Interview with Joseph Allen Shea

Interview with Joseph Allen Shea | 27th November 2014 | Apparently for Chapbook Issue One

JASJoseph Allen Shea is an independent curator, publisher, writer, consultant and gallerist. Without distinguishing between these creative activities he approaches his different work as a singular output.

He is director of Galerie Allen, Paris / Gallery A.S., Sydney and Izrock Pressings.

He has presented over 60 exhibitions in galleries and institutions in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Paris and London.

JTNS: I haven’t read about curatorial projects from your time in London, were there any?

JAS: Well that was the time that I was starting to become interested in contemporary art and that is where I was exposed to it and there is where the idea of Izrock began. I was going to all these exhibitions where, they were kind of independent and DIY spaces where the exhibitions could be rather short – a week or a couple of weeks long – but I was so infected with this work that I wanted to contribute in a certain way and that’s when I took up my skills in graphic design, which is the education I had, and I started making art books and zines and publishing artists’ works. That is actually what began the transition from graphic design to running galleries and curating exhibitions.

JTNS: I wanted to talk about zines. I first heard about your work and the move to Paris in Ed Templeton’s issue of Huck Magazine and what struck we was how big these suburban zines are. Obsessive themes always seem to crop up in outer city areas: Ed Templeton mentions it and Anthony Lister makes a point of it on his website when he says “Outer city broken home”. Then, of course you curated 1.85 Million. What is it about the suburbs that spurs on these scenes?

JAS: I don’t have a definitive answer. Why do you think it is that these things happen outside of the centre?

JTNS: You definitely have a lot less to do [in suburbia]. Boredom? I don’t live that far out of London, really, but as a teenager 45 minutes and an expensive train journey is a big deal. It is when you start bands and grab BMXs and make a tit of yourself.

JAS: And space. You have the boredom to fuel it and the space to make a mess.

JTNS: And there is no one around to watch you. There is a sense of fearlessness in the suburbs.


JTNS: Just quickly, did you like Chapbook? I am fucking hyped that you responded to it in some way.

JAS: I thought it was great. I liked the selection of artists and disparate subject matter. You see mountains of magazines all focusing on the same things – and they are really trendy and people think they are really cool – and they regurgitate the same content. I like Chapbook – it is super varied and it is very like my approach to my interests. And also you were so motivated to get it out. Did you say you had in Foyles?

JTNS: Yeah.

JAS: I can tell you are interested in the same things I am: distributing ideas. And Foyles is a great place to distribute it.

JTNS: Foyles seemed to like it, everyone else hated it. At least there is one person.

JAS: That’s right. You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t try; you just need to find those little pockets that relate to your work.

JTNS: Shall we talk about your choice of artists? ‘Disorder Disorder’ had Anthony Lister and Jeff Canham for example. You exhibited tattooists, graffiti artists, skateboarders together. Yes, they are all obsessive subcultures but they also all have a trade or skill attached to them which is almost like an archaic way of viewing an art.

JAS: I think what I was really interested in in that exhibition was other ways or other motivations for making art. The subtitle to that exhibition was ‘ulterior motives in contemporary art’. So they were all artists that came from different places, you know, music or –as you say – trades like signwriting or graffiti or anything like this. It is what one might call a back-door entrance – there is a different starting point and a different motivation but in the end it is about communication, like all artwork. The gallery situation is another location for it, perhaps a more prestigious one or a more expected one, but it is a place where there is a sort of validation for your art. But I think (and I am not saying that the gallery is better place or a better or context for art) the street, posters, advertising are all forms of communication but they have their own codes and rules attached to them as well.

JTNS: This leads on to the institution which is something I wanted to talk to you about briefly.

