Runway Journal has partnered with All Conference to present a series of Conversations from its network of artist-led, experimental and cross-disciplinary arts organisations around Australia. Throughout the year, 16 organisations will each present a new piece on Runway’s Conversations platform.
The sixth Runway Journal x All Conference Conversation comes from un Projects, based on the unceded sovereign land and waters of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation
Naarm-based artist and writer Jeremy Eaton takes us on a historical detour through un Magazine’s editorials, charting the evolution of un Projects and the role they’ve played in Australia’s arts publishing landscape.
In order to take stock of where un is at right now and to speculate on where it is going, I thought it would be helpful to take a detour through some of the past editorials of the magazine, to see what has been captured by this temporal archive, and what it tells us about the changing landscape of art and arts publishing in Australia.
These early issues were all published during a period when Australia was on a path toward intense globalisation, when the internet had begun to infiltrate our lives in significant ways, practice-led research degrees were in their infancy, and art was more maligned and niche than it appears today.
A little after this time we begin to see the privileging of ‘art’ erode with editorials that draw in thematics that look at the relationship between art and writing (Issue 5.1), art and architecture (Issue 5.2), and art and design (Issue 6.1). This is intended to contend with the fallacy of arts autonomy and entwine it with various fields. In this vein, if we jump back to Din Heagney’s editorial, during this period un also aimed to address an apparent criticism that the magazine relies too heavily on philosophy and theoretical criticism as the issue ‘makes an attempt to reduce the level of theoretical reliance’. Here I would say the communal drive for un manifested as a desire to dilute arts specialisation as a way to challenge the language developed around the discipline, for centuries, from a particularly Western and highly educated perspective.
It is difficult with all these latent catastrophic occurrences, which course through our everyday with a sense of urgency, to conceptualise art’s capacity to effectively respond and challenge the narratives of our time, especially when the discipline is so easily co-opted by the institutional and commercial mechanisms that underpin its survival.
Jumping forward a number of years to Issue 8.1 from 2014 by Robert Cook, Benjamin Forster and Suzette Wearne, we can see an evolution in un as the publication itself becomes a conceptual object, one that reflects the burgeoning of technology and data as an omnipresent manifestation that structures our life. This particular issue, from my point of view, is rendered practically illegible as it decidedly negates any traditional structure of reading, authorship and content in lieu of a bespoke, experimental, highly editorialised conceptual object. Whilst this is perhaps one of the most extreme iterations of the heavy hand of the editor, it is a trend we see emerge in un with more complicated and niche thematics (embodied subjectivity, material co-working, The Throng) that as a total object creates an expanded essay that reflects the editor’s intent rather than individual author’s contributions. This shift is most markedly reflected by the preclusion of reviews and artist profiles in lieu of experimental writing and socio-critical elaborations that sometimes touch on art but frequently don’t. I can only speculatively account for this and wonder if it is indicative of contemporary art fatigue? Or the rise in administrative professionalism at the artist-run level? Perhaps the privileging of the curator as the communicable arbiter with an assumed public? Whatever the reason, I find its apotheosis in Bobuq Sayed and Hugh Childer’s startlingly engaging yet conceptually challenging issues (13.1 and 13.2), whereby art is present as one aspect of the broader thematic demands of ‘security threats, alternative histories, terrorist subjectivities, paranoid infidels, treason, experimental detonations and contemporary art practice’. And as the editors acknowledge in 13.2, ‘[W]ith a similar valence to our previous issue, not all the works here consider art production and its reception.’
This sidelining of art talks to who has been editor—people who have a writing background and focus rather than an artistic practice, which positions them at a once remove from the artist-run milieu. Furthermore, I think it reflects a scepticism towards the rapid growth in university art degrees, the independent critical role of artist-run spaces, and by extension a perception that art is indivisible from capitalism and the state. A sort of despair enters art (and perhaps the global consciousness more broadly), from rhetoric surrounding class and racial inequality, political failings of democracy, the economic unsustainability of an outdated structural model of art and the forebodings of an imminent and already occurring ecological crisis. It is difficult with all these latent catastrophic occurrences, which course through our everyday with a sense of urgency, to conceptualise art’s capacity to effectively respond and challenge the narratives of our time, especially when the discipline is so easily co-opted by the institutional and commercial mechanisms that underpin its survival.
Perhaps one of the most integral issues of recent years, Neika Lehman and Maddee Clark’s Issue 12.1 (2018). In the editorial they discuss The Unbearable Hotness of Decolonisation and take to task the decolonial ‘fad’ of white institutions, people and organisations (I would say this critique at the time extended to un itself). This issue prefaced Sayed and Childer’s issues by bringing a bold, self-reflexive institutional critique into the magazine. These issues of un challenge the myopic and systemic racial bias underpinning Australian culture and reflect a conversation that had been mounting since 2013 with the criticism that surrounded Perks and Mini’s inclusion in Melbourne Now at NGV. The hot and intense public criticism hosted by Gertrude Contemporary challenged the fashion label’s cultural mash-up-fashion-hybrids, signalling one of the first major local public furores over cultural appropriation. It created an abrupt turn in the then prevailing discourses of post-colonialism, mash-up culture, DIY and an optimistically tinted globalism. Lehman and Clark’s issue emerged from this shifting cultural landscape and whilst their issue redresses the failings of un, it also pre-empts and reflects a broader cultural redress that was taking place in the art world at the time. ACCA’s exhibition Sovereignty (2016/2017) spectacularly tackled the lack of First Nations representation by the previous director Juliana Engberg. In 2020, Runway Journal’s Issue 42: Archive highlighted the problematic material published by the magazine in the past, with chairperson Nanette Orly stating that the ‘artist-run community is not exempt from the same slow cultural movement we criticise in major arts institutions’. Clark and Lehman’s perspective, approach and publication has had a lasting effect on un Projects as the organisation looks to ensure it retains a diversity of perspectives and remains conscious of the potential for racial and cultural bias to creep into any arts organisation.
In recent years un’s heavy editorial focus appears to reflect an Australian art world that is trying to catch up to the ethical, social and political realities of the technocratic contemporary. A confusion and recalibration with this rapidly shifting landscape that was first captured in the highly conceptual issue by Robert Cook, Benjamin Forster and Suzette Wearne, followed by complex issues unpacking the social and structural issues that had been ignored for too long in the arts. After this period whereby un and its editors and contributors have worked to unpack the complicated series of contexts that art falls in, we want to recognise that the urgency of these discussions are happening through and within art and not just around it. And thus in coming years, by developing un’s online publishing and continuing our guest-edited print magazine, we look to focus on writing and discourse that emerges from artistic practice, a practice that is now already plural, interdisciplinary, politically and socially charged, and conscious of the conflicts that abound through the mechanisms that distribute its content to the public.
un Projects publishes writing that emerges from art making, providing an independent platform for critical discussions about local artistic practice. With a focus on artists, writers and independent practice, un Projects publishes essays, artists’ work and reviews, in print and online. Our flagship publication is un Magazine which was founded in 2004 by Melbourne artist Lily Hibberd. un Projects was established in 2008 to ensure the ongoing publication of un Magazine and develop further art writing initiatives.
Jeremy Eaton is an artist & writer living in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia
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