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Form x Content – To Be Many Things at Once

Wednesday 16 March 2022, 1pm

Melissa Ratliff:

Hello everybody. I'm Melissa Ratliff and I'm Zooming from Gadigal and Wangal Country to host presentations today by Archie Barry and Amrita Hepi, followed by a conversation as part of the Form x Content talk series, which is presented by Monash Art, Design and Architecture and programmed by Monash University Museum of Art | MUMA, where I work as Curator – Research. Monash in Melbourne is situated on the lands of the Boonwurrung, Bunurong and Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation. And we acknowledge First Nation's connection to material and creative practice on these lands for more than 60,000 years.

This semester, the Form x Content theme is 'On Connection'. Amrita and Archie, who come from the worlds of contemporary dance and visual arts, respectively will be speaking about their different practices and sharing some images and videos. And then we'll let our thoughts go for a walk together for around 15 to 20 minutes. For access reasons, I'll give you a brief visual description of myself, and after I hand over to Archie and then Amrita, they'll do the same. I'm a white, cis woman in my early forties, with dark brown hair, which is shot through with a bit of grey. You probably can't quite make that out on the screen. I'm wearing a black and white, abstract-patterned t-shirt, and behind me is not much, just a white wall and the edge of my brown couch.

Archie, would you like to introduce yourself, maybe say where you are and take the Zoom stage?

Archie Barry:

Yeah, thank you. My name's Archie. I'm a white person. I'm a trans person. I'm Zooming from Boonwurrung, Wurundjeri, and Bunurong land. I acknowledged that sovereignty was never ceded. I've got curly hair on the back of my head and no hair on the shaved front of my head, and I'm wearing a crinkly purple t-shirt today. And my Zoom background at the moment is a still image of a 3D model of a cross section of my tongue, which has been taken from the most recent artwork that I've made, which I'll show an excerpt of in a minute. And I'll just share my screen.

So I don't have too many words, but I did want to share some words in this presentation, just as an acknowledgement of some of the other thinkers and artists are who have inspired me and influenced the way that I work and to connect with a sense of the lineage of thinkers. And I'm going to jump into one of the prompts that Mel you sent Amrita and I in an email, which was around how our individual practices present provocation to this idea of a fixed self or fixed identity and individualism as a mainstream cultural form.

So I put this quote here from Johanna Hedva, who's a Korean-American artist, musician, writer, and I'll just read it out. They say, "I cannot think of a form of embodiment that is not somehow disordered. The enforcing of self-possession has happened probably because of the self's radical disorder." And I just think that's a lovely opener to speak to my work. I don't experience being a person or personhood as a linear or a static experience, and I suspect that probably most of us don't live and feel in those ways.

So when I'm working, I'm often thinking about this history of Western rationalism, the fields of science and diagnostics tools, which I consider to be part of my cultural inheritance and which I consider to be worth looking into and thinking about. I've got another quote here from the Vietnamese filmmaker and scholar, Trinh T. Minh-Ha. "An image is powerful not necessarily because of anything specific it offers to the viewer, but because of everything it apparently also takes away from the viewer."

I'll just let this image sit here while I speak. So across my practice, what I'm interested in doing as I keep on working is I'm realising I'm creating a genealogy of these personas which are maybe subhuman or superhuman or nonhuman, or these hybrid forms, which are fundamentally aspects of my own identity. So I have a self-portraiture practice, but the interest is always in presenting a self which is– That maybe undermines the classical expectation of "seeing is believing".

Yeah. So this image is a still from my most recent work called "Scaffolding (Preface)". It's a coronal cross-section of my head which I designed and then the model was produced in collaboration with another local artist, Savannah Fleming. And now I will show a brief excerpt from that video work. And so that you can understand some of what was going into my thinking in making this work. So I'll just show you the opening subtitle sequence. And I'll just briefly show another scene of the work so you can get a feel for the visuals. So I'll come back over here.

So coming back to this still image, I'll just let the work speak for itself and not describe it too much, but I'll just say briefly my interest in this image is the narrator of that work is in the way that– with this way of depicting a human form, it is a divergence from a more common Western medicine presentation of bodies as separated out discrete systems, like the musculoskeletal system, the respiratory system, the nervous system, the reproductive system and so on. By comparison, this image is like an image of the body as it is like these interwoven interknitted systems that form life together. And it's also a redaction of the optics of having a face, which has become a linchpin for understanding people and humans.

