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Before Utopia – A non official Prehistory of the Present

Ian Milliss Interviewed by Helen Grace

In the late sixties and early seventies I was a member of the Contemporary Arts Society (CAS) and at that stage it was really the only worthwhile organisation of artists in New South Wales and Australia - there were branches of it in three or four states and it had existed in NSW for about thirty years or so.

It had a history of activism for artists of a sort but it wasn't union type activism, it was more like promoting funding as well as providing a sort of network function. You've got to remember how much smaller the art world was then compared to now. The population of Australia has doubled since then so you might chop the art world down to about a third of what it is now.

As a member of the CAS I had regularly been in their exhibitions.

When did your involvement start?

It started the year before my last year at school. It must have been 1967, I left school at the end of 1968. I think they had two shows a year, they were the most important survey group shows held every year, the Young Contemporaries and their annual exhibition. I think their annual exhibition was around the end of the year. They were the equivalent of what Perspecta is now, I suppose.

So I was in every one of them for the next couple of years but I had a bit of an argument with them, from 1969. I was developing a critique of the art world and art and the way art functioned and at one stage around late 71 I organised a protest at one of their exhibitions which they promptly dealt with by co-opting me onto the committee. That was the period in which they had Central Street, in fact they had taken over Central Street as a gallery.

I ended up basically running the publication which Jack Lynn had edited for years before that. By that stage three people really ran the CAS - me, Allan Oldfield and Jim Davenport. Tim Johnson was pretty active as well but not in quite the same sort of way and there were various people like Henry Salkauskas, John Conway, Betty Kelly and Ken Unsworth who were active committee members. There was a woman, Patsy Hutley I think her name was, who was listed as secretary but she was not an artist, in fact she just did straight secretarial and accounts stuff.

In the publication we tried to promote a much wider notion of culture than just art that you hang on walls. If you go through the publication, you will probably find lots of articles that are basically art activism of one sort or another. We printed a lot of things from the Guerilla Art Action group in New York and the Art Workers Coalition. We would pull stuff in and reprint it, stuff that was focussed on the relationship between artists and galleries, artists and markets, what is the role of artists, what is art, really.

So what we wanted to do with the Society was to try and make it something alive rather than a typical little art society where people show their paintings and get a bit of information. We were going to get out and seriously lobby and the end result of this - there is probably two end results: one was that Jim and Allan and I did some submissions for the ALP in 1971 about what eventually became the Australia Council; and secondly in 1972 or 1973, we printed thousands of copies of this artist's contract, which in fact originated in New York and we sent it around to people and said, look, technically it doesn't match Australian legal requirements, but this is actually a good model for the relationship that artists and dealers should have and it included resale residuals for instance. So we tried to set up models for that sort of stuff which at that stage hadn't really been done. The attitude at the time was that dealers are gentlemen and will behave well but all artists are like children and they can't possibly look after their own affairs and artists tended to prefer the irresponsibility that came with that sort of infantilisation. So we pushed thousands of these things around. Nobody used it, nobody liked it but we made the effort.

The final thing was that we tried to get the federal CAS back together again. We organised a national conference of all the existing state branches in Melbourne and I think I actually became the federal secretary and Jim was president or vice-president. But I was getting swallowed up in things like resident action groups and green bans and we printed a lot of resident action stuff in the CAS Broadsheet because it did have some relevance in terms of inner city areas like Victoria Street where many artists lived or had studios.

We made this argument that a builder's labourer is a cultural worker if he or she is involved in green bans, so we had a wider notion of what art is and what artists do. I was almost completely swallowed up by that sort of activity by 1973, so I resigned and basically spent all my time working on green bans. What that gave me was a lot of experience of that sort of activism and a lot of work then in the union movement, dealing with different unions. I came from that sort of family background - all my extended family were strongly Labor and union oriented, all of my uncles at one stage were union delegates, another great uncle was a major ALP and Communist Party figure. I came from that sort of culture. After the green bans were smashed by the builders funding the corrupt Victorian branch of the union to intervene in NSW I became involved in a lot of prison activism, I helped set up the Prisoners Action Group and Women Behind Bars, by this stage it was 1975-77.

