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Watch this space: desert blooming

Mardijah Simpson

Mardijah Simpson is an Alice Springs-based writer and dramatist.

Debon Dwyer, Close to the Chest (Breast pads and T-shirt transfers) Debon Dwyer, Close to the Chest (Breast pads and T-shirt transfers)
Alice Springs has always been a crossroads for travellers, explorers, seekers and pioneers. The surrounding space, the clear air and the shimmering colours of the landscape inspire adventure, challenge perceptions and inspire artists.

Watch This Space, a local artist run initiative, has been a centre for creative action during the 12 years since its inception. Its current space in George Crescent is near the railway station where the Ghan pauses on its way across the continent. There is a large gallery with studio spaces for artists out the back.

It began in 1991 when artist Pam Lofts, who had majored in sculpture and installation at Sydney College of the Arts, came to make art about country. She had exhibited at Sydney’s First Draft and knew of 24Hour Art in Darwin but found there was nothing similar within a 1500 km radius of Alice. Anne Mosey had lectured at the College of the Arts and moved to Alice in 1989. She’d been involved in a community pottery gallery in Glebe and the Old Flour Mill Studio in Newtown. Jan Mackay and Angela Gee, artists from Redback Graphics who’d come to Alice, were missing Sydney’s contemporary arts activity.

Initially they met in each other’s homes to talk about work in progress and then about finding a gallery space as a network focus. They were interested in experimental work and no-one had their own studio at that time. Pip McManus, a ceramicist who had moved to Alice, was asked to join the others and put in a joint proposal to the Australia Council. The 5 artists needed a shared studio to play around and experiment in, with exhibition space.

A charter was drawn up stating that it was essential that Watch This Space be an artist run space; it would provide a forum for works in progress and resolved works; it was not only for fully fledged professionals but a non-commercial space with no pressure to sell; it was to host an exchange between artists around Australia and internationally with 50% local and 50% visiting artists. There was a strong emphasis on collaborations and all media. In 1993 they were granted $7,500.

Pam discovered the ice factory, a cobwebby, concrete-floored industrial building down a small alley behind Mbantua Aboriginal Gallery, in the heart of town. The rent was low and huge working bees were organised during the hot January of 1994.

The name evolved from the potential for something to link with the space in the desert. This first space matched the original vision as it had installation possibilities and hanging space. It would nurture exposure to artists practising cross-disciplinary art who came through Alice. Everyone was excited and keen to show. There was often a show a week in the early days.

A curatorial committee was established and in 1997 and WTS became incorporated. Many local artists have served on the committee since. It has a huge following in Alice as an ongoing participatory community event for everyone in town interested in art.

Local artists exhibit and explore ideas and artists come from the coastal cities to share their work. There have been too many events to detail fully, but some memorable ones include: a performance by Tess de Quincey and later her Triple Alice workshops; Alice Prize winner, Chris Barry’s green bra installation which later expanded into a photographic exhibition entitled Country: I come from a Big Breasted Woman and Soft Skin; and Jenny Taylor’s Rooty Tooty All’s Fruity celebration of the desert blooming.

As Mbantua Gallery grew, WTS had to find a new space. Smarter premises were found off Todd Mall with a back office but less creative space for experimental work; still the amazing exhibitions continued.

Following Pam Lofts, co-ordinators have included Christine Leonard from Aboriginal Arts, Cath Bowdler, who moved on to run 24Hour Art, Harriet Gaffney from the commercial art world, and Catriona Stanton, a new media artist who first appeared in the Space one hot summer night performing Gutted and Filleted in a diving suit among real fish and blocks of ice.

Adelaide trained installation and performance artist Joy Hardman joined the committee and brought in Sue Richter, a graduate of the SA Art School who had explored new media and performance art since the 1970s and studied at the AFTRS in the 1980s. Shows in that period included Joy’s video installation and performance exploring the assumed emptiness of the Centre; the striking photographic works of Michael Riley (sadly missed); Ruark Lewis’ Water drawings: red yellow and blue from his Raft installation based on text from Arrernte Songs translated from German and English by Strehlow; Siamac Fallah’s durational piece transferring Bahai sacred texts into a 9-pointed star; Anne Mosey’s Might Be on the sorrow and harshness of Aboriginal community life; Indonesian installation and performance artist Dadang Christanto producing with local performers the highly political and heart wrenching Reconciliation; the Artists’ Camp in the ancient dry Finke River bed beyond Glen Helen with visiting artists John Wolseley, Kim Mahood and Wendy Tiekel as well as locals. Where works were produced on site, artists gave talks and work from the camp was shown at WTS.

Then WTS had to move on again due to high rent and lack of funding. The committee and members searched for more appropriate and affordable space–but the art did not stop. Over the years many events have evolved in non-gallery spaces. Works in the Outsite sculpture competition were shown in the Desert Wild Life Park; Passage, a collaboration between Catriona Stanton, Sydney poet Tim Doon and local filmmaker Declan O’Gallagher was projected at the old drive-in cinema with the McDonnell Ranges as a backdrop; artists’ camps, music and sound events have been staged in the dry river bed; The Red Shoes ensemble’s site-specific performance of Unspun traversed the landscape of descent out among the rocky hills beyond Alice.

For a brief time the Space paused in a house on Stuart Terrace. Isabelle Kirkbride co-ordinated an amazing members’ show which attracted 250 people on the opening night. The present Space was found by the sculptor Jbird (who died tragically last year). Ben Ward took over the co-ordination of WTS which now includes studio space for members to rent. The opening exhibition was the video and sound installation Lalila from the Solar Polar new media and alternate energy event in Tasmania.

Last year the co-ordinator was dancer Anna Maclean. Shows included Sue Richter’s retrospective of experimental video and TV dramas over 2 decades; the What is new media art? forum with visiting speakers; Rendezvous, a collaboration between local visual artists and writers; and Sue McLeod’s paintings and prints of desert scenes, dogs and camels.

The present co-ordinator, Kieren Sanderson is a new media artist who studied film at Griffith University where she made digital photography and video works. She’s organised Multiverse, a new media exhibition opening in June. It will bring together her collaborations with Scott Large and work by 3 visiting artists (Janet Gallagher, Anne Maree Taranto and Amanda King) who are all coincidentally making the overland journey to the Centre.

People involved with Watch This Space over the years feel it has enabled their arts practice to expand and grow in a way it could not have done if they had worked alone. They feel the dialogue between Alice, interstate and international artists is important and needs to grow. The town of Alice Springs and the country of Central Australia attract people of energy and vision so WTS survives as new, enthusiastic artists involve the community and push boundaries and arts practice. Everyone knows more funding is needed but WTS should continue as an artist run initiative with grass roots objectives and opportunities to encourage the diversity of experimental and contemporary arts practice. Artists from everywhere are encouraged to get in touch.

Watch This Space, 9 George Crescent, Alice Springs; [email protected],
[email protected];

Mardijah Simpson is an Alice Springs-based writer and dramatist.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 41

© Mardijah Simpson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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