12.10 pm Saturday 17 September, Salamanca Market
Hobart’s Salamanca Market is a bustling eclectic mish mash of stalls competing for the attention of crowds of people wandering through at a snail’s pace. I have come to see the first iteration of John Vella’s work BESTPRACTICE. I’m half way through the market and I still haven’t spotted his stall. I know John is giving away balloons, everybody loves balloons, especially free ones, perhaps I can’t see John’s stall for all the people frantically trying to secure a free balloon.
Then I spot a single black balloon tied to a rock sitting in the middle of a wooden trestle table and a stack of slick black information cards. In stark contrast to the stalls that flank it, BESTPRACTICE is a very sparse but elegant set-up. I laugh to myself, I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t this. There are no crowds of people clambering for free merchandise, just a woman looking perplexed as she reads the card. At first glance the stall appears to be unmanned, then I see John fixing a balloon to the hydrogen cylinder at the far end of his designated area. The balloon reads: BRING THIS BALOON TO 146 ELIZABETH STREET, BETWEEN 12 – 4PM ON SATURDAY OCTOBER 8 OR 15 FOR YOUR CHANCE TO COLLECT A FREE PIECE OF ART BY JOHN VELLA. FIRST IN BEST DRESSED – ONE WORK PER PERSON - BESTPRACTICE THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE
The vast majority of people walking past do not read the text on the cards or the balloon. Without reading the texts, there is very little to enlighten the shoppers as to what, if anything, is being offered at this almost empty stall. Vella has intentionally placed himself and his work at the coalface, positioned smack bang in the middle of Tasmania’s most popular weekend market but he isn’t playing the usual game. He is being deliberately evasive. Instead of hawking his wares like the other stallholders, he stays in the background whenever possible. His low-key persona is thought provokingly at odds with the generosity of his offer of a free artwork. Over the next half hour I witness: a boy stand uncomfortably at the table wanting to take a balloon but unsure of the protocol, he walks away empty handed; a woman read the balloon and then take it from the rock (Vella replaces each balloon taken); several people use the stall plot as a shortcut to the grassed area beyond; a few people ask Vella what its all about (John directs them to read the balloon); a woman tell her little boy that the balloon is not for sale and he can’t have one, the boy starts crying, Vella gives him a balloon, he stops crying; and two women in the arts, and obviously in the know, enthusiastically take a balloon each and comment excitedly about redeeming it for a free John Vella artwork. Depending on which side of the fence you sit (assuming you are not a fencesitter), BESTPRACTICE at Salamanca Market could be an intimidating and uneventful stall or a smart and playful eschewing of art market hierarchies. It’s a provocative and very considered first installment that suggests Vella is publically questioning his practice and his artworks ‘value’ and importance in the world. A brave first move.
John Vella moves into 146 Artspace, Elizabeth Street, Hobart
What does an artist do when they have made more work than the market can initially consume? Do artists store their work indefinitely, give it to friends or deliver it to landfill depots? Is selling through a commercial gallery the best way to distribute work and/or make an income from making art? Is art any different from any other product for sale? These are some of the questions posed by BESTPRACTICE.
For the past week John Vella’s black and white voucher balloons have been appearing all over Hobart, tied to bike racks, posts, public sculptures… Vella’s balloons have even appeared further afield (I’ve received text messages from friends in Sydney with balloons asking if they could post them down for me to redeem for free pieces of Vella’s art).
BESTPRACTICE is now at 146 Artspace, a public gallery that Vella is using as an active workspace, pop up shop and public area for talking about art. I’m ‘knocked in the face’ with a large dose of nostalgia as I walk amongst the works strewn about the space. Vella has amassed works from 1996 – 2010 that have not been secured by public or private collectors. Each day of the week, for the duration of Iteration:Again, the artist embarks on an elaborate series of activities. Sunday’s are Presale (cutting), where Vella cuts pocket sized circular portions from past work live. Mondays to Wednesdays are Presale (viewing) where the space is open to visitors to view work, laid out on the floor and leaning against walls. Thursdays are Wholesale where the artist offers complete sets of cut out circles for sale. Fridays are Setsale, where an energetic guest spruiker, standing on the street in front of the gallery, encourages people to come into the space (which they do), talk to the artist and buy a portion of work at very affordable prices (which they are also doing). The spruiker returns on Saturdays for Saleaway, where lucky balloon holders can make the exchange for a free portion of work, of their choice. The twist (and there is always a twist with Vella) is that the complete sets and individual circles go up in cost every week. Complete sets sell for $5000 – $10,000 – $20,000 and individual circles increase from $100 – $200 – $400.
The sad thing about this iteration of BESTPRACTICE is that there are some really fantastic individual Vella works that are being cut into and wrecked. These are works that I really love but perhaps I’m part of the problem. If I love them so much why didn’t I enquire about purchasing them? But its not all doom and gloom. Once again Vella treads each side of the line at the same time he is destroying past work but also reinvigorating it. He gives old work another chance at life and asks us to be part of the process. Each cut portion has associations with its parent and the ideas that formed that work, while also generating a new set of ideas – ideas around how art is distributed. And it’s a totally fun process to be part of. Roll on John Vella.
