Studio Voltaire director Joe Scotland on how art can help us think about and understand the world. By Kate Holden.

Joe Scotland and his House of Voltaire pop-up shop

There’s something tender about Joe Scotland: he’s so tired, fresh off the plane that morning, and I can almost see the plush headache of fatigue behind his eyes. He speaks infinitely slowly, like someone groping for an apology, or trying to find a kind way to break up with you. He resembles a younger, shorter, slightly slimmer, less aquiline Stephen Fry, with those faun-like sleepy eyes and orotund, lilting accent, and now he sits with admirable erect posture on a couch draped with colourful blankets and drains his coffee before I’ve started mine. Blinks like the Cheshire Cat, tilts his head. 

To be honest, at this point I’m not sure this tired, pleasant man sitting virtually motionless on a sofa will make for much of an exciting Portrait. And I don’t really care whether Melbourne receives a crate-load more slick, post-ironic contemporary art from the pop-up shop his originally London-based House of Voltaire is erecting at the Paris end of Collins Street. I expect he’ll feel obliged to sell me the show, rave about clever cute objects, mention the artist who’s just been shown on the Fendi runway, the French guy who’s done a blanket. But no. With infinite care, imperturbable, gently wry, deeply jet-lagged Joe wants to talk of morality. 

“It’s something I feel more and more … a lot of things that are happening socially and politically at the moment, that you should …” He trails off. “You wonder: how do you act what you’re meant to be doing? In your everyday life? And in your job. That’s where actually you have agency. Maybe I’m in a good, lucky position, so I’m able to do projects that engage with certain issues.”

His composure is not just fatigue; it is a deep steadiness. And conscience: he seems uncommonly conscientious. “In what way?” He sounds surprised; even alarmed. I read an interview where he talked for paragraphs about managing his staff. He rolls his eyes. Okay: you trained as an artist … “I was terrible at it. A terrible, terrible artist,” he laughs. So now you’re the director of a studio collective, how do you feel about it having a pop-up store? Doesn’t it degrade art, domesticate it? Commodifying – or democratising? “I don’t really have an issue with it. I think it’s a good thing. Art … doesn’t need to be this rarefied thing. Quite often I think art’s commercialised anyway.” And it helps get art out there in the wider world; artists make work that actually sells; Studio Voltaire gets its budget to fund further projects of all types. His voice is fading again; ponderous, lilting upwards at the end of each sentence; hesitancy and English politeness. “Does that make sense?” 

Somehow we’re drifting to reminiscences of our youth in the ’90s: riot grrrl and punk rock, ecstatic moshing, ferocious music and art. “There’s a real feeling with people now … that you’re not allowed to be angry. Or, I don’t know … There is anger, and it feels that it’s been internalised. There needs to be more release.” Now he’s accelerating. Come on, Joe! Tell me more about anger! “I think things are changing. Even with my friends, there’s been this brewing up of frustration, and now people want to know: Where can we go? What can we do? Where do we have agency?” 

Does he remember the London riots of 2011? “They happened on my street. I found it really traumatic.” It was mindless, and it was also self-harm. “We are in really depressing times at the moment. Things aren’t being addressed. Things like poverty and inequality. This is stuff I’m really only just starting to think about more now – what my position is.” 

Is art any use, then? “I’d say in London particularly, 80 to 90 per cent of people are from public-school backgrounds. In London the artwork has become fucking boring. But art can bring things together; can help you think about and understand the world a bit better. Hopefully – when it’s good.” 

Personally, I say, momentarily putting my coffee cup down on the blanket-draped couch, I blame neoliberalism for everything. “So do I!” he says, cheerfully, and never mentions that I’m in danger of staining what turns out to be an expensive piece of art. He’s so polite, Joe Scotland. Well, for now.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2016 as "Scotland yarn".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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