Hello. Welcome to this, the third session in the discussion series Precarious Movements Conversations, presented by Monash University Museum of Art and Precarious Movements. Last week we heard from Amrita Hepi, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Latai Taomaupeau and Hannah Mathews. And you can watch the recording of that on the MUMA website. This event will also be recorded and available with closed captions later in the week. Tonight we’re grateful to have Tyson and Chelsea providing Auslan interpretation.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Kulin Nation as the sovereign custodians of the lands on which MUMA stands, and from which I am speaking tonight. I pay my respects to ancestors and elders of the Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri peoples. I extend these respects to the Gadigal people, custodians of the land from which Lisa and Victoria are speaking to us, and to the traditional owners of all the lands from which you are joining us tonight.
And tonight, while we discuss the care and preservation of living cultures, I acknowledge the devastation occurring on Djab Wurrung country today, and recognise that precious cultural history and knowledge must be protected.
Thank you MUMA, for hosting us tonight, and making this series possible. Special thanks to Hannah Mathews, senior curator at MUMA, and to the members of Precarious Movements Research Group, who have convened this series.
My name is Pip, and I am curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, and a member of Precarious Movements. As a visual description, I am a white woman with dark hair - half up, half down - wearing a red shirt and sitting in front of a white wall.
Precarious Movements choreography and the museum is a research group comprising artists, curators, conservators and academics from the University of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Monash University Museum of Art, Tate London and NGV. The group’s aim is to bring artists, researchers and institutions into a dialogue about best practice, and to support both the choreographer and the museum, and to sustain momentum in theory and practice around choreography and the visual arts.
This series of three events reflects on the various kinds of knowledge transmission that takes place between artist and museum, and it advocates for the centrality of the artists’ voice and the ability of the museum to listen.
Tonight’s session brings together the voices of Shelley Lasica, Tania Doropoulos, Victoria Hunt and Lisa Catt, to focus on how the ephemerality and mutability of choreography confronts collection and acquisition frameworks, and how choreographic works particular relationship to body, memory and social networks might shift institutional practices of archiving.
The reason this conversation is so exciting to me is because choreography changes the museum, and that is important because the changes that occur expand to encompass how culture is cared for, how people access history, how time is understood and shaped and how hierarchies can be rearranged.
We’ll be hearing from each speaker, and contributing to each other’s thoughts, in the discussion throughout, and we welcome your questions, so please feel free to use the Zoom Q&A function to send any through.
So to introduce our speakers, Shelley Lasica has pushed the confines of dance choreography and performance over three decades. Her practice is defined by an enduring interest in the context and situations of presenting choreography. Throughout her career she has made solo performances that function as a mechanism, and a commentary on making work. This practice provides the basis for generating ensemble works, with a network of dance artists that question the collaborative and interdisciplinary possibilities of choreography. Lasica regularly collaborates with visual artists in order to create dialogues between different modes of presentation. Her choreographic works have been shown nationally and internationally, both visual art and theatre contexts. Shelley, could I please ask you to give us a visual description for our audience.
Hi. I also would like to acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Kulin Nation, and would like to extend and pay my respects to elders past, present and future. I identify as she/her. I have pale skin and I have sort of dark and grey curly hair. I’m wearing a black jumper and I’m sitting in my kitchen, basically, at my table where I’ve been doing quite most of my work for the last six months. Thank you.
Thank you. Tania. Tania Doropoulos is the director of Anna Schwartz Gallery. She was the inaugural curator of Anna Schwartz Gallery Carriageworks before relocating to London to undertake graduate research. She was director of exhibitions at Timothy Taylor, and a member of the International Committee of Art Brussels, before joining Frieze, initially as interim artistic director of Frieze London, and then director of Frieze Studios. In 2009 she was the coordinating curator of the Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and she has edited numerous publications. Hi, Tania. Could I ask you to give us a visual description?
Thanks, Pip. I am a Greek Australian woman. I have short dark hair and dark features. I’m wearing a black jumper and I’m sitting in front of a nondescript white wall.
Thanks very much. Victoria Hunt is a queer, interdisciplinary indigenous Maori artist, born on Yugambeh country, Surfers Paradise. Her ancestral affiliations are Te Arawa, Ngati Kahungunu and Rongowhakaata, Irish, English and Finnish. She is a dancer, director, choreographer, performance installation artist, photographer and film maker, and BodyWeather practitioner. She works to reinstate the power of indigenous creativity by unravelling the complexities indigenous people face within the politics of recognition, respect, responsibility, rematriation and remembrance. Central to this is the honouring of whakapapa ancestral lineages, and the revitalisation of mana wahine and atua wahine knowledge and practices, Maori feminism and feminine knowledges.
