The Brisbane Sound

This project at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in February/March 2008 examined how art and popular music in Brisbane critically collapsed into one another during the post-punk years of 1978–1983. Inspired by the anti-establishment challenge of Conceptual Art and the 'Do-It-Yourself' imperative of Punk, artists created bands, while musicians embraced graphic design, publications, film and other experimental possibilities.  In addition, the conventions of exhibition practice were turned upside down, with the exhibition reinvented as a kind of concert, while the concert very often took on extra-musical elements. These are just some of the cross-disciplinary moves that shaped 'alternative' culture in Brisbane during the post-punk years and involved the work of artists such Howard Arkley, Tony Clark, Robert MacPherson, John Nixon, Peter Tyndall and Jenny Watson coming into critical contact with that of musicians such as Nick Cave and The Go-Betweens.

The Brisbane Sound project involved historical displays, i-pod listening stations, newly commissioned installations, and a series of specially commissioned concerts, curated by Ed Kuepper (The Saints/Laughing Clowns), Robert Forster (The Go-Betweens), and Eugene Carchesio (Holy Ghosts/The Deadnotes). In addition, there were also a number of other 'updating' elements, which pointed back to the historical moment and demonstrated that the artistic strategies initiated at that time have an ongoing importance to the artists/musicians concerned.  All of the presentations, including the concerts, were held in the four IMA gallery spaces and could be understood as interconnected. Some key elements of the project have been chosen for presentation here.

One of the key historical displays related to John Nixon's Q Space, a radical exhibition project that operated for two years between 1980–81.

Q Space initially functioned from a derelict woolstore in the city, then from Nixon's apartment and various other locations.

Exhibitions were generally of short duration, usually only for one day. Inspired "by my interest in punk and experimental music. The gig exists in a short time period — you either go to see it now or you miss out" while the use of such unconventional locations "was associated with the Constructivists and Dadaists who used domestic and public space for the exhibition of work" (John Nixon, 1986).

In addition, many of the Q Space shows involved the critical recuperation of Constructivist and Dadaist aesthetics, which resonated with the oppressive socio-political situation in Brisbane at the time, and which was not altogether different in feel to the political situation that had initially inspired the Dadaists and Constructivists.

Jenny Watson's Bandroom was one of the commissioned installations. It also doubled as a backstage area and dressing room during the concert component of the project.

In addition to a number of wall paintings, both of an abstract and figurative nature, which were especially devised for the space, Watson integrated several historical works, including her iconic painting "An Original Oil Painting (Black and White) (For Nick Cave)", a work which mocks the exalted status of oil paint as a traditional sign of value and authenticity in art.

In 1979 Watson had Nick Cave 'exhibit' the painting at the Crystal Ballroom, an important venue for post-punk music, during a performance by the Boys Next Door of their song "Lets Talk About Art", thereby bringing the exhibition and the concert into alignment. The artist's photograph of this event, framed as if by an amateur, was hung next to the painting in the Watson installation.

Soon afterwards, Watson exhibited the painting at the IMA in a small survey of her recent work. She then exhibited it again in a one day show at Q Space (see below) and, finally, in a commercial gallery exhibition, thereby further conflating and questioning the status of official and unofficial exhibition contexts and forms.

Watson's installation also included the artist's 1981 portraits of The Go-Betweens, which were commissioned by the group for reproduction on the cover of their first album "Send Me A Lullaby" (Rough Trade, 1982).

However, before the paintings are used in this way, Watson exhibited them in a one day show at Q Space, where they were presented in a conventional line at eye-level, and which is also how Watson presented them in her installation.

The activities of The Go-Betweens in Brisbane between 1978–82 figured strongly into the Brisbane Sound project. During this time the group was not just a performative entity, but also founded their own D-I-Y record label (the Able Label), released records, produced short films, and collaborated with artists, including John Nixon and Jenny Watson, on several projects that functioned between the art and independent music contexts. The diversified nature of activities at Andy Warhol's Factory was the inspiration for this approach, something the group acknowledged with the poster for their first single, "Lee Remick", in 1978.

The inclusion of a poster for Robert Forster's performances at the IMA in early 1993 was one of the 'updating' aspects of the Brisbane Sound project. The inclusion on the bill of Anti-Music, a collaborative art project co-ordinated by John Nixon, allude to that time in the early 1980s when The Go-Betweens released a split-cassette with Anti-Music. The poster also loosely refers back to The Go-Betweens' "Lee Remick" poster (the same graphic designer, Mark Ross, worked on both posters), and to the use of photocopying technologies, which were widely used by artists in the early 1980s.

This 'updating' was continued with the film component of the project. In addition to showing two early short films by The Go-Betweens, it included video documentation of a 1994 performance by Robert Forster in an installation by the artist Leni Hoffmann (who, incidentally, designed the packaging for Forster's 1996 solo album Warm Nights). This 4 minute video also provided a kind of soundtrack for the exhibition. Turned up so as to be audible in all four IMA gallery spaces, one can hear Forster's distinctive double-time rhythm guitar playing, something which also refers back to the Velvet Underground and, of course, to Andy Warhol.

One of the two short films by The Go-Betweens was a 1979 television commercial for the Toowong Music Centre, the record shop which collaborated with the group on their Able Label project. The commercial, which also saw Robert Forster and Grant McLennan in acting roles (see film still below), is set in an inner city lane and riffs on the 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' scene from D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back" documentary on Bob Dylan.

In 1981 The Go-Betweens made the short 16mm film "Heather's Gloves" (see film still below). Its screenplay was written by Grant McLennan and explores themes which later emerge in songs by the group, perhaps most notably 'Bachelor Kisses' from 1984.

A hub for Brisbane's alternative music scene during the post-punk years was Rocking Horse Records, an inner city record shop. This important social context was alluded to on the top of a large block of polystyrene foam which functioned as a bar during the concert component of the Brisbane Sound project. The idea to use the block of polystyrene was that of architect Andrew Wilson who also designed the stage for the concerts, again using readymade polystyrene blocks. In the early 80s, Wilson was a member of Four Gods, an important Brisbane Sound group who released a single on The Go-Betweens' Able Label in early 1982. The ' anti-typography' on the bar was by Heimo Zobernig.

The frieze of posters that can be seen on the wall behind the 'Rocking Horse Bar' was also a newly commissioned work from Liam Gillick and constituted a genealogy of the Brisbane Sound.