Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Well it's been a good few months since I posted, and I have no reasonable excuse. Except that it has been winter and I live in Canberra. I have never come to terms with the freezing winters, crowned though they are by sparkling, sunny days glittering with frost and bright blue skies.

At the beginning of winter I was riding my bike to uni, through the diamond-tipped grasslands and silvery snowgums, in the early morning before the temperature crept above zero. And I loved it, truly. But then I succumbed to a succession of colds and coursework, and went into hibernation. I emerged only for meetings and seminars (except for the occasional ukulele jam, but that is another story). That, my friends, is not a life.

In the middle of winter I was given a reprieve, and travelled to Sydney to warm up, present a paper at the Arts Association of Australia and New Zealand, and take the family to the Sydney Biennale.

E inside Philip Beesley's amazing kinetic light installation, Sibyl (2012)

The paper I presented at the AAANZ conference addressed the In Memory of a Name project that Nee (born as) emerged from and Nee itself. I posted the paper here, papers and publications, and if you're up for a read I promise it is not too long, nor excessively academic. The rest of the conference was stimulating and otherwise, as these things tend to be, but overall well worth the trip. I really do prefer to listen to artists talk abou thteir own work than art historians talk about other people's work, but it does seem possible to reach a middle ground. In my session I was really impressed by my fellow presenters; Rigel Sorzano discussed the other 'c' word, Craft, Edward Hanling addressing the gap (or otherwise) between NZ feminist art and minimalist abstract painting, and Martin Patrick investigating past and present performance art practice. They infused their subject matter with such humour and passion that I felt totally immersed and inspires, and although we were placed in an 'open session' we all agreed that there were persistent resonances between our papers. Rigel in particular broke down open the 'craft' paradigm in ways that I found delightful and thought-provoking.

And the Biennale? Well, I am not one of the many who deride a spectacle in art, and I have to say it was the spectacular which most impressed. The Inkwili, Nicholas Hlobo's giant sea monster on Cockatoo Island, and his beautiful watercolour and stitching pieces in the MCA were a definite highlight for me. To tell you more I will have to find my notebook, which seems not to be to hand, or spend hours looking up names on the inter-meh-webs....

The sun is back, the days are warmer and we haven't had the heater for at least three days of the past week in this house. So, after an encouraging meeting with my PhD supervisors, I am preparing for more sessions of Nee (born as) and an on-line rejuvenation. I'll be getting in touch with as many past participant as I can and asking them to contribute to the bog. Also on my to-do list is preparing a new body of work for an exhibition at 4a Contemporary Asian Arts Space. This was supposed to be next month, but it has been postponed and this has prompted a re-think for my work. More on that later, perhaps.

I notice too, that I have neglected to write about the slow-burning but amazing experience of the residency I undertook at Casula Powerhouse in February this year. There I spent a week in the main foyer space inviting people to come and stitch with me; mostly with very few takers, but when they came they came with amazing stories. I promise to return to this!

For a few weeks in winter and this fortnight again, I have had the great privilege of taking a course in ethnographic film-making with esteemed and talented film-maker Gary Kildea. It's been a really steep learning curve for me, and it remains to see how much sticks, but I feel much more confident about taking a video camera with me into my field research in Indonesia next year. Perhaps sometime soon I will post a (very) short film here to test my skills.

This post is beginning to look like a diary entry, and yet I'm sure I came here with specific intentions. Ah well, something is better than nothing, (sometimes). I  notice that today just turned into tomorrow; the school run is looming, so its time to sign off in favour of sleep. Standby for more activity, as I try to return to the land of the lively.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Moving, and acting: posters and other ways to change things.

In the hall outside my studio there is a wall of paste-up posters, screen-prints I think. They are bold and graphic, include lots of text and mostly, highly political. Many of them promote exhibitions, group shows, some are calendars and others like banners for rallies. "The defeat of labour is not the end - it is only the beginning!" they cry; "Gay Radio Monday 11.30"; "A Pena in Support of El Salvador".  Going by the imagery and the phone numbers, these posters are at least 25, maybe 35 years old. Those with dates are around the mid-1980s. Without fail they are engaged, socially committed, didactic and strident. These posters represent people who cared.
When I started at art school in the late 1990's, the posters were already there, but they haven't been added to in the time I have been in and out of this building. To be sure, have been some of my contemporaries who have followed the poster tradition and political ethic, and paste-ups are part of the vernacular again. But the site of most activism has moved and it is less didactic than before. Activism turns on information. Trade unions are no longer where the biggest numbers can be organised, social media is. The left don't rally out the front of parliament as much as truckies and loggers do - albeit in small numbers.

I'm wondering why it is that I see parallels between these paste-ups and the participatory art practices I'm researching now. When we see these kind of imagery and texts in art now, it is tongue in cheek, satirical - and usually, preaching to the converted. A little in-joke for all we enlightened arty folk, at the expense of the supposedly ill-informed masses - the readers of the Telegraph. It has little in common with the upbeat, utopian rallying cries of the organisers in the 80's. Where we see those ideals emerge, is in community artists; those who run ceramics workshops for isolated urban women; Aboriginal dance performances for kids in regional schools; theatre revues performed by adults with down syndrome.

From my reading it seems much of this participatory art practice in the US emerged first in the late 80's and early 90's (Lacy, 1995) and according to some has only a slim relationship with the situationist and performance art of the decades before (Kester, 2004). I speculate that participatory art practices have emerged from decades conservative government. When millions of protestor around the war couldn't stop troops from entering Iraq - twice. When prime-ministers could tell-bald faced lies about refugees and children overboard, with barely a murmur of dissent. In the face of this conservatism proceeding within a democratic system - a hard-hearted capitalism we elected over and over again - what is a bleeding heart lefty to do?

It can be argued that creating socially engaged, participatory art projects when conservative governments neglect social services merely props up that system, instead of challenging it. It must be said that communities shouldn't have to rely on civil society to provide services. We all pay high taxes to a government that should be responsible for providing equal access to rights and representation, health and education, infrastructure and safe environments. 

I imagine participatory art as the practice of being the change you want to see in the world. Not only  demanding others see and want it, but working at making it real. Creating an alternative space where compassion and service can prove their value - a pilot-project that demonstrates what can be done with little - imagine what could be done with so much more.
We should rally. We should organise. We should shout and carry on, and sign petitions and find out more about the dirty deeds of our elected and unelected representatives.  But we should also act, live our beliefs, volunteer, participate, donate. A movement is a multi-dimensional act. We should move in all directions.