Our conversation took place on Thursday 25 April 2013. Present were Elvis Richardson (artist, former director of Death Be Kind and editor of online blog CoUNTess), Helen Grogan (artist, curator, co-director of art space and curatorial project Open Archive) and Eugenia Lim (artist, co-director of Channels video art festival). The trio discussed tactics for negotiating gendered participation within contemporary art: how feminism is active, visible or opaque in their practices and the ‘actions’ they make, across research, process and public presence. The following is an edited excerpt of their three-hour conversation.
I want to ask you about how you both work with anger and transform it into something else. Elvis, did CoUNTess [CoUNTesses.blogspot.com.au] come out of this anger and frustration? [Since 2008, CoUNTess has compiled and reviewed gender equality in the Australian art world.]
I find it a motivator, as much as anything else. I have a saying… I’ll show you angry! So the CUNT in CoUNTess is a reference to how women who express anger are labeled. I’ve never just agreed with stuff… that’s just me, I can’t help it. It probably for me stems from being adopted: knowing you were different. It made me aware that things, even identity, are a construction. I am angry sometimes. I feel alive from it though, it works as my driving force a little bit. But sometimes I see how it can change into resentment and bitterness, transposing into something that works or turns against you. But CoUNTess was definitely a way of being angry at the system, but using unemotional numbers as evidence to sidestep additional labels, like being ‘hysterical’. While I’ve been very tempted in CoUNTess to name names, I decided to avoid this wherever possible, as it’s really the cultural and institutional power that interests me.
I’m wondering about that link between money and art. Does it affect your work or not?
I’ve been in a situation where I’ve spent so much money on my work that I couldn’t afford a bus fare. Now that I have a family, it’s not just me who suffers, but my whole family. I kind of feel that more now. I’m not willing to make that sacrifice as much these days.
I was talking to my friend yesterday on the tram about similar terrain: being a female artist with kids as well. She mentioned a friend who she works with, who was doing very well as an artist in the 1990s. Yet, when she got pregnant and decided to have the kid, suddenly curators weren’t really knocking on her door anymore, as if she wasn’t serious or she’d chosen family over art. And she found it quite difficult, because she’d been on a trajectory of sorts, but then suddenly she was judged, just for doing something completely human. I guess I want to ask you, Elvis, about your experiences as a mum and as an artist?
A blatant example of this behavior was a curator who had included me in a number of shows at the beginning of his career. Every time I see him, he always talks to me about my son and my partner, yet I’ll be standing next to a male artist and he’ll ask them, ‘so how’s your work going?’
It can make a difference in some people’s minds.
I was 34 when I had a child. It was unfamiliar terrain. None of my female lecturers at art school had children. It seemed as though being a mother really wasn’t an option if you were to be an artist. I didn’t have a burning desire to have kids so I didn’t care about it for awhile. But it’s probably the one thing I did that fitted society’s expectations (I don’t own property and have barely any superannuation). Look, I think I’m really grateful for that human experience. It’s lovely to have the opportunity to do that but it’s actually terrifying because I think, for women, it changes their identity. Whereas for men, they never have to ‘make the choice’, you know? Once you’ve got the child, you just have to get on with it and somehow work it out. So CoUNTess was empowering, to look at discrimination to get a better picture of what you’re dealing with.
I guess that’s why I wanted to have this conversation, because I think it’s about taking that energy and frustration and turning it into something, rather than just feeling like a victim.
Sure. And my plans for CoUNTess haven’t come to a conclusion. I feel very dedicated to keeping it going. I think I want CoUNTess to be a part of my art practice, rather than a separate thing. It’s something I’m happy to do because it’s a huge source of empowerment for me.
When did that shift happen?
Probably when I moved away from anonymously authoring it. When I gave an artist’s talk at a VCA forum I thought, ‘I have to tell students about CoUNTess so they can prepare for the future and how they might negotiate or influence that’. Once I started telling people about the blog (because it was always word of mouth and links on other blogs etc., I didn’t advertise it, obviously), the readership started to increase. And then, over the past few years, there has been a heightened wave of feminist discourse. So, in a way, CoUNTess got to ride that. Also, I’d like to think that it had some impact by just putting the gender representation numbers out there for a few years and perhaps inspiring others to address it too—the gatekeepers most importantly.
Helen, how about you?
Well, I also feel angry about issues related to gender inequality. Yet, I feel anger and disappointment about other things in the arts as well. So, from this anger, what action do I want to take? Sometimes it only feels appropriate to make a direct response to a specific issue. Other times it feels best to look at creating a path away from the problem. I’m frustrated about the prioritising of objects or related commodities as outcomes for artistic practice and research. I worry that other ideas or types of practices, both known and unknown, fall away without support, money and discussion. I could decide to make, write or curate something with this issue in mind as my overt theme or content, but I don’t think I would. Instead, I could look towards curatorial models that facilitate artists to develop and present more performative, temporal or ephemeral work. I could set up something that opens up some of the parameters that seem to limit the possible manifestation of a practice. This is the action I prefer.
Like Open Archive.
