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Finding a place in the art world

Lucas Ihlein: John Demos at Big Fag Press

John Demos at Big Fag Press John Demos at Big Fag Press
photo Louise Anderson
How does the work of artists with a disability get framed by the art world? What goes on in the process of distributing, promoting and analysing the work of such artists? What structures of power and knowledge are involved? What criteria for judgment of ‘quality’ are exercised? Who is ‘in the know,’ and who is providing the content? Who is asking these questions?

These were the issues I was keen to explore when I began nosing around the Supported Studio Network nearly a year ago. This research was commissioned by Josie Cavallaro of Accessible Arts. Part of her remit involved getting discussion going about art and disability, beyond the confines of publications focusing on art therapy, mental health and outsider art. Josie’s thinking was that if such questions could slip into the pages of art journals and magazines, the debate might begin to broaden out.

Ultimately, Accessible Arts is seeking to expand opportunities for artists in the Supported Studio Network. Supported Studios are places which facilitate the production and distribution of work by artists with a disability—there are a dozen or so such studios around Australia, including Arts Project Australia in Melbourne, Art in the Garage in Bega (NSW) and Bindi Arts in Alice Springs. The studios aim to chip away at the paternalism and connoisseurship which often characterise relations within the intersecting worlds of art and disability.

In March 2013, I was able to deepen my understanding of some of these issues when Big Fag Press began hosting artist John Demos in our studio at First Draft Depot in Woolloomooloo. John is a veteran draftsman, printmaker and ceramicist. He is supported by Project Insideout, whose manager Kris Tito helped to broker the relationship with Big Fag Press.

Ostensibly, Big Fag was supposed to be ‘mentoring’ John, but in reality we were simply doing what we normally do—providing space, offering technical advice about occult things like digital pre-press and offset lithography and generally just hanging out while artists try to mash their work through the crude filter of our four-tonne printing machine.

It’s the ‘hanging out’ where the real work gets done. From Big Fag’s perspective, the lion’s share of this work was done by John, the designer and the administrator, Louise Anderson. Louise paid close attention to John’s method of production, and together they workshopped how his painstakingly crafted drawings might make the leap into offset print editions.

John builds up large fields of words, letter by letter, with ballpoint pens or textas. The writing wobbles organically across the page, constrained by the reach of the artist’s right hand. The words ‘Universities,’ ‘Deans,’ ‘Transcripts’ and ‘Brain’ crop up again and again. When I first saw these pedagogically themed drawings, they made me think of the old fashioned punishment doled out to naughty schoolchildren—writing lines.

Far from punishment, the writing-drawing process in John’s text work is, I’ve observed, a kind of meditation: a way of dwelling in complex thought by repeating, mantra-like, words rich in connotation. And when viewing these sort of concrete poems, the ad-nauseam repetition begins to break down meaning. Words decompose themselves into ciphers, into glyphs, into the constituent squiggles—microdrawings—which are at the heart of scribal culture.

To mediate these heavily worked pages using offset lithography is to perform a crafty magic. While it takes John weeks of labour to inscribe a single page, a few days yakka on the Big Fag can multiply that labour 50 times over—yet each sheet still looks, cunningly, like it was delicately penned by hand. Hot off the press, some of the printed pages are dutifully reworked with John’s pen, further confounding the boundaries between script and print. What will John do with all this paperwork?

Hanging out for long hours at our studio has allowed a camaraderie to slowly build between John and the Big Fag personnel; it’s also facilitated some accidental meetings with other artists occupying studios at the First Draft Depot, as well as arts workers and curators who drop by to see what we’re up to. As a result of meeting gallerist Jo Holder an exhibition of the work generated during his time at Big Fag Press was organised for The Cross Arts Projects in the centre of Kings Cross.

While working with John, we’ve become acutely aware of some of the politics of representation surrounding art and disability. The question of voice has come up repeatedly. Who gets to speak on behalf of whom? Mostly, it seems, John is spoken of by others (as I am doing right now)—and this is particularly the case with the negotiations that are necessary in the professional life of the exhibiting artist.

Halfway through the residency project, we engaged emerging filmmaker Josh Charles to produce a short documentary, offering an insight into John’s working process through moving image
( But the doco has also proved an effective and gentle tool for John to speak on record—on his own—about his work and about his place in the (art)world.

“How will my work be presented? In what context? Am I being paid enough? How do I see my career trajectory?” Currently, John works out these aspects of professional practice with support from Kris Tito at Project Insideout. In a recent article, Hugh Nichols described the relationship between artists and supported studios as a “scaffolding”—a structural framework essential in the steady building of the artist’s own networks ( As John’s connections begin to expand—as they have done during his residency at Big Fag Press—he will increasingly represent himself within a more diverse set of galleries and discourses.

On November 6, 2013, a “Provocative Supported Studio Forum” convened by Accessible Arts was held at the MCA. More than 50 delegates from around the country converged to discuss practical and ethical questions around the work carried out at Supported Studios.

John Demos, The Cross Art Projects. Kings Cross, Sydney, 31 Oct-3 Nov

Artist Lucas Ihlein is a partner at Big Fag Press and lecturer in Media Arts at University of Wollongong.

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 6

© Lucas Ihlein; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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