Artists do not usually seek anonymity yet for many years Ian Milliss saw it as essential to the way he had chosen to work.
When Ian Milliss began exhibiting in the late 1960s at Sydney’s Central Street Gallery - the artist run centre of hard edged abstraction - his work consisted of modular, repetitive, geometric shapes grouped together to produce a series of ‘folding’ illusionistic canvases. Even these earliest of works done in his teens display his interest in ambiguity and multiple readings, the clash of illusion and reality that was to develop into the preoccupation of his entire career - the many ways in which we try to impose structure on a reality which is ultimately unknowable. Within the first few years he recognised art itself to be one of those illusory structures.
In the four years between late 1967 and his decision to stop conventional exhibiting in early 1972, Milliss was to work through all the preoccupations of formalism, minimalism and conceptual art to reach an understanding of the artist as activist that was unique in Australian art. In 1973 he wrote
“Real creative activity is so natural and unselfconscious as to be invisible. The true artist is unrecognized even by his or her self. It would be nice to say that everybody is an artist in the real sense, but given the nature of capitalist society, it is not true, although in certain circumstances or in certain other societies it may be true. In our society, almost everyone, worker or boss, leads a life of sterile alienation, but there are exceptions. They are the people who directly tackle basic problems of everyday life, and come up with simple, beautiful, workable alternatives, solutions which are radical whether analysed in sound political, economic or aesthetic terms. If we work in this way to destroy not only art, but industrial technology and formal hierarchical politics, we can create a real culture.”
This quote contains the core belief of the path he was to pursue. It explains his commitment to the trade union movement, his understanding of workers creativity and work as cultural activity initially expressed in his involvement in the Green Ban movement and later in his involvement in the ACTU/Australia Council Art & Working Life program. It explains his belief that all audiences (not just the art world audience) are equally worthwhile and above all it explains why his activities have criss-crossed conventional social, political and aesthetic boundaries as if they did not exist.
In the three decades since, his belief that artists are people who create, develop or expose the cultural values of society using any means available has guided his explorations of the ways that an artist activist can operate. This exhibition outlines those explorations.
By the end of 1967 a range of influences converged to develop the conceptual tendencies already begun in Milliss’s early shaped canvases. The first had been the opening of Central Street Gallery. Although it is known for its promotion of formalist hard edged abstraction, it was more important to Milliss as the place where he “met people who confirmed my understanding that art could be a type of philosophical debate carried out with images and actions, not just the business of manufacturing expensive decorative images of scenery ”.
The generation of artists exhibiting in those inaugural years were Tony McGillick, Michael Johnson, Tony Coleing, Gunter Christman, Dick Watkins, Vernon Treweeke, (David Aspden, John Peart, Ron Robertson-Swann were also showing in other galleries) – a generation of painters older than Milliss, but doing what he had already started in comparative isolation. Many of these artists had recently returned from London, and were producing an ‘international’ style of formalist painting.
So it was also at the end of the same year that the exhibition ‘Two Decades of American Art’ arrived, bringing the work of de Kooning, Pollock, Guston, Still, Rothko, Johns, Louis, Newman, Stella, Reinhardt, Warhol, Held, Noland and Frankenthaler - an exhibition which mostly exemplified the Greenbergian canon. Seeing works that he had admired and that had already influenced him had the effect of accelerating his reaction against the type of formalism which was coming to dominate world art and which operated within a system of limitations, the most absolute of which was a prohibition on any political interpretation, ie, any meaning beyond the phenomenological.
‘The Field’ exhibition in1968 was a survey of current Australian art that attempted to map ‘new’ art tendencies in Australia. Put on by the National Gallery of Victoria, it consisted of a kind of ‘lyrical abstraction’ which still held onto the diminishing Greenbergian rule. Milliss had already moved away from this kind of geometric painting and was heading towards a type of minimalism more concerned with the physical properties of different materials. This was a period of exploration into which Milliss started to seriously question the relation between art and society with the resulting collapse of the boundaries between art, artifact and context in order to separate and analyse the component parts. For him the period beginning in 1968, to 1971, when he ceased exhibiting marked an ongoing strategy of artistic effacement, from object to concept to absence.
