Devon McKnight in conversation with Alexandra Lawson.
In a time of such highly visible social injustices, I keep asking myself what is the artist’s role in creating change? For Alexandra Lawson it seems the answer has always been a bit clearer. Alexandra thinks in terms of community, conversation, and participation. She wants to blur the line between artist and audience, the everyday and the art space. The idea isn’t new. We can see influence from Situationists International lead by the popular Guy Debord and their experiential psychogeography, but Alexandra seems to be carving out a space for the social artist or at least a dialogue about doing just that.
What I find most fascinating about Alexandra’s work is its simplicity. It gets down to the essence of life. The sweet moments, the things that make humans beautiful…our ability to feel and to love and to express that to one another and to share that love.
Look at the titles of her projects…I Value You, Experiential Breakfast, Tell Me Something. I think one of the things that drew me to Alexandra is her desire for face to face dialogue which can be a rarity in the age of texting. If you meet Ali you will notice what a great listener she is and how interested she is in who you are, what you’re all about and she’s not afraid to be pushy with her interest. Ali is looking to connect. She knows the importance of discussion, conversation, and communication.
Toowoomba, Australia, where Ali is living, working and learning is a small town on top of a hill in Southern Queensland. The closest large city is Brisbane, two hours away. I realized, although Ali is located in this somewhat remote town, I see her as an international artist.
AL: When I decided to stay and do the PhD in Toowoomba, a fellow PhD candidate Tarn McLean and I wondered how we would have dialogue with artists in our fields, that is within Social Art and Painting Expanded; we decided to start a project space called RAYGUN PROJECTS with the intention of bringing international artists to Toowoomba, to engage in dialogue with us, which we have successfully done for the past four years. Over that time we have been able to create a system of networks with wonderful artists/people from around the world whose work we are interested in. So yes, I work with people from many backgrounds and places, which I adore doing.
I find this interesting as often artists feel they need to be in New York or Los Angeles or Berlin to be a part of the art world and its conversations, but these two decided to bring the world to them. By importing, they not only build a new dialogue, but a global one; building a global dialogue out of a small town.
So in addition to Ali’s personal practice and her PhD studies, she also co-runs RAYGUN. The space sits above a row of shops on one of the main streets in Toowoomba. It’s a simple, small room with two windows looking down onto the streets. It is full of bright Australian sunlight during the day and sparkles with streetlight in the evening.
Tarn and Ali both have studio spaces down the hall from RAYGUN which makes it all a pretty ideal setup. As a social artist I wondered what type of role space played in Alexandra’s work.
AL: The room that I write in is definitely my studio, I refer to it as a studio, and have just spent the best part of the last 3 years in that room, the furniture changes position often, and it has books and stuff everywhere or is super sparse depending upon my head space. It is the space where everything happens. Regarding the space that my work exists in, I refer to that ‘place’ as ‘social art’, in that it is made by an artist and it very much exists within the theory, history and discussion of ‘visual art’.
DM: Do you see the running of this gallery space as part of your practice...your artwork? Or do you like to separate the two?
AL: Interestingly this question is asked often. What Tarn and I do at RAYGUN is certainly an extension of our own practices, and we collaborate on projects sometimes; such as recently at NLH Space in Copenhagen where we undertook a project called ‘Sharing Loving Giving’, which is a kind of practice that exists as the ‘third hand’ of RAYGUN.
Our primary activity at RAYGUN is to work with artists to facilitate a solo show. Sometimes we have group shows, but primarily we work with one artist who we engage in a dialogue with throughout the exhibition process, which we love.
I met Ali years ago when she was studying abroad in Greensboro, North Carolina. Soon after meeting we began collaborating. Ali brought this unbridled will to make connections to Greensboro, a town that at the time was a bit quiet and disconnected even though it was clustered with universities and colleges. Ali had a sense of the social, community and engaging art, something Greensboro was desperate for. I wondered if the US and its artists had any influence on Ali’s thinking and if this country offered her something different from her Australian culture.