So this image for me is a way to evade that and all of the things that come along with having a face most perhaps, obviously to me, is an increase in the use of nodal points on faces for the purposes of surveillance and tracking. So that was some of my thinking in making this work. I won't speak for too much longer because I think that I don't have heaps of time, but I will now just go backwards in time to a work that was made in 2017, which is a performance work that was devised in 2017 and then has been re-staged a number of times in different places. And the artwork is called "Hypnic". So I'll play an excerpt of this documentation of it, which was performance-for-camera for the purpose of documentation.

Archie Barry:


Archie Barry:

So in this work, I am singing a duet with a prosthetic cast of my nose and my mouth adhered to my hand. So yeah, here's some documentation of the work as it was performed at ACCA in 2018. And here's another photo from the same rendition of the work, it's a close-up shot, singing to a little baby in a bundle. So I guess I'm showing this performance work as an example of maybe in my practice a more formative way that I was thinking about these experiences of a fractured sense of selfhood or a sense of becoming and being with a self in a state of becoming, which I think is, yeah, intimately tied to trans experience.

So this was the second prompt that Mel gave us to think on which is, what is the social function of performance? And I wanted to read this quote from feminist theorist, Patricia Clough which is, "Affect is not to be misunderstood as is 'open-endedly social', that is 'social in a manner prior to the separating out of individuals'." So think about the medium that I work in is affect, and I think about affect is the emotional atmosphere that is surrounding us that performance work allows us to feel into in a more direct way.

And then maybe I'll just finish on this which is a small piece of writing. I often have many notes very messily collated everywhere in my life in diaries and on random pieces of paper. And one of the places where I put notes is in the stickies application on my desktop. So this is a small piece of writing written at some point last year, 2021. And I'll read it.

I am a Frisbee and I float and I have a hidden fun side. Lime green trees tickle the air. Move the wind through my body (burping, farting, yawning). Make a wish when you give head. The power, the influence, the traction, the tubing. The "end of days" feeling, what kind of days exactly? The nine to five, the noble workday, chasing the impossibility of ownership to the damaging effect to dispossession. Nothing here was created without deceit. West is the deceitful direction. These affects are impersonal and deeply social, how to collectively own a feeling?

And I thought to finish on that because maybe that's a question that underpins the drive that I feel when I'm making performance work as how can we collectively feel something together? So I'm going to finish up there. I hope that wasn't too much over time and hand over to Amrita.

Amrita Hepi:

Thank you very much, Archie. I am speaking to you today from the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. And I'm speaking to you through multiple cables and the deep sea of the internet that runs through many countries, states, territories and imaginings of borders. So my name is Amrita Hepi and I'm an artist and my work deals... An artist and a dancer.

And to summarise myself today, my work deals with popular mythology and this idea of the body as an archive, and I'll give a more specific definition of that soon. My work uses a combination of broken samples, strange loops, and most recently, AI, to think about how various influences, cultural, economic, psychological bear down on a person, my definition of choreography is the organisation of space and time. Of recent, I've been more and more interested in this idea of how computers see, but more how they change the way that we see ourselves.

And I think that this has been a lingering fascination that took hold as early as interactions with video clips in the early 2000s, and that served for a lot of initial research at the moment. I like to think about works like mnemonics. Mnemonics being the study and development and assistance for improving, or maybe not improving, but for inscribing a memory and that whether it's a video or a performance, the act of doing it much like games or carving inscribes a new memory or pathway for doing and being.

When I talk about the body as a point of archive within my practice, I think this is one of the things that I mean, I think of it as a deposit. I think that there's a lot of subliminal muck to sift through in order to make. And usually there is movement within that or the witnessing of movement from others. It's not always that the deposits are clear and go from as this conversation talks about from archive to form and content, but rather I would say something usually prompts me in order to have a reaction.

And then there is the figuring out of how to contextualise this within a broader sphere. I wish I could say it was unboundedness, but it is not. I sometimes think of Frantz Fanon's question of, "What do you do with an unconscious that hates you?" As getting to the more interesting material, while it is not always a hateful experience requires quite a bit of sifting.

