $16,500. ALL THE BUYER GOT WAS TWO DVDs PLUS BACK UP. AND THE LICENCE TO SCREEN IT. NO HARDWARE WHATSOEVER.
When I was in Scotland, there was a conceptual artist who had his signature tattooed onto his body and then auctioned it. He wasn’t intending to separate that from his body... [The buyer] just had some notional right to that.
LIKE “THIS SPACE IS SPONSORED BY...”
But then there are companies that sell real estate on the moon or a square foot of Scotland to Americans... I don’t think you could ever go and claim it...
YOU’D HAVE AIR SPACE ABOVE IT!
So it’s interesting, anyway, how things which apparently -- which are created with the intention of being art works that circumvent or transcend commerce -- very quickly then...
Conceptualism was a great example, supposed to completely circumvent that commercialisation. But all the by-products of conceptual art -- its documentation, it traces and so on -- became objects of rarity in themselves like religious relics.
FULL [TATTOOED] BODY SKINS HAVE SOLD, I’M SURE... TO BE REDEEMED AFTER DEATH!
There’s a man in New Zealand who has been stopped from selling his leg... Which he had in the freezer. He wanted to sell it through, um... It wasn’t eBay... I think he had two and a half grand. He was wanting it to pay off his daughter’s education. They wouldn’t let him do it. In Britain, once a body part leaves you, it’s not yours. It belongs to the state.
REALLY?! IT’S NOT YOURS TO SELL?! I MIGHT HAVE TO RETURN MY APPENDIX! I WAS ACTUALLY THINKING ABOUT ANDY WARHOL’S DRESSES, THE DISPOSABLE PAPER DRESSES THAT WERE SUPPOSED TO BE SOLD THROUGH VENDING MACHINES... KINDA OUT OF CHARACTER REALLY. ANTI-ANDY!
I think he manage to have his cake and eat it very nicely.
ANDY PROBABLY SOLD THE SLUGS FIRED INTO HIS CHEST!
YOU KNOW THOSE TINS OF SHIT -- PIERO MANZONI WASN’T IT? -- SELL FOR $30,000 APIECE! A LITTLE INSTALLATION OF THOSE IS WORTH HALF A MILLION BUCKS. (THANK GOD THEY’RE WELL SEALED!) [NOT ALL OF THEM, DEAR READER, SOME HAVE EXPLODED IN RECENT YEARS!!! EUUWWW!]
We’ve strayed into that area that one always does about the apparent ludicrous nature of how much is sold for when it’s called art. I’m really coming at it from the other end. Which is that I’m interested in art which has a cultural value, which moves people or which has benefit for them in some way or engages them in some way regardless of whether it’s sellable. And that, I think, is the area which, increasingly, a younger generation... (Artist Piero Manzoni and an autograph hunter, above, in 1961.)
We’ve got a younger generation coming up now that doesn’t have the overblown expectations of baby boomers who cruised through the accelleration of the 60s and imagined that it would keep going, they haven’t got the complete cynicism of Gen-Xers. They actually accept the world is the way it is, but they also work with it. And they’re very computer literate. And so art works that involve networking across mobile phones or working on the internet -- not spending a fortune to create prints and then slogging around Cork Street in London or Paddington in Sydney to see if a gallery will take it, but simply putting it on-line. Because, in the end, what they want is other people to look at their work and care about it rather than have to go into a machine of commerce and be repackaged.
It’s very much the music industry. Most of the costs of the music industry was the bit that came between when the artist had finished and the person passed their money over the counter to buy whatever it was. It was all to do with that. The manufacture had to be in bulk to make money and therefore you always had to reduce the ‘edge’ on music in order to sell it like the way that baked beans when they went into cans had to lose all their heat... baked beans were supposed to be hot... They’re really bland and sweet now. When you’re making them en masse you have to take the flavour out.
THERE’S A LOT MORE SPICE ON-LINE
Exactly. If you spend much time surfing the internet, it is actually a lot spicier than --
A lot of the arguments that are made for open source... When you reduce your overheads enormously, as you do when you’re working on the internet, you can actually give away your primary product because your secondary services actually can make a living for you...
