Advance/Retreat Exhibition, West Space Gallery Melbourne

May 20, 2009

Curators Brad Haylock & Mark Richardson gather together a cross-disciplinary collaboration for their West Space exhibition.

Cross-disciplinary collaboration has become one of contemporary design’s defining characteristics, with practitioners increasingly mining the seams between art, architecture, industrial and interior design. Curators Brad Haylock and Mark Richardson tapped into this fertile exchange with their exhibition at Melbourne’s West Space gallery, Advance/Retreat: Three Experiments in Transdisciplinary Collaboration. Bringing together practitioners with backgrounds in art, interior design, industrial design, graphic design, sound design, architecture and theory, the exhibition was both a spatial and temporal documentation of the resulting collaborations. Three groups of practitioners from different disciplines developed their own working methodologies, culminating in three separate installations. Emerging from the creative disciplines and processes, the conceptual nature of contemporary art fused with the more conventional understanding of design as a finite process to produce subtle installations that required active audience engagement.

In the first gallery space the audience was contained behind a locked chain-link fence, therefore denying entry to the main area of the room. Behind the fence, in an otherwise empty space, was a large plant, the type found in corporate offices or hotel lobbies. Here however, the plant lay on the ground, with its roots wrapped in a black plastic bag, the end of a single root placed in a glass of water. In addition fluorescent tubes were placed over the plant to magnify the viewer’s sense of exclusion and emphasising the powerlessness to intervene. Created by designer/artist/writer Brad Haylock and artists Bianca Hester, Ardi Gunawan and Symon McVilly, the room resonated with contemporary references to both environmental issues – in the midst of Melbourne’s urban grid, a plant isolated from its “natural” environment tenuously holding onto life – and political issues, in its resemblance to a makeshift interrogation room or prison cell.

In the next gallery, industrial designer Mark Richardson, artist Stephen Garrett, theorist Susie Elliott, architect/artist Simon Disler, artist Helen Martin, and sound artists Gina Marich and Tom Rigby created a subtle, liminal experience. Parallel lines of string lined the gallery walls, attached proud of the walls and lit to enhance the shadows to create a moiré pattern and through human movement, air pockets created a rippling effect across the breadth of the walls. In this installation the visitor saw that the space actively responded to human intervention. A low hum was perceptible and digital video depicted two hands placing string against the white gallery walls completing the experience. The various media used here highlighted not only the collaboration of the disciplines but the advance towards and retreat from the limits of the visitor’s aural and visual perception.

In the final space, another multi-disciplinary team, that comprised of Inverted Topology – a collaborative art project by Justin Andrews, Danny Lacy and Masato Takasaka, theorist/curator/designer Suzie Attiwill, builder Brian Scales and graphic designer, Warren Taylor collaborated within the space, adding and removing pieces of the installation throughout the duration of the exhibition. Initially Scales constructed a three-dimensional ‘working surface’ from MDF off-cuts with additions by Inverted Topology. Posters designed by Taylor that included photographs, with text by Attiwill documented the changing installation over the two-week period. The space was a continual work in progress with pieces of wood stacked against walls, drawings on paper attached to the walls or strewn on the floor. The scene was that of a building site with fluorescent lights left in readiness for the return of the workers. This ‘working surface’ suggested a space that extended beyond the physical boundaries of the room with objects that changed and transformed over time.

Both provocative and challenging, the three installations invited the audience to view the collaborative process in different ways: in the first space, as an empathetic observer to the plant’s plight: in the second, as an active participant in shaping space; and in the third, as a witness to the ongoing collaborative and transformative process. If design is by its nature a collaborative discipline, these responses to the “brief” exploited the fertile ground between creative practices and beyond design’s usual commercial considerations (taking into account the financial constraints of West Space as a non-for profit gallery). The exhibition challenged the conventional image of design that focuses on a functional end-product, by provocatively collapsing the boundaries between disciplines and engaging the audience as active participants, not just consumers in the collaborative process.

Advance/Retreat: Three Experiments in Transdisciplinary Collaboration ran from 7 November – 29 November 2008

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