Since 2000, Victoria has worked as a founding member of De Quincey Company, and her work is frequently presented internationally, and she is one of six artists in the first edition of the BAC Madrid Biennale of the Arts, the body image and movement, 2019-21. Victoria, hello. Could I ask you to give us a visual description for our audience?
Thanks, Pip. Thanks for also wrapping your mouth around the language, it’s really appreciated. I’m on unceded territory, land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and I pay my respects to elders past, present and into the future. I’m sitting in my living room. Behind me is a wall with photographs of my father, my grandfathers and grandmothers. There’s pieces from my family that are hanging there that have been scraped from flax and woven into piupius. I also have a candle burning for my auntie, Rosie, who is 80 and in hospital at the moment in Auckland. She’s on my mind. And I’m wearing a sort of comfy - it’s a bit of a vortex around my chest.
Thanks, Victoria. And finally, Lisa. Lisa Catt is assistant curator at international art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She worked closely with artistic director, Mami Kataoka, on a display during the Biennale of Sydney for the gallery’s presentation of the Biennale in 2018. In 2017, supported by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, Catt partook in a workshop at the Museum of Modern Art New York, focusing on the management of time-based media artworks in collections. She is interested in performative and interdisciplinary practices, and advocating for new ways of working and thinking within the museum to support contemporary art in all its forms. Lisa, could I ask you to give us a description.
Hi Pip. Thank you. Hi everyone from Gadigal land. I am female, in my early 30s, I have my hair pulled up in a half ponytail. I’m wearing a mustard coloured top, and I am talking to you tonight from my apartment in front of a very bland white wall, but I promise out of frame it’s much more homey. So hello.
Thank you. And thank you all, it’s exciting to have this wide ranging and deeply held knowledge here all together tonight. We’re going to talk together and individually, and we’re going to begin with Shelley and Tania. So Shelley, could I ask you to tell us about your work, Dress.
Well, I was just going to talk to - I think we’re just going to see a couple of images, just to introduce this. There we go. It’s just two still images [shows images] that were taken - this first one was taken, I guess it was 1998 when I first performed Dress, at Anna Schwartz Gallery. And the photo was Kate Gollings, and the costume is, of course, Martin Grant. And then the second - this one - was taken last year, in 2019, in exactly the same space, with the same costume that Martin had made, and me 21 years later. Doing it with that space in between, all sorts of things brought up a lot of different conversations, and Tania is now going to talk about that, from her point of view.
So just for some context, to help understand how this work by Shelley came to be performed last year, Doug Hall had been in the process of writing a book which covered the history of the galleries under the management and directorship of Anna Schwartz. It was 35 years of the gallery history and the culture surrounding it. And a huge amount of work went into the research for that book, so what we ended up with at the gallery was a really comprehensive archive that documented every exhibition, every performance, every project that had happened in those 35 years. And it presented an opportunity to, I guess, reflect on that history.
And from my point of view - and having worked in numerous galleries and with many artists - what I understand, and what I know, is that works that perhaps should enter the annals of art history, and reside within our permanent collection, sometimes don’t get picked up at the time that they’re shown, and they often will then go into the artist’s archive or the gallery storage.
So one of the premises of the exhibition was to look back over the entire history, identify the kind of core group of artists who were no longer represented but who had worked with the gallery for a really significant period of time - 10 years or more, perhaps that would have included between five and eight solo shows - and alongside the artists that are still currently represented by the gallery, create a kind of group show, in conjunction with the Melbourne Festival, that would present an opportunity to bring significant works out of storage and re-present things.
Shelley had presented eight or nine projects during the time that she worked with the gallery, between the years 1989 and I think 2004 or 2005. So there was a really significant relationship. But during the years that Shelley was locating choreographic and dance works within a commercial gallery context, museums, private collectors, no-one was collecting dance, no-one was collecting choreography, so it was especially important for me to approach Shelley to see whether there might be one or two really significant works from history - not contemporary works - that we could talk about re-presenting.
I was really fortunate, because my colleague at the gallery, Zoe Theodore, has a very intimate close working relationship with Shelley, and so wonderfully kind of fast‑tracked me into the key projects within Shelley’s oeuvre. And we talked about Behaviour and we talked about Dress, and what I understood was that Shelley had been approached numerous times to consider re-presenting Dress, and none of those opportunities felt like they were the right ones, but this exhibition I think - and Shelley, correct me if I’m wrong, but really quite specifically, because it was going to be located in the very same space - the planets, the stars aligned on how.
