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.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Née (born as) at 4A in Chinatown, Sydney.

“It’s my father’s name. You say it ‘Park’. It is 49 days since he died, and I couldn’t go to temple today to pay my respects. Now I feel like I have done something to remember him today.” Yiwon had taken some time to tell us the story behind the black stitches she had marked out on the plain white fabric. Her story made the purpose of Neé run deeper than ever before for me.  And then the story of BJ, who was killed in the Vietnam War, and whose mates remember him every day on the anniversary of his death. Invested in it are personal stories which infer a greater responsibility on me, as its carrier.
 As we share these personal narratives, the wall we stitch together becomes more meaningful with every thread.  Some stories are tragic, some wistful, some funny and raw. Sera – or Serafina – would have been the name of Barbara’s daughter, except that she had two boys instead.  When Pedro started school his teachers asked if they could call him Peter. The 5 year old boy leaned over the table and said ‘No!’  Dan felt the weight of the Bible on his shoulders with ‘Daniel Christopher’;  the name Dan Moon lightens the load.
There are broad issues at play when we talk about names. There are many who have been pressured to change their name by teachers, friends, bureaucrats, spouses. The experience seems especially common for migrants to Australia.  Research (citation?) suggests that is pragmatic choices to avoid discrimination when finding work. The best candidate may not even get an interview if the HR officer can’t bear to stumble over her unfamiliar name on the phone.  
Subtle social pressures are far more prevalent than government enforcement in pushing people into new names in Australia. But as many Indonesians with ‘only’ one name have discovered when travelling in Australia, official forms usually ask for a first and surname.  Incorrect forms can mean no-go zones.
Nidil from Somalia says she has no ‘family name’ as such, but takes her father’s and grandfather’s name rather than her husbands. She worries about the generations of women whose family lines will not be recorded.
On the other hand, for some people, a new name is a clean sheet for the future. Marriage can give women and men an opportunity to undertake a name changing process that is otherwise more difficult. But why is it so hard to change your name if you’re not marrying? One story revealed in the research process for In Memory of a Name told of a woman who dropped a family name that carried unhappy memories.  But at the various offices she needed to attend to change her identity documents, her motivations were questioned. What does that say about the discrimination that remains in our society, in our legislation, in ourselves?
Sometimes political correctness gets a bad rap, essentially for being pedantic.  Those of us in the majorities, with all the right names in the right places, the more common sexual orientation, sufficiently subtle skin and hair tones, a mother tongue in common with the rest of the majority – those without obvious differences to be named and identified by – sometimes seem to develop an attitude that it’s no big deal to have institutionalised discrimination in our political, social and communal systems.  So what if can’t pronounce your name, I’ll just call you another one. And if your name doesn’t fit on forms, or is hard to say – well, that’s not my problem; you can change it – if you can afford to.  Why difference does it make if you don’t get to marry the person you love? You’re not stopped from loving them, are you?
The problem with this is it does matter – it is this kind of discrimination that names difference. When we can’t adjust to the myriad of ways that people can be, we turn uncommon into abnormal.  We make an inside and an outside to our society. The outside of society is an unprotected, unsheltered place to be. Just ask any refugee who hasn’t got their documents.
Communities can be, and often are, built on the outside of society. One of the questions I am trying to resolve in my arts practice is where I intend to situate the aspects of my practice that involve other people. It is common to call this kind of practice “community-engagement”, or “community arts”. A great many amazing arts projects have sallied forth under these community banners. But increasingly I am beginning to wonder whether I want to place myself in an ‘artist position’ in another community (not one I am a member of – one Miwon Kwon would call a ‘sited community’[i]). There is an authority implied in that dynamic I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.  Do I want create communities around my artworks? Perhaps, but by what definition can the ‘invented communities’ which develop around art projects (temporary or ongoing – projects and/or communities) be called as such. What makes a community?
Nee as a project will be ongoing, but I have come to feel that perhaps it is less about community, and more about conversation; how to create space for new conversations. New conversations are how we change our perspectives, stories we’ve never heard before open our minds. When I heard for the first time how important it was for my dear friend of mine to leave behind the name her distant, uncaring father, and embrace the name of her loving new husband, it changed my perspective on why so many women change their surnames when they marry. It didn’t make me change my surname, but it made me less judgemental. New conversations, innovative dialogue, creative perspectives – they are essential for personal and social evolution. New conversations are one of the most important ways for us to make a better future. Spaces for new conversations are some of the things that art and artists can contribute to our future.

