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Interview with Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan, 2016 (full transcript)


Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan, <em>The Least of the Doorkeepers (It is Possible but Not at the Moment)</em> 2016. Steel, razor wire, castors, performers. Two fence panels, 220 × 120 × 53 cm each. Image courtesy the artists. Photo credit: Zan Wimberley

Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan’s performance, The Least of the Doorkeepers (It is Possible but Not at the Moment) (2016), involved a pair of uniformed men moving two razor wire fences on wheeled bases around Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) on the opening night of the survey exhibition Borders, Barriers, Walls. The walls were moved in choreographed patterns, which interrupted, rerouted and blocked the movement of gallery attendees at the opening. The structures used in the performance — two mobile razor wire fences — will remain in the space over the course of the exhibition. Anusha Kenny spoke with Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan a week after the opening of the exhibition. Photograph of flyer for protest left in <em>Borders, Barriers, Walls</em> above wall details for Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan’s <em>The Least of the Doorkeepers (It is Possible but Not at the Moment)</em> 2016. Image courtesy Amy Spiers. Photo credit: Amy Spiers Anusha Kenny : If we can begin with discussion of Borders, Barriers, Walls, it is interesting to consider the show against the background of the 19th Biennale of Sydney and that moment of institutional critique, where the criticality played out in the conversations between the artists and the board (and the decision to explicitly not participate in that exhibition). In contrast, the MUMA show involves artists who are presenting critical work about a topic — borders, and their enforcement — within an institutional framework. Do you have any comment on how these approaches to criticality and these exhibitions relate? Amy Spiers : I think it’s really interesting, the kind of anxieties that people have about what artists should be doing in relation to politics. Even at the discussion panel we were at [at MUMA on 18 May 2016], an artist got up and asked a question about the Sydney Biennale boycott and how artists should respond to politics. I want to show you this picture I’ve got on my phone [shows photo of a flyer for a protest for refugee rights taped above Amy and Catherine’s work details on the wall of the MUMA gallery] as it gives a sense of the anxiety around the show. Someone has put these posters on the wall of the gallery. AK : Do you think that that poster was put up ‘with’ your art work, or is the intention to say, ‘f––k you, we’re doing something real’? AS: I think there is a genuine anxiety that we should be doing more, and people don’t feel that the art in the show is doing enough, and I think that’s something really interesting. We’re in this terrible impasse in politics, and people find it unsatisfactory to look at artists who are ‘just’ reflecting on borders. They want action. But I believe that artists looking at borders and thinking about borders is part of this ‘doing something’. Catherine Ryan : I would agree. I think it’s good that the Biennale of Sydney boycott is continuing to be discussed within Borders, Barriers, Walls, because in many ways it’s a success story, but one that’s still being written. From my perspective, a big leap forward was made there in regards to how much knowledge there is about divestment as a strategy, which is still having political effects now. Transfield, which is now known as Broadspectrum, is being bought by a Spanish company called Ferrovial, and they are thinking that mandatory detention is not a good business to get into, essentially. There’s also been the development of the ‘No Business In Abuse’ campaign. The boycott conversation is part of this narrative.

Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan, <em>Closed to the Public (Protecting Space)</em> 2016. Tape, security guards, public space. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists. Photo credit: Marc Doradzillo

The fact is that MUMA exists as an institution, and they do put on shows. So the question is, what should be in the shows that they put on? I don’t think everyone should just stop making art and get into activism. But by the same token, no one should feel that enough has been done because someone has made a work about borders. AK : In terms of audience, who was The Least of the Doorkeepers (It is Possible but Not at the Moment) for? CR : I think it was for the people in the gallery. When we were thinking about a work that moved people through the space, we definitely didn’t want it to feel like ‘Refugee: The Gallery Experience’. We wanted it to be a mediation on the technology of the border, and the theatre of power. We called it The Least of the Doorkeepers because we wanted to thematise the fact that this is a performance, this is not the real thing. If you get briefly trapped in a gallery by our razor wire, this will be the least of the borders that you will encounter. The reference is to Kafka’s ‘Before the Law’, where the man from the country wants to get into the law, and the doorkeeper says, ‘well you can, but not at the moment, and there’s a second and third doorkeeper after me, and they just get worse and worse as you go in’. Our work refers to itself in a way, in saying that ‘this is the least of the things that are wrong in the world’. AK : It occurred to me that there are resonances between some of your works and Jane Elliott’s Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercises, which involve taking a group of people and treating the brown-eyed people as superior to the blue-eyed people, giving the (usually white) blue-eyed people an experience of what discrimination feels like. Your work explores arbitrary exercises of power — like Ordering the Public, which involved innocuous actions being made ‘illegal’ for a period of time. What is the experience of your work for people who have experienced the exercise of power in a negative way? Are you just speaking to people who have not experienced the arbitrariness of the law? CR : Certain similarities between our work and Jane Elliot’s work have occurred to us. I can see why you draw the comparison. I don’t think our work is just for people who have ‘had a nice ride’ in life. I think it’s about getting people to notice technologies of control or authority that they might encounter all the time but that they don’t think about. Just because you’re experiencing something controlling or oppressive doesn’t mean that you’ll even notice it necessarily. It took me years of being treated differently as a woman before I really noticed it. It’s not about getting people to change roles like Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes does, but it’s perhaps about getting people to notice details about how these discriminatory technologies work and, hopefully in doing that, they might change their habits of perception. I think what you notice is very much a matter of habit. AK : Is the ‘technology’ of The Least of the Doorkeepers the barbed wire fence? CR : Yes, and the wheels. The idea that ‘this is here now, but it could go elsewhere’. Rules can be rearranged and it won’t be for your benefit. Centrelink will change your reporting requirements and you’ll be on the receiving end of it, but no one will have consulted you. The objects in the MUMA show — they are the concretisation of this in a way. Amy Spiers : We were thinking about the ways in which we might encounter the apparatus of a border. One example we looked to for inspiration was when the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) had a security scare last year and erected a huge fence that was used to process people. It just meant that it took longer for people to get into the MCG. So often our experiences of security and fences are things that frustrate our easy path into a place. Once they determine if you’re the ‘right’ sort of person, you pass through them, as in airports. When we think about our choreography and the way we move obstructive objects through space, you encounter them, and you may have to reroute, but you are still let through. We started to see borders as a technology that sieves us in and out but stops others.

Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan, <em>Nothing to See Here (Dispersal)</em> 2014. Fencing, bollards, tape, performers. Dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists. Photo credit: John Possemato

AK : Amy, I want to ask you about how your work with Catherine relates to your previous practice. One of the first projects of yours I saw was Lonely Hearts at Platform in 2012, with Lara Thoms, which aimed to bring dating profiles into the gallery. I also remember Agents of Proximity, the Brunswick travel service. It seemed that your aim was to have the audience make themselves vulnerable through participation in the work, or otherwise to create a sense of interconnectedness. It could be said, using criminological language, that your previous works were ‘pro-social’ and about creating human connection, but it seems now that you have taken a more punitive turn in your engagement with your audience. I am wondering whether you considered that the first approach to the audience to have failed you in some way? What accounts for the shift? AS : Yes. I started having misgivings about the live art, relational works I was seeing around me, which I was contributing to. There was a phase when I was uncertain about these works that were trying to bring people together. I then encountered Claire Bishop’s critique of relational art, which echoed my own misgivings about the fact that the people who attended these works and were being ‘brought together’ tended to be likeminded people in any case. I started engaging in the critiques about who is not participating in these sorts of works, and asking why is it so hard for Agents of Proximity