If the first phase, until 1968 could be considered solid, in the next year, the work became fragmentary, although still physically based. There was still paint on canvas no matter how spread out on the gallery walls the works became. After that, in 1969 canvas gave way to outlines conceived and constructed in rope and wood. He was trying to see how far he could go to keep the illusion of pictorial space while employing materials which discouraged this illusion. But as he moved towards minimalism, the work became much less pictorial, less interested in visual illusion and more interested in the illusion of “art”. An awareness of space and the peculiarities of galleries as ‘spaces apart’ concerned him more than the art object per se and by using parts of the gallery infrastructure –lights, walls, floors and later, furniture, he incorporated the gallery context into the work of art. In making the work indistinguishable from its surroundings, to make it ‘disappear’ Milliss had set himself the task of removing all the cues of art’s specialness in order to expose a kind of dishonesty which he considered to be the manufactured by-product of vested interest. Art had to be art, had to change cultural values, rather than just look like art.
His questioning of what it meant to be an artist inevitably led to a more politicised stance that was also related to the social upheavals of the Vietnam War period. Although Milliss was not conscripted he was arrested at an anti Vietnam War demonstration in early 1969, the first of many arrests in the course of his activism.
It was around this time that Donald Brook coined the term ‘post-object art’ and it was also in late 1969 that Christo and Jeanne Claude arrived in Australia to work on ‘Wrapped Coast’ a project Milliss became actively involved in. It was an enormous project similar to the massive scale work being done by ‘environmental’ artists, such as Morris, Smithson and Heizer who used the landscape as their medium. In addition Christo constructed an exhibition for Central Street Gallery in which Milliss was his assistant. The experience gave Milliss a more confident sense of the legitimacy of his own work and a licence to go beyond the bounds of current local practice. He was increasingly moving away from the limitations of orthodox art practices, and at the same time distancing himself from institutional sanction, although not challenging the gallery system in its entirety.
In early 1970 at the age of nineteen Milliss resigned from his job in the pictures section of the Mitchell Library (he said it was because he liked it too much) and began an extremely prolific period of creativity. The works he produced became less pictorial with more emphasis on the arrangement of objects which were nothing in themselves, giving out few cues to suggest a ‘work of art’. These works were often open to misinterpretation and created a certain amount of critical animosity while simultaneously being praised for their audacity, provocation and originality. It began with a number of works in a Central Street group show - the most successful being a wall of light created by shining the gallery’s lights on an aluminium strip screwed to the floor. A further “anonymous” group show at Central Street featured two anti-paintings, one a rough rectangle on the gallery wall painted with paint stripper to expose the wall’s multi-coloured history - a work which provoked an extreme reaction from artist critic James Gleeson. This was followed by the first kinaesthetic work in the Contemporary Art Society’s Young Contemporaries exhibition where the viewer was invited to walk along a path on the gallery floor.
Milliss was then invited to enter The Transfield Prize, the most valuable and prestigious art prize of the time. He entered ‘Walk along this line’ a work about the physical sensation of being in your own body which was to become a cause celebre. It was a somewhat satirical piece, a joke at the expense of body and performance art, in that he was using the audience’s body, making it perform in order to achieve the work of art. Using just a strip of masking tape two inches out from the wall, any attempt to follow the instructions on the wall – to walk along the line – immediately overbalanced the participant, pushing them backwards, away from the work. It was a kind of repulsion (an anti magnetic force) with an instruction to obey against the laws of physics – a piece which in the end proves what everyone already knows – which is simply that you can’t always do what you are told to do.
Then came the CAS annual show, and the placing of a large thick sponge rubber doormat which had to be crossed in order to enter the gallery. The gradual degradation of the sponge rubber as it was walked over provided an equally satirical commentary on the nature of entering an art gallery, as well as the perhaps more serious aspect, of the physical sensation of walking on something not quite stable.
