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australian centre for photography


acp: photography speaks up

keith gallasch talks with alasdair foster & bec dean


Melanie Manchot, Aeroflot 12.36 (2004) from 1+1=3 Melanie Manchot, Aeroflot 12.36 (2004) from 1+1=3
I MEET FOSTER AND DEAN IN THE SMALL ATRIUM OF THE AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR PHOTOGRAPHY. HE’S SURFIE BLONDE AND LIGHTLY TANNED, BEEN ON THE ROAD, HAS A SORE LEG AND “FEELS A BIT ROPEY.” SHE’S BRUNETTE AND ALABASTER-SKINNED, JUST BACK FROM TOURING AN ACP VIDEO SHOW TO AUCKLAND, AND IS LIKEWISE TIRED. ALL THIS ASIDE THE EMINENTLY QUOTABLE PAIR ARE ENERGISED BY A MISSION.

We're sitting in the realisation of one part of the vision where a digital monitor will soon join the tables and chairs, the magazine rack and the view into the new “event space”, formerly a restaurant the rent from which helped pay off the ACP mortgage on the building by the end of last year. It's clear from the start that we won't be talking about what's current in photography or what it's all about (same as it ever was, it seems)—that's just content. Conversation is the matter at hand, metaphorical and actual, as an ACP vision of opening itself and photography out to the greater public through various forms of engagement (exhibitions, magazine, website, classes), not the least of which will be talk.

If you want to talk seriously you need to be visible and accessible. The ACP now has an extensive Oxford Street shopfront that looks into the event space and there’s a more welcoming, capacious entrance (still doubling as an exhibition space). There’s also a stronger sense of welcome, of an offer to sit and browse and wander into the exhibitions as you feel so moved. The windows, says Foster, “are soundproofed, big double-glazed vitrines. They were put in primarily because you have to suppress the low reverberation from buses. They also create this sense of almost being able to walk in. We have noseprints on the glass every morning.” Dean adds, “It feels like our eyes are open to the street and the street is looking back.

There’s been an almost instantaneous change in the audiences coming through.”
The event space is also used for exhibiting but principally it’s a place for dialogue. Foster explains, “Some of our artist talks are about particular practices and some—like the Talking Shop series—are about approaches to making work. We have lunchtime films, which are a mixture of biopics and experimental films, generally of the type that don’t get into theatrical release or TV. One of the formats that works really nicely in terms of bringing people together in a conversation is a kind of Parkinson-style chat show and an afternoon tea afterwards. Martin Jolley’s done one, I’ll do them sometimes. The first one on April 1 was titled Photography and the Law: Panic and Paranoia. Three guests come up one at a time and are interviewed then they start to interact collectively and then with the audience and then on a more one-to-one basis afterwards. I wanted to follow television formats, not academic ones.
You can’t underestimate how empowering it is for a broader audience to have things delivered in ways where they feel ownership. Audiences want to see something happen. A paper isn’t something happening. It’s just something being repeated, whereas a conversation is always new and you never quite know what’s going to be asked and how it’s going be answered.”

To keep the talk going, you have to be available: “We don’t like to be closed at the weekend because we get very many more people coming in on Saturday and Sunday than any other time”, says Foster. “We’re also opening in the evening now, on weekdays till 7pm, which allows people to come in after work. We want to reach people when they’re available so we hold our events at 6.30pm not 7pm because at 6.30 you can come for an hour and go away and you’re not fainting from hunger. It’s the natural space between working and eating that can be stimulating for the rest of the evening, something to talk about over dinner.”

exhibition as conversation piece

But how do you stimulate that conversation in the ways you frame your exhibitions? The recent, amusingly spooky Olaf Breuning show comprises one room installed with a crowd of life-sized ghost figures, another room with a video dyptich and a third with large photographs—all the spaces are dark and the imagery links one to the next. It’s typical of the considerable effort that ACP goes to engage its audiences. Foster says he aims for “the whole experience—I’m quite happy to call it ‘theatrical.’ I know some of my colleagues thumb their noses at it but for me it’s one of the most powerful forms of interpretation you can offer.” Foster argues that it’s vital to “create an atmosphere in which people feel a discontinuity with the bright street life outside and in which they will slow down, open up and begin to feel differently when they look at the works...I have this phrase I’m fond of: ‘Exhibitions should be easy to get into and difficult to get out of.’ And I think if you make an exhibition too difficult to begin with people won’t cross the street to come in—it’s essentially gagging yourself.