I was really nervous, because this particular work by Shelley involved Shelley’s own body performing as the sole performer, and I didn’t know how Shelley would feel about doing that, with such a huge period of time - nearly 20 years - between the first performance and the present moment. And so our initial conversation raised a lot of questions, which Shelley can kind of start to talk through. I think there are still a lot of questions around this work, not just in terms of how it can be performed, but also what is the work? If one was to think about acquiring it for a collection, what is it? And not only what is it, but what part of whatever it is is the part of the work that can be performed, and what part of it should reside within an archive and rather be sort of information and material that will inform the presentation of the work, or the re‑presentation of the work.
So the first question was how did Shelley feel about re-performing this, and then what did that mean for her, her body? What state was the choreography in? Was the choreography fixed? And then what role does the costume fulfil in this work? And maybe that’s a moment for you to jump in, Shelley.
Thanks, Tania. Yeah, there were a lot of different questions that came up, and the most obvious one is context. For me, always, the context of a work is such a big part of it, and it’s not just the actual place of where the work is performed - it’s not the only place I’ve performed it, it was performed in Sydney, too - but it’s how it resonates with the situation and the particular conditions. In bringing the work back into being, I had very good documentation of the work, and although initially the work was built using a lot of improvisatory processes, it is reasonably stable, is I guess the best way of describing it.
In working with it again, I was also interested in passing it on to somebody else, so I worked with someone - Megan Payne - and we worked together in bringing that work back into fruition. It was very interesting to work with somebody else to do that, and it was partly about passing it on, but it also helped me understand what the work was and how it functioned. I was speaking with Megan the other day, and they said that the video act is like acted as an antagonist, which I think is a really interesting way of putting it. So the video material - and also I’ve got lots of notes, as well, which I’ve only found more recently - functions as one way of thinking and understanding what happened, but I also had to get a sort of kinaesthetic sense of it, as well.
And it was great working with the costume, and I guess in a way that you could say the costume is like - it’s not an antagonist, but it’s another structure, it’s another relationship as an object, but also in terms of the way it was developed. Martin and I worked on it together for quite a long time, and in discussion. Interestingly, in relation to archives and collecting, at one stage I thought that it would be a really good idea if perhaps I could get the - obviously with Martin’s agreement, that the costume might become part of a collection. So I actually offered it to the NGV, to the costume and dress curators, and they felt that it was too unstable, because it disintegrates, and it disintegrates in the performance, and it keeps on disintegrating, basically.
But it was interesting for me that both the - what it brought out for me was that I don’t know that the costume was any less or more in having the capacity to disintegrate, than in fact the work itself. And where was the work? And in fact, at the time I didn’t even think that there was a possibility that, as a work, an institution like the NGV would be interested in collecting the performance. It brought all sorts of things about where is the work, what is the actual object, is there an object? And for me, that was really important in re-doing it this time and re-working with it.
Also, in terms of the potential of what it was that I would be able to communicate to somebody else, in teaching Megan, that became really interesting about what it was that was being passed on. And it also started a sort of train of thought in discussions with Zoe and Tania about what type of conversations would I have with a curator, or a conservator, had there been - or would there be - a potential somebody who wanted to purchase it. What was it that was being purchased? Yeah, that was a really kind of useful way of thinking about what the work is, even as I was performing it. It’s kind of an interesting piece to perform, and it was very interesting to have the opportunity do it again after 21 years. It was really interesting.
I was really interested, Shelley, in your process of having to re-learn the choreography, because obviously - as a performer - you have a muscle memory, and the gestures that you would have developed in 1997 and 1998 were so obviously located in that tone. And not coming from a kind of dance background myself, I was really interested in how the gestures are dated, what it was like to have to go back and revisit something that you’ve obviously physically and conceptually evolved from. But 20 years is a substantial amount of time.
It was really interesting. It almost felt like time travel, or one of those things like a smell that takes you back into a very clear experience of something. So when I would watch Megan, we’d do stuff together, and it helped me understand what the actual movement was, because it wasn’t the look of it, necessarily; it’s about this kind of inbuilt structure of it. And I guess it also brings me to the idea of why did that performance need to reside in a gallery? Could it have resided somewhere else? And for me, it’s not just about dancing in a gallery, it’s about the structure of how the work exists, it happens in this kind of quite complex discussion between a whole lot of different modes of thinking, some of which are kinaesthetic and some of which are involved with a whole lot of other historical and sort of varied modes of communication, I guess, is the best way of putting it.