[i] Kwon, Miwon,
(2002) One Place
After Another - Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, The MIT Press, Massachusetts; London

Monday, 13 February 2012

Née (born as) Sydney call out...

An invitation…..

What name were you given when you were born?

What name do you use now?

What name will you be remembered by when you are gone?

Artist and researcher Elly Kent recently participated in a project called In Memory Of a Name.  Poets, musicians, artists, curators and social researchers joined with Indonesian artist FX Harsono -  who was forced to change his name by government decree when he was a teenager -  to consider the question of what is in a name.  What happens if you are made to change your name? What happens if you choose to change your name? What are the stories behind names lost and found in people’s lives?
Née (born as) is a conversation project which invites you to tell the stories of your names; the names of your family; the names you have left behind; the names you have embraced. We invite you join us in stitching your name/s on to a piece of fabric, while you share your story. If you can, please bring remnant fabric  that holds meaning for you to stitch – an old t-shirt,  some left over  fabric from your school uniform, the tie you wore to your wedding. The stitched names will join a fabric ‘wall’, added to by others as the project moves through different communities. Begun in Elly’s Canberra community, Neé (born as) will be at Gallery 4A in Sydney’s Chinatown and Casula Powerhouse in Liverpool in  February, and Indonesia in 2013.

“My mother’s maiden name    she wanted to keep it but eventually changed it when relatives kept writing cheques out to her with my father’s surname.”
Please drop into one of our stitching sessions, for as long or as little as you like:

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art,
181-187 Hay st, Chinatown
02) 9212 0380  info@4a.com.au

Saturday 18 February, 2pm-4pm

Casula Powerhouse, 1 Casula Road, Casula
RSVP by phone: 02) 98241121 or 02)96125252
Or by email: porter@casulapowerhouse.com
Sunday 19 February, 1pm - 5pm
Monday 20 February : 2pm - 6pm
Tuesday 21  February: 11am - 5pm
Wednesday 22 February: 11am - 5pm
Thursday 23 February:  11am - 5pm
Friday 24 February:    10am - 4pm, 5pm - 9pm

This project will form part of the research in practice for Elly Kent’s PhD in Visual Arts at the Australian National University.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Née (born as) by post....#1

From my dear friend Alex, who was, before I knew her, Sasha.
"I was born Alexandra Elise Chambers, family names on both sides. I grew up with the nickname, Sasha, which was a Russian nickname of Alexandra, even though we have no Russian heritage. Apparently the name was suggested to my parents by an air hostess when we were on a flight when I was a baby. Everyone in my family called me Sasha. I even corrected teachers at school to call me Sasha. My Grandmother was the only one who ever called me Alexandra.
When I decided to move internationally, to Australia, to study glass, I wanted to go by my given name, considering I was off to become an "artist" and wanted to be known by my 'real' name. I was 23 years old. I always secretly wanted to be called Alexandra, but because everyone called me Sasha, thats just who I became. This overseas move was a huge transition, & naturally felt like the perfect time to switch back to my given name. The piece of fabric is my favorite glass blowing T-Shirt that I wore all the time when I first moved here & was enrolled in the course at the Canberra School of Art Glass Workshop."

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Née (born as) Canberra, 26 January 2012

Née (born as) is a conversation project which invites you to tell the stories of your names; the names of your family; the names you have left behind; the names you have embraced. We invite you join us in stitching your name/s on to a piece of fabric, while you share your story. Using meaninful remannats of fabric; an old worn out t-shirt, some left over fabric from a school uniform, the tie you wore to your wedding, the stitched names will join a fabric ‘wall’, inscribed as a memorial to lost names. The wall will be added to by others as the project moves through different communities.  