Finally, in the Survey 10 group show at the Blaxland Gallery he made a work that was simply a rearrangement of the gallery furniture and partitions, a work that was misinterpreted as “the artist showing nothing” by the usually supportive Donald Brook. Meanwhile he was now being regularly attacked by the more conservative critics.
In the mean time he had also produced an enormous body of mail art and typed and photocopied works on a form that he had printed as a critical jibe at the bureaucratic nature of art institutions – “it meant that it was art because it was on an art form”. These works touch almost every aspect and style that was to develop from Conceptual Art over the next two decades including Appropriation and Pop but Milliss shortly rejected them too as becoming predictable(apart from a small number that were developed into exhibited works). He has described these works as his way of thinking about where conceptual art might lead and of testing out its Duchampian and dada influences - but found it wanting.
The area he chose to develop was to extend the physical participation of the viewer into group actions. A large number of unrealised works propose games that involve socially problematic interactions with other viewers. One exhibited example was selected by visiting Documenta curator Harald Szeemann for John Kaldor’s Art Project 2 which showcased the work of Australia's young avant-garde artists at Bonython Gallery, Sydney and the National Gallery of Victoria. This work was a “circular tug of war” for three or more people, requiring the viewer to recruit other participants. In practice the work was used in many different ways - arranged over sculptures by gallery goers, worn like a long boa, used for conga lines, and had to be recovered from other parts of the gallery by attendants who also had to regularly save it from being stolen - its probable fate as it was never returned. Milliss was delighted by the anarchy the work caused but the galleries involved were less amused.
Minor but equally significant was the small work he contributed to an impromptu exhibition at the reception for Szeeman’s arrival. Milliss contributed a diagram for hanging the works of other artists, either side of his diagram, and the spot where Szeeman should stand, directly in front of his diagram. Szeeman’s visit was seen by many hopeful artists as providing possible entrée to the international art scene but Milliss’ gesture parodied their hopes while deflating the whole curatorial project before it had even begun. By making his work out of other artists’ work he also satirised appropriation before it existed as a movement. Not surprisingly, no Australian artists were included in Szeeman’s Documenta.
It was clear that his work was moving beyond the gallery context. For a short time his main focus was mail art. He was sending brief letters to specific individuals with instructions for ways to modify their living arrangement in unlikely ways – remove the exterior doors of their house so it was open to the elements, or move their bed to the bathroom – or to undertake uncomfortable sexual acts, or to change their careers or business. One gallery owner was instructed to close his gallery and use only rented office spaces for exhibitions, another was instructed to replace actual exhibitions with books of the works that would have been exhibited.
Milliss’ search for ways to use the elements of daily life and the context of the art world can be seen in his last exhibited works. One was a chalk drawing on the floor of Central Street Gallery, by then run by the CAS. It was a miniature dystopia described as “life in one room”, a floor plan of a cell that contained only a bed and sources of information such as a radio, a television, books, newspapers, magazines, and instructions that all other life functions could be served in a communal fashion, by eating in restaurants, using laundromats, public showers and toilets. In the course of the exhibition it was walked over until it had virtually disappeared. The second was his entry for the Young Contemporaries exhibition, a letter to the committee of the CAS suggesting that he should receive the Young Contemporaries award because he had generated more publicity than any other young artist in the previous year, an action that aimed to make explicit the social context that generates notions of good and bad art.
At this point Milliss made the decision to stop exhibiting art works. He describes this as the end of the first part of his career where he had gone beyond his original understanding of artists as the “manufacturers of art products marketed through galleries” and beyond the conceptual art that had followed from that. He now began the second part of his career that was to spread over the next two decades and leave him increasingly isolated from the conventional art world - the development of the artist as cultural activist. He decided to stop exhibiting in galleries and develop a different type of artistic practice which aimed to reach alternative audiences by using those Australian institutions (like trade unions) which, while not obviously related to the arts, had played a major part in the development of Australian culture in the wider sense.
