Tony and the Paint Separator

Some folks who work at the MCA are taking this audit business very seriously. And good for them, I say!

Tony, who runs the exhibitions set-up department is one such enthusiast, who has grasped the nettle (and sometimes my lapels) quite firmly (he responded at length to my exploration of wall-building and other issues here).

After reading my series of rather minor exposés, Tony bailed me up outside the lifts one day and said: “What you’ve revealed is all a bit negative so far. I want to show you some good things! Like the paint separator…”

So a few days ago he took me on a small adventure to “The Paint Room” on level four, to find out about this paint separator business… “Take photos!” Tony commanded. (He wants the whole world to see this wondrous machine…)
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In the Balance, on the Telly

Here’s a video clip from the ABC TV’s Art Nation TV show, by Fenella Kernebone.

If you’re sitting in the MCA looking at this on the computer provide, look up from the screen. There’s a diagram I made which is my imagined flow of inputs and outputs resulting from the television segment. Fenella and I discuss this diagram on the telly.

(I’ll post up a photograph of the diagram here soon for those who aren’t visiting the gallery to see…)

UPDATE: Here’s the diagram: (sorry about the blurry edges, I’ve got to get hold of a half-decent camera I think)

abc art nation environmental audit diagram

More from the Mailbag

In the spirit of helping enterprising students get better grades for their university assignments, I hereby answer questions from “C”, who emailed me recently … there may be some overlap with a recent mailbag response to another student over here.

C writes:

Hi Lucas

I am currently studying fine arts at uni, and have chosen In the Balance for my essay in which I must critique a current contemporary art exhibition.

I am very excited about the show as it combines both my interest in environmental issues and in art. I am also hoping that it (and particularly your piece) will challenge art galleries, artists and viewers to think about sustainable practices in visual arts. I have a couple of questions I was hoping you could share some thoughts on.

1. What do you think the main purpose of the show is?

2. I assume one of the aims of the show is to engage the public audience to think about their own role in current environmental issues? Do you think it’s fair to say then, that a good measure of the success of the exhibition will actually be how people respond to the issues they were exposed to, after they leave the gallery? (For example discussing or debating the issues with their friends, making changes in their lives to lessen their carbon footprint etc.)

3. By allowing themselves to be ‘environmentally audited’ and by drawing attention to the relationship between art and environmental sustainability, do you think the MCA has potentially opened themselves up to future scrutiny, in relation to how they conduct future exhibitions and also the types of artists they invite to exhibit?

4. Are you concerned that the public may also hold you (and some of the other exhibited artists) more accountable in the future for the way you conduct your art practice?

5. Have you found the general response to your work and/or the exhibiton, to be positive, negative or both?

Once again I can’t thank you enough for your sharing your time and thoughts with me. Best of luck to you, and I’ll let you know when I am visiting the show again.

Regards C

The Auditor Responds:

Dear C, thanks for your questions. Good ones! Here are my responses… Continue reading

The Great Third Floor Lighting Survey

mca lighting survey

Exciting times in the Audit office. I’ve been joined by Louise – pictured above – my new intern!
If she can bear it, in between finishing her design degree Louise will be helping me out on some of the trickier aspects of my work at the MCA.

The first of her tasks, early last week, was to assist me with carrying out The Great MCA Third Floor Lighting Survey.

This was by no means an easy task. Nor was it the first attempt at such a survey. Nor is it yet finished. I’ll explain why…
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In the Mailbag

This week I’ve received some emails from university students keen to discuss the Environmental Audit for assignments they’re working on.

One of these students, “M.” is studying for a Masters of Arts in Creative Writing.

Here’s her message, with my response below…

Hi Lucas.

I have been following your Environmental Audit online and at the MCA and I’m captivated by the self-referential nature of your work — something which I believe is vital for eco-artists.

I am a Masters of Arts Student and I have chosen to do my ‘open-essay’ on eco-art and public action. It’s a small piece worth 1500 words and will be shown to the class, in a workshop, and to my convener.

I wanted to know:

  1. Are your works meant to be a catalyst for debate? Or, for change? This is particularly interesting to me because of their interactive nature. Are you seeking to enter your audience into discourse about environmental concerns and into a dialogue with each other?
  2. In other words, do you intend for your audience to enter into discourse about the use of energy/resource in the exhibition and eco-art movement? Or is there a desired path-of-action you wish to catalyse?
  3. Is provoking thought, and creating conversation/discussion, enough for our planet?
  4. Do you feel that your project ‘belongs’, in some manner, to society because it engages with the public sphere, with issues of the public and of their space?
  5. Is your work — conceptually and physically/technologically — accessible?
  6. Does environmental art need to be self-referential, and exhibit an acute awareness of medium and sustainability, to hold any value in the enviromission?
  7. If eco-artists don’t specifically intend to activate change in their audience, then is environmental art essentially ‘art for art’s sake’ where the creators simply leach off of the green franchise?

I look forward to hearing from you.


Thanks M. Some of these are big questions. Let’s see how I go.

