The twelfth Runway Journal x All Conference Conversation comes from the disorganising project, a joint program initiated by current All Conference members Liquid Architecture, West Space and Bus Projects. disorganising was an expansive, collaborative project conducted over the course of 2021, in which the three organisations looked to experiment with divergent ways of organising and creating. Throughout the project, members from each organisation undertook a series of conversations with self-organised initiatives and individuals based in Australia and overseas. This conversation with Ian Milliss is a part of that series.
In 1971 it started dawning on me that the Builders Labourers Federation in New South Wales was actually doing the same thing I was doing — they were using the most minimal tools possible, their ability to withhold their labour, to change the way society and culture worked, which I was beginning to think was the only point of being an artist — you did these things which influenced the way people thought about the world, saw the world and how they acted in it. So, if a union was doing the same thing, the union must be an artist really. And union officials must be artists if you’re going to follow through with that logic. These actions, which were apparently political actions and industrial relations actions, were also cultural actions.
I came to see my actions there, which for most people were just activist, political actions, as being cultural actions, because as much as being about the place, I think they were about rethinking the city — who does the city belong to? Does it belong as much to the homeless people who lived there as to the developers who own it? The city is this cultural creation, you know, made of all the desires and pursuits of everybody who's in it. And so I started thinking very differently about what it was to be an artist and what you did.
This went on for the next several years, it was a very difficult period in various ways. And even though I still had very strong links with the art world, by 1973, I actually stopped exhibiting. The last time would’ve been the Object and Idea show at the National Gallery of Victoria, which was meant to be a sort of launching of conceptual art in Australia, but rather than exhibit I wrote a catalogue essay, “New Artist”, which outlined my reasons for not wanting to exhibit any more.
Then in 1975, I made one last effort — I developed an exhibition with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where I was to curate an exhibition about a radical agriculturalist called P. A. Yeomans, who invented a thing called the Keyline system of farming, which was the beginning of regenerative farming in lots of ways. It was the direct forerunner of permaculture; permaculture was based on P.A. Yeoman’s work.
“The point to be made about all this is that at no point after the early 70s was I interested in showing this stuff I was doing in the art world, the art world was not the audience. The audience was in fact, a huge audience, you know, much bigger than the art world, but the art world didn't regard them as legitimate somehow.”
And what I was doing was basically being an artist who was acting as a curator, presenting someone who didn't think of himself as an artist, and who nobody else thought of as an artist, in an institutional art gallery context. This was something just not done back then. And this exhibition was going to happen, but two months before it was going to happen the Gallery Trustees got wind of it and intervened and overruled the Director and the curators and cancelled it. They said it wasn't going to happen because it was just an agricultural trade show, not art. And what was the art gallery doing putting on an agricultural trade show? And so it disappeared until eventually, it happened in 2013, about 38 years later, believe it or not.
So from that point on, my activities took a different form and had a different audience. My involvement in the art world was in things like helping set up the Artworkers Union and being involved in the protest against the early stages of the Sydney Biennale. There were quite literally 10 years of protest against the Sydney Biennale from the Sydney art world. They were all based around two ideas, which were that we needed 50% of women in it and we needed 50% Australian work in it, so that rather than being the sort of colonial thing of bringing culture to the provincials in Australia, it became a thing where we could actually see what we were doing in a context of equality to what other people were doing. And eventually, in about 2006, I think they had 50% women. They never had 50% Australian, never have. But those protests ended up creating the Artworkers Union.
Twenty or thirty years later I suppose in a sense the circle had turned and, although not through anything that I had actually said or done, a lot of people came to the same conclusions that I'd come to, just much earlier on, and started to try to work in similar ways with communities and specific audiences outside of the art world as I did. The point to be made about all this is that at no point after the early 70s was I interested in showing this stuff I was doing in the art world, the art world was not the audience. The audience was in fact, a huge audience, you know, much bigger than the art world, but the art world didn't regard them as legitimate somehow. Inequality is at the heart of the art world and the institutional definition of art. It is all built around the idea that the art world is special — so the art world had this attitude that if it didn't happen here, it didn't happen. And so they didn't regard the work I had begun doing with unions as legitimate. And people just said that I'd sort of gone crazy and given up art and no amount of arguing on my part actually changed that attitude. But then by the late 1990s, it's just the world changed around it, and suddenly what I’d done made sense to younger artists at least.