In 1971-72 when I was first asked to be in the National Gallery of Victoria Object and Idea exhibition I'd already decided that I wasn't going to exhibit any more because I could see the way it was going, that conceptualism would just become a new formalism and that nothing would change. And that's exactly what's happened, that's why art has become increasingly intellectually and morally bankrupt over the last thirty years. I'd come to the conclusion that in fact art is a virtual category, there isn't any such thing as art. It's a whole lot of things that get dumped into an umbrella category and so the thing was to just get out there in the world and do things which may or may not at a later date be appropriated by the art world as being legitimate.

I didn't need the art world to legitimise what I was doing; what legitimised an action was if it had an affect on society and on the culture, and for me that was what being an artist is about . All those categories used in deciding what should be in an exhibition just fall down as soon as you think about it, so I got much more interested in questions of how cultural values were generated rather than what would next titillate the jaded art world fashionistas.

Because most of my women friends were feminists, I decided that if I was going to have any involvement in the art world on that level I was going to try to change its infrastructure and its criteria for selection. This was that period in the late seventies when big international exhibitions started to grow. Personally, I wasn't opposed to international exhibitions, I've always been an internationalist rather than a nationalist, but I also think you have to work with the mores of the society where you actually are. It's not very helpful having people cart in stuff from overseas and tell you this is how it should be done. And so I started working with other people to lobby for more Australian content and increasing the number of women and various other concerns that cut across traditional aesthetic categories.

What were the main imported exhibitions at that time?

Well it was pretty much the Biennale, that was our focus.

The first, much smaller Biennale was in 1973 and the second was in 1976 and then it starts to become much more contested.

It starts to hot up. After there had been those first two and we saw the way they were going that's when people started to get a bit aggravated about it. There was a big demo and walkout at the 1976 Biennale but that was against Malcolm Fraser opening it rather than any art issue.

The Transfield Prize was expanded to become the Biennale when there was some concern on the part of the major sponsor of the Prize that it was increasingly going to post-object work.

Up until 1970 the Transfield Prize was an open prize but in 1970 they asked Brian Finemore to select it and to invite people instead. I was one of the twenty or so artists invited and I did a work called Walk Along This Line. It got lots of mass media publicity. In the art world it caused equal problems of a different sort and I think that people started to realise I wasn't just playing at taking the piss out of everyone, I really was taking the piss out of everyone. That was a serious work for me but once you think about it, it really is disruptive of a lot of notions of what artists are doing and why they are doing it - there is virtually no work of art until someone participates in it - so that was one of the works that Franco Belgiorno-Netis was really pissed off about. He was more pissed off about the winner which was Bill Clements from Adelaide, xeroxes just taped together, xeroxes and bits of string and Franco was not happy about it at all.

The other one that outraged him was Tony Coleing who had built a sort of staircase. Anyway the 1970 Prize really gave him the shits - he was paying all this money to end up with - he thought - bits of trivia. I think there was one more Transfield prize after that but then he spat the dummy and switched all the money over to the Biennale in 1973. It must be said that part of the reason for targeting the Biennale was Franco's behaviour - his attitude: 'I am a great patron, bringing all this culture to you barbarians'. So there was a real denial that culture existed here - culture was seen as being over there, somewhere else.

Our attitude was that we've got our own culture even if it is often half baked and we're going to start working it out. That was where the nationalism was coming in, that's why we wanted to put Australian stuff on an equal footing with the international stuff and actually compare it, in order to build some base for people. Obviously our work is going to be influenced by international stuff and international styles but your work's got to be about where you actually are. This is my personal reason for never ever going overseas. In every other generation everyone went off to New York or London and I just stayed here. I knew I was stuck here ultimately in my head, even if I went somewhere else. You know you might as well face up to it. So you make funny decisions like that without thinking of the consequences.

Anyway the Artworkers Union ultimately grew out of the 1976 anti Fraser demonstrations and the negotiations we held about the selection criteria for the next Biennale.

What was the source of the Union's constitution? Was it based on another model?

No, it wasn't. There was a quite specific series of arguments which went into forming it. From my experience at the CAS where there tended to be style wars - one style generation would take over from another style generation and attempt to lock out others and control and exploit the situation. Or large numbers of artists wouldn't join because they didn't like the other members, were antagonistic to their style because they thought it was too radical or too conservative. It was all identity politics, a refusal to admit they were all in the same boat.

