Aren’t art schools great? I think by law every art school should have a papier maché Statue of Liberty outside, with a plaque saying:
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door
From world famous ones like the Bauhaus or the Slade, to your local tech college down the road, all art schools share one thing: they will all, prima facie, accept for consideration almost any behaviour or activity from their students — or if not exactly any behaviour or activity, at least a broader range of behaviours and activities than all other places of learning.
Over time all of these activities and behaviours leave their marks, on the bricks and mortar of the buildings, and in the minds and memories of staff and students. This art school is no different. Although perhaps it is a little bit different because it was built into the old Canberra High School, so generations of high school students, back to the 1930s have preceded today’s art students in the same rooms and corridors. In fact, if we take a ‘generation’ at school to be four years on average, nine generations of high school students laboured within these walls before it even became an art school in the 1970s, and since then a further nine generations of art students have laboured as well, eighteen generations in all across two great epochs! The marks of the high school are still there: the metal domes in the parquetry outside the front office were there to teach the students how to measure distance in chains and rods; and, at a certain time of year, when the sunlight glances the new paint at just the right angle, you can still faintly see the word ‘SCIENCE’ appearing like a pentimento above the door to Ceramics. The current Head of School’s office was indeed the Headmaster’s office, and where the conference room currently is was the school library, with a beautiful mezzanine level of books with a curved metal railing surrounding a void where the floor of the Art Monthly office now is.
All this was built over by the School’s architects, but much of their original work, too, has now also been written over, although some times it peeps through, such as the thirty-five year-old acrylic sign on the Core room opposite the café, complete with the School’s original ‘iris’ logo by John Reid, that proudly announces that the room was once designated as a crèche —the School was originally intended to be family friendly!.
One of the school’s two funky seventies conversation pits, the one in the centre of what is now the foyer gallery, has long since been covered over with boards and forgotten, however the remaining conversation pit in the library, which was also threatened a few years ago on OHS grounds, was fortunately saved.
The school is riddled with voids like a haunted house. Stairs beside the downstairs darkrooms lead nowhere — to a basement that has been bricked-off. Once, if you had the key like I did, you could open the double doors near the curved wall in Photomedia, squeeze past the huge air conditioning unit along a metal gangway, climb a ladder, open a trap-door and suddenly you were up on the roof, but hidden from Childers Street by the balustrade, perfect for smoking joints or sunbaking.
When the darkrooms were refurbished we found a mattress and bedding in the ceiling near a manhole, had it been used for late night trysts? as alternative accommodation? to avoid the guards on their rounds and continue printing? But this accommodation was really only one or two step below the flats in painting or ceramics, similarly secreted away.
The School’s architecture has always encouraged surreptitious behaviour. For instance my first encounter with the School was entirely illegal. I was working elsewhere in Canberra but wanted to print my first show on Cibachrome, a friend, Warwick Anderson, taught Open Art at night and had a key, he let me in to the Cibachrome darkrooms, which were where the Printmedia seminar room now is, and I cheerfully used gallons of Cibachrome chemistry printing alone into the early ours of the morning.
Above the Art Monthly office there is another large space behind the four clock-faces of the tower. Old floodlights lie strewn across the floor. Someone, long ago, had begun a lurid hippy-style painting on the floor but had then give it up, perhaps they were discovered and banned?
The space below the clock faces was used by Paul McDermott for his Graphic Investigation installation, and a little later by the famous new-media artist Jill Scott. She set up a closed circuit television camera to surveille Childers Street, and traced the trajectory of pedestrians on translucent paper placed over the screens of upturned televisions, and then pinned them to the wall.
Other voids collected detritus. John Reid, who for a time actually lived at the art school near where the Inkjet Research Facility currently is, kept part of his archive hidden for years behind a door next to a toilet stall in the art theory toilets.
There is also an unobtrusive door in the back wall of the office across from the lecture theatre. Now occupied by Denise, this office was once occupied by Peter Fitzpatrick, and before then by a series of postgraduate students, and before then by the School’s modest Computer Aided Art Studio, and before then by the Head of the Leather Workshop (yes, we once had a leather workshop here!). If you open the door in the back of that office you enter another room-sized void, where yet more art works have been left, this time by Peter Fitzpatrick.
The remnants of student art works can still be seen around the buildings. Back in the nineties the sculpture student Noni Nixon installed for her graduating exhibition a set of playful devices, made out of black rubber plumbing. Some were playful sculptural puns such as the large shower head on the drain which runs from the deck outside the lecture theatre to the paving outside the library, and some were meant to look like official monitoring devices, like the three series looking devices on the concrete pylon beneath the walkway to the School of Music, and they are all, remarkably, still there twenty years later.
If you walk down the steps from the upper level of Printmedia and Drawing to the lower level you can see the end of the Photomedia darkrooms directly in front of you. There are three bolts and pulleys imbedded on the wall, covered over with generations of paint, you wouldn’t notice them unless they were pointed out to you. What are they there for? Many years ago John Reid hung himself, upside down, naked from the waist up, from those hooks using a concealed abseiling harness. It was a torturous performance about disappeared political prisoners, done for a performance festival curated by Neil Roberts
The remnant of other art works are more visible, but their original function has been rendered invisible. In the computer lab across from the library there is a nondescript sandblasted stainless steel object. It looks like a seventies abstract painting, and in one sense it is, but it is also the antennae to the musical instrument the theremin. Where did it come from? It was built by a famous new media artist and displayed in Canberra, a year before the school of art even opened. It was given to the ANU, lived for a while in somebody’s office in the School of Music. At some stage the antennae was separated from the electronics, and a while later the antennae found itself alone in a rubbish hopper and about to be taken to the tip. Thankfully it was rescued by Jim Cotter and pulled out of the hopper, who would h!e give it to? The school of art of course! And since then it has sat, unregarded unrecognised on the art school wall.
For a time Friday happy hours were huge, and attracted large crowds of hundreds of people, art school students but others as well, students from the main campus looking for bohemia and music from the art school bands. At one mid-winter happy hour in the very early nineties a student from the Leather Workshop, who was known for his unusual behaviour, got into heated discussion with the head of sculpture, David Watt, and stabbed him through the jumper with a leather tool. Poor David had to be taken to casualty o get stitches put in in the skin above his sternum. David passed away a few years after this incident, and the planter box outside sculpture behind us is a memorial to him.
Students always wanted to perform. The photomedia student fridge was left turned off, but full of milk and guacamole from November to February, it couldn’t be opened indoors because of the smell. The declared a time for a performace, donned hazmat suits and gas masks, dragged it out onto the lecture theatre balcony, and ceremonially squirted it with bleach.
Students loved music. Photomedia student Konrad Lenz particularly love Bob Dylan, and he extra-especially loved Marianne Faithful. He would come to crit and cheerfully announce that he hadn’t taken any photographs but that he had written a song, he would then whip out his guitar and sing it to us at full volume.
The School has had its fair share of famous visitors. I remember being hypnotized by the pattern on the waistcoat of the young fogey English art critic Peter Fuller. Shane Breynard, a student doing a public art exercise with the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar remembers him standing in the middle of what the students had told him was the centre of Canberra, Garema Place, and complaining that there just wasn’t enough public her to do anything with. Several of us remember Christian Boltanski commenting favourably on the number of prostitutes there were in Canberra, until we realized that he was referring to the office workers, who because of new non-smoking rules, had taken to standing around their office doorways smoking.