Delivered September, 1994, it is included here as an introduction to the abiding mutation
which is Synapse.


Coming as it does, from the sciences of environmental studies and ecology, 'Littoral', the title of this symposium, was an excellent choice to focus our thoughts on the nature of those zones of contemporary art practice emerging internationally, which many of us here are beginning to define through our work. The 'littoral' zone is a region with constantly changing boundaries and an intermediate and inter-mediating character. Significantly, it is only understandable as a condition of time. I would like to introduce another term, also from the natural sciences, as another perspective on the way artist's organisations are positioning themselves within the cultural environment.

It is an interesting reflection that in this world of dissolving and shifting borders, that the term, ecotone, like littoral, comes to us from science, and that disciplines other than art are providing useful conceptual paradigms to assist artists re-position their practice in ways relevant to a world of rapid cultural change. Perhaps it is that many of these disciplines, with advances in technology and exponentially expanding information bases, are undergoing rapid change, while art to a large extent has been inward or historically focused, even with the use of electronically mediated communications and other technology based mediums.

The ecotone is an ecological transition zone, an area across which ecological boundaries advance - retreat in response to major climatic changes. The ecological tensions thus created demand exceptional adaptability of the organisms that live there. It is in these areas of environmental change and stress that the extinctions and mutations of evolution take place. In this way the ecotone differs from the littoral zone, in which changes are regular and seasonal, and within which organisms are already adapted to a wide, though predictable, range of environmental variables.

In what is undoubtedly a time of major cultural change, it seemed that we as artists needed to design, as a vehicle for our art practice, an organisation that has adaptability, flexibility, mutability and a capacity to change in response to rapidly changing circumstances. It is significant that in describing what we do, and the way in which we relate ourselves to our cultural context (whether this be social, economic, institutional, political, aesthetic, historical etc.) we come back to analogies from biology. What I like about the 'biological model' is its squishiness. It is a world of intricate inter - relationships and complexity approaching chaos, yet is premised on non-entropic principles of growth, differentiation, reciprocity and mutuality.

In forming Synapse we have tried to 'genetically programme' the 'organism' to be resistant to the virus of creeping institutionalization which claims the life, (or soul) of many well intentioned artist's initiatives. We have no office, no exhibition space, no paid staff, no continuous programme. Our programming is sporadic - if there is no project that we think is valuable, we do nothing and enjoy the silence. There should be more of it.

Most recently we completed an exchange project. Then and There, with Janis Bowley of TERRA Cultural Research Society in Canada. It focussed on landscape, location and distance; the way we know and the way we construct and present meaning. The work involved drawings made on enclosed walls from faxed images of cows in the landscape (sent over a ten day period), re-broadcasting via a low-powered home-made transmitter, to real cows, of recorded radio sound sent to an answering machine (over the ten day period), moving and building fence/sculptures, and the planning of tree plantings (which is an on-going aspect of the project).

While we usually operate outside galleries, doing interdisciplinary work with other organisations and people from various backgrounds, at the moment we do have some work in an "exhibition". (Perhaps too much purity is a dangerous thing; being biologically unhealthy, a symptom of psychological immaturity and a denial of potential for change)

Four Synapse artists, Lucy Bleach, Mark Joseph, Adrian Hall, and myself, have collaborated to participate in an exhibition, Entis Eidos, at the EcoDesign Foundation in Sydney. This is the first exhibition by that Foundation, which researches and disseminates information about ecologically responsible design; architectural design, social design, product design etc. As EcoDesign is interested in working collaboratively with artists, and as many Synapse people address ecological issues in their work, it seemed an appropriate project for us.

Synapse is interested in exchanges and projects which move
artists around; which shift the boundaries, which establish the conditions of an ecotone.
Earlier in 1994 we organised for two artists, Fiona Foley and Penny Thwaite, to
participate in Palindrome, a programme initiated by Open Space in Victoria, British
Columbia, and held in conjunction with the Commonwealth Games.