He described the problems he was facing in a 1972 interview with Hazel DeBerg
“I knew what I wanted to do and I couldn't think of ways to make it happen, just to make real straight real-life situations of some sort, how to make them art…
“It's a very important problem that has to be resolved. You have to decide that if you're going to do works of art that are about life, and that have real-life results, you can't present just plain formal results…
“Art has to deal with real problems, I don't see there's any excuse for wasting your life like that otherwise, and therefore we have to go straight out and deal with life in art, say as an example perhaps of ways to deal with the whole lot of the problems in general; to present a set of attitudes and to work out a set of attitudes in ourselves, as artists”.
He was investigating the possibility of setting up informal activist groups with other artists to stage what he described as “social actions” and “research in social change” when an alternative was suddenly presented. In late 1971 he was invited to join the committee of the Contemporary Art Society as a seconded member.
As Australia’s most influential artists’ organisation the CAS had played a pivotal role in the Sydney art world for twenty years. Its two annual exhibitions, one for members and the other for young artists were second only to the Archibald Prize as the major events of the Sydney art calendar. The CAS had taken over Central Street Gallery after a split between the directors had resulted in Chandler Coventry leaving to set up his own gallery. Milliss believed that the gallery duplicated existing facilities at a time when the real need was the lack of alternative art publications. Shortly after joining the committee he convinced the other committee members to hold an extraordinary general meeting at which a vote was taken to close the gallery. Milliss was then appointed editor of the revamped CAS Broadsheet, with a publishing committee that included Jim Davenport, Alan Oldfield and Tim Johnson. In the DeBerg interview he described his involvement in the CAS as a way of using the art world to make an art that had no material existence but symbolised larger political forces: “I don't make any objects, photograph anything, I don't record anything, I just act as a person (doing things) which are not important in themselves but really just examples of things to do”.
Over the next 18 months the suddenly politicised CAS Broadsheet ran articles from the Guerrilla Art Action Group, various members of the Art & Language group and numerous Australian artists. It conducted a campaign demanding greater transparency and accountability from the Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW and distributed several thousand copies of an artist contract developed in New York. It also published extensive excerpts from Sydney City Council papers regarding redevelopment in the inner city suburbs. Milliss justified this on the basis that many artists lived or worked in these areas and commented that builders’ labourers had become artists because green bans were cultural actions. They also wrote policy submissions for the ALP, widely expected to win the election due in late 1972, proposing the formation of an Australia Council based on the model of the Canada Council. At the same time they received a $10,000 dollar grant for the Broadsheet, one of the last grants by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, the Australia Council’s predecessor.
Milliss was now approached by Brian Finemore of the National Gallery of Victoria to take part in an exhibition he was planning for late 1973 to be called “Object and Idea”. Finemore wanted the exhibition to be equivalent to “The Field”, the exhibition that had opened the new gallery in 1968, but showcasing the work of the next generation, the first Conceptual artists. When Milliss told him that he had worked through Conceptual Art and did not want to produce work for the institutional context, Finemore suggested that he should write a catalogue essay explaining his refusal to take part. This sometimes awkwardly written essay, “New Artist” hints at issues that were dealt with by later writers on regionalism and institutional concepts of art but the most important points for Milliss were about the relationship between cultural and political change and everyday life:
“Cultural change and political change form an equation which results in each being the cause of the other while impossible without the other. The substitution of "official culture" for everyday life, real culture, in the general consciousness, is the means capitalist society uses to break the connection. Since we are all brought up with this false view of cultural history we are alienated from our real history and are therefore unable to interpret our experience vis-a-vis society properly.”
His comment that “the only viable solution seems to be to live as anonymously as possible” signalled his public break from the conventional art world, a break recently described by artist and writer, Christopher Dean, as the beginning of “the great divide” between official art and those artists whose practice exists beyond the limits of institutional art. Milliss had effectively debunked Conceptual Art and publicly walked away from it at exactly the point where, for most artists, its ascendancy was beginning. His comments on the culture of everyday life were to be the key to his move into working with trade unions and his involvement in the Art and Working Life program, particularly his writing on work as the basis of culture.