JAS: I think the interesting thing there, with the institution, is you are reaching a very small, select audience. You are reaching a converted audience. They go to museums to look at art and they probably have a certain education, and they probably have a certain social standing, and they probably have a different…how shall I put it?… it is almost like you need to be means tested to get into the museum, into the gallery. But with a public space then your audience is absolutely every one and I think this is what is interesting about some of these artists that are working in commercial mediums. For example, if you are designing a record sleeve of a pop record then your audience is millions and millions and millions compared to the few hundred in the institution. Getting people to walk into museums and galleries is tough work, but people are forced to look at billboards in the street, they don’t have a chance not to. I mean, there is this taboo that exists between design and ‘fine art’, as we like to call it, but you see that a designer has the scope for much, much more change if they can cleverly get their idea across. If you can mould that medium for your purpose then your audience is massive.

JTNS: The institution will absorb it though, it will take it in.

JAS: They will take it. I mean, eventually, they will have to catch up. Some are trying to now. As we said, it is hard to get people through museum doors. Someone like Jeffery Dieter is an interesting character. He ran the MOCA (L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art) for three years with a popularist programme based on music and celebrity but he was massacred; he didn’t last long in that position. He got everyone that they desired through the doors but still it was too much, or too early (or not enough depending on which way you look at it) and some people didn’t get the context. Maybe he didn’t do it in the correct ways, but that might have been the problem. I found it, considering his position, fascinating how many people he managed to upset when at least part of his mission – which was to get people through the doors – was absolutely successful. You can’t please everyone; you can’t do it both ways; and being an iconoclast isn’t easy.

JTNS: There is a big fashion in London at the moment for either graphic design or music-based, or even personality-based, exhibitions: the Bowie exhibition at the V&A was sell out for months, there is a Blondie exhibition at Somerset House and a graphic design show based on the record sleeves of the Stones. You can’t help but feel that it is just a fashion.

JAS: But there should be room enough for that. There should be room for everything. Art should be unlimited, it should be as wide as we can imagine and there should be room for popularist exhibitions – simple ones – and there should be room for highly academic and though provoking exhibitions. There needs to be the gamete. I think it should be a lot wider than it is.

JTNS: What I really like about your practice is your acute understanding of the institution and what it means to you. You have never used your standing outside of the institution to work your way into it. Your dissemination of knowledge, working with (previously) unknown artists is great. Since you’ve worked with people like Anthony Lister he has become huge and highly collectable, he is in national museums and galleries but you have always used your position to orbit around the centre, whether that is geographically or academically or artistically. What makes it an interesting route to take is that most people use it as a way in, but you seem to want to stay around the outside.

JAS: I think that is the most interesting area and that is where the most interesting things happen: in the margins. There is this space where it is not necessary to conform. There is this treadmill that we can look at and we can study which we think is the right way, the best to make money or the way to make the best work but is it not – it is always the spaces where there is another idea. This is what art could and should be: new ways or representing the world. It is rarely in the centre that this happens. The centre will take it on eventually and that can be a good thing because when an artist like Anthony, who is working from a different place and determined to stay there, and the audience gets bigger then that work has an audience. It is not a negative thing to be in the centre but I don’t think your motivation should be to reach that place at all or at all cost.

JTNS: So how do you feel now that you have a permanent gallery space?

JAS: It is nice to have a home again after three years of doing things in different spaces; it is an efficient way to work. Life is a lot sturdier, in a way, because people know where to find you and it is a lot less confusing. It is probably a better way to communicate, a more efficient way to communicate. There is something very exciting about changing the framework every time you do an exhibition, that is exciting and that is exhilarating and it is also exciting for artists but there is a lot energy that goes into it which can be used in other ways. I think a bit of both is really the goal: to have something transient and experimental and varied and unknown (because that was the great thing for me not having an art gallery but having a project that was different every time) but the same reasons that having an art gallery is great also makes it a trap. It can similar every time to the point where you know exactly how the work is going to look on the wall; you know your space very well; you know dimensions and how to exploit them; and that can be incredibly efficient but that also becomes a lot less experimental and exciting. If I were doing an exhibition in a space which was unknown to me – like a church – I wouldn’t necessarily know how the work was going to function. That was a big part of the project Gallery AS: it was all about context, how the work changed the building and how the building changed the work. That was exciting for me because I never knew what was going to happen and hopefully that excitement and that experimentation made its way into the audience’s experience. And I think it did.