I’m interested in the questions that, Tania, you needed to put to Shelley, to get her to think about - or the conversation you had together to formulate what it was that the work constitute if it were acquired, and whether, Shelley, you felt like that shifted the work.
Shelley is probably really sick of me talking about this, but at a moment many years ago I had attended a series of kind of conference sessions around a traveling solo show of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and the curators were quite challenged by the specific works, but one in particular which is untitled, but it is a work where a go-go dancer dancing with headphones to music played on a cassette Walkman on a pedestal. And they talked about how that work should be presented in a contemporary moment. And certain details around that were should the Walkman rather be updated to a contemporary device; an iPod, for example? What should the clothing be? Because the artist’s intention at that moment, when the work was devised, was that it was specifically contemporary.
And so I started asking Shelley these sorts of questions: okay, let’s imagine you’re no longer able to speak for the work. You’re not here. And a curator wants to present this work in a museum context, then what does that person need to know? What information needs to be accessible? What part of the work - because as Shelley mentioned, there is fantastic direct video documentation of the performances. Why is that not, then, a stand-in for the work itself, or can it ever be? What about your choreographic note-taking, is that material that can be displayed? What about when the dress entirely disintegrates? Can it be re-made using the same methodology that Martin Grant used when he first made it? And so it became this long interview, which we thought, actually, probably should then be undertaken by a curator who may be considering acquiring the works. There should probably be a very long video interview with Shelley that forms part of the work.
Yeah, and I think that maybe that is something we’ll hear about next week from Louise Lawson at Tate, because I think that has become part of how that institution collects performance work; you know, the conversation with the artist to ask all of those questions that you asked, Tania - and have that on record to inform the future of the work - becomes really integral, especially when - and I know Shelley, you have feelings around this - documentation is not necessarily something that you want to be shown or that can stand in for the work. So while that might go into the collection as a kind of adjunct material, it’s never going to stand in for the work.
And I think that changes with different work. I think that this relationship between documentation and the work is really complex, and I think it really depends on the work. But for this particular work, the documentation is not something that is - it’s not the work at all. It’s an adjunct, it’s a tool, it’s all of those things.
Thinking about the way that planning needs to take into account the living nature of the performance, and how it will shift, depending on who performs it. And the fact that the material is changing, and acknowledging that shifting nature of the work, is such an important principle when it comes to these questions for the museum. It makes me think about the questions that a museum needs to have in mind when working with cultural materials that also have life in them, and so I want to shift now - with that in mind - to hearing from Victoria.
We’re going to first, however, see an excerpt from her recent film, TAKE, from 2019. So we’re just going to see the beginning of the film. Warisa if you’d like to go ahead.
Thank you very much, Victoria, for letting us watch part of that work tonight. There’s so much to talk about in that powerful film. I just wanted to begin, though, maybe at the beginning with the words that open the film: “I am the house and the house is me, I dance the history of the house, and she reveals my history”. I wondered if you would like to tell us about those words.
Yeah, sure. I had a mentor called Charles Koroneho, who has been a very powerful taonga or guide for me in this reconnection back to Hinemihi, our ancestral Maori meeting house. As an artist, his great great grandmother was actually present, and very influential, at the time that our ancestral mountain, Tarawera, erupted. Her common, well-known name was Guide Sophia. She was a [matakitia seer], so she was very famous for being able to have anticipated events before they’d happened.
So “I am the house and the house is me, I dance the history of the house and she reveals my history,” is a way of thinking about the ancestral continuation of our people, and of our culture, and how Hinemihi is not just an artefact or an object of culture, that she actually is the embodiment of the ancestral. And as a descendent of Hinemihi, s a direct descendent of her, in my lifetime now there’s a relationship of honouring that is an obligation, which is intensified by her removal from her homelands and taken over to England.
And so as an artist, my commitment, really, is to honour her and to understand how to embody the relationship to the protocols and the knowledges that are part of the anthology of my body, reconnecting through a diasporic lens, as well, being born on Yugambeh country here in Australia, and all those complexities that are associated with those relationships. And through the body, how to hold a kind of presencing of intergenerational transmission. The works that I make, they’re part of this practice of continually keeping warm, the ancestral, and also dealing with institutions, as well, and that relationship.
TAKE has so many of those relationships in it. You are dealing with institutions like the National Trust in England, private collections - I understand that the Pare, the door lintel, is in a collection in Paris, public record in the newspaper clippings, and of course, ancestral and personal memory. It’s a lot of roles and intersections to embody, and I think those words that open the film really draw attention to the relationship between body and those material cultures.