In early 1973 the CAS federal organisation was revived at a meeting of the state branches in Sydney. Jim Davenport was appointed Federal President and Milliss was appointed Federal Secretary but Milliss was increasingly occupied with the Victoria Street Resident Action Group and the Green Ban movement. He resigned his CAS positions but the last edition of the Broadsheet that he edited carried a portrait of Mao Tse Tung on the cover and an extensive article on “Rent Collection Courtyard”, a Chinese social realist sculpture that was to achieve Western fame thirty years later when an appropriation of it featured at the Venice Biennale. Although he was never a Maoist, Milliss was impressed by the images brought back from China by his friend and fellow artist Dave Morrissey who had travelled through China on one of the first tours allowed after the renewal of diplomatic ties on the election of the Whitlam Labour Government. This celebration of social realism was Milliss’ final rebuke to the anti-political formalism that now dominated the Australian art world, and a curious reversal of the early 1950s political battles between the CAS Modernists and the Communist front Society of Realist Artists (SORA). Milliss regretted the fact that he never completed his last article on the work of “the most unacceptable living Australian artist”, the cartoonist Ralph Sawyer who was employed by the Waterside Workers Federation to paint political banners for the annual May Day march.
Meanwhile, the Victoria Street protest had turned ugly. The Victoria Street Resident Action Group had been formed as a developer, Frank Theeman, had bought up most of the western side of the street. Theeman had plans to build a number of high rise towers on the site and began aggressively evicting the residents, a disparate group of artists, Garden Island and inner city workers and Kings Cross bohemians. Milliss lived around the corner from Victoria Street in St Neot Avenue but had became an active founding member of the Resident Action Group through his friendship with Central Street artist Joe Szabo and his partner Bonnie McDougall who lived in the same building as the group’s leading member, Arthur King. The NSW Builders Labourers Federation had imposed a Green Ban on the street, blocking demolition and redevelopment. As the protests became more strident King disappeared, feared murdered. After extensive publicity he reappeared after a few days, having been kidnapped, held in a car boot and threatened by the developer’s hired thugs. He immediately went into hiding. When the police took no action the remaining residents organised to seize control of the street.
Resident action group members and supporters moved into the vacant buildings, beginning the first urban squat since the Great Depression. Over the next six months the squat grew into a large community. Police treated it as a no-go area, consequently it was under constant threat of violence - at one point a house was set on fire, killing a number of residents. In January 1974, in a major operation, the police moved in and arrested the squatters while the developer vandalised the buildings to make them uninhabitable.
The resident action group published a newspaper, the City Squatter as a memorial to their protest action. The lead article outlining the story of the Victoria Street protest was written by Milliss and (the late)Teresa Brennan. A second article by Milliss, “The Barricades”, described their efforts to barricade the buildings. Milliss saw the article as a crucial point in his artist activist development, indicating the way forward to working with unions in the media in a collaborative work process. Another article by Wendy Bacon, Anne Summers and others was the first public exposure of the links between corrupt politicians, police and developers uncovered by the action of group members in the course of their protest. The authors later went on to work in the mass media where their further investigations were to have enormous political repercussions.
The final stage in the Victoria Street story was to come several years later with the murder of Juanita Nielsen, the proprietor of a small local newspaper, who continued to protest the development. By this time the Green Bans had been removed after the violent takeover of the NSW Builders Labourers by the Union’s Federal office led by the corrupt Norm Gallagher.
During 1974 Milliss was active in the prison reform groups, Prisoners Action Group and Women Behind Bars. Later that year he moved away from Sydney - to Napoleon Reef, a small gold mining village between Lithgow and Bathurst, but travelled back regularly to continue his involvement in various activist groups. He was also researching a proposed exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW on the inventor and farm designer P. A. Yeomans. Yeomans had developed dry land farming techniques appropriate to Australian conditions and a range of elegantly simple inventions for use on the farms. Milliss described him as “an Australian Capability Brown”. The exhibition was to exemplify Milliss’ position that creativity and the development of cultural values were not limited to those who described themselves as artists. Milliss believed that by curating work that was not considered art in a gallery context he could present a counterpoint to the rise of Duchampian style appropriations which he believed were often artists lifting the creative efforts of others. The exhibition was eventually cancelled when an AGNSW trustee objected to it as a “trade” show not an “art” show.