I'm going to share my screen now. At the moment, you're seeing a part of a glossary of terms that I wrote, and I thought this might be a good way to also introduce myself. This was for un Projects in 2020. And I think a lot of the time, when we think about dance, we think about it as this unbound, very self-expressive form. And maybe we're also past that imaginary point that we think about art as this total expression. But I guess I wanted to give some definitions for myself that I'd written for myself.

And so an anti/ante dancer is a dancer who is preoccupied, not with the expressive notion of dance, but with the possibilities, communities, kinships and images that emerge from the pursuit of pleasure and rigour through dancing. Another thing that I've discussed a lot within my practice is the dilemma of authenticity. And so I thought to give this glossary of terms a different definition of authenticity, which is a dilemma to be inspected in dance as much as in handbags. The anti-dancer moves towards the dilemma of authenticity rather than the possibility of it.

I'm now going to talk to my work. I think that the first work that Mel had asked me to speak about within this series, well, the first one work that came up was something called "Soothsayer Serenades". And "Soothsayer Serenades" doesn't have as much of a visual face because it was a provocation. I made "Soothsayer Serenades" in 2020-21, and it's still currently touring with the International Curators Initiative or Foundation, sorry.

Currently, it's in Turkey and it's just been in Calgary and will be in Taiwan soon and Las Vegas, which is interesting to think about because it was very site specific. And basically during the pandemic, I was asked to teach a lot of online dance classes and deliver a lot of online content. It's actually funny that I'm doing this now because I resisted. In fact, I flat out refused. My thinking behind this was how dare we flatten things into the immediate market-driven demand to deliver you something that I find incredibly unsatisfying — online dance classes.

And yeah, I couldn't do it. Dance, in some ways, is already an impaired apparatus in terms of how we are witnessing it. Why would I make it flattened once again? And so from that reactivity came "Soothsayer Serenades" and "Soothsayer Serenades" was a playlist that was released at 4:00 PM every week. And it had a provocation and it was to listen together and it was to not have any online presence.

There was no Zoom, no Instagram live, no recording of a work for an institution. You just left the trace of where you wished in the real world. And Soothsayer is a person who can predict the future by magical, intuitive, or even rational means. And this was a provocation for moving togetherness. And I think that's something that I've been interested in is the idea of participation and that participation is always happening, whether we think we're participating or not. And I've been really interested in this in terms of using it as a tool to make work or how to get people to participate in the works and considering the dynamics of that.

The next work I'm going to talk about is "Rinse". And so I'll show you an image from "Rinse". And so this is a work that was originally made in the theatre as part of the Keir Choreographic Award and "Rinse" was about beginnings, and I'm going to get my notes up here. So "Rinse" asks what is it about the beginning that remains intoxicating? The persistent lust for the initial thrill of a romance, scene, cannon, theory, relationship, meal, country, the opening lines. So this work is for the romance of beginnings and what happens when the inertia takes over. I felt like in "Rinse" I was deliberating the following material: will I always be held to the last standard and then asked to be greater than that?

"Rinse" also questioned whether being on the brink of extinction or endings has intensified the seduction of the past. The fraught idolisation of the singular narrative under the group of hegemony. And it did that through creating entropic origin myth on stage. "Rinse" traveled from end to end positioning personal narratives in relation to dance, art, cannons, void, desires, popular culture, colonial history, and taking the idea that power mutates from beginning to beginning. And this work was a solo and I worked with Mish Grigor on the script as well as Daniel Jenatsch with sound.

But I feel like in the past few years there's been a separation between this idea of what's made in terms of visual arts and what's made in terms of contemporary dance, and then it accumulates within the theatre. And a question that I've been asked a lot is how do you go for one to the other when I feel they are so intrinsically linked in terms of my understanding of how I'm making them?

Mel also was asking us to talk a bit about, I guess, identity and the end of identity, and also this idea of what the social function of spaces or performance dictates. I think that I'm always aware of the space that I'm going into. For example, I knew that this was going to be in a theatre. A theatre has a social function of you walk in, you sit down, and you watch, which is different to the passivity that is sometimes allowed within a gallery or even the interaction.

