Interview with 1st Floor Artists

Artist-run galleries in Australia in the ’70s and ’80s defined themselves as outside the conservative cultural structure. In the ’90s, artists’ spaces like Melbourne’s 1st Floor Gallery manage projects as if they were small businesses, with a high profile usually reserved for commercial galleries.

David Rosetsky, view of installation: Left: Society Life, 1997, Right: Jonathan, 1997.

Allison Ritch: What is your relationship to the history of artist-run spaces in Australia?

Lyndal Walker: From the mid-’70s and into the late ’70s and early ’80s, the number of artist-run spaces increased, the most notable being Art Projects, a Melbourne-based gallery. The creation of new spaces became quite intense toward the beginning of the ’90s with projects such as Store 5, also in Melbourne. 1st Floor has come about since then—there is now a large proliferation of artist-run spaces in Melbourne and to a lesser extent in Sydney.

David Rosetzky: 1st Floor started in 1994. I initiated it at that stage with a group of peers that I’d studied with. We started meeting to discuss the possibility of an artist-run gallery as a forum for continuing our practice outside the institution. We were inspired by Store 5 and their idea of having a space in close proximity to the art school.

AR: 1st Floor is an artists’ and writers’ collaborative project: in addition to solo exhibitions, group shows like “Global Housewarming,” and overseas exchanges, you sponsor publication projects. How did this evolve?

LW: Over the time that we’ve been established the writers have become involved in day-to-day decisions, like initiating projects, and now there is little distinction between the writers and the artists in the way that we operate.

AR: Has the writing component taken the 1st Floor project further in that you have your own mythmaking machine?

DR: I think it did take it further in that people paid attention to us as we were different. It was indeed a writers’ project as well, a new extension of artist-run spaces.

LW: Also the writers with 1st Floor were on to what we were doing in a way that an older writer wouldn’t have been.

DR: We are all from the same generation so we understand each other’s aims.

AR: Your work questions existence in an over-designed present where identity is pre-packaged, generic, and manufactured. However, I would suggest that you’re looking for the human in this terrain and finding it?

DR: In Society Lite I’m trying to mimic the advertising campaigns of Calvin Klein or Hugo Boss, who present a “real life” aesthetic to sell us clothes. Society Lite refers to constructions of identity, but also to the relationship between the artist, model, and viewer. The idea of manufactured identity is ruptured because people locally are familiar with the models. Society Lite addresses the negotiation of these different levels of perception.

AR: You curated the show, “Soldiers of Fashion.” Why have you chosen fashion as a way to discuss identity?

LW: I document current themes. Style is interesting because it dates. It changes every six months and is commercially driven. There is a sense of urgency to “Buy Now,” and “Last Few Days,” and fashion is a good example of this urgency. The way that fashion plays with identity is such a significant aspect of fashion. One day you can be a school girl and the next day you can be a prostitute, and fashion lets you do that.

David Rosetsky Aquamarine, 1996. Mixed media, detail of installation.

AR: In 1990s Share Household Living Room, (1996) you historically index grunge as a style, again pointing to the constructed nature of all culture, including subcultures.

LW: My interest in share households is that it’s possible to subvert some of these consumerist issues; mainly because the standard shared household is occupied by people who don’t have a lot of money. The chair you’ve pulled out of the dump the week before falls apart and you have to find another one. Also it isn’t as if you can consider that I’ll buy the latest sort of can opener that you want this week.

AR: What is your interest in the retro-aesthetic?

LW: My interest has been that it came up as a fashion and as an important stylistic influence for the mid- to late ’90s and then there are related interests such as why is this so.

AR: Is the retro-aesthetic based in an anti-aesthetic?

DR: No, it’s extremely aestheticized. It’s the anti-aesthetic aesthetic. Retro is now a dominant style and it’s interesting in terms of the idea of a return, a rereading of the past, and that is related to my interest in analysis in my work; where people are always thrashing out the past, they’re stuck in the past. Retro is a style which represents that.

LW: We can never look like it’s 1975 again. I think retro is quite nihilistic, or certainly quite hopeless, because we do just take on the look of it. You can’t relive the past, it happened—you might be able to wear the outfits the way they were worn in the past but it ends somewhere there. I document people in the ’90s wearing ’70s clothing so you begin to lose meaning because those things occurred at the time for very specific reasons. For those styles to come back again all at once or all in very quick succession sucks away the meaning.

AR: Is fashion a dictatorial world?

LW: Mainstream fashion is; but I’m more interested in subcultures and the way that they emerge. I think that this is an aspect of hope within the system that they do still emerge. Although they do get swallowed up by mainstream fashion, they still happen on an organic level where people are making a protest in one way or another.

AR: David, you were in two recent surveys of younger artists, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney’s “Primavera” and the Moët and Chandon exhibition. Can you talk about your work for “Primavera,” in particular?

DR: That was a large installation formed by the conflation of different spaces. They represent environments such as a corporate foyer, a waiting room, or doctor’s office.

AR: They have a mourning quality.

DR: That is inherent in the work. These spaces are tragic but they attempt to be superficially beautiful as well. In Aquamarine for example—aquariums are used for their relaxing qualities in waiting rooms. You could be waiting for surgery or to see a psychiatrist to discuss disasters or tragedies in your life.

AR: What is the tragedy of these spaces?

DR: In Seating Arrangement, for example, I wanted to create an over-designed environment. It was two-toned blue and two-toned beige. Also in this installation is a video titled Foreplay where a darker and lighter bear also create the idea of decor, of using nature and animals to discuss a total aestheticization of life, in which nature has become another form of decor. These works refer to an over-designed and over-constructed environment that is oppressive. Luke is a portrait of a friend having a facial—the tape runs for 45 minutes, so it’s banal in the same way as Discreet, in which taped psychoanalytic sessions are played. These works look at forms of therapy, in terms of society’s massive desire to acquire perfection.

AR: Are our desires to be perfect futile?

DR: Well, I’ll keep trying!

AR: Are the tapes real?

DR: They sound real and people got quite upset. They question psychotherapy and its code of ethics, which is so often broken.

AR: The conflation of different spaces, such as the corporate space or doctor’s office, was about bringing the real into the gallery. So, if the real is in the gallery then is the gallery normal? Are objects recontextualized within the gallery space or not; and has the separation between the gallery and the outside world collapsed?

DR: I think it would be arrogant to say that we thought we were part of this collapsing of the distinctions between art and real life. Though I think that we’re doing it in our small culture which we’re involved in, in the Melbourne scene amongst our peers.

AR: Is reality ephemeral and how do you get real?

Lyndal Walker, 1990s Share Household Living Room,1996. Mixed media, installation view.

LW: I definitely think reality is ephemeral and I think that the way that you get real is to document it and then you can keep it. As with 1990s Share Household Living Room, these works are full of Coke cans and Face magazines and all that…but it is still where you live—it is still to some extent beyond advertising and beyond….

DR: the surface.

Allison Ritch is an artist and writer living in Sydney.