Opened in November 2012, MOANA Project Space has established itself in the contemporary and emerging art sector as a venue for art that once did not have a dedicated platform in Perth. An artist-run initiative (ARI) rather than a commercial gallery or an institution funded by the state or federal government (like the Art Gallery of Western Australia), MOANA is a platform for the production and display of contemporary art, with a distinct focus upon developing and exhibiting exceptional early-career artists. I spoke with co-director and co-owner UWA alumni Dale Buckley.

“MOANA was always intended as a test-bed for experimental work, which is why it’s called a ‘project space’ rather than a gallery. Large institutions often have projects spaces where the riskiest or cutting-edge work is shown, and where failure can be embraced as a legitimate outcome,” Buckley said. “I never want to hear that people loved everything they saw. If a program is exclusively aesthetic, inoffensive and easy to understand, it’s too safe. We will often program art that I don’t agree with, or even like, but that I can see being important or significant.”

The project space takes its name from the Moana Chambers Building in which it sits, which in turn sources its title from the the Maori and Polynesian word for water. A bohemian hangout and bootleg distillery in past lives, the Chambers Building has been revitalised thanks to Spacemarket, an organisation specialising in “pairing disused space with useful people.”

For those who haven’t been inside, the project space is an architecturally unique custom designed room, with walls that slant and slope, and a triangular door, hovering at the edge of a heritage ballroom redeveloped to include multi-disciplinary studios and a café.

Buckley says the small size of the space is challenging, but not limiting. “It provides the artist with a set of conditions, but what they accomplish within those can be very creative. The main consequence is that a lot of ‘site-specific’ work is created. That means that a lot of bodies of work or pieces of art have been made specifically to fit into this venue, and to respond to its unique conditions.”

Artists and curators enjoy use of the space rent free and any money MOANA makes is poured back into strengthening the program, rather than paying the four members of permanent staff. To pay artists for their involvement in programs or to cover the ongoing costs of the venue, the project depends upon Local, State or Federal government grants, which is why Buckley is angered by the recent “huge and catastrophic” change Australian arts funding.

In the 2015-16 Federal budget the Hon. George Brandis QC (Attorney General and Minister for the Arts – the crusader against illegal downloading) redistributed funds from the Australia Council for the Arts (the peak Federal funding and advisory body) to establish the “flawed and problematic”, says Buckley, National Program for Excellence in the Arts (NPEA). Without delving too deeply into industry politics, this has meant MOANA, and other small to medium galleries, have lost access to funding grants that no longer exist.

Buckley paints a grim picture of a sector in crisis, but MOANA is actually in the process of expanding its operations. “It is a risky time to do so, but our new lease is short-term, subsidised and flexible so the risk is manageable. The new art space is in the basement of a defunct department store in the centre of Fremantle.” Buckley is referring to the old Myer building which was also reinvented by Spacemarket and is now called Many 6160 (it used to house the rooftop bar Dave’s Cans). “Spacemarket operate as a platform to let creative industries and people who need atypical space find unusual, disused tenancies significantly beneath market rate.”

Expected to open around December and run for at least a year, it is intended to exist mainly as a dark space, rather than as a traditional white wall gallery, dedicated to the exhibition of video, performance, light-based work and large scale installation. At 2700 square metres, it will be the largest ARI in Australia, so certain work, like painting, would get lost in the space. There will also be a program of live music and critically minded film screenings (no Rocky Horror Picture Show).

Not to be bound by bricks and mortar, Buckley considers MOANA a curatorial production platform, rather than a specific space, and he and his team have used it to present exhibitions at the 2015 Perth International Arts Festival and the upcoming SPRING 1883, an invitation-only art fair in Sydney.

Although he had no experience as a director or curator prior to launching MOANA, Buckley, as a Fine Arts graduate, had made a career from the visual arts and was frustrated by the state of contemporary practice in Western Australia, particularly the lack of spaces in which to exhibit.

“I first and foremost see myself as an arts practitioner, but I felt I needed to address the endemic problems in the way in which the Western Australian visual arts industry operates and is organised. The opportunities for Perth-based artists to exhibit, to sell and to make a living off their work are extremely limited. Arts organisations like MOANA play a very important role in broadening those opportunities,” Buckley said.

In his role as co-director, he has had to prioritise the showcasing of other work over developing his own. He often works up to 70 hours a week unpaid and suggests that this is why ARIs are often short-lived. “Generally, the people who work at ARIs don’t derive income from what they do, as the focus is upon artistic excellence rather than profits. This means we are doing for free all the work that people in private galleries and large institutions are paid to do. However, rightly or wrongly, there is this notion in most creative industries that you are expected to work for free in your early career. If you are going to do that it is far more valuable and rewarding to be deciding things for yourself rather than working for other people.”

As an artist, Buckley makes sculptural objects out of unconventional materials, along with video and Internet based work, that deal with the notions of language, utopia and failure. His eyes lit up as he animatedly and eloquently tried to explain a recent work to me. “I washed an original Afghani war rug, produced during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with a smoke grenade in a washing machine that was deliberately engineered to self-destruct in the act of washing.”

Filmed up to 30 times, the washing machine was over-charged and all the counterweights were removed so that it literally tore itself apart from the inside and ended up in pieces. Now common at sites of many conflicts, original Afghani war rugs were produced by the Mujahideen to sell to the West to fund their war efforts. The Mujahideen were CIA. funded freedom fighters who became the Taliban once they succeeded in ousting the puppet government installed by the Soviets.

“Traditionally, Afghan rug weaving was based on abstract geometric patterns, but these war rugs were much more figurative and featured tanks and bombs,” Buckley explains. “During the post-9/11 Allied occupation of Afghanistan, the Afghanis started producing war rugs again, except these were specifically made to sell to US infantrymen. Instead of being a tool of protest, they became an extremely generic, commoditised object. My work explores how these original artefacts were politically laundered on their journey into the West and turned into souvenirs of the Allied occupation. Contrast this with the arrival of refugees of that same conflict to Western shores and you see how the term asylum-seeker or refugee has been changed, or laundered, into ‘boat-person’ or ‘illegal alien’. In the process of travelling to the West both have been transformed.”

Incredibly intelligent and an astute observer, Buckley took me inside an industry that is underrepresented in the media and introduced me to the realities of life as an artist, director and curator. MOANA PROJECT SPACE can be found in the Hay Street Mall next to David Jones and I recommend you take a look.

Words by Samuel Cox