Art Vs. The Man

Move Along - photo by John Barrington

December 2010: we all discover there is a mysterious, cavernous and unoccupied auditorium space on the rooftop of a Canberra CBD building. Before we know it the space is proffered to students from the ANU School of Art to do as they will, and a night of artwork, bands and hijinx ensues in the form of the Chain Gang exhibition.

I checked out the art and left the show well within my bedtime, when things were still rather civilised, save the obvious early dedication of punters to the temporary bar. I can only rely on outside reports to piece the outcome together (check The RiotACTs write up HERE) but as I understand it the whole operation got a little out of hand and was shut down by the boys in blue around about pumpkin hour.

My thoughts immediately went out to the property’s owner, who had generously offered the venue to students upon hearing that artists might be interested in the space. A good deed that saw him having to deal with some unexpected fallout above and beyond sticky carpets.

The plethora of guerilla/DIY events in Canberra, fuelled by individuals with the audacious initiative that makes this city great, not only demonstrates a shortage of venues for emerging and experimental arts but also an ingrained desire of audiences to stick it to ‘The Man’. Unfortunately I fear that this desire has little connection to the realities of the situation in Canberra and far, far more to do with pop-culture saturation and romanticised notions of ‘revolution’.

A night of madness held in a building that is about to be demolished by corporate giants is a very different beast from a night of madness in a completely operational building loaned by a sympathetic and friendly property owner who has to face up to the situation the next day.

For me the worst part of Chain Gang’s aftermath isn’t that we are unlikely to see any arts events in that venue in the near future (if ever again), but that the majority of those present on the night blamed ‘The Man’ for the shutdown. I don’t know who ‘The Man’ is in this case, let alone how he has anything to do with people throwing bottles or climbing on rooftops.

Equally as useless as the blame game is using Canberra as a scapegoat when things don’t go quite right. The outcry post Chain Gang has largely been one of “Canberra never lets anything good happen” or “this is exactly why I moved away.” To this I say – the exhibition happened. The party happened. You had a good time. Poor planning and a few jerks just gave it a sour aftertaste, making it all the less likely it will happen again. I will also remind these folk – parties get shut down IN EVERY CITY IN THE ALL THE WORLD. Things get messy, people get hurt, it’s too noisy or smelly and at some point it all has to end.

If you really want to see exciting events happen in Canberra then I’m sure you realise sitting around wingeing makes you part of the problem. If you have an idea, just think about how similar things have worked or not worked in the past, take care of each other and don’t burn your bridges. And if you attend one of these events, think about who is ‘The Man’ in this situation: who has to clean up tomorrow, talk to the cops, the paramedics, the lynchmob media. Chances are it’s not the government.

Well organised events run by folk who have done their research will do more to further the possibilities for art in Canberra than any riot ever will.



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  1. Hey, great topic for discussion.

    Quote: “The plethora of guerilla/DIY events in Canberra, fuelled by individuals with the audacious initiative that makes this city great, not only demonstrates a shortage of venues for emerging and experimental arts but also an ingrained desire to stick it to ‘The Man’. Unfortunately I fear that this desire has little connection to the realities of the situation in Canberra and far, far more to do with pop-culture saturation and romanticised notions of ‘revolution’.” End quote.

    I love a good art party. One that improves the general good feeling amongst us all. Even if it gets shut down or moved on.

    This is not the first time this has happened – in essence of a valuable abandoned art space being torn down. The same fate was handed to the abandoned space called ‘Carrolls’. Fortunately ‘Carrolls’ went quietly into the night and nobody got freaky on ‘The Man’, and it lasted a while, it inspired me to be honest.

    If you give someone a gallery space, a music venue, shop space, or even someones home – and they will generally act with a feeling of appreciation and politeness. It feels as though it’s the environment we’re placed in that provokes the out-of-kilter attitudes of some punters.

    Generally a structured, legal and supported event provides the following:
    “Here is the entrance, here is the entertainment, don’t touch anything, here’s some food, thank you for coming, here is the exit, see you when we’re able to do it again.”

    Seemingly abandoned locations (even if permission is granted in Chain Gangs case) carry an amount of excitement and risk for anyone involved as an organiser, punter or authority. Particularly Chain Gang being within a highly populated, regulated and boozed up location is a particularly massive risk that in retrospect may have been a case of wrong place/wrong time.

    ‘Abandoned’ musical or artistic spaces carry raw excitement for everyone, not only does the space appear abandoned (even only in appearance) but also the decorum of the punter is abandoned. Or in some cases a small few who suddenly want to feel involved and be part of the abandonement and excitement. In this case their only last minute reaction is that the gloves come off to ‘The Man’, swinging blindly at ‘a Man’ that didn’t know you were even there – and are probably doing their job in any case if they do decide to show up. And who are these excited people? Suddenly potentially violent, drunk, young, disgruntled and hyped up on artcitement (sorry).

