Know Your Product: The Remix

KNOW YOU’RE PRODUCT: A CONVERSATION between ROSS HARLEY and DAVID PESTORIUS

[excerpt from the the forthcoming book and live shows, "The Brisbane Sound", to be held at the Institute for Modern Art, Brisbane, curated by David Pestorius, Ed Kuepper, Robert Forster and Eugene Carchesio.]

DP: In 1998 Urszula Szulakowska wrote in her book, Experimental Art in Queensland 1975–1995, that Know Your Product (KYP) was probably the most important exhibition mounted by the IMA. Yet in the catalogue and then in the ‘Thunder and Silence’ essay you published soon after, you expressed profound uncertainty about the value of the project. You seemed to doubt whether it was possible to really ‘know your product’. Now that over 20 years has gone by since KYP, how do you see the situation today?

RH: I was quite surprised when I read that Urszula saw the show as being of such importance. The basic idea behind KYP was to affirm and document a whole lot of work that people had done outside the usual bounds of art practice and consequently ignored by the art scene (but perhaps idolised by the indie music scene). Tracing some of the connections between a wide range of cultural products made during and after the punk music explosion in Brisbane was a very important thing for me personally, as I was very much of the view that some of the best art happens when it goes by another name ie not produced as art for a gallery or museum audience. From my point of view, KYP was an intervention into the museum space. I didn’t think people would necessarily agree that it should be housed in a white cube, no matter how contemporary it was. I totally expected people to be critical of the show on a number of grounds: a) not art b) you’re missing important stuff c) I’m not included d) who cares what you think anyway.

I’m sure there were many who collected, made or in some way participated in the DIY punk ethos who thought it was complete bollocks to put this stuff in a museum. I mean, isn’t the museum exactly the kind of pompous cultural institution punk came to demolish? And vice-versa: I know there were many who thought that posters, cassettes, Super 8 films, photocopied fanzines and all the rest of it had no place in the artworld. I actually remember being in a forum at the IMA and being asked to define ‘Art’ and then to explain why the work I was interested in should be considered, let alone exhibited, in this context.

There were of course many artists and musicians and creative types who were on the fringes, or indeed, in the middle of the contemporary art world, and who were central to KYP. And that was part of the ruse really. To make connections between avant garde practices (such as Anti-Music) and the broader pop/counter-pop cultures that emerged in the mid-70s I suppose in the same way that British and American Pop art made connections to pop music and counter-culture. It was about artists who wanted to be punksters, and punks who had artistic pretensions and some who were both musicians and artists but wanted to make work outside of the standard or available venues.

I didn’t really have a political [artworld] agenda, and I suppose that gave the show its political form. As I’d been a very marginal participant in the Brisbane punk scene (having friends and friends of friends who played in bands or made posters, or hung out at the Curry Shop), my main interest was to collect as much material as I could with the meagre resources at my disposal. I wanted a walk-in archive that would house as many of the artefacts as I could find. Although I tried to contact as many people as I could, to research the field as best I could, I was always acutely aware that I was only ever scratching the surface of the cultural output and activities of this period. I suppose that says a lot about the sort of collector I am: I’m what they call a ‘completist,’ so I also feel that even if I have everything ever recorded by an artist, there’s probably a bootleg or a live recording or a remix that I just don’t have. And I know that somebody else is sure to!

Hence the uncertain question, “can you know your product?” Can you collect it all and assemble it for all to see? You might know a few things, and the show might tell you about a little bit more. Or maybe you already knew all this because you participated in it or collect that stuff and hence can only see gaps, elisions and overstatement. I’m acutely aware that in any [re]telling of history such as this one, you’re basically bound to be making stuff up no matter how rigourous and all-inclusive you are. That’s just part of the way history and its granularity works. Zoom out too much and you miss the detail. Zoom in too much you miss the big picture. It’s tricky. I wanted to say right up front, “OK, here’s how I see it. You got some more information and want to add to it, challenge it, do it another way, go right ahead!” It’s not that I’m making this stuff up, but that you might want to make it up differently. That’s why I’m incredibly happy that the preliminary work of KYP might be taken further, challenged, augmented and turned around by this present project.