This period in the country became a brief time out for Milliss who needed to recuperate from the stress of the previous three years. Nonetheless he remained involved in a number of campaigns to release long term prisoners, and in art world campaigns to influence the selection policies of the Sydney Biennale – he even brought the 1976 opening ceremony to a sudden end by unplugging Malcolm Fraser in the middle of his speech. He regularly wrote short articles but his frustration showed through in their often ranting tone. He also renewed his friendship with Ian Burn who had moved to Sydney from New York. The two had met in the early seventies when Burn and Mel Ramsden had at various times visited Sydney and had remained in contact. Terry Smith and Nigel Lendon also returned to Sydney and Milliss began to work with the Media Action Group that they had set up to produce slide shows analysing the media treatment of political issues.
Disaster struck in September 1977 when he was severely injured while managing a break-in to the White Bay container terminal in an attempt to prevent a uranium shipment. The Waterside Workers Federation had announced that its members would only refuse to load the uranium if there were protesters on the dock. Intense police activity had kept protesters confined to the terminal entrance but a group had reached the wharves by swimming at night across White Bay from Balmain Point. Milliss and fellow activist, Julie McCrossin, were to ensure that all the swimmers were safely accounted for but in the dark Milliss fell several metres onto a concrete slab, breaking his arm and leg. He spent the next six months in plaster and was forced to return to Sydney. The positive effect of this was to allow him to spend more time working on Media Action Group projects, Biennale representation negotiations and a community arts project in the Hunter Valley.
The Upper Hunter Valley Environmental Exhibition was a series of community art exhibitions and events in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney from 1978 to 1980. The project was initiated by gallery owner Frank Watters, who had grown up in Muswellbrook. Milliss worked with him as an organiser and researcher along with Vivienne Binns, John Delacour, Marr Grounds and Geoffrey Legge. The project examined the relationship between coal mining, farming, wine growing and other industries in the area - and the effect expanded mining was having on the lives of the residents as shown in art works produced by them and by a number of invited artists and photographers.
At the same time he continued as a leader of the artist’s lobby group fighting for more equal representation of Australian and women artists in the Sydney Biennale. He argued that the Biennale enforced marginalisation on Australian art by presenting European and US art as a model to be pursued by Australian artists. Equal representation of Australian artists would present a more balanced view encouraging them to pursue their own issues. When the group achieved considerable concessions in the selection of the 1979 Biennale they reformed into the Artworkers Union, now amalgamated with Actors Equity and the Australian Journalists Association to form The Media Alliance, the union representing the arts, media and entertainment industries.
Back to the Media Action Group, which had begun meeting in early 1977 at Sydney University. The meetings had been started by Ian Burn, Terry Smith and Nigel Lendon, the Australian members of the Art & Language group, who had recently returned to Australia. Although early meetings were well attended they quickly dropped to around ten members. The group produced slide shows on the ideological bias in media treatment of advertising, uranium mining, new technology and the history of May Day. They also designed a publication , “Job Killers” for the Trans National Co-Operative, a left wing think tank, and provided graphics for “Australia Uprooted”, a Metal Workers Union publication.
The publications led to an approach from a journalist, Dale Keeling, to layout the newspapers he edited for a number of telecommunications unions. With the support of the others Milliss and Keeling began working together and over the next 18 months built up a business employing several people. Milliss and Keeling formed a company, Union Media Services Pty Ltd, in late 1980 but almost immediately split when Milliss insisted that the company was an extension of the Media Action Group and that Burn should join as a full time worker and Burn, Smith and Lendon must be directors. Keeling wouldn’t accept this and quit and the work was subsequently divided between him and Union Media Services. Despite this setback the company, with Milliss as Managing Director, quickly grew to become Australia’s first professional social marketing agency, employed by government departments, trade unions and community groups to run publications and social issues campaigns - marketing ideas rather than products.