I was determined that that wouldn't happen so when we were drawing this up, what we tried to do was a constitution which created a balance between all the different groups so they couldn't fight with each other; there was more room to manoeuvre. The constitution actually has four categories of membership, which separates out people who showed in galleries, people who were administrators, curators, people who did stuff which was outside the gallery system altogether. They were categorised in broad ways so that none of them could control each other and so we would have a kind of collegiate system.

That structure still remains.

It was intended to cut across all the bullshit, to say "all the style stuff doesn't matter, what matters are distribution and marketing systems." But the worst problem in terms of drawing it up was the political naivety of many of the people involved. Everybody was enthusiastic but you constantly had problems getting people to understand that we were playing around in an area which had enormous legal complications, a gigantic body of thought going back a hundred years which wouldn't just fall into line with what we thought. That was why I suppose what I was aiming at was something more like NAVA has become, I thought the idea of a union in the strict legal sense was just posturing, impossible to achieve and possibly even undesirable, too limiting.

I was the only one with any broad union experience although some of the others had some Teachers Federation experience, because of their teaching work. And there was also a sort of ruling class workerist faction determined to prove they were more radical than any one else, because sectarian left politics had become pretty fashionable around the universities since the early seventies.

Who were the ones in that group?

They can remain nameless but they'll recognise themselves - I hope - Some of them are friends of mine now but then they were classic ruling class maoists or trotskyists, naive academics for whom unionism had a sort of rough trade glamour. They were mostly recent arrivals in Sydney, had been involved in Art & Language or student politics and were all loudly preaching unionism and community involvement, oblivious of the fact that plenty of people in Sydney, like me or the Earthworks people had already been doing this for five or six years previously. And anyway I really did not feel very kindly towards maoists because I had only recently been too close to the incredible violence which broke out when the leading maoist, the completely corrupt Norm Gallagher, had smashed the NSW Branch of the Builders Labourers, part of his own union, after being paid to do it by the bosses.

So anyway there were a few people like that involved academics who had this student politics - all words and footnotes - but a sort of intellectual snobbery about activism. And as they wanted to prove they were the most radical they were the ones who insisted that it be called a union, and seek registration as a union. I knew enough about unions to know that would be very limiting in legal terms and draining in terms of limited resources. But I got rolled at the final mass meeting, it was the only issue I really lost out on. One of the things it has been hard for me to learn over the years is that the majority in the art world will always opt for romantic posturing over unromantic realism. Although they did get a very limited sort of registration in the end but it was registration that was of almost no use in any of the issues that mattered to most members.

What were the main campaigns you were involved in.

My role was pretty much confined to getting it up and going. I was on the steering committee at various early stages, I chaired the subcommittee writing the constitution and I was one of the NSW delegates to the first national conference but after that I pretty much pulled out. I thought it was too easy for it to be dominated by people like me who had a lot political experience, and I also thought that we would scare off some of the more conservative artists who might join but wouldn't if they thought it was all just conceptual artists, particularly conspicuous radical activists like me. It was important that there was a wide cross section of viewpoints. And I thought it was important for a wide range of people to get more political skills.

I was strongly in favour of the occupational health and safety campaign because it was an issue that cut right across style issues, was obviously valuable to everyone and could produce some quick, tangible results. I was also in favour of it because it attacked one of the many bits of art world cognitive dissonance, the romance of working in the worst possible working conditions.

My personal agenda was to break the whole way artists thought of themselves. Even thinking and speaking of art as an industry was a major conceptual break, before that being an artist was a "vocation" like being a nun or priest, and then as now the main politics practiced was about identity posturing and self advancement through style cliques. I thought that the only way of breaking this was to try and demystify it, to get people to recognise that they were all just producing objects for sale like everyone else. The irony in that position is that it has gone too far that way these days, official art is simply another fashion driven branch of the style industry, so now I find myself arguing for more mysticism in art, for art that embodies spiritual values. But everything always has unexpected consequences, always goes too far until it's absurdities become apparent and then you have to push back the other way.

How did issues change or evolve in that early period?

I'm not really the right person to ask because my focus had moved to my work with Union Media Services, and my involvement with art was all channelled into the Art and Working Life program. And the very hard nosed politics that I was involved in made me often impatient with some of the people involved in the Artworkers Union so it was best that I remained at a sympathetic distance rather than get involved and cranky about the wilful stupidity of some of them.