My idea was to present as much of an archive of things I collected in a specific time/space-frame, and to let people make up their own minds about what to think about the work. I mean, if you look at the way the material was exhibited, you see from the very outset that it just doesn’t look like the type of art you’d expect to see in a museum space. It looked like a bunch of stuff from somebody’s record, poster and fanzine collection strung up on plastic sheets throughout the gallery. But when you looked at it close up, and from a distance, it felt like a very challenging conceptual work (in the Art & Language sense).

DP: I think most people around the Brisbane Punk and New Wave scene would agree that KYP constituted both a very inclusive and insightful accounting of what was produced. The only real omission that occurs to me was Joe Borkowski’s photographs of The Saints in Brisbane in 1976, which given the critical role of The Saints in the story you were telling is a little hard to comprehend. Surely you were aware of them?

RH: Well I suppose I always felt there were many omissions, and those Joe Borkowski photos certainly are sorely missing from the exhibition as are quite a few other people’s work from the late 1970s, like Jane Chisholm or Scott Bolland (who ended up playing in one or two short-lived but extremely influential bands with Borkowski after The Saints had well and truly left Brisbane). The filmclip for “(I’m) Stranded” was also missing from the film and video component of KYP. It would have been fantastic to have all that material from The Saints’ Petrie Terrace days, though I’m not sure about whether it would have made too much of a holy grail out of that particular time and place. Those early images of The Saints before they left for Sydney and London are incredibly iconic, and were mythologised in Rolling Stone, Sounds, NME, and other music mags. They also appear in Clinton Walker’s Inner City Sound, along with photos by Bolland, Borkowski, Graham Aisthorpe, and yourself. Now there’s a real omission!

If you look back at the credits for each image that appears in the catalogue for KYP, there is not enough depth of information to know who actually did everything, especially with record covers and zines, which are mostly credited to the bands or zine producers, and not necessarily to the artists who took the photos or made the artwork. When you look at the artefact itself (say a single vinyl record), sometimes you don’t even find a list of the band members’ names. How can we find out now? Is that knowledge lost, or can it be recuperated somehow?

I suppose this goes back to your first question about my uneasiness with claiming completeness. I would rather claim incompleteness and welcome others to correct and expand upon the material that I managed to collect. My biggest concern these days though is that all of this material can disappear so easily, despite the “cultural importance” of exhibiting the work at the IMA. Where can we go now to find this archive, and how can others like yourself continue to build upon it? I mean, you can see “I’m Stranded” on Rage pretty regularly, and things are now starting to turn up on YouTube. But that’s no substitute for a properly curated and maintained collection or archive that contains high quality copies of people’s work (whether its a vinyl record or a screen-printed poster), with all the proper accreditation. Try googling Joseph Borkowski’s photos today, and you won’t find anything. You may see his photos on The Saints’ fan sites, but you won’t find a photo credit for Joe next to his photos. If you look carefully at the artwork on early Saints records, there are no photo credits there either I’m afraid. It’s as if nobody took the photos or made the videos. They appear authorless, but obviously they aren’t. I’d be interested to know how you’re going in terms of being able to correct these omissions and incomplete or even incorrect records.

DP: My primary aim is not so much to correct omissions, but to focus on three of the more important characters who emerge from the KYP story Eugene Carchesio, Robert Forster and Ed Kuepper and who are still today actively pursuing a vision shaped during the Punk/New Wave time. In exploring the interconnections there, certain others, who are less well-known, emerge as important, and I intend to draw attention to the activities of these people. The names that immediately come to mind here are Gary Warner and John Willsteed. Warner especially is someone who should be much better known. However, because he did so many different things, it’s hard to get a clear picture of him as an artist. With your KYP project you clearly tried to draw attention to Gary’s multifarious activities, but he’s still sort of invisible.

RH: John Willsteed is a national treasure in terms of his contribution to punk, post-punk and indie music in Australia, but especially in Brisbane where he was a central force in an amazing array of bands and experimental music projects. He’s better known because of his close involvement with The Go Betweens, but there are not many who know about his broader art/music practice. I think if you can trace his output since the late seventies across a number of different media, you’d find that the matrix of connections will become apparent.

