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Trade Union Arts Officers Conference 1993

A Tribute to Ian Burn
Ian Milliss

Ian Burn's untimely death was a shock to us all. Now that there has been a short time to get used to it, there is a lingering sense of the great gap to be filled. Ian's role in the development and promotion of trade union art activities was a crucial one and he will not be easily replaced. It is a major issue that this conference must inevitably address.

In particular, in recent years, his writing and curating have helped to give the Art and Working Life program some of the official legitimacy that its detractors will always try to deny it and which is necessary for its long term survival, if only in the continuation of funding.

During the last few years of his life, Ian Burn once again began to receive a lot of attention from the art world, so much so that in death he regained his crown from the early 70s as "Australia's leading conceptual artist". To the degree that he was a cynic, Ian cynically used this status to benefit the Art and Working Life pro gram.

He was bemused, I know, by the fact that much of the attention was because he was famous for being famous in New York, particularly when he had demonstrated for over a decade that he considered his major work to be his promotion of the Art and Working Life program and his contribution to the development of a form of artistic practice which bypassed the art world.

And despite the fame in the last few years, for most of the 1980s Ian had worked under the nose of the Sydney art world which, on the whole, ignored him because his major activity as an artist, his work with the trade union movement, was incomprehensible to the fashion driven yuppie art world of the 80s.

But Ian did feel that it was necessary to maintain as high a profile in the art world as possible in order to ensure that his community and union work could not be written out by the opportunistic historical revisionists now buzzing around the history of conceptual art like blowies.

Ian's achievement demonstrates the need for a new type of art history that looks beyond the trivial pursuits in art galleries and describes the far greater cultural impact of artists who work in media that the art world simply does not recognise as legitimate, for audiences that the art world does not regard as worthwhile. Although one cannot do justice to more than fifteen years of life in ten minutes, I want to at least sketch an outline of what occurred during those fifteen or more years from the late 70s to now. I first became aware of Ian Burn's work in the late 60s. I began a sporadic postcard correspondence with him and met him when he visited Australia in the early 70s. We remained in touch until he returned to Australia in 1977.

It was during this time, around 1972, that Ian gave me much needed moral support as I shifted my sense of identity as an artist from being someone who markets curiosities through art galleries, to being someone who generates cultural change through whatever media are effective in the society. In other words Ian helped save me from ultimately becoming one of the confused tame middle aged conceptualists that currently glut the art market. During the early 70s he was increasingly involved in political activity around art world infrastructure, I was more involved in community and trade union politics, but there was no doubt that our underlying preoccupations were the same, so it was natural that we should begin working together when Ian and his family returned to live in Sydney in 1977.

Ian returned to live in a Sydney art world which had momentarily thrown off its cultural cringe. Most of the late 60s generation, like myself, had decided not to go overseas, and while still seeing ourselves as artists in the broadest sense, were deeply involved in the development of a different type of artistic practice, a practice which bypassed the art world, was based in and supported by community groups, and which used the forms and media necessary to be effective in that context rather than the official forms sanctioned by the gallery system.

For that reason, most of the art world, blinded by its own preconceptions, still, 20 years on, cannot see what we did and continue to do. It is invisible to them despite the fact that we have bigger audiences and much greater social impact than they do. Ian was always quite emphatic that he came back to live here because of this scene, which he recognised as closer to his concerns than the provincial New York scene. I suspect, however, that it was a bit of a shock to find that no-one in this well developed scene had very much respect for his fame as a conceptual artist, and over the next few years Ian was far more influenced than influencing, as he had rapidly to adjust to different criteria for judging work, such as strategic effectiveness in a campaign rather than art historical relevance.

From 1977 an even closer friendship developed between us. He and I collaborated with many others on the protests around the Biennale which led to the formation of the Artworkers Union, and in the Media Action Group, a large floating group which produced slide shows around media and political issues.

