Amateur or DIY aesthetics in Australian art

9 December 2021, 5:00:00 am

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Session Convenors

Victoria Perin, University of Melbourne

Session Moderators

Victoria Perin, University of Melbourne

Session Speakers

Victoria Perin, University of Melbourne
Cameron Hurst, Independent
Babs Rapeport, Independent (educated by the University of Melbourne)

Some artists prefer to remain non-professionals. Despite any training or mentorship received, Australian artists have relished a streak of rawness, and this panel tries to understand why that is. Reiko Tomii, the Japanese-American scholar of conceptual art in Japan, uses the commonplace term ‘do-it-yourself’ to define the aesthetics of radical avant-garde artists who created work in the “wilderness” of provincial, post-WWII Japan. Tomii also ties the concept of DIY aesthetics to the formation of interdisciplinary art collectives. Tomii’s work might lead one to contend that amateurism in art is a fundamental condition of the provincial. For what can be ‘professional’ in a place defined by its distance from everything deemed authoritative and certifiably expert? This panel highlights a submerged tradition of amateur and DIY aesthetics in Australian art, and includes a paper on communal postwar printmaking in Melbourne, the early Adelaide-Sydney web art collective VNS Matrix, and contemporary art in Melbourne, viewed in light of the 1980s provocation 'Recession Art and Other Strategies’.

PAPER #1
The non-professionals: postwar printmaking in Melbourne

Victoria Perin, University of Melbourne

There is a right way and a wrong way to make prints. For the postwar decades, the number of artists who were making prints in Melbourne vastly dwarfed the minority who were actually trained to do so. It is no exaggeration to say that professionalised printmaking––as it is practiced in other print centres––was so rare in Melbourne as to almost not exist. It was so rare in fact, that the distinction between international standards in printmaking and local standards are barely mentioned in the secondary literature on Australian printmaking. This is to say that in the postwar enthusiasm for print in Melbourne (and in Australia more broadly), artists did not work with master-printers. They were self-printers; in other words, they were print amateurs, making do. Therefore, the most foundational Melbourne-made prints this era were likely to be improvised and imaginatively unprofessional, with a notable DIY aesthetic. As an aesthetic category, ‘amateur’ or ‘DIY’ printmaking is connected to the undercurrent of non-professionalism intrinsic to Australian modernism. Using self-printing as a synecdoche for DIY art practice, this paper explains why Melbourne prints are so raw, and what that means for modernism in Australia.

PAPER #2
Amateurs Try Destroying the Big Daddy Mainframe, Again: VNS Matrix and Digital DIY

Cameron Hurst, Independent

Working between Adelaide and Sydney in the late-1980s and early-1990s, the collective VNS Matrix made a series of revelatory artworks about gender, sex, and computers. At this time, the digital was a DIY space. The internet was a ‘site’ as provincial as Adelaide. VNS Matrix were neither professionally trained artists nor particularly advanced computer technicians. But they were hot, horny, had ideas, and were dedicated to making stuff together. From a communal position of amateurish licentiousness, they were free to speculate on the new possibilities and limits of digital life and its attendant politics, aesthetics, and sensibilities. In the 30 years since their text, 'A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century', the internet and internet art has changed dramatically. Then, the sleek, impenetrable devices that characterise contemporary digital life were still inchoate. Professional digital aesthetics grew tandem with reduced online autonomy . Now, VNS Matrix are being recognised as visionaries by scholars and artists researching postcyber feminism, techno-utopianism, and radical piracy. But little of this research has focussed on the artists’ uniquely Antipodean context. As seizing the means of digital production seems urgent once again, what is important about the DIY aesthetics of the original saboteurs of the Big Daddy Mainframe?

PAPER #3
Professional art, in this economy?

Babs Rapeport, Independent (educated by the University of Melbourne)

There is a continual tradition of Australian artists who create work that responds to their position living in an ongoing political economy of a ‘permanent recession’. These visual ideas of amateurship and DIY aesthetics have been positioned as ‘recession strategies’ since IMA, Brisbane displayed the exhibition 'Recession Art and Other Strategies’ in 1985. These strategies employed the visual cues of Minimal, Process and Conceptual art to construct temporary displays, often in published form, for interpersonal audiences. These artists embraced the limited means of production available in Australia’s service economy at the dead-end of a global market of mass-commodification. Using printed material and everyday detritus including correspondence between friends, the scale of these works and exhibitions were small and interpersonal. The exhibition was a conceptual task: to constitute work defined by its context within a field of social relations. My paper will consider Recession art today: the way these strategies continue to be used by artists who seek close to total autonomy in the production, distribution and display of their work against the delimiting imperatives of institutionalisation, professionalisation and commercialisation. As an intentionally amateur artist I will highlight elements of my contemporary art practice that speak to this historical legacy.

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Biographies

Victoria Perin, University of Melbourne

Victoria Perin is a PhD student and sessional academic at the University of Melbourne, and regular reviewer for MeMO Review.


Cameron Hurst, Independent

Cameron Hurst is a writer and researcher who recently completed an Honours thesis in Art History at the University of Melbourne. In her thesis, she looked at ontological conflicts of the gendered body in artworks by the Anmatyerr painter Emily Kam Kngwarray and the cyberfeminist collective VNS Matrix. Her broad research interests are in art’s relationships to feminist and queer theories, sexual politics, and histories of organised labour. She is contributing editor to MeMO Review, a sessional academic at the University of Melbourne, and is currently curating a Norman Lindsay exhibition, to be held at the George Paton Gallery.


Babs Rapeport, Independent (educated by the University of Melbourne)

Babs is an amateur artist making contemporary work on unceded Wurundjeri Country. They have a white-collar day job that pays their share of their commune bills including their practice. With no intention or promise of commercial success in Australia’s micro-arts industry, they enjoy producing, self-publishing, curating and promoting their own research-based works in collaboration with and for a small audience of friends largely online and in intimate interpersonal exhibition spaces. Their practice involves using their low level ‘non-artistic’ technical skills with collaborators and commissioned technicians in a method that emphasises the joy of process over means or ends.