I met Katherine in 2014 on Facebook and looked up all her work online. Later, I was over at my friend’s house where Katherine was recording Human Pesticide, a noise project with Brennan Olver. She was shouting in an American accent ‘Fuck the world. Set it on fire. Fuck the state and the system. Symphony of destruction. Just like yo, destroy.’ Later, I got to know her better, meeting once a month for our reading group. Katherine would ask questions and make statements that would cut through the posturing of knowledge to feeling and knowing.
Katherine Botten is a prolific interdisciplinary artist. She has participated in exhibitions at Interstate Projects, New York; Space Space, Tokyo; Audio foundation, Auckland; and Slopes, Melbourne. Her writings have been published in un Magazine, How To Sleep Faster (an Arcadia Missa publication) and her novella POSITIVE TRAUMA was published as part of 89+, Poetry will be made by all!, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets. Solo shows include Places for roses / weeds to grow / die, Konstanet, Estonia, and most recently This Beautiful Life, TCB, Melbourne. Katherine is represented by Suicidal Oil Piglet, Melbourne.
For Places for roses / weeds to grow / die, Katherine had the floor covered in dirt, cigarette butts, with roses strewn on top. The walls were painted light pink and featured black velvet curtains hung with twigs, making an entry or exit to nowhere. On the walls were fresh roses, drawings and photos. The installation was featured online accompanied by a Google doc called ‘Dream Squat’ that Katherine wrote in for the duration of the exhibition, and which could be written in by anyone logged in with an animal avatar. While the installation was constrained materially, the writing could do anything and be anywhere. Together they mediated between the possibility of living outside the patriarchal, capitalist order and the reality of our dependency on these structures to actually live: ‘maybe its time i [sic] leave the dream squat/ maybe i [sic] should rent my own place’.
This Beautiful Life (TCB, 15 June 2016 – 2 July 2016), also an installation, marked a new stage in development of this central problem. On the floor there was no dirt, cigarettes, or razors, only a bed, magazines, a green juice. When I got home after the opening I wrote: ‘There is no separation between viewer and artwork. Or is it because I relate so much to this exhibition and the artworks here? I can’t think of anything to say, but … it is me?’ In the show notes Aurelia Guo and Calum Lockey write: ‘she puts work into giving things meaning and getting this meaning across, she doesnt [sic] build this … screen or filter…’.1 It wasn’t me, it was her, Katherine, but maybe because there was no filter I could so intensely relate to it. I didn’t have a traditional experience of Stendhal Syndrome — vertigo from encountering the sublime — or Jennifer Beals’ feminised interpretation in The L word — her eyes filling with tears as she looks at a photograph of a naked woman. My eyes were maybe brighter, but the feeling was more of a ‘comfort gestalt’: there was nothing that didn’t make sense. Was this a safe space?
After I saw the show I wanted to ask Katherine about her practice, so I set up this interview. Katherine chose George Jones Café in Pascoe Vale for our location as it is the ‘only café in Moreland that sells seasonal green superfood breakfast bowls’. We both ordered the green bowl with individual pots of chamomile tea and sat down to have a chat.
Coffees and Café Culture appear a lot on your Instagram. What are cafés to you?
Cafés are escapism for me and they’re like medicine, they’re soothing, it’s like buying into a lifestyle that I otherwise cannot afford in any other shape or form. So, like, buying a flat white, but it has to be a certain type of flat white, made with certain kinds of organic milk. It can’t be pura milk and it has to have latte art on it. Purchasing that makes me feel safe and secure for the duration of the coffee. And that’s a feeling I can’t find anywhere else because I still live off Centrelink and still live in a share house which is not a bad share house, but that’s always precarious. I rely on the government and don’t have access to a safe lifestyle, it feels. Even though I do and I’m really privileged, and all those things, to me, it feels like one of the only gateways I have. Because I can’t work full time because of being a disabled person … the idea of wealth and having a stable income is so far away. Being able to afford a four-dollar coffee is as close as I can get. And it’s really soothing. And I just got to a point in my practice and my life, at the start of this year, where I stopped caring about the type of art that I was making. Like, you know, making art about how much pain I’m in and my experience of the world, and I just wanted to feel nice! And not in pain! And I just got obsessed with posting the four-dollar flat white.
Do you think that that kind of artistic practice — where it’s often women who talk about their pain — do you think that’s an unsustainable practice?
Um, yes and no. It was sustainable for me, because that was all I could think about for a long time, so making work about it wasn’t hard. So, it would have been unsustainable to make work about anything else at that time but it’s not sustainable for me now, because it became too poisonous. Or… it’s really hard to know because what I’m doing now is poisonous, you know.
You know, the only time you feel safe and calm is when you’re at a café is really fucked up and not sustainable. And it relies on money. Even though it’s only a small amount of money. It relies upon having an expendable income. Which I do get from having a part-time job, complemented by Centrelink. But I don’t know, it depends on what your version of self-care is… At the time when I was making that kind of art, it was self-care for me, and so it was sustainable. But then it stopped being self-care and so it stopped being sustainable. And now this is what is my self-care. But I don’t think this is sustainable either. I have to find something closer to an inner locus of control instead of an external thing to make me feel calm.
As well as cafés, your work often features interiors, gardens, and other key themes of lifestyle blogs. What do you think is the distinction or relation between an artist and a lifestyle blogger?