Synapse sees itself as a potential rather than an organisation. While being artists, each with independant practices, as a group we provide a potential for things to happen; to make opportunities for others, in ways that are vital to them. Consequently we don't have an agenda in terms of specific political or social change – we do not have ideas of "political-correctness" limiting our programming. Synapse is designed to be the host for almost any kind of activity. We seek to position ourselves in relation to the larger fabric of society so as to be difficult to discern; chameleon-like and cryptically coloured. To extend the biological references, we might describe ourselves as viral in the way we seek to key into the existing societal tissue, establishing a symbiotic relationship with it while effecting change.

Our objective is to enact change, not to confront people, or necessarily to make them reconsider. Especially not "TO MAKE THEM THINK". I found something in our symposium package that summarises the point very nicely. "Controversial, challenging, uncompromising - artist X is renowned/or rocking the status quo, but is unquestionably one of todays most significant, subverting conventional images of everyday life, thereby encouraging a re-examination of the stereotypes we have come to think of as reality"

I hope no-one recognises themselves in this generic, ubiquitous and uncomfortably familiar description of some contemporary practice. I think that a great deal of work that sets out in the mid - nineties to provoke, to shock, to 'make people think' is mannered, effect - driven and merely strategic. It is an activity which engenders a product, which reflects the artist's career positioning while speaking in a language which is anachronistic, being appropriate to the late sixties and early seventies when it expressed genuine inner-driven philosophical explorations, political actions and perceptual questioning.

We are in need of new forms of language. Those we have inherited, while perhaps the only forms of language that many of our funding sources understand (and speak for themselves), do not allow us to adequately speak of more positive commitments and relationships of mutuality; premises of practice which I have heard many of you here refer to in a variety of ways. It seems that many artists now are less interested in distancing themselves from cultural dynamics and in making 'things' that make THEM think, but are engaged in 'process' and in doing things which are changes themselves, and in turn change themselves.

Perhaps we could open this for questions now.

Q:    Could you elaborate on the question of where Synapse gets its funding?

A:          Because we operate on a project basis, we seek funding for
each project separately. We have no on-going funding. There is an aspect to the funding
situation in Australia which might have parallels in other similar countries in which
governments are involved in the funding of cultural practice.

In the past twenty years artist-run galleries have evolved from being poorly funded or unfunded organisations with rough low-rent spaces run by unpaid artists, to being institutions which have virtually permanent funding, nice galleries and professionally trained and salaried staff. While they do ocupy a significant niche in the cultural ecology and do serve a useful purpose, as a recent member of the Board of Artspace in Sydney I believe that they have a potential beyond the ideologies they have inherited and still espouse, despite the changing times. It means that a great deal of government funding is locked-in supporting them, and therefore an approach to
contemporary or emerging art is almost unavoidably a consequence of artists trading their autonomy and potential, for direct engagement, for the mediated opportunities for
advancement offered by the Professional Managerial Class. (See Grant Kester, Rhetorical Questions: The Alternative Arts Sector and the Imaginary Public, AFTERIMAGE Vol 20 No. 6)


Q.    I was concerned about this idea of not having an agenda. If you don't have
an agenda how do you approach selection? And specifically how do you deal with ideas
which are potentially racist or sexist or have any other problems ?

A.          We established Synapse with a constitution that specifies
equality of opportunity and unprejudiced operations, and set up an advisory group of
people from different backgrounds, to guard against some of the problems that might
arise. In our programming we do look for certain things. For example, projects which contribute to a positive cultural change, and projects which are speculative and collaborative. Working this way does not provide a climate conducive to ideologically rigid and polemical practice, indeed the problems of "ethics" which do arise are inevitably more rigorous in some ways, pragmatic, and more considerate, than those
which might be described as "P.C.". Most importantly we trust the processes of honest,
open and critical discussion, and consensus decision making, to guide our selection of
projects. These things and a respect for difference and diversity, are our way of dealing
with the issues you raised, rather than by agendas which are contained, and restricted, by boundaries.

Its a squishy solution.


(This is a shortened version for the bown’s Cows web-site - August 2006)