KS: Clare, in talking about Frontyard I want to start with your hack of Tony Fry’s provocation:
forget [art] as a territory and practice that can be laid claim to (the drive of professionalization), stop talking to yourselves (the internal dialogue of [art] events), […] start talking to other people, other disciplines; broaden your gaze (beyond the [art] process, [art] objects and [art’s] current economic positioning), engage the complexity of [art] as a world-shaping force and help explain it as such.
Fry is talking about ‘design’, which you’ve substituted with ‘art.’ For me, this manifesto captures what Frontyard is setting out to achieve—which is to reject the reproduction of the arts through current regimes of practice, thinking and funding, and imagine radical new arts futures.
CC: I can’t speak for Frontyard as a whole, as it’s endlessly generative. There are many, varied voices involved. I’m meeting more and more artists and folks that don’t call themselves that who are passionately reclaiming art as a complex force. They are disgruntled by an art world driven by professionalisation, immersed in the internal dialogue of the ‘sector’ and its economic positioning. For those of us with the perspective, time and space to choose, why would we add our signatures to this ready-made shitter?
KS: Why would you? One thing that I think the Frontyard community and its program of events demonstrates successfully is that there are many ways to be an artist, to make art, to talk about art, to participate in the arts. That there is no singular ‘best practice’ for being an artist or practitioner. This is connected to the notion that the arts do not and should not occupy a privileged position in relation to other forms of cultural re/production.
CC: I agree, but this is not the way I saw the art world from the outside as a kid, or how a lot of Australian society views the arts. It’s often perceived as exclusive, and it’s value as decorative. If you’re an artist here, you ‘have time on your hands’. When I was re-reading Fry back in July, this hack seemed to fit with how many of the discussions at Frontyard were attempting to reframe, or reimagine the way art communicates. Jan Verwoert’s essay ‘Exhaustion & Exuberance’ has been highly influential to the ethos behind Frontyard, as has the work of Sydney duo Make Or Break, and artists Ian Milliss and Mladen Stilinović (via your fellow Frontyard resident Julia Bavyka). The space was born out of a desire for conversations, reading, researching, experimenting, planting, fertilising, sharing that is just as valuable (if not more so) that the resulting art/artwork.
KS: Art emerges from circumstances that are grounded, diverse, and, above all, located in the everyday— as the name Frontyard suggests. This is not acknowledged in official funding and administration arrangements that conceptualise, and then reproduce the arts as exceptional and spectacularised.
CC: Exactly. The Brandis excellence cuts last year were the epitome of elitism and the final straw for a lot of people—not because they depend on arts funding necessarily, but because redirecting funds from experimental, small-scale or independent arts to arts of mass appeal or ‘international cultural diplomacy’ feeds the narrative that the root systems don’t have value in Australian society. Are the support structures available to the arts community outdated? Dysfunctional? How we can better support one another? How can we draw on knowledge, passion and resilience in other areas of life to inform what art does next? It’s almost impossible to solve problems within the context within which they were created— diverse voices and perspectives need to be in the room. We’ve even discussed taking the word ‘art’ off the website so as to not alienate people who don’t consider themselves artists… [the byline currently reads ‘future-focused arts’].
A few of the founders of Frontyard got our hands dirty in the economic arguments last year, trying to write cultural policy documents and agitate for more arts funding—but all the while there has been this persistent vexation that what we are trying to repair and mend is actually an outdated machine built to reproduce institutions that are unsound. The language of outcome-driven production, the KPIs, the cultural diplomacy, the catering budgets! Frontyard runs off the smell of an oily rag. We don’t sell anything, and we don’t get paid for the work we do. There’s a donation box, and a public, monthly list of bills to pay that the community chips in for. Thanks to a temporary rental subsidy granted by former Marrickville Council the rent is very cheap, which allows us the incredible freedom of not having to spend weeks of the year applying for grants, or to organise things that generate an income. The catch is that it’s a month-to-month lease— the carpet could be pulled from under us at any moment…
KS: For me, this challenge to conventional notions of how creative spaces operate, and even how they look, is one of the acts of reclamation that you mentioned earlier. Ali Crosby [co-founder of Frontyard] told me that during the Marrickville Open Studio Trail earlier this year, visitors were perplexed and disappointed upon walking into the space. They wanted to know ‘where is the art?’ My experience at Frontyard is more of a de-hierarchised series of interconnected spaces—the library (which houses the decommissioned Australia Council research collection), the edible garden, the residents’ rooms, the workshop—that are all equally important in facilitating research, practice, collaboration and participation. The distinction between processes and outcomes is blurred.
CC: It’s great to hear you as a previous resident articulate this. The garden has been a great social mirror, meeting in the hammocks have changed the way we talk to each other about admin, the kids that spend time here take to the floors and walls with the chalk—no surface is sacred. Many of the residents, be they hackers, engineers, writers or dancers, have said that they have felt awkward in the first few days of their time here without the usual expectations and pre-set outcomes. As a result they have created, digested and shared their research, their art, differently. Everyone gets full access to the space, and residents are invited to continue to use Frontyard when and how they want. We removed the interior doors. There’s no admin or office space. There’s a growing team of Frontyard librarians that nominate times to be here so that people can read in the library. Everyone has equal responsibility for the safety and maintenance of the ideas and of the physical space. As yet, we have no reasons to limit this openness and trust.
We opened up the space this way to dig around definitions and old arguments—trying to find the stuff that is futures-nutritious. We’re listening to stories from people who’ve been around a lot longer than us— people who’ve seen austerity and rampant conservatism before, and folks from other countries who have been creating in an environment where there is little-to-no support for artists. What actions have built resilience and stronger communities in the past? How have people creatively responded to change? In what circumstances have people just rolled over, and did they even realise they were doing it at the time? There are very few either/ors, and we’re in the luxurious position of having a space where we can spend time in this liminality. There are new people sharing their time and their stories every week, it’s been exhilarating.
KS: Definitely. Frontyard initiatives like the residencies actively encourage these types of conversations, as well as opening up engagement with local and global networks of artists, communities and publics further afield. By inviting practitioners from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to inhabit the Marrickville building for two weeks, Frontyard becomes a place where alternative futures, scenarios and possibilities for the arts can be explored and tested out beyond the usual closed circuits. Can you tell us a bit about that?
CC: The ongoing relationship with Indonesian designers, musicians and artists has been incredible— from Blackboots collective kicking off our first workshop in February, to the Indonesia Australia Design Futures exchanges. The futuring workshops push us into more creative and elastic ways of envisaging what could come next, whether that be for the arts or for forced migration and the ways in which society could propose futures, or react to crises.
We know that many of the conditions for art-making are taken for granted: that it serves us to create in categories, artforms and disciplines; that we should articulate our ideas before we start making a mess experimenting; that when we apply for support there needs to be an assessable outcome; that it’s not only those with privilege, time, space, energy and vocab that have access to public arts funding; that we create in projects; that if we make art, we call ourselves artists. Every time a new person contributes to the conversation here it becomes more complex. It expands. Unless we’re after monocultural futures and stories, the arts can’t afford to be self-referential and it’s bloody obvious that we can’t keep reproducing the conditions and modes of production that make up ‘the arts sector’ as we know it.
Being involved with Frontyard doesn’t feel like a resolution, but it scratches many of the itches.
Clare Cooper is an improvising musician, organiser and teacher. She co-founded Frontyard (2016), Arts Futuring (2015), the NOW now festival of experimental music and film...
Kirsten Seale was in residence at Frontyard in May 2016. She teaches Interdisciplinary Design at UTS, and has published extensively on questions to do with...