When I walked over there in the late afternoon it was almost comically mellow; guests were sprawled in the sun on dilapidated couches looking like they were just waking up from the night before – which, in fact, I suppose was possible. Michael had rigged up beautiful clusters of tiny golden lightbulbs that were blossoming from the roof and the walls and pulsing in time to the music. (I thought I had imagined this effect, but he assured me it was so, branching off into the mechanics of it all). Nobody could figure out whether the evening was winding down or just beginning. A girl was playing a violin sorrowfully further back in the garden and people wandered barefoot, jovial, laughing. All of Witchmeat ARI’s shows blend into one for me, this loose and easy vibe as people drifted in and out until later in the evening the real action began and anything could happen. The space seemed to expand and contract according to need. I remember it always feeling anarchic, like nobody had quite anticipated the consequences of what they were doing until it happened.
In New York and London, where I have lived for the past two years, these spaces simply do not exist in the same way, where they are present at all. The idea of an ARI is specific to the Australian context. In larger cities, emerging or alternative spaces are still bound to the problems of paying rent and resisting rapid gentrification, and make the transition to becoming commercially viable (selling work, presenting at international art fairs) as soon as possible. I’d particularly like to focus, then, on the phenomenon of ‘household’ ARI’s as those that are able to exist for the most part outside of financial pressures. The necessarily transient nature of these spaces, dictated by movement of artists between sharehouses, creates a momentary opening of space with no future goals towards achieving institutional permanence.
Some of the most consistently interesting shows and events in Brisbane in recent years were courtesy of the chaotic programming of Witchmeat ARI, run by Michael Candy and Anna Carluccio out of a wooden sharehouse on top of Highgate Hill. The now-defunct space catered to an immediate community of artists and musicians as well as neighbours, local families and strangers drawn in off the street. Artists were encouraged by the space’s ethos of artwork outside of workplace health and safety regulations, staging projects that were often dangerous, precarious, spontaneous, or failed entirely. Openings turned into parties, raves, experimentation, tattooing, performance, bands formed and took the stage, climbed the roof, trod on the artworks being shown, broke things and constructed new ones. Spaces like this create a rich environment for a short period – an autonomous zone – before disappearing and being replaced by another.
A few memorable moments spring immediately to mind. At Henry Jock Walker’s show, his van was unloaded down into the front yard, up the stairs, down the hall and into the gallery by a complex slide arrangement of an old table and various ropes and pulleys that looked like a playground ride built in a dump. The van was spraypainted, and by extension the footpath, then by extension the house, then by extension a ladder was found and so the roof, and so on and so forth. At Food Show, someone performed with cock iceblocks, one artist ate an onion and another offered sexual favours in exchange for cake. One hot summer day I designed Witchmeat’s first logo, a slab of steak with the letters cut out of it with a Stanley knife. For understandable reasons, it was later replaced with something more easily reproducible. There were hacked machines and electronics that had definitely not been tested and tagged. Sometimes things didn’t work, the wiring was ditched mid-performance and something new took its place.
In a conversation dominated by questions of funding and logistics, keeping spaces open and functioning can become a huge burden on those who run them. Proving seriousness and value to the community can translate in practice to an exclusionary system wherein the only work shown is clean, polished, and made by people with degrees. The gift of these less professionalised domestic spaces is the openness they encourage, a value that cannot easily be quantified.
At Don’t Look So Offended, Fake Estate’s maiden venture (which, full disclosure, I co-curated with Jarrod van der Ryken), artists were invited to make a work in the style of another Brisbane artist, who remained unnamed. We wanted to play with the driving force behind all artist-run initiatives – the community they build and support. My contribution to the show encapsulated something about what these spaces offer: a map with the initials of everyone we could think of in Brisbane, linked by connecting lines that could indicate any connection, from lovers to colleagues. After posting it on the toilet door during the opening I caught a number of the assembled guests musing on who was who and adding their own connecting lines.
One commonality in these ARIs is the repurposing of domestic spaces: in Witchmeat’s case, the living room, but other Brisbane ARIs have made use of garages, spare bedrooms or the ‘under the house’ space ubiquitous in Queensland architecture. This not only allows for the space to be free to exhibitors – allowing for a wider and more eclectic range of work to be shown – but adds a certain atmosphere of community that can’t exist in a traditional gallery space. Everything is DIY, punk, informal, communal, and there’s always a bed or a couch to crash on for visiting artists or after the show. The party becomes the site of knowing, the party becomes the sight of seeing, the party becomes moving and the party is becoming. The house itself had a special air of permeability, where outside of rules or structures real improvisation and new experiments can occur. At Witchmeat, you could make sticky art, gross art, dangerous art, filthy art, unexpected art, and anything in between.
This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on the state of artist-run initiatives by writers around Australia, for Runway issue #30, Ecologies. You can read the first post, by Melbourne writer and curator Maria Miranda, here, the second by Adelaide based curator and artist Serena Wong, here, and the third by Tasmanian arts writer and researcher Lucy Hawthorne here.