When Union Media Services (UMS) began, trade union internal communications were in a state of decline. In the whole country there were only half a dozen professional journalists employed by unions. The best union publications were poorly produced and written by union officials who lacked media skills. The worst were run by advertising sales businesses which provided unions with free but poorly produced publications in return for the right to use the union’s name to sell advertising space.
Union Media Services set out to convince trade unions that producing their own publications and improving their communications with members was crucial to their long term survival. Milliss argued that the unions were in a cultural war with the mass media that was pushing consumerism and individualism in opposition to the trade union’s traditional values of co-operation, mutual support and self help. Milliss believed that by partly co-ordinating the contents of a number of union publications it would be possible to create a type of alternative mass media with a broad based control. Over the next three years UMS produced regular publications and campaigns for over fifty different unions and government departments, including the Australia Council. The combined readership of the union publications was several hundred thousand. In the process UMS also became a factional player by providing cheap or free publishing for trade union election campaigns usually, but not always, to support the left.
A number of other artists had also begun to work for trade unions. Redback Graphix set up by Michael Callaghan and Gregor Cullen in Wollongong was to produce the most vivid imagery of the time. Milliss argued that UMS too was creating a new model for artistic practice in a more effective way than could be done by individual art works, in other words the organisation itself, its development of new audiences and social marketing systems, and its broad cultural activities constituted meaningful artistic activity. As a result, Milliss and Burn became actively involved in the development of the Australia Council's Art and Working Life program, which was set up in 1981 to develop public access to the arts through the workplace in collaboration with union and employer organisations. In a number of position papers and publications written for the Australia Council, Milliss and Burn developed the theoretical framework which led to the progression of the program from its simple beginnings - staging concerts and plays during workers lunch hours - to an extensive program involving all arts with an emphasis on access and involvement, the revival of traditional forms like banners and the placement of artists in industry. Milliss was particularly involved in developing an Art and Working Life news service to syndicate material across many union journals, a system later adopted by the ACTU.
The company grew rapidly and gathered work from interstate. Milliss began spending half his time in Melbourne setting up a branch office while Burn managed the day to day operations of the Sydney office. Milliss also introduced a computerised time management and accounting system which immediately exposed weakness in the company. The Melbourne office was closed and Milliss concentrated on tightening up the management of the Sydney office. Although they returned to profitability after several months they now faced a backlog of debt. After heated disagreements about the way forward, Milliss was forced out. He commented that a collaborative work process had degenerated into a collaborative stuff up combining rapid growth, inexperience on the part of all involved and under-capitalisation into a text book small business disaster. It was an acrimonious end with Milliss losing out on his vision to set up a large media organisation to a lesser set up based on theoretical and academic attachments rather than hard line action.
Although UMS rapidly lost its position after this, it had created a revolution in trade union communications as the approach they had developed was taken up by a number of similar organisations (eg Social Change Media) which were forming around this time. Within a few years trade union media had grown from a handful of old journalists nearing retirement into a small industry employing several hundred journalists and artists.
But Milliss had again shifted his focus – forced in part by the demise of his place in UMS, and partly by the need to regroup and move on. He joined his partner Bronwyn Barwell in her business, Oceania Media Network (OMN), a political and educational film and video distributor. For the next five years he combined video distribution with freelance trade union publicity work and upgrading his computer skills. OMN eventually moved from video distribution into trading information about videos in distribution. Data on availability and sources was collected using databases designed by Milliss and sold on CD-ROM through RMIT.
He was, however, feeling increasingly isolated. At this time he began a series of crude drawings on newsprint which he describes as therapy rather than art, an expression of his alienation from an art world that he now felt was driven by marketing and fashion. He also began to experiment with using computers to make art but he was discouraged by the lack of interactive systems capable of running the works he envisaged. He did however produce numerous works using drawing programs. Unfortunately most of these have been lost due to technology changes and the instability of the media, a problem that led him to later reconsider painting.