AL: In the US I met an artist named Lee Walton, who was highly influential to the honours thesis I was writing at the time, in addition to my thinking and my work. Prior to coming to the states I wrote a paper on Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, however upon meeting Lee and experiencing his classes and being exposed to some of the people he introduced us to and spoke about was significant to my thinking at the time. Lee also introduced me to an amazing lady named Sal Randolph who I have had the pleasure of working with towards projects at RAYGUN. Regarding US artists bringing a perspective that is different from Australian culture, Harrell Fletcher described Australia as being a little like LA, but with people speaking with a funny accent, meaning they are not fundamentally different, but in saying that, of course an individual’s direct experience/culture always influences their work to a degree.
In Ali’s work VALUABLE PEOPLE she calls upon the global public to submit names of people they value and why. In many of her projects Ali calls upon the experiences or ideas of others. For her PhD she is researching the realm of social art and studies the ideas and knowledge of prominent social artists to influence her own thoughts. You could say experiences and thoughts are her media. In a consumer society such as ours, I wonder if this type of work is overlooked because it isn’t tangible and often it is temporary, existing only for a moment. I wonder if this makes artists like Ali nervous. Because their work can’t be consumed, thus is it less desirable?
AL: You are touching on ideas that I had when I was researching initially and ended up focusing my research around the social artist, proposing that social artists (also known as participatory/live/socially engaged artists) are currently displaced, due to the use of everyday activities and objects to facilitate their artwork. As a result, social artworks have been traditionally unable to self-identify as art, and are often misread and misrepresented through a variety of other fields (such as theatre, politics, pedagogy etc) both historically and within current debates. I proposed that a ‘place’ should be established for the social artist, as the social artist is as valuable to the creation of social art as the traditional artist is to the creation of traditional/modern art objects for visual pleasure. Therefore social art deserves a place, to be acknowledged and understood within visual art practice and associated theory and criticism. My work exists within that debate.
I was drawn to this type of work because the paintings and objects (I love painting and object based work very much) didn’t seem to be achieving the outcome that I needed, I became interested in creating an experience for the participant. Regarding being nervous about the existence of the work, no, I am not nervous. There is more and more literature/debate emerging re (for/in?) this type of work by writers such as Claire Bishop, Grant Kester, Nato Thompson etc, it certainly has a presence even though it is not often discussed in depth, or is merged with non art activities.
Regarding the incorporation of tangibility into the work, yes, the projects that I create usually do have some kind of tangible ‘trace’ object, which I consider to be only documentation, created in order to understand the intentions of the project after the work has occurred.
DM: Where do you imagine your work existing? What is its best space?
AL: It’s an interesting question; I am assuming that you mean where is the work best displayed? I have come to think that ‘showing’ the work isn’t that important, I like that idea that it might exist beyond the initial experience as some kind of trace object, such as a book for example.
DM: I love this too, probably because we love the book as object so much. It’s a keeper of ideas.
“What is it’s best space”...meaning in your lovely imaginary or best world...how would or where would these projects/experiences/situations occur? A gallery, a street, a coffee shop? All of the above? I was just watching Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present and I realized I had always thought of her as this museum artist but she activated many spaces...the Great Wall of China, outdoor plazas, and also museums. Love that. Sometimes I feel we place the burden onto ourselves to be gallery or nongallery...space or nonspace.
AL: I have watched ‘The Artist is Present’ this week too! I watched it with the intention to identify whether Abramovic considers herself a performance artist, or a social artist. Her lineage has been in performance, and I think that everything she does and every one of her intentions is so very heavily grounded in performance, which is interesting, this is why it is located without question in a visual art context.
DM: So! What will you do now that you are finished with your PhD?
AL: That is a good question, I am still adapting to this change, but am primarily absorbed with growing RAYGUN. Tarn and I are in the process of making it financially sustainable, as at present it is funded by a wonderful funding body called ‘Arts Queensland’, we are adding more programs next year and have three publications underway. There are certainly exciting times ahead.