For instance an embarassing example of this wilful stupidity occurred years later when I organised a meeting between Artworkers Union committee members and a group of very powerful union officials to try and give them a few more contacts. It was when site agreements were becoming a major industrial relations issue and several of the artists launched into this nonsense about how they wanted to enter into dialogue with the union movement about the concept of the word 'site'. When the unionists pointed out that a site was just a workplace the artists argued against this in bizarre fashionable French-pseudo-philosophy gibberish. After patiently trying to explain to them that really post-structuralism was pretty irrelevant to industrial law the unionists then one by one very politely and rapidly absented themselves so the whole thing was over in twenty minutes. The artists behaved like one of the meeting scenes in "The Life of Brian", like the meeting where they argue about the terms they should use to condemn the Romans while meanwhile Brian gets crucified. Their posturing really was incredibly embarassing, and the unionists who had been there teased me about it for years afterwards.

As I said earlier I hadn't wanted to pursue union registration because I mistakenly thought the legalisms were unresolvable. I mean, unions are organisations of employees, and artists do not have an employer, at least not in terms of the master/servant relationship which is the common law basis of industrial law.

Many of the artists involved, like the workerist group, just wanted to dismiss this when in fact it was fundamental. But this was often a problem, many of the people involved would simply ignore inconvenient realities like in this case the several hundred years of law that had developed around workers organisations. In reality the Australia Council and the museums are the employers much of the time, using artists as temps to construct the props necessary to justify the continuance of the institution, but neither side would admit that because that relationship is based on the same mutual self delusion about identity that allows truck drivers and casuals on contracts to convince themselves that they are not employees.

So I was completely amazed when eventually they did get registration, I think it was basically a legal accident, and ultimately a bit of a disaster because it became this weapon that the Australia Council successfully manipulated to block much more radical things happening through other genuinely powerful unions.

What happened was that because the Art and Working Life program had heightened union awareness of the arts by the late 80s the unions had developed all sorts of initiatives of their own with as usual an unexpected consequence in that a power struggle had broken out between the Australia Council and the unions. It was a symptom of the Artworkers Union's lack of real union involvement that most Artworkers Union people were only very dimly aware of this fight and obviously did not understand it.

Amongst other things it grew from a policy that Geoff Hogg and the Painters and Decorators Union (PDU) Victorian Branch Secretary Albert Littler had cooked up. It had turned out that the PDU in Victoria had for decades had coverage of artists working on murals etc on building sites so they proposed to negotiate as part of joint building union site agreements that a percentage of the cost of all major buildings must be spent on commissioned art and craft works, but the artists must be PDU members. The other building unions agreed and the ACTU also backed it. I had a very minor role in it at that point as I was by then a National Research Officer for the very powerful Miscellaneous Workers Union, and a member of the ACTU Arts Committee. A few agreements were negotiated which raised several million dollars and it became very obvious that the sort of money that could flow from this would massively dwarf all other forms of visual art funding combined. This horrified the Australia Council and the Visual Arts Board went into full sabotage mode, especially as at that stage the program of union amalgamation and rationalisation had begun, and if the Artworkers Union had amalgamated with the PDU they would have had access to a bonanza that would have really marginalised the Australia Council. The Australia Council then organised a large discussion meeting to promote an amalgamation with Actors Equity and stacked it with supporters. Amalgamation with Equity meant they could all be happy artists together - no money but no scruffy building types to lower the tone or provide real industrial muscle. Only two supporters of the PDU position were allowed to attend, both union officials not artists, and I was expressly banned from the meeting by the Visual Arts Board Director despite the ACTU demanding I be there as one of its representatives.

Ultimately and not surprisingly the Artworkers Union amalgamated with Actors Equity where as far as I know it has effectively ceased to exist. So once again identity politics won over reality and resulted in the ultimate demise of the organisation. Meanwhile in Victoria Kennett came to power, things got difficult and the PDU decided that if the art world wasn't going to support them then why should they keep fighting for artists so they dropped it from agreements. And so one of the greatest opportunities the visual arts has had in the last few decades was killed by Artworkers Union ignorance and stupidity and self delusion and Australia Council manipulation and duplicity.

