I finished installing my work quite quickly for our group exhibition. I went into the other gallery space to see what the rest of my friends/the artists were doing. Louisa Afoa had a film triptych already installed. I sat down to watch it. I didn’t expect to have any strong feelings toward or against the work. It was more or less a way to spend time.
Surprisingly, siting on that ply wood bench turned out to be one of those gushy defining moments that everyone within the arts industry has. That moment when seeing something reaffirms why you too are involved in the arts. It’s not that the work itself was necessarily great—it was after all a student exhibition—but more a moment of realising what art can do.
HomeAKL the now infamous Pacific art exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki opened the night after our show, so our opening by coincidence had a really good turn out. Despite that great turn out I knew that no one would write about this work that felt so important to me, or even the exhibition as a whole. So I did that ‘Kiwi’ thing and did it myself. I wrote a review and published it on my then blog. This was my first interaction with criticism. TBH it was less criticism and more incestuous flag waving.
It was in these moments, as a third year fine art student I realised art is temporary. That artists slave away in studios just to have work on show for only a few weeks at a time. And, when no one writes about it, the work dies, with no way of entering into the canon of art history. Sure the work can be shown again, but that work in that context at that time is gone. Writing, in it’s many forms—the essay, the feature, the review—archives art in a way that nothing else does.
When Louisa and I started conversations about #500words, later that year in 2012, we were wanting to start a platform for writing by people like us about art like ours. The only other online contemporary arts reviewing platform (that we knew of) was EyeContact. It was a space that didn’t feel any affinity to.
We had a heaps of strange ideas. For one we started with no editorial control. While it was me who uploaded everything to the website we thought it was important to have a stance on no editorship based on an idea that we didn’t want to impose ourselves and our own ideas onto other peoples writing. Only in retrospect can we see how ridiculous this was, it meant no quality control, countless spelling mistakes and endless adjustments (after publishing). Being artists, it’s safe to say we didn’t know too much grammar either.
Another idea which is one we are better known for is our emphasis on short form reviewing or reviews of 500 words. We had this equally naive idea that we would have heaps of people wanting to write for #500words and so by having reviews at such a short length we would be able to publish three or four reviews of one show to emphasise that not one person or opinion is right or wrong. We’ve since learnt that art writers are few and far between in New Zealand and getting one review of an exhibition is a hard enough task.
#500words has evolved multiple times since we started four years ago. Our team has expanded and shrunk again. At our peak it was run by four people including Emil Scheffman as co-editor and Natasha Matila-Smith on our social media. We have been very fortunate to receive Creative New Zealand funding which has meant paying writers fees (although admittedly at a ‘koha’ rate more than a ‘fee’ rate) since 2014. We revamped the website and even released a print journal with another journal to come being released mid 2017. More importantly we have continually taken risks for better or for worse and provided a platform for emerging writers, spaces and artists.
#500words started the same time that Twitter grew in popularity. In 2012, everyone was talking about the #, and so were we, hence the name. While # is still a very useful tool for marketing specifically, the mystery and the interest behind it is no longer.
This long winded back story to the start of #500words does have a reason. Just as the # in many ways has run it’s course of being at the forefront of a digital media focus #500words has run it’s corse too. Louisa and are sad to say that while the website will stay live as an archive for ever and ever this will be the last thing published on #500words, as we too have come to the end of our natural life cycle. I will continue to write about art for various platforms. I am also moving on to be the Visual Arts co-editor for The Pantograph Punch. And Louisa is taking some much needed time to be an artist.
We started, like many platforms and artist run spaces, because of a gap. That gap was an absence of young, diverse, brave voices. The online arts publishing landscape is far more diverse now than it was in 2012 with sites like The Pantograph Punch, Hainamana and Lokal Stories joining the cockroach that won’t die EyeContact, things are looking up. However as much as we would love to say that there are bountiful places for young writers to publish hence us not needing to exist that simply isn’t true. #500words ends blowing open the gap that we once filled, a place for the unpublished to test the waters of art writing.
To the writers, friends, supporters, funders and everyone who has been a part of the #500words life cycle, we are incredibly thankful for all of your time and your words.
Until the next life cycle begins.
Ia manuia le malaga. Malo malo!
Lana Lopesi with Louisa Afoa