    I missed Chain Gang, turned up as the party ended, but I can definitely highlight the good intentions of the organisers. I also think the owner deserves a clap for at least supporting the obviously growing art community.

    I’m not going to blame anyone, take the topic off subject, or talk about the Government. I just wanted to discuss these ideas above that were provoked by the article and the quoted paragraph I inserted at the top of this reply.


    • Nice one Warwick – these have all been thoughts at the forefront of my mind in organising events for March. How to let audiences have a good time, and not feel cramped by rules and bureaucracy, while still ensuring the event is deemed successful enough to be able to continue and grow.
      I agree our fate as promotors/curators/producers lies in the hands of, as you say, those punters who are “Suddenly potentially violent, drunk, young, disgruntled and hyped up on artcitement”, and this was certainly the case with Chain Gang. I may also add that many of these folk have a misguided belief that the government is trying to quash arts activity, when evidence suggest the opposite. Maybe an increase in events like this (blessing of property owners pending) will help normalise them to audiences and therefore minimise such intense reactions?


  2. Nice piece dude. My two cents are as follows: 1) indie-boy
    testosterone vs bouncer-machismo testosterone: always a bad mix but
    generally ridiculous considering how mild-mannered these
    middle-class fellows really are. I suspect that the reality is that
    these guys wouldn’t actually put their fists where their mouths are
    so these embarrassments are just not necessary. 2) gigs are
    difficult to manage always. If it was just the exhibition, then
    there wouldn’t have been any wild fall-out, that’s for sure. The
    gratitude is there for the organizers, they went for something that
    hadn’t been done in a long time, if at all on this scale – it had a
    very New York circa 1981 group show vibe, which inspired me again
    for sure. 3) the last point leads onto this one, which is my gripe
    with people who think they can change this place into Melbourne or
    even further, Berlin or New York. What I love about Canberra is
    Canberra and I would like to see us develop our own attitude rather
    then just trying to create a hip Williamsburg vibe for ourselves.
    This isn’t the organizers fault though, rather it’s the
    expectations that attendees seemingly projected onto the concept
    and idea. This is definitely a personal opinion though – I find it
    a little hard to go to these kinds of things these days as I don’t
    drink or do drugs and these environments can be geared towards both
    these things of course.


  3. I’m pretty confident that this has been going on since ‘the cave man’ started cave painting.

    Gonk: “Me paint old cave”
    Donk: “Me like Gonk painting, wool mammoth good good, Gonk make many clams”
    Gonk: “Me no clams, me have cave fun”
    Donk: “Gonk so underground”


  4. Interesting side note – had a quick chat with the venue owner in question on Friday, and in his opinion the event was a success. He raised the obvious concerns about bad behaviour and lack of clean-up, but he thought the art itself was really cool. But here’s something I didn’t know: the original intention was to leave the space open for a few days after the Chain Gang open, to feature the works in an exhibition context. The venue owner was particularly interested in the artists using the opportunity to sell some work – it was just prior to christmas – and unfortunately nothing was sold and the exhibition couldn’t take place as planned.

    Anyway, it’s confirmed that the auditorium has been leased, so it’s game over for that venue.


  5. ok, push all this bullshit to the side, when is someone actually going to review the artwork?
    I mean, it was an art exhibition before anything else, and yet people are just talking about how the cops busted in and shut it down.
    In my opinion, Fiona Veikkanen’s sculptures were a highlight of the show, her work was so vastly different to much of the work that was displayed and gave the exhibition a beautiful touch. I really enjoyed how they were displayed, and the different materials that she used.
    Also, Lisa Twomey’s paintings were another standout, I had seen them at the Grad Show, but I thought hung up high on a big wall in the main room of the exhibition, gave them a kind of biblical feel and were quite imposing.
    Travis Heinrich’s projections onto the road down below were an instant success. People walking through the projection on the street had no idea what was going on most of the time, and people were interacting with the work incredibly. I really enjoyed watching the man follow an arrow around the projection, that Travis was drawing live.
    All in all I think Chain Gang was a huge success, with many great local artists getting to show their work. Peter Barclay was amazing throughout the whole thing, and actually kept some of the Chain Gang posters as King O’Malleys memorabilia.
    Keep your eyes peeled for Chain Gang II.

    Luke Penders


  6. If it was the painting on the far back wall behind the stage, that was Bayard Condon’s.
    He also had three prints of the stairwell he painted for his major work at uni next to Elizebeth Goldrick’s ‘Virgin Sacrifice’ on the left hand wall.


  7. It’s unfortunate that the actions os 3 or so idiots enveloped the success of the evening, especially considering how hard we all worked with only a week and a halfs notice.

    Like you Luke, I wish more people would have mentioned the art and not the tip on the iceberg. But that’s reality.
    Either way, it was a great sucess (500+ people!) and is a sign of more to come. Chain Gang 2, here we come


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