What about the role of art schools and the development of art education. That is in fact most artist's experience of unionism, through the teaching unions.

I didn't go to art school, I was exhibiting at Central Street Gallery for several years while I was still in high school and I didn't see much for me at East Sydney Tech or Alexander Mackie Teachers College or Julian Ashton which were the only art schools in the late 60s. So that also meant I have been relieved of the horrifying prospect of teaching art. It seems to me that artists when forced into reality by the context of a teaching institution will behave fairly rationally but again will start behaving irrationally as soon as the question of their identity as artists is the issue. But I was a bit involved in policy issues around arts training when I was on the ACTU Arts Committee. I think the problem with art education now is that the sort of person who does well in the art education system is the sort of conformist operator who makes really bad art, and these people have been increasingly shaping an art world in their own image, an art world safe for conformist bad art, where the real issue is your ability to manipulate your way through the system rather than your ability to create great images. One of the results of this has been that anyone who questions the quality of official art, in fact any dissenting voice, is howled down and vilified and if possible forced out completely.

So how did you get into art?

Just drifted into it in my very early teens. Took myself off to exhibitions. The Ian Fairweather retrospective around 1965, I think, made me decide that I wanted to be an artist. I went to Marist Brothers school in Darlinghurst. Watters was down the hill, Darlinghurst Galleries around the corner, Gallery A, Komon's and the Hungry Horse Gallery in Paddington and Central Street in the city so I just went to art galleries nearly every day after school.

It was an irony that the old Marist Brothers became the site of much of the Artworkers Union activity.

Yes, it was a bit disconcerting chairing meetings which were occasionally in my old class room. It gave me real flashbacks. While I was still at school I had a number of art world mentors, that's really how it happened. People who noticed when I came into galleries and talked to me, introduced me to people. Tony McGillick, Jenny and Gunther Christmann, Daniel Thomas, Frank Watters. Later on I did the same for Fiona Hall, while she was still just a school girl; my girlfriend Rebecca and I used to take her along to openings with us. After I left school, thanks to the good offices of Daniel Thomas I went to work in the Pictures Section of the Mitchell Library and I think I learnt more there than I ever would have learnt in any of the art schools of the time, it needed a very high level of visual literacy and I learned an enormous amount about how to read an image. The impression I get is that art schools are even worse now, not only do you learn no practical skills, you now have the absurd situation where the emphasis is on verbal skills rather than visual skills.

My experience then makes me think that some sort of workshop system, simply working as an assistant to an artist, would be a far better education about being an artist than any art school. And there would be no credentials at the end, you would just be kicked out of the nest when the time came. Surely there is only one credential as an artist, your work, open to all who have eyes and brains. If the work doesn't stand up then go and do something else, forget about being an artist. All a degree proves is that you've been too unimaginative to drop out and are safe for institutional use. I'm really opposed to the cult of the CV. Institutions and the bureaucrats they support do not want great art or great artists because they are invariably problematic. What they want is a guaranteed level of mediocre but regular performance, and no rocking the boat. The current obsession with credentials is just about producing official artists to keep the institutions turning over. Credentials are a way of removing the need for visual literacy and judgement, the institutions can simply, without needing judgement, support certified official artists no matter how dismal and forgettable their art is.

I used to be opposed to those romantic notions about art, that you had to be mad to be an artist. But I'm reconsidering now, some reckless romanticism is not a bad antidote now that it's swung so far the other way that artists behave like junior executives desperately building voluminous CVs safe in the knowledge that our timid mediocre curators prefer reading to looking and can judge quantity even if they can't judge quality. Very early on I realised that you had to make a choice, you could either have a career in the art world chasing fashion or you could have a life and maybe make great art or maybe not. In order to make great art you have to learn a lot about the world, you have to risk your whole life and identity as an artist, you will regularly make mistakes and most likely you will fail. But that is the risk you have to take, and the compensation is a more exciting life. In the long run the interesting art is not made by artists who have nice neatly run little lives, who have bureaucratically well documented careers, who never take a wrong turn, who never risk their reputation except by being overly obsequious, who never keep bad company, who never embarrass curators by forcing them to look and think and rethink again and again.

Sydney University, 27 May 1993 (with additional material December 1999)
© Helen Grace & Ian Milliss