With regard to your first 2 questions, I think that catalysis is not a bad metaphor. A catalyst increases the rate of change in a chemical reaction. With my Environmental Audit project, I’m hoping to do a similar thing. But rather than accelerating chemical change, I am hoping to accelerate social change.

This sounds lofty and ambitious and a bit pretentious. However, I should follow this statement with the understanding that I am not actually in a position to persuade anyone into changing anything (and I think this is probably pretty clear to anyone reading this blog). I am neither particularly clever, nor exemplary in my own lifestyle. And I don’t hold a position of any power to execute decisions affecting anyone except myself.

What I can do, though, is to publically examine myself, and the very local situation in which I find myself: an environmentally-themed exhibition at a contemporary art gallery. The players in this game are the artists, curators and gallery-workers, visitors and blog readers; and the set of relations between them, the organisations we belong to, and the materiality of the planet we’re a part of.

I have the privelege of spending 3 months of my life dwelling on (and in) this situation. I also have the luxury of operating out of a highly visible piece of real estate (on the third floor of the MCA), and these things may amount to some degree of power to activate change, under the (possibly erroneous) equation “visibility is relevance”.

So I am hoping that my extended, open-ended, publically visible examination of this situation might lead to something shifting. But I have no fixed goal or particular idea as to what that shift might be.

To answer your third question: clearly, no. Provoking thought and discussion is not enough for our planet. We’ve got to actually do something too, something practical and something physical. The fact that endless discussions are not held to be enough is clear from the widespread derision which followed Julia Gillard’s pre-election announcement of a citizen’s assembly to discuss what to do about climate change.

But what to do, of course, is the question? How to do something when big changes seem to be in the hands of large corporations and governments? What do we do with our sense of impotence around this? In the first instance, we think and talk about it a lot. Then we start to group ourselves together and make small changes. None of these small changes (using energy saving bulbs, making compost, installing dual flush toilets, switching to recycled paper, planting vegies, keeping chickens, chaining oneself to a tree, voting in a federal election, writing a blog, blah blah blah) is going to “save the planet”. But I reckon that what we’re doing, when we make them, is preparing the soil for the big top-down changes to properly take root when they’re finally planted.

Question 4: Yes, the project “belongs to society”, in two ways. First, it takes place in society: its site is the public sphere itself (an online project unfolding over time, as well as interactions taking place in the semi-public sphere of the gallery). Second, its subject matter is specifically the social: How do the structure of our societies create situations which make large-scale environmental action difficult?

With regard to Question 5: perhaps you (and other readers) can answer this better than I can. All I can say is that I have attempted to be as clear as possible, within the project, about what the project is about, and what it is trying to do, and how – as well as to articulate my own limitations. I deliberately set out to avoid obfuscating and mystifying (and I am aware that contemporary art is often accused of such crimes). There are, of course, barriers to access: my project only uses English language; you have to be able to access the internet, and to navigate your way around a blog (and I know some older folks will have difficulty with this)…

Question 6: Not all art is overtly self-referential, nor does it need to be. That just happens to be the method of my own project right now. However, I think wilful naivety is going to be viewed more and more critically in years to come. By this I mean projects which don’t seem to have any awareness of the embodied energy and pollution inherent in their own materiality. (On the other hand, there is always the opposite possibility, where the mindless race towards armageddon may accelerate itself, as in this micro example from The Artist as Family’s Meg.)

With your seventh question, I see what you’re getting at but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Intentionality is not the ultimate criterion by which we judge an artwork. Sometimes the artist’s intention can be completely superseded by the way an audience member might interpret or use it for a different purpose. So we have to zoom back a bit and see the work of art as a series of relationships which is far more complex than even the artist can know.

Visitations: Ruminations, Resonations

I’m enjoying myself in the Environmental Audit office. Here are a few highlights:

Here’s Catherine Moore, who, as it turns out, was the Greens Party candidate for Eden-Monaro in the recent federal election (she got about 11 percent of the vote). And she is an artist:


In this picture, Catherine is making some chalk alterations to my diagram entitled “The Ins and Outs of An Artwork”. The problem with this diagram, you see, is that it shows the artwork as the result of a bunch of “Ins”, and as the source of a bunch of “Outs” – but it does not encompass the cycling that occurs, wherein the Outs can regenerate themselves and become Ins once more (if you get what I mean)…

I really appreciated the time that Catherine took to hang out with me and chat about what it means to be an artist versus being a politician. She’s now running for mayor of her local council – and she’s slightly worried that she might be successful. Politicians should be representative of the people, and yet if she gets caught up in the practice of politics, it could turn into a full-time career in itself, meaning she might no longer have the time to continue her own painting, collage and sculptural work.

But which is more important?

star asterix

Here’s Ion. He’s a musician, and an instrument maker, and he works at the MCA as a Visitor Services Officer (VSO).


Ion was “on rotation” around the galleries, invigilating the exhibition when he stuck his head around the corner of my room.

“What’s going on here?”, he asked in his laconic way.

I showed him the blog, which is available for visitors to browse on a computer set up in the resource room where my audit is nestled. He was drawn to one particular entry, in which I pass along the ideas (crazy or otherwise) of some MCA staff, as to how they might change the day-to-day running of the organisation.