In "Rinse", I'm constantly asking this question about beginnings and constantly telling the audience about beginnings. In the beginning, there is nothingness, not to be confused with emptiness. In the beginning, it'll go through different personal narratives and it's almost as if these things from the repetition of this line in the beginning builds and builds and builds and builds and has an image and an architecture one on top of the other.

I like to think about this idea that language can be used in performance to describe not only a mise-en-scène, but to tell you also what's not there, to describe an absence as well. The next work I'm going to talk about is a work that again was made within the pandemic that's something that I've been thinking of for a while. It's called "The Kiss". It was made in 2020, and I'll show you an excerpt of it first and then we'll talk to it.

I often imagine myself in the fantasy of revenge. Not the hero, but cutting through things with my body with ease. This may be as tragic as it is motivating. How to take back pride, love, Country. Having freedom to act in the moment with purpose and evil intentions. It can seem the really hard things make people suffer less than the small things. Maybe because for the hard and big things, there's somewhat an expectation or method. But the small things, what someone says to you, the prolonged grief, if that's small, happens in solitary.

I do hate the idea of trying to scale suffering. With this in mind, I've been wondering, how do you take revenge on a virus? Would you show me how to dance good, kiss well? An arts administrator once told me that rhetorical questions made your artistic statements sound lacking. I have many. Is there ever really enough time to grieve? What is it that you really want? Where'd you go? Did you know that humans made drones by copying birds? And I learned how to kiss by copying mouths in motion.

"The Kiss" for me was part of this idea of revenge. How do you take revenge on a virus? But more importantly, is the notion of revenge even actually possible? And I think it discusses this idea that comes up a lot for me in my thinking that a lot of the times, I think, when identity is put on the line, it's discussed as if it's this dual thing. You are one and the other. When really both ends of this binary are too black and white. And actually what forms what I think is a concentrated aperture of focus is usually a form of hybridity. And just to end, I'd like to refer back to the glossary of movement from un Projects, which is that hybridity, as an adjective, is a cornerstone of possibility. And I will wrap up there. And yeah, I look forward to talking to Archie and Melissa.

Melissa Ratliff:

Thank you both for those really interesting, beautiful presentations. I love that you ended on hybridity and possibility, Amrita. I think that really vibed in some of what Archie you were saying to about multiplicity of self and some of the experiments you've been doing around self-portraiture I think properly shows up very clearly in what you showed us with "Hypnic" performance works that began in 2017 and went onwards.

Amrita, hybridity also might, I guess, play out in your notion of the body as an archive as well, which I've found really one of the most fascinating things about dance and this idea against the neutral body, that we're all really carriers of so many influences, which was really present in how you spoke, Archie, and shared with us some of those quotes from influences.

And I think you really divulged or shared that that is a little bit about how you think of the self, as well as made up of these different influences on that thought conceptual level, as well as maybe the micro. If we think about how the human body is less than 50% human cells, we start to really get into this freaky territory that some of us love and maybe some of us hate and particularly thrown up, I guess, by the virus, which is another interesting end there to talk about.

So there's not really a question in that, but I guess provocations around hybridity is somehow become like what I see as the coalescing point of what you've both said today. So yeah. Thank you for that observation as well. Hybridity, has that been something that you've also looked at a lot, Amrita, with the current work, "Rinse", or the recent work? I was lucky enough to see it in Sydney for the Keir Choreographic Award, that first showing I think, one of the showings and I found it really fascinating, bit tongue-in-cheek as well about what is the self and how do we always have to have these narratives?

Amrita Hepi:

I think similarly to Archie, this idea of questioning where that self would start and tying in all of the influences and it came from a frustration of this idea of looking at anthem and other works like, how I felt a bit wrapped in knots about how it was that I could explain anything through the body.

And so I thought to complicate it all out and to be like, "This is the beginning, and this is the beginning, and this is the beginning." And obviously as soon as I accumulate it on stage, it was almost like just from saying the words of what I think was there and letting you into this idea of these personal narratives because some of them were not my own. I was talking about the origin story of the earth, maybe actually that is my own origin story.

