Art School Confidential

All my musical heroes had gone to art school – Eno, Bowie and three quarters of The Clash, Talking Heads, Jerry and Mark from DEVO… So it made sense to go to art school myself – the plan being to make both art and music. But I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t sing and, although I’d seen sheet music sitting on my sister’s piano, I had no idea what the black blobs meant. But I was about to go to art school right at the height of the post Punk era in the late 1970s-early 1980s, and ‘musical skill’ and all the other bourgeois values of traditional rock were passé – so how hard could it be?

I bought a bass guitar. I played in a band that some [non art school] friends had started. I spent hours making mix tapes in the art school’s sound studios. But my musical skills were so rudimentary I couldn’t really ‘play’ in any meaningful way and the sounds I made on the tapes were grungy collages of TV samples, movie  dialogue and sound effects, and drones made by feeding back some sad notes made on a melodica through a flanger. And it wasn’t as though there weren’t art school bands at Alexander Mackie College [1] – there’d been the Sunnyboys, and members of Mental As Anything, and Tim Schultz, the sax and bongo player for the great The Makers of The Dead Travel Fast, was in my year – but it didn’t work out. I was shit at music.

If I had played an instrument, or not been a pretentious wanker with a blue Cimar bass, I might have joined a proper band, but it was not to be. Instead I continued make Super 8 films [which had been the entirety of my ‘portfolio’ when I had applied to get in] then made more films and video works after graduation. Eventually I developed a second career as a writer in the mid-1990s.

What’s interesting about that time was the wide acceptance of any media as a legitimate expression of artistic expression. The art school had music and video studios, film-editing facilities for Super 8 and 16mm, and while the technology was basic, it was there. Along with classes in what was called ‘post studio arts’ – stuff like performance, conceptual art and installation – it was an accepting and tolerant place. An artist wasn’t defined by the medium they worked in – practice was the thing. If you made it, it was art.

One of my lecturers was a friendly, enthusiastic guy named John Drews. Although he’d gained some notice as an abstract painter in the 1970s, he taught a subject called ‘Electromedia’ – a hybrid multi-media course of music, film and audiovisual production. Between chain smoking up to five cigarettes simultaneously and knocking back cups of black coffee, he’d tell us stories of how he’d avoided the Nam draft in the ‘60s by eating tons of sugar to give himself increased blood sugar, and so be rejected on medial grounds as a diabetic. Unfortunately he’d ended up obese, and was rejected a second time when he tried to go to Vietnam, not as a soldier, but as a musician in a band to entertain the troops. He wore black t-shirts that didn’t quite cover his belly and played on the weekends in a Stranglers cover band. He encouraged his students to make music, or experimental audio collages, or radio plays, anything we liked, and so we followed his lead. There was something irresistible about the idea that music and art would go together so easily and naturally.

In the mid-1980s in the post-post Punk period – but in that pause before the 1980s really got going as a style of its own – the idea of an artist making work in a range of media was seen as normal. People still carried ideas from the 1960s of collectivism and conceptualism, and as these ideas evolved into the ‘70s with its Left Marxist ideology post Paris ’68, by mid-decade 80s the idea of a counter-commercial aesthetic and political position was de rigueur. But then things changed. Australia won the Americas Cup and INXS were no longer a punk band. The art market boom kicked in. All those artists who’d pioneered alternative media were now making paintings, and everyone was doing it – famous performance artists, feminist photographers, former video artists, art school graduates – painting was enjoying its last moment in the sun as the key arena of critical discourse. Postmodernism was fun and sexy and instead of bands, it was all DJs and nightclubs. If you had a conference on postmodernism you didn’t then celebrate its conclusion with bottles of beer in front of a punk band, no, you were at Berlin with a cocktail. It was the simple logic of the commercial art market that artists doing more than one thing is just too confusing for collectors. Maybe all those artists who switched to saleable mediums in the 1980s had their individual reasons for doing so, but reaping the commercial benefits had its upside as well. Ironically, the outcome of postmodernism in Australian art wasn’t an upending of the dominant paradigm [etc, etc] but the cementing of a conservative art market.

Ironically, the next thing that changed music was the same thing that changed the art world. In the 1990s, the new digital technology that allowed easy sound sampling and sophisticated home recording gave birth to a rapid growth in electronic music [or ‘electronica’ as the music industry called it]. Along with dance music DJs and the proliferation of sub-sub-sub genres of House, there was jungle, drum and bass, blip hop and then glitch and so on, and on. Consumer electronics gave birth to sophisticated home video production and it was used to record the marriage of performance and video art. You should have been there. The bride was beautiful. The child of this marriage was a sudden explosion in the making of video art, and a flowering over the last decade of multi-form art practices – as can be witnessed by the artists and their collaborators in this show.

And so in 2012 we all live happily together in peaceful harmony. Well, not really. It’s good to be reminded that there’s a history to all this, and that artists and musicians aren’t defined by someone else’s idea of what it is they do. As for me, I sold my bass guitar about 20 years ago. I do however have a pretty nice computer and, if I edit this sound with that sound, and then multi-track it, it sounds a lot like music. I’d say come over to my house and listen to my new tracks, but you can do that on Soundcloud.

[1] Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education was an art school that eventually became City Art Institute, then the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW, then UNSW Art & Design…

Unpublished essay commissioned for Transmission, June 9 – August 5, 2012.

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