Over the next few years, in a number of stages, up to 1980, a few of us formed Union Media Services, the first specialist social marketing company in Australia, producing campaigns and publications for trade unions, government departments and community groups. Similar developments were occurring in other places - Michael Callaghan and Gregor Cullen were setting up Redback Grafix, Geoff Hogg was producing banners and murals in Melbourne, Mark Thompson was working on campaigns in Adelaide, and many others. And Deb Mills was writing the first discussion paper on what was to become the Art and Working Life Program.

For the next five years, from 1980 to 1985, the core of Union Media was Ian, Lesley Pearson and myself. Ian and I became jokingly known at the time as "Ian and Ian" - "you were just like Gilbert and George" Michael Callaghan said to me rather scornfully the other night. Some people still confuse the two of us to this day. The rationale for our activities was simple. It ran something like this: Capital A Art as it is conventionally understood is at best only a minor contributor to the development of cultural values, about as important as fashion and interior design, in other words not very important at all. The real generator of cultural values in Australia has been the trade union movement and, since the Second World War, increasingly the media. Our work at Union Media Services gave us an influence in both these areas, and gave us access to audiences which were unimaginably larger than art world audiences. During this five years, the company grew to employ over a dozen people, did work for most major unions from the ACTU down, published over twenty regular publications and played a major role in the development of the Australia Council's Art and Working Life program, Ian was particularly active in the promotional side of Art and Working Life, tirelessly writing articles, organising exhibitions and networking.

The pressures of a constantly expanding business eventually exploded our personal relationship, however. As the business grew beyond our ability to manage it we began losing money on a grand scale and internal bickering broke out. Eventually we pulled the company back into profitability but after further arguments about future strategies I resigned as managing director and left the company. After some desultory legal argy bargy we reached an agreement. I went on to upgrade my computer skills and plunge even deeper into the union movement. I now work as a consultant, computerising and restructuring the internal communications systems of large amalgamated unions.

Ian and Lesley, on the other hand, continued the unenviable process through the late 80s of stabilising the company and it is a tribute to them that UMS continues as a major player in the union movement. But it was not easy. Unfortunately UMS success had brought on a flood of imitators in Sydney and other capital cities which cut into UMS market. On the other hand this competition could be regarded as our major success. By providing a model for how it could be done, (and by illustrating many of the pitfalls), we had been the catalyst for the creation of a mini industry employing hundreds of people, journalists, artists and photographers, across the country. Most importantly, as we had hoped, the previously despised union journals can now be seen as a major alternative to the mass media, reaching the same audience as the mass media, with equivalent quality of production and a broader range of political viewpoints. In fact the Liberals have partly attributed their loss in the last election to the unexpected effectiveness of anti-GST campaigns in union journals.

But as well as this taxing, underpaid and often very tedious work for trade unions, throughout the late 80s Ian produced an extraordinary body of writing on art, not only on Art and Working Life, but on the whole range of art world issues. His writing, while intellectually sophisticated, was always simple, clear and penetrating, a joy to read compared to the francophile verbal sludge, so beloved of cultural cringers, which has smothered any serious intellectual activity in the art world over the last decade or so. Because Ian was a person of genuine insight he had no need to dress banalities in that type of mystificatory jargon.

As I said, Ian and I were not always friends. We maintained open hostility towards each other in the late 80s but we eventually began to move back together again in recent years, if only because of the need to unite against the common enemy of historical revisionism. We ultimately became friends again although we had continuing disagreements about both the art world and the trade union movement. In particular we differed in the degree to which we felt it was worthwhile continuing any sort of dialogue with the art world. This is not as trivial an issue as it may seem to some. Make no mistake about it, there has been a quiet war going on ever since the mid 70s about how, practically, art and art practice is to be defined. The art world represents the ideology of individualist consumption, the dominant ideology of the century. In this model the ordinary person has no role except as the consumer, the audience, and funding must go to individuals who display "excellence", in other words who can put on a flamboyant display of eccentric irrelevance - Brett Whiteley is an obvious example, or Mike Parr's self mutilation.