to get anyone to participate in the work who isn’t a twenty-something artist? I started my Masters trying to deal with this question. I started thinking about the limits of sociability and what that can actually achieve politically. I started thinking about the more intractable situations that won’t be fixed by just getting people together and feeling more comfortable. My Masters looked at the politics of antagonism, and the idea that conflict is a necessary aspect of politics, and then I was trying to think about how art can reflect these realities, rather than pretending that we can become one big, happy, harmonious community if we spend more time with one another. That is problematic. AK : Do you feel that you are able to access a broader audience with the new practice and approach? AS : The new practice doesn’t set out to be inclusive. For instance, the work we did at the Melbourne Art Fair in August 2014 and again in Freiburg in February 2016, Closed to the Public (Protecting Space), involved placing a square on the ground and engaging security guards to tell people that they couldn’t go into it. I’m interested in works that people have to participate in whether they like it or not. To not participate in that work is a participation – you just walk past the security guards guarding the square, and that’s a form of participation. There’s no escaping the work. When people defy our structures, you get to see this ideal political subject, who disregards authority. When people walk into the square and do a sit-in, or rail against the security guard, I actually think that’s the best kind participation. Our work is porous and allows resistance and defying rules to appear in our work. Whereas with Agents of Proximity, if someone didn’t want to be led around on a tour in Brunswick, they just didn’t appear in the work. AK : Catherine, is that your punitive influence? CR: [Laughs] I have a different background in philosophy but it’s hard in a collaboration to say exactly what ideas come from which person. AS : Often the work will start with a concept. For example, Nothing to See Here (Dispersal) (2014) started because Catherine had been arrested at the Occupy Melbourne protest. AK : Oh were you? CR : Yes, the day the Occupy protests were broken up by the police, I’d never really seen the police being so heavy-handed in Melbourne. There was a snap protest called about the way the Occupy camp was broken up. I was at the back of a group of protesters who were marching towards Trades Hall, and a group of police started advancing on the back of the protest very quickly, and I was grabbed from the crowd and told I was under arrest for ‘breaching the peace’. At the time, you couldn’t use those laws for breaking up protests. I was put in a van with six other women, and driven somewhere, and left in the van for about an hour. When they opened the doors we realized we were in St Kilda. We were given our things and we weren’t charged or even taken into the police station. There were many accounts like that. The police put people in vans, drove them to places outside the CBD, and let them go. AS : So there’s that moment when Catherine was dispersed from a protest, and we observed the tactics that the police use to intimidate people. What was interesting was that when the cops were behind us pushing us, my reaction was to get out of the protest. I found it intimidating and jumped onto a traffic island. Catherine resisted the intimidation and stayed in the protest. That’s why she got arrested. CR : It also goes back to the question of whether our work is only for people who don’t have the experience of oppression. I guess what was politicizing about my experience of being arrested, is that I know that the police have arbitrary powers, but to experience it was something quite different. David Graeber writes somewhere that you can tell what class you are from by how you feel when you see police. Do you feel intimidated or do you feel like they are there to protect you? I started noticing police everywhere after that experience. It’s different from a theoretical knowledge about how power works. That’s something we explore in our work. AS : We are also facilitating an experience of these things but in a stylized way. I don’t like the idea that we are artists with an enlightened perspective that we are then trying to communicate to people who we think are ignorant of that sort of insight. We all know that these things are taking place. We are not trying to teach people a lesson about the police. It’s more about trying to explore a problem. We don’t have the arrogance to think that people don’t know about police oppression. It’s more like – how do these techniques work? How do we react to them? AK : I noticed a Facebook status update by artist Anastasia Klose, which you ‘liked’ Amy, where Anastasia said that a 2003 work by Azlan McLennan should have been included in the MUMA show. I wasn’t there, but I understand that the work involved McLennan hiring a guard from security firm Group 4 – which ran various detention centres at that time, now some 13 years ago. The guard wasn’t told that he was part of an art work, but was told to only let people into the exhibition if they had a ‘ticket’. Conflict started between the guard and VCA students who wanted to enter the opening, and (The Age at the time reported that) some gallery goers became aggressive and at one point a scuffle broke out.1 I have problems with this work as a comment on asylum seeker policy. Going back to that comment Catherine made about how you can tell what class you are from by how you react to police, I do think there are issues with making hired security guards—who are often people of colour—a maligned figure of authority, when the audience is people who have the privilege of undertaking tertiary education in art. The ‘butt’ of McLennan’s art work was an individual, rather than the corporation that he represents. CR : I agree, absolutely. AK: There can be quite a thin line between the people who choose to work in particular industries that involve physically controlling other people—security