Some of them I'd stolen from other places, but was telling them as if they were on my own and that idea of the authentication of the earth is how we choose to make meaning then our own. Yeah. And I think "Rinse" is now being developed into a longer work within the theatre. And sometimes I feel like almost this idea of hybridity wraps it into a neat bow maybe too much and it puts it at the end point rather than showing all the bits and pieces that a hybrid truly has. What do you think, Archie?

Archie Barry:

Yeah. I feel like the word hybrid is one of these– maybe is becoming or is already one of these words we use in art, like the way that people use the phrase, "the body". Who is "the body"? Do I live in "the body"? Body is the body, which is, well, we all know it's just the dominant body. It's the healthy body or "healthy body." But anyway, I feel like hybridity is maybe becoming one of these words, which is standing in for something in a way where it's, well, that word can't actually hold the full measure of what it means to be composite or to be complicated or to be many things at once.

That's what I was thinking when you were saying that just then.

Amrita Hepi:

Yeah, yeah, totally. And I mean, I think about this with the semantics of words changing in our relation to them and it's good to talk about this. Even for me, I think about the changing idea of yes, the body, because then I hear architects talk about the choreography of the body when they're creating works or even in dance where it's just give me a neutral body. And then the other word I find complicated is community and I guess it's always changing. But yeah, what is the community that you are speaking for?

And even in the pursuit of that question of asking, who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Which is in my hysterical nature and neurotic nature to do so, in looking for the definition of it, I think it changes because it's people who have different interests and you don't want to assume... It assumes too much of who people are. Yeah. Yeah.

Archie Barry:

I think in my mind, it assumes a sameness or I think about... And I feel like maybe this is some tie into your work and your thinking lately about AI and these modalities through which are facets of personhood are expressed or exchanged in these ways that are really different to how I feel right now with the weight of my body and the temperature of my skin and everything. But yeah, this word community I think is suggesting, well, you have a community of people who think the same or act the same.

And I feel like that's really exemplar of the way that we've opted into this algorithmic way of understanding each other as having something in common and that being the most important thing. I was thinking about in the last two years the really trying and difficult circumstances have produced new relationships with people who are not like me. And that's how I grow and that every... It comes back to what I was saying at the start of my little presentation, is like a person isn't one thing across time.

I think that's the thing the way that I experience that narrative is because I'm trans, people might look at me and see an accelerated form of change that they can go like, "Oh, trans people or people who are gender diverse, stand in for self-determination or something, or the will to change," or something like that. But everybody transitions from child into maturities of different kinds. And I think we actually desperately need to be with people who are not like us actually.

Amrita Hepi:

Yeah, totally. I was thinking about– I was talking to somebody who was a doula the other day and this idea of having somebody to be around in the transitory states of becoming like being around when birth is happening, but also being around when death is happening and also then being around in the transitioning of peoples. Yeah. Yeah. And I love this idea that you're talking about it in terms of an accelerated state.

I sometimes think about this idea around First Nations people and especially in the last, I don't know, five years, I have been thinking about this idea of embodied knowledge and knowing things that other people don't and who gets to have the knowledge and this accelerated almost responsibility that I find with a lot of young First Nations people that they bear the weight of this and that we're always, that when it's allowed to be shared and when it's not.

And I think that it poses this problem of– between these binaries of black excellence and then also pity or damnation, incarceration. And if you're able to talk about it, then... And there is no space to the intermediary mediocrity that inevitably is a part of... I'm like, "What about black mediocrity?"

I'll probably get shot for saying this. Thinking a lot about this resistance within art making or the question of, what we might want when we're not under surveillance? This exploration cannot be about policing people or attempting to satisfy their desires. It reminded me of an art teacher saying, "If you're making work that your mother will like, the ultimate other, then you're in trouble."

Because even if you're trying to make work that please others, you'd be presuming what they like. And the presumption comes with its own set of ethical horns of going, "I'm going to make a work that people will like because they understand that I am X, Y, or Z." And yeah, I would like to resist or reject the pressure to write for this idea of the betterment of a society because I don't believe that art is media and it's not necessarily fodder, it's like a true vulnerability. And it's not to make neat generalisations about culture when you're dealing with it unfurling as it were all the time. And so I'd like it to be in an amoral universe potentially. Yeah. Yeah.

Melissa Ratliff:

There's so much in that. Do you think about an audience when you're making?

