Chloe Sugden & Christopher Williams-Wynn (Dissect Journal) interview

Dissect Journal is a new contemporary art publication that presents essays, reviews and artist pages. We chat to the editors at its helm.

Interview by Fraser Stanley
Published June 2014

All images © Dissect Journal 2014

How did the idea for Dissect come about?

Chloe: The idea to start up an independent print initiative came to me in late 2012. I’d just finished my BA and was interested in merging writing, editing and publishing with my background in art history. At that point, I had no publishing experience beyond the photocopied zines that I’d created as a teenager, and my knowledge of design was similarly limited, so I was naïve in many ways! 

I began working on Dissect 1 simply by approaching emerging and established writers and artists via email, with the invaluable direction and support of local art critics such as Helen Hughes and Rex Butler. I envisioned a very small first publication, yet it somehow grew to 164 pages. Early in the process, I was truly blessed to meet Christopher Williams-Wynn, the Dissect co-editor, who is a rigorous, dynamic writer and editor, and James Oates, our excellent graphic designer. Without them, the first issue wouldn’t exist in its present form.

What drew you to print?

Christopher: A few things. The relative permanence of printed media, as compared to the usual transience of online media. There’s also an implied effort required to commit to printed material—the necessity of a sustained belief in what you’re publishing, given the time, effort and cost involved. There’s also an appeal in the design of the final physical form, which we owe to James.

At the end of the day, maybe we’re also trying to demonstrate the enduring relevance of printed material. Construed in that way, that argument also depends on demonstrating our own relevance!

"I envisioned a very small first publication, yet it somehow grew to 164 pages."

Dissect focuses on the local significance of contemporary art, and primarily features Australian writers and artists. How does it differ from other Australian contemporary art journals?

Christopher: We seek to offer a platform for a combination of longer-form essays and shorter reviews and interviews. Reflecting our backgrounds, we believe in the importance of an extended engagement with art, which we thought most able to achieve by offering a platform for writing informed by research. 

To encourage a breadth of engagement, we also release a call for proposals, as well as inviting specific individuals we feel would be appropriate for the given theme of an issue. Although our first issue primarily features Australian writers and artists, that is perhaps more the result of circumstance than intention. We would stress that we are also international in outlook.

It would come as no surprise to say that we’re influenced by the writers and editors of Discipline, most of all for their commitment to thoughtful criticism.

Chloe: I agree that we’re certainly both local and international in our approach. Our first issue features the work of American, Polish, Danish, Austrian, German, Chinese and Japanese contemporary artists, as well as Australian artists and writers.

What is the editorial process like and how do you decide on the work to include?

Christopher: The editorial process is very much a dialogic process, between both Chloe and I, and between us and the contributors. After receiving proposals, Chloe and I try to find time to sit down with them all to discuss the proposals themselves, but also the supporting material, such as the writing samples. 

Unfortunately, the selection process is somewhat opaque (even to ourselves), as there is no single criterion we use for inclusion and no pre-given means of ‘ranking’ submissions. For example, although we look for proposals that respond to the theme, we are also open to that theme being pressed or stretched, especially if the writing sample is strong.

I would stress that while we hold certain beliefs about the type of writing we would want to publish, we don’t want to editorialise other voices and styles out of existence, especially as we recognise that we’re both emerging writers ourselves (to self-select into a marketing category). Ultimately, we’re quite open to discussing the content and form of the writing.

The first issue is focused on the interaction between contemporary art and public space. Why did you decide on this broad topic?

Christopher: This topic we thought was important in a world where there is a sustained enclosure and privatisation of public space, on almost any definition. Given the potential for contemporary art to intervene in and reflect upon these developments, we thought that it would be an important and timely theme.

Chloe: Definitely. There are countless debates with respect to ‘public’ space across the fields of art, architecture and design. What is it? How do we define it? We wanted to interrogate the nature of contemporary social spaces, considering the ways that urban spatial politics can manifest through art in the form of, for example, viral art such as graffiti.

"As the recent debates over the Biennale of Sydney demonstrated, many artists seriously and intelligently consider the relationship between public and private entities."

How do you feel about the ways in which artists are dealing with public space in 2014? Is the definition of public space changing?

Christopher: If I could focus on public space in a loosely political sense, then I think artists have been positively engaged in debates over who is represented in public space and on what or whose terms. As the recent debates over the Biennale of Sydney demonstrated, many artists seriously and intelligently consider the relationship between public and private entities. Any vibrant kind of public sphere would, or even should, be open to such debates and criticism, as we saw.

On whether the definition of public space is changing, I find that much harder to answer. I don’t think it’d be possible to offer a single, coherent definition, given the multiple ideas and conceptions of what constitutes a public space, and the actions permitted within it. That said, if I could offer one observation, which is by no means original, it would be that I increasingly feel that public space is only regarded as ‘on loan’ from the private sector.

Chloe: I agree that the definition of public space is highly subjective, in constant flux, and part of complex, ongoing cultural debates. 

From a local perspective, the practice of graffiti writers and street artists is useful in considering how artists are navigating public space in 2014. Most effective graffiti and street artists clearly possess insight into how crucial it is for their art production to consider urban space and what constitutes ‘public’ and ‘private’. There are no clear-cut solutions, and in the process of deciding what to paint and where to paint, a series of complex personal, ethical and political negotiations are required. 

"I increasingly feel that public space is only regarded as ‘on loan’ from the private sector."

From my own experiences in Melbourne, it seems that if street and graffiti artists are working within legal parameters through private commissions, council grants, or simply by receiving permission from property owners, they must, to an extent, sacrifice their freedom of expression and sense of artistic integrity, as they compromise with those interests of councils, business owners and other private entities. Much graffiti and street art appears accessible, commercial and, at times, poppy, kitsch and downright banal, because the artists have been directed to paint in a way that is ‘interactive’, ‘pleasing’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘engaging’, pandering to the interests of the ‘wider community’. These ‘public’ artworks, created to fulfill a list of criteria, often lose all significance in the process.

On the other hand, if artists are painting on the streets illegally, though they may have a sense of heightened artistic freedom, there is a significant risk involved, as governments and the mainstream media fight to denounce and censor the ‘illegal’ artworks of these ‘criminal’ individuals, alienating both the artists and their work from this wider community. 

There are difficulties on either side of the spectrum, and I can’t see these conditions improving in our current Australian political climate.

What are you guys currently working on and what is planned for Dissect in the future?

Christopher: At the moment it feels like university work consumes most of our time, but we’ll have our honours work finished by the middle of the year. We’re hoping to release our next call for proposals in May. Most likely another broad topic: we’ll be focusing on relationships between digital technology and artistic production. Appropriate to the theme, we’re also hoping to use our website in a more engaging, dynamic way. We’re considering some publishing and writing partnerships with other organisations, but these are currently only at a formative stage.