The first iteration of Née (born as) was held on January 26, in my shed, with people from my community; neighbours, old friends, new friends, workmates, family.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Teman Gambar does the Big Draw

An Indonesian – Australian collaborative drawing project
Teman gambar’ means ‘drawing friend’. Based on the pen-pal experience many adults around the world remember from childhood, Asialink resident Elly Kent and Tlatah Bocah are collaborating to implement a creative exchange. This exchange aims to connect children who in Indonesia and children in Australian primary schools. Our original exchange focussed on children who were evacuated during the devastating eruptions of Mt Merapi in late 2010;  it was a wonderful way for Australian children to show support and care for their Teman Gambar. Since then so many people in Australia and Indonesia have been interested in participating, that our Mt Merapi team is now headquarters for a program that stretches across Java. In Australia, over 500 children have participated, and more are still joining.
In 2011, Teman Gambar decided to join the Big Draw.  We put the call out to schools involved in the Teman Gambar project, and two dedicated teachers of Indonesian language in four Australian schools expressed interest. In Indonesia, four primary schools on the slopes of Mt Merapi also joined:
Tully State School, Queensland, Australia

Cardwell State School, Queensland, Australia

Mission Beach State School, Queensland, Australia

Geelong Baptist College, Victoria, Australia

SDK Perontakan (Perontakan Catholic Primary School), Sumber, Central Java, Indonesia

SDK Kanisius (Kanisius Catholic Primary School), Sumber, Central Java, Indonesia

SDN Sumber (Sumber State Primary School), Sumber, Central Java, Indonesia

SDN Keningar (Keningar State Primary School), Sumber, Central Java, Indonesia

In late October, schools in Australia began creating their collaborative drawings. Each school worked together to describe their home town, school and favourite activites on drawings between 3 and 7 metres long. On these initial drawings, students drew their schools, sports, histories, homes and neighbourhoods. Teachers Sue Foley (Queensland schools) and Dewi Claridge (Victorian school) posted the drawings to Teman Gambar founder Elly Kent in Canberra. In  November 2011, Elly travelled to Central Java and delivered the drawings to the four Indonesian schools.  Teman Gambar co-founder Gunawan Julianto worked together to explain the drawings and the project to students at the four Mt Merapi schools;

Stage 1: Australian school students begin the first drawings which are sent to Indonesian schools.

Stage 2:Indonesian school students complete the drawings begun by the Australian students.

Stage 3: Indonesian students begin the second round of drawings, which are sent in return to Australian schools.

Stage 4: Australian students complete the drawings they have received from Indonesian students.

Stage 5: The story continues……

As the project unfolded, teachers and facilitators kept in touch via email and the dedicated Teman Gambar Facebook Group.

In Indonesia, the students of the Mt Merapi Primary Schools were thrilled and fascinated by the drawings from their Australian peers. An avalanche of questions followed each introduction of the drawings. Where is Tully? What kind of animal is that? What is that big green circle?
Students at Kanisius looking at the drawing from Mission Beach.

 Why is their a giant boot in the drawing? What kind of plants do they grow in Queensland?
Unrolling drawing from Tully students  with students at Perontakan.

What are the different flags for?

Gunawan with the drawing from Geelong Baptist College at Keningar Primary School.

In a short time, Elly and Gunawan helped the students explore Australian culture. Then the reciprocal drawing began!

 Perontakan students get drawing!

Detail from Perontakan….

Detail from Kanisius….
Detail from Sumber….

Detail from Keningar….