When we were talking recently, I mentioned that I was interested in the Te Awi project at the Auckland Museum. It’s something you had drawn my attention to; the way the body has a relationship to taonga, the materials, in the collection there. And the Te Awi project, I thought, is fascinating for the way that it looked at around 10,000 objects - 10,000 taonga - in the museum, and to bring the community into the museum, and to access and enliven the life in the objects. You speak about the custodianship that you are entrusted with, or the practice of bringing memory to objects, and I wondered how you think about that role when you come to work with a new institution, or a new collection, or a new setting; how you come to understand the objects that are there and how you relate to them.
VictoriaFirstly, I just probably want to sort of acknowledge that there are so many different perspectives and holdings of those different perspectives, and my perspective is very particular, as well. I’m not living on ancestral homelands, and these conversations are very nuanced and very particular, and there’s so many stakeholders involved, so I don’t at all advocate for being beyond my relationship to my family dynamic, and my whakapapa, all my ancestry, that connects to Hinemihi and to Ngāti Hinemihi. But yeah, there’s a lot involved: there’s a lot of politics, there’s a lot of relationship negotiation that’s very delicate, and particularly during COVID, as well, it’s been quite difficult to continue to remain in touch. So yes, I’m just going to speak very much from a very personal perspective.
But yeah, one thing that really strikes me about being in Aotearoa and going into museums is the relationship to the livingness of the objects, and the connection to the communities that are alive, and very vibrant and dynamic, and that those spaces have moved quite substantially to enable the customs to be present for people. As an example, having water in a museum for cultural reasons. Going into museums can often feel like going into a urupa, or into a place where the dead are there, and so as you would enter into a urupa or cemetery, when you leave there’s a process around water to cleanse yourself when you leave. Or there’s certain taonga in the museums are offered greenery and leaves and things, as well, for an acknowledgement of their aliveness.
So yeah, I guess that’s something that I would love to have more present in these museums, and there are changes around the ways of the positioning of objects and the relationship to the communities, bringing people in, activating those spaces. We’re moving things from view that are offensive and traumatic.
It’s an ontological shift regarding the museum and its framing of history and living practice that really challenges the enlightenment Western model of the museum, and I think that this is where the work of the body which enacts those practices in the space - whatever they may be - can shift the museum, whether it’s through those practices or through choreography. These things really mete out a challenge to the museum that it needs to rise to, and that will ultimately change the relationship with its community, as well as with its objects. There’s so much to talk about there.
I wanted to quickly just touch on another work that you shared with me. [Warissa], if you would show the image of Victoria’s work, Day of Invigilation. This was a work that you performed in several locations, I understand, and you shared with me some visitor feedback that you’d received in London, which was fascinating, and which drew attention to the way that the visitor is shifted by the object, by the work, by the taonga, by the performer, which looks back at the audience, which has its own agency and which observes the viewer in return. I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about this work.
Yeah. This work was - well actually, originally it came about through an invitation from Fiona Winning and Blair French, from Performance Space, back in 2004. And it brought together Barbara Campbell, Brian Fuata and myself to look at what is our relationship to culture, as cultural bodies located within our Australian experience. There were many aspects that came up, but this work - Day of Invigilation - was very strongly connected, for me, to Hinemihi and the fact that she is being invigilated by so many other people that don’t actually have, perhaps, a direct intimate connection with her, and yet they’re in a role of being with her way more than any of her custodians or descendants. So Hinemihi is created in the sublime tradition, and yet she was removed and taken and placed within a foreign sort of setting.
The work, again, keeps just reinserting the aliveness of culture, and the objectness and the subjectness of this kind of dilemma, I guess. The work is deliberately made for a museum and gallery context. The plinth and the placing the bust into the plinth, looking at the types of labelling that museums have historically kind of given to objects of culture, with the omission of a lot of information. There were two labelling tags that was the identifier that really kind of detailed - in more detail - identity, and then the other one with less information, and the body is covered in a thin layer of mud from the homelands, as well, from Rotorua. And over time, in the plinth, the performance goes for two/three hours, and so in that time the mud is applied to the body wet, and then it start to dry, and then it starts to crack. The power of that performance, for me, is that the challenge is to keep my eyes open and to be the invigilator of culture, of Hinemihi, particularly. And so there’s a very incredible relationship that happens, and through that meditation of being still and being with eyes open, and then this upwell of tears, the eyes become very red over - and just the endurance of that, it is connected to the endurance of decades and decades of request and invigilation.