“With our approach you have the potential to be surprised. You don’t walk in and see the same white box with various rectilinear things on the wall. You’re never quite sure where it’s going, what you might see, and that means you go in with a more open mind rather than thinking, Oh, it’s only art, I’ll just consume this in a fairly superficial way. Unfortunately, for all the self-aggrandising rhetoric we use in the arts, something that is only ‘art’ is actually a way of diminishing it. If you say it’s not just art, it’s an experience, it’s something that will speak to you, people are more opened up to it.”

worlds beyond

The ACP connects with a world beyond its own building. Foster and Dean make sure that they visit Australia’s major cities every year to talk to artists. As well, in 2006, says Dean, “we had eight shows touring to 17 venues, this is in Australia. I also took Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight, which Alasdair had curated, to the biannual Chobi Mela Festival of Photography in Bangladesh. That show’s touring the region now through Drik, the agency that runs the festival.”

Video is also part of the ACP travelling repertoire. Dean has just returned from showing Mirror Worlds (2005), works from Asia, in New Zealand. Again the work was engagingly installed: “Zoe [Butt] and I were very conscious of trying to make it an enjoyable, quite vibrant experience so that people had a sense of being in an Asian urban environment and experiencing the sound and frenetic activity. We were quite conscious of looking at this explosion, the economic boom in Asia, and going after artists that were dealing with these issues on the same heightened level. The experience in Auckland was quite amazing. About 14 new immigrants arrive there every day, so it’s a very multicultural city. People were really engaged by the work.”

talking print

Photofile magazine, published by ACP, is about to go through a transformation, again with the aim of stimulating a wide audience. Given the long turnaround of print publishing, Foster is keen to generate immediacy through a companion website which will have moderated artist profiles, comprehensive previews and eventually reviews concurrent with showings. He says it will free up the revamped Photofile “to concentrate on the experience of looking at photographs, well-reproduced images and more substantial texts.” He will also have “more artists writing than in the past as well as the verbatim interview—we now have 13 standard questions we call the Third Degree.”

working with the artist

“At the moment”, says Dean, “I’m working towards a show for the end of the year—it involves playfulness, the adopting of performance personas, costuming and staging. But then again I was just as excited working with Ben Bohane last year on his documentary exhibition and with Paul Knight and the kind of psycho-geography he creates in his work.

Foster declares, “Our involvement with art is through the process. It was an incredible experience working with Trent Parke for so long on Minutes to Midnight from half way through the shooting right through to the exhibition and I’m still working with him and how he gets that work out into the world. In one way that’s a very privileged position, but one needs to learn that. It’s not just looking at art on its own but actually understanding how it’s made, how it lives, understanding that when you meet it it’s like meeting a person. There’s a life before and a life after.
now and next...

With expanded space, a technical centre to drive it, a program of events, accessible opening hours, a reconceptualised Photofile in print and online, along with the ACP’s classes in photography and various touring engagements, Foster’s “multi-vocal approach” can be more fully realised. But what’s next for the ACP and its prodigious output and consistent melding of Australian and international work, often provocative and ever shape-shifting?

While Dean curates, Foster sees himself moving more into forward planning, “as part of ACP’s evolution”, focusing on “the empowering of audiences and the personalisation of experience. I only have to look at my kids, how they engage with the world and how much more empowered they are to naturally produce and make and interact. They don’t think about mashing and that sort of thing as some specific activity. It’s like breathing. You just pick stuff up and move it around. It’s only people of my age who have to keep reconceptualising. So that’s what I’m really getting into.”


1+1=3, Collaboration in Recent British Portraiture is the ACP’s next show, Apil 20-May26; Australian Centre for Photography, Paddington, Sydney, www.acp.org.au.
Image: Melanie Manchot, Aeroflot 12.36 (2004) from 1+1=3

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 6

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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