this mob at West Space
At BLINDSIDE Gallery in Melbourne’s Nicholas Building, the deconstructed elements of an exercise machine weighed down an elaborate pulley system – the kind of weights you might find on a lat machine for building upper-body strength. Here, though, they stood in as suspended sculptural elements. At the end of a pulley system was half of the handlebar, a piece of charcoal affixed – like a big steel drawing implement. While you were free to draw on the wall in front of the sculpture, the weights restricted your movement. There was only so far you could go. In the back corner of the gallery a video of Yugambeh writer Maddee Clark doing deadlifts played on an endless loop. The repetitive sound of the weights hitting the floor made it seem as though Clark was trying to chip away at something.
Opportunities for Artists was one of two projects across BLINDSIDE, on Swanston Street, and West Space, a large and well-known artist-led gallery down the road off Bourke Street Mall. The work at both spaces asked deep questions about the heavy lifting that goes on within frameworks of inclusion for First Nations artists and how they might be subverted.
Opportunities was co-organised by emerging Taungurung artist Kate ten Buuren, founder of this mob, a collective of young blak artists who have moved in for a six-week residency at West Space, and Steven Rhall, a fellow Taungurung artist, who is more established.
Themes linked the two gallery spaces, but so did technology. At BLINDSIDE, just behind the exercise-machine-cum-drawing-implement, a live camera feed from West Space was broadcast. A fixed camera was trained on a blank wall, an image beaming through a plastic storage crate with a mandarin, on top it a small painting of abstract shapes. This was the sparse, public-facing outcome at the halfway point of the residency.
this mob’s residency at West Space seeks to subvert the way artists are meant to interface with the public. The collective has been given the space and its resources in a very central location, but there’s no set public outcome or pressure to produce an exhibition. It is instead focused on taking advantage of sizeable space and resources for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to come together, learn from each other and make art.
It has developed in a relatively organic way, driven by those who have come along. Some artists have set up desks and workspaces. Others, including artist Kaydee Kyle-Taylor, have organised drop-in art-making sessions for mob to come to every Sunday. Musician Kalyani Mumtaz is running DJ workshops. It is an open invitation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – even if they have never before considered themselves artists, or been involved in a this mob event, they are welcome to participate, to work on artistic projects or just to hang out.
This project raises questions around the nature of these collaborations between institutional spaces and groups that have historically been excluded from them. Do they function to support a collective, to build and strengthen a community that has heretofore been gatekept out? Or is their presence, artistic activity and labour seen as a way to expand the world view of the traditional core audiences of the arts – the white progressive middle class? Is it tokenism or a genuine drive to build relationships based on reciprocity and care? It takes work to ensure this delicate balance doesn’t tip over – work that usually unduly falls on the shoulders of the artists.
Ten Buuren describes this mob as wholesome, with the focus of the collective’s existence being to provide space and opportunities for young blak artists in a way the mainstream arts scene doesn’t. The projects and workshops the collective runs are founded on ideas of mutual respect, care, cultural safety, learning from each other and self-determination. Space for young blak artists to be together can be a rarity – it was facing the isolation of going through art school that first gave ten Buuren the idea for starting this mob.
The collective has built momentum over the past few years, across a number of projects. In 2017, there was dis place, a night of performances and activations for Melbourne Fringe, with artists such as Timmah Ball, Neil Morris, Alice Skye and Kalyani Mumtaz. There have also been exhibitions at Schoolhouse Studios in Collingwood and Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC). Most notably, ten Buuren and many other artists who have been involved in this mob ran dis rupt, a youth-driven blak intervention at Hamer Hall, which played out over an evening of performances for the Yirramboi First Nations festival.
Art collectives in Melbourne have been on the rise recently and, like this mob, it seems the push for them comes as a reaction to the lack of adequate infrastructure within the frameworks of the art world for minority artists. Collectives such as New Wayfinders for Pasifika diaspora artists, Still Nomads for African-diaspora artists and Eleven collective for Muslim artists have all cropped up in the past few years.