WHAT’S THE LINE? SOME RIGHTS RESERVED
Like Creative Commons and that kind of thing where they allow everything except commercial exploitation. But mashing and remixing as well... which is this idea that nothing is finished and everything can be brought together and enriched and presented in a different way...
LIKE THE GREY ALBUM BY DJ DANGER MOUSE WHICH TOOK MUSIC FROM THE BEATLES’ WHITE ALBUM AND VOCALS FROM JAY-Z’S BLACK ALBUM... HE COULDN’T SELL IT... HE GAVE IT AWAY. IT’S ONLY AVAILABLE AS A BOOTLEG. IT’S STUNNING! ONE OF THE GREAT WORKS OF MUSICAL ART IN YEARS.
So, you have that, which is like the synthesis of actual existing material, and you also get the synthesis of cultural processes. In Scotland, just before I left, Celtic Salsa was really big. Bhangra Rap... Indian and African American.
The argument against that kind of thing is that everything becomes one thing, becomes Euro Pop or whatever. But it doesn’t. It’s an enriching. It’s a process of emergence of complexities not a process of dilution and greying.
SO WE JUST GET AN INFINITE NUMBER OF GHETTOS, WELL, ONE PER PERSON.
Well, yes. That is something that is so lively in the under-thirty age group. And most of it’s happening completely outside galleries and the art world. I know a number of practitioners who -- by any definition I would make -- are artists who don’t want the A-word art attached to them because they feel it will drag them down.
HOW THE HELL DO YOU OPERATE IN AN ENVIRONMENT LIKE THAT AND BE RESPECTFUL OF IT?
Carefully! We have then invited -- when we did the pop culture thing two or three years ago -- we invited people who are much more in that area to come in and work in the gallery. And one of our speakers who came in was saying this is a really potentially dangerous thing because galleries can so easily squash out and commodify.
Commodification happens not just in financial terms, but also in cultural terms. So there’s a cultural commodification process can happen where you give something snob value or you give it some kind of other value and I think we have to be really careful about those kinds of things. We don’t just simply rip the vigor out of something that lives and stuff it into something that’s dying.
AND RIPPING IS SUCH A GOOD VERB FOR IT TOO... LIKE STEALING MUSIC...
So I think our job -- and what we’re doing here -- is to look at ACP not as a building but as an institution. As a public service, if you like. And to think: what in the early part of this century is the role of a publicly-funded institution that’s job is to engage a wide public with the technological Visual Art forms of the moment in a meaningful way.
And I think that one has to start with that as the premise, not “we’ve got a building what should we put in it?” And then think about what kind of building... what should we be doing in it... Which is why I like the idea of a building that you keep moving things around in... There’s a limit here cos the first floor would fall in if you took too many walls down... It is after all a fire station! Which is what it was to begin with!
I must say that if and when we get around to building a new centre, the structural forms that interest me are those of shopping centres and tv studios and those kinds of places where everything inside the space is provisional. And everything can be changed. And you don’t have the art having to fit the architectural space.
If you look at the National Gallery [of Australia, in Canberra] as an institution, the National Gallery is fantastic. Much of the collection is fantastic. But I have to say that building is a disaster. It crushes almost everything that’s in it. It’s so egotistical.
If you build a building which is in the service of presenting the national collection of visual art you need something a little more modest...
YEAH. AGREED. IT IS A STUNNING BUILDING THOUGH. THERE’S PROBABLY ONLY TWO EXAMPLES IN AUSTRALIA OF THAT KIND OF BRUTALIST ARCHITECTURE --
-- if you want to build a building that’s exciting to go around without the art, but if you build a building that’s in the service of presenting the national collection of visual art, you need something a little more modest.
BUT EVEN ACCA... I LOVE THAT BUILDING BECAUSE IT SAYS “FUCK OFF, YOU ARE INSIGNIFICANT.” LIKE OZYMANDIAS. LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY AND DESPAIR. GOING THROUGH THAT TINY DOOR... IT SAYS: “ART IS REALLY IMPORTANT. YOU’RE NOT!”
I’m not persuaded that’s the best attitude for a public institution, I have to say!
Tags: photography art alasdair foster gallery architecture