JTNS: It got a lot of positive press, people loved it.

JAS: It wasn’t just a gallery/exhibition, it was an event as such, as popularist as that sounds. It transcended the event. Of course it was about the art and what the artist was making but it became a social gathering, it became an adventure in many ways because people gained access to buildings that they couldn’t access before. A lot of the spaces we were using were just empty buildings that were closed or a church that people were too scared to go into. The best thing about that project was what I would learn about buildings and communities because people would come out and say “I was always too scared to go into this church, it always looked so God-fearing. I always worried I but I was fascinated by the architecture” and suddenly we opened the doors and learned a lot about how people live in that community. There was another great story where we did an exhibition in the former Paramount Pictures building.

JTNS: This was ‘Motion Pictures’.

JAS: Yeah. It’s a beautiful functionalist building, it is kind of art deco but it is a functionalist building. It was built in 1939 and there was a submarine that came into Sydney harbour, it might have been in 1942, and of course there was a lot of worry about the threat of war at that time. Anyway, I met this fellow who had hidden in the basement of the Paramount Pictures building in the early 40s. There were these discoveries in which we found out the connections these exhibitions have within communities. And they weren’t necessarily art-viewing communities – this was the great thing. These people were pulled in to these buildings, they wouldn’t have come into my gallery if it was on the same corner.

JTNS: There are ventures here like Secret Cinema and there are social theories and writings which argue against what you are saying: Pierre Bordieu (and, by extension, Andrea Fraser) would say that the institution is in the mind of the viewer, and it is that which validates an artwork. It is like you were saying about the institution almost means-testing the people within it. Fans follow Secret Cinema around and tweet about it and show off to their friends, so the fact still remains that you have to be in the know, the loop and the ‘institution’ to be part of these practices. Do you not think that your emphasis on communities is placed against these ideas?

JAS: I just don’t believe in exclusivity. That’s all.

JTNS: That’s a good way to approach any form of knowledge, I guess.

JAS: I agree entirely. It should be for everyone – that is what art began as, it is a kind of tradition which collapses the hierarchical.

JTNS: Is that why you like the printed form? It is a traditional form of distribution but books and magazines are also objects and you can do beautiful things with them. Traditional chapbooks and modern zines aren’t a million miles away in this sense.

JAS: I am interested in methods of distribution. I love the internet, but it has some restrictions. As a format, the internet is a great way to move ideas but the reproduction of an artwork in a book is preferable to a jpeg. Any way to mass-distribute ideas can be used for positive gain, however.

JTNS: When you say the internet is a great way to distribute ideas, is it something that occupies your thoughts? Are you planning an online project or a project based around the internet?

JAS: I do have a project in mind, which has slowed down a little. It is a project I am working on with my wife and it is an online project that deals with creativity and imagination. But the internet changes so quickly. I wanted to create an Instagram project – wherever the most people are is a great place to produce work – but Instagram is getting boring already so what is the next thing? You have to keep up, find the best channel, the most correct channel for the audience that you want. I like a big audience though so we shall see.

JTNS: Palazzo Peckham at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013) was sponsored by ArtStack. I am on ArtStack and part of me enjoys it, don’t get me wrong. It is a great way for artists to publicise themselves and I have discovered and met artists through ArtStack. But it has become a very fleeting and purely aesthetic experience, like Instagram, where you just scroll and scroll. Already the novelty has worn off. I may just be waiting for a new way to fulfil an old need.

JAS: Just looking at images can be a bit shallow. You might get some visual stimulation but it might not fix the mental stimulation we, as human beings, need. I think that’s the problem with Instagram, too. That is why I loved it after Twitter, it was like “we can communicate purely through images now, this is great!” but you soon realise it has its shortcomings.

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