I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it before in a way where I would have a succinct answer, but I guess on the spot what comes to mind is a level of self-awareness. So, there’s this girl I went to school with who’s a lifestyle blogger and to me she isn’t an artist because she would never consider what she is doing as art, because she’s a businesswoman. I don’t know if she would consider herself a businesswoman but that’s what I would label her as. I would label lots of lifestyle bloggers and the wellness industry under business. I feel like for someone in that area to be considered an artist … I would accept it if they called themselves an artist. Even if I disagreed, I would accept it.
Are there any other artists that are in a similar position to you, in terms of social media? Or are there any artists that inspire you?
I guess when Petra Cortright’s wedding was featured, I think on Martha Stewart’s blog. And when Petra posts pictures of floral arrangements that are in her house, I get really into that and connect to it, but I don’t think she’s viewing that as her practice. And I guess Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections from 2013 or 2014 or whenever it was. I feel like that’s old and I’ve talked about it so much before so I’m not really interested in it anymore, but it’s a blueprint.
EB: You seem more sincere, more than Amalia Ulman, or for example if you compare your how-to videos with May Waver’s ASMR videos, which seem more self-reflexive.
Maybe. When I’m posting it’s because I’m trying to find something soothing in what I’m doing. And I understand that it’s fucked and it’s… Like it’s capitalist, it’s white, and it’s privileged, and it’s poison. But every image I’m posting I’m getting some release from … the video is helping me in some way. And I feel like May Waver’s ASMR videos are just way on-trend. I don’t know. What I’m doing is on-trend, because the wellness industry is exploding. But I wouldn’t … I’m not doing anything on-trend. I’m doing what helps me on a case-by-case basis.
I remember a while ago, soon after we met, talking about the fetishisation of punk in your work. Those symbols aren’t as present in your work any more, it’s more of this wellness aesthetic. Can you speak about this transition?
Yeah. When I was obsessed with punk I always wanted to be rid of it. I even wrote an essay during my Bachelor of Fine Art (BFA) on my punk fetish, trying to expel it from my system. And each work was trying to be an expulsion. Um … I dunno, I guess I just got over it. There wasn’t a moment where I was like, ‘Now I’m finally free from punk! And now its gourmet cupcakes.’ I think I just reached a level of exhaustion in my life where I was like uhh … I only have time for helpful, non-aggressive things. When I was making artworks about punk things, it was helpful to have that fast paced, violent energy because that’s what the emotion I was feeling was. But the emotion that I’m trying to conjure and hold on to now is one of calm and peace, the opposite of punk.
Your last show, This Beautiful Life, felt very healing, how do you think you achieved this?
Um … I just wanted to make the show an expression of where I was at in my life at that particular moment. I wasn’t necessarily aiming for healing but, unlike previous shows and artworks of mine, I really wanted the process to not be destructive for me: no active references to suicide or depression. I just wanted a special space. I wanted to make an installation, I wanted it to be a complete space and I had to find a mechanism to cut off or circumvent that gallery energy. Which to me came in the form of painting the gallery walls a different colour. I’d been using a lot of brown in my paintings. And then it was just a natural decision to take the strongest colour of the paintings and put it on the wall. I think because the space was transformed into something ‘other’ than a traditional white walled space and filled with objects that are healing for me — a green smoothie, a bed — it could become a healing space for others. It wasn’t a goal but just a result of a more gentle approach.
Yeah, I think it did really have that effect of making a complete space, instead of that gallery installation feel, it felt more like a room. I think that’s why it felt healing, because it felt like this is a space I can be in. The objects were all connected instead of there being different objects you had to focus on. I felt healed by your work and you feel healed by your work … but is healing possible in the artworld or is it an individual experience?
I dunno because my experience is individual, but it’s only been finding a community through the artworld that I was able to … I’m not healed, healing in progress. I guess I don’t know enough about history, but people come together in times of pain through self-expression and music. And you can translate that to the artworld, so it has to happen. There are definitely artists like Sophie Cassar whose work heals me. So, I feel like someone else has to feel healed by that as well — so that’s a collective healing. But you have to fix yourself before you fix other people. Maybe that’s not true in art! Because you can make something that someone can get something out of even if you haven’t got something out of it.
In this last solo show, you had a lot of references to Australia, Kim Kardashian in Australian Vogue, native flowers and local Australian landscapes. What does being in Melbourne and Australia mean for your practice?
I’m from Adelaide and grew up next to a conservation park so gumtrees were… And I used to go on lots of walks by myself as an angsty teenager as a form of trying to stay calm… So, gumtrees were always a part of that visual, like the visual connected to an emotional release. And moving to Melbourne and not having a car, it’s really hard for me to get out into nature and I was really feeling that loss. I bought a colour printer for the studio and I was literally just grasping at straws. And printing out photos of the gumtrees was just trying to get close to that feeling. And I guess the Australian Vogue is just harking back to that whole lifestyle thing. I can spend, and I don’t do it often but I did for the exhibition, I can spend twelve dollars buying Australian Vogue and feel like I’ve bought into a lifestyle for twenty minutes and I can afford twelve dollars but I can’t afford an Alex Perry dress. And I guess why I used Australian Vogue was partly because Kim was on the cover that month. And I’m really into Kim and watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians is part of my self-care routine, or something I can do when I can’t get out of bed. But more than that, being Australian Vogue and being provincial makes it closer to the feeling of home and closer to the feeling of I could have this, for like twenty minutes — I’m getting closer to it.