My BESTPRACTICE souvenir
When you walk into 146 Artspace, Elizabeth Street on Saturday’s to redeem your voucher balloon for a free John Vella artwork, you are implicated in a performance. The ‘free artwork’ is a circular portion that has been cut from a past Vella work. The circle operates as the carrot that gets you in the door, a prop that the performance operates around and ultimately, as a relic from the event to take home.
Participants in BESTPRACTICE walk through Vella’s carefully laid out old artworks, choose a circle that has been previously cut in the space Presale (cutting) and sits beside its parent work. Once a circle has been chosen, participants are ushered into an adjoining office to discuss the chosen circle and the ‘next step’ with the project curator, Jane Stewart. The participant is asked to read and sign a contract providing Vella with the rights to a photo he is about to take of the participant holding the chosen circle and shaking the artist’s hand. The participant is also asked if they are interested in being placed in contact with other people who have acquired a circle from the same Vella artwork. Both of these questions lay the foundations for Vella to continue iterating BESTPRACTICE well after Iteration:Again ends.
I have my BESTPRACTICE circle sitting on my kitchen table. It has been there for over a week now, occasionally relocated when the table is set for dinner and then moved back after we eat. The circle could be a stray off-cut from the renovation job currently underway in my backyard. There is a pile of similar looking objects amongst the worksite debris outside my back door. But for now it is sitting on my table, a temporary resting place till I decide what to do with it.
Since I went through the process of obtaining my ‘free artwork’ I have spoken to people who are very happy with their circular ‘artworks’. Many of these people have made choices based on an admiration for the parent work, others have focused on aesthetics. Judging from the wall of redeemed balloons pined up in 146 Artspace and the crescendo of images of the artist posing with ‘artwork’ recipients on the wall in the CAST hub, there has been a lot of interest in BESTPRACTICE. The images look deliberately staged. The backdrop always the same, the artist always shaking the recipients hand, the artwork always held prominently in the foreground. I’m in a photo on the hub wall too, looking awkward but happy playing my part. So what has changed for me since then?
I obtained the circle because I loved the work it was cut from but I have come to realise that the circle holds none of the aesthetic qualities or thought provoking ideas of its parent. I do not see the circle as a particularly interesting or attractive object in itself. Without this it is just a leftover from a performance, something I am not that concerned with. This realisation takes nothing away from Vella’s performance but it does leave me feeling like I’ve been lead astray, focusing too much attention on the decoy object rather than the performance itself. Luckily there is next week.
Carcass, Ritual, Is it over?
At the close of business Saturday 15 October 2011, John Vella did an extraordinary thing. He carried, pushed and dragged the remaining carcasses of old works into the middle of the space, whispered a few words and torched the lot of them. This ritual, this final goodbye has played out over and over in my head since leaving the work but in reality, it didn’t happen.
So why did I want it to happen so much? Because I like over-the-top romantic gestures, but in stark contrast to its parent work, I don’t like my conveniently sized BESTPRACTICE circle that doesn’t quite cut it for me as an art object. I don’t value the relic of the performance anywhere near the experience of the overarching work it is distilled from. But mostly, I wanted Vella to go all the way, finally and totally destroying his old work. It would have been a brilliant, brave and monumental end – but in reality it ended with the door shutting and the carcasses waiting to be transported, yet again, back into storage.
I wonder how many more times Vella can chip away at these old works before he allows them to die. It’s a bit like watching the person who over-medicates their old and dying dog – getting a few more years out of him. Lay the old works to rest. Haven’t they given enough?
So there was no fire, but what did transpire over the course of the project was an insanely elaborate and complex performance that shifted and moved as the project progressed. BESTPRACTICE was about commodified exchange but it was also about the intimate exchange between people. Vella gave away bits of his work – a generous act and an effective fun marketing strategy that got people in the door. The stuff of BESTPRACTICE was a distraction, and there were certainly a lot of distractions (the super huge CV display with tiny font sized text was a personal favorite). To get past this particular distraction took a few return visits with quiet times of reflection in between.
It was a mostly enjoyable experience, but the great strength of the work lay in the close proximity between the artist and the audience, and the generous ways he engaged with all who walked in the door. Vella, ever the professional, continuously gave of himself and through this gift of giving made everyone who participated an inclusive part in the performance. In so doing he nurtured a complex range of relationships with all who crossed the threshold from the street. It was this act of generosity that made the work so compelling.
Every person who engaged with the work had a part to play. Official performers had scripted roles – the accomplice circle cutter, the curator, the spruiker, Arts Tasmania venue staff… And other performers improvised by negotiating the space – taking part in conversations with the artist, curator and each other, by choosing a BESTPRACTICE circle and redeeming their voucher balloon for the circle, and by entering into a contract with the artist. In the end BESTPRACTICE was ultimately a richly-layered collaborative performance undertaken by the artist and a surprisingly wide-ranging group of audience/ performers.
Of course woven through the layers of BESTPRACTICE were Vella’s personal concerns; being an artist approaching mid-career status; and the battle between the cultural as against monetary value of what he produces. By laying all of his unsold past work out in such a theatrical and irreverent construction, he asks us to reflect in surprising ways on his practice specifically, but more broadly on the profession of being an artist.
There was no spectacular close to BESTPRACTICE but perhaps its not yet over.
 The artists own term for the work.
 I am very aware that the vast majority of BESTPRACTICE circle owners would disagree with me on this one.
Kylie Johnson, 2011