And Shelley, when you were talking about your work and this re-staging of the work, and it was reminding me, also, about from performing Day of Invigilation in 2004, and then performing it again in London in 2013, and in other spaces, and then most recently at the Indigenous Creative Exchange in Montreal; that was led by Emilie Monnet and Patti Shaughnessy. And just what it is to be performing a work again and again, and my deepening into that relationship and kind of putting myself into that position of duress again and again, and just realising how things have changed, how things haven’t changed, that that work will sort of continue to be relevant until she comes home, as well.
The presence of the body in that space is really powerful, and brings a level of awareness to everyone who is there. The testimony of the visitor that you shared with me was very clear in that; she observed herself observing, she also observed others observing, and it drew attention to the hierarchies of attention that exist in a museum.
And I want to now move to Lisa - speaking of hierarchies of attention - and invite you to tell us about the way you have been thinking about re-shifting those hierarchies at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Sure. So I’m going to talk a little bit tonight about a specific case study of the Pat Larter archive, to kind of talk to these hierarchies and perhaps how we can begin to shift them curatorially. I guess the first thing to say - I will talk a little bit about Pat, but the Pat Larter archive doesn’t engage with the specificities of a dance practice, but I think in having worked with the archival material closely over the past year with my colleague - the senior librarian, Claire Eggleston - there are definitely observations and general principles around archival material, and ephemeral and the embodied, which we are kind of already hearing tonight, that hopefully will feel generative to these discussions.
And really, Claire and I have been thinking about three main questions. Firstly, from an exhibition-making perspective, how the archive at the gallery has opened up curatorial opportunities to challenge institutional dependence on objecthood and singularity, and in doing so has kind of opened up this potential for a broadening of art forms and histories and artists presented at the gallery. And then from an acquisition perspective, how the structures of an archive, and the principles of collecting archival material, might be better suited to holding practices and histories that are assented upon, more duplicity and interconnectedness, eventfulness and ephemerality, or with cross-disciplinary explorations or sets of social relations. And then also, again, just from a collection perspective, how the place of an archive within the institution has shifted, and how this might assist in shifting these traditional hierarchies of art forms.
So I guess, just to say, I’ve worked curatorially with our archive twice, which was first with the Biennale of Sydney archive, and now again with Pat Larter, and I guess what I’ve come to appreciate is really how the archive has allowed us to speak to something that happened, but also acknowledge how it lives on. It allows us to acknowledge change and time, and how a work has existed in different context and has taken different forms over the course of its life. It allows us to hold the relationships that also made an artwork, and I think having listened to the series last week, as well, this idea of where do relationships go in collections and institutions is a pertinent one.
So I guess, essentially, working with the archive means we can, in some way, avoid having to lock down an artwork to one thing and one person, at one point in time, forever, which is more or less the traditional framework of an institutional art collection. My colleague, Claire, she really puts it quite succinctly: she said, “Collecting archive is about collecting context.” And so it’s based upon looking at a range of material as a whole, rather than selecting singular objects or items to sit out on their own to tell a singular story. So the very way that the archive is collected and catalogued and described, and access is really grounded upon a web of connections between materials and people and processes and periods and creators.
To give a little background, our archive - which we refer to as the National Art Archive - first started collecting art as archives in 1964, and for all you people playing at home, the first archive was Margaret Preston’s. But now we have over 200 artists’ archives and, interestingly, the archive actually developed outside of the formal infrastructures and mechanisms of the institution, which is really how the head of our archive, Steven Miller, liked it. Steven has always believed that the archive collection should not be exclusively wedded to our art collection, and institutional ideologies and patterns. And now, because of this, the archive is now a fantastic repository of artists whose practices, at the time, were either overlooked institutionally, or did not neatly fit into this museum model.
And so it’s in the archive that we find the histories of many female artists, and moreover we find the histories - and, in fact, entire bodies of work - of female artists who were working performatively. So notably, there’s Katthy Cavaliere archive, but also Pat Larter. So just to quickly describe who Pat was - and I think we have some photos, and if they can come up that’s great.
But Pat was basically a performance artist, and many other different things, and she is largely known, historically, as the muse and model of her husband, Richard Larter, but really what the exhibition that’s coming up at the gallery - so shameless self promotion, it opens in a couple of weeks - puts forward is that even during these earlier periods, when she was modelling for Richard, she was performing. And her performance became a film making practice, it became a mail art practice, it folded into her painting, and I guess what we’ve really tried to do in this presentation is show that all these artistic overlaps that made who Pat was, and what made her art, and the social contradictions, as well, because she was practising in 1970s Australia, and in many ways, she was a woman of that time and very much lived that society, and in many ways she resisted it. So she used her body and its nakedness to make political statements around female representation, and kind of created this home-spun eroticism to really challenge how the body - and the female body - had been, and was, represented, and sexuality was represented, in mainstream media.
