A group of people stand in an empty gallery. The house lights are on and the walls are bare. There is no art on display. Following instructions, the women and men direct their gaze around the room, watching expectantly as if an activity is taking place beyond our view. This setting is repeated across hundreds of photographs that together form Ross Coulter’s Audience series. An ambitious project that the Melbourne artist began in 2013, Audience unfolded over three years, involved thousands of participants and more than ninety gallery spaces throughout the city, and resulted in an accumulation of more than four hundred individual silver gelatin prints. Presented in its entirety for the first time at NGV International in 2017, the Audience series is an extensive visual archive that documents members of the Melbourne arts community in the spaces they exhibit, work and visit, from the smallest artist-run initiatives to larger public institutions, including the National Gallery of Victoria itself.
The documentary zeal demonstrated by Coulter in this project suggests a connection to a recent tendency in contemporary art concerned with the role and function of the archive. Described variously as ‘the archival impulse’1 See Hal Foster, ‘An archival impulse’, October, no. 110, Fall 2004, pp. 3–22. or ‘archive fever’,2 See Okwui Enwezor (ed.), Archive Fever: Use of the Document in Contemporary Art, Stiedl, Göttingen, & International Center of Photography, New York, 2008. this phenomenon can be seen in works that interrogate the archive as a means of examining ways that history, memory and knowledge is structured, ordered and recalled. Often photographic in nature, and taking the form of archives themselves, such works often draw attention to information that is missing as much as to what is presented. Coulter’s documentation of the Melbourne art world is extensive but not exhaustive. It is personal and partial, as he admits: ‘It sets itself up to be a record, and like most records it is faulty, subjective and it omits’.3 Ross Coulter, NGV artist statement, 2016.
If certain spaces and people are absent from Coulter’s photographs, so too is the activity that takes place beyond the frame. In the process of photographing his subjects, Coulter invited them to imagine watching a performance. His subjects, in effect, formed an audience who were witnessing, in the artist’s words, ‘a number of (non) performances or (non) events in and around Melbourne’.4 ibid. Performance art has paradoxically been largely dependent upon the camera to capture and record it, to fix its moment in time. Inspired by photographic documentation of performance art from the 1970s, Coulter’s series raises questions about the veracity of photography and nature of ‘truthful’ representation, reflecting the debates surrounding performance art and other ephemeral art forms at the time. As the art historian Charles Green has noted:
[Performances] survive in photographs, videos, and written descriptions; they linger in archives and artists’ cupboards as props and memories … Through documentation the ‘exemplary’ truthfulness of performance deteriorates.5 Charles Green quoted in Nick Waterlow, 25 Years of Performance Art in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1994, p. 15.
While undertaking research for this series, and thinking about the ‘deteriorating truthfulness’ in past photographs of performance art, Coulter became fascinated by seemingly less important details in surviving photographs. Members of the audience at performance art events and the venues in which the performances took place began to take on greater significance as an index of the passing of time. Photo-documentation of the Australian artist Mike Parr’s performances from the early 1970s was particularly influential for Coulter, and he deliberately gave his own photographs a similarly documentary aesthetic. Capturing the provisional and reportage-style look and feel, Coulter photographed his subjects using 35 mm black-and-white film, in a direct and deliberately unfussy way, as he has noted: ‘The series has been shot in a loose manner … I was trying to shoot in an immediate and responsive way’.6 Coulter.
In both formal and conceptual terms, Audience recalls a number of precedents in the history of photography, particularly works by artists for whom the archive and seriality have been dominant concerns. Parallels can be drawn, for example, between the serial nature and detached quality of Coulter’s photographs and the small black-and-white silver gelatin prints of German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher who documented industrial structures in Northern Europe and titled each of their images with dates and locations only. Similar connections can be made to the photographs of Australian artist Robert Rooney, who systematically documented banal suburban and domestic scenes in works such as AM-PM: 2 Dec 1973-28 Feb 1974, 1973-74, which recorded the artist’s bedroom every day over three months in 176 polaroid photographs. Even more closely connected to Coulter’s project is Rooney’s Portrait Photographs 1978-1987, 2014, a series that documented the artist’s art-world peers. Andy Warhol’s famous polaroids also come to mind; these chronicle celebrities in the artist’s midst, and offer another reference point from which to consider Coulter’s project. Both are diaristic and personal in nature, and capture a subculture in a given time and place.
Social engagement and collaboration have been recurring features of Coulter’s work as an artist; aspects that have regularly led him to work with various members of society from both within and outside the art world. For 10,000 paper planes, 2010, Coulter engaged a team of more than 150 participants to release ten thousand paper aeroplanes within the La Trobe Reading Room in the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, in an elaborate choreographed event captured simultaneously by nine video cameras. For The space between our hands, 2012, with fellow artist Jeremy Bakker, Coulter enlisted the help of elderly members of a local community in the Echigo-Tsumari region of Japan to build an architectural installation from snow. For his current project, Coulter’s collaborators – friends, family, fellow artists, arts workers and gallery goers – are part of an audience that can be thought of as, in the artist’s words:
A network, a bunch of connections, whose history will change and unfold as time develops. This network has organic potential in the way it might change and be thought of in five, ten or twenty years’ time.7 ibid.
The audiences are multiple within Coulter’s Audience project, and they are set to multiply further with the presentation of the project as part of the NGV Festival of Photography. Referring to the idea that the audience ‘completes’ a work, a concept that is now commonplace in contemporary art and which can be traced to the influential French artist Marcel Duchamp in the early twentieth century, Coulter reflects:
This [idea] resonates with me and this series in a blatant and humorous way. I can’t wait to see a room … full of people looking at photographs of an audience, watching a performance, in which there is no other record.8 ibid.
See Hal Foster, ‘An archival impulse’, October, no. 110, Fall 2004, pp. 3–22.
See Okwui Enwezor (ed.), Archive Fever: Use of the Document in Contemporary Art, Stiedl, Göttingen, & International Center of Photography, New York, 2008.
Ross Coulter, NGV artist statement, 2016.
Charles Green quoted in Nick Waterlow, 25 Years of Performance Art in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1994, p. 15.