Yes, this is an example. I think Jared [Davis] and I were clear about a certain context, yet were quite committed to not knowing what would happen in that project space: that was a strategy we had from the beginning. And the ‘hands off’ methodology was certainly intentional, within a clear structure. Committing to research or a specific experiment often seems more worthwhile than presenting existing, pre-conceived arguments. I mean, there’s nothing radical about a curatorial approach prioritising the temporal or performative or process-based. But I do think it’s something that needs to happen more.
To accumulate. I see this as really positive. It’s not about excluding, it’s about inviting and presenting.
Yeah, exactly. There’s something really positive about that. You’re creating a space for other points of view. It’s positive to look at movements like that historically as well.
‘Movement’: I think it’s a really nice word. Will I make a statement, or will I initiate a movement? What comes to mind is an interview with Elizabeth Grosz. She’s discussing political action. She says something along the lines of ‘We want outcomes, we want destinations, but we’re never going to get these. We can never know what the outcomes of our efforts will be and our set goals are not what will be achieved. But we do head in a direction and make action.’ I like this idea of direction, rather than acting in explicit opposition to something.
So I suppose, going back to that idea of visible action… the method, or the way that I see these ideas and frustrations being played out in an active way, towards a way of art-making I’d like to be part of.
I think this is visible in many of your projects, Euge, and indeed the artistic process within your practice: building something so that activity may happen in a positive way. Do you see Channels as something that’s come out of this long-term building?
When I listen to you girls, ladies, women, us—we want to influence things. Our interest in community is both an interest and an influence. Influence is a really powerful motivator. I mean, that’s what motivates politicians and people like that. That’s why we like community, because we want to influence. The power of influence is greater than selling your work for something.
It’s about shifting the way things are perceived.
And as women, why wouldn’t we want to change the game, for God’s sake?
Certainly. But I just wanted to raise the point that it’s not only women who feel a sense of injustice with issues of gender bias, or how perceptions of gender might effect their careers. And it’s not only female artists who feel uncomfortable about prioritising a (kind of) macho hero artist. I don’t know. I’m just kind of throwing it out there.
Men need a voice within that as well. I mean, I agree that they’re not the enemy.
Going back to that Elizabeth Grosz quote and Helen’s idea of not acting in direct opposition… I think the strategies I’ve used in trying to work with other artists are very much about transforming what started as anger into something that is more about building a community. I do believe that if greater agency for women, artists or those on the outer is on the agenda, then the communication has to be broader. I don’t want to just preach to the converted, which I think is why I struggle with labeling my work feminist in some ways. I guess I do want it to have a broader impact. Sunfade: a room of one’s own work definitely came from that idea.1 It worked with photographic source material from women who remain independent and active, who do have a space, who do have a voice.
Perhaps it’s about finding solutions we haven’t considered yet. The curatorial projects or research I’ve undertaken have been focused on artistic practices. I’m interested in how artists work and what their work requires. Often this becomes the impetus to initiate something curatorial. I’m reminded of my curatorial initiation—an internship at The Kitchen, in New York City in 2001. The Kitchen is an art space descendant of the downtown video art and performance art scene of the 1970s. The significance of The Kitchen’s history with video art was thoroughly established. However, the relevance of The Kitchen for current experimental artistic practice, particularly with regard to technology, was a point of contention. Visual arts curator Christina Yang was asked to head a department for ‘new media art’ (that buzz term of the early 2000s). Her approach was: ‘We don’t know what new media art is. We shouldn’t know what new media art is. We simply need to shape a context for it to occur.’ She was ambitious about creating a curatorial structure that was open, yet clear. The project that resulted, Digital Happy Hour, was an unspecified event every second Tuesday. Sometimes Digital Happy Hour consisted of a lecture, at other times a performance or exhibition, and sometimes a combination of both. We could switch between the gallery, the theatre, or ‘net space’, as required. The art form, in the sense of discipline, was not always relevant. Building discussion and new art practices was most important. Observing this combination of openness and vigour was exciting and has been a significant influence.
Similarly with Channels, we have set up a structure that is artist-led, with women behind it, yet, at the same time, that’s not the focus.2 The focus is on the participating artists—supporting them to show their work in the ways that we feel they should be: as installations, or screenings or in live, performative contexts. I think this focus on presentation and artist development comes from some of our own past experiences, often feeling a little disempowered showing video work in commercial galleries and artist-run spaces. Even though video is so ubiquitous now in the art world, there can still tend to be a laissez-faire attitude (from gallerist, venue or even artist) towards the presentation of video. So, with this in mind, we hope through Channels to transform these past experiences into an artist-led festival that is thoughtful and supportive of the artist, as well as generous and inviting to audiences as well: wanting people to come, rather than wanting to keep people away. I’m excited about Channels because I feel like it has a certain degree of visibility. It’s something that maybe I couldn’t have had until now. And with a group of other artists who are also at the same point in their lives—it’s sort of ‘taking back’ rather than remaining in the margins. Trying to bring that venn diagram of the alternative and the mainstream together somehow, which is something that’s very exciting to me. I’m really interested to see where it goes.