I could talk about Pat for way too long, but I guess the point that I want to make is that if we didn’t have our archive, the exhibition would be two paintings - so our art collection only has two paintings by Pat - and instead, we’ve been able to do this research and uncover close to 100 performances over a decade. This really incredible collection of mail art, which again, is a very performative action, and also a really important film called ‘Men’, which is this really standout early piece of feminist film making.
So I guess, yeah, we’ve been able to curate this exhibition that hasn’t had to be centred upon heroic, singular objects, and instead has been able to acknowledge this kind of network of mediums and disciplines and collaborations and correspondences, because Pat’s practice was iterative and it was collaborative and it was messy; again, it was often contradictory. And we’ve been able to, in some way, preserve and express that because of the way that this material has been collected through the archive.
And we should say, as well, that it’s the first collection exhibition to be pulled from the archive, which kind of signals this shift in thinking, institutionally. And in some ways, as Shelley and Tania were talking about, the line between archive and artwork is clear, but sometimes it’s not, and I guess there has been a traditional kind of relationship between the art collection and the archive collection, where one is seen always to be ancillary to the other. And I guess what we’re trying to work towards is more of a holistic concept of our collection, and consider the two with an equivalence.
And there’s actually examples of collections that are doing this already; so M+ do this, and it very much allows them to take a much more interdisciplinary approach, I think, to their programming. And then Hamburger Bahnhof, as well, is another really interesting example, which holds the Joseph Beuys media archive, but it’s also just his body of work. So it’s, I guess, this idea that the work and the archive sit along with each other, and so that context is always preserved and kept close to the work, and the two don’t become divorced because of institutional categorisations and hierarchies.
But one thing I will touch on, because maybe we can open it up to the group, as well, is this idea of re-staging and re-performing and bringing back a work. I guess a thing to say with the Part Larter archive is that it’s an archive that does have limitations, and first and foremost because it was collected after the fact. So her archive was donated to the gallery by her husband after Pat died, and Pat’s voice is actually really limited in the archive, and aside from her diary entries there are no real direct descriptions or instructions of her work. There’s plenty of photographic and film documentation, and there’s descriptions by her husband, Richard Larter, but with both Pat and now Richard passed, and without this kind of grand operation and foresight of a Merce Cunningham-like estate, our ability to get a fuller understanding of her performances is reliant on second-hand information, it requires even more further research, and it’s something we’re definitely interested in, because we do want to explore the possibility of re-staging her work.
And I guess that’s this whole question that’s been coming up, at what point does re-staging become something that can be done? Under what conditions is interpretative authority transferred from the artist to the institution? And I guess in the context of Pat, can this be decided without the artist? And is that ever okay?
But to circle back, really, about why I’m interested in being a part of these discussions, and why the gallery is really interested, is that we do see the potential, I guess, for the archive in making space for performance histories - and within that, particular dance histories - and for holding these practices within the institution. And I guess it’s really figuring out how best we can do that, and how we can work with artists to do that while they are living and still making work, and to formulate documentation and other records that allow their works to live on as they intend, and to avoid artists having to perhaps reconfigure their work to fit in traditional collection models, or to continue this kind of pattern of them being overlooked for collections.
So yes, I guess for us it’s about is there potential to switch from the archive, from this sense of a repository of historic art material, to becoming something that is living and collaborative between artist and institution?
Your point about the artist’s involvement over time is very pertinent at this time, as we see other institutions around the world, and artists, and choreographers, thinking about this as collection becomes more commonplace. You mentioned Cunningham, of course, who was very clear about the path forward with the Cunningham Trust after his death. And we see it also in Shelley and Tania’s conservation, trying to anticipate the future when the artist’s body is not present. It brings up questions for artists, as much as it does for institutions.
It brings me to some of the questions that are coming through. Victoria, it brings me to a question for you about whether you can imagine having Day of Invigilation ever collected or acquired by a museum or gallery.
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that while we’ve been talking. And Lisa, I just think also what you’re saying about the context, it’s just so important. I’m really kind of quite painfully aware of the limitations of time here, to properly represent all the voices and all the people that contribute to even just this tiny part of what I’ve shown tonight. Like Margot Nash, all the elders, my family, communities - there’s so many relationships, and even other artists, that are embedded in the collaborative ecologies that are shared. I feel like there is that frustration about how to - it takes time, also, to be able to speak those names. So yeah, just to resonate very strongly with that context and the ecologies around the works.