Amrita Hepi:

Yes, of course. I mean, I'm not totally inconsiderate. I'm super considerate. I think about how I'd like them to participate, I think about where I'd like them to sit and if I'd like them to sing and how they'll be in relation to me and what that closeness and intimacy is and completely think about it. But I also think about maybe it's what Archie was talking about in terms of affect. In terms of the affect that is created between me and the audience. And I mean, maybe it's deluded of me to think that I could try to control it. Maybe the better word is influence the affect that permeates within the room. But yes, definitely I think about the audience.

Melissa Ratliff:

How to collectively own a feeling you said, Archie, which I think is a bit about where that was leading as well.

Archie Barry:

Yeah. And I think for me, that comes into thinking about education and the way that as we are raised in this part of the world, we're taught that we are supposed to try and say what we think, but we're not really taught how to try and emote or to say what we feel, let alone to act how we feel.

And perhaps artwork is one of these last places in culture where there is permission granted to attempt acting how we feel and to attempt witnessing that, which I think I have tingles right now because maybe because it's been a while since I've been able to access that or be in that with other people or see other people in that state of performance, which I think is really generous, but also a deep responsibility.

And with that word, I mean to have the capacity to respond. The ability to respond in time with other people there. So anyway, I'm diverging from what you raised about how to collectively own a feeling.

Amrita Hepi:

Yeah. I love that, that this idea of how we're taught to describe how we feel versus try to channel it in any other way. I remember, and I usually avoid making these anecdotes, but as a child, I was like, "If I can just use my body, I will not have to talk." And the only time that I came into this idea of talking was after get becoming incredibly ill and they were like, "If you don't describe what's happening right now, you're going to die."

And at 11, and I was like, "Okay." And then after of that, I was like... Everyone needs to know what I'm thinking as well as this communication with the body. I now think about this experience and I'm like, "How could I think that? And also, was it successful as a young person?"

Archie Barry:

Do you mean successful...? What do you mean by that?

Amrita Hepi:

In terms of communicating with my body, in terms of thinking about learning, how to do that with the mechanisms of dance and also the mechanisms of sport and the physicality of communicating that way because I just didn't want to have to... I thought I saw that language really complicated things.

Melissa Ratliff:

Language is complicated. Archie, you've been singing more and more and well, I guess that's always been there. But I think with both of you, it's always really interesting about what's not said and that how you both draw on other senses. It's not necessarily the primacy of a visual or explaining and describing. It's also creating these atmospheres of feeling and connection in the process. I'm thinking, Amrita, of those choreographed dances that you made in collaboration with different people, you invite their own dances. Yeah. That was very beautiful.

Amrita Hepi:

Yeah. But that was a great exercise in opacity that you could only understand something when you can understand beyond the point of difference. So the anecdote for that is that I would say it would be in Germany giving this talk and I'd be like, "Talk to me about Hanover." And they'd be like, "Hanover's Hanover. What do I have to say?" And I'm like, "Have you lived anywhere else?" And they're like, "I've lived in Berlin." And then I'm like, "Okay, tell me about Hanover as compared to Berlin." They're like, "Oh, well. Okay, it's like this. People in Berlin, they're not..." And it was only in the point of difference that there became the ability to really clearly see. It's on the boundary point of not being something you could begin to describe what it was.

And I was like, "Oh, it's such a clear articulation of something that I thought that I understood." And that I understood better by sitting with hundreds of people and asking them these questions of definition and in order to put it into a dance and the mundanity of it as well. The mundanity of these dances where I want people to know about the football team and so it's like this. I need people to see that the theatre and what I did in the theatre actually was part of the history of these things. And yeah, I liked that exercise.

Melissa Ratliff:

I just wanted to ask if there's any other reflections you wanted to close this talk with as we hit the time we discussed we would end on?

Amrita Hepi:

I'd like to hang out with Archie not online.

Archie Barry:


Amrita Hepi:

That's my reflection.

Archie Barry:

Yeah, ditto. That's great.

Melissa Ratliff:

I think we've really communicated the theme of this semester of Form x Content – "On Connection". And I want to thank you both for your really interesting, insightful presentations and this conversation that I wish could be a bit longer. Thank you very much, enjoy the rest of your days and thank you to all the people watching and listening for their time as well.