As you can see, kids in both countries used this as an excellent opportunity to learn more about their “drawing friends – teman gambar” in their neighbouring country, and to share their own culture and lanuguage with their friends…

SD Keningar was the last stop on out Big Draw tour. As the school finished up classes for the day the heavy rainy-season clouds began to build. Before long, rain was falling on the fertile crops of Mt Merapi, the crops that sustain the livelihoods of her families. Gunawan, myself and my family and the students were hanging out waiting for the rain to ease before heading home. The Australian Rules football field and ball illustrated on the enormous painting/drawing from Geelong Baptist College had been intriguing for the students. It just so happened that my husband, a footy player himself, had his football with him. Rain is part of the game! So our parting photographs with the kids from Keningar, the last school to the top of Mt Merapi’s western slope, were in fact those of Shane (footy player) and Adi (their son) teaching two young fellows from Keningar to fly for the red ball. An all-round cultural experience….
That’s the ball in the top middle! Those Keningar boys were a great mark….

Elly Kent and Gunawan Julianto

Friday, 20 January 2012

The elephant in the room....

Its taken me some time to work up the courage to write this, for reasons which will soon become apparent. Seeing as no-one is following this blog, I think I'm fairly safe to proceed without fear of the ruckus that might be caused by someone with a higher profile.
I left an artists talk at Campbelltown Arts Centre the other day in a fury. Why? Partly because the continuous assertion that the audience was a part of an amorphous "you people" who had stolen a continent and created a  beuracratic social welfare system was wearing thin. More unpleasant though, was the impossibility of raising any critique of thisor any other assertion. Richard Bell, the artist (sorry, that should be 'art star') in question, responded to one elderly woman's polite and pertinent question, and her relating the experiences of her Aboriginal granddaughter, with an explosion: "What the fuck are you talking about, woman?" I wish I had noted the surname of Madeline, the film maker also on the panel, who actually created the documentary film which was part of Bell's contribution to the Edge of Elsewhere exhibition. (Which he says he chose to 'point to his activism'). Madeline made some worthwhile and disturbing points about the standard of living and access to dental care still experienced by Aboriginal people. She might have had a lot more to say and I think it would have been enlightening for we in the audience to hear it. It is easy to be complacent and insulated from the reality of life for the majority of Australia's first people.
But we were busy listening to Richard Bell tell us how he can name his family and that is all he need do to prove his Aboriginality. He seems to have forgotten all those Aboriginal people who lost their family history when they were taken from their mothers.
It hardly seems neccessary, or helpful, to assert that I am not a racist. It's a cliche usually followed by a racist comment. But you know, when I listen to the lyrics of Archie Roach or Kev Carmody I feel moved; I feel responsible, not for the wrongs of the past and present, but for the creation of a better future. Their art makes me want to make a difference.
I try to perpetuate this awareness through my work and in my children - the truths of the theft of land, culture, language and family. The complexity of generations of trauma. Our part in the present and future. This is a legacy passed to me by father, whose school years were captained by the Dodson brothers, Mick and Patrick: their election based not on a compensatory gesture, but on their notable leadership skills and the genuine affection of their fellow students.
But when I listened to Richard Bell I felt shunned, it all seemed too fraught, too 'hot' to touch.
In my children's school I recently joined the Reconciliation Action Plan Committee', on request of the executive teacher who, incidentally, is Aboriginal.
That teacher seems to have no problem with my being white, or whatever I am: not Aboriginal. Richard Bell does. Richard Bell had a problem with every not-Aboriginal in the audience that day. "You People Got a Continent For Free" he said to us, we of Vietnamese, Maori, Cambodian, Irish, Samoan, Thai, English, Cornish, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Welsh and every other descent. We who were born here and we who came here to escape prejudice and repression. It sounded like a line from his very valuable, highly sought after, paintings. But without (what I always assumed to be) irony. There was a racist in the room that day. But no-one dared say who it was.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

What is art?

This is art: an expression of suppressed desire, a critique of a complacent society, hope for the future in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Art is a question you ask yourself.
Check out this link to see the art of a man who has been a refugee for 30 years, the last two in detention in Australia:  http://agora-dialogue.com/?p=34113