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Column: Art / Music / Theatre

Discipline, art and writing: tackling the question of contemporaneity

by Estelle Tang , July 17, 20123 Comments

Discipline is a new, Melbourne-based contemporary art journal with a distinct agenda. According to its website, the journal ‘aims to ground a new body of sustained intellectual writing about contemporary art that does not merely fall back on the crutch of plurality as a means for theorising art after postmodernism and globalisation’, that is, Discipline refuses to make excuses about the difficulty in answering the question, ‘What is contemporary art?’ –rather, it desires to speak productively and specifically about contemporary art and artists in ways that begin to thread together a history of art today. The first two issues are currently available across Australia, as well as in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Editors Helen Hughes and Nicholas Croggon are highly qualified for such a task: Croggon and Hughes studied Art History together at the University of Melbourne, and later participated in the 2009 Gertrude Contemporary and Art & Australia Emerging Writers Program. They also edit the art journal emaj and chair, with Discipline writer David Homewood, the Modern and Contemporary Art (MACA) reading group at the University of Melbourne. I recently had the chance to chat with Hughes about the ideas behind her and Croggon’s new publication.

How did the idea for Discipline emerge? 

This specific editorial agenda – to tackle the question of contemporaneity with a structure or specific methodology, as opposed to falling back on old constructs like the rhizome, or the plurality underpinning much postmodernist or globalisation theory – largely evolved out of a group reading in the MACA reading group of Terry Smith’s excellent and commendable 2009 book, What is Contemporary Art?, followed by his 2011 publication Contemporary Art: World Currents. Discipline emerged firstly to fill an art historical gap, in that it seeks to publish rigorous and intellectual essays about local artists from Melbourne, and secondly to help theorise our understanding of contemporaneity and its attendant discourses in art away from postmodernism and globalisation as umbrella cultural terms.

How do you perceive Discipline as being different from other Australia-based contemporary art journals?

We see Discipline as playing a complementary role to that of un Magazine, for instance, which we consider to be a very, very important publication – both in terms of its coverage, and its emphasis on supporting emerging writers, artists and editors.

The main difference between Discipline and un or Art & Australia is the length of the articles and the audience to which they are addressed. Nick and I both found the short word lengths required by other publications – in both our research on Australian artists and when writing for other Australian art publications – to be very frustrating. We felt it was an impossible task to summarise or meaningfully reflect on an artist’s work in 400–700 words, so we started Discipline as a means for publishing lengthier, research-based essays. That is, rather than summarise an exhibition and briefly indicate our opinion of it.

The writing in Discipline is extremely well-structured, creative and engaging, and rigorously researched – and yet very accessible. In addition to a strong commitment to actually finding a productive way of speaking about, and building a history of, contemporary art, how important is the style and individual ‘voice’ of contributors?

While the editorial process that Nick and I undertake is rather extreme (and sometimes we do send essays that fall outside our scope of expertise to other academics to review), we feel that it is imperative to maintain the ‘voice’ of the writer. Helen Johnson’s beautiful essay on the work of Mira Gojak in Discipline 2 is a highly subjective, almost unusual piece of writing within the context of an art historical publication. But it’s also, to quote a friend, probably one of the most honest pieces of art criticism we have come across in a very long time. We feel that one of the strengths of Discipline is to publish essays like Helen’s alongside more typically academic texts, like Nikos Papastergiadis’s double review of Terry Smith’s recent books, mentioned earlier. We consider this type of juxtaposition to adhere to our parallax view onto the question of contemporaneity – which is to say that we try to provide multiple points of view onto the same object or topic.

Discipline is a thick, full-colour journal, printed on glossy, high-quality paper, filled with beautiful images and a range of fonts and page designs. To me, it seems that this luxurious format of magazine – as opposed to an online journal, or even a greyscale printed journal – places great value not only on contemporary art, but on the process of defining contemporary art and the world in meaningful ways. To what extent does the physical format of Discipline intentionally reflect your editorial agenda?

The physicality of Discipline reflects our editorial agenda in precisely the manner that you just outlined. We also want Discipline to be in libraries in the future, and locatable in bookstores and art galleries around the world – a physical presence is important to us in this way. Furthermore, that we publish artworks (by way of artist pages) and that our editorial project constitutes a type of work in itself (albeit an expanding and a shifting one) means that we almost want readers to consider Discipline as they would an art object.

Julia Tulloh is a Melbourne-based writer. Her blog is Pixie Lit.

  • Tristan

    I’ve been on the lookout for a smart art journal to subscribe – Discipline sounds just like what I’m after. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  • Vincent

    Excellent publication. Really impressed

  • Pingback: 2 cool things. « julia tulloh

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