We are all familiar with the art league tables published every year, those canonisations, which seem to be unfair, arbitrary, and to a large extent fictitious and which are primarily about fame, along with money. The »Australian Art Collector Magazine« also publishes one of these rankings once a year; a kind of art market speculation, for which the Do-It-Yourself utopias of some Australian artists were always an irritant. In order to do something to counteract that, artists came up with the idea of a supplement, which, with a rough photocopy aesthetic, would elevate the work of 50 artists ranked in the category »un-collectable« to the status of masterpieces. They planned to smuggle their supplement between the pages of the detested collector magazine in bookshops and kiosks across the country in a guerrilla-style action.
The idea, conceived more as a joke, stirred up enthusiasm for and awareness of the rich wealth of artists that could identify with the label »uncollectable«, giving rise to the Network of Un-Collectable Artists (NUCA). This is a nationwide coalition of all the artists endeavouring to create ephemeral projects, generate participatory experiences, conduct illegal art actions or pursue actions that make everyday life seem strange. In a nutshell, all the artists that cannot be collected in any conventional sense of the term.
The magazine supplement ended up metamorphosing into a magnificent set of chewing-gum cards, which echoed the famous phenomenon of baseball cards and with which NUCA set its own PR machinery rolling. 3,000 collector’s cards were produced with an individual hit parade for »Australia’s 50 Most Un-Collectable Artists« and the series was launched in 2004 at the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne. The humorous ranking system not only called into question the usual parameters of art evaluation – at the same time, the initiators of NUCA established new criteria to be used in appraising the work of contributors: a higher ranking was given to anonymous works than to signed pieces, to political works as opposed to apolitical ones, just as art produced for love was seen as preferable to art made for lots of money, and ephemeral art was favoured in contrast to durable work etc. Parallel to this, the absurdly over-stated system made clear how extremely subjective these kinds of distinguishing features are.
Small packs of eight cards chosen at random, packaged in cellophane bags along with a piece of chewing gum, were available from NUCA sales people doing the rounds at various art festivals. In documenting activities by difficult to grasp individuals, the cards quite deliberately opted not to be collector-friendly: anyone who wanted to have all 50 had to swap the cards they had as doubles. This collection model, where having enough cash is no guarantee of obtaining the art work you are longing for, triggered a kind of hysteria among the purchasers. »Being uncollectable is a kind of joke. Anything can be collected, just anything. Even so-called ›immaterial‹ art works have long been ›reconstructed‹ by the art market«, to cite Lucas Ihlein, one of NUCA’s initiators. With this assertion Ihlein is thinking of curator Seth Siegelaub, whose genius lay in marketing completely invisible art actions by selling »authenticity certificates«. »This new kind of art has a heightened value for the connoisseur, a value that it acquires precisely through the added attribute of being ›hard to collect‹. In this sense it is true that the ›less collectable‹ the artistic work is (in the case of NUCA the cards), the more ›collectable‹ it is.«
A paradox that is proving to hold true in practice. In Melbourne, Sydney and Perth swap meetings are organised so that fans can pursue their obsessive urge to collect. People call out the numbers of the missing cards to each other loudly and chaotically as if they were on the stock exchange and make one deal after another or refuse to exchange cards with each other until just a few of those involved have completed their set after all. In addition to establishing a kind of fan club and a far-reaching networking of like-minded individuals, a resource with a promising future is created for works that would otherwise have been pushed into the background. Ironically the »card game« expresses its criticism of the art market so deftly that NUCA itself has been absorbed into the official art distribution system. By now the cards can be found in the Wollongong University Art Collection and they have been touring Australia since 2006 as part of the »Multiplicity – Prints and Multiples« show .
Public dialogue as art
At number 9 in the NUCA ranking one finds »unReal Estate«, a conceptual work by Sydney-based art collective SquatSpace. In 2002 the members of the collective opened an agency in Newcastle, which, echoing the design and language of commercial real estate agencies, lauded the qualities of over 40 disused and abandoned buildings. Since 2000 SquatSpace have been renowned for works on urban developments and gentrification. The group emerged from the activities of the former Broadway Squats, a dynamic art space in downtown Sydney. Clad in black trousers, white shirts and red ties adorned with the SquatSpace logo, they aped the way real estate agents dress. They have also taken the distribution and utilisation of urban space as their topic in their »Redfern-Waterloo Tour Of Beauty«, which they have been running since 2005.
»Tour of Beauty« puns with twofold irony on the term »Tour of Duty«, an expression that in military training describes periods of service on the high seas or in a foreign country. »The general attitude is that it’s a bit like entering a war zone when you go to Redfern«, says Ihlein, explaining the reference. »However, we invert the concept and turn it towards ›beauty‹, a characteristic that is normally certainly not associated with this neighbourhood. One of the aims of this tour is to show the particular (and hence beautiful) qualities of this place, just as it is. We see this as a kind of immunization against unfettered gentrification that seeks to sweep over the district.«
Redfern and Waterloo, the two neighbourhoods in which the tour is held, are part of Sydney’s densely populated downtown district. For a long time a large number of indigenous people and people on low incomes have lived in this part of town, which is now viewed as potentially valuable land for real-estate speculation. In late 2004 the government of New South Wales set up the Redfern-Waterloo Authority (RWA) and in the process cut a piece of land south of Sydney’s central business district out of the sphere of influence of the local town council. Due to this legal sleight-of-hand, the government can now implement commercial urban redevelopment plans, sell off local property and suspend existing provisions on inheritance law with the excuse that the land is too important to be subject to conventional planning legislation.
SquatSpace, alarmed by this situation in the neighbourhood where most of them still lived at the time, wanted to find out more about local politics and consulted people on the spot. It rapidly became clear that an extremely complex system of different social, political and economic interests could be uncovered within the area. That is precisely what »Tour of Beauty« refers to. For four to five hours SquatSpace accompany around 25 participants by bus or bicycle to a series of selected stops in Redfern and Waterloo. They hand over to local speakers to allow them to have their say in places selected as targets of urban renewal and in areas paradigmatic of possible future developments. One aspect in particular becomes clear to »tourists« on this tour: right in the heart of Sydney there is a district known in common parlance as »The Block«, which constitutes a small island of indigenous Australia, and is chock-a-bloc with problems symbolic of the unresolved issues between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
The really subtle twist in »Tour of Beauty«, comparable with the projects of the »un-collectable« NUCA artists, is that it does not attempt to represent the situation in Redfern-Waterloo by creating an art object. Instead SquatSpace generates a public dialogue (on the spot and on their website) that recalls important aspects of the issues and renders connections visible that would otherwise not be apparent.