Part VI: Notes on Society, with Susan Gibb

Eleanor Ivory Weber

E: What is Society?

S: Society was a twelve-month program hosted in my former shop-front home in Redfern, Sydney. Historically, the space was previously the artist run initiative Locksmith Project Space.

E: How did Society function?

S: Simply. I invited artists that I was interested to work with, or already engaged in conversation with, to have an exhibition. This sometimes involved showing existing work, and at other times involved them creating new work. All of these decisions were made in conversation with the artists, and were formed around each of our current artistic and curatorial enquiries. Society also hosted music gigs that Alex Kiers organised, and a couple of special events including one with Mary MacDougall and another with dancer Emma Saunders that occurred after the initial twelve-month program.

E: What is missing from Society?

S: This is where the name confuses even me! Are you asking about Society (the project I was involved in) or society (the word’s general connotation)? If the former, someone else will have to answer that question, as I never had any set outcomes that I really wanted to achieve with Society – so there is nothing missing in my mind. Everything was an addition, so if there is something that could have been a part of it and it’s not there, that’s okay. Essentially what it is is what it is, and in my mind it is a complete picture. Though I am missing Society now that it’s over.

But if you are asking about the latter, then maybe I would philosophise in someway and say a greater belief in investing in others, not just in oneself, and where such an idea is brought into material rather than just semiotic action.

E: Why do you believe it is important for people to be reimbursed, or why was this important to Society?

S: With Society I was interested in sharing the same vulnerability that artists experience financially, by partaking in reciprocal exchange of some sort even if what was gained was different for each person. I had also been musing on the question of why someone else should pay for my ambition if it wasn’t a shared aspiration. I don’t think I ever really thought that they should, but I was struck by the question as some kind of ethical framework. It is important that I state here that not all of the artists wanted or accepted the money I offered to them, and some accepted it in different ways. As well as the fact a lot of friends helped me out in terms of installing work or serving at the bar.

Hopefully, as economics was always a consideration of the project and part of the initial conversation with the artists, the idea was that no one would be pushed to be in a position that they couldn’t afford to be in, or didn’t want to be in. I was really interested in working within the parameters of my own and the artists’ shared means, and not exceeding this. I was really happy for people to say no if that was what was best for them, or to find solutions or arrangements that worked for everyone, so that hopefully out of all of that what was produced was something that everyone was happy with and had a good time being a part of.

I was also very interested in creating a space of generosity, which was firstly influenced by Locksmith Project Space who had let me use the space. They had always made sure that the space was offered to artists for free, and I had always really felt that this set an important standard for ARIs in Sydney, so I wanted that to be maintained. Secondly, I was really influenced by A Cosmic Battle For Your Heart run by Mitch Cairns, Kelly Doley, Brian Fuata and Agatha Gothe-Snape, which similarly occurred in the domestic setting of their home in Rozelle. Their hospitality was second to none, and the space created such a palpable sense of community for artists from Sydney specifically, and Australia more broadly (through invited interstate guests), to gather and be.

But I guess simply put, the reason it was important to me was the fact I love art, I really believe in it, and it is a big part of the worldview I inhabit. I also love the community I am a part of in Sydney and, more broadly, Australia. It has given me a lot and I wanted to give something back to it. I guess I could have maybe just bought some artwork with my money, but I am really not interested in that type of ownership – anyone that knows me will tell you that while I love objects, I am not so good at living with them, they occupy too much of my thinking. So I really wanted to create a space where many people could meet, drink, dance and laugh… and of course show and talk about art. It’s embarrassing to write this. I really just wanted to create something that was bigger than me, that could be used and taken up by others, but provided me a space I could live in, both day-to-day and conceptually.

E: What do you see as the most important factors in running and independent project? Why run an independent project?

S: Because you think it needs to happen, for yourself, and the group of people you imagine it to be for… even if that audience is just one. I think it is important to be realistic about who your ‘audience’ is, and to have one. You need this for it to be really meaningful, and it should be structured accordingly.

I think a good reason for running an independent project as well – beyond it offering room for experimentation, etc. – is it can offer an alternative, and push for agendas that can have an influence at a larger institutional level. For example, if at an independent level you can create opportunities for artists that are paid, and offer free space, and create attention for artists, it means realistically that institutions need to match this or at least respond – though obviously I recognise they are operating within a different realm of symbolic capital.

I also guess that, even though it is rather passé, I am most interested in people making things and why they are doing it – so artists and artwork – and less so with the surrounding infrastructure. Though I am interested in how artists and artworks interact with this infrastructure, those other two things still come first for me. I still like to believe that artists control what art is, and that art is not just some fruit picked off of policy making or market forces. I think independent projects are a great place for this to come to the fore.

E: Do you have a position on questions of funding as they pertain to institutions?

S: I think my position is about sound financial management, both independently and institutionally. But institutionally I think there is more at stake, as it has the potential to drive expectations of the industry and they have larger sums of money under their management. This might be an unpopular thing to say, but I am not necessarily about more money for the arts – especially if that money comes from making compromises that artists don’t want to make – but I am about better spending in the arts. I think a considered and dynamic approach to economics creates an interesting condition to work within for art production. For example, I don’t think money should be poured into art like a bad life support system, taking it outside larger economic conditions, but rather that ambition and timeframes should be scaled to meet realistic economic means and that labor and wage conditions of artists should be a priority in setting this scale.

I guess I am also sick of bloating museums, exhibitions and artworks, but that’s probably because I am not easily impressed with size, more so with depth of practice. From this perspective, the inflation of the contemporary art industry is something that really worries me, though I am constantly aware and trying to negotiate my place within it. I am often curious and wonder how institutions maybe have failed to recognise, or have purposely ignored, how proliferating building schemes might be most closely aligned with agendas for constant growth rather than art. Or how such growth is not a willful negative gearing of an industry by those who have the power to control its financial means; or otherwise, simply a gross and wasteful consumption of materials? And if we expect to hold investment bankers accountable for such things, why should we not hold arts administrators accountable for not thinking through the effects of inflating the art market to a level where the primary producers are the ones who generally receive the least economic benefit from their work, while all of its subsidiary industries who are governed by regulated trade practices have thriving businesses?

E: That makes me wonder: how do we draw the line between love and money?

S: The value of love has no limits, money does. But if they are used wisely together, they can make for a happy and sustainable life.

E: Why are we talking about money and should we continue?

S: Yes, it is a reality that isn’t going to change soon. If anything, I think we should talk about money more in the arts, and not just as a feared or loathed abstract, or the uncomfortable by-line of a contract that no one wants to talk about. I think it should be acknowledge as a material that can be used and played with to set limits of production and to create meaning.

E: 😀 Thank you, Susan!

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