We’re at an interesting time when the sorts of artistic institutions that have driven people to collectivise are now scrambling to work with them. While mainstream art institutions have been anxiously trying to understand how to break out of a culturally homogeneous and colonial framework they exist within, those already on the outside have been coming together to find ways to subvert it.
West Space isn’t exactly known for its anti-racist activism, its innovation in decolonial methods or its push for socially engaged practices. An inside joke among artists of colour in the past has been to call it “White Space” – a symptom and perpetuator of frameworks that can make the cultural sector a minefield for minority groups, frameworks critiqued in the BLINDSIDE show.
But the pressure for performance is still there – acknowledged by both Steven Rhall and this mob – which is why the cameras were such an interesting intervention. Alongside the wall camera at BLINDSIDE, there was also the roam cam: a moveable camera on wheels that people in the space could use as they saw fit. The sense of a white gaze, and of being watched, doesn’t go away; it is just that you can find ways to manoeuvre around it or divert it.
The sort of support that West Space is providing isn’t revolutionary or new. Organisations such as FCAC, Blak Dot and the Koorie Heritage Trust, among others, have been doing socially engaged work in different ways – they just don’t have the same sort of presence in shaping contemporary art discourse as West Space. this mob formed during one of FCAC’s capacity-building programs and the centre has implemented an Indigenous advisory group, with elders in residence, and had First Nations-led programming for some time.
More and more our central cultural institutions are looking to artists to provide solutions on how to transform the sector and better reflect the realities of where we are now as a country. And often they are doing so without being deeply critical of the ways in which structural power in the arts functions to consistently exclude or exploit those outside of the centre.
The logic of neoliberalism, precarity and constant production is one that is felt acutely in the arts – when the want for a large outcome is intertwined with an institution’s complex relationship to inequality and a colonialist history, as well as a predominantly white and middle-class audience, it can become unclear whether there is a reciprocity. The things that collectives thrive off – relationships, mutual support, communities, care, people’s resourcefulness and energy – can easily fall by the wayside. Centring community building in a project, in a way that is deliberate and self-determined, is a purposeful sidestep from this dynamic.
this mob, as a collective, provides something that our existing infrastructure can’t – a supportive and welcoming environment. To ask these sorts of collectives, or others, to also provide the sort of cultural capital and performative kudos that predominantly white arts organisations so desire at the moment takes energy away from what they do best.
The projects at BLINDSIDE and West Space provided timely questions around what the structures of power behind a collaboration are, and how we might bust them open. They propose that the heavy lifting in transforming our institutions needs to be redistributed, so it doesn’t just sit with those artists most affected by these structures. Spaces vested with power may need to take a leap and hand over the keys to the building.
MULTIMEDIA Freighting Ideas: How Did I Get Here?
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until September 12
CIRCUS Sensory Decadence
Gasworks Arts Park, Melbourne, August 16-23
TECHNOLOGY Living Rocks VR
Lot Fourteen, Adelaide, until August 30
MUSIC Sydney Folk Festival
Pitt Street, Sydney, August 16-18
MUSICAL THEATRE West Side Story
Sydney Opera House, August 16—October 6
SCULPTURE Mandy Quadrio – The Country Within
IMA Belltower, Brisbane, until August 17
INSTALLATION Rain Room
Jackalope Pavilion, Melbourne, until September 30
VISUAL ART Texture: Paintings and Drawings by Susan Chenery
Stitch Adelaide, until August 31
VISUAL ART Sights Unseen: Recent Acquisitions from the Moreland Art Collection
Bounihan Gallery, Melbourne, until August 18
THEATRE Salt House Theatre Company presents King Henry V
Darling Quarter Theatre, Sydney, August 16
VISUAL ART Hossein Valamanesh: In Love
Lions Arts Centre, Adelaide, until September 28
VISUAL ART Mirra Whale – Fodder
Mitchell Fine Art, Brisbane, until August 17
SCULPTURE The Essential Duchamp
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until August 11
Housemuseum Galleries, Melbourne, until August 11
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Place to dwell". Subscribe here.