being one of them—and those who they are meant to be controlling. How do you negotiate that tension in your own work, as you have hired security guards for various works, such as Closed to the Public (Protecting Space) (2014)? My understanding is that in your work those hired to participate are ‘in’ on the purpose of the exercise, they aren’t duped by the work? CR : The thing that we have experienced in making a number of works with security guards, is that often security guards are new migrants, because security is relatively unskilled labour, so it’s a job that people can get when they are new to a place, and this has been the case when we’ve made works in Australia, London, Vienna and Freiburg. We always make sure that the security guards know that we are not there to make fun of them. But frequently, when we mention this work to people, they reply, ‘Oh, the security guards must have had no idea what was going on!’ I always think this remark reveals such prejudice and elitism. The security guards always understand the work really quickly, because what we get them to do is a concentrated version of the job that they usually do. As with any job that you have, you think about all of the absurdities, and you reflect on the ways that the public interact with you, so we’ve had really interesting insights from security guards that we’ve worked with. We did a performance in Freiburg recently, Freiburg is near the border of France and Switzerland, and because it’s near a border and in Germany, it has a refugee camp nearby, because Germany accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria last year. And we spoke with the security guard about that being an impetus for the work. AS : One of the security guards, when we finished the work, he lifted up the tape on the ground and was like ‘no more borders!’ These guys are sometimes hired to be security within the refugee camps, so it’s very present in their minds. CR : I think our work is an opportunity for other sorts of knowledge to be transferred that wouldn’t otherwise have that opportunity. In Nothing to See Here (Dispersal), for example, about a third of the performers were activists, a third were trained dancers, and another third were just interested people. We got security experts in from security companies, local councils and events managers, and they briefed our performers on their tactics. So essentially we used the work as a Trojan horse for getting out information about how police and security work. In other works, we had people who have been in prison, or work in prison abolition, or otherwise have knowledge about prisons, to be our performers, which produces very interesting conversations where they get to share their knowledge and their experience about their political work. I think the body of performers that you have to work with is one of the most interesting sources of potential. To return to the Azlan McLennan work, it does seem a bit reductive. Security guards aren’t necessarily evil, they aren’t the Trunchbull! They are people and there’s a politics behind security. We live in a time when security is one of the only growth industries. AK : Generally your position in the work is that of overseer. Do you feel you have to interrogate your own right to speak on these topics, and your own positions and privileges when your subject is the exercise of power? CR : As I sometimes say, I often check my privilege and find that I have lots of it. Of course you have to think about your own position, but by the same token I don’t think that the only person with a right to speak about borders is a refugee. Borders are everyone’s moral problem. We’re not making work that claims to show you what it’s like to be a refugee, or what it’s like to be oppressed. That’s not the claim we’re making. It would be problematic if we were, but we’re not. Our works deal with the apparatus of power, policing and security. So far we’ve made works in fairly affluent places, in Australia and in Europe. We haven’t yet been in a position where we’re making work somewhere that is more marginalized, and I think we would think differently about it if we were. AS : We definitely work site-specifically, and we think deeply about, say, who is going to see a MUMA show, or who is going to an Arts House Festival of Live Arts event. We wouldn’t be doing the things we do if we were out in the public space in Palestine. The work is responsive to a context. CR : We make work about broader structural, global iniquities that affect everyone – albeit in different ways. I think that we shy away from the idea that ‘authentic experience’ is the place where you get authority to speak. Potentially that ends in a very individualistic perspective where you can’t talk about structural inequalities, and those sorts of things. AS : We need to be incredibly mindful of other peoples’ experiences. I don’t have access to certain experiences that other people do. I was reading about Sarah Ahmed’s essay ‘Feminism and Fragility’ where she talks about institutional walls. Some people encounter obstacles in institutions that other people don’t. So, if you’re a woman or you’re queer, or you’re a person of colour, you’ll encounter walls that other people will not see. I think it’s really important to engage with those perspectives and acknowledge that we may not be able to see certain things that others may be able to see.
Anusha Kenny is a writer and lawyer from Melbourne. She would like to thank Liang Luscome, Charlie Sofo and Isadora Vaughan for their insights on the exhibition, which contributed to the questions asked in this interview. This is a full transcript of her interview with artists Amy Spiers and Catherine Ryan about their work, The Least of the Doorkeepers (It is possible but Not at the moment) 2016, presented as part of the exhibition, Borders, Barriers, Walls, at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) earlier this year.
[^1]: Farrah Tomazin, ‘VCA artwork raises ethics concerns’ The Age (Melbourne) 4 September 2003 http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/09/03/1062548903857.html at 15 June 2016.