What had happened in the 70s was that in a sense the art world split. One part of it, which was people like me, who were, I suppose, the radical component of conceptual art — the people who followed the logic, the real radical logic of conceptual art, basically were pursuing this idea of, not community art so much, but art that was part of daily life, indistinguishable from daily life except for its cultural self-awareness. You know, moving out into the world to produce this cultural activity, but not a product for the institutional art world or for the art market.
I think that that group of people actually grew and grew and grew and grew outside of the art world. The institutional art world basically at a certain point couldn't ignore that and had to try to incorporate it in but those things continued to develop independently of it, you know? Art world things like relational aesthetics were a rather feeble attempt to somehow or other incorporate it. The whole idea of social practice is another feeble attempt to incorporate it, but I think it's now a thing that exists on its own. And to retain any real relevancy the institutional art world now needs it more than it needs the institutional art world.
What happened to me in the late 90s or the early 2000s was that I was thinking what was I going to do? And I thought, well, what I'd done previously in a sense was trying to think through where there were points of social fracture and go and work there. I decided somewhere back 50 years ago that I couldn't work with the art world in its current form. I only became more and more distant from that. And I always kept talking about culture in general and that what you had to do was change the culture, work with the culture and you used any means to do it. So you weren't concerned about what was supposedly legitimate art or whatever, you could use policy documents, you can do interviews, you can get out and politically organise, you use everything. I have this idea that everything is basically media and it's just a case of what you do with that. The end result of thinking like that was after twenty years of working with the union movement, followed by a depressing lost few years in the 90s, I then moved to live and work in coal mining towns where I had grown up — Lithgow, Wallerawang, Portland, Kandos — to work on climate change issues. And that’s what eventually produced the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation, KSCA.
I should point out I've never been funded. Even when I wanted to be funded, I've never been funded. They'll never give me a cent, but they'll give other people money to work with me, which is sort of amusing, in a grim ironic sort of way. If I was funded, I might be able to do more.
And I also keep saying there's no such thing as art really. You know, there's just this term that we apply to a range of activities at various points in time for a whole bunch of reasons, but there is no essential activity which is art in the way there is eating or sleeping.
“But if you want to know what I really think — I don’t think art exists. There's no such thing, but there is a business that's called art, you know, a big international business that turns over huge amounts of money, but it's culturally insignificant really, it doesn't matter.”
“All I’m really interested in talking about is cultural production and it’s not what happens in most of the conventional art world.”
Ian Milliss is one of Australia’s earliest conceptual artists. By 1971 his participatory work became political and cultural activism beyond the conventional art world. He has long argued that art is the process of constant cultural adaptation and that this now occurs in work that is not usually seen as art, produced by people who do not usually describe themselves as artists. This included involvement in the green ban and resident action movements, squatting, prison reform, trade unions, anti coal mining and the Australia Council’s Art and Working Life Program. His main interests in recent years have been land use, the commons, big data, and open source processes, and the media. The Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation is a group of artists that grew out of a proposal by Ian Milliss in a poster for the Cementa13 arts festival held in the small NSW mining and industrial town of Kandos. It currently has sixteen members who work with land use, agricultural innovation, and ecological phenomena and social and cultural infrastructure through events, publications and various forms of community engagement. Their work is more often seen in the mainstream media than in art institutions and their current largest project is a series of workshops with Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra Lithgow Transformation Hub on post bushfire community resilience.
Runway Journal acknowledges the custodians of the nations our digital platform reaches. We extend this acknowledgement to all First Nations artists, writers and audiences.
Runway Journal is assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Runway Journal receives project support from the NSW Government through Create NSW.
Runway Journal receives project support from the NSW Government through Create NSW.