The Secret History of Perth

Posted by Gemma on the 18th of August, 2011

I don't know how to start this without it sounding cloying, like it should be written in calligraphy on a scroll that resembles parchment, but isn't - Be Kind To Strangers. Let It Happen! Open Yourself to The World And It Will Provide.

Fundamentally, what happened today was that I had a good day at work, for the three and a half hours I was there. Three and a half hours sounds like a slice of trifle compared to the standard working pie, but a shift cannot be much longer than this. My job - one of my jobs - involves what amounts to standing around, completing occasional minor tasks, attempting to be vigilant in the face of fluctuations of time and temperature and temperament. 'Gallery Attending' can make three hours seem like 6. One day I will write about it in full, because it involves forming a really complex relationship with both art and the public that encounters it. But, put simply, it is the kind of job one always wants as a teen, doing very little on the books, but it can be numbing at worst and freezing in winter, and I am cynical about it often.

The interactions between Gallery Attendants and Gallery Patrons are, as a rule, either witheringly superficial or frightfully intense. Patrons will either ignore the attendant, or they will attempt to engage the time and attention of the attendant At All Costs. Being paid to stand around in an art gallery exposes you to an interesting range of opinions and life experiences. There are, as I learnt in highschool chemistry, exceptions to almost every rule (the almost makes it a sweet conundrum; if there is an exception to the rule of exceptions, we are lost) and today was great because of this. Today I spent 40 minutes talking to a man I initially assumed to fall in the latter category about the history of alternative art spaces in Perth. Be kind to strangers. Let it happen!

I started taking notes halfway through our conversation, but they are vague - Big Idea Production, Beige Collective, Praxis. Praxis was what The Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts was once, Beige Collective and Big Idea Production was what Louis (I think) - the patron - was once a member of, putting on experimental theatre shows for oldschool Artrage in Lake Street warehouse basements, back in 1993/4 when Northbridge was apparently full of back-lot artist studios and Praxis held all night dance parties in the PICA building for which people queued around the block. I hear snippets of this, this lively local history, from people who were once immersed in it: lecturers, co-workers, chance meetings, but it amazes me that none of it is written down. There appears to be no formal records of any of this, nothing readily and publicly available. Verbal history is great for brightening my work day, but it is painfully ephemeral. This history is recent - PICA itself has only been incorporated for 22 years, Artrage turned 25 recently, but it won't be one day. I spent about an hour on the internet trying to ascertain the original location of the Praxis space, but learned only that web design does not age well.

On the web I found Terminus=, a discussion group whose archived meetings from 1997 to 1999 read like freeform poetry. I found the current webpage of one of the founding Praxis members, which was a wild ride in itself. I rediscovered the work of Andrew Hayim de Vries, the previous owner of 100 Hubble Street - the Fremantle Mosaic house that the council first ordered to cease and desist and then heritage listed. I did not find much about Praxis itself, or about much of Perth 'heady' 1970 -1990 years that I didn't already learn from PICA's 'About' page, but I know where I can.

We often talk amongst ourselves about the tendency in Perth for work to be quickly forgotten, about the problem of each successive generation of arts workers having to 'reinvent the wheel' - Perth loves a palimpsest (see St Georges Terrace, or East Perth) and this also applies to cultural stuff. I often hear tiring complaints about the eternal dullness of this place, but I also hear these stories that contradict this entirely. Open yourself to the world and it will provide. I am going to look into this, and I am going to report back.

Andrew Hayim De Vries at Praxis Gallery, 1984