In 1989 he began working for the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union, one of Australia’s largest unions led at the time by Martin Ferguson. The Missos, as they were commonly known, were a general union of several hundred thousand members covering the lowest level of workers across numerous industries ranging from cleaners and security to uranium miners, chemical industry workers, to unusual occupations like saddle makers or artist’s models. As a Federal Research Officer his brief was to upgrade the Union’s internal communication. He introduced a desktop publishing system, developed a system of state and industry newsletters, and ran media skills courses for both the Missos and other unions through the Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA). He eventually developed a full colour national publication, the first trade union publication whose production values were comparable to the mass media. In 1990, as a member of the Cultural Committee of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) he was involved in drafting a new cultural policy which emphasised the role of arts and technology in economic development, an approach later echoed in the Keating Government’s Creative Nation arts policy paper in 1994.
Leaving the Missos in 1992, Milliss again set up in business with Bronwyn Barwell developing management and marketing systems for clients ranging from the Navy and University of NSW to community based groups like Streetwize Comix with a range of large and small corporate clients in between. He travelled regularly in the mid 90s to Jakarta where he developed fund management and customer loyalty systems. By the late 90s, almost 50 years old, Milliss had traversed almost the entire range of union and corporate Australia at both the highest and lowest levels, and the art works he was producing became part of a process of reflection and understanding. The drawings of the late 1980s had transmuted into work which stood uneasily between completely personal and conventionally public art. The computer works done during this period were initially limited by the technology – “Making the Clever Man”, printed on tiled A4 pages, took almost three days to print on an early postscript laser printer. As the technology improved more ambitious works such as “A Short History of the Human Race” became possible. Although some of the works were shown (at Powell Street Gallery, Melbourne 1990 and Ray Hughes Gallery, Sydney, 1993) Milliss saw them as essentially private, saying they were his way of monitoring his own understanding, that the images simply appeared and painting them was equivalent to keeping a scrapbook or diary.
Slowly the problems of reproducing the images drove him to painting because it was a more stable medium. In 1999 an old friend, Professor Teresa Brennan, (who tragically died in 2003 hit and run accident) invited him to spend three months at Florida Atlantic University, where she was setting up a PhD course for public intellectuals. She had invited Milliss to participate in the foundation of the course as artist in residence. The works done in Florida were the first complete series of paintings he had done in thirty years and were intended to critique the vapid form of conceptualism, ie, that which mimics without the political content, that has developed over the last twenty five years. Just as the earlier works set out to contradict the proscriptions of Greenbergian formalism, these works set out to contradict the post modern orthodoxy of appropriation- they are not installations but flat square paintings, they contain simple iconic symbolic images of systems of memory and categories of knowledge and they consciously strive for the immediate visual appeal of the greeting card, computer icon or directive signage. They are a shorthand visual language, which mimics instructional signage and the assimilated and usually uncritiqued advertising logos seen at almost every waking moment in our lives.
But again Milliss cannot easily be categorised as now returning to painting although this became a major interest for a few short years. Donald Brook had noted in a review in the early 1970s that Milliss believed that art in the future would be made from accumulations of information. Almost thirty years later this was becoming possible. Most importantly for him, the internet had finally developed into the interactive tool he had sought since the mid 1980s. The appearance of blogs and wikis has allowed him to set up sites where he can exercise his interest in history and heritage issues, areas he sees as under attack in an increasingly right wing political environment where “one of the most radical things you can do right now is preserve the evidence that things were different in the past and therefore can be different in the future.” His participation in the Open Source Art School, a blog that he has set up with a number of other artists is typical of the way he sees his work moving. It also reflects his current involvement in the open source and open standards movement. He describes this as “the real war going on in the world, the war between those who want to own and exploit all knowledge and those who want to share it for the common good”
Alongside this , the metadiscourse dominates in a slow series of paintings, many done in collaboration with others artists – works about thinking about thinking, works that attempt to make images about the ways we categorise bits of chaos in order to convince ourselves it has meaning. Milliss has gone from subscribing to various ways of describing the world, where he’s acted out several completely different paradigms of what it might mean to be an artist, to now being more interested in the overview – in the very activity of trying to describe the world – an impossible project perhaps, but one in which the exponential capacity of computer power makes anything seem possible.