In terms of Day of Invigilation, I certainly do feel like the work has this invigilator quality, so it’s like the work is a container for if not myself, but anyone else, to kind of enter into that work who are in this relationship between guardianship or custodianship or protector roles. I feel like there’s a resonance there for that work to be embodied by others who are still carrying those responsibilities.
It’s not the same to have it documented through film, I guess, from that lived experience, because it’s so much about that engagement with the living. So it does bring up questions, then, around how would a work like that be acquired?
I listened to Tim Etchells speaking with Catherine Wood recently - I think it was a video that you shared, Shelley - and he talks about the different layers of information that he would be comfortable sharing with the institution acquiring his work; the first being a simple score, the kind of primary material of the work. The second layer being more detailed instructions from him to the future performer, and the third layer being footage of him performing the work, which the future performer might watch to understand. But he was very aware of the question; how do you transmit the work to that future performer without locking it down and being too prescriptive? Allowing for those specifics of the body, whoever the future performer may be, to bring their own memory, cultural specificity to it, but still have it be true to the artist’s vision.
Just coming back to the audience questions, there’s one about the archive in the digital era. Tania, you might comment because you, of course, are looking after a lot of artists’ material and transmitting them or sharing them collections and museums, or having them acquired. I wondered if you have the same anxieties that Charlotte shares here about the way that we look after those materials in the digital era.
I have many anxieties. I have many anxieties because, from my experience, generally speaking it’s really hard to generalise with artists and art. But I feel that when artists are alive and involved in the production of their work, thinking about what will happen to the work after they are no longer with us, is not something - maybe it’s something that is thought about, but it’s not necessarily something that is organised. And so when that time when an artist’s life comes to an end it can be very complicated.
I’ve worked - particularly in Europe - with numerous estates, and they took different forms; in some cases it was the family of the artist who held the archive, in other cases the artist had taken to set up and establish a foundation before they passed away. Sometimes that responsibility is passed to a representative gallery, particularly if the gallery has had a very longstanding relationship with the artist, but what I definitely know is that a lot relies on conversation and dialogue, and that is not necessarily recorded. So it’s not even a concern that’s specifically associated with a digital archive, it’s about how comprehensive an artist’s archive is, in general.
But I do think that we’re getting better at it, and certainly the fact that it’s really easy to sit and record a conversation on a phone in video, it’s probably something that we should all be doing all of the time, every time we’re presenting new work by an artist, is just really asking 10 questions around how could we show this elsewhere?
I was just going to say one thing, and it’s brought me back to something that Lisa was saying, and it’s related to that, but also what Victoria was talking about; it’s about the transmission of information, and whether that’s through time, I guess. So culturally held information and how that resides through your body, and then how it might reside in somebody else’s too, and this kind of idea of there not necessarily being an authoritative voice there, but how those things can function in a dynamic way, I guess.
That’s a really interesting point when you’re talking about visual arts institutions, because they are so used to the artist’s voice and privileging the authorial artist voice. And so it’s a big shift to then understand knowledge and cultural value being a shared practice.
And choreographic practice, too, because it generally happens often between people, but between a lot of other things, as well, I think. It’s something about the transmission of information, I think, which is really - it’s [audio cut].
Oh, you’ve just lost your sound, Shelley.
Oh, sorry. Have you got me? It’s come up a number of different ways, and I think it’s really important, but we don’t probably have time to talk about it too much right now.
And I think it’s also okay that things - actually some things can’t be collected. Actually they are there to also resist that process of collection, and that’s okay. They are ephemeral and they are existing in the moment, and that they make a statement and then they - to objectify them is to perpetuate the same violences that some certain works are trying to kind of make comment on, as well.
The role of collective memory, as well, outside of any institution or any cultural body, a collective memory that exists over time is important to acknowledge as a force that has nothing to do with museums or collections, but carries culture and carries body practices like choreography.
We’ve run over time, we’ve gone way over. As expected, we’ve just brushed the surface, and each of these four people here have incredible minds and knowledge, and it would be great to keep unpacking them. Thank you all for your generous discussion, revealing all of these layers and how much we each have to learn in institutions and outside of institutions. Thank you also to Tyson and Chelsea, and also to the MUMA team for keeping us live.
I would encourage everyone to join us next Tuesday for the third and final session in this discussion series, which will bring together Louise Lawson of Tate London, Robert Lazarus from the Grimwade Centre in Melbourne and Stephen Gilchrist from the University of New South Wales.
So thank you again Shelley, Tania, Lisa and Victoria, and to all of those people who joined us in the audience tonight. Goodnight.