This position is fundamentally hostile to our position. We have been fighting for an ideology of communal production, the notion that we all build our shared culture through our daily work, whatever that may be, and that all discussion around cultural development issues should focus on the promotion of arts activities at the grass roots level and the development of work practices which allow the creative intervention of workers.

For Ian and myself it was the inevitable logic of conceptualism that led to the recognition that the art world was intellectually corrupt, bankrupt even. No matter what posturing went on in the official art world it became clear that the only real role it played in the world was the marketing of over priced interior decoration, and its ideological role as the official repository of creativity, the symbolic sanctifier of ill gotten power and money. Perceiving the truth about something does not make it go away any more than denying it does. We responded to this perceived corruption by working to create a scene which bypassed the official art world, and the art world responded by writing us all out of art history, while obstructing our ongoing activities whenever possible. The VACB, for instance has an ignoble history of paying lip service to the AWL program while going to enormous lengths to avoid actually spending the allocated funds and constantly raising spurious objections about "quality". A visit to Perspecta will confirm that this concern for "quality" obviously does not apply to the many other projects they fund.

I have always felt that if you were going to get into a dogfight it may as well be with the pit bulls of the union movement rather than the poodles and chihuahuas of the art world. Ian on the other hand felt strongly that the art world wasn't going to go away and that it was necessary at all times to be there debating and pushing. He was, of course, right and I was wrong and my change of mind about this in the late 80s was his final major influence on me, although it did not take effect until some years after we had stopped working together.

Ian knew that whoever controls the writing of history controls the future. No matter how effective we have been in setting up more democratic forms of artistic practice, these forms can be destroyed again by the constant denial of their validity or even of their existence. Ian used his personal status in the official art world as "a major New York conceptualist" to force the exhibition and recognition of the AWL Program in venues such as state galleries. He was equally concerned that the history of these activities be written correctly. He was particularly concerned that a former friend, Terry Smith, was pushing a version of history which had Terry and Ian inventing conceptual art in New York then heroically sweeping back to Australia to tell us that it was OK to be regionalists and to be political, then inventing trade union arts. This is the sort of history we will have to actively oppose.

I want to make two final points. Firstly, there is a tendency at times like this to turn people into plaster saints. Ian was no plaster saint. His virtues you probably know by now, but he could also be stubborn, bloody minded and because of his intelligence, often arrogant and intolerant of the less intelligent or perceptive. I am not saying this to put him down, but to make a more important point. Ian was an ordinary person, good and bad. He believed in society, not in individualism. He believed that culture was made by ordinary people working together in their daily working lives, not by artist heroes who would like to set themselves above ordinary people. For me the fact that he maintained that position until his death was one of his greatest achievements. It is a position that we should support and extend at every opportunity.

Secondly, throughout this talk I have mostly spoken of "we" and "us" rather than of Ian alone. I have done this not to try and jump on his bandwagon, but to emphasise a fact about the way Ian worked. Apart from his later writings, Ian always worked with other people. This was his preferred way of working and he was so skilled at it, and so lacking in trivial egotism, that it is rarely possible to tell who did what, who originated which idea, who wrote which paragraph. Rather than the usual desperate art world grab for credit, Ian willingly shared the limelight with others, and when he took on the ideas of others he willingly gave them credit. His major concern was always that the ideas he stood for should be spread and grow rather than that he personally should receive glory or money for them. It was for this reason that he devoted so much of his time and effort to the promotion of the work of others in the AWL program. Group work and mutual support has been characteristic of trade union arts and I hope that it will continue to be a hallmark of our practice.

In closing I would like to think that Ian would be proud to receive the epitaph of an earlier great labour cultural worker, the wobblies organiser and satirical songwriter, Joe Hill, who wrote his own epitaph before he was judicially murdered by US government firing squad in 1915. It simply said "Don't mourn, organise!" I am sure that he would feel that the greatest tribute we could make to his memory would be to devise ways to continue the networking and promotional work that he devoted so much of his time and energy to.