I asked Ion if he had any such ideas to contribute, from his point of view as a VSO. “Not really,” he said. “We VSOs probably have the smallest footprint of any group of workers in the whole museum. All we do is stand and watch visitors and occasionally chat with them. What could we do to reduce our carbon emissions?”

He then reconsidered, slightly. “Well,” he said, “we do go to the toilet a lot. Having toilet breaks is something of a way to break up the day for us.”

Now, before you sick the unions onto him for suggesting that the MCA bans toilet breaks for VSOs, Ion was in fact suggesting that the MCA might want to look into using recycled toilet paper. They must go through a lot of it each day.

In fact, I don’t know whether the paper they use is recycled or not. I’ve added it to my homework to find out.

Anyway, once Ion had settled in to thinking about all this stuff, he began to consider his own cultural production, outside of his job at the museum. This, he said, causes him some existential pain. Ion loves making custom musical instruments, particularly a sort of specialised marimba. His marimbas use a variety of Indonesian rainforest timber to make their sound. The instruments, and the music they make, have evolved together. You can’t just substitute a fast growing plantation timber, it doesn’t sound right.

A merimba looks something like this (although this one obviously is not handmade):


These days, you can’t even buy this wood here in Australia – it has to be specially imported from the USA (to where, presumably, it has just been exported from Indonesia). Ion sighed deeply and went all quiet. Just in the telling of this tale, I could see his mood swinging downwards.

I tried to come at it from another angle – chipping in that his instruments are made to last forever – that he would produce just one of them (at very high quality) in the same time that a factory might churn out several thousand thirteen-dollar crappy el-cheapo-store ukeleles which will find their way into landfill before the decade is out. His is a labour of love – a sonic way of making us appreciate this beautiful wood which was dwindling away and might soon become extinct – a veritable musical-material heritage project, goshdarnit!

“Anyway”, he said, “this is all academic. Making and playing these instruments is what makes me who I am. I can’t stop, and I’m going to keep on doing it as long as it’s still possible.”

Funnily enough, when I googled around to see if Ion was represented on the interwebs, I found this page, with the following written about him:

Ion’s work for some years has involved the design and construction of original instruments or sound machines, often using recycled materials – such as wood from demolished buildings, or parts of an old sewing machine, in an ingenious way. He uses railway signal bells as instruments and a shoe iron. Among the instruments which he builds and plays are a giant wooden abacus or counting machine, in which wooden beads are turned by hand; a violin machine, which is made from the sewing machine and violin; marimba; and various drums, including a simple box drum that was formerly a packing crate.

The Audience Travel Audit

The Audience Travel Audit is tallying up nicely. This is a way for those who stumble into the audit booth at the MCA to bring attention to their own before and after. I ask visitors how they got to the museum, and where they came from, and we plot these details on the blackboard in coloured chalk pencils.

I am constantly having to reassure shamefaced car drivers that nobody’s judging them, indeed it’s anonymous anyway. I just want their data! But as it turns out, many more folks seem to be taking public transport to visit the MCA:


(This photo is from a few days ago. When I get a sec, I’ll give a more accurate update on the league tables.)

And here’s Bec adding herself to the Travel Audit map at the exhibition opening night:

bec puts herself on the map

…and a closeup of the map epicentre in progress (different forms of transport are colour-coded: blue is train, red is car, yellow is bus, and so on).


I overheard one staff member of the Art Gallery of NSW wryly remarking to an employee of the MCA, that if I had just been collecting visitors’ postcodes as well, I’d be basically doing the job of the organisation’s Market Research department. Hmm…

On utilitarianism

abc tv shoots the audit
[Lucas all teachery-like with the ABC TV crew, in front of the Environmental Audit blackboards, at the MCA…]

In the week following the exhibition opening at the MCA, there’s been a flurry of media attention for the show (at least on good ole Aunty). (And The Artist as Family’s Food Forest has generated its own flood of media.)

Why? Is it because “the environment is so hot right now”? Which makes me wonder: how long will it take for the media to get “climate change fatigue”…?

Here in the photo above, I’m chatting with Fenella Kernebone from ABC TV’s Art Nation. I think her short piece on In the Balance (also featuring Diego Bonetto, Lauren Berkowitz, Rachel Kent, Future Farmers and Janet Laurence) will be broadcast this coming Sunday.
[update – watch Fenella’s TV spot online here…]
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The FutureFarmers do an “Auto-Audit”

futurefarmers autoaudit detail top

Last Saturday, after their artists’ talk, Dan Allende and Ian Cox from FutureFarmers descended on the Environmental Audit office at the MCA to carry out an auto-audit on their own project. Here they are, deep in concentration.

dan and ian audit themselves

The auto-audit is a process by which the artists themselves revisit the entire lifecycle of their project to date, trying to dredge up in their memory all the processes and materials which went into its making. I sit with them, suggesting things they might have forgotten, asking questions about the story of the work, and generally trying to stop them from tearing their hair out and running away from the task at hand.
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