From the curator

Notes from an unguided tour

On the way to my first studio visit as guest curator of the Anne Landa Award for Video and New Media Arts, I managed to get lost. It turned out be a good way to start.

I was on my way to see sculptor Ian Burns, who had recently arrived in Sydney from New York. I gave the taxi driver the address, Russell Street in the suburb of Ashfield. Thirty minutes later, the global positioning system on the driver’s dashboard informed us we had arrived: right suburb, right street, right number. But the house didn’t look right and, despite my searching, nobody was home. After much prodding of the GPS screen by the driver I phoned Burns, who said he was sitting on his studio steps and couldn’t see a soul. Ashfield, it turns out, contains two Russell Streets, one of which appears to exist in the GPS equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. Eventually the driver and I found our way there using one of those charmingly rustic documents – a paper map.

As an inaugurating experience for a curator of a new media art exhibition, this wasn’t exactly auspicious. But it turned out to be the perfect prelude to an encounter with Burns’ video sculptures, which were about the wittiest dismantlings of the romance of travel that I could have hoped to encounter. What I saw on-screen in each sculpture was some familiar scene of cinematic transport: a plane soaring through a cloudy sky; a Cadillac cruising down a highway. Exploring further, though, it became apparent that the image was a marvellous fake, an illusion contrived with amazing ingenuity from objects scavenged or picked up dirt-cheap in local suburban streets. Those moving clouds were actually real steam, which Burns was filming live as it rose from a nearby kettle and jostled a plastic plane. That rollicking Cadillac was actually a second-hand shop toy, which Burns had placed on a turning record player with a sky of blue plastic behind it. For a visitor still smarting from having placed too much trust in that little screen on the taxi driver’s dashboard, Burns’ maverick deconstruction of classic screen clichés proved irresistible – especially because, in the process of taking those scenes to pieces, Burns made the suburban landscape out the studio window glow with a new kind of promise. Walking back to a taxi rank through the low-budget chaos of Ashfield shopping centre, I felt oddly reoriented.

When the Art Gallery of NSW invited me to select the Anne Landa Award for 2011, it felt like a curatorial equivalent of the proverbial ticket to ride, or at least some kind of season pass. The pleasure of the process proved to be one of discovery. I met many artists who were new to me, in many places that were new to me, and most of the time the GPS behaved. But as the trips accumulated and the shortlist shortened (with the obligatory agonies of exclusion along the way), my first-day experience of getting lost and reoriented felt increasingly useful, even pivotal. From Charlie Sofo wandering with his camera on the streets of suburban Melbourne, to David Haines and Joyce Hinterding journeying through a virtual desert of their own invention, the artists I found myself coming back to were connected by a richly idiosyncratic sense of place and a fascination with both physical and imaginative movement. In a world where so many things are expected to travel from A to B by the shortest and quickest possible route – whether an email we send or the taxi we travel in – what I loved in the works of these artists was their commitment to digression; their conviction that art was the perfect vehicle in which to stray from the main path and go looking for loops and sidetracks in the wider physical and cultural landscape. With electronic media now involved so intimately in shaping our sense of the wider world – from mobile phones to Google Earth and digital news services – it makes sense that so-called new media artists should be offering some alternative journeys. But in truth, the questions at play in Unguided tours are ones that artists have always asked: ‘What is this place?’, ‘Where am I within it?’ and, most compelling of all, ‘Where to?’

This is an extract from curator Justin Paton’s essay in the Unguided tour catalogue.

Ian Burns, Well read (detail) 2010
found object kinetic sculpture, live video and audio, 137 × 104 × 97 cm. Courtesy the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney and Melbourne, and Mother’s Tankstation, Dublin