Gary Warner’s contribution to the same period is nearly all but forgotten. Unlike the others I’ve mentioned, he pretty much moved out of the experimental music scene and into experimental film and new media in the early 1980s. I think if you look at what Gary was doing in the 70s/80s you can draw a line to his current practice, which is nowadays almost exclusively focussed on creating new media installations for museums. He’s remained in close contact with the contemporary art scene, but his work tends to be invisible perhaps in the same way that those photographers and artists we discussed earlier can be easily written out of history. If there is no credit on the record sleeve, or on the wall, people tend to forget or not notice that someone actually did all that work. The stuff Gary has been doing in museums is a bit like the work that architects do. There’s no plaque when you walk into a building announcing the “credits” for the production of the building, or the creation of a multimedia installation. That needs to be publicly recorded elsewhere, typically in professional publications of record, books, monographs, exhibition catalogues and the like. I mention all of this here because I think Gary’s early work feeds into the present in the same way that Johnny’s does. But it’s not obvious, and you need to see how the early collaborations with John Nixon, Clare McKenna, Andrew Wilson, John Wilson, Tim Gruchy, Peter Walsh and others feed into his sensibility.

DP: I’d like to return to what you said earlier about the KYP exhibition having the ‘look’ of early Conceptual Art. Certainly, the maze of transparent plastic ‘walls’ was a great way to present the mass of printed material (much of which had both front and back sides to be seen), while also underscoring, conceptually, the kind of doubts which we’ve just been discussing. But it seems to me there was a great deal about the KYP project that functioned in a critical relation to Conceptual Art?

RH: The conceptual basis of the project was there right from the outset. I liked the idea that you could display “non-art” in a conceptual manner in an exhibition space like the IMA in order to critique the value system of the museum. The work itself resides in the documents, the idea of the archive expressed spatially, the use of text and photos and other media to stand in for the “art” that was all a part of the strategy.

DP: The anti-institutionality of Conceptual Art, the way it questioned convention at every turn, its critique of the commodity, its disdain for technique as a sign of value, seem to be echoed in the whole DIY thing of Punk. Of course there are contradictions in all of this, which The Saints song ‘Know Your Product’ was directed at so you harnessed that self-reflexivity from the outset.

RH: You are absolutely right in making the link between the DIY-sneering-at-technique that was so much a part of Punk and the anti-institutionality of Conceptual Art. I’m not sure how much Punk consciously stole from that movement, which is essentially a move initiated in the 1960s. But if you put the two things together, which you can do in a contemporary museum space like the IMA, then you’re cooking!

The “Know Your Product” song certainly helped frame the contradictions, in a particularly Brisbane way. And the refusal of the song (also on the same album) “No, Your Product” extends this still further suggesting other plays on words that could be possible, like “No, You’re Product”, “Now You’re Product,” etc.

DP: What did you think of the way that Peter Cripps immediately followed the KYP exhibition with an exhibition about John Nixon’s Q Space, which effectively put the case for the one-day exhibition as being equivalent to the Punk gig?

RH: Well, I was actually going to mention the role of Peter Cripps in relation to the last question, as he was instrumental in the putting together of this show. Peter approached me to curate a show that would look at the relationships between the alternative/punk music and art scenes that were burgeoning in Brisbane, so in a way the original idea for the show was his. He got funding, and was enthusiastic about the work that I wanted to include in the exhibition. Although Peter was pretty hands-off during the research and production phase, letting me develop the form and content of the show on my own, he played a pivotal role in the exhibition concept and installation of works the maze of plastic sheets was his idea, and I was very pleased with the way the show ended up looking, in the critical spatiality of it all. Peter’s interest/practice in conceptual and minimalist art meshed nicely with the approach I had taken and the material being presented.

I was also very grateful to have his eye and critical approach to techniques of display (particularly in relation to the institutions of art and culture). I felt that Peter had the same intuition as you voiced earlier: that there is a lot in common with the DIY approach and aesthetic of punk and those art practices concerned with the dematerialisation of art, post-object art, or whatever.

I think the analogy between a one day exhibition and a punk gig is a good one, and certainly works with John Nixon’s approach to music and art. If a rock/punk audience has to be at a certain venue at a particular time in order to see/hear a show, why not use the same set of constraints for the visual arts? Q Space can be considered part of John’s oeuvre, but it can also be seen as an extension of punk strategies, which were seriously aimed at demolishing the overblown rock establishment. The important aspect of all these strategies is to challenge and broaden the way that we think about art and its connection to everyday practices and spaces. Why keep everything cordoned off